Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

After the Revolution, Americans abandoned the political economy of self-denial and sacrifice that had secured their independence. In its place, they created one that empowered the modern citizen-consumer. This profound transformation was the uncoordinated and self-serving work of merchants, manufacturers, advertisers, auctioneers, politicians, and consumers themselves, who collectively created the nation's modern consumer economy: one that encouraged individuals to indulge their desires for the sake of the public good and cast the freedom to consume as a triumph of democracy. In Luxurious Citizens, Joanna Cohen traces the remarkable ways in which Americans tied consumer desire to the national interest between the end of the Revolution and the Civil War.

Illuminating the links between political culture, private wants, and imagined economies, Cohen offers a new understanding of the relationship between citizens and the nation-state in nineteenth-century America. By charting the contest over economic rights and obligations in the United States, Luxurious Citizens argues that while many less powerful Americans helped to create the citizen-consumer it was during the Civil War that the Union government made use of this figure, by placing the responsibility for the nation's economic strength and stability on the shoulders of the people. Union victory thus enshrined a new civic duty in American life, one founded on the freedom to buy as you pleased. Reinterpreting the history of the tariff, slavery, and the coming of the Civil War through an examination of everyday acts of consumption and commerce, Cohen reveals the important ways in which nineteenth-century Americans transformed their individual desires for goods into an index of civic worth and fixed unbridled consumption at the heart of modern America's political economy.

Excerpt

A freezing twilight had descended on Boston as a mob of citizens gathered at the customshouse to protest their rights as consumers. the city had been at war for two long years, but Boston’s inhabitants had been enduring the effects of confronting British might for longer than that. With communal bonds stretched thin by the demands of war, tensions were running high. Surrounding the home of the customs officer, George Johnson, a seething crush of people threatened to tar and feather the frightened man who cowered within. It would not have been the first time that a Boston crowd had meted out such rough justice to a customs official. Boston commissioner John Malcolm had been brutally attacked in this way in January 1774, as a punishment for his loyalist beliefs and support of British commerce. But the crowd under Johnson’s window was not trying to boycott British goods; this was not a Revolutionary protest. in fact the year was 1814, and the angry crowd, far from demanding that British imports be kept out of their community, were clamoring for a confiscated hoard of consumer goods to be let in.

These goods were smuggled wares. Johnson had confiscated them because, as imports, they violated the Republican government’s wartime restrictions on commerce. Such restrictions were part of the arsenal of weapons that the Republicans were using to fight the British during the War of 1812—a conflict often dubbed then and now the second war of independence. Yet the crowd who railed against George Johnson seemed to be displaying very little of the patriotism that had characterized the Revolutionary fight. Instead, the commercial sanctions that President Madison had designed as punishment for the British had simply created internal division and disaster within the city that had once spearheaded America’s consumer protests in the name of liberty. the attack on George Johnson deployed the same political theater of the Revolution, but the plot had twisted in a strange and unexpected way.

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