"Millions of Luxurious Citizens": Consumption and Citizenship in the Urban Northeast, 1800-1865
United States History
In the century following the American Revolution, culturally powerful middle-class citizens in the northeast slowly abandoned a vision of civic non-consumption that rested on the strength of imperial boycotts and instead converted their consumption of luxury goods and products into a civic act. This dissertation reveals how these citizens challenged the limitations that a republican vision of political economy placed on consumers in the early republic. Through discussions over taxation, tariff and market regulation, middle-class men and women struggled to define their civic rights and obligations as consumers in a capitalist democracy. As they began to imagine their civic identity more in terms of their capacity as consumers rather than producers, well-off citizens created a new vision of economic citizenship that acknowledged the consumer as a rights-bearing individual. By the end of the Civil War, middle-class Americans in the North had transformed the civic dimensions of consumption. By disconnecting consumption from a republican political economy, middle-class citizens made consumption part of a new politics of representation, freeing themselves from older civic restraints. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for the consumer culture that would escalate rapidly in the twentieth century. Using an analytical framework that combines cultural history with the study of political economy, Millions of Luxurious Citizens asks how it was that nineteenth century middle-class producers, retailers and consumers imagined the demands of the nation's economy and translated those ideas into a vision of citizenship that made shopping in America both a right and an obligation.