- Cultural Change and the Market Revolution in America, 1789-1860, and: The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence
Much like the "industrial revolution" or the "rising bourgeoisie," the term "market revolution" can be applied to developments from the early modern period ca. 1600 to the expansion of East Asian manufacturing in the twenty-first century. The juxtaposition of T.H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution—the title, one may speculate, a conscious variant on Charles Sellers's The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York, 1991)—and Scott C. Martin's edited collection, Cultural [End Page 498] Change and the Market Revolution in America, provides the opportunity to think about whether the term is becoming overused. Was there, in fact, one market revolution in the late eighteenth century, and another in the early nineteenth century? Surely there was one in the late nineteenth century, when the nation's railroad mileage increased from 30,000 to 250,000 between 1860 and 1900; or in the early twentieth, when the Sears Catalogue, department stores like Wanamaker's, and automobiles and trucks greatly increased the mobility of people and goods; or in the late twentieth with airplanes and trade with the Third World? In the economic if not the political realm, are we approaching the Jeffersonian limit of a revolution every twenty years in economics if not in politics?
At any event, it is hard to argue with the fine research and intelligent arguments put forward by either Breen or Martin and his coauthors. Breen offers two important points. The consumption of British goods had appeared to become a "necessity of life" by the end of the French and Indian War. Colonists of all classes and geographic regions had become accustomed to imported household items, and realized they thereby possessed economic leverage in dealing with British restrictions on their trade. Furthermore, the market was the economic equivalent of the public sphere in which anyone with a shilling, as with a voice or a vote, could make his or (because women too were consumers) her presence felt by deciding whether to boycott British goods and begin using domestic equivalents.
Breen appropriately centers his analysis on the nonimportation agreements, both during the late 1760s and in the mid-1770s. By deciding to repudiate British goods, colonists culturally declared independence before Congress did so politically. Others may prefer to focus on either British attempts to restrict access to the frontier (as Woody Holton has in Forced Founders [Chapel Hill, 1999]) or more traditionally on the Stamp Act riots as crucial turning points in the mobilization of public support for resistance to post-1760 British measures that challenged several areas of colonial autonomy. But when we combine taxes on imports and customs regulations with Britain's fear that frontier settlement would reduce imports, and the impact of the Stamp Act on trade—it placed duties on commercial documents—with the fact that consumers' self-denial was the principal means of colonial resistance (relatively few colonials participated in riots or wrote pamphlets), Breen must be applauded for restoring the economic element as critical to the path to Revolution [End Page 499] and in a novel way. His analysis unites rather than divides the classes, or the cities and farms, behind common grievances and policies; whether issues dividing colonial society other than between patriots and loyalists mattered as much is another question too complex to discuss here.
The ten essays in Cultural Change and the Market Revolution in America remind us, in the words of contributor James Taylor Carson, that "market revolutions are not contests of impersonal forces but struggles waged by individuals within a changing world economy" (82). What is most striking about these essays is the contradiction between the moral justification of the capitalist marketplace—that the almighty...