- Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America by Joanna Cohen
Consumption, Material culture, Trade, Economics
The roots of the patriotic American consumer run deep. As the nation developed over the years from the Revolution through the Civil War, the consumption of material goods took on new meanings that also changed the meanings of citizenship. The growth of the new republic became inextricable from the growth of capitalism and consumerism. The “citizen consumer,” as Joanna Cohen perceptively and persuasively argues, emerged out of American politics and the commercial economy, and produced vociferous debate among politicians, merchants, and the buying public. Beautifully drawing together the worlds of politics, economics, and culture (as well as of men and women), Cohen offers an insightful and compelling interpretation of how consumer desires and gratification became a foundational part of American democratic citizenship over the nineteenth century.
After emerging from a revolution that rested heavily on a boycott of [End Page 719] English goods, the founders grappled with the meanings of citizenship and consumption. What role would consumerism play in the creation of an American republican identity? Could Americans stay virtuous citizens—the kind that a republic needed to succeed—and still fulfill their desires for material goods? Long-held assumptions about luxury and its accompanying corruption made many republican policymakers wary of establishing a vigorous system of free trade—what many Federalists and merchants wanted. As Cohen skillfully shows, numerous politicians and economic thinkers believed that the American consumer—as well as the American manufacturer—needed to be protected from the vagaries and deceit of free trade, especially from abroad. During the early years of the new republic, the patriotic citizen consumer was defined as one who purchased carefully and cautiously, buying only affordable luxuries preferably from domestic manufacturers, instead of foreign ones. “Self-sacrifice” became “the prime expression of civic virtue” (38). Yet the flagrant violations first of Jefferson’s Embargo and then of the Non-Intercourse Act in the early 1800s made clear that few American consumers were willing to forgo British goods for the good of the nation. Homespun and pottery, no matter how symbolically patriotic, could in no way fulfill Americans’ desire for fashionable British silks and china.
After focusing upon the larger, national perspective in the early chapters, Cohen shifts (somewhat abruptly) to a closer investigation of the commercial players—the auctioneers, merchants, and political economists—who helped transform the meanings of consumption and citizenship during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. This transformation was not smooth and produced fierce debates in both the commercial and political arenas. By the 1830s, Cohen concludes, “the quarrel over consumers’ rights to purchase had left a lasting impression on cultural and political understandings of . . . what the [American] consumer might expect in terms of protections and freedoms” (83). As the United States’ economy took off and the nation seemed more stable, growing clamors for free trade and unfettered consumption came from both the commercial and consuming sectors. And politicians responded, recognizing that consumer gratification—now seen as the right to buy anything anyone wanted—had become a key part of American national identity. The Jeffersonian ideas of political economy had vanished. During this era of prosperity, the patriotic consumer had been transformed from one who shunned luxuries for the good of the nation to one who purchased as many as he or she could afford for the good of the nation. [End Page 720] The taxes on and customs duties from this increased consumption would bring wealth, not danger, to the nation.
While her discussions of auction houses, tariffs, and political economists bog down a bit, Cohen really shines when she turns to the “imagined community” of middle-class consumers who believed by the 1840s that “they were entitled” to the “pleasures” of shopping “as American citizens” (150–51). Not surprisingly, citizen consumers came to be equated with middle-class Americans, those who could afford to purchase the things they desired, but who would do so in a...