We establish a broad generalization of Whitney's broken circuit theorem on the chromatic polynomial of a graph to sums of type $\sum_{A\subseteq S} f(A)$ where $S$ is a finite set and $f$ is a mapping from the power set of $S$ into an abelian group. We give applications to the domination polynomial and the subgraph component polynomial of a graph, the chromatic polynomial of a hypergraph, the characteristic polynomial and Crapo's beta invariant of a matroid, and the principle of inclusion-exclusion. Thus, we discover several known and new results in a concise and unified way. As further applications of our main result, we derive a new generalization of the maximums-minimums identity and of a theorem due to Blass and Sagan on the M\"obius function of a finite lattice, which generalizes Rota's crosscut theorem. For the classical M\"obius function, both Euler's totient function and its Dirichlet inverse, and the reciprocal of the Riemann zeta function we obtain new expansions involving the greatest common divisor resp. least common multiple. We finally establish an even broader generalization of Whitney's broken circuit theorem in the context of convex geometries (antimatroids).

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