The American Tradition of
Consumer politics is as American as apple pie. Throughout American history, consumer activists have sought to employ consumer power, not because they naively believed in a simple form of the sovereignty of shoppers but because they thought that collective consumer action was a necessary element of democratic politics and a way to combat powerful economic entities. Ever since the Boston Tea Party, Americans have used consumer tactics in social struggles and have understood purchasing goods (or, more frequently, eschewing them) not just as a significant economic act but as an enactment of practical ethics. Long before the word was coined in 1880 in Ireland, boycotts were an important mode of political engagement in the United States. For example, in antebellum America, members of the “free produce” movement encouraged consumers to boycott goods made or produced by slaves, a tactic similar to consumer movements that remain popular to this day. While boycotts have most frequently been employed by subordinate groups, the powerful have also aimed to coordinate consumer power for political purposes. Yet boycotts and boycotters have been largely disregarded by history. When they haven’t been ignored, they have been criticized on a variety of grounds: on the one hand, they have been denounced as ineffectual and individualistic; on the other hand, they have been condemned as a powerful, dangerous, and a possible form of economic terrorism. “Originally the weapon of the weak against the strong,” editorialized a Philadelphia newspaper in 1907, “the boycott has been converted into an instrument of tyranny that should have no part in American affairs and no defenders among honest citizens.”
Consumer activism has been employed for a wide variety of causes from abolition to labor battles to Civil Rights, and these efforts have fundamentally shaped political culture and altered our notions of agency and culpability, linking individuals to far-away causes. The idea of the boycott was to update the ancient practice of ostracism—a community’s punishment of a malefactor by leaving her or him “severely alone”—for a market economy, in which most people fulfilled their physical and emotional needs by buying rather than making their food, clothing, and other goods from businesses, many of them with national and even international reach. Purchasing goods, in this view, far from being a private decision, was a fundamentally social act with far-reaching consequences.
Despite its deep American roots, critics of the boycott have, from the beginning, labeled it an alien practice, a “foreign invention.” The Chicago meatpacker, Philip D. Armour, himself the target of a boycott, claimed in 1887 that “the truth of the matter is that the boycott is not an American institution” and, noting the large numbers of immigrant workers who participated in them, added that the “American people resent its existence.” A few years later, the Los Angeles Times declared that the boycott is an “un-American institution.” During the Civil Rights movement, African American boycotts were denounced not only as a form of “economic terrorism” but as “a weapon of interracial war.”  Some celebrants of the Revolutionary tea protestors had a selective memory, viewing that act of consumer protest as a seminal American moment but denouncing subsequent uses of the same tactic (which were typically carried out either on or behalf of subordinate groups) as dangerous and unpatriotic. The weapon of the boycott “has never appealed to the common sense of the nation as a weapon of warfare,” declared the Houston Post in 1907. “There is about it the element of the underhand and unfair that is revolting to the spirit of square dealing.”  Because of the supposed popular revulsion against them, it was often said that boycotts were bound to backfire. As the New York Times editorialized in 1887 at the height of a wave of “labor boycotts” that had disrupted businesses in that city, the “boycott has the qualities of a boomerang or of a gun that kicks.”
Even those who employed boycotts have often failed to remember its long history in the United States. In 1956, when one of the nation’s most prominent boycotts, the protest by African Americans against the racially segregated municipal bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, was in its third month, many in the media described its precedent as “the passive resistance movement first begun by Mahatma Gandhi in India.” The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed “the aura of an American Gandhi,” according to the Washington Post. Observers could have easily compared King, Rosa Parks, and the other boycott leaders to the American Revolutionaries who used collective acts of non-consumption in the 1760s and 1770s, but they rarely did. Moreover, very few participants or observers noted that African Americans had organized a boycott of Jim Crow streetcars in the same city a half century earlier, part of a wave of anti-Jim Crow consumer activism that had been forgotten by mid-century.
Boycotts were almost always community projects. Consumer activism supplemented and reinforced, rather than replaced, grassroots politics. Boycotters sought to extend the reach of political engagement, to participate in what I have called “long distance solidarity.” The goal was usually to ensure that “the boycott circle…grow[s] wider,” as a group of activists claimed in 1957. They did not think this would happen by magic or by consumer power alone. The mass meeting of 5,000 African American citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, that met shortly after Rosa Parks’ arrest to organize a boycott of the bus system, viewed the boycott as a broad tool to change unjust municipal laws and customs. Boycotters have been aware that boycotts come with costs. As one commentator said of a successful 1907 African American boycott of egg sellers: “The Negro may lose a few jobs in his boycott of places that do not employ him—but reason, historic facts and commonsense indicate that he will gain more than he loses.” 
Consumer activists did not just reinforce and strengthen existing political battles but extended their meaning and expanded the web of ethical responsibility. For example, in the antebellum United States, if an emerging humanitarianism ethos urged individuals to be mindful of human suffering and to feed the “starving stranger” through graphic descriptions of the plight of unfortunate people, consumer activists in the abolitionist “free produce” movement challenged the view that the observer was innocent. Rather, they argued that, through their actions as consumers, citizens directly affected the plight of those who produced slave-made goods. Consumers were guiltier than slave-owners, who would abandon slavery if they had no market for slave-made goods. According to “A Colored Female of Philadelphia,” the key to abolishing slavery and unfree labor was the widespread “abstinence from the gains of oppression.” This women argued that “he that assists or encourages another to do evil, is as criminal as the one he abets.” Another abolitionist, R. T. Robinson, said that “the consumer of the slave product is directly giving his support to the system of slavery,” in a very early use of the modern sense of the word consumer. Robinson criticized the idea, held by some prominent abolitionists, that “the small amount we consume would make no perceptible abatement of the sufferings of the slave.” Consumption of slave-made goods, in his view, amounted not just to acceptance but to active encouragement of the slave system. “We are the consumers, who stimulate by our demand this infernal cruelty,” write Henry Miles in 1853. “And, knowing this, shall we become accessories to the murder of our brethren, by continuing to use the fruit of the hard-earned toil which destroys them?” Aiming to show the costs of the pleasures of sweetness, he noted that “the sugar of Cuba comes to us drenched with human blood.” And this blood was rightly on the hands of those whom the slave-driver served: the consumer who demanded clothing produced by enslaved people: “Cotton growing and Slavery are cause and effect, and that the growth of the latter has been coincident with the consumption of the former.”
With its assumption of consumer power, the “free produce” movement offered a radically new conception of causality and morality, one which posited purchasers as the first cause of economic activity and therefore made them the moral guardians of the polity. In this view, buyers should be understood as employers who were responsible for the condition of those who made the goods they, in effect, commissioned. Free produce advocates also promoted a new conception of consumers as a potentially powerful force. As late as 1843, a Baltimore newspaper stated the conventional wisdom: “The world is divided into two classes, producer and consumers; the first being the many, the second the few, the first the ruled, the second the rulers.”By attempting to coordinate aggregate consumer power—and to use that power to supplement a grassroots social movement—advocates of free produce sought to invert the “ruled” into “rulers.” They built on Adam Smith’s notion that “consumption is the sole end of all production” and took seriously the moral claims at the root of this view. Consumers, then, hired the labor that made the products that they bought and therefore were responsible for that labor.
We should note the differences between consumer activist movements like “free produce” from the contemporary movement for “effective altruism,” advocated by the philosopher, Peter Singer.  That movement emphasized maximizing earning potential and charitable giving as the way to effectively and efficiently improve the world. It placed no moral constraints on how money is earned or spent, and prioritized the benefits of maximizing earnings and charitable giving. Consumer activists emphasized the good or harm done by purchasing decisions and argued that these had effects on a long chain of people and environments. They posited that our economic activity always had implications on the wider world. The good intentions of philanthropists—and even the positive impact of their donations—was often a case of what the Progressive era women’s organization, the National Consumers League, called “mistaken pity.”
Far more frequent than politicized consumption was the use of nonconsumption as a tactic, which gained the name boycott in 1880. Boycotts were frequently called “weapons of the weak against the strong.” Workers and African Americans employed the tactic as a way of fighting entrenched power. For these groups, consumer politics supplemented and reinforced grassroots activism. For example, in 1900 after a Jim Crow streetcar law was being considered in Newport News, Virginia, the black community held a “mass meeting” in which they decided “to boycott the merchants who signed a petition in favor of the bill.” Beginning in the Progressive era with the rise of mass media, African Americans also began to boycott both racism in cultural events and in popular culture that trafficked in offensive images. The National Association of Colored Women organized a boycott of the St. Louis World’s Fair “on the ground that the exposition director’s board discriminated against Negro women in the matter of employment on the grounds, and against the race in general.” In 1943, George Schuyler call for a boycott of “pictures, plays and books that genuflect to the stereotype of the crude, ignorant, sexy Negro.” Many decades later, Delores Huerta of the United Farm Workers Union called upon consumers to express solidarity with the “Mexican American, Filipino, Negro, and Puerto Rican” fieldworkers who grew and harvested grapes and lettuce and whom the growers viewed as “sub-human.” “Sympathy alone just isn’t going to make it,” Huerta noted, and any true expression of solidarity needed to be accompanied by punishing the agribusiness’ economy. Since, she noted, farm workers are “denied rights and protections other workers have under the National Labor Relations Act,” boycotts were not only legal; they were one of the few powerful weapons available to them.
To this day, many historians and commentators assume consumption is automatically a “private” act with limited political impact. The sociologist James Jasper has deemed boycotts “too mild” because they rely upon what he calls “a silent choice, made alone, in the aisle of a crowded supermarket.” Consumer activists throughout history, however, held that consumption was a public measure, meaning boycotts were a profound threat to the established order. The labor leader John Mitchell compared the boycott to other fundamental rights, such as the right to vote and the right to strike. The battle to maintain this right has been difficult as states have used injunctions and statutes to limit the scope of boycotts, and some have made them illegal. Ultimately, the issue comes down to what freedom means. As the New York Herald Tribune editorialized in 1886, “in this free country, nobody has the right to interfere in that fashion with a neighborhood’s business.” The “weapon” of the boycott was “foolish and so contrary to the spirit of American institutions” because it interfered with the rights of businesses, whom the paper conflated with citizens. Boycotters, in response, placed the valorized the freedom of citizen-consumers to act in the economic marketplace.
Boycotters have also argued against the notion that consumer “choice” equaled political freedom. “Under free enterprise, the consumer has freedom of choice,” declared a Texas newspaper in 1951, during the Cold War. “He can go into any store, look around and buy or not buy, as he pleases. He can shop about from store to store seeking the most attractive deal.” In a lecture to high school students in Memphis that same year, C. G. Eubank, an executive of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation claimed that customers “have a rope around the Corporation’s neck, like a noose,” and were far more powerful than the corporations that served them. “They are forever yanking for bargains,” Eubank continued. “They want more and more Kleenex, of better and better quality for less money.” Eubank used this notion of consumer power to argue against what he called “government ownership and control.”
However, it was precisely because of the entrenched power of plantation owners, corporations, municipalities—as well as the legal structure that favored these entities—that boycotters and other consumer activists rarely used the boycott in isolation but called for coordinated, collective action that often included demands on the state. They sought to change the power imbalance inherent in capitalism. Consumer activists did not assume that consumers were all-powerful. Explaining Ludwig von Mises’ idea of “consumer sovereignty,” the business reporter William H. Peterson assured readers of the Wall Street Journal in 1957 that “the ruler of American industry is no industrialist; he is King Customer, commanding what shall be produced and who shall produce it.” Consumer activists rejected this idea that individual, unorganized shoppers magically retained such power as well as conservative depictions of consumer boycotts as a weapon of the strong (all-powerful consumers) against the weak (businesses totally dependent on the good graces of the consuming public).
Commentators have highlighted a resurgence of boycotts since the election of President Donald J. Trump in November 2016. President Trump is a salesman and most of what he sells is a brand named “Trump.” The president’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, offered a “free commercial” for his daughter, Ivanka, and advised Americans “go buy her stuff” as a show of political support. This attempt to monetize the presidency and to claim consumer support as political support has opened the possibility of consumer protest. As the writer and activist Naomi Klein has recently observed, “If a president is a brand…that gives his opponents all kinds of leverage.” The popular #grabyourwallet campaign, which has catalogued and promoted boycotts of Trump-related products suggests that the president’s call for approval in the marketplace can potentially boomerang, to use the term that boycott critics employed in the 1880s. Through his description of a highly personalized economy, made up of specific companies, people, buyers, and investors, rather than an abstract “market” too big and all-encompassing for anybody to understand, Donald Trump has promoted a worldview—albeit, an inverted one—amenable to consumer activism. For it was the anti-slavery activists of antebellum America—like the “Colored Female” who in 1832 demanded abstinence from slave-made goods—who first sought to remove the comforts of an abstract marketplace in favor of one in which anonymity was replaced with real-world consequences on real people, who would be either harmed or hurt by every individual consumer action.
For all the talk that we have entered a new era of boycotting, then, it is important to link contemporary consumer activism with its often forgotten precedents. While many elements of today’s boycott causes and techniques appear novel, most can be linked to the past. Although the Internet and social media have quickened the pace of publicity, boycotters have relied upon print culture to spread word from the beginning. It is instructive to recall that the word was coined in 1880 by James Redpath, an American journalist, who was covering protests against absentee British landlords by Irish peasants. Within months, the word, used in dozens of newspapers in the United States and elsewhere, had spread to the farthest corners of the United States. At the same time, our age of simultaneous communication, instant political organizing, revival of concern for consumer protection (as witnessed by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild, Consumer Financial Protection Agency), and interest in understanding the environmental and labor conditions that are not only typically invisible to shoppers but obscured by advertising and packaging, have created conditions for a future in which consumer activism may well be a central and catalyzing component of a new politics of protest.
LAWRENCE GLICKMAN is Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor in American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (2009) and is finishing a book titled, “The Free Enterprise System: An American History.”