Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. I, No. 22

Breen, T.H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xviii + 320 pp.

            T.H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University sought to answer one of the pivotal questions that historians of the American Revolution have spent centuries trying to answer. Just why did the people of thirteen British North American colonies come together by 1776 in a generally united body to oppose what was considered the most powerful and richest nation in the world? It is thought by many that these colonists opposed taxation, but their own writing proves that this was not the case. They believed that taxation was something to be expected and to be willingly paid to provide for the common good. What they opposed was taxation without representation. More specifically, they felt they were not represented in Parliament like they were represented in the colonial legislature or towns. Yet, what was being taxed that caused the rebellious demeanor of ordinary men and women to come into existence?

            Breen did a marvelous job in compiling a deep pool of primary sources from the ordinary people of the 18th century. Often people think of the men we call the Founders when they respond to the people of the Revolution. As modern historiography has been showing us over the last three decades, the American Revolution did not begin with the actions at Lexington and Concord, but rather with the reaction of the British colonists to Parliament’s attempts at raising revenue in the colonies. This should be well known because the people of that era recognized that fact as well. John Adams stressed that point himself in multiple forms of correspondence. Breen’s research into this reaction provided him with an illuminating view of how those ordinary people saw their world and their role in it change over a two decade period of time and precipitate the Revolution. 

            What really stood out other than Breen’s thesis are the words of the people in the sources he used. In quite a few cases, if the wording was adjusted to reflect modern speech, the words from the past would be the same as uttered throughout America regarding how people envision the “good old days.” While that wasn’t Breen’s intent for positing his thesis, it is extremely poignant in demonstrating that successive generations have all experienced the same myopic nostalgic opinion of the past when compared to the present. Breen also used the words of the past to show how the people of the 18th century changed their views on the mother country and its manufactures from 1764 to 1775. In the process, Breen also shows that the real revolution took place among the people of the colonies.

            The people of the colonies experienced a significant cultural change which was among the first examples of consumerism to appear in history. Both the colonists and the British were dealing with a completely new phenomenon, and both had no clue what to expect from this new and extremely significant economic development. Breen’s research shows how the colonists embraced the British manufactures willingly albeit with some grumbling from the more conservative elements of colonial society. He also showed how those same colonists slowly came to realize that their participation in this new consumerist exchange could also be used as a weapon against what they considered abusive government. As Parliament sought to increase revenue from the colonies to pay down the tremendous debt the British had incurred in the Seven Year’s War, it blundered badly in the way it sought to do so. 
            Despite these blunders, Parliament repeatedly backed down from its imposition of new taxes on the colonists twice although the attempts by the colonists to use the transoceanic commerce as a form of economic weaponry had also failed twice. What baffles so many historians is the tax that proved to be fatal to the British rule was a tiny, insignificant, but highly symbolic tax on tea. That tax proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for the colonists. As Breen showed through the building up of the thesis through the primary sources and analysis of their meaning, the colonists came to see British manufactures and tea as symbols of tyranny because of the way those items were used in the taxation without representation argument. It was these items that formed a common bond between all colonists and these items that the colonists used as economic weapons to resist the British taxation. In the process, the non-consumption of these items or non-importation united the colonists to the point that they began to see themselves differently through their common use of the items. 

            As Breen progressed through each chapter he made a deliberate effort to include gender in how the colonists viewed the issues as well as class. He definitely wrote the book from a social history perspective as a result. While the idea of the marketplace being heavily involved in the Revolution seems a bit Beardian, Breen’s real conception of the era is that the marketplace was made up of individuals who made individual choices. His vision of the Revolution is that of a bottom up interpretation where it began among the common people. This is in line with much of current historical thought. Whereas Beard relied upon economic reasons for the Revolution to occur, Breen sees the economic situation as part of the overall Revolution. The people made the economy respond to them in causing the Revolution rather than the other way around.

            I was a bit disappointed that Breen didn’t take this thesis one step further into the much larger context of the Atlantic World. I think he did a great job in developing this thesis and delivering the conclusion, but the colonies were also part of international trade albeit limited by the Navigation Acts. What I particularly liked the best was that if anyone wonders why tea became the sole item that seemingly triggered events that brought about the Intolerable Acts, this book answers that question quite well and uses plenty of primary sources in the process. As a result, Breen has delivered a good explanation of how the colonists used the marketplace during the Revolution to resist the taxation with representation issue. Rather than restate an economic interpretation of the Revolution, Breen has given us a well detailed explanation of how the marketplace became the battleground in the Revolution.

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