Consumption, Markets, and their Political Meanings

I began this project (The Trouble with Tea: the Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy) more than a decade ago driven by an interest in consumerism, corporate culture, and the commodification of contemporary life. At that time, we saw serious cracks in the global economy when companies, such as Enron, collapsed under a mountain of debt after executives managed to extract millions of dollars for themselves at the expense of investors and employees. Markets and our faith in corporate governance were further tested in 2007-2009 when the meltdown of domestic housing and global financial markets left us with foreclosures, stagnant wages, and unpredictable credit systems. Even though the American economy has recovered from those lean years, we still struggle to understand consumer capitalism and its broader social and political implications. Relentlessly, social media asks us to react to or “Like” stuff (often consumer products) or ideas (often tied to products, brands, or celebrities). According to Mat Honan of Wired, “Liking is an economic act,” or a political expression akin to voting. Advertisers and the brands that they shill through social media depend upon our impulse to consume. Thus, exploring the circulation of goods, consumer behavior, and, especially, the meaning and morality of consumption resonate for us today and have become important avenues of research in early America.

In fact, early modern peoples also distrusted consumer impulses; some criticized those who purchased and used certain goods they considered superfluous to daily needs. The Trouble with Tea, in part, explores the nature of these “luxury debates” and their political consequences. With the help of Caribbean sugar, Americans slowly habituated themselves to the taste of tea. No longer an elite beverage, by the early 18th century even the “lower sorts” exchanged labor and produce for new consumables like tea, sugar, and chocolate. Perhaps because of its proliferation across class lines, tea became a favorite target of those who criticized luxury consumption. Tea and its use not only symbolized the blurred lines between laborers and their “betters,” it was often associated with women’s supposed weakness for gossip and scandal. In the 1760s and 1770s, however, tea became contentious in new ways. American patriots called for boycotts of British goods, drawing on the rhetoric of earlier luxury debates to berate consumers who desired tea and condemn new corporate entities that distributed tea. In 1773, writing as “Rusticus,” John Dickinson, alarmed by five ships of English East India Company tea then headed for American ports, warned that the Company aimed “to repair their broken Fortunes by the Ruin of American Freedom and Liberty!” Rather than British tax policy, he blamed the East India Company’s monopoly and acquisition of sovereign territory in Bengal as the true source of America’s fear. “Their conduct in Asia, for some Years past,” he chided, “has given ample Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men. They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain.” Dickinson recognized that in a global economy, an individual’s purchase in Boston or Philadelphia could affect the lives of those far beyond the shores of America.

 

Jane T. Merritt is an associate professor of history at Old Dominion University. She is the author of At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700–1763. Her latest book, The Trouble with Tea: the Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy, is available now.