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Chapter 6 The Republic of Goods The work of shopping networks—circulating information, looking for bargains, arranging credit payments—spurred business, cemented social connections, and offered moments of autonomy and authority to subordinates . The process was emphatically not self-sufficient, which was what made shopping so economically and socially powerful in eighteenthcentury commercial life. But its collaborative and even cosmopolitan nature posed a problem for politics that increasingly troubled the writers, lawyers, and rabble-rousers who wanted to harness commercial culture for political ends. The tension at the heart of shopping between frivolous indulgence and thrifty practicality became a glaring rebuke of America’s “first consumer economy” during the vulnerable years of revolution and nation building.1 Patriots initially saw consumer citizenship as a potent new weapon. In the 1760s and 1770s, a series of political contests over import taxes and trade regulation by Britain prompted colonists in North America to join in Stamp Act protests, nonimportation agreements, and tea boycotts . These consumer protests were the first of their kind, employing a language of goods centered on contrasts between imported wares and those made at home. Patriots exhorted colonists to shun imports like East Indian cloth, leather goods, and black tea and replace them with locally produced wares to bolster American self-reliance. A similar impulse emerged in the early nineteenth century in response to French and British blockades of American trade. Rather than relying on Americans to voluntarily substitute domestic manufactures for troublesome imports, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Embargo Act in 1807 that prohibited American exports to Europe. Supporters hoped that this radical economic and political measure would win free trade concessions from Britain and France while encouraging domestic manufactures. Across the revolutionary and early republic eras, consumer politics made rejecting imported goods and fashioning domestic replacements two sides of the same coin. A female face was on both sides of that coin. As producers, maintainers , and consumers of material goods, free and enslaved women were at 162 Chapter 6 the center of the emerging political economy. The goods under their particular control—cloth, housewares, tea—were the same ones that political rhetoric zeroed in on as emblems of national identity, an identity perched precariously between virtuous self-sufficiency and decadent foreign dependence. The work of free women could tip the balance: “Your Modes of Dress and Tinsel Garbs forsake; / And useful Cloathing for your Country make,” urged a typical patriotic couplet.2 At one level, this was an economic argument that recognized different forms of female work: forsake shopping for sewing in the interests of national self-sufficiency. A phrase like “Tinsel Garbs,” however, comes from a cultural critic, as much as an economic nationalist. The goods under siege were not just economic commodities—cloth, groceries, plates—but expressions of style—fashionable dresses, sociable tea-drinking ceremonies, and elegant furnishings. And matters of style were at the heart of participatory political culture in the revolutionary and early national periods, with its parades and pamphlet wars.3 William Tennent could therefore not ignore the grave danger posed by the free women of Charleston, who persisted with “their darling tea-dish ceremony,” in the early years of the revolutionary struggle. Their behavior, he warned, suggested a willingness for “this empire to be enslaved and your husbands throats to be cut.”4 Imported goods—ubiquitous and enjoyable—provided a rich field for political hyperbole. Some women took up the charge with gusto, staging competitive spinning bees and clothing drives that were explicitly political. They made patriotic goods and embraced patriotic styles. In response to shortages of imported millinery, two Charleston sisters, Mrs. Cochran and Miss Torrans , designed a “Chesapeake hat” that they promoted with the discerning , budget-minded language familiar to any consumer. The hat, profiled in the news section of the local paper, was made of “canes, cotton and paper, which, for beauty and elegance, will bear a comparison with many similar articles imported from Europe, though [the imported hats] costing five times as much.”5 In such enterprises, free women claimed a patriotic place in the public sphere, using domestic material life, both the goods and the work, as their stake. All the attention proved short-lived, however. After the revolutionary era’s flurry of interest in free women as shoppers and producers, political culture by the second decade of the nineteenth century came to depoliticize female productive work and contain the potentially disruptive features of consumption by domesticating it as leisure. A cockade...


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