A flood of British consumer goods into the colonies sets off the American Revolution.
So argues Breen (American History/Northwestern Univ.), citing evidence from museum collections, colonial wills, newspaper advertisements, and archaeological sites such as trash pits to show that British wares became increasingly available over the first half of the 18th century. Even farm families of no great wealth often had a few pieces of good china about the house, and brought them out for guests. English cloth made up a significant fraction of the imports, representing a growing sophistication on the part of Americans eager to show their identification with Britain by adopting its latest styles. In the same way, the influence of British custom led to the replacement of homemade whiskey by imported tea as the symbol of hospitality in upwardly mobile homes. These widely available goods gave the disparate colonial populations unexpected common ground. It also led to a pernicious myth, which Breen finds in numerous 18th-century British sources, that the colonists were rolling in luxury while the home country paid dearly for wars (against the French and Indians) that kept them safe and free. Britain's decision to increase taxes on the imported luxuries hit the colonists as a radical attack on the foundations of civilized life. In their response, a boycott of British goods—the Boston Tea Party found imitators throughout the colonies—Breen argues that colonists spoke a symbolic language each of them understood clearly. Common commercial interests created bonds of trust that allowed the founding fathers to risk their necks in taking the next step, to the political break with the mother country. Breen makes a convincing case for the primacy of consumer interests in forging a unity among the colonies, and eventually creating the American union.
Densely argued, with a wealth of examples. Not for the uninitiated.