Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Marketplace Chaper 1: Tale of the Hospitable Consumer

For those unfortunate ones just tuning in, I'm currently making my way through The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen, all along the way tracking how the book fleshes out my understanding of the American Revolution.

The title of the first chapter refers to a phenomenon that occurred during the Seven Years War, when newly rich colonists, made wealthy by a flourishing war economy, sought to impress British soldiers with their decadence. At the war’s end, the soldiers brought home stories of colonial wealth, creating a distorted view in the minds of British politicians of the financial situation of the Americans.

The exaggerated image of colonial prosperity shaped Parliament’s new economic strategy in which the colonists would shoulder more of the empire’s tax burden. Some colonists believed tales of their financial situation were deliberately falsified for this political end. Others blamed the colonists themselves for unnecessarily engaging in such luxuriousness. Among them, Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1766, “The Luxury of your Tables, which could be known to the English only by your hospitable entertaining, is by these grateful Guests, now made a Charge against you & as a Reason for taxing you.”

Breen traces this behavior back to the 1740’s, when a sudden influx of British imports flooded America. Colonists became interested in British goods, followed British styles, and adopted British etiquette. British cloth, ceramics, and metal goods became staples of American consumers, drastically altering rituals of self-presentation. As a result of this change in consumer behavior, another miscommunication phenomenon emerged. Much British literature began exploring the issue, giving the colonists a false sense of their importance in sustaining British prosperity. This misinformation fueled the colonists’ belief in the effectiveness of a mass boycott strategy.

Breen begins his tale, however, with an exploration of the unlikelihood of a colonial union, looking to words of the eventual founding fathers themselves. A pre-revolutionary John Adams once wrote that cultural and political differences among the colonies would prevent them from ever uniting under one common cause. Benjamin Franklin, as well, wrote about the impossibility of union. At the Albany Congress of 1754, he proposed a loose confederation of colonies, a measure rejected universally. Seemingly enlightened by his failure, in the early 1760’s, as part of his drive to persuade the British to retain Canada after the French and Indian War, he circulated a pamphlet outlining reasons why unified rebellion was impossible. Overall, though, the colonies gained much by their political alliance with Britain: commercial prosperity, military security, and individual liberty guaranteed by a balance-of-power secure political structure.

Then we come to colonial reaction to the Boston Port Act. Within weeks, charitable assistance flooded to Boston from other colonies. Many Massachusetts villages sent money. Pennsylvanians sent grain. South Carolinians sent rice. In Charleston, a play was staged, Busiris, King of Egypt, billed as a piece about, “an injured gallant people struggling against oppression, resigning their All to fortune, and wading through a dangerous bloody field in search of freedom.” Proceeds went to Boston. Rhetoric changed and for the first time ministers’ sermons and newspaper articles talked about the “common cause of America.”

The colonists essentially invented the boycott. The non-importation of British goods that began in the 1760’s was the first time an effective large-scale boycott was successfully employed. It was a new political tool, allowing even those ineligible to vote to become involved in politics, influencing matters through decisions in commerce.

Overall, though, Breen paints the colonists as victims of their own need to prove their financial status through purchase of lavish British goods. Some analyzed this behavior as a result of the decline of the class system in America. As the Danbury, Connecticut preacher Ebenezer Baldwin said in 1774, “In a country like this, where property is so equally divided, every one will be disposed to rival his neighbor in goodness of dress, sumptuousness of furniture, ect... Hence the common people here make a show, much above what they do in England.”

Here endeth Chapter One. More to come later in the week, when we'll no doubt delve deeper into this "influx of British imports" of the 1740's, and explore in greater depth the relationship of the colonies to their mother country, and how relations slowly deteriorated to absolute fissure within a decade. Until then...


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