Were We Patriots or Consumers in 1776?

Roundup: Talking About History

Emily Eakin, in the NYT (Feb. 28, 2004):

In February 1766, taken aback by the violent reaction to the Stamp Act, its latest attempt to impose taxes on the restive American colonies, Britain summoned Benjamin Franklin to Parliament in London. The interview, which lasted several hours, was less than friendly. The Americans, Franklin reminded his interrogators, were voracious consumers of British goods, buying them at a rate that far exceeded the colonies' staggering population growth. But this lucrative spending habit, he warned, should not be taken for granted.

The colonists could either produce necessities themselves or do without, he testified. As for"mere articles of fashion," he said, they"will now be detested and rejected."

A month later the Stamp Act was repealed. And American trade in British goods — valued at more than a million pounds a year — continued at a galloping pace. But Franklin's words represented a turning point in the struggle for independence, says T. H. Breen, the William Smith Mason professor of American history at Northwestern. Americans, he argues, had discovered a political weapon without which the Revolution might not have been successful: consumerism.

Is it possible that a signature attribute of contemporary America — and a trait for which it is frequently criticized — lay at the heart of its most inspiring foundational achievement? This is the startling implication of Mr. Breen's new book,"The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence," published earlier this month by Oxford University Press. In his account, the self-sufficient yeoman farmer of Jeffersonian lore is nowhere to be found. Even before America was a nation, Mr. Breen insists, it was a society of consumers.

Deceptively simple, his argument goes like this: two and a half million strong and scattered along 1,800 miles of coastline, the colonists had little in common besides a weakness for what Samuel Adams derisively termed"the Baubles of Britain." When Britain imposed stiff taxes on this appetite for stuff — without granting any political representation — Americans responded with an ingenious invention with instant and widespread appeal: the consumer boycott. By the time the First Continental Congress was convened in September 1774, transforming mass consumer mobilization into a successful political rebellion was a relatively straightforward task.

Or, as Mr. Breen, 61, explained in a recent telephone interview:"Every predictive model that one could have put forward at the time indicated that the colonies, should they beat the British, would have broken into 13 separate entities. Yet somehow enough colonists found enough common cause to make war on what was the strongest military power in the world. How did they create the bond of political trust so that if one city protested or resisted the British, the rest said, `We'll stand with you'? It was this great swelling of consumer experience that was the transformative element."

It sounds far-fetched, possibly scandalous: pinning Americans' success in the war for independence even partly on their common experience in the marketplace. Moreover the notion seems to contradict the long-standing assumption among scholars that lofty ideas elegantly expressed — and a brisk trade in political pamphlets and newspapers — were sufficient to unite the public behind the revolutionary cause.

But in keeping with the latest academic trends, intellectual history is out and material culture is in. Consumerism in particular is a hot topic in American studies these days, and Mr. Breen's book comes garnished with encomiums from senior members of his field, including Joseph J. Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of"Founding Brothers" (Knopf, 2001), who calls it"the most original interpretation of how the American Revolution happened to appear in print in the last 50 years."

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