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February 28, 2004

If Ye Fayle To Shoppe, Ye Colonials Shall Wynne? [12:30 pm]

Here’s a provocative history, claiming the shape of American culture lies in the pocketbook: Armies of Consumers: 1776’s Secret Weapon?

Deceptively simple, his argument goes like this: two and a half million strong and scattered along 1,800 miles of coastline, the colonists had little in common besides a weakness for what Samuel Adams derisively termed “the Baubles of Britain.” When Britain imposed stiff taxes on this appetite for stuff — without granting any political representation — Americans responded with an ingenious invention with instant and widespread appeal: the consumer boycott. By the time the First Continental Congress was convened in September 1774, transforming mass consumer mobilization into a successful political rebellion was a relatively straightforward task.

[...] It sounds far-fetched, possibly scandalous: pinning Americans’ success in the war for independence even partly on their common experience in the marketplace. Moreover the notion seems to contradict the long-standing assumption among scholars that lofty ideas elegantly expressed — and a brisk trade in political pamphlets and newspapers — were sufficient to unite the public behind the revolutionary cause.

[...] And while others, including Gordon S. Wood, another Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who teaches at Brown, predict that Mr. Breen’s thesis will be controversial, they concede his book is important. “I’m not persuaded by the attempt to explain the Revolution,” Mr. Gordon said. But he added, it is the first book about the period “to show the scale and depth of consumption in any kind of statistical detail.”

How long before this set of thoughts becomes a basis for a new interpretation of “Progress of Science and Useful Arts?”

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