- Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America by Joanna Cohen
How did the freedom to consume come to define "the meaning of American democracy" in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War (3)? This is the fundamental question that drives Joanna Cohen's account of the transformation of Americans from "patriot consumers," colonists willing to deny themselves luxurious goods to support revolutionary objectives, to "citizen-consumers," individuals reluctant to give up the imported dinnerware, calicoes, and fur hats that promoted the economic interests of the nation. Citing "exigencies of war" as the driving force for this conversion, Cohen points to the federal government and its power to levy taxes and tariffs as the impetus for remaking T.H. Breen's self-sacrificing colonists, detailed in the Marketplace of Revolution (2004), into citizens armed with cash, credit, and the sense that being a good consumer was tantamount to being a good citizen (3). Combining cultural history with the histories of consumption and capitalism, Cohen breathes new life into all three by bringing together subfields that often intersect, but too infrequently engage in the kind of sustained and thoughtful analysis Cohen offers.
Combining a range of sources, including political tracts and speeches, business records and advertisements, and consumers' letters and diaries, Cohen artfully weaves together six chapters to show how Americans came to see shopping as a civic duty rather than a sacrifice. During the Revolutionary period, as the Constitution's framers struggled with defining what form American citizenship would take, nationalists argued that a strong central government could steer consumer spending to support the nation's fiscal needs over regional or state interests. Others encouraged the rejection of foreign imports as a way to boost domestic manufacturing and consumer goods production. It was the ratification of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Cohen argues, that allowed the federal government to impose taxes, duties, and tariffs nationwide, thus unifying the country and establishing "the basis of a national citizenship founded on each citizen's economic obligations to the nation" (40). In this way, "civic duty could be framed as agreeing to pay the nation for the privilege of personal extravagance," forcing wealthy (male) consumers to shoulder the financial burden by paying more for imported luxuries, while prescribing a dose of virtuous restraint for the poor (41).
Over the next several decades, auctioneers, industrial institutes, manufacturers, retailers, and others finagled impoverished consumers' so-called virtue [End Page 942] and wealthy shoppers' coin purses to serve individual political and economic agendas. According to Cohen, auctions became sites where "auctioneers and merchants attempted to define the extent to which the American consumer was entitled to protection" (83). As largely unregulated spaces in the 1820s, auctions were free-trade economies writ small, with auctioneers encouraging consumers' freedom to take economic risks, while retail merchants countered that they protected shoppers "by exposing the perils of the auction house" and its unfettered speculation (95). Cohen claims that the battle between auctioneers and merchants (curiously detailed without reference to slave auctions), "fundamentally changed how the commercial world imagined the consumer," as auctioneers replaced consumption as a cornerstone duty of "public good" with freedom of choice, which became a "right" to be enjoyed by all citizens (109).
While women largely remained patriot-consumers throughout this period, owing to their lack of full civic participation, manufacturers' organizations like the Franklin Institute and the American Institute targeted women for their ability to influence the design and consumption of American-produced middle-class domestic goods. Cohen details efforts by both institutes to promote domestic manufacturing through protectionist tariffs and public exhibitions. While the Franklin Institute sought to promote the nation's industrial independence through displays of "coarse goods," exhibitors and visitors gravitated instead toward luxuries like fancy moldings, fine carpets, and ornate pianos, thereby shifting their understanding of consumers from thrifty shoppers of homemade products to discerning buyers of refined domestic and imported goods. As a result, "the institutes began to acknowledge the market value of taste...