The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 5: The Corrosive Logic of Choice
We don’t particularly view the men who fought and died to found our country as luxury-obsessed fashion addicts. This fact is yet another one swept under the rug of mythology, giving us a greatly distorted perception of how this country came to exist.
One writer appropriately dubbed it the “colonization of taste”. Colonists carefully watched British fashions, closely assessing which goods they should buy and wear. At some points, stories of this behavior reach comic proportions. A Long Island resident described mid-century colonists encountering tea for the first time, eager to replicate the behavior of their British fashion-guides. However, reportedly, they didn’t know what to do with it – some spread the leaves on toast, others boiled it and consumed it as porridge.
The style obsession spanned the entire spectrum of colonial society – even slaves. In 1735, the South Carolina legislature passed a law preventing slaves from wearing stylish clothes. Here’s one argument in favor of the legislation: “when dressed in them, [they] make them so bold and impudent that they insult every poor white Person they meet.”
A bitter culture war erupted over the chase for luxury items, with some railing against the behavior on religious grounds, as did Reverend Andrew Elliot of Boston: “Shall I speak of Luxury, or that Propensity there is in us, to gratify our sensual Appetites? Poor as we are, we live high, and fare sumptuously every day. This destroys our Health, consumes our Substance, enfeebles the Mind, feeds our Lusts, and stupefies Conscience, While we feed and pamper our Bodies, we starve our Souls.”
Perhaps a more sound argument comes from the editor of the Independent Reflector, when he wrote that luxury is “a great and mighty Evil, carrying all before it, and crumbling States and Empires, into slow, but inevitable Ruin.- Like sweetened poison, it is soft but strong, enervates the Constitution, and triumphs at last, in the Weakness and Rottenness of the Patient.” – An argument echoing one made halfway around the world by Rousseau in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences.
And there you have it – a more-than detailed description of the economic landscape of colonial America. In the next chapter, finally, we will see what this all lead to, how events unfolded, and how they were all shaped by the economic trends we’ve explored in these chapters…