Friday, March 11, 2011
An Empire of Goods
I can't recommend Mr. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution more heartily. It is a bit slow going at first as he establishes the consumerist society that had developed in the colonies in the 1760s pointing to a number of fascinating colonial records, including those of thefts. But, the narrative builds on these necessary elements to illustrate why the consumer boycotts over the Stamp and Townshend Acts were so effective. The colonies had become Britains' prime outlet for its commercial goods and as Benjamin Franklin articulately pointed out to the British Parliament, Americans could either accept or reject these goods as it suited its growing political conscience. The colonies gained huge moral victories in the repeal of these notorious acts.
Breen also explores the flipside of this, noting how oppressive the colonial non-importation movements became, especially in small towns. Vendors, who understandably found their livelihood in great jeopardy, had little ground for appeal as communities banded together against British imports, calling vendors out who broke with the non-importation subscription lists, and tar and feathering them in some cases. Although he doesn't delve too deeply into the religious roots of these movements, he does say that the strong sense of moral conviction carried with it many Biblical allusions.
What is fascinating to me is how much women became involved in these movements, either directly by signing subscription lists, joining spinning groups, and writing articles for newspapers; or indirectly by not buying goods they had long been accustomed to in support of colonial rights. Breen spends a lot of time on this, noting the frustration many men felt in having to ally the "weaker sex," as these boycotts would have failed without their support.
Breen notes that it is hard to gauge how strong an impact these boycotts actually had on the commercial trade between Britain and the colonies, but their rhetorical effect is indisputable. Parliament heeded Franklin's oratory, as well as complaints from vendors noting how adamant the colonial leaders were in having these notorious acts repealed. Great reading!