Blogs > HNN > Jim Selcraig: Review of T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004)

Oct 8, 2004 1:44 pm

Jim Selcraig: Review of T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004)

Editor's Note: Breen's book is no longer hot off the presses, but it's still warm. Called a "profoundly important book" by Publisher's Weekly, The Marketplace of Revolution is one of those rare titles that speaks to the past as much as the present. In case you missed it over the summer, it's well worth checking out, as Selcraig's review suggests below.
--James E. McWilliams

Historians love to examine causation. Appropriately enough, early Americanists have mined the causes of the American Revolution. The most common interpretations, of course, have centered on The Founding Fathers, who have been variously interpreted as conservatives and as radicals, ideologues and pragmatists.

T.H. Breen jumps into this large fray with an original and interesting thesis. Seeing a collection of imported items at a Williamsburg museum piqued his curiosity about consumerism and political protest. Breaking from other historians, and building on his museum observations, he rejects the myth of self-sufficient yeoman farmers in the 1750s and 1760s and instead interprets the colonists as eager consumers happy to buy imported goods.

This fresh perspective provides a new twist on an old story. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the colonists benefited from growing affluence, due in large part to spending by British troops. As consumer spending increased, colonists took
increasing pride in their improving status. When the war ended, colonists felt the restrictions firsthand--restrictions which were only intensified when the British government began to raise taxes. The colonists responded by refusing to buy British imports.

Breen interprets these well-known boycotts against the Stamp Act and other British taxes as more than purely economic actions. They are, more accurately, the key to understanding the Revolutionaries' deeper motivations. It was consumerism in fact that united the dispersed and varied colonists. Boycotts of British goods caused a political mobilization based on an increasing awareness of grievances, rights, and--ultimately--power.

The personal, as they say, became the political. Publishing the names of those who had agreed to boycott helped Revolutionary consumers shame wavering moderates who had not yet joined the struggle. Curbing consumption united the community behind the anti-tax activists, building a collective response of sorts. Breen, in fact, sees the movement as egalitarian, overcoming the boundaries of class and gender. The revolutionaries, he explains, “would need the support of all consumers, women as well as men, poorer sorts as well as wealthy lawyers and merchants." In other words, he is able to include many groups who are traditionally omitted from the conventional storyline of protest. This inclusion informed "a genuinely radical political ideology"-- an achievement for which these groups seldom receive proper credit.

Breen's vision of the colonists is not, however, misty-eyed. He views them as "frightened, bigoted, chauvinistic, ambitious, jealous, proud, and misinformed." In addition, his story is not a one-time snapshot; it enjoys a chronological structure that shows how the consumer protest grew over time, moving in unforeseen ways, partially and tentatively, but slowly gaining in popularity and effectiveness, building toward a sense of nationalism. His perspectives on human nature and on chronological change ring true. He has not tried to push his subjects into an arbitrary "paradigm.” For those who are not experts on colonial history, rest assured that Breen writes well. His claim that writing the book was "extremely pleasant” is quite evident in its accessibility.

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