T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped the American Revolution, 2005

Breen argues that a variety of consumer boycotts against taxes and other British policies helped Americans from widely divergent and often quarrelsome colonies to trust each other better, paving the way for united action during the Revolution. However, those boycotts would not have been possible without the wide circulation of British goods in the colonies, which fostered a sense of shared experience among the colonists. The number of goods available increased and prices declined as the empire became more integrated. (Imports to the colonies grew by 50% from 1720 to 1770.) After the roughest early stages of frontier settlement, Breen argues, most Americans had some kind of connection to the market – whether they grew cotton or indigo on southern plantations, or raised foodstuffs in Pennsylvania, most farmers sold goods to obtain items like tea and sugar from other colonies, as well as manufactures like axes, hoes, ceramics, tablecloths, and belt buckles. (Britain was short on land but long on labor, which fostered industry, and the crown prohibited some kinds of manufacturing in the colonies anyway.) Breen writes that a major expansion of credit throughout the empire made all this possible, and Britain was keen to export its increasing industrial output to the colonies. The ability of people of varying means to purchase goods on overextended credit led to some anxiety about upended social hierarchy. Far more vexing indeed was the indebtedness of the upper classes, especially southern planters who realized when the market turned that they were at the mercy of British “factors,” or agents, who advanced them money for their crops. The new taxes of the 1760s highlighted the colonists’ economic vulnerability. Breen probably overplays the extent to which Americans experienced a liberating revolution of joy at shopping; the narrative sounds exactly like the one repeated so often for the 1920s and the 1950s, when technology and economic restructuring made a much greater variety of goods available to many more ordinary people than occurred in the late 18th century. Still, Americans of the time wanted to hold on to their economic options: “I, for myself,” one colonist wrote, “choose that there should be many Stores filled with every Kind of thing that is convenient and useful, that I might have my choices of Goods, upon the most reasonable or agreeable Terms; whether foreign or homemade; I would have Liberty of either, and to Deal as I judge best for myself.”

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