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The Consumer Revolution, America, and Britain

(This version contains the background essay for students with additional explanatory text for instructors provided in red italics).

One of the basic questions in American history has always been about American identity. What does it mean to be "American"? Is there an "essence" that is unique to America? If so, where does it come from? Not surprisingly, many historians and others have turned back to the colonial period, to the beginnings of America, to find the source of American identity. The question of American identity in the colonial period is large and difficult, so complicated it would take a lifetime of research to answer adequately.

One important point to think about is that quite often in the past, historians focused only on famous and well-to-do Americans. They also tended to focus on how elite Americans felt about the government of England. But if we want to know about American identity, perhaps it is even more important to find out what average Americans thought¿about themselves as well as the mother country. And though their attitudes toward the government of England are important, there are other important factors to consider as well.

An interesting way to consider the attitudes of average people is to consider the products they bought in the marketplace. This line of investigation has several advantages. First, many Americans¿not just the well-to-do, were buying marketplace goods in the 1700s. Second, this is a relatively new field of historical research, so it is very exciting. Third, most Americans (including students) have experience with buying consumer goods. Even though it might not seem immediately obvious that buying products can affect a person(s) much less a society(s) culture, some reflection on your own experience will probably show you how it works. The clothes we wear do more than cover our bodies or keep us warm. They also say something about how we would like people to think of us, stylish, attractive, or perhaps as fans of a particular sports team. Even our choice of drinks, including the very choice to spend money on them, is a statement about our values as individuals. If these individual patterns are shared by a large number of people across the country they can be said to reflect the culture of the country as a whole.

As you will read in a moment, Americans were purchasing large quantities of consumer goods from England in the 1700s. This was one component of an extensive two-way trade between England and her colonies that benefited, and sometimes frustrated, British citizens in both the colonies at home in England. Eventually, Americans' purchase of consumer goods was at the center of the conflict with Britain that led to the American Revolution. The role of consumer goods seems puzzling: American consumer spending seems to have drawn Americans closer to their homeland yet it also became a source of conflict.

For most Americans, cultural sophistication was associated with England. When Americans thought of taste and fashion, they thought of English taste and fashion. As historian T.H. Breen states, "after 1740 London and to a lesser extent the rest of England acted as a powerful magnet pulling the colonists ever closer to the defining center of the good life." Colonists learned about English fashions by reading novels, newspaper advertisements, stories about the royal family, and fashionable magazines about English country life. According to Breen, "The cultural messages issuing forth from the cosmopolitan center [London] percolated down through provincial society, from major port cities to small farming villages, until the latest intelligence about good taste and polite behavior eventually reached [the remote] corners of the globe."(1) But the general availability of British consumer goods to all of the colonies created a paradox: while the colonists were all busy imitating England and becoming more like the homeland, they were at the same time becoming more like each other.

Thus, the American colonies became increasingly important as a market for British goods. Throughout the eighteenth century, the colonial population grew steadily. Their demand for consumer products rose with, and even surpassed, the growth of population. Thus, by 1773, colonists purchased one-fourth of all English-made exports.(2) In the larger British economy, this system seemed to work pretty well. The colonists hungrily consumed a large quantity of British goods of a great variety. Their active spending patterns contributed to the overall strength and prosperity of the empire.

But not everyone was happy with this arrangement. Some people criticized the habit of consumption for turning colonists into superficial and materialistic individuals. Others increasingly worried that Americans¿ consumer habits were making them weak and dependent on Britain. When an economic recession in the colonies followed the end of the French and Indian War, many Americans began to reassess the nature of their relationship with Britain. While they had formerly believed that they were equal trading partners, in fact, they were coming to believe, they were the weaker member in an unequal relationship. As Breen explains, "The private pleasures associated with consuming imported manufactures now raised disconcerting issues directly connected to a growing level of colonial indebtedness, to a constant drain of hard currency to the mother country to pay for an ever increasing volume of goods, to the enforcement of the navigation Acts, which prohibited British colonists from entering foreign markets, and to a rising number of bankruptcies."(4) The governor of Connecticut summed up the view of many Americans at the time: In the Colonies there is a Vent for and a Consumption of almost all Sorts of British Manufactures "whereby the Revenue of the Crown and the Wealth of the Nation are much increased, at the Expense of the Colonies."(5)

When Britain imposed the Stamp Act in 1765 to raise revenue, the worst fears of many of the colonists were realized. First, they perceived it as an attack on their property, since taxation meant a loss of personal income to pay government expenses. Second, this tax was levied without the consent of the colonists. Therefore, they saw it was as an attack on their liberty, their ability to make their own decisions regarding their property. Such an action confirmed the suspicion that the colonies were the inferiors in an unequal relationship. They reacted in a variety of ways: writing letters of protest, marching in the streets, and intimidating would-be stamp collectors. But colonists eventually seized on a groundbreaking strategy of protest. Since they had come to see their consumption of British manufactured goods as a sign of their dependence on Britain, now they decided to turn their weakness into strength. Since Britain¿s prosperity depended on the colonists¿ purchases, the colonists withheld their consumption in an effort to force Britain to notice them. Thus began the first non-importation agreements, which pressured shopkeepers to sign agreements not to import British goods and punished those who refused to sign such agreements. By inventing the boycott, the colonists were coming to recognize the fact that their purchase of British goods united them as residents of different colonies, gave them a common experience of dependence, and, most importantl, gave them a tool of political protest.(6)

1. T. H. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2004), 166-168; quotes from 167-68.
2. Breen, 61.
3. Breen, 93-98.
4. Breen, 206.
5. Ibid. 
6. Breen, 218-234.