Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Marketplace of Revolution


While I'm waiting for my copy of Ratification, I started reading T.H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution.  His focus is on the consumer society that was already in place before the revolution and how their "boycott" of British goods played a significant part in the revolution.  The introduction is very good, noting the display of early consumer goods in the Wallace Gallery of the Colonial Williamsburg, pointing to this particular teapot and the ironic message it carried.  There were many times the colonists could have rebelled, dating back to the 1688 Glorious Revolution, but they picked a particular time and place.  It will be very interesting to read how he interprets this.

14 comments:

  1. Great photo! I've read parts of that book. You should post some thoughts on it while we wait on the next discussion.

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  2. Read chapter 1 last night. Very interesting. Basically, America was a vast consumer society aby the 1760s and the prime market of British goods. Colonists went into serious debts to have a taste of "Mother England" in their homes, and Breen notes that it was much easier for women to buy ready made fabric than it was to spin and weave it themselves. So much for the theory of the hardworking farmer and yeoman content to carve out his niche or piece of the earth. But, when push came to shove, first with the stamp act and later with the tea revolt, Americans had learned the power of the consumer.

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  3. Breen went onto note in his amusing "Tale of the Hospitable Consumer" that Americans were too gracious to their British guests during the 7 Years War, treating the soldiers to relatively lavish meals, giving their sense of hospitality. I suppose it was also their way to repay them for defending the colonies. Seems the Parliament greatly overvalued American wealth, figured they could cover the big tax they imposed on the colonies, only to find out this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

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  4. Interesting. I pulled the copy of my book -- I may look at it again as I have time. This is basically the argument made by Woody Holton, in his "Forced Founders."

    He emphasizes the position of non-elites, but as I recall has a chapter on Washington who was so far in debt to the mother country that separation from England seemed very appealing. The call to only consume American-made goods also affected Americans' lifestyles.

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  5. It doesn't so much appear that Americans were looking for a way to relieve their debt burden, as it was using their consumer power to force the issue. According to Breen, Americans felt they were supporting Britain, not the the other way around.

    Gordon Wood noted that the US most likely would have remained within the UK had not parliament foisted these additional taxes on them. Many remained loyal to the King.

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  6. The book is a bit slow going, but Breen is thoroughly enjoying the irony of how consumer-oriented American colonial society was. He discounts the idea that these early Americans were simplistic yeoman farmers. They may have all wanted a piece of land to call their own and to till, but they also wanted to be in step with the latest fashion currents in Britain and Europe. Breen notes that colonial Americans spent as much as 10% of their earnings on imported goods. Many much more than that. Seems we had built up quite a trade deficit before the Revolution ; )

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  7. He continues to refer to these British goods as "Baubles of Britain." The term apparently arose from a debate between Benjamin Franklin and the British parliament over the stamp act,

    "The goods they take from Britain are either necessaries, mere conveniences, or superfluities. The first, as cloth, etc., with a little industry they can make at home; the second they can do without till they are able to provide them among themselves; and the last, which are much the greatest part, they can strike off immediately. They are mere articles of fashion, purchased and consumed because the fashion in a respected country; but will now be detested and rejected."

    http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/documents/documents_p2.cfm?doc=270

    Franklin certainly knew how to argue his case.

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  8. I pulled Forced Founders but haven't had a chance to go through it and add a counter argument here (or more like a complementary one). Holton makes a strong argument about how deeply in debt some of the Virginia planters in particular got themselves in pursuit of these baubles.

    In the meantime, though, reading Washington's bio, I'm seeing him personally get into debt very early .... for his clothes. Seems like a lot of this was posturing to raise his stature and his class -- he seemed very insecure otherwise. Hard to imagine him being forced to wear homemade clothes of cloth made by slaves!

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  9. It never ceases to amaze me how we have mythologized our past, especially when there are so many records and texts available showing how our "founding fathers" were all too human.

    Breen noted early on that this idea of the simple yeoman farmer was tilled into the earth by the early 18th century. By 1740 onward, Americans were pursuing these "Baubles of Britain" with great relish. Much of it was of necessity, such as good hammers and nails and other tools and hardware needed to construct their farmhouses and plantation, but by 1775 Americans were awash in British textiles and other "baubles," seeking a level of refinement they imagined in their home countries.

    Breen notes that industry had a hard time gaining any traction in the country, because everyone wanted a piece of land and wasn't willing to work for someone else. Indentured servants remained indentured only as long as it took them to pay off their debts then they too tried to buy themselves a piece of American soil. Only slaves were bound to plantations and farmsteads.

    You begin to realize just how revolutionary Hamilton's "Report on Manufacturers" was when he presented it in 1791, and how much he understood the need to break our dependence on British goods.

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  10. Myth is what it's all about, right? Think of where the tea baggers would be if they didn't have all these myths of the founders (see your comments about Michelle Bachmann).

    And then those on the right step in -- particularly in Texas which basically has controlled the textbook market -- and try to manufacture these big patriotic narratives. Or keep alternative points of view out of the schools like in Arizona. Very discouraging.

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  11. It really is amazing to me the lengths we will go to reinvent history. Hollywood is a major culprit. Look at some of the ridiculous historical "romances" they have created over the years like "Birth of a Nation," "Gone with the Wind" and "The Patriot."

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  12. According to Chernow, Washington did so much purchasing via the mail, that a lot of what researchers know about him comes from his correspondence with his English broker (whom Washington constantly assumes is over charging him).

    As he set up housekeeping with his new wife, Washington got himself (I think Chernow said) over 2,000 pounds in debt due to all the purchases and the failure of a couple tobacco crops. Chernow also lists some of the hair combs and purple gloves etc. Washington's wife purchased. They must have been a very stylish couple with almost a Victorian need to outfit their house with stuff.

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  13. Funny how two of those movies deal with "the lost cause." What a story to mythologize on film.

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  14. Some enterprising lads should come up with a show "History Mythbusters."

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