Enter the market

T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Years ago, I was assigned a reading by Pr Breen that was either “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America,” Journal of British Studies or “Persistent Localism: English Social Change and the Shaping of New England Institutions,” William and Mary Quarterly, or both. Or neither, though I am fairly confident the answer is the former.  At any rate, the author’s name and import in the field of colonial America and the revolutionary period is such that readers of the period should make the point of reading through Breen’s catalogue.

Pr. Breen’s Marketplace of Revolution won the Colonial War Society prize for best book on the American Revolution, a well deserved award for the Yale Ph.D. who has worked for most of his professional career in Evanston, IL at Northwestern University.  Breen’s argument in Marketplace is that English colonists, often from very difference backgrounds (ethnic, religious, etc.) were able to create a commonality and joint purpose based largely on consumption.  Because these individuals possessed shared knowledge and understanding of the greater British economy, they were able to stage political protests against the imperial government.  While the term boycott, as Breen points out, is anachronistic to the 18th century (the word evolved in the 1800s), the effect of colonial actions was the same.   A political movement galvanized English colonists in the context of disrupting economic markets.

Breen argues clearly, throughout this well researched text, that English colonists found their voices through the process of boycotting products.  These goods, ranging from silk patterns for waistcoats to cord and looking glasses among others were all to be found in a variety of shops along the Atlantic coast.  As colonists began putting off the purchase of such goods and the importation of products from the hands of the English a common purpose emerged, joining together colonists who might have otherwise remained disconnected and unaware of shared frustrations.  Long before the Declaration of Independence, argues Breen, Americans were “busily pursuing happiness, a personal quest for comfort and pleasure that assumed that all free colonists had a right to spend their money however they pleased.”  I’ve been well served pursuing this text, and interested readers in the American Revolutionary period would do well to examine it likewise.

 

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