The development of the practice of boycotting during the Irish Land War (1879–82), and its subsequent spread beyond Ireland to the United States, sparked outrage and concern. This was prompted by the specific intellectual challenges the practice posed for liberals on both sides of the Atlantic. In relying on a liberal defense of free speech and freedom of association, early boycotters in the 1880s were able to demonstrate the dependence of property rights on social sanction while also remaining initially impervious to legal censure. As a result, the definition and extent of property rights came under scrutiny because of the ease and simplicity by which they could be curtailed through social force. It is observed here that consequent legislation to insulate commercial wealth from boycotting’s parallel moral economy required the reinforcement and development of political justifications of the state’s right to manage economic interactions in the name of social stability and public welfare.

The paper argues that boycotting was so threatening to classical visions of liberal individualism precisely because it was so firmly grounded in individualistic premises. It observes not only that boycotters used the language of “free trade” to defend the practice but also that the practice itself contained latent political assumptions about social organization. The argument also suggests that, contrary to much current academic opinion, rights-based popular resistance can be directed toward egalitarian ends.

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