Blogs > Cliopatria > David Steigerwald: All Hail the Republic of Choice ... Consumer History as Contemporary Thought

Sep 20, 2006 12:57 am

David Steigerwald: All Hail the Republic of Choice ... Consumer History as Contemporary Thought

With the nearly simultaneous publication of T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution and Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumers' Republic, consumer interpretations of American history have come of age. Together these two monumental books erase any lingering doubt about the legitimacy of consumer history. They are capstones to an abundance of recent scholarship that has used the universal practice of consumption to examine, among other things, constructions of ethnicity and gender, the modernization of rural America, the leisure time of the industrial working class, and the character of contemporary politics. That Breen's book concerns the American Revolution while Cohen's covers post–World War II America suggests that consumers can stand as central characters across the span of the nation's past. Indeed, read together they suggest that consumption—how Americans have acquired and used goods not strictly necessary to biological existence—might well be the defining thread of American life. These are not just books: they are bookends.1

If together these two consumer histories frame the historical life of the United States, they also stand at two ends of an interpretative spectrum concerning the historical consequences of consumption. At the heart of the different narratives are two opposing understandings of the nature of consumption: The one emphasizes the emancipatory potential of consumer choice for improving individual existence and challenging the status quo; the other a darker view of consumption as a process of manipulation buried within the larger system of social relations.
T. H. Breen took the former view. He argued that the explosion of consumer choice in the mid-eighteenth-century colonies created the self-conscious citizen capable of revolutionary political action. Breen took as his point of departure the rather sudden appearance in the mid-eighteenth century of an "empire of goods," whose existence he and his fellow consumer historians have established beyond dispute. The imperial market system made available to Britain's North American colonies a breathtaking variety of simple consumer goods. Colonists eagerly imported "all Sorts of woolen cloath, Silks, Scythes, nails, glass, pewter, brass, firearms & all Sorts of cutlery, the quantity we cannot ascertain," as Connecticut governor Jonathan Law explained in an inventory for the Board of Trade in the 1740s. This acquisitiveness extended across the colonies, from the port cities to the hinterland and, more important, across all classes, from frontier farmers to maids and slaves. The breadth of an unprecedented enthusiasm for fashion would have unsettled any decent Puritan. As it was, it galled the social elite, agitated the moralizers, and set off a feckless reaction among those determined to rein in impulse. For Breen, it is crucial to understand that the critics of consumption, who relied on a rhetoric of republican simplicity, were widely ignored. The accumulating consumer ethos was not stymied until the parliamentary fiat of the Stamp Act, and by then Britain's North American subjects had become so accustomed to "making choices about the character of their everyday lives" that they could transfer that sense of consumer liberty to the political realm in the cause of revolution. In what surely is a novel and provocative reinterpretation of the American Revolution, Breen thus claimed that the first conceptions of liberty and rights, at least at a popular level, grew, not out of political theory, but out of the autonomy of consumption. The strongest bond between all colonials, moreover, was their shared affection for consumption. Consumer choice and consumer identity combined against the challenge of parliamentary denial to create a revolutionary movement.2

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