In 2009, historians, anonymous readers of my book manuscript Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America (2011) simply would not accept the argument, central to the book, that tea played a significant role in provoking the American Revolution. The fact that the commodity dumped overboard on the evening of December 16, 1773, was Chinese tea was simply a “coincidence” in the view of two readers. In reading Jane T. Merritt’s book The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy, I realize how far our historiography of the American Revolution has come in eight years. As early as page 2, Merritt asserts that “Americans imagine tea as central to their revolution.” This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the powerful global context of the American Revolution and of late-eighteenth-century American commercial ambitions and achievements. For too long, mainstream historical accounts of the era of the Revolution have ignored the intricate global causes and context for events in the second half of the eighteenth century in the British American colonies. Merritt demonstrates that focus on one significant Chinese commodity, tea, allows researchers to recover much of the Revolution’s rich international framework. Tracing the English East India Company’s ventures across Asia, she illuminates the degree to which the British government was intertwined with the rising and falling pulse of its East India Company. The Trouble with Tea tackles the much-trodden ground of the role of multinational merchants in structuring the early American political economy. But, contra the continuing profusion of Atlantic World studies, Merritt follows the full global circle of exchanges responsible for putting tea in American parlors. She does not stop with an examination of Britain’s East India Company’s debts in London, but tracks the train of exchanges all the way to India and China—Edmund Burke’s “mighty circle commerce” (79)—excavating empirical links between these exchanges and mercantile wealth and health in America, even before Americans left the Atlantic. Merritt not only demonstrates the degree to which Americans in the second half of the eighteenth century were integrated into a global marketplace, she also addresses the economic historian’s age-old conundrum: does demand drive the goods merchants bring to market or do merchants drive demand? In concluding the latter, she argues against the “consumer revolution” thesis. In part due to competition, merchants needed to “entice potential customers to purchase their goods” (36). In doing so, they enthusiastically introduced American consumers to different types of tea, its accoutrements, and creative credit arrangements, encouraging them to buy despite their anxieties over luxury expenditures and health risks. Moreover, Merritt argues, English taxes hurt merchant independence more than they did the freedom of consumers, so she also sees the merchant community as driving the consumer boycotts of the 1760s and 1770s and their well-known attendant discourse. Merchants’ very own freedom to trade, in this framing, becomes equivalent to “American liberty” in the ensuing Revolutionary metaphors of “slavery” and “despotism” (95). With the victory that gave Americans their longed-for commercial freedom, they did not simply return to trade in the North Atlantic. On the heels of the Peace of Paris (1783), they launched ships for the East Indies. In her final chapter, Merritt rightly offers detailed examples of the global imaginary driving American merchants, politicians, preachers, and consumers alike. Notably, government officials crafting foreign trade determined the necessity of “duties judiciously calculated,” Merritt points out, using this quote from John Adams to John Jay (143). Even newspaper editors responded favorably to the suggestion of taxing “the profits of this lucrative trade” (144) in order to better give the early republic a competitive advantage on the global stage. The contrivance of manipulating the populace to rise up against colonial taxes but then encouraging them to applaud the very same taxes imposed domestically is made clear as Merritt forcefully pushes forward her argument that an American merchant community seeking global commercial advantage was in charge. The task of accomplishing local history through global economic history is indeed daunting, requiring research that crosses many regional and disciplinary boundaries covering many distinct bodies of scholarship. Merritt’s work engages that of global economic historians (such as K. N. Chaudhuri, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Andre Gunder Frank); those working on the British Empire (P. J. Marshall, Hosea Ballou Morse, Philip J. Stern), on the China trade (Louis Dermingy), and on consumption (Sidney Mintz, T. H. Breen, Maxine Berg); and those producing recent focused works on early American political economy (Benjamin Carp, Elizabeth Kowalski-Wallace, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, and Kate Haulman), among many others in a range of fields. Given this brave scope, it will be impossible to please everyone, and there are certainly places where the author has been required to gloss details. The author notes, for example, that the Chinese Cohong, the imperial-mandated guild overseeing foreign trade in Canton, emerged in the mid-1730s (27), but in fact the guild was formed fifteen years earlier, in 1720 (John M. Carroll, “The Canton System: Conflict and Accommodation in the Contact Zone,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch 50 : 51–66, here 53). One certainly hopes that these sorts of small mistakes that tend to arise in attempting global history will be forgiven and no longer steer us away from the important scope of this work. For it is wrong to narrate the American Revolution as caused simply by American consumer response to Parliament’s taxes, leaving aside the East India Company’s entanglements in Asia, even though James Warren, Samuel Adams, and their Sons of Liberty built a successful propagandist scaffolding on that claim. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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