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

The book cover of Cohen's Luxurious Citizens

Joanna Cohen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

Review by Pamela Laird 

Over four decades ago, Daniel J. Boorstin introduced “consumption communities,”  presenting the linkage of consumption to community as incongruous or, worse, as misplaced values and priorities. He contrasted these communities, “affiliated less by what they believed than by what they consumed,” with those based on religion or ideologies. These were “milder, less exclusive, and less serious” than traditional communities, “rapidly shifting” and “trivial.” Such “communities” could consist of strangers “with a feeling of shared well-being, shared risks, common interests, and common concerns.” Consumer choices did not seem the stuff of grand-scale national politics.

Since then, “consumer interpretations of American history have come of age,” as David Steigerwald put it in his 2006 essay, “All Hail the Republic of Choice: Consumer History as Contemporary Thought.” All manner of political activity had become subject to analysis in terms of consumption, possibly “the defining thread of American life.” Joanna Cohen’s sets her cultural history of political economy solidly in this vein. In Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America, consumerist goals appeared at the core of political processes and still hold sway in troubling, paradoxical ways: citizens possess the “right to aspire” but not “to acquire the material comforts and luxuries of life” (p. 218). When ambitions to consume in the concrete confront the duties of citizenship in the abstract, the results may not be especially admirable. But if consumers’ entitlements reign, we need to look at them carefully.

Who qualifies as a full citizen, and what does citizenship entail? Cohen answers that question by looking through the lenses of consumers’ behaviors and desires, especially those of affluent consumers. After the Revolution, Americans wrestled with the conditions and implications of civic belonging for political factors such as electoral rights and civil liberties. Cohen adds another dimension to our understanding of those and other political contests, highlighting mainstream attitudes toward citizenship and consumption. She emphasizes that, pretentious statements notwithstanding, improvised responses to interests and historical contingencies, rather than grand abstractions, determined the nation’s course. To tell this “history of blunders and misconceptions, self-serving projects, and disappointed expectations,” Cohen takes us down an intriguing path—one well worth the passage (p. 3).

The path from patriot-consumer to citizen-consumer began during the Revolutionary era with familiar notions of republican virtue that obliged citizens to sacrifice for the public good. Cohen shows, however, that the shift away from patriotic self-denial toward the “citizen-consumer,” who came to recognize more rights than obligations during the Civil War, began almost immediately. Merchants, manufacturers, auctioneers, and farmers (especially Southern planters) aligned their competing self-interests with partisan and regional stands on imports as the young nation struggled to set its priorities and pay its bills. Ambiguities proliferated. Should patriots purchase imports because tariffs funded the federal government? Or, instead, abstain to support domestic manufacturers? Or, should consumers’ desires override their obligations? Among the affluent, North and South, practical domestic goods lost out time and again to “tasteful” imported goods. Free trade activists insisted that citizens should be able to purchase whatever they could afford, unhampered by protective tariffs. Everyone construed self-interest as patriotism. Without clarity and consensus about the common good or what best served it, principled self-denial lost traction.

Self-interest, regional differences, and partisanship did not abate during wartime. The Jeffersonian Republicans’ attempts at embargo and legislated self-denial during the War of 1812 failed markedly, and others pointed to a rise in smuggling to argue against older notions of patriotic abstention. With disputes about imports swirling through the press and polity, Cohen contends that merchants and their customers had to suspect whenever they purchased contraband. That they continued apace set a new standard for citizenship that did not restrict consumption, even in wartime. Perhaps the ambiguities that some denizens still felt about their new government could explain some unwillingness to resist temptations. Surprisingly though, decades later, even the Confederacy’s desperation did not suffice to curtail its citizens’ engagement in contraband markets. The success of wartime blockade running marks Cohen’s climax, the end of the patriot-to-consumer trail. In North and South alike, citizen-consumers insisted upon their rights to marketplace freedom.

The nineteenth-century Americans whose voices dominated both marketplace and politics blended citizenship and consumption to judge one another and to shape policies. They also judged African Americans, women, and working-class men as ineligible for civic belonging, constraining both their citizenship and consumption. Depictions of those constraints fruitfully augment Cohen’s accounts of the economically and politically active elites and emergent middle classes who drove the nation. Luxurious Citizens’ richness encompasses shifting interests and roles across manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and auctioneers. Some of these businessmen called for increased federal roles, as did industrialists seeking protective tariffs. In contrast, urban auctioneers in the 1820s successfully defended their risky business against government interventions by proclaiming that “retailers and consumers do not want guardians” (p. 104). And, of course, Southern planters and other free trade advocates decried the burden that tariffs placed on “the pockets of the people,” not just on their region (p. 131).

By weaving the evolution of citizens’ cultures of consumption into debates about tariffs and imports, Cohen provides a new and insightful analysis of American political economy. Some of that story remains in the endnotes, leaving a more simplistic narrative than Cohen likely intended, but the cultural history is vibrant and compelling throughout. Carrying Cohen’s consumer culture approach forward—for instance, exploring citizen-consumers’ responses to the world wars or to the Vietnam War era’s explicit “guns-and-butter” policies—could gauge whether self-denial resurfaces if there is consensus about the common good. Luxurious Citizens should inspire comparative work, as well, to assess whether this story was exceptional to American circumstances. Luxurious Citizens conclusively shows that the disconnect between patriotism and consumption that allows today’s loyal Americans to choose cheap imports over jobs has deep roots.