Christina’s Review: The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen


Christina’s Review: The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. BreenThe Marketplace of Revolution : How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence by T. H. Breen William Smith Mason Professor of American History Northwestern University
Published by Oxford University Press on 2004-02-26
Genres: Business & Economics, Economic History, History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800)
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback
Goodreads
three-half-stars
The Marketplace of Revolution offers a boldly innovative interpretation of the mobilization of ordinary Americans on the eve of independence. Breen explores how colonists who came from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds managed to overcome difference and create a common cause capable of galvanizing resistance. In a richly interdisciplinary narrative that weaves insights into a changing material culture with analysis of popular political protests, Breen shows how virtual strangers managed to communicate a sense of trust that effectively united men and women long before they had established a nation of their own. The Marketplace of Revolution argues that the colonists' shared experience as consumers in a new imperial economy afforded them the cultural resources that they needed to develop a radical strategy of political protest--the consumer boycott. Never before had a mass political movement organized itself around disruption of the marketplace. As Breen demonstrates, often through anecdotes about obscure Americans, communal rituals of shared sacrifice provided an effective means to educate and energize a dispersed populace. The boycott movement--the signature of American resistance--invited colonists traditionally excluded from formal political processes to voice their opinions about liberty and rights within a revolutionary marketplace, an open, raucous public forum that defined itself around subscription lists passed door-to-door, voluntary associations, street protests, destruction of imported British goods, and incendiary newspaper exchanges. Within these exchanges was born a new form of politics in which ordinary man and women--precisely the people most often overlooked in traditional accounts of revolution--experienced an exhilarating surge of empowerment. Breen recreates an

The American Revolution was not only a political revolution that engaged the elite members of the American colonies. It was a revolution that empowered colonists from all classes and across gender to stand together against the tyrannical mother country of England and their oppressive rule. This is what T. H. Breen focuses on in his book: The Marketplace of Revolution. The American Revolution was possible due to the mobilization of colonists who were brought together under the common cause of consumer oppression. These colonists developed strategies of collaborative resistance and communication that took consumer goods and politicized them across the Atlantic. They spoke through their actions against British control, including the British taxation of goods without the representation and consent of the American colonists. Breen focused on consumerism across the colonies and the development of the marketplace and colonial unification over the course of a decade prior to the outbreak of war.

In his book, Breen argued the American colonists shared in an imagined community of collective experiences through consumerism found in the marketplace. Despite being spread out across a long distance of land, the American colonists came together and took a stance against the “political oppression” of the British.(xiii, xiv-xv) Breen focused primarily on the decade leading up to the outbreak of the Revolution and the ability of ordinary men and women to play a role in the “politicizing” of imported goods. The shared experience and the actions taken by the colonists, including the boycotting of British goods, were a new form of public protest that transformed the Revolution into both a political and economic one. (21) To approach the development of this political and economic revolution that brought together the masses, including women, Breen focused on the development of choice that emerged in the marketplace during the 1760s and how this became the foundation for political resistance through the declaration of natural rights.

Breen laid out the sources he used succinctly in his book, including letters, colonial newspapers and customs records. He also looked at museum artifacts, archeologists’ findings, and probate records, amongst other sources.(35) (I personally found his look at artifacts to be intriguing) He utilized these sources to show the development of consumerism over time and how this brought colonists together and later contributed to their actions against the British. He also looked at advertisements in newspapers especially to demonstrate the growing number of consumer choices in the marketplace and how this choice developed into natural rights. As this concept grew, newspapers helped spread messages of discontent and actions to be taken against the British across the colonies. (examples on this can be found throughout Breen’s book, particularly pages 134, 290-293)

Breen focused on numerous colonial locations, ranging from port cities to wholesalers, merchants, peddlers, country stores and other consumer marketplaces. His focus was not limited to one part of the colonies but stretched from the New England colonies to the southern colonies, and included marketplace insights from cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and market-centers in the Chesapeake region further south.

His book was a dense history on how colonists politicized consumer goods and took a unified stance against British oppression. I personally enjoyed the book because it took readers away from the typical studies of the political elite and beyond the Constitutional Convention, “give me liberty or give me death” speeches, and the “we hold these truths to be self evident…” Declaration of Independence readings. I read this book for my Revolutionary America class and actually did a comparative review for the class between this book and Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots. Taken together, these two books complimented each other. I read Breen’s first, which helped develop and further my understanding of consumerism in the colonies and the events that led to the Boston Tea Party (the primary focus of Carp’s book).

Overall, a good book and one I recommend reading for those interested in the period of the American Revolution. Breen helped to open my eyes to the complexities behind the causes of the revolution through the colonial marketplace through this reading. I have found his arguments in this book and other articles to be intriguing, and ones I have related back to as I have read other works on the revolutionary period, the transatlantic nature of the revolution, and the point at which the colonists no longer saw themselves as “British” and the revolution avoidable.

pj - christina