Creating A “Green Future”: The American Revolution, Consumer Action, and “Ecological Intelligence,” Part 3 of 6

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The argument about consumer goods and the American revolution has been shaped and researched by many scholars over the past twenty or so years.

But the historian most responsible for it is T. H. Breen. He articulated his argument first in a series of scholarly articles and then in his brilliant book The Marketplace of Revolution. His book is long, exceptionally well researched, and complex, but here’s the short version: (I’m simplifying his complex argument not because I think you’re stupid, but because I’m trying to be brief.)

The period from about 1600 to the 1800s marked what historians call a “consumer revolution.” (For more on this “revolution,” see, for example, the wikipedia article and this essay by Cary Carson, one of the most important scholars in the field.)

For the first time in history, large masses of people were able to afford (and could legally acquire) what we now think of as the basics of life: Chairs, tables, perhaps glass for a few windows. Porcelain dishes. More than one change of clothes. Leather shoes with pewter buckles. Meat every day. Tea and coffee. Sugar. Refined flour.

People living in the British empire, including the North American colonists, were particularly active participants in this social and cultural change. Indeed, the creation of the British empire rested in large part on the exchange of goods and raw materials.

This exchange functioned as the basic mechanism of British imperial development: England acquired property — colonies — all over the world, seeking ones that would provide enormous quantities of raw materials.

India, for example, provided tea and cotton. Asian colonies provided spices and silk. The West Indies provided sugar (and then molasses from which North Americans made rum). Africa provided slaves (which the British mostly traded to other countries). The North American colonies provide grain, timber, ore, and fish. (Yes, fish. Fishing was always one of the largest industries in British North America. The fish were caught, dried, and shipped to England or other colonies.)

The colonies provided these raw materials for manufacturers back in England, and then those same colonists, especially the ones in North America, bought and used the goods the manufacturers produced.

Next time: How consumer goods led to revolution

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