The Genoveses on Social History

I'm really not that interested in Marx or slavery. But some of the things the Genoveses say in The Fruits of Merchant Capital make sense to me. Here are a few I thought I'd hang onto:

“To speak bluntly, as admirable as much of the recent social history has been and as valuable as much of the description of the life of the lower classes may eventually prove, the subject as a whole is steadily sinking into a neo-antiquarian swamp presided over by liberal ideologues, the burden of whose political argument, notwithstanding the usual pretense of not having a political argument, rests on an evasion of class confrontation.
“The irony will be apparent: since most of the historians of lower-class life wish to tell the story, often in heroic terms, of the people with whom they identify, it rarely occurs to them that their own ideological framework and its appropriate methods do violence to their subjects’ lives. It is, after all, worse than nonsense to pretend that slaves, serfs, or workers could possibly develop as human beings immune from the influence, positive as well as negative, of those who hold power over them. It is an assault, however well-intentioned, on their humanity, for it makes retrospective demands upon them that no human beings should be expected to meet.
“Any ideology has important negative as well as positive components and presents some image of resolved conflict…People espouse and defend beliefs and values as much for what they deny and guard against as for what they affirm.”

Hammond's Jacksonian Banks

Bray Hammond
Banks and Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War

This is the text that economic historians complain is the only thing most mainstream historians have ever read about banking. Hammond focuses on Andrew Jackson’s bank war and specie circular, which he blames for the Panic of 1837. The Second Bank, he says, was a prototype of central banking, which regulated credit and kept the state banks honest. Jacksonians used the rhetoric of agrarianism, Hammond says, to break up the central bank for their own political gain:

“The Jacksonians were unconventional and skillful in politics. In their assault on the Bank they united five important elements, which, incongruities notwithstanding, comprised an effective combination. These were Wall Street’s jealousy of Chestnut Street, the business man’s dislike of the federal Bank’s restraint upon bank credit, the politician’s resentment at the Bank’s interference in states’ rights, popular identification of the Bank with the aristocracy of business, and the direction of agrarian antipathy away from banks in general to the federal Bank in particular.” (329) The effect of Jackson’s policies was that “it left the poor agrarian as poor as he had been before and it left the money power possessed of more money and more power than ever.” Since these were the results of the policy, shouldn’t we investigate whether the winners were in any way behind the policy?

Great Frontier

Walter Prescott Webb
The Great Frontier

Webb recasts the story of the frontier as a global story of the “great boom” that began with the discovery of the New World. In what sounds a little like central place theory for the common man (Christaller wasn’t translated into English until 1966), Webb argues that the four-hundred year existence of the frontier gave the old European center access to “inherently a vast body of wealth without proprietors.”

In a 1953 review, David Potter praised Webb’s expansion of the Turner thesis beyond the American West and beyond Turner’s strict agrarianism, but criticizes Webb’s “disregard of technology as a factor” and his “geographic determinism.” Potter subtly recasts Webb’s argument as recognition of “historical patterns which, because of their very magnitude…had never [been] perceived as a whole.” Like the Ag. Historians’ arguments against Malthus, these may have been valid at the time; but at some point we probably need to reassess limits to growth and the idea that a boom caused by relatively “free” access to abundant resources may not last forever.

Reception study isn't history

Philip Goldsteain and James L. Machor
New Directions in American Reception Study

Kenneth H. Roemer, “Placing Readers at the Forefront of Nowhere: Reception Studies and Utopian Literature,” 99-118

Roemer looks at Bellamy’s
Looking Backward, but not really. He discusses contemporary and modern reviewers (including William Dean Howells, who apparently comments on what he thinks about its typical reader), and then does a reader response study of 733 contemporary readers. This is interesting, but it doesn’t go that far in my mind to situating the book in its time and place.

1859 Banking and the Panic of '57

An account of 1850s banking, written in 1859, with a contemporary (bank-friendly) perspective on the causes of the Panic of 1857:

J. S. Gibbons

The Banks of New York, Their Dealers, The Clearing House, and the Panic of 1857


Re: “persons who present checks…In character and disposition, the applicants are as different as in their features—boys, workmen, sailors, doctors, knaves, and drunkards. Some want ‘half gold and half notes,’ some ‘half silver and the rest in small bills,’ some ‘all bills,’ and some ‘all gold and be damned to you.’” (144)

“Commerce, in its broadest sense, is carried on by promissory notes. The multiplication of this form of credit is beyond all control. It loads every department of trade, from pins and needles up to cargoes of grain and cotton. It represents ships, railroads, manufactories, public and private contracts. The ‘pass-book’ of the housekeeper is balanced by a note at three or six months. The retailer purchases goods of the jobber, and gives his note in settlement. The jobber gives notes to the wholesale merchant, and he in turn to the manufacturer or producer. The manufacturer gives notes for the raw material. The factor is already under acceptance to the grower, and the grower’s notes are given to the bank long before his ‘fields are white unto harvest.’ The sugar that reaches our wharves from Havana or New Orleans has two or three sets of notes predicated upon it before the first hogshead has discharged from the vessel; and it continues to accumulate notes as it passes through the hands of the refiner into those of the grocer. Even after it has been swallowed in confections, its notes are still floating, unliquidated, in the market. The market carries millions of notes for what is already consumed, and millions more for what is not yet sprouted in the furrow.” (214)

“Promissory Notes are commercial currency. They are transferred, by indorsement, from one merchant to another, in settlement of debts, the same as bank bills; differing only in this—that they mature at a stated subsequent time, and that the other indorsers are liable to the owner, in case of non-payment by the drawer.” (215)

“Gold suffers abrasion by long use. It is first counted by hand, and the pieces slip on each other. It is then taken up in iron scoops and poured into bags. These are handled roughly in carriage from place to place, and thrown heavily from the counter to the floor….It undergoes no trifling friction in the pocket against other coin. Although this does not for a long time sensibly affect the value of the pieces separately, it is very perceptible when a thousand of them are taken together, especially of the smaller denominations. It is rarely that a bag of five thousand dollars by count, of what is in current use, of the quarter-eagles and of the one dollar pieces, holds out full value at weight. The deficiency on that sum is very commonly from seven to ten dollars.” (255)

“Silver is not used in bank settlements. The immense supply of gold from California and Australia has superseded it in the general exchanges of commerce. As it is not legal tender for sums over five dollars, our banks decline receiving it on deposit in large quantity.” (257)

Explaining the Panic of 1857:

“A prodigious weight of insolvency had been carried along for years in the volume of trade. Extravagance of living had already sapped the foundations of commercial success, in hundreds of instances where credit supplied the place of lost capital…The deficiency of means to carry on business could be supplied only by an increase of the
personal credit…There are no positive limitations to the expansion of individual credit. A pernicious practice (this practice originated with the commission merchants) prevails of making promissory notes payable to the order of the drawer, and thus negotiable without indorsement. When the seller finds that his customer has reached the line of credit that he is willing to allow, instead of refusing to sell more, and thus offering a prudential restriction to the extent of his business, he goes on selling, and disposes of the accumulating excess of the buyer’s paper in ‘the street.’ In this way he overstocks the market with goods, and gives a credit of thirty thousand dollars to a man whom he considers it unsafe to trust with more than three thousand; and the risk of twenty-seven thousand is scattered broadcast in the community! The buyer knows that his creditor gets rid of his notes, and what does he care if strangers lose by him?” (376)

Bank notes, circulating currency:

“The only proper use of currency is,
circulation—to pay wages, to buy commodities in store or market, and to answer the convenience of daily expenditure by the people. The privilege of issue is given by law for this purpose, and for no other. The advantage to the bank consists in the currency fulfilling this function of circulation—in its passing from hand to hand, giving life to industry, and forming the basis of the larger operations of commerce. The bank pays it out for notes discounted or for deposits, and realizes interest upon it until it is returned for redemption. The more circulation, the more profit. It is, therefore, and object for banks to keep out their bills as long as possible. They resort to various expedients for this purpose, such as discounting notes, on the condition that the bills shall be taken to a distance, and paid out for purchases of wool, for wages on a railroad, or other service. A large aggregate of currency is thus forced out upon the country, to find its way back for redemption through the usual channels of exchange.” (382-3)

“Those banks which were the least able to redeem, and whose bills were, therefore, least entitled to credit, were most persevering and ingenious in keeping the community supplied with their currency.” (383)

More Greenbacks

Irwin Unger
The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879

“Differences over currency and the related subject of banking have expressed basic American social and political antagonisms.” (He points to Joseph Dorfman’s 5 volumes of
The Economic Mind, 3)

He credits Beard with developing these themes, but criticizes the dualism of “Capitalist versus farmer, debtor versus creditor, East versus West, conservative versus radical, hard money versus soft money—these appear as successive guises of the same inherent division….although their names may vary, [they] always remain essentially the same.” (5)

“Primarily this dualism may be defined as a contest between wealth in the form of land and wealth seeking outlets in commerce and industry.” (Quoting Potter, ed.,
Party Politics and Public Action, 1877-1917, p. 16. 5) This is incredibly important — if it’s a story about wealth vs. Wealth, that’s a lot different from wealth vs. Poverty. And, if it’s the story about an uneven transition from one form of wealth to another, then it has a completely different character from the (Hicks?) point of view. I may be able to use this in my banking transition argument.

THESIS: “most men tried to strike a balance between their pocket books and their duty. This mixture of ethics and interest…must be recognized if we hope to understand the events of these years.” (8) Good, but do all people share this ambivalence equally, or are some more “ethical” and others more “interested?” We’re moving toward the Gilded Age, after all…

Cf. Hesseltine, “Four American Tradtions” http://www.jstor.org/stable/2204591

Unger repeats the consensus claim that “rural anti-bankism of the 1860’s and 1870’s was tinged with anti-Semitism,” but in his footnote gives both the Hofstadter/Handlin side and the Pollack/Higham response. (210) Cf. Pollack, “The Myth of Populist Anti-Semitism.”

I tend to agree with Unger’s conclusion that the Civil War did not “divide American history into an older rural-agrarian and a newer urban-industrial phase,” but not for the reasons he cites (407). Unger sees a continuity in traditions (Calvinism, agrarianism) that I think were already undergoing huge changes before the war—I’m more comfortable with accounts that see these changes as some of the causes of the Civil War, than with a story of old (and especially of ignorant old) traditions continuing to drive social and political thought almost to the twentieth century. I’m sure there was some of that, but I don’t see how this focus really complicates the dualism Unger criticized in the “Beardians.”

Moral History

John Higham
“Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic”
AHR, 1962

Higham tries to balance progressivism and “consensus” anti-progressivism, by suggesting that “the moral standards of an age” are a cultural consensus that are both contextual and comparable to those of the present. Conflict (the staple of the progressives) can be found “wherever those moral standards clash or break down, and so force men to make a choice.” (625) “Causal history and moral history at their best,” Higham says, “are reciprocal modes of understanding.” (622)

Progressives, Higham suggests, found polarity by oversimplifying the picture. They missed the opportunity later historians took, to fragment “into a welter of factions what the progressive historian had thought of as ‘the business community.’” (615) But dividing groups into an infinite number of subgroups (until we arrive at individuals?) precludes any ability to see broad social conflicts or shifting power relationships, resulting in “tameness and amiability” and ultimately “a moral vacuum.” (616)

In contrast with the historiography, which also tends to overemphasize conflict, I suspect Higham is right that the “shift away from democratic affirmations should not be exaggerated.” Historians are Americans, and American “liberal movements were after all conservative and...almost all Americans have really been liberal.” (614) In a period of prosperous professionalism, conservative historians did not “feel much at odds with powerful institutions or dominant social groups.” But cycles of prosperity and alienation among intellectuals (like those of the public at large) are themselves historical events. Higham suggests that self-aware historians know this, and dymanically balance detachment and engagement to “rise above a constricting present...[and] enter a living past.” (609)

Influential Books, 1939

Malcolm Cowley & Bernard Smith
Books that Changed Our Minds

This book, dedicated to Charles Beard, consists of a series of essays on authors or books deemed especially influential by American intellectuals responding to a
New Republic inquiry. While it does not provide first-hand information about the books that influenced regular people (or even women, since all the respondents were apparently male), many of the people they polled had written books that did influence large groups of Americans. Carl Becker, for instance, nominated Sumner’s Folkways, “which impressed me with the relativity of custom and ideas,” and Vaihinger’s As If, which “confirmed me in the notion that social thinking is shaped by certain unexamined preconceptions current at the time.” (quoting Becker’s letter, 6) Beard said “Brooks Adams’s two books are thumping,” which the editors took to mean The Law of Civilization and Decay and Theory of Social Revolutions. Both Becker and Beard recommended Croce’s History, Its Theory and Practice.

Beard himself was the second-most widely recommended author, just behind Thorstein Veblen (really!), and
An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and The Theory of the Leisure Class got an equal number of votes. Authors popular with the surveyed intellectuals for the body of their work rather than a particular title included Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Emerson, and Thoreau. Autobiographies included Henry Adams’, Theodore Dreiser’s, Joseph Freeman’s, Robert M. La Follette’s, and The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, which is called “the key book of the depression...[that] came at exactly the right moment.” (12)

Several of the books listed also seem to be present in the lists of popular, “amateur” history I’m compiling from Higham, Novick, and Tyrell (more on this later), and on bestseller lists. They include:

Waldo Frank, Our America
Van Wyck Brooks,
America’s Coming of Age
Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
Freud, Interpretation of Dreams
Croly, Promise of American Life
Brandeis, Other People’s Money
Joseph Krutch,
The Modern Temper (said to be “very influential in the colleges,” 13)
V.I. Lenin, Imperialism
Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World
Graham Wallas, The Great Society
John Strachey, The Coming Struggle for Power
Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes
James Frazer, The Golden Bough

Robert Lynd responded to the survey with authors like Adler, Dewey, James, Veblen, Huxley, and with Samuel Butler’s
Erewhon. These suggestions, the editors note, are much different from the “books taken from the Middletown public library in 1935,” which Lynd describes in Middletown (Chapter 17) and Middletown in Transition (Chapter 7). Those titles probably deserve a closer look, too. Stay tuned...

Celebrating Professionalism, 1965

John Higham
History: Professional Scholarship in America

Novick characterizes Higham’s historiography as celebratory and Whiggish, and Higham acknowledges the validity of these points in his review of
That Noble Dream. In 1965, he explains, there seemed to be something to celebrate. Who knew the profession was standing on the edge of fragmentation? Sub-disciplines went their separate ways, post-modernists challenged what they believed was the naive epistemology of historians; instead of three acts ending in victory, we were left with four acts -- Higham’s self-congratulatory third act now seems like pride before the fall.

But there’s still a lot of good information in the book, and nearly fifty years later, it’s a primary source for historiographers wanting to understand the point of view of the profession in the 1960s. Higham celebrates the professionalism that set itself against an earlier, “patrician” style of history, as he sets out to trace the “reciprocal relations between this emerging [American Historical] Association and the existing world of amateur scholarship.” (5)

“College curriculums until the 1870s,” Higham says, “had room for very few history courses, and these were generally taught by professors primarily interested in the classics or in philosophy. As late as 1884 the four hundred American institutions of higher education had about twenty full-time teachers of history.” (4) A decade later, there were over a hundred. Professional historians’ began “cooperative action [to] establish and maintain their own standards of achievement instead of obeying some external authority.” (5) This “cooperative ethic,” Higham admits, “discouraged to some degree a quest for genius.” (6) The guiding light of professionalization, J. Franklin Jameson, expected “the insular and fraternal habits of professional association...to perpetuate the high level of mediocrity” that Jameson believed would (somehow) precede “truly great and profound work.” Higham adds that under the demands of teaching, the historian “does not easily hold to an extravagant and selfish idea of achievement.” (7) So much for professionalism fostering good work.

In contrast, Higham tells the story of the “amateur historian [who] cherished his independence.” His example is John Bach McMaster, “a self-made historian who secured a professorship...because he wrote an outstanding book, a scholar who was notably absent at the founding” of the AHA, and who showed his unprofessional lack of solidarity by opposing Carnegie pensions for retired professors. (7) “The amateur historian expected his work to survive or perish on its individual merits; he was little concerned about its status as a ‘contribution’ to some continuing collective inquiry...He chose his subject for its intrinsic interest and wrote either for his own satisfaction or for a public that would accept him on his own terms.” I don’t think I need to comment on this, except to say that Ayn Rand could have written these words for Ellsworth Toohey in
The Fountainhead.

It’s interesting, the central role Higham gives Jameson, as “the administrative genius of the historical profession.” (26) His “committee formulated a precise and extensive plan for coordinating professional scholarship in American history.” (22) This, much more than the economic focus of Beard and Becker, seems like Progressivism at work.

Notes & Books to check into:

Increase Mather,
Brief History of the War with the Indians in New England, 1676
Samuel Miller,
Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, (history of science, 1803)

Conquest of Mexico, 1843 (“appealed so widely that seventy or more American newspapers reviewed it within a month of publication.” 69. Of course, it was 1843.)

Historical articles in
The Atlantic Monthly and the Century.

“Henry Adams’ profound and scintillating History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-91), sold a mere three thousand sets during the entire decade of the Nineties.” (70)

History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1892-1906): “Each volume sold about two or three thousand copies in its first year in print.”

“Hiram Martin Chittenden, who spent his leisure as an Army officer in the Missouri Valley writing
The American Fur Trade in the Far West (1902).

“Even a scholarly work so controversial and contemporary in interest as Charles A. Beard’s
An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) sold fewer than eight thousand copies over a span of four decades.” (72)

“H.G. Wells’s
Outline of History, issued by a hesitant publisher at an exorbitant price in 1920, sold one and a half million copies--one copy for every twenty homes in the country--within twelve years.” (74)

“Albert J. Beveridge, a former United States Senator...had done an astonishingly successful four-volume biography of John Marshall (1919) before he retired completely from politics and surpassed all previous biographers of Lincoln in breadth of research and in critical acumen.” (75)

“Some of the principal attributes of scientific history first appeared in the work of a good many amateur historians, beginning perhaps with Richard Hildreth, whose six-volume
History of the United States was published between 1849 and 1852.” (92) Higham celebrates the home-grown nature of scientific history: few if any of the “amateur pioneers of scientific history studied abroad.”

Don’t forget Theodore Roosevelt’s
The Winning of the West (1889-96)

“All of the leading historical journals ignored
Main Currents in American Thought, presumably considering it outside their purview.” (198) Really? Say that again, slowly.

Popular history

Ian Tyrell
Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970

It was probably unfair of me to read this book immediately after Novick. It’s a much dryer study, with much less personal detail. Tyrell focuses mainly on the official life of the AHA, which makes this much less interesting for me. But a few things did stick out, like the “rapid rise of agricultural history, with the formation of the Agricultural History Society under AHA auspices in 1919 and a specialized journal in 1927.” (31) Tyrell connects the advancing fortunes of ag. history with a Progressive interest in country life, which seems reasonable, but probably bears repeating just because it is so obvious.

Another area Tyrell calls attention to, that I should look deeper into, is the influence of book clubs on American readers. By the late 1920s, he says there were nine major American book clubs, led by the Book-of-the-Month Club (1926) and the Literary Guild (1927), “serving over 100,000 readers each by the 1930s.” (45) Tyrell also mentions the History Book Club -- it might be interesting to look at its history and the books it promoted over the years.

See also,
American Heritage, ed. Bruce Catton, Henry Pringle, and Mark Sullivan, whose multi-volume Our Times was said by Nevins to have “probably done more to interest people in American history than anything else written in our generation.” (49) Marquis James won the 1937 Pulitzer for a study of Andrew Jackson (I should review award lists, too), and Harpers editor Frederick Allen wrote Only Yesterday. Carl Sandburg wrote extensively on Lincoln, and newspaperman Walter Millis wrote Road to War: America, 1914-1917. Then of course, there’s Claude Bowen. Popular history has its downside, too.

Yale professor Allen Johnson said “there is little point in writing history that will not be read.” (57) He edited the fifty-volume
Chronicles of America series, which Publishers Weekly claimed sold “tens of thousands” in the 1920s by “intensive subscription sale.” (57) Tyrell also says Charles and Mary Beards’ Rise of American Civilization (1927) and America in Midpassage (1939) “served a generation as textbooks in colleges and high schools.” (61) I wonder how long the use of the Beards’ texts in schools continued, after they began to lose their preeminence in professional circles?

That Noble Dream

Peter Novick
That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession

Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of history as an American academic profession. This is very helpful to me right now, as I’m working out a historiography for my oral exam fields. He also addresses the issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even two decades after the book’s publication.

Novick begins his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” is a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies.” (1) Following philosopher W. B. Gallie, Novick calls objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explores. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions.

Novick describes a myth of objectivity, which he says includes assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and , above all, between history and fiction.” (1-2) Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, is “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made.’” (2) This mythical objectivity is important, he says, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture” (3), but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, is that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a religious universe where there are
patterns in history because there is a divine plan. I’m not saying it’s impossible to call yourself an atheist and believe in materialist determinism. I’m saying that Marxist teleology is religion too.

e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick says, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past.” (5) I don’t see why we can’t agree that there’s a single reality, though, and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need.

Novick quotes Isaiah Berlin, who he says follows Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets.” (quoting
Concepts and Categories, 7) But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical dialogue.

“There appears to be a residual great man theory of historiography,” Novick says. (9) He later adds to this, that there’s also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations, and have been noticed and read by many people. So these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick points out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period.

In his introduction, Novick mentions the choices he had to make in writing, to balance accurate representation of historians‘ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place. He suggests that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,‘ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction.” (9) It might also be true that, since many of the historiographical arguments involve the selective misinterpretation of historians‘ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less deep approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate. But then, at what point does historiography devolve into Peyton Place?

Novick seems aware of this issue at some level. He claims that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians (especially on the objectivity issue); and yet he acknowledges that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors.” (11-12) The question he raises, of course is, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas, including overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their (amateur) predecessors never needed to do.

So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments, and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?

Novick begins his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association , and the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace.” (21) It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is normally grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867 (25). And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke, is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick says, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered.” (27) Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written
wie es eigentlich gewesen, is complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote that, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it.” (28) And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him.” (29) So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.

Novick makes a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he calls “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas. (34) As an example, he points out that although Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (in a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett)Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of
On the Origin of Species,” and “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked.” (35-6) These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example.” (38)

To some extent, Novick shows that the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick says, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular an imitated author in early nineteenth-century America.” (45) By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator.” (40) “Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works. (45) The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists.” (46) The question is, were these really significant differences in content?
Substantial changes in interpretation, or just a change in the fashion of forms?

The “criteria of a profession,” Novick says, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice;” in other words, a monopoly. (48) But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute a monopoly, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships.” (49) Examples include J.B. McMaster,
History of the People of the United States; Ellis Oberholtzer, History of the United States Since the Civil War; James Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick says, “had offered their wares in a classically free market.” (53) Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents.” (54) The professionalization of history not only shifted power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization” (63), it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson, 56) “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick says. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor.” (57) I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.

Cf. Robinson’s
“History for the Common Man”

Novick also calls attention to how much historiography owes to current events. “Prewar [WWI] confidence in progress generally,” he says, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity.” (105) The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’ s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes.” (130)

As the story continues, writers outside of professional history continue to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by non-historians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks).” (178) In contrast, Schlesinger and Fox’s twelve-volume
History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against AHR editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies.” (193)

Cf. Becker, “Every Man his Own Historian,” 1931
Cf. Beard, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” 1933 (both AHA presidential addresses)
Cf. Nevins,
The Gateway to History, 1938, attacking Beard, and Beard’s response in review of Nevins’ book.
Cf. Nevins, “What’s the Matter with History?”
Saturday Review, 4 Feb 1939.

The Beards’
Rise of American Civilization, 1927, sold over 130,000 copies. (240)

Re: approaching the past without preconceptions: “Hoping to find something without looking for it, expecting to find final answers to life’s riddle by resolutely refusing to ask questions--it was surely the most romantic species of realism yet invented, the oddest attempt ever made to get something for nothing.” (quoting Becker, 1921, 254) Novick calls attention to the “conservatism inherent in unadorned factualism. ‘The mere fact,’ Becker had written...’if you allow the wretched creature to open its mouth, will say only one thing: I am, therefore I am right.’”

In the Cold War, the story just gets so nasty and spiteful that it’s difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake. The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-sellerdom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised. (372)

Cf. Bulletin 54 of the Social Science Research Council:
Theory and Practice in Historical Study: A Report of the Committee on Historiography.

In the end, I’m not convinced that the Objectivity Question is the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of
That Noble Dream. The relevance question, which Novick also substantially deals with, seems to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America.

There’s a lot of great material in here -- much of it comes in the form of behind the scenes looks at the personalities, animosities, and occasionally friendships of historians, as shown in their letters and private writings. From time to time these revealing moments are seen in articles or AHA presidential addresses, but most of them are private. Once or twice I wondered whether a particularly racist or otherwise obnoxious personal aside was necessary to my understanding of the issues, but on the whole it’s a very useful insider’s view of the profession.

Novick’s close attention to these personal details went a long way to impress on me the relative smallness of the historical community (at least in terms of its “players”), and of the short duration of American historiography. The profession only really got going at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I’m a fourth generation American
and a fourth-generation historian.

The other thing Novick did to my idea of American professional history was to convince me of its incredibly personal nature. For example, Oscar Handlin, who clearly had a longer than average career, appears throughout the book. Handlin appears in so many different guises: early on, as a young Jewish historian thankfully allowed to enter the profession; then, in the 1940s, as a consensus critic of the progressives’ “Bulletin 54” (392); and finally as the Pulitzer-winning author of
The Uprooted, announcing that he had “learned to live with relativism.” (607) Novick mentions that critics of The Uprooted (1951) called it “engaged...personal, value-laden.” Somehow, he fails to mention that it completely abandons even a semblance of objectivity.

Handlin described
The Uprooted as an epic, and acknowledged that he “did not find it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation” (The Uprooted, 308). This is an interesting statement, coming from one of the stalwarts of what Novick calls objectivism. Handlin’s use of novelistic techniques like interior monologue (of Italian immigrant women, no less!) in The Uprooted suggests a position closer to the one characterized for ultra-relativists like Hayden White, than for “hyperobjectivists” like Handlin, who are supposed to find “correspondence of a representation with its object...in the small pieces which together form the record” (quoting Truth in History, 608).

I wonder if Handlin’s narrative choices were based on his ideas about the (largely popular?) audience he addressed in
The Uprooted? Variations in historians’ philosophies and techniques may have been related to their ideas of their audiences, in ways Novick didn’t stress. Carl Becker, for example, seems to focus a good deal of thought on “the history that common men carry around in their heads” Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, 61). But more to the point of That Noble Dream, I think the inconsistent and shifting positions of Handlin and others in Novick’s account suggest a contingency based not only on changing American politics and culture, which Novick addresses, but also the shifting needs of careers and personal reputations. On that score, Novick is less forthcoming, but provides some very suggestive pointers.

Becker on history

Carl Lotus Becker
Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker

Carl Becker is, along with Charles Beard, the most influential “relativist” in American historiography, according to Peter Novick’s
That Noble Dream. So I thought I’d read some of Becker’s essays. They seem pretty even-handed and insightful. Becker isn’t arguing for anything more radical than Hume (who he calls on in one of the pieces), and he's pretty much writing in plain English. I wonder, if we understood this material deeply enough, if postmodernism would even be necessary?

Things that I thought worth keeping on hand:

“the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is supposed to be completely antithetical.” (10)

“while we speak of historical facts as it they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ‘facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.” (11)

I think it’s interesting how this anticipates postmodernism -- but then so does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The question, I suppose, really is: what do we do about/with this understanding?

“The classic expression of this truth is of course Hume’s famous argument against miracles. That argument does not really prove that miracles never occurred in history; it proves only that there is no use having a past through which the intellect cannot freely range with a certain sense of security.” (13)

“It seems, then, that the great point in historical synthesis is selection: which of the numberless particular facts will the historian select?” (18)

“The historian...does indeed have a concept of the end, and he selects the facts that will explain how that end came about. But it is the concept that determines the facts, not the facts the concept.” (24)

“The final synthesis is doubtless composed of facts unique, causally connected, revealing unique change [reflecting the “Dr. Fling” description of what historians do]; but the unique fact, selected because of its importance, was in every case selected because of its importance for some idea already in the field. The original concepts, which give character to the entire synthesis, sere contributed, not by the facts of the sixteenth century, but by the facts of the twentieth century.” (25)

Regarding “facts,” “the historian...cannot deal directly with this event itself, since the event itself has disappeared. What he can deal with directly is a
statement about the event. He deals in short not with the event, but with...an affirmation...There is thus a distinction of capital importance to be made: the distinction between the ephemeral event which disappears, and the affirmation about the event which persists...If so the historical fact is not the past event, but a symbol which enables us to recreate it imaginatively...The safest thing to say about a symbol is that it is more or less appropriate.” (47)

Again, the proof is in the pudding. What type of history did Becker write? Was it wildly speculative? Did he make things up, or project presentist concerns onto people in the past?

“But the notion continues to bob up regularly...And so I repeat...it is impossible to present all the facts; and...even if you could present all the facts the miserable things wouldn’t say anything, would just say nothing at all.” (54)

“One historian will therefore necessarily
choose certain affirmations about the event, and relate them in a certain way, rejecting other affirmations and other ways of relating them...What is it that leads one historian to make, out of all the possible true affirmations about the given event , certain affirmations and not others? Why, the purpose he has in mind will determine that. And so the purpose he has in mind will determine the precise meaning which he derives from the event.” (55)

Yes, but also, he’ll try to judge the affirmation for consistency with others. He’ll try to understand the author’s point of view and motivation for affirming. He’ll try to integrate this into an overall understanding based on context and agreement of sources, rather than just cherry-picking the ones he thinks are most interesting or agree with his thesis.

On the difference between history and science:
“The historian has to judge the significance of the series of events from the ons single performance, never to be repeated, and never, since the records are incomplete and imperfect, capable of being fully known or fully affirmed.” (57)

“every normal person does know some history, a good deal in fact...enough for his immediate purposes; otherwise he would be a lost soul indeed...How much and how accurate, will depend on the man and his purposes. Now, the point is that history in the formal sense...is only an extension of memory. Knowledge or history, insofar as it is living history and not dead knowledge locked up in notebooks, is only an enrichment of our minds with the multiplied images of events, people, places, ideas, emotions outside our personal experience...enabling him to judge the acts and thoughts of men, his own included, on the basis of experience less immediate and restricted.” (61)

“the kind of history that has the most influence on the life of the community and the course of events is the history that common men carry around in their heads. It won’t do to say that history has no influence on the course of events because people refuse to read history books. Whether the general run of people read history books or not, they inevitably picture the past in some fashion or other, and this picture, however little it corresponds to the real past, helps to determine their ideas about politics and society. This is especially true in times of excitement, in critical times, in time of war above all.” (61)

“scientific research has had a profound influence in changing the conditions of modern life, whereas historical research has had at best only a negligible influence...It is, indeed, not wholly the historian’s fault that the mass of men will not read good history willingly and with understanding; but I think we should not be too complacent about it.” (62, 64)

On historiography, “I find evidence leading me to suppose that the new history is at least as old as Voltaire.” (70)

On Tocqueville: “In the United States it has often been taken for granted that Tocqueville was a great admirer of American democracy. The truth is somewhat different: what he admired was not American democracy, but the ingenuity of Americans in inventing political devices for mitigating the evils of democracy...he was n intelligent and humane lover of the masses, and yet a highly differentiated individual who prized his liberties, including the liberty of not belonging to the masses whom he loved.” (176)

“Any significant political philosophy is shaped by three different but closely related influences. The first is what Alfred North Whitehead has taught us to call the ‘climate of opinion’ -- those unconsciously accepted presuppositions which, in any age, so largely determine what men think about the nature of the universe and what can and cannot happen in it, and about the nature of man and what is essential to the good life. The second is more specific: it derives from the political conflicts of the time, which dispose groups and classes to accept a particular interpretation of current ideas as a theoretical support for concrete political measures. The third is still more specific: it derives from the mind and temperament of the individual who gives to the philosophy its ordered literary form. Whatever is original in the philosophy is usually contributed by the individual who gives it this form. Whatever value is has for its own time depends largely on the extent to which it can be used to illuminate or resolve the particular political issues of that time and place. But its value for other times and places will depend upon the the extent to which the fundamental presuppositions on which it rests have a universal validity--the extent to which they express some essential and enduring truth about nature and the life of man.” (216)

Does this square with his view of history above? This is from a 1943 address about Jefferson -- change over time?

Know Nothingism

Tyler Anbinder
Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s

Anbinder argues that the Know Nothing party was formed and motivated by combination of anti-Catholic, nativist, and anti-slavery sentiments. Anti-slavery attracted many northerners, swelling the ranks of the party initially, but eroding its strength as more specifically abolitionist political options became available. Anbinder also suggests that interest in the party reflected a lot of pent-up frustration with the Whigs and Democrats. This generalized discontent also facilitated the shift from Know Nothingism to Republicanism.

“From 1845 to 1854, some 2,900,000 immigrants landed in the United States, more than had come in the seven previous decades combined. As a percentage of the nation’s total population, the influx of immigrants...amounting to 14.5 percent of the 1845 population, has never been surpassed.” (3)

“Irish immigrants to the United States in the two decades after the War of 1812 tended to be...well-to-do farmers and middle-class city dwellers...[and] usually brought business or artisanal skills with them. (4)

Then the potato blight struck in 1845. “It is estimated that between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 Irishmen died either of starvation or of starvation-related illness (out of a total pre-famine population of 8,000,000) during the famine.” (6)

“Although they received less publicity than the Irish, nearly as many Germans emigrated to the United States during the mid-1800s. In fact, in the peak year of immigration, 1854, German emigration to the United States outpaced that from Ireland by two to one.” (and “the sources of greatest emigration do not correspond to the areas of revolutionary unrest.” 7)

“By 1855, immigrants outnumbered native-born citizens in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, and...would soon surpass the native in New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Cincinnatti.” (8)

“Samuel F. B. Morse charged in a series of published letters that the monarchies of Europe had enlisted the aid of the Catholic Church to subvert the spread of democracy by sending Catholic immigrants to take control of the under-populated American west.” (9)
Like father, like son...

Lincoln, in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “
all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Anbinder’s argument with William Gienapp seems to revolve around Gienapp’s claim that in the 1854 elections, nativism trumped anti-slavery, and that’s why the Know Nothings did so well. Anbinder suggests that a Know Nothing “vote usually carried both anti-Catholic
and anti-slavery connotations. The temperance issue also drew many voters to the Know Nothing ticket, as did a general resentment toward the existing parties.” (66-7) Even so, Anbinder agrees that “if the question is posed...to determine whether anti-slavery or Know Nothingism played a key role in the Democrats’ defeat...it is evident that Know Nothingism was the decisive factor in bringing about the Democratic setback in Pennsylvania.” (67-8)

Lowbrow Historian

Stewart H. Holbrook
Lost Men of American History

In a short introduction, Allan Nevins says:

“There is always danger that the story of the nation, at least in its briefer versions, will become conventionalized...And [Holbrook] also touches on a deeper question. The United States is a great mass democracy, where equality of opportunity is emphasized;...have we not made a little too much of the very great men, the primary figures; and too little of the serried ranks of talent and achievement just behind them, the host of men whose labors were the main element in progress?” (viii)

In his own note to the reader, Holbrook says “I believe that men, even one man or one woman, often have had immense effect in slowing or hastening the forces that are said to make history...Many just such men and women have been slighted or wholly ignored in our history books. They are in large part the people I want to tell about.”

So it begins. The book is filled with interesting material. For example, “The log cabin’s first appearance in North America was in 1638, when members of the Swedish West India Company [who knew there was such a thing!] set up a trading post and village on the shore of Delaware Bay.” (4) This is not the Scandinavians’ only appearance. Holbrook later tells the story of novelist Fredrika Bremer, who went back home to tell the Swedes about Minnesota, and Reinert Reiersen, whose 1844 book
The Pathfinder for Norwegian Emigrants in the United North American States and Texas “was a classic of its genre.” (201-3) Holbrook covers a wide range of people and topics, including to my great surprise Abner Kneeland and Dr. Charles Knowlton (whose name gets by his copy editor as “Thomas” later in the book, 126-7, 312). Really interesting stuff, a lot of which could stand to be taken up by a guy like me -- some of which I’m already working on. But enough about that, for now!

Holbrook was an interesting guy -- may be a subject in his own right. His “lowbrow history” certainly anticipates my ideas of about the history of regular people,
for regular people. I’m happy I had the idea on my own, before I heard of Holbrook. I’m also happy he had it, because I’m looking forward to reading more and seeing where he took it.

the Backcountry

Ed White
The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America

White teaches English at the Univ. of Florida. His title recalls Raymond Williams, which White says he turned to in the early stages of thinking about this project. The central question of this book is, “What was the role of an urban public sphere in a largely rural society?” (xi) More generally, White asks, “what did it mean to focus on urban literate culture,” when explaining social movements in a largely rural society? (xii) The question is actually more compelling for American history, White suggests, than Williams’ made it for British. While English literary traditions reflected an ancient agrarian heritage, “for early America...the literary production, from the sermons and tracts all the way to the earliest newspapers and novels, is predominantly urban.”

The literary element of this question, ironically, is what interests me, because the history is outside my (current, orals-induced) range of interest. It allows White to “rethink conventional periodization,” and ask “From a backcountry perspective, what had actually changed with the American Revolution?” (xii) I’m not sure it’s relevant for me at this point that White’s ideas regarding “
structural analysis from below” come from Gramsci’s prison notebooks; but I loved his succinct summary of social history as “statistics, averages, and representatives.” (xiv, xv)

“Getting out of the city and into the country,” White says, “requires more than simply hitting the road, particularly if the roads are laid out by the urban planners.” (1) Urban writers, even contemporary ones who are demonstrably sympathetic, have been too quickly accepted as spokesmen for the rural. “Set against the well-documented and articulate culture of the urban seaports,” White says, the early American “backcountry lolls like a massive negation, a cultural nonbeing.” (2) While this probably overstates the silence of rural people in the archives, it calls attention to a perception shared by many historians. It’s easier to ruralize urban writers, “as in Vernon Parrington’s insistence upon Ben Franklin’s commitment to ‘agrarian democracy,’” than it is to find the letters, diaries, or local newspaper editorials of actual agrarian democrats. (3)

The most interesting part of White’s argument, for my present purposes, is his discussion of the “republican synthesis” of Bailyn, Wood, and Pocock. White says their “insistence upon a cohesive, unified, republican discourse...hinged on the synthesizers’ [both the republicans’ and the historians’] own distinction between random ideas and ideological systems.” (6, 7) And the synthesis focused attention on the [republican] synthesizers rather than on the ideas they massaged into an ideological system. White contrasts this with the stress he says Progressive historians and their heirs placed on both “
horizontal social division between classes and competing groups, and a vertical, discursive division between public expression and private intention.” (6) Historians’ “refusal to reduce revolutionary language to some hidden subtext,” White implies, can lead them not only to the unrealistic claim that there was a single, monolithic, republican ideology, but it also focuses on the product and hides the process that created it. (7) The ongoing, often contested nature of that process, White says, can be seen in the verbs (“formulate...articulate...mobilize...systematize”) used to describe the founders’ activities. (8)

The question that remains is, how much of the republican “achievement” was based on the founders’ success in improving on “diffuse and rudimentary lines of thought,” and how much did it involve marshaling and redeploying well-defined ideas in order to “retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution”? (quoting Gordon Wood,
Creation of the American Republic, 9) “The synthesis,” White concludes, “is an idealized federalism, and like the federalists the synthesizers...betray a deep theoretical hostility for that which cannot be easily synthesized...[and] realize that an important part of the battle for order is simply to keep insisting that order exists.” (10) Setting aside the historiographical name-calling, it’s easy to see how a set of ideas or especially actions that were not “easily synthesized,” could fall out of the story and be forgotten. White believes the ongoing series of peripheral battles (Indian Wars, regulations, rebellions, and especially Paxton’s Riot) are evidence of an ongoing social contest between urban elites and a variety of others whose contribution to America’s republican achievement has been forgotten.

White proposes to find evidence of the less-well-documented concerns of rural people, women, natives and others in “the vernacular terminology of practical ensembles.” (17) “Yeoman petitions,” he says, “are not simply expressions of a dominant republicanism...they instead mark a particular meeting of dispersed farmers trying to organize themselves in relation to an administrative body and a perceived threat.” (17-18) “Practical ensembles,” White says, “were the localities within which these battles were waged.” (18) While this may seem like another case of literary critics coming a generation late to the new social history party (White mentions this phenomenon, but I failed to note the page), White shows that something like this was going on in J. Franklin Jameson’s 1925
The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. So it’s not an idea that historians have been universally successful at keeping in mind, and maybe a view from outside is useful now and then.

The story White goes on to tell is less useful to me at present, because it falls well before the period I’m studying. His final discussion of Benjamin Franklin’s
Autobiography, and republican rhetoric, is challenging. The revolts, rebellions, and regulations are interesting, and would be even more so with more people in them. I like the idea that something is going on outside the cities; that there’s an ongoing debate about the new society being formed; and that even if literate elites aren’t using republican rhetoric to cynically rationalize their own agendas, there’s a space between intention and rhetorical action where something is happening. Of course, this same space exists between intention and physical action; and it should be taken into account when we’re looking at all these “practical ensembles” and what they did.

Presentism & Politics

Jesse Lemisch
On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession

Lemisch provides an interesting historiography of 1950s and 60s professional history, as seen from the left. The Cold War dominates the picture, and the consensus school is portrayed largely as a response to the demands of the present. Lemisch names names and traces influences. This is a valuable essay.

Funny that the Consensus historians accused the Progressives of presentism, but failed to notice how much their own history was informed by their concerns about "Reaction," the Cold War, and anti-communism. But in general, I'm not finding these labels to be too useful. Seems like they obscure more than they reveal. More on that soon...


Harold C. Livesay
Andrew Carnegie and the Rise of Big Business

(part of the Library of American Biography, edited by Oscar Handlin)

LIvesay says Carnegie’s lifetime “spanned two worlds, before and after mechanization,” and as a result “his actions continuously manifested an ambivalence rooted in his double exposure to the old world” of peasant Scotland and the new world of industrial America. Carnegie’s business innovations and understanding of increasing returns to scale and demand elasticity were modern, but “his attitudes towards politics, society, culture, and...even the ownership structure of his business exhibited the old world ideas he had absorbed as a boy in Scotland.” (13) Carnegie brought “cost control, low prices, low profits, and high volume” to American business, Livesay says, which turned “America into the world’s richest society.” (189) Livesay makes the contradictions in Carnegie’s character into metaphors for American history.

Presentist neo-consensus revisionism

Something I find weird is histories that tell you more than you would ever want to know about a subject, except how it fits in its time. I just read David Trask’s The War with Spain in 1898, which goes into the military history of the Spanish-American War in great detail, but gives less than a page (out of 600, including notes) to the war’s social or cultural context, and doesn’t even say much about politics. Trask portrays McKinley as reluctant to go to war (although remarkably efficient once he is forced to do so), but goaded on by an irresistible but unaccounted-for popular movement.

This text fills a generation-long gap in coverage of the Spanish-American war, and was hailed as a magisterial account that will be read for generations. I suppose this is true, and that it will be read closely by people interested in the details of the military and diplomatic engagements. But what it doesn’t say may be as important as what it does. I think it’s remarkable that in nearly 500 pages of narrative, William Randolph Hearst is mentioned in passing on pages 27 and 30. Trask apparently believes either that yellow journalism was not an influence on the decision to go to war or on the prosecution of the war, or that he can blame irrational public opinion for pushing McKinley into war and inadvertent empire, and leave it at that. Actually, he seems to believe that by simply ignoring the fact that the prior generation's history is all about Hearst and the splendid little war, he can make everybody forget. Maybe this is possible, if Trask's book becomes the standard text many of his reviewers seem to hope it will be. Is this how history gets revised?

The question, I guess, is: what’s more important? The details of the war, or its motivations, context, and consequences?

Progressive politics

Peri E. Arnold
Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, 1901-1916

Arnold examines the three presidents of the Progressive Era, arguing that “to examine only a president’s personal characteristics masks the opportunities and constraints within which he or she works. But, to examine only the president’s role and its political context is to miss
how an individual functions within a given role and context.” (2) The unique contributions of Roosevelt and Wilson (and failure of Taft), then, are based on a lucky combination of character and the historical moment they found themselves in. This seems a reasonable enough argument, echoing the old saying that achievement happens when opportunity meets preparation, on a grand scale.

Arnold points out that in the five presidential elections between 1876 and 1892, the winner averaged 47.72 percent of the popular vote. (3) That means, on the average, nearly 53% of Americans voted against the (mostly) Republicans who presided over the Gilded Age. He also notes that “Democrats controlled the House for nine of the eleven sessions from 1874 through the 1894 election.” This is interesting, especially given the decidedly “populist” look and feel of many of Roosevelt’s initiatives. Were they welcomed by a Congress that was sent to Washington to make just those types of reforms? The Dems lost the House in the 1894 mid-term elections, because Grover Cleveland was blamed for the financial crisis of 1893 (actually caused by the McKinley tariff). They regained a lot of ground in 1896, in spite of Bryan’s defeat, but remained the minority party. (
wiki has a really good set of pages on this, complete with maps)

Arnold describes what others might call Theodore Roosevelt’s opportunism as a political /philosophical journey. He points out that Roosevelt’s politics were never determined by party platforms (as McKinley’s were, he says -- but didn’t McKinley write the party platform, at least as far as the tariff was concerned?), and he sees this change as a watershed. Roosevelt was independent enough from Republican dogma to say in 1907 that:

The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign--that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole--some effective power of supervision over their corporate use. In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct. (7th Annual Message)

“Whatever McKinley ‘saw’ was through the lens of being a Republican of the Civil War generation, his organizational experience as a party man and governor in Ohio, and his role as a Republican leader in Congress.” (14-5) But in addition to being a generational issue (all Civil War Republicans weren’t McKinleys, after all), Arnold also notes that McKinley’s main experience was in politics, while Roosevelt’s was in appointed, administrative government. So naturally they’d have different perspectives on what an executive should
do, what government was for, and on the purpose of public rhetoric. (17, 18)

In contrast to Roosevelt, Arnold portrays Taft as a president who was initially committed to continuing progressive reform, but who was temperamentally unable to embrace the new format of presidential leadership. Taft did not have the “tools,” and he mistakenly tried to retreat to an older model of leadership that, if it was not dead as Arnold says, was at least impossible to step back into immediately following Roosevelt. Wilson, on the other hand, “was invested in the possibility of a prime ministerial stance within the American constitutional framework.” (200) But of course, prime ministers stand and fall with their party’s dominance of the legislature. “Had Wilson not entered the presidency accompanied by a Democratic Congress,” Arnold says, “it is hard to imagine how he would have constructed his leadership.” So in this sense, Roosevelt was the progressive president, Taft was a backslider (albeit unintentionally), and Wilson was a reflection of the Democratic party’s legislative agenda.

Arnold refers to Clifford Geertz’s “Centers, Kings, and Charisma,” in
Local Knowledge, 1983 -- would probably be worth a look sometime.

20th century farming remembered

Paul K. Conkin
A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929

Conkin was 80 when he published this book. He includes his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, with a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal,
Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.

One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin, of course, is the reviewer who ripped
Danbom’s Resisted Revolution for saying the Progressives were urban idealists who despised farmers. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States.” (x) Technology, but also markets, economic changers and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 milion in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today.” (xi)

Conkin begins by addressing the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, “from the [they] beginning depended on markets.” (1) As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food.” (2) It now takes only a few percent. This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enable them or the social changes that go with them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it (both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability) is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded.

Conkin remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks.” (4) At harvest time, work was more strenuous and prolonged -- one of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000).” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may also have helped some smaller operators avoid the logic of expansion: if you don’t buy the combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250.

Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date.” (30) Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting argument that may merit a closer look sometime. (52)

Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he describes some of the details from his own experience. (49) These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s appreciation of the economics is shown in these passages to originate in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow.” (49) He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, just as it may not have been to other people who experienced the change.

Conkin also describes the transition of his farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin witnessed “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices.” (84) And his family experience reinforces the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans. (94) But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the new deal to the present, without shedding too much light on the subject.

In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States.” (96) This trend towards concentration, he says, is still happening in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history.” (164) His perception that certain malcontents might wish to disagree seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion (phosphorus), and the risks associated with new techniques (GMOs) continue to change, the rational decision-makers he praises may need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors.

The word “sustainable...is now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of the sustainability argument or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products (and government policy) should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible.” “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” Conkin concludes, “so be it.” (205)

cf. Thomas Skidmore,
The Rights of Man to Property, 1829

Peripheral Agrarians

Elizabeth Sanders
Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State 1877-1917

Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I.” (1) This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class.” (2) Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism.” (3-4) In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream. (5) And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism.” (4)

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets.” (28) Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous (?), diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. These “hinterland” farmers are dependent on their urban centers, and their political behavior will reflect this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when reading accounts of the farm movement.

But for me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture. “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction per se has limited explanatory power in American politics.” (16) And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the periphery. (17) The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers. (27) Rather than think of them as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps. This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be un-accounted for in the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that the agrarian-labor coalition failed because it was “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority.” (412) But most interestingly, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc.” (388-9) So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?


AHR, David Vaught (author of
Cultivating California and After the Gold Rush) says she is merely repeating the arguments of progressive historians like John D. Hicks and Solon Buck. He questions her division of the nation into industrial core, agrarian periphery and (disposable) diverse regions, based on a 1919 census she admits reflects WWI industrial concentration. And he says she attributes politicians’ positions to regionalism, when in many cases they may have been based on party loyalty. Most of all, Vaught regrets the lack of either farmers or laborers in the story.

JAH, James Weinstein (socialist author of
The Decline of Socialism in America, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State and The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left) calls it a tour de force that makes “an irrefutable case for the importance of agrarian movements” in shaping reform. He calls attention to Sanders’ point that although the agrarians wanted a strong state, “they opposed executive branch bureaucracies. They sought an expanded ‘statutory’ state. Their reforms required minimal regulation,” Weinstein says. This is a key point -- the growth of bureaucracy was not an inevitable result of agrarian claims for social justice. The idea that it is, is a case of the winners writing the history.

Journal of Southern History, Ronald Formisano suggests that Sanders “key assumption” that members of Congress “are exquisitely sensitive” to their constituents is too narrow; but praises the books revision of the traditional separation of the populist from the progressive movement.
Roots of Reform, he says, “should have a powerful impact on the content delivered by textbooks and lecturers in survey courses.” Interesting, from the perspective of how changes in the consensus narrative find their way into the classroom and popular history...

Columbian Exchange

Alfred W. Crosby, Jr.
The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

This is another one of those books that must be read. And even after 38 years, there’s a lot of good stuff in it. The thesis is summed up in the title, which has entered the language as a short-hand descriptor for the idea that “the most important changes brought about by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature,” even if not all the people who use the term agree with Crosby that the interaction of the old world and the new “has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool.” (xiv, 219)

Crosby’s narrative sets the scene by comparing the old world and the new, to show the biological contrasts between them. He traces European conquest, and the diseases that spread with (and sometimes ahead of) conquistadors and settlers. Crosby then describes the (mostly plant) species that were brought from the Americas to the old world, and the (mostly animal) species the Spanish brought to the new (interestingly, he says most of the really significant species were introduced by the Spanish by 1500, long before North American settlement was begun. 108). After devoting a full chapter to the controversy over the origin of syphilis, Crosby concludes with a look at how American food crops enabled population growth in both Europe and Asia (and continue to, to the present day).

Some of the interesting items along the way include Crosby’s brief discussion of the possible influence of the new world on tradition and religious authority in the old. “Christian and Aristotelian” belief systems, he says, “proved too cramped to accomodate the New World...men of the Columbian generation discovered that ‘Ptolomeus, and others knewe not the halfe.’” (9) Crosby says an argument about “multiple creations” was carried on in Europe until 1859, when Darwin finally laid it to rest, “while also knocking loose a large part of the foundation of traditional Judaism and Christianity.” (14) Crosby’s discussion of the extinction event that wiped out American megafauna has probably been eclipsed by more recent scientific findings, just as his discussion of the worldwide distribution of blood-types has been overtaken by DNA analysis, but in their day they were great examples of interdisciplinary thinking.

Many of the details Crosby includes are startling. Cotton Mather’s description of the 1616-17 epidemic that wiped out most of the Massachusetts Indians as a Providential clearing of the woods “of those pernicious creatures, to make room for better growth,” confirms my impression of the Puritan leader. (41) The idea that “a million Indians lived on Santo Domingo when the Europeans arrived,” and that they were reduced by 1548 to 500, is something you really have to sit with for a while and think about. (45) The “population of central Mexican dropped from about 25 million on the eve of conquest to 16.8 million a decade later.” (53) That doesn’t seem as bad, until it sinks in that it means one out of every three people was dead, in just ten years. Makes all the recent movies about plagues and human apocalypse seem like so many nightmares of a guilty white American conscience.

I didn’t know that when Columbus returned, he brought “seventeen ships, 1,200 men, and seeds and cuttings for the planting of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruit stones for the founding of orchards.” (67) And it never occurred to me that some new world species, like the white potato, found their way to places like New England via Europe (brought “by the Scotch-Irish...in 1718.” 66) Other interesting details: “the banana, brought from the Canaries in 1516.” (68) “Cattle...first brought to Mexico for breeding purposes in 1521.” (87) But by 1614, “the residents of Santiago [Chile] possessed 39,250 head,” (91) as well as 623,825 sheep. (94) I also didn’t know, but should have guessed after reading about De Soto’s expedition through Florida, that when Pizarro crossed the Andes into Peru in 1540, he brought over 2,000 pigs with him. (79) Somebody should write a history of the conquest that focuses on what it must have been like, moving conquistadors and their pigs through the wild Americas.

Technical Determinism

Vaclav Smil
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Smil argues that the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” Many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization had not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” (5) Taking aim at prophets of discontinuity like Kurzweil, Smil says that currently fashionable “perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by zealots of electronic faith.” The idea of accelerating evolution, Smil says, is teleological. In its place, he offers a combination of “phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.” (6) Well, so much for the singularity.

Interestingly, the “most far-reaching of all modern technical innovations...[was] the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” (7) The Haber-Bosch process made nitrogen fertilizers available on an unprecedented scale (relative to previous sources, Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrate), allowing the world’s human population to expand to its current level. Without it, Smil says, “the world could not support more than about 3.5 billion people.” (23) Interestingly, Smil always says “technical innovation” or “technique” -- toward the end of the book he congratulates George Orwell for the same thing (quoting a passage from a 1942 BBC broadcast, 259), and calls attention to the fact that he has not used the fuzzier term “technology” a single time in the text. This might be frustrating for researchers searching keywords in the future, but it’s an interesting distinction.

The key characteristics of the “Unprecedented Saltation” of 1867-1914, Smil says, were:
  1. that the impact of these technical advances was almost instantaneous,
  2. the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances,
  3. the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction,
  4. the imagination and boldness of new proposals, and
  5. the epoch-making nature of these technical advances. (8-12)

While discussing periodization, Smil mentions that he is “deliberately ignoring” dating by economic cycles like the Kondratiev wave. He’s also avoiding, although he doesn’t say so, any discussion of cultural, economic and social changes that impacted things like producer financing and consumer behavior. Tracing the feedback between technical innovation and these other areas is not the mission of this book. But Smil does deal with the world beyond science: “Edison’s key insight,” he says was not technical, but “that any commercially viable lighting system must minimize electricity consumption and hence must use high-resistance filaments with lights connected in parallel across a constant-voltage system” (41) Edison was not designing a light bulb for the laboratory, he was designing a complete electrical generation and delivery system. The bulb was just the visible end-point of a much more complex project. Also, “between 1880 and 1896 more than $2 million was spent in prosecuting more than 100 lawsuits” for patent infringement. (43) Technology was no place for the faint-hearted, and the best technician didn’t always win. Not until 1943, a few months after Nicola Tesla’s death, did the US Supreme Court finally acknowledge the priority of his patents over Marconi’s, Smil says. And ironically, it was “merely a way for the court to avoid a decision regarding Marconi Co. suit against the U.S. government for using its patents.” (251) Smil compare’s Marconi’s ability to “package, and slightly improve, what is readily available,” and benefit from “alliances with powerful users” with Microsoft’s success marketing Windows. He identifies Bill Gates with Marconi, whose status as “not a great technical innovator” was shown by his insistence that his radio would only be used to transmit Morse code.

Smil gives Edison credit for being able to play the game, but clearly has a soft spot for Tesla and even George Westinghouse, who he reminds us had 361 patents to his credit. The stories of these people and their technical innovations would be even better, if they were expanded to include personal and business elements, which will probably lead me to read biographies of many of them when I have some free time. In his conclusion, Smil supports his claim for the unique influence of technical change during this period by pointing out that “only two of today’s 10 largest multinationals...were not set up before 1914.” (301) In addition to this short list, a quick look at the Fortune 500 would probably show that most of the world’s business is probably based on techniques whose origins can be traced to his Age of Synergy. Although that’s clearly a trailing indicator, it does seem fair to conclude that claims about the exceptional nature of the digital age are overblown. Smil shows that technical changes, and common sense suggests that the associated economic and social changes of the late 19th century still account for most of the world in which we live.

Canals & Railroads

George Rogers Taylor
The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860

“Most Americans of 1815 were born in the United States, for immigration had been relatively slight since the Revolution.” (3)

“From the farms by river or road came products for export, but this was the
back country; in 1815 every city seemed to face the sea...” (10)

“The building of the Erie Canal was an act of faith, the demonstration of a spirit of enterprise by an organized government that has few parallels in world history.” (well, okay, the pyramids...33)

“The Erie was enlarged and almost completely rebuilt at a cost of $44,500,000, a sum about six times the original investment.” (53)

“The community gains [of railroads], the advantages resulting to those who were not actually investors, often greatly exceeded those which accrued to stockholders.” (88)

“After private ventures had failed, Michigan in 1837 began an ambitious program of state railroad construction in which it was planned to span the state with three lines. By 1846, the two most southern...were in operation though not completed.” (91)

“Troy, New York, with a population of less than 20,000, pioneered the field of municipal ownership.” (91)

“There developed a sort of metropolitan mercantilism in which railroads, rather than merchant fleets, were the chief weapon of warfare.” (98)

“In the 1850s, railroad finance began to assume the form which characterized it during the following decades. Railroad bond issues became increasingly important and were marketed chiefly through eastern financial institutions.” (101)

So the railroad bond market helped familiarize investors everywhere with eastern financial markets, and when the state banks were killed during the Civil War, it was easy for people who had invested locally to turn toward these...

“the railways triumphed because they were soundly managed, well located, and built to meet present rather than future traffic needs...” (103)

“The itinerant sea merchant of 1815-1830 typically owned his own ship just as the peddler on land owned his horses and wagon.” (vs. common carriers...126)

cf. Daniel Raymond,
Thoughts on Political Economy, 1820, discussion of corporations.

Handlins on Commonwealth

Oscar Handlin & Mary Flug Handlin
Commonwealth, A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861

Dedicated to Schlesinger, this is an attempt to look behind economic and political events and actions, to find “a large body of ideas, unformalized preconceptions, that embodied people’s notions of the kind of world in which they lived and the kind of world in which they wanted to live” (xv).

“All franchises included an element of privilege, permitting to a few, as special assistance in a worthwhile enterprise, what was forbidden to all others.”

“Toward the end of 1791 Massachusetts shed the early reluctance to make large grants. As a sensational boom turned men’s minds to the prospect of getting rich from stocks and land, as the merchants looked about for new channels of investment, the government, like its colonial predecessors, began to seek out venturesome customers. In 1791 it alienated almost two million acres...” (82)

“In 1781 the Commonwealth chartered the Massachusetts Medical Society to regulate and encourage a desirable, but suffering, profession.” (97)

“In 1803 the Cambridge corporation [the Harvard Medical department] won the right to bestow degrees which automatically carried the license to practice, a privilege later extended as well to the chartered Berkshire Medical Institute of Williams College.” (129)

“The question of liability did not arise as long as the power of unlimited assessment gave the corporation access to the resources of its members.” (145)

“William Jackson and Theodore Sedgwick...suggested that the state abandon the use of intermediaries and adopt instead the alternative of building and operating directly a canal or railroad...the old canals and turnpikes had fallen into the hands of ‘speculating proprietors’; only direct state control could ensure the management of the new enterprises for the public good.” (this was argued in 1825 -- how did MA experience influence NY in Erie Canal era? 173)

By the early 1830s, “The interests the merchants’ families shared with the rest of the state waned...The industries also lost their ties with the countryside. The new mills, unlike the old, had little contact with the surrounding agricultural areas, drawing their raw materials from distant sources and working them up entirely within the factory.” (is this true, outside of cotton? 186-7)

“The growth of factories further weakened the position of rural Massachusetts by taking away an important source of income, the domestic system.” (188)

“Without a common interest to cherish and defend, the General Court merely legislated for the select few...” and caused everybody to criticize every act as catering to the welfare of one interest group or another. (191)

“Criticism of banks easily turned into fulminations agains a ‘financial aristocracy’ ...Locofocos and debt repudiators who seized control in other states...raised a terrifying specter for this minority: to weaken privilege at any point would be an entering wedge that would ultimately leave all wealth entirely at the mercy of every future legislature.” (really? Are they falling for the rhetoric? 194)

“What right had simple business organizations to the attributes of a governing body? ‘They are
not for the public good -- in design or end,’ complained a moderate newspaper, ‘they are for the aggrandizement of the stockholders -- for the promotion of the interests of the few...We wish to have pubic good and private speculation more distinctly separated and understood.” (quoting Boston Daily Herald, Sept. 6 1836, 213)

This is the key point. Even where people didn’t necessarily oppose business or corporations, many wanted to specify the difference between business activity and state activity. This continues into the anti-monopoly period...

“Divested of its communal functions, the corporation became an anomalous creature, privileged but unprincipled, armed with power yet devoid of responsibility.” (214)

When recession came, “responsibility for the panic of 1837 fell upon Jacksonian finance, discredited the conception of a specie-rooted currency, and barred any program of reform that rested on that basis.” (216)
Okay, but was this really the issue? The fact that Jackson was wrong doesn’t mean the Locofocos were right. Economically? Maybe, morally...

“How far could the state act to terminate a self-created monopoly?” (226)


Vernon L. Parrington
Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920

“The child of two continents, America can be explained in its significant traits by neither alone” (iv).

Book One: The Colonial Mind

“New England,” says Parrington, was “a product of old-world custom and institutions, modified by new-world environment.” The key contribution of New England is the emergence of “two classes: yeomanry, gentry; and two ideals: Puritan and Yankee.”
This may be the site of problems, if the classes and ideals are taken as sets. Do people conclude from this that yeomen were Puritans and that the gentry was Yankee? This would locate radicalism exclusively in the cities.

Parrington says the English liberalism the colonists brought was “an attempt to create a new social system to replace the feudal, resulting in the doctrine of natural rights, democracy, and equalitarianism.” These changes, he says, were “the result of changing economics.” Puritanism, he says, was “primarily middle-class.” Separatism was a “left wing of Puritanism.” Calvinism was “reactionary...established in absolutism,” and focused on the “universality of moral law, determinism, reprobation [and a] denial of natural rights.” But the New England settlers were from a “middle period of the Puritan movement.” This will distinguish them, I suppose, from the Cromwellian regicides they left behind. The New Englanders, he says, were “aristocratic, yet with middle-class ambitions.” Their city on the hill was “A Utopian venture.”

The Massachusetts Bay theocracy was dominated by John Cotton, who represented “priestly stewardship,” and John Winthrop, who represented “magistracy ennobled by Puritanism.” Both opposed “the drift towards democracy,” Cotton on “scripturist” grounds, Winthrop on the “absolute authority of the law.” But the dominant presbyterianism (rule by the elders) was challenged by Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams, who established commonwealths in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The “Twilight of the Oligarchy” after 1660 was marked, Parrington says, by the “spread of provincialism” and the inability of later members of the “Mather Dynasty” to live up to their ancestor. The church became mired in “formalism” and “superstition,” exemplified by the “Salem outbreak.” Parrington calls Increase Mather an “arch conservative, bred by a conservative environment.” He was bitter, “intolerant...Unread in political theory--dictatorial.” Cotton Mather was an egoist and “Subject for a psychologist.” In contrast, Samuel Sewall was “the first representative of the new order.” Sewall was middle class, and if “Uncreative, conservative, [and] conventional,” at least he was “generous, kindly, the first embodiment of village friendliness.”

The colonists who came after 1720 were a “new stock,” according to Parrington. They were Scotch-Irish and German, and they had economic rather than religious motives for immigration. Although “undistinguished, [they] created the individualism that was a source of a new democratic psychology.” The frontier becomes relevant, both in economic terms as well as through Jonathan Edwards and the Awakening. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, is described as “A Democrat in an aristocratic world.” His
Modest Inquiry establishes “Labor [as] the measure of value,” and Parrington describes him as an agrarian, distrustful of industrialism.

The Revolution, for Parrington, corresponds with the “Awakening of the American Mind.” He distinguishes “three diverse interests” and attributes the rebellion to the combined “grievances of merchants, planters, yeomanry. The rise of the middle class and expulsion of (wealthy) loyalists helped form republicanism around Lockean ideals of natural rights, representation. Parrington gives much attention to the Tories, beginning with Thomas Hutchinson (royal governor of Massachusetts), and Whigs, focusing on John Dickinson of Philadelphia (once again, Virginia is left out!). He then turns to Samuel Adams, who he calls a “Master of political theory...an agitator and a practical politician.”

Between the Revolution and the Constitution, Parrington describes a period of “Agrarian defeat,” a “struggle between political realists and humanitarian liberals,” when agrarians retreated to “seventeenth-century republicanism” and an “English middle class” ethic of work and capitalism prevailed. With the levelers and followers of Rousseau safely out of the way, the political field was left to Alexander Hamilton, representing the “necessity of allying the wealthy with government,” and John Adams, who thought “rivalry, the class struggle, natural aristocracy” more credible than “French doctrines of equality and fraternity.”

But the French influence just wouldn’t end. Parrington calls “Tom” Paine an “internationalist,” but a “social inefficient.” cf.
Agrarian Justice. Jefferson, like Paine, believes in a “social compact, the res publica, the diminished state...decentralization [and] the excellence of an agrarian economy.” Does he confuse rhetoric with reality -- or is the reality irrelevant in this context?

Book Two: The Romantic Revolution in America

Thesis: The “humanitarian philosophy of the French Enlightenment” does battle with the “English philosophy of
laissez faire” for the soul of America, but “practical politics” intervenes in the form of “the explosive Jacksonian revolution.” The outcome was a Democratic rhetoric based on “political equalitarianism,” and a Whiggery devoted to “converting the democratic state into the servant of property interests.”

Parrington finally arrives in the South, which he says is dominated by two traditions: Virginia and South Carolina. Parrington traces the Virginian tradition to Jefferson, who he continues to identify with “Physiocratic agrarianism, natural rights” and now the “terminable nature of compact” which is the origin of nullification and the states rights argument; John Taylor, who he calls an “Agrarian Economist;” and John Marshall, an “arch conservative” who stood for “sovereignty of the federal state; sanctity of private property...sovereignty of judiciary; irrevocable nature of contract.”

Three streams of thought met in the South, Parrington says: Virginia humanitarianism, western individualism, Carolina imperialism. Carolina won. John C. Calhoun “destroyed Jeffersonianism for the South.” Parrington explores the “contrast between wage-slavery and black slavery,” suggesting “certain advantages of the latter” in the eyes of Southern apologists. He says the South cultivated “the Dream of a Greek Democracy.”

In the West, Parrington calls Henry Clay the “embodiment of Whiggery,” and then moves on to a comparison of the “two spokesmen of the West:” Andrew Jackson, who he calls an “Agrarian Liberal” and “our first great popular leader,” and Abraham Lincoln, a “Free-Soil Liberal” who embodied the war of “good will versus coercive sovereignty.” He compares romantic and the realistic depictions of the frontier, and the legends of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, whose legend Parrington calls a “Whig attempt to catch the coonskin vote.”

In the Middle-West, Parrington says both Philadelphia and New York suffered from “lack of intellectual backgrounds.” New York develops a literary tradition after it becomes the financial capital. He calls Washington Irving an “incipient liberal” who drifts toward the middle class. James Fenimore Cooper is a more complex character: “a barometer of his generation. Troubled by the transition from an aristocratic to a capitalistic order [he] lingered between worlds.” Horace Greeley, on the other hand, is a “Yankee Radical” whose thought evolves over his career toward idealism.

Parrington calls the “New England renaissance the last expression in America of eighteenth-century revolutionary thought.” Delayed (
and ultimately influenced?) by Federalists like Fisher Ames, who Parrington calls “a repository of aristocratic prejudice,” New England develops a Whig perspective that sees the “danger of agrarianism [and] particularism.” Daniel Webster shifts from laissez faire to protectionism “due to changing economics of his constituents.” The move to liberalism, when it finally comes, is “ethical rather than economic; German rather than French.”

“The growth of rationalism” leads to “Unitarianism--a recovery of the principle of primitive Congregationalism.” But where the “Puritan conscience” had been “individual rather than social,” Unitarianism awakens “a sense of social responsibility” leading to both reform and transcendentalism -- and ultimately abolitionism. Parrington describes William Lloyd Garrison as “a flinty character” and “a primitive Hebraist.” Harriet Beecher Stowe is “a daughter of Puritanism,” and a “sympathetic student of New England psychology” and Calvinism.

Parrington devotes two sections to transcendentalists and other Bostonians. Emerson’s transcendental individualism is summed up in
The American Scholar, Parrington says, and Thoreau’s Walden is the “extremest expression of eighteenth-century individualism.” Nathaniel Hawthorne is a “skeptic...neither transcendental nor Unitarian in philosophy, but curious concerning evil.” Oliver Wendell Holmes is a “rationalist...a Brahmin rebel defending free thought.”

Book Three: The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America

Thesis: “Changing patterns of thought: from the frontier came the doctrine of preemption, exploitation, progress; from the impact of science came the dissipation of the Enlightenment and a spirit of realism; from European proletarian philosophies came a new social theory.”

This book was unfinished, but it looks like the most interesting of the three. So I’m going to order a copy, and read it more closely.

More Bodenhorn

Howard Bodenhorn
State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History

A second book by Bodenhorn! I must really like this guy. I do, actually, although I have issues with economic history which limit this book's usefulness to me. But it was useful, and I got a lot out of it. I need to remember to look into Nathan Appleton's 1836
Examination of the Banking System of Massachusetts, which Bodenhorn uses in both the books I read.

A big part of the motivation for this book seems to have been Bodenhorn’s desire to refute the “historical justification” provided by the two classic histories of banking (Redlich’s
The Molding of American Banking and Hammond’s Banks and Politics from the Revolution to the Civil War), for central banking in general and the broadening of the Federal Reserve’s powers after the Great Depression in particular. The other claim Bodenhorn makes is that no one has really done an economic history of American banking, applying and testing state of the art economic theories against historical evidence. Both reasons highlight issues: why do we write history, and how best can we communicate historical insights to the public?

Bodenhorn’s approach and goals are clearly different from mine. I want to communicate with a broad audience, and talk about the past in ways that interest them and are relevant to their lives in the present. He wants to influence a wider range of scholars than economic history monographs normally do, but I think it’s safe to say his focus is still very much on an academic readership. Which is not to say that economic historians have no thought of influencing the present. Bodenhorn regularly cites Ben Bernanke’s published work (does it concern anyone but me that the guy GW Bush put in charge of the Federal Reserve -- and Obama kept -- is an expert on the economic history of the Great Depression?), which might illustrate the way in which economic historians seek to influence the present: from the top, down. That’s completely legitimate -- it just doesn’t happen to be the way I want to do history. But that’s political, not academic. My academic difficulty has to do with the relevance/legitimacy of applying economic models to historical data.

I’m old. I did SPSS on punch-cards, and fed them into a CDC Cyber mainframe at UMass in the 80s. I think I appreciate the ways regression and simple econometric techniques can be used to answer historical questions. But I’m also aware of the assumptions piled on assumptions that make up any complicated economic theory. This is something economists are comfortable with (any econ grad student knows hundreds of jokes about economists and assumptions), and outsiders are more-or-less unaware of -- and I think it’s one of the factors that compromises the usefulness of economic models as explanations in history. The other is, what does an economic model actually model? Once it gets out of the hands of the economists, is it descriptive? Normative? Does it point to the individual decisions of people (and if so, does it assume they’re “rational allocators” or does it allow for complexity and irrationality?), or does it point vaguely toward some generalized “historical force” that we’d say was old-fashioned teleology, if it didn’t come with the shiny new authorization of economic theory?

Maybe my bottom line objection, though, is that economic narratives just don’t excite me at all. I can’t see the people in them. So a lot of
State Banking in Early America wasn’t particularly useful to me (again, this says more about me than about the book, which is why this is a blog and not a book review). But some of it was, and some of it will be useful to set up the economic-historiographical baseline that my narrative of upstate New York will depart from.

Bodenhorn’s basic contention is that states with “more banking facilities in 1830 experienced greater rates of growth up to 1860” and that more liberal banking regulations facilitated the growth of banks in these places (New York being a notable one, 3). One of the key economic roles of banks, that they have a particular advantage in, is “in gathering and processing information on the likelihood of success for at least some entrepreneurial projects.” This focus expands slightly on his earlier discussion of banks as funnels for accumulated wealth, but he doesn’t abandon that role either, of course. Bodenhorn expands on the strict definition of free banking, to make it an example of “decentralized federalism,” reflecting “the workings of early American Madisonian polity, in which state governments ceded as little power to the federal government as seemed possible” (5). He accepts Lamoreaux’s description of New England banks as the “financial arms” of “extended kinship networks of artisans, traders, and manufacturers,” as well as her claim that “younger men who promoted banks in the 1830s” did so partly because they were left out of the game by their elders, but quickly caught up to them in wealth and power (7, 15). Even with the proliferation of free banks, however, “most banks fell into the hands of a few shareholders” because “stock ownership was beyond the means of most early nineteenth-century Americans” (19).

Lamoreaux and Glaisek argued that “banks became ‘vehicles of mobility,‘ [through which] young entrepreneurs, strapped for cash, could establish a bank based on stock notes and provide credit primarily to themselves” (22). The period they’re talking about is earlier, and the demographics more urban-mercantile, but I wonder if this type of sentiment is still felt or remembered in the 1840s-50s, when my guys start making regular trips to New York City? These are they types of questions this type of book is silent on -- but at least it opens the door and points me in a direction I can explore. That’s really helpful.

Bodenhorn’s discussion of whether early banks followed a strict real-bills doctrine is interesting, because although he’s more interested in what the bankers
did, it sheds light on what they may have thought. While I’m not at all interested in whether bankers conformed to a Schumperterian model, I am interested in what they thought they ought to be doing. Bodenhorn describes providing working capital to “bridge the gap between seedtime and harvest, between the purchase of raw materials and the sale of the finished product” as “passive.” This approach, he says, limits the role of banks to providing “just enough credit to meet the ‘needs of trade’ and no more;” so it’s not the growth-enabling transfer of capital he’s looking for (46). But it’s interesting to me -- and I think it becomes even more interesting if the bankers are actually the people involved in getting in the harvest or creating the product. Thinking of bankers as the actors rather than completely detached third parties seems more realistic to me (especially in smaller rural markets), and much more interesting.

Another really helpful thing this book does is specify some of the mechanics of early banking, giving me a little bit of a crash-course in terminology and functions. “Banknotes” are “noninterest-bearing promissory notes payable on demand at par at the issuing bank or authorized agency” (40). They differ from bills of exchange in that bills are usually redeemed somewhere else, and then the redeeming bank (or merchant) returns them to the issuing bank for payment. “Nineteenth-century banks,” Bodenhorn says, “extended credit not so much by loans as by discounts...If a merchant presented a banker with a $100 note payable in 30 days, he received $99.50 in funds if the note carried a 6 percent interest charge. In 30 days, he repaid $100” (48). This is interesting, because the bankers aren’t extending general-purpose credit; they’re underwriting transactions. It gets even more interesting, if the merchant
doesn’t repay the $100 after 30 days!

Notes are further divided into “single-name paper,” which carried just the drawer’s name, and “double-name paper,” which carried the names of, for example, the merchant
and his supplier. Bills of exchange are “double-name,” and the even safer ones are “documentary bills,” which carried an attached bill of lading (49). Both the named parties were liable for the amount, which made these notes safer. Dishonored notes or “clean bills” (those with no attached collateral) would be taken to a local judge or notary, who “recorded it as ‘protested’ for nonpayment and then notified all endorsers...that they stood potentially liable” (49). This also meant that protests could damage a merchant’s relationship with his trade partners as well as his creditors (assuming they weren’t the same people).

“The sheer complexity of these transactions,” Bodenhorn says, “and the apparent ease with which they were carried out, demonstrates that early American financial markets were more sophisticated than often believed” (51-2). This is the exciting part! Especially because these sophisticated, complex transactions connected mercantile centers like New York and Boston with “peripheral” farmers and millers as far away as the western frontier, and it wasn’t a one-way affair. The sophistication was present (and needed) on
both sides!

Describing New York’s Safety Fund, Bodenhorn notes that around 1830, “New York’s per capita income was only about 84 percent of the national average,” and about 2/3 of New Yorkers worked on farms (165). The failure of the Wayne County Bank (which had “a reputation of being managed in such a way as to produce large profits for its shareholders” 168) and the Bank of Lyons are central events in the demise of the Safety Fund. The Bank of Lyons expired with about $81,000 in circulation in 1842; the Safety Fund paid a balance of $89,000 (cf. Bodenhorn’s 1996 article, “Zombie Banks...” 163). Free Banking, which passed in New York in 1838 and gradually replaced the Safety Fund, required deposits of bonds or mortgages equalling the amount of circulating notes printed for the bank by the comptroller in Albany. The original 1838 Act also required a specie reserve, but this was later repealed (185). This meant that someone who could scrape together (or borrow from his rich uncle) $100,000 worth of government bonds or mortgages could be a banker (the minimum was soon reduced to $50,000, 192). The uncle would still collect the interest on the securities, so his only liability was the risk his nephew would fail or defraud him. In this sense, starting a bank could represent a very large loan that could be monetized without actually being “spent.” Bodenhorn says this money supply was inelastic and resulted in “a general underissue of notes” relative to chartered bank issues, but I disagree (186). Chartered banks were limited by the requirement that they hold specie reserves, so they were by definition “money center” banks in mercantile cities (that’s where the gold was). And, possibly more importantly,
velocity is money supply. If my notes are circulating through the economy twice as fast as yours, that’s the same as me having twice as many of them.

Free banking, Bodenhorn says, was “an unanticipated outcome of the bank war” (190). He notes, though, that the Equal Rights Party (aka the Loco-Focos) “opposed the privilege and corruption associated with corporate banking...and championed the elimination of all banks.” When the Whigs took over in New York, they called their banks “associations” and issued “circulating notes” (191). Is this a distinction without a difference, or does it point to a subtle shift in ideas about what banking was
for in New York state? The big innovation of free banking, Bodenhorn concludes, was “free incorporation” (his emphasis, 218). “New York’s free banking law made incorporation a routine administrative function rather than a legislative function.” This is definitely a big, ominous change, and it’s interesting that free banking contributed to it. But I still think there’s something potentially more interesting, lurking behind this story, which may have something to do with the New York Whigs...

Banks: Capital or Credit

Howard Bodenhorn
A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in the Era of Nation-Building

Bodenhorn focuses on the capital formation function of banks -- I’m more interested in their transactional nature, as facilitators of exchange and sort-term credit. Seems like their might be two ways of looking at banks, and thinking about their role in antebellum America. One believes that growth was based on “capital deepening”: the accumulation of assets that were devoted to investment rather than consumption. The other believes that growth was based on overextension -- on basically living beyond your means, and juggling credit as best as you can to keep the foreclosers at bay.

Bodenhorn says “by 1820...banks became better known, more reputable, more established, and therefore more trusted,” presumably convincing more people (whether as shareholders or depositors) to put their money in banks (8). This is capital deepening, a supply-side argument: growth happened when banks began to accumulate enough money to lend to industrialists or invest. But then, growth has to await savable surpluses. This does not seem to have been the case in Western NY.

Maybe it’s a regional difference. Maybe the upstate banks (and the businessmen who declared themselves to be bankers so that they could
write their own notes rather than running around the county looking for currency) were taking advantage of an earlier “deepening” of the type Bodenhorn describes, that took place in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. “Bank-supplied currency,” he says, “performed [a] dual role as both a medium of exchange and a store of wealth” (9). But since banknotes were a claim on assets (always provided you didn’t claim them, as noted elsewhere), they were basically debt. And the rest of the paper circulating as money was out-and-out debt: promissory notes. So it’s borrowing (even if only in the form of drafts written against shipped -- but not received -- products) that drives the money supply. Even the ability to take your note and deposit it at a neighboring bank, and then draw against that deposit, suggests that capital formation, at least in the sticks, is based on credit.

Bodenhorn says Hugh Patrick called these competing views “demand-following” and “supply-leading,” but the way he uses them is not exactly what I was talking about. In the “demand-following” model, “financial intermediaries were passive agents, permissive of growth” (11). The economy grew, and when people needed banking services, bankers appeared to supply them. The “supply-leading” model, on the other hand, says “the creation of financial institutions and the supply of financial services must arise prior to the demand for them” (13) How does this happen? Bodenhorn suggests a compromise, in which the banks arise “prior to the development of a modern manufacturing sector” (14). Agricultural growth enriches people, who then put their money in banks where it becomes available to new industrial enterprises. As proof, Bodenhorn cites New York’s bank commissioners, who said in 1835 that banks were “among the most useful and powerful agents in developing the resources and stimulating the industry of the country” (15). “Banks, it seems clear,” he concludes, “were attributed leadership status by contemporary Americans.” But bank commissioners would be expected to say that. Even if they were completely sincere, they were bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs. It would be completely natural for them to put the cart before the horse.

I don’t really see a big difference between Patrick’s two models of banking. In my mind, they’re both “supply-side,” because they both focus on the role of the bank. Bodenhorn says there was about $41 million of specie in the US economy in 1820, but half of it was tied up in bank reserves. There were $36 million in bank notes, and $27 million in deposits (which are also considered liabilities of the banks, because they can be drawn against, 16-17). So “Of the $83 million in currency chasing goods around the economy, about 76 percent of it was bank-supplied” (17). But in spite of this, Bodenhorn insists that “Money creation by banks, however important it may have been, was incidental to their most fundamental task--that of intermediating between borrowers and lenders, savers and investors” (18). The rest of the book focuses very tightly on this intermediary function, which makes it less useful for my needs.

Why? Because I don’t think that’s what the guys I’m studying in upstate New York were up to. Maybe it’s just a case of emphasis, but I really see the banks’ role as providing a circulating medium without which
deals can’t be done. Bodenhorn admits that “a fractional reserve system [was] a cheaper way to provide a given volume of money than...a pure specie basis,” but he ignores the huge impact this would have in areas where money was tight (18). Especially after the Specie Circular in 1837, when all the hard money was either in eastern cities or on the frontier, the need for money in the middle (the farmland) was extreme. A fractional reserve system allows banks to inflate the currency. It also speeds up the velocity of money, because paper can be handed from buyer to seller to supplier to next seller much faster than bags of gold. And faster money (higher velocity of transactions) is the same as more money. Then there’s all the notes and drafts that are being endorsed from one hand to the next (not even counted in Bodenhorn’s $83 million -- he specifically set aside credit between individuals on p. 16). So the actual comparison ought to be between $41 million of gold and silver on the one hand, held by hoarders or moving very slowly and heavily through the economy; and something like $60 to $100 million of paper on the other, issued by banks and merchants, speeding its way from hand to hand, making transactions happen every step of the way. Looked at this way, what’s the most important role of antebellum banks?

The other big difference between these models of capital formation, which focus on banks as either conduits of wealth from holders to users, or as creators of a money supply that enables trade, is that in the first one, the rich get richer, by definition. The wealthy stop hoarding their assets and put them into play in the market by handing them over to bankers to lend or invest. But in the second model, it’s not so clear. Millers “on the make”
* write notes against shipments of flour to market, and discount them at their local bank, then hand those notes to the next batch of farmers who show up with wheat. Yeah, this is credit -- but it’s not the “freeing up wealth for capital investment” thing Bodenhorn is talking about. The bold may have a fighting chance, even if they start with less of a “hoard.” Bodenhorn suggests that “Bank credit...influenced the pace of industrialization” when it “freed mercantile and industrial capital for fixed investment” (107). Ultimately, his argument hangs on the relative importance of “fixed” vs. “working capital.” While this importance varies significantly with time and place, it seems to me that the much greater volume of “working capital” transactions in the antebellum economy (due in part to the smaller nature of machinery, plant and equipment in antebellum industry but also to the sheer number of credit transactions enabling all trade in a cash-poor farm sector) argues for recognition that in many cases, it wasn’t the bankers’ awakening of old money from its slumber, but their creation of new money, that made America grow.

*Why is it that people who are generally well-disposed towards business and entrepreneurs, still allow themselves to look down their noses and say that everybody in Jacksonian America was “on the make”? Is it because this was the moment when outsiders, people with no social standing or wealth, first got involved in “making money”?

Farms as Factories

Deborah Fitzgerald
Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series. Lots of good stuff in this series...

Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4). This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” took over farm life: “Every Farm a Factory” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

And this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both ag. markets and ag. inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and
not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its continuing production.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values increased...farm size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf
Postel). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines needed to be built that would be so big and cost so much that it made no sense to run one on less than a full section of land. It was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local associations, or harvest contractors. But it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this “logic,” and especially to IH marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something other than opinions. The binary nature of the types of questions that lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these “yes/no” choices exist in a wider range of possibility that the question simply ignores. Even prices (the ultimate “hard data”) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator. It might also explain why actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers.

I’ve really got to read
Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management soon. Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 AM Todd appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave! I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.

Extended Family in the 19th c.

Donald H. Parkerson
The Agricultural Transition in New York State

“One of the defining characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century New York State,” Parkerson begins, “was the extraordinary mobility of its rural people” (3). Contrary to popular belief and a historiographical tradition that mistakenly pictures a stable, tradition-bound rural world in contrast with the (more thoroughly studied) dynamic, industrializing urban world, Parkerson says that “ordinary farm families...embraced social and economic change” largely through chain migrations that extended the households of farmers trying to enter market production (4, 5). This key factor of the commercial agricultural transition has been missed for several reasons. Earlier studies of migration have tended to focus on household heads (because they are the ones named in the census, especially before 1860). A persistent agrarian myth has prevented generations of historians from even looking at the issue. And, when “new social historians” like
Thernstrom began studying persistence in the 1970s, they used a technique, nominal record linkage, that failed to account for deaths, errors in census enumeration, and common name errors; or that attributed a much lower value to these potential errors than Parkerson does (I seem to recall a discussion of these in one of Thernstrom’s articles -- but he seemed to believe he had corrected for them). The bottom line, says Parkerson, is that the city populations were probably more persistent than we’ve thought; but more importantly, “the countryside was in constant motion, with rural people moving in perhaps even greater numbers than their urban cousins” (146).

This mobility was not a Handlinesque tragedy, though. Rural families who moved were not the passive victims of social dislocation and the collapse of the producer republic. They were agents of change, and frequently they were taking advantage of opportunity, rather than running from trouble. Parkerson notes that “the price of winter wheat on the New York market increased by about 50 percent between 1840 and 1860, and corn and hog prices skyrocketed nearly 70 percent” (7). Rural families saw opportunities to enter the early consumer market, if only to free up women’s time that had been spent producing homespun (recall
Balstad-Miller’s Erie Canal story), as demand for farm products was boosted by the Irish potato blight, the Crimean War, Sutter’s Mill, and ultimately the Civil War (8). If there’s one flaw in this study, it’s that in his effort to highlight how “the investments and production strategies of surplus market farmers...increased their yields and made them wealthier by 1865,” I think Parkerson consistently undervalues the effect of the Civil War on the New York farm economy (102). If not for the Civil War, far fewer farmers might have shifted to market production, and the ones that made the change would not have become so rich. The transition might not have marched all the way to the threshold of agribusiness and a “more consolidated agricultural economy in which wealth increasingly was controlled by fewer and fewer farmers with larger, more productive farms” (147).

But that’s a quibble. This is an important study that shows how “Migrants and host families had specific needs that could be satisfied only through kin cooperation and coresidence. Migrants needed emotional support, a place to live, and knowledge of the emerging marketplace. Host families, especially in their early married years, needed willing workers who could improve their human capital and help them enter the market economy” (140-1). I’d add, both the migrants and the farmers needed the financial support that extended, multi-regional families could lend. And (crucially for the people I’m studying) when doing business over long distances, they needed to deal with people they knew they could trust. Parkerson uses New York Census data, which includes information on the length of time people had been at their current address. He also uses diaries and personal papers very effectively, giving the reader a solid sense of the people he’s talking about. By combining data and voices, Parkerson brings what would otherwise be a useful but sterile economic history to life.
The Agricultural Transition in New York State may be an unfortunate title, if it limits Parkerson’s readership to people interested in upstate New York farmers. This book is full of great detail (I particularly love the description on page 71 of how to make charcoal), and it makes a really important point about rural people, and about families in the 19th century.

An insult to immigrants

Oscar Handlin
The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People

Handlin’s “history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences” (4). But he never mentions anyone in particular. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” he says (308). Freed from any obligation to support his generalizations with the experiences (much less the
voices) of real people, Handlin paints a picture of superstitious, ignorant peasants who are too thick to understand the new society they find in America. They huddle together in ghettos until they are told by their social betters that they must become American; and then they discover the depth of their alienation -- they will never belong, and they can never go home.

It’s a real tale of woe. “The mighty collapse” of “the peasant heart of Europe...left without homes millions of helpless, bewildered people” (7). These peasant immigrants belong to a pre-modern, pre-commercial, and definitely pre-industrial world, in Handlin’s account; so it makes sense that they are naively religious, believe in fairies, and feel attuned to the rhythms of nature (94-9). Their village communities give structure and meaning to their lives; so they are adrift the moment they leave. The horror of the passage weeded out the weakest and hardened the rest (43). Once here, peasants who had known only the land were unable to escape the cities and find a place in the countryside. Instead, they became unskilled workers on canal, then railroad, and then highway crews (66).

“Often,” Handlin says, “they would try to understand. They would think about it in the pauses of their work, speculate sometimes as their minds wandered, tired, at the close of a long day” (94). It’s as if he’s talking about an alien species -- and perhaps from his perspective, he is. The incredible condescension and sheer
distance between the historian and his subjects is remarkable, in a book still regarded by many as a classic text. Handlin consistently denies the immigrants agency: they are orphan birds forced from their “nests” and unable to return; “and if they failed to reach the soil which had once been so much a part of their being, it was only because the town had somehow trapped them” (64).

are some interesting facts sprinkled into the melodrama, that suggest the skeleton of a more accurate and more interesting story. “A single year in the 1830’s saw seventeen vessels founder on the run from Liverpool to Quebec alone,” Handlin says (48). And in 1847, he says, “eighty-four ships were held at Grosse Isle below Quebec...ten thousand died” (Unfortunately, he continues this passage not with facts, but with an italicized but unattributed statement written in slang, to sound like it’s a first-person account: “I have seen them lyin on the beach, crawlin on the mud, and dyin like fish out of water” 55). By 1910, Handlin says, there were not only 350,000 miles of railway, but 200,000 miles of paved highway (66). And he says that Henry George was popular with foreign-born voters (218).

Two of the most problematic elements of
The Uprooted are Handlin’s discussions of why the immigrants didn’t move to country, and his musings on their sexual difficulties. “Reluctance to pitch on the cheapest frontier lands,” he says, was based on “the expensive compulsion to settle on farms already brought under cultivation by others,” rather than the timing of their arrival and availability of accessible land (84). Isolated farms, where “neighbors lived two or three miles off,” also discouraged village-oriented peasants, Handlin claims (165). But this is a very late, high plains type of farming; for much of the period he’s discussing it would not have applied. And Handlin completely mischaracterizes truck farming close to urban centers; turning it into a sad affair where “Would-be agriculturalists...found used-up bits of ground...[and] took up the sterile, neglected acres” (88). The fact that they were successful, and provided perishable foods to city-people while re-establishing their relationship with the land, goes almost unnoticed in Handlin’s gloomy account.

On the sexual front -- I’m not even going to go there, except to say that it’s unnecessary, it’s a blatantly condescending caricature, and it’s probably a figment of Handlin’s own fevered imagination. “
Better sleep out on the fire escape, Joe” (238) ...REALLY? This is a Pulitzer-winning historian. This is a Grosset’s Universal Library edition of an acclaimed history. Give me a break.

Hofstadter's Age of Reform

Richard Hofstadter
The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R.

Introducing his subject in 1955, Hofstadter says, “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4). While he admits it would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter prefers to separate out a more-or-less cultural spirit of progressivism, which he says was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation” (5). Why? Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he can cut its ties with the Populist political movement that proceeded it. And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, is at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognizes as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7). Hofstadter wants to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11). Populism leads, he says, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wants progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he calls liberalism and conservatism are presentist (in 1955), and his concerns are very much those of his own day. “The United States,” he famously begins Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23). It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age. The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20). And on some level, Hofstadter is clearly aware of this. He reminds us that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25). Hofstadter concludes too readily, I think, that farmers took on the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admits was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29). That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35). I think Hofstadter loses sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about. I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had moved...to the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53). Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67). These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62). I guess the interpretation hangs on which conditions they wanted to reverse. When Hofstadter calls attention to Populists‘ use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hits the nail on the head, and simultaneously undermines his argument. Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing struggle...to save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting The Populist Revolt, 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel says), but to who benefited from them, and how power was being misused to achieve those results.

Fixing Populist History

Charles Postel
The Populist Vision

This book won the Bancroft Prize, and it deserved to win. It is about “how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s.” (vii) Populists, Postel says were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” (vii) Throughout the book, Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding. This view, he says, challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially
Hofstadter), that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy. A key example is the populist approach to railroads. Nowhere does Postel find the suggestion that this new technology hadn’t radically improved life in the countryside. The issue was, how should these enterprises be organized, and for whose benefit?

This is a refreshing change. Postel gives regular people a lot of credit for intelligence, political awareness, and active involvement in the key issues of the day. He begins his introduction with a description of how a voluntary association of florists (a coop) “embraced the new technology” of the telegraph, which had “annihilated time and space” (3). They standardized their businesses and products to allow the customer to order uniform products that could be delivered across town or across continents: FTD. Populists "believed in the transforming power of science and technology,” Postel says. “They believed in economies of scale...they believed in the logic of modernity” (4). Just as important, he shows that they
understood these issues, perhaps better than we do now. “Populism was known as ‘a reading party’ and a ‘writing and talking party’” (4). It is important to understand what the Populists “were for” as well as what they were against, says Postel. If they were pessimistic (as Turner and Hofstadter claimed), then it was with Hamlin Garland’s “kind of pessimism which is really optimism...that is to say, people who believe the imperfect and unjust can be improved upon” (11).

Postel also explores the connection between Populists and labor activists. Although the standard story is that they could never get together because farmers were proprietor/employers and wage workers were not, Postel finds many examples of cooperation, especially with rural workers. “Farmers were often part-time coal miners, and coal miners often farmed to supplement their diet and income” (19). This approach shows a greater sensitivity to conditions on the ground than many other historians who stick to the categories. But Postel is also quick to point out problems with the populist vision, such as when it veered toward racism and advocated majoritarian, government/industrial organization on a scale that would later (elsewhere) be called fascist.

If farmers had any antipathy toward universities, Postel says, it was only because rather than catering to their needs, the schools “seemed to lavish resources on future lawyers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals” (47). So once again, their objection is not to change, but to who benefits from the change. Farmers took their education into their own hands. It was the “great equalizer in commerce, technology, and social standing,” so they “built lecture circuits across some thirty states, and a network of approximately one thousand weekly newspapers” (49).

I have to pause here a moment. This is jumping out at me right now, as I think about preparing to be a college-level teacher. To a great extent, the early 20th century rise of professionalism and universities in America killed off this 19th century type of self-education. But today, the web opens a possibility for people to take control of their own educations again. I think I need to spend some quality time thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and for whom?

Interesting people and things to research someday: Charles Macune, Luna Kellie, Marion Cannon, National Cordage and the National Union Company (did the 1893 National Cordage bankruptcy precipitate the stock market crash?), the Gulf and Interstate Railway Company (north-south transcontinental), William Peffer, 2nd class postage and RFD, Anna Fader Haskell (who sounds like a 19th century female version of Tyler Durden, and doesn’t even have her own wiki page!), Marion Todd (1893,
Railways of Europe and America -- is she related to AMT??), Daniel Weaver (a Chartist who tried to organize coal miners in the 1860s), and of course Darrow v. Bryan at the Skopes Monkey Trial (1925), and Eugene V. Debs.

THAT'S the way you do it.

Heather Cox Richardson
Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre

In his blurb for HCR’s third book in six years, her colleague Leonard Richards praises a “mastery that brings even her bit players to life.” It’s a great subject, and Richardson tells us a lot of things we didn’t know (the 1890 South Dakota campaign was “the largest military mobilization of the U. S. Army since the Civil War,” for example. Not so surprising, then, how it ended up...). But the best thing, I agree, is the way she brings the story to life. People who want to write good history should pay close attention to the ways Richardson accomplishes this in
Wounded Knee.

The introduction summarizes the massacre in fairly graphic terms. The rest of the book tells the story leading up to the event, and then it’s narrated again, completely, in amazingly close detail. But unlike many of the older histories I’ve been reading recently, Richardson isn’t making these details up. Nearly every paragraph closes with a citation number (no kidding -- turn to any page in the book); even the one in which she speculates about how noisy it must have been. But she’s not really even guessing about that: she has transcripts of eye-witness interviews to set the scene with “hooves hitting hard-packed earth, men calling to each other in both English and Lakota, wagons creaking, horses snorting, spurs rattling, people coughing” (7).

The storm that buried the bodies of the Indian dead (the soldiers remove their own casualties immediately) the night after the massacre “quickly blew east...to Washington...[where] the social season was in full swing” (11). The story is as much about national party politics as it is about the Dakota territory, as Richardson explains how “the Sioux...became crucial figures in the 1890 election” (14). But even when it’s nearly straight-up political history,
Wounded Knee never loses sight of people. As a result, the Sherman brothers are as interesting as Sitting Bull; especially at moments like the one when she shows the aging General congratulating himself that in helping clear the frontier for white settlement “I have done more good for our country and for the human race than I did in the Civil War” (77).

Richardson provides all the background readers need to understand the political stakes, without slowing the pace. The section on economic policy is one of the clearest short descriptions I’ve seen. It could be (note to self) excerpted for an undergrad class: “trusts could not survive without tariffs” (84). And in the midst of what might be dry and impersonal political background, Richardson inserts a description of someone’s physical appearance or a quirk of character that reminds the reader that these are people we’re reading about, not abstract historical forces.

There’s a lot of contingency in
Wounded Knee, but there’s also a lot of venality, incompetence, and malice -- on both sides. But regardless of the mistakes or poor judgments the Indians may have made, this was a massacre; women and children were murdered for no reason, and Richardson is not afraid to say so. The one possible downside of the story’s pace is that it’s difficult to understand when characters change, and what changes them. General Miles’ change of heart with respect to the danger the Indians pose, and his growing tendency to respond with annoyance, anger, and then rage, is one of those moments. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is its aftermath. The way coverup gave way to revisionism, where the Seventh Cavalry was lauded for another heroic victory, is not only interesting and ironic in it’s time. It’s still happening. Not just in the sense of new crises being manufactured to justify or camouflage political machinations in Washington. But in the sense that these fake stories are still believed by many people in the western states where it all happened. Does this suggest that out current crop of manufactured crises might become similarly enduring myths of America?

It might be interesting at some point to study the legacy of the Indian Wars in the upper plains states. I've been to Wounded Knee. Big metal sign on empty land. But, closer to home, what do the people of Mankato, Minnesota know, for example, about the execution that happened on the site of their public library? There’s a big statue of a bison next to the building, and a sign declaring that a few square feet across the street are a “reconciliation park.” You can see it most clearly from the bay windows of the children’s section. “See the pretty buffalo!” you can hear them say to their toddlers -- but do any of the parents know what it is?

You just can't do it like this anymore...

Robert H. Wiebe
The Search for Order, 1877-1920

“America during the nineteenth century was a society of island communities,” Wiebe begins. (1) If you don’t agree, you really don’t have to read any further (unless this is on your Orals list), because Wiebe’s argument (like that of many contemporary historians)
depends on this prior condition. America had to be pre-commercial, traditional, and parochial, or it could not have changed into the market-oriented, modern, cosmopolitan place it became. And without this change, there would have been no displacement and anxiety, and no middle-class search for order. Ah, periodization...

It may seem like I’m being a little harsh. But I have serious reservations about not only what the author of this highly influential history was saying, but how he said it. I think this book can tell us a lot about how history used to be done,
and should not be done anymore. Wiebe says “Small-town life was America’s norm in the mid-seventies.” (2) Presumably this changed? But 60% of the American population was still rural in 1900. So when and how did it change?

The issue isn’t only the antiquated, magisterial tone of the text, which seems to say to the reader, “this is the way it was, because I say so.” It would be one thing if the author was simply presenting uncontroversial facts in an excessively authoritative way. It’s something completely different to try to float an
interpretation on nothing but a claim to superior (but unshared) knowledge. For example, consider this paragraph:

Currency posed a knottier problem of morals, with greenbacks, the paper currency issued in quantity as a war measure, creating the major complication. Silver, too scarce, had been quietly demonetized in 1873. In the boom times before the panic [of 1873], greenbacks had offered some relief from an insufficient gold currency, some encouragement to expansionists little and big who feared deflation and tight credit. More important, gold was already acquiring a vague association with fat, parasitic bondholders. Nevertheless, the impulse to recapture fundamentals proved too strong, and throughout the countryside waverers selected currency with a feel and a ring that crinkly paper could never match. In 1875 Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act. Although it was a compromise in that it did not actually retire the greenbacks, the law still represented a moral commitment to currency that citizens could recognize as safe, sound, and honorable. (6)

I think it’s taking a big step, to argue that the money controversies of the 1870s were essentially a moral battle. It’s an interesting assertion, and it would be fascinating to see the point argued with evidence from political debates, newspapers, pamphlets, letters, etc. But Wiebe doesn’t really support the claim. And the facts he does give in the paragraph are problematic. Was silver really “too scarce?” Gold and silver were discovered in the Comstock District in 1859. Production peaked in 1877, when the Comstock mines produced $14 million in gold and $21 million in silver. And was the “Crime of 1873” a “quiet demonetization” of silver? It only seems quiet, because Wiebe says it was and the average reader doesn’t know any better. How often do we suspend our disbelief, and trust the author, when we really shouldn’t?

Wiebe is vague, to the point of misleading, about who exactly were the “expansionists little and big?” Country people who wanted the money supply expanded were generally farmers and small businessmen. Their interest was not ideological, they needed easier access to cash and credit in order to do business. Their fear was not a philosophical one. Deflation meant they couldn’t get a fair price for their products that reflected what they’d put into them, and tight credit meant financial embarrassment or bankruptcy. And there was nothing vague about their association of gold with bondholders, who insisted on being paid in specie while everyone else was forced to deal in depreciating paper; or about their feelings regarding this. When Wiebe says country people were driven by an “impulse to recover fundamentals” or that they were motivated by their belief that gold coins felt more like money than “crinkly paper,” he is suggesting that they were either fanatics or fools. Again, this denigration of country people isn’t a claim Wiebe supports with evidence; he just states it as if it’s a fact.

Finally, in presenting specie resumption as a “moral commitment” and a victory for “honorable” money, Wiebe is not only ignoring the large proportion of Americans who opposed resumption (or why was a compromise over greenbacks necessary?), but he’s not even trying to get at the real issues that motivated people on both sides of the debate. He’s just paraphrasing the political rhetoric the winning side used to rationalize its position, and pretending their propaganda tells the whole story of what really happened.

There’s much more to say -- my library copy of
The Search for Order is bristling with little pink sticky-tabs. But I think I’ve captured the gist of my reaction to this book. I think Wiebe’s thesis that the changes of the Progressive Era were based partly on a middle-class search for rational principles of social order (or social control) is interesting and suggestive. Maybe my response to the book indicates a change in our (or maybe only my) standards of argument and evidence in history since 1967. Wiebe does not demonstrate anything, he does not cite any sources, and in a key section where he’s making a cultural argument, he quotes a fictional character (Dr. Leete from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) more extensively than any real person. Bellamy’s book seems very interesting, and has been on my “read someday” radar for a while now. It’s interesting that Wiebe apparently thought it was so influential that its characters were archetypes who could speak for nineteenth-century people. But I’d have been much more comfortable with that train of thought, if he would have showed some contemporary responses to the book, or even identified its popularity in terms of copies sold.

Traders beyond the Frontier

Howard R. Lamar
The Trader on the American Frontier: Myth’s Victim

In this short book (53 pages), Lamar challenges not only the American stereotype of frontier traders as “despicable characters cavorting with Indians,” but the east-to-west determinism of the Turner thesis. (16) There is a “trader’s point of view” that we know little about; “indeed, a trader’s world that lasted from 1600 to 1850” in the west. “In re-examining the main determinants of frontier history,” Lamar says, “we have neglected a dual tradition of trade and mercantile capitalism by overstressing the mythic figures of explorers, pioneers, and settlers.” (17)

One of the elements that Lamar finds in native/native and native/white trade from very early, possibly pre-Columbian times is trade in human captives. Lamar contrasts this to familiar Southern slavery, suggesting it was more like ancient European slavery, where “captives were incorporated into households and often became a part of the tribe or nation that had captured them.” (19) A more interesting point, for me, is Lamar’s claim that “the Plains tribes traded with whites from 1700 to 1850 without a notable deterioration of their culture and strength except by disease after the smallpox epidemics of 1837.” (21) So rather than the west we’ve associated since Turner with “anarchic freedom, virginity, and democracy,” Lamar shows us a west filled with widespread, elaborate trade networks, and even some bondage. (26)

We should make maps, Lamar suggests, that show “prehistoric Indian trade centers and routes, and then depict the Spanish, the French, the British, and the American ones.” (28) “The most successful trading post in the history of the United States,” he says, was St. Louis (1764), “located almost on the site of one of the most elaborate and densely populated prehistoric Indian trading centers in the continental United States: Cahokia Mound.” (30) And we should understand, Lamar says, the bicultural, multi-generational, familial nature of the North American fur trade. Stretching from Canada to Mexico, west of settled America, this forgotten phase of history lasted nearly twice as long as the more familiar period that followed it. There are probably some great stories in it, in addition to the opportunity to see different relationships among places and people that cast doubt on the inevitability of the outcome.

One of the people it would be fun to look into someday is
Charles A. Siringo, “Cowboy Detective,” who denounced his employer in a pamphlet called Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism, 1915.

Spies among us!

Jennifer Fronc
New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era

New York Undercover, Fronc argues that Progressive social activists used private investigators to spy on Americans in a variety of settings. They went looking for information to confirm their suspicions about their fellow citizens, “produced the knowledge necessary to alter conditions,” and because they were willing to “tamper with civil liberties, cross lines, and perform tasks that would have been illegal” for government employees, “they were central to the creation of a stronger federal state during the Progressive Era and World War I, one that became increasingly repressive in the interests of a national security agenda.” Fronc distinguishes between the evangelical approach of earlier reformers and the “instrumentalist pragmatism” of these people (who she calls “social activists” to avoid using the term reform, which she says “generations of historians have used in their desire to impose organizational synthesis on the contingency and chaos” of the actual situation), who sought to “enforce their own moral codes” upon society by creating “new types of knowledge about urban neighborhoods and their residents.” Fronc demonstrates that these private, often untrained undercover investigators played an “essential role...in creating social knowledge and constituting political authority.” And she calls attention to the problem with this: the “entire process was teleological: the predominantly middle-class social activists set the parameters of the investigations, had their concerns confirmed by their investigators’ findings and reports, and then moved to solve the problems their employees uncovered (or caused).”

Fronc’s narrative reveals interesting glimpses of the little-seen underside of early twentieth-century New York, through the reports of these investigators. She also describes the activities of the main private organizations, like the Committee of Fourteen and the People’s Institute, as well as more the “liminal and vigilante” National Civic Federation. The evolution of “moral reform” from “benevolent societies” to “preventive societies,” and then to these semi-public committees and ultimately to government agencies, is interesting and disturbing. In some cases, like the “undercover investigation of midwives,” the reader can clearly see the medical profession lobbying to “safeguard against the usurpation of the function of the physician” -- a function the physician had only recently wrested away from its traditional practitioners. But overall, Fronc says “The desire to control and regulate--rather than ‘save’ or ‘redeem’--differentiated Progressive Era activists from their predecessors.” The elite condescension contained in these programs, and their racial, ethnic, and class biases did not go completely unchallenged at the time. Fronc documents a series of letters between W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Whitin (Executive of the Committee of Fourteen), in which DuBois challenged the legality of the segregation the Committee tried to enforce on New York businesses.

Fronc also highlights aspects of the period that get less notice than they ought. She calls attention to the fact that the period of 1914-1916 saw “nearly two years of monthly bombings in munitions plants, explosions aboard ships in New York harbor, and the arrests of German, Austrian, and Italian immigrants for bomb making in their apartments.” She traces the National Civic Federation’s 1900 establishment back to its roots in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. She points out that the NCF “opposed groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which wanted the government to protect small business interests from competition at the hands of large corporations and the demands of organized labor.” And that “On August 1, 1914, ‘the day after war was declared by Germany,’ the New York City Police Department officially expanded the Italian Squad and renamed it the Anarchist and Bomb Squad.”

Surveillance was undertaken by these activist Progressives, but is this type of somewhat sinister elitism pervade only their part of Progressivism? Jane Addams is named several times in the text, but Fronc never suggests that she had any knowledge of the type of surveillance that was going on. But in the sense that some of this spying
was finding out interesting new things about people in the major cities (which is part of the reason they’re still so interesting), isn’t this exactly the type of information Addams would have been interested in, if she had known it existed?

I also wonder how far outside the major cities this type of surveillance extends? Clearly, by the time the government takes it over in WWI, they’re looking at “enemies of the state” wherever they may be. But how does that develop, outside the cities?

And aren’t the vigilantes who work with the government really manifesting the same principle that motivates the anarchists themselves? A different concept of public and private spheres? The anarchists and the vigilantes both believe it’s within their legitimate scope of activities, to take on (violent) projects in the public sphere, which will later come to be (and is still, for us) understood as the monopoly of the state. So really, in one sense, the same impulse is behind the vigilantes that ally with the government to attack outsiders, and with the outsiders who attack the organs of the state.

The best things about this are that Fronc really uses things written by her subjects to great advantage. You “hear” their voices. This is a great example for me, since I’d like to do the same thing. The other great thing is, she wasn’t even looking for the investigators. She found them by accident. That’s
so cool for those of us who spend our time in archives...


Stephen Mihm
A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States

Mihm’s argument is that the monetary chaos of the antebellum years prevented Americans from feeling confident in their currency, and by extension, in their economy and nation. “The Civil War, and the search for national unity it fostered, compelled the federal government to secure the right to make money.” The nation’s fight against counterfeiters (including the establishment of the Secret Service by near-criminal William Patrick Wood) and nationalization of the currency were necessary steps in the United States becoming “a genuine nation...[with] confidence in both our country and its currency.” (374) Most of the narrative, however, covers the colorful lives of the counterfeiters themselves, and doesn’t advance this thesis; which in the end seems like an afterthought, used to justify Mihm’s interest in the story of counterfeiting -- which is interesting enough on its own, it didn’t need justification.

For my purposes, the interesting bits are the glimpses into the chaotic but legitimate world of antebellum state banking (although I have to admit, Waterman Ormsby is a really attractive character that I’d love to read more about). By the 1850s, Mihm says, “with so many entities commissioning bank notes of their own design...the money supply became a great confluence of more than ten thousand different kinds of paper that continually changed hands, baffled the uninitiated, and fluctuated in value according to the whims of the market.” (3) Not only was some of the money phony, a lot of the paper circulating in remote areas was “the floating issue of broken banks.” (quoting Maine storekeeper John Neal from Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life, 1869. 6) “It was a popular remark among men of business at this time,” Mihm quotes Allan Pinkerton saying in his 1884 memoir, “that they preferred a good counterfeit on a solid bank to any genuine bill upon [a] shyster institution.” (10) The Maine storekeeper agreed: “In our establishment, all such moneys, whether counterfeit, or only questionable, were always put back into the till.” (10) The willingness of people to pass on suspect notes reveals not only a decision not to be a martyr for the sake of “good” money, but what I see as an already well-developed, fairly sophisticated understanding that the money itself is only a symbol. Mihm quotes a Michigan resident’s recollection that “counterfeiting and issuing worthless ‘bank notes’...was not looked upon as a felony as it would be today. Of course it was taken for granted that it was a ‘little crooked,’ but the scarcity of real money, together with the necessity for a medium of exchange, made almost anything that looked like money answer the purpose.” (Mihm quotes from Mevis, Pioneer Recollections: Semi-Historic Side Lights on the Early Days of Lansing, 1911, 33-4. 159) “Money” doesn’t have to have a value, as long as it represents value -- which it would continue to do, until someone took it to a bank and had it refused. Not wanting to be that person, anyone who received it would pass it on, and so bogus notes would tend to stay in circulation, boosting the money supply. An 1857 newspaper reported “it is a favorite maxim with some to ‘keep bad money in circulation,‘ for they say it makes no difference whether a bill is counterfeit or not, as long as it will pass around freely.” (from The Weekly Pantagraph, 233) I wonder, how much shaky local banks may have benefited from the same reluctance of holders to find out their circulating notes were worthless?

Counterfeiting seemed to some critics to highlight the deficiency of paper money. To many hard-money enthusiasts, paper currency wasn’t payment, it was the “
promise to pay, which, by universal understanding, is meant to signify the promise to pay on condition of not being required to do so.” (quoting United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1839, emphasis in original. 9) Any paper issue not 100% backed by specie was in their opinion, a swindle on somebody. Even in states with sophisticated regulatory arrangements, like New York (which had an insurance pool, but also had free banking), the authorities clearly recognized that even legitimate banks might be tempted to print more notes than they “should.” “In an attempt to prevent these ‘genuine counterfeiters,’ New York passed a law in 1843 requiring that banks deposit their plates with the state’s comptroller of the currency.” (283) By the time the guys I’m researching became bankers, there was apparently a semi-governmental printing office that they would write to, for more notes.

Another character who seems to demand a closer look is John Thompson. Originally a counterfeit detector, Thompson founded the First National Bank of New York in 1863, when other New York bankers were resisting LIncoln’s consolidation of National Banking. Thompson was forced out in 1873, but went on to found Chase National bank in 1878, named after his good friend Salmon P. Chase. Mihm quotes from his (unfinished manuscript?) “Sixty Years in Wall Street,” in
The American Banker, 25 April 1891. Thompson was born in 1802 on a farm in Peru, Berkshire County, Mass. All in all, even though Mihm’s interest in the counterfeiters doesn’t line up completely with my interest in the “legitimate” but still quite sketchy free state banks, I got a lot out of A Nation of Counterfeiters. Thinking about his thesis again, I wonder if the chaos of antebellum currency, and the need to pay attention to the source and quality of the paper you accepted, slowed the movement other historians have noted, toward an “anonymous” commercial market. Maybe it was the adoption of a national currency that allowed Americans to stop thinking about the social relations involved in buying and selling...

Religious, Legal Intellectual History

Perry Miller
The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War
1965 (posthumous)

Perry Miller is one of those names I felt obligated to read. I was pretty sure, going in, that it wasn’t going to be the most fun I ever had reading for this list. I wasn’t mistaken, but there
were some interesting things in this, even by my own admittedly “outside the box” standards.

Miller begins his first chapter on “the Grand Era” of evangelism by quoting Charles Grandison Finney, saying “A revival of Religion presupposes a declension.” (3) Miller clearly supposes this declension to be a bad thing, and welcomes the Awakenings as opportunities for America to get itself back on track. While it is true that “several surviving leaders of the Revolution...were rationalistic to the point of overt Deism...[and] that Tom Paines
The Age of Reason (1795) circulated among village dissidents, and especially among the rude settlements of the frontier...and in 1795...Elihu Palmer did gather an out-and-out Deistic Society in New York,” Miller minimizes these challenges to Christian hegemony in early America. (4) He suggests that these evangelists saw the small number of radical freethinkers as less dangerous to their cause than the large number of nominal christians who had no interest in attending or supporting their local congregations. Miller cites works like A Correct View of that Part of the United States which lies West of the Allegheny Mountains with regard to Religion and Morals (1814) as demonstrating a missionary project on the part of eastern religious leaders and their university divinity students. It’s interesting to think of this work as not evangelical, but missionary, with all the elite condescension (even colonialism?) the term implies. “Incredible though it might seem to the evangelicals,” Miller admits, “there was a stubborn opposition to the work of God.” (14) Maybe that’s because their evangelism was not filling a void, as they claimed and Miller seems to have believed, but trying to displace a consciously and conscientiously chosen irreligion that was a firm part of early republicanism.

Throughout the book, Miller repeatedly turns to James Fenimore Cooper and the character he contributed to American mythology, Natty Bumppo. The archetypal early West frontiersman is a character I should definitely return to, for close study, as are Cooper himself and probably his father, William Cooper. My typical mental reservations regarding the use of literary characters as “voices of the people” rather than actual people, was a little less evident while I was reading Miller. Not because Miller is less of an offender -- in fact, he’s probably one of the major offenders. But it fits with his project; he’s not pretending the be a social historian. The element I have more difficulty swallowing was MIller’s reverence for the concept of the “sublime” as the “inner, if not
the central, mainspring of the missionary exertion.” (57) I was amazed, reading the section on the “Event of the Century,” (Miller’s “Third Great Awakening” of 1857) how Miller manages to avoid talking about the Panic of 1857 as a motivator of revivalism. He mentions it in the context of contemporary commentaries, but doesn’t seem to give it much credit himself. (88) The life of the mind apparently has not so much to do with the life of the pocketbook, social displacement, bankruptcy, or the empty stomach.

“The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity,” Miller quotes from James Kent’s New York decision in the blasphemy case,
The People v. Ruggles. (66) That this bland statement serves as a preface and justification for a blasphemy conviction, and that Miller sees this as an unproblematic example of the “impression” that “prevails among our statesmen that the Bible is emphatically the foundation of our hopes as a people,” is alarming. (67) Miller adds that “Besotted Ruggles vanished thereupon from history, and nobody then or since tried to make him a martyr, as Abner Kneeland became in Boston of 1838.” (66) Of course, there’s an extensive record of Kneeland’s five-year long legal ordeal. Ruggles is so absent from the historical record that many doubt his actual existence and claim that Kent fabricated him as an excuse to expound on the role of religion in the American State.

The second section of Miller’s book is a 155-page discussion of the eclipse of English-derived common law by a codified legal system dominated by a professionalized attorneys. In spite of popular law books like John McDougal’s
The Farmer’s Assistant (1815) that tried to reduce regular people’s dependence on this new elite, Miller consistently dismisses popular distrust of lawyers as “anti-intellectualism.” (182) And he goes out of his way to establish the “union of Christianity and the law,” which was “asserted most comprehensively by Chief Justice Shaw in 1838 when passing sentence upon Abner Kneeland.” (194) This sentiment found its logical conclusion in the 1859 claim of a Georgia jurist that “no Lawyer properly imbued with the teachings of his Profession, can be an infidel or a skeptic.” (206) If this was the common opinion of the “best” minds of the 1850s (Miller suggests it was, and doesn’t see anything particularly troubling in that), is the Civil War any great surprise?

One of the ironies of Miller’s book is that he doesn’t really challenge the self-justifications of these early republic elites. Miller quotes “an amazingly frank” 1843 article in the first issue of
The American Law Magazine, which contends that “the real concern of society is the protection of property” and that the threats are real and immanent. “Democracy, says this writer, is incurably hostile to the possessions of the few,” and therefore the law must protect those possessions and that few. (227) “That government can scarcely be deemed free,” claimed lawyers in 1830, “where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon the will of a legislative body.” (228) I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement, but it’s telling that it should be the agenda of the legal profession that “the policy of the law preserves equality and political rights among the citizens; but equality of wealth and condition cannot exist among men, so long as they are divided into the provident and the improvident, the idle and the diligent.” (quoting Judge Thacher in the 1834 Ursuline Convent decision, 229) Seems like they’re well on their way to a social Darwinism in which, as HCR would say, some people must be poor, and it’s their own fault.

Yankees in Michigan

Susan E. Gray
The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

Gray’s story of three townships in the neighborhood of Kalamazoo Michigan could have been told as “the mundane march of the farm boy who collects the herd in the back forty and drives it resolutely toward the barn,” she says, except that “the circumstances under which the townships were settled were by no means mundane, and the settlers saw themselves as anything but plodders.” (1) Gray draws on many of the texts I’ve read lately that describe the market transition and migration, as well as important old regional sources like the many memorial atlases and
Lois K. Mathews’ 1909 Expansion of New England. The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central.” (3) Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality.” (5)

Gray describes the typical “Yankee migration” pattern as “chain migration, usually, but not always, in family groups.” (11) The two important elements of this type of migration are that there are familiar faces waiting for immigrants, after the first settlers arrive; and that there are family members still back in the old New England and New York communities, who are a source of not only ongoing migrants, but ongoing access to eastern capital. This is why both migration and “capitalism for Yankees seemed to promise not the destruction but the intensification of familial and community ties.” (12) The primary sources I’ve been reading (especially letters from migrants to siblings “back home”) seem to support Gray’s argument.

Although she spends quite a lot of time on the religious conflicts of these frontier communities, Gray acknowledges that although “organized settlements in Michigan, such as the one at Vermontville, near Lansing, involved relocations of entire congregations...they were not usual. Most settlements--no less Yankee--were founded by groups of families.” (18) In fact, Richland township’s largest landholder, John F. Gilkey, was “‘Behind none’ in contributing barrels of flour to the poor, he was known for his benevolence, but he belonged to no church.” (176) Gray reminds us there were “two New Englands--one coastal, commercial, and Congregational; the other, agrarian, democratic, and pluralistic.” (8) I might amend that statement in two ways, to suggest that western Massachusetts and Vermont were also quite commercial, and to suggest that many Vermont deists and New York/New England freethinkers were still alive and well in the 1830s, when southern Michigan was first settled.

MIchigan’s growth in the 1830s was driven in part by land sales at the Kalamazoo District Land Office. Although “open only 169 days in 1836...it took in $2,043,866.87.” (44) Michigan’s “General Banking Law of March 15, 1837, enabled any twelve landowners to form a banking association on application to the county treasurer or clerk.” (45) The Specie Circular slowed but did not stop land sales, Gray says, but the Panic of 1837-9 crushed the bankers, ruined rail and canal companies, and slowed population growth for decades. “The legislature stopped construction of the southern [rail] line at Hillsdale in 1843 and funded the central line only to Kalamazoo, which the line reached in 1846.” The “panic and ensuing years of depression--was to arrest Michigan’s economic development until the Civil War.” (47)

Gray’s discussion of Kalamazoo politics seems to draw heavily on Formisano, which she seems to think provides a fairly accurate description of conditions around Kalamazoo. She observes that “although Kalamazoo was an intensely anti-Democratic county, it supported continuously only a Democratic paper, the
Kalamazoo Gazette.” (152) In 1849, she says, “Democrats simply gave up the fight,” allowing the Whigs to “elect unanimously Uriah Upjohn...as supervisor.” (154) Upjohn was a British-born Doctor, and father of W.E. Upjohn. Gray calls him “the sole known antislavery man who compiled a winning record in township elections... [as] a Whig who ran as a Free-Soil candidate for state senator in 1848.” (157) “The formation of rural elites,” Gray suggests, “is a relatively understudied aspect of the transition to capitalism in the countryside.” (159) The politics of Kalamazoo’s civic leaders is also problematic, since Gray suggests it represents ethnic, religious, and social antagonisms from the home regions of these immigrant elites. (167-8)

Two families that it might be useful for me to follow up on are the Mays and the Wells. Richland settler Rockwell May (b. 1799) and his son, General Dwight May, seem interesting. And the family of Judge Hezekiah G. Wells might just figure into
my story. (170-1) I should look into H.G. Wells in Michigan Historical Collections, vol. 2, and also Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861, 1971 esp. 16-20.

Impending Crisis

David M. Potter & Don E. Fehrenbacher
The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

Henry Steele Commager introduces this posthumous edition of Potter’s magnum opus (completed by Fehrenbacher) by praising Potter’s ability to see that although “slavery was indeed the overshadowing problem of the decade,” it seems not to have “monopolized the politics of the decade as it now tends to monopolize its history.” (xiv) And Potter does come back to this point again and again. Lincoln was hardly a household name in 1850, and it was far from inevitable in the minds of most Americans that slavery would lead to secession, emancipation, and Civil War. Even in “Bleeding Kansas,” Potter says “a majority of the inhabitants apparently did not care very much one way or the other about slavery...an overwhelming proportion of the settlers were far more concerned about land titles than they were about any other public question.” (202) This is especially interesting to me right now, as I seem to be spending a lot of my time wondering what the regular people out in the countryside actually thought about all the “historic events” I’m reading about in all these books.

Potter begins his story with a description of Polk’s response to the Mexican treaty in 1848. Polk didn’t want to sign, but was pressured by his knowledge that the war, which was “highly unpopular throughout a large part of the country,” had to end. (4) The peace, Potter says, created a nation and also its greatest challenge. A few pages later, he suggests that the Missouri Compromise allowed slavery to take center stage, arguing that “the issue structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged.” (43) For the most part, Potter bypasses these voices and issues on the periphery of the main political story, but it’s interesting to speculate how they might be motivating some of the otherwise inexplicable decisions of the central players. For example, “the Whigs passed over their party leader, Henry Clay, and nominated Zachary Taylor...a Louisiana planter who owned more than a hundred slaves but whose nomination had been engineered in part by two prominent anti-slavery Whigs from New York--Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward.” (81) I’m reminded of a couple of 1844 letters I found from New Englanders traveling in upstate New York. Their main political goal in that election year was to
stop Henry Clay. How much of that feeling was still strong in Weed and Seward’s constituency, and how did influences from home play on the national politics practiced by Congressmen, Senators, and Presidential candidates?

Potter’s description of the 1848 election returns also suggests I should look at this more closely, especially when I get around to studying third parties. “The results of Van Buren’s candidacy,” he says, “were especially confusing, for he carried enough normally Democratic votes in New York to throw the state to Taylor, but enough normally Whig districts in Ohio to throw the state to Cass. He did not carry any state, but he ran ahead of Cass in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. His vote was large enough to make all northern Democrats respectful of the Free Soilers, but small enough to discourage his followers from continuing their third-party organization, so that in 1852 most of them returned to the Democratic ranks.” (82) Later, in 1856, after building a large and apparently strong organization, the nativists “were giving their supprt to John C. Frémont, a man who had never been in a Know-Nothing lodge and whose marriage to the daughter of Senator Benton had been performed by a Catholic priest.” Stories like this, which Potter calls one of the most “obscure and neglected aspects of American political history,” just seem to be screaming for someone to take a closer look at them. (254)

Potter’s skepticism leads him to ask interesting questions throughout his story. “Was the underground railroad,” he wonders, “really a large-scale organization, actually operating to facilitate the mass escape of fugitive slaves, or was it not rather a gigantic propaganda device, more significant psychologically than as an institution?” (137) I can imagine the controversy a question like this could cause. But I
am fascinated by Potter’s repeated arguments that “It is also realistic to recognize that for many people there were other public issues more important than slavery.” (145) Even if we ultimately condemn these people a little bit for their limited, parochial outlook; if that’s what a large portion of the population were thinking, it’s important for us to know it. One of our difficulties understanding Free Soilers and nativists seems to be that it’s hard to imagine the frustration of people in upstate New York and the (old) West, who had just spent a generation or two carving out farms and towns from the forest; and just when things are settling down for them, change begins to accelerate. A rising tide of immigration and the extension of plantation slavery and southern social organization into the territories threatens to overturn the new society they’ve just worked so hard to build. Why is it a moral failure if some of them are more concerned about the challenges to their neighborhoods and families, than about the plight of faraway strangers or about an abstract ethical/political argument?

The Free Soil party, Potter says, “mitigated the strain on the old parties by removing the strongest anti-slavery pressures within them.” (229) He attributes part of its disappearance after the 1848 election to the fact that “43 percent of the Free Soil vote had been concentrated in the Empire State,” and “In 1849, John Van Buren led most of his father’s Barnburner followers back into the Democratic fold.” (228) In Ohio, where Potter says the Free Soil party “collapsed,” the election resulted in “giving the state’s Senate seats to Chase and Wade, two of the most pronounced anti-slavery men in public life.” The irony of this result suggests we might need to reevaluate how we measure success and failure in third party politics

Potter reminds us that party choices were not always made for high ideological reasons. English immigrants, he says “went Whig by a ratio of 75:25,” while by 1844 (according to Benson) “the Catholic Irish of New York were Democratic by a ratio of 95 to 5...The Irish, one imagines, took one look, saw the British and the Puritans on one side, and knew they must belong to the other.” (244-5) He also reminds us that our ideas of what motivated politics do not necessarily apply. “The antislavery and nativist groups frequently avoided a contest with one another,” he says, “for the good reason that both appealed to the same elements of the population.” “American historians have been slow to recognize the relation between Know-Nothingism and Republicanism in 1854,” he says, partly because “it has been psychologically difficult, because of their predominantly liberal orientation, for them to cope with the fact that anti-slavery, which they tend to idealize, and nativism, which they tend to scorn, should have operated in partnership.” (251-2) And he calls attention to John R. Commons 1909 article “
Horace Greeley and the Working Class Origins of the Republican Party,” which suggested that “homestead policy was the primary motive force of the Republicans.” (n. 44, 430)

Potter also alludes to some stories that may hold the potential for interpretations he doesn’t necessarily see. He briefly mentions Asa Whitney, who in 1844 proposed to build a railroad from Milwaukee to the Pacific if the government would sell him a “strip of land sixty miles wide...for sixteen cents an acre.” (146) Potter says Whitney’s scheme created three “articles of faith” for railway enthusiasts: “There must be a railroad to the Pacific; it must be financed by grants of public lands along the route; and it must be built by private interests which received these grants.” I don’t know the whole story (yet), but I don’t see the inevitability of private ownership, trusts, and the Credit Mobilier in Potter’s description of Whitney’s proposal. Maybe Potter was so focused on the central, political story that he failed to apply the same skepticism to events on the periphery.

Another really interesting moment (and the one that convinced me to buy the book, so I can read it again more closely when I’m done with the PhD) was “On the evening before Washington’s birthday, George N. Sanders, the American consul in London, held a dinner party at which the guests included seven reolutionists--Massini, Garibaldi, and Orsini of Italy, Kossuth of Hungary, Arnold Ruge of Germany, Ledru-Rollin of France, Alexander Herzen of Russia--and [Minster to the UK] James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Sanders was one of the most aggressive members of the Young America movement, whose members believed emphatically in both the world mission and the territorial growth of the United States. He and his guests drank toasts to ‘a future alliance of America with a federation of the free peoples of Europe.’” (quoting Curti,
Young America, 34-55. 178)

Is it World or Environmental History?

John F. Richards
The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World

The question my advisor asked me, but that we didn’t really resolve was, do these two books (Radkau & Richards) work as introductory texts to global environmental history? If I was teaching an undergraduate class in Global Environmental History, would I use them? Interesting question, since I spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of this semester sitting in on just such a class, at
Mount Holyoke College, for which these two books, along with Marks’ Origins of the Modern World and Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, were the assigned texts. I haven’t read Marks yet, but unlike Radkau & Richards, Cronon is not a global history, it’s a story of change in one place, Chicago.

The Unending Frontier, like Nature and Power, doesn’t argue a particular thesis, as even Jared Diamond’s popular book, Collapse, does about deforestation leading to erosion in Collapse. Both Richards and Radkau are trying to present a more general picture of change, and weave environmental change into World History. I think Radkau organizes his examples more effectively than Richards around themes, like the hydraulic society, that he finds in many times and places. In some of Richards’ long descriptions of Chinese or Russian political history, I lose track of the idea that this is environmental history. But I can see how he’d feel he needed to set the stage pretty extensively, writing for an American audience that knows virtually nothing about these histories (I sure don’t!). The question might be, aren’t there already some good world histories we could read (and assign our students), that might be refocused with a very pointed “Environmental Supplement to World History?” As it is, it feels like I’m spending a lot of time, in Richards, waiting through the world history set-up for the environmental history punchline.

I think the complication in Radkau is that it’s such a personal journey for the author. But that’s its strength as well as its weakness, at least for me. I’m the guy who’s always asking for social history “with the people in it.” Seems like (didn’t Cronon say something about this in one of his articles?) some enviro writers want to leave the people out, because they’re “the problem.” But if “the fall” is first contact with nature, we have nowhere to go but down. Radkau actually acknowledges the emperor’s new clothes at one point, when he says “there is good reason to be uncomfortable with a philosophy that regards humanity as the ‘cancer of the earth,’ a philosophy that should make one wish for nine-tenths of humanity to disappear from the planet.” (Radkau, 4) I found the struggle in Radkau’s book more satisfying than the lack of human connection in Richards’, where I couldn’t tell, for example, whether the Japanese peasants were happy, enlightened (or at least cooperative) ecologists or malnourished, frightened vassals of the local samurai chieftain. Female infanticide might deserve more of a comment than “despite its unpleasantness...an effective way to limit children.” (Richards, 181)

But the short answer is, I would definitely use
parts of both these books with environmental history undergrads. In fact, I’d probably use a chunk of “The Columbian Exchange” chapter at the beginning of the Americas section in my “US History - Colonial to Reconstruction” class. Actually, now that I think of it, the parts of Richards’ book that deal with history I already know are the most interesting to me. Maybe I’m missing what makes his story different from other histories of South Africa or Mughal India, because I know nothing about them. It might be the sense of the unfamiliar that makes this environmental history work. The feeling of, “why didn’t I know that?” about the history we think we already know...

Culture vs. Society in the Gilded Age

Alan Trachtenberg
The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age

About equal parts polemic and accessible undergraduate summary of the Gilded Age. Trachtenberg begins with Charles Francis Adams Jr.’s observation that “We have no word to express government by monied corporations.” (3) His claim is that the “deepest changes” and the “deepest resistances” to “these decades of swift and thorough industrialization and urbanization lay at the level of culture, difficult for contemporaries to recognize, and baffling for historians.” (7) The book is organized thematically, as a “dialectic between mind and world, culture and society.” (8) Like other “cultural” books on my reading list (
The Country and the City, Virgin Land, The Machine in the Garden), Trachtenberg’s account left me wondering exactly who he was talking about. Along the way he mentions a wide variety of titles that are probably some of the key windows into the contemporary culture. I found myself wanting to know just how popular they were. Who read these books, and what other books were they reading at the same time (or instead of these)?

Texts to check out:

Ragged Dick, 1867
Emerson, “
The American Scholar,” 1867
Roughing It, 1871
The Mission of the North American People, 1873
Progress and Poverty, 1883
American Nervousness, 1884
Looking Backward, 1888
The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century, 1899
The Winning of the West, 1889
Billy Budd, 1891
Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier” 1893
Wyckoff, The Workers: An Experiment in Reality: The West, 1899
The Virginian, 1902
Principles of Scientific Management, 1911

So I thought it might be a good idea at some point to find a list of American bestsellers, by year, for the entire nineteenth century -- if such a thing exists. I was also reminded -- I’m not completely sure why -- to look again at the Arts and Crafts movement, as a cultural response to this modernity, back towards an older (or forward towards a new) simpler agrarianism. Should probably look at Lovett again sometime soon.

Evildoers who hate our freedoms

Eric Rauchway
Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America

Rauchway’s main point is that, contrary to the contemporaries and historians who have tried to portray him as a madman, Leon Czolgosz was rational. “He said plainly that he shot the President of the United States because he hated the politics of state-supported capitalism that the President and his party represented,” Rauchway says, “and in so doing he echoes hosts of critics in the United States and around the world.” Since Rauchway probably wrote this in the wake of 9/11, there are immediate, obvious connections to a present in which much of the world (and not just Islamic fundamentalists) are more or less antagonistic to the imperial corporate state they believe America has become. But Rauchway also makes some subtle and interesting points about the arguments the assassination precipitated regarding environmental influences on behavior, threats to social order, and the role of the state in mitigating the harshest effects of the free market economy, to prevent the growth of a permanent, revolutionary underclass. Theodore Roosevelt emerges from the obscurity of the Vice Presidency, to take a central place in all these discussions. In contrast to standard depictions of the cowboy President, Rauchway presents a “canny and manipulative Roosevelt...who made his career by controlling stories.” (xiii) Roosevelt uses his famous patriotism and temper to enact a Progressive agenda remarkably like the platform of his party’s populist opponents. Without coming right out and saying it, Rauchway leads us toward a suspicion that this wasn’t entirely accidental.

In spite of the fact that 1893 saw the beginning of the worst depression until the Great one, William Jennings Bryan failed to beat William McKinley in 1896. McKinley presided over the Spanish-American War, claiming that God told him to “take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” (7) In 1900, McKinley campaigned on “Prosperity at Home, Prestige Abroad,” and beat Bryan again. In neither case would Bryan have won, even if he had received all the votes that went to minor party candidates (Prohibition, Social-Democratic, Populist, Socialist Labor, National Prohibition). These results suggest that a majority of Americans supported the Republican vision of progress. Czolgosz showed that those who did not could not be dismissed with impunity.

Theodore Roosevelt was a wealthy New Yorker, and a veteran Republican appointee. He became governor of New York on the basis of his family ties and well-documented war record as leader of the Rough Riders. Rauchway says that, although he remained a loyal Republican, Roosevelt “did not like the smell of the men behind” McKinley, especially Mark Hanna. He wrote to his sister, lamenting his “gloomiest anticipations” of “our gold-ridden, capitalist-bestridden, usurer-mastered future.” (13) Roosevelt was offered the Vice Presidency (an offer he couldn’t refuse) to neuter him. “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wold man,” Hanna complained on McKinley’s funeral train. “Now look, that damned cowboy is President.” But even more interestingly, Rauchway says that after meeting privately with Roosevelt during the same funeral trip, Hanna returned to his companion, “smiling broadly. ‘He’s a pretty good little cuss after all!’” Hanna told his friend, leaving us to wonder what the two had discussed that had changed Hanna’s mind about the new President. (38) Maybe a clue is contained in Rauchway’s argument that “Roosevelt and McKinley saw the same flood tide of revolution rising in the land; they differed only insofar as McKinley wanted to dam it up, while Roosevelt wanted to ride it.” (35) On the other hand, Roosevelt said of “the negro,” and by implication “all the plaintive portions of the American population,”

Inasmuch as he is here and can neither be killed nor driven away, the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have. (36)

This is really interesting. If you strip off the introductory clause, it’s a radical statement. The “no more” part sounds like old-fashioned free labor; but the “no less” is a little trickier. Does Roosevelt mean that those who show themselves “worthy” of great wealth should have it? Or is he subtly suggesting that there’s something a person “shows himself worthy to have” simply by existing? And what about that “more” part: is it possible for a person to have more than he is worthy of, and if so, what should society do about it? Rachway later quotes Roosevelt saying “Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.” (173) Another statement that can be taken a number of ways -- but at least it acknowledges the fact that the corporate charter is a social contract. Is Rauchway suggesting that Roosevelt used his excessive, testosterone-driven rhetoric as a cover for a really radical agenda? At this point I know too little about Roosevelt to form an opinion -- but I definitely want to learn more!

There are a lot of interesting details in the text about “Fred Nieman” Czolgosz’s family, his statements at the trial and afterwards, and the psychologists and commentators who argued his sanity so publicly. And about James Parker, the black man who knocked Czolgosz down and tried to throttle him. He’s a hero for a while; then he’s written out of the story. There’s even a lynching moment, where a newspaper headline shouts “Negroes Lynch Negroes,” (76) and Booker T. Washington says that 125,000 people “have been engaged in this anarchy of lynching” 2,516 victims in the previous sixteen years. “We cannot sow disorder and reap order,” Washington warns. (77) And there’s a technology history moment, when Herman Hollerith remembers “seeing a railway conductor in the West produce what was known as a ‘punch photograph’ -- using his pocket hole-punch, the conductor took a ticket and punched out a pattern indicating the hair color, height, skin color, and other defining features of a passenger.” (130)

Talking about
Murdering McKinley with my reading partner, who had just finished Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow, we were struck by the strange similarity between Southern segregation and Roosevelt’s fear that “Harvard and Yale graduates” were failing to procreate enough to prevent “rapid race suicide.” (143) His anxiety over anglo America, and his “strenuous life” paternalism toward imperial targets, are difficult to reconcile with the portrayal Rauchway seems to be advancing of Roosevelt. More reading may help me understand this better.

cf. Johann Most,
The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, 1885
cf. Abe Isaak,
Free Society (Chicago newspaper)

Nature and Power

Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr.
Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment
2002, 2008 tr.

Joachim Radkau says he was painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by authors of big histories when he chose to write a global history of the environment. But he believed several themes including European exceptionalism, the dialog between the ideals of wilderness and sustainability, the effects of state, local, and individual control on environmental engagement, regulation of sexuality and xenophobia deserved greater attention. His decision to translate
Nature and Power into English was motivated by these issues, and also by a belief that “Old World” experience was key to 21st century environmentalism. American textbooks already forget Chernobyl, Radkau says, and “continental Europeans have rarely lived with the illusion of unlimited resources.” (xv, xvi) The result is a book that surveys several fascinating ways that people have interacted with their environments, acknowledges the particularity and contingency inherent in these accounts, and tries to draw some tentative conclusions and lessons for the future from them.

In his 2002 Preface to the German edition, Radkau wonders what the “ecological and economic disaster of the communist bloc mean for that kind of environmental history whose basic assumptions would have led one to assume that a socialist state-run economy would be able to undo the environmental damage caused by the private profit motive?” (xi) Radkau examines several ancient and modern societies, including Maoist China and Nazi Germany, and ultimately concludes that “effective environmental protection requires” neither strict laissez faire capitalism nor top-down, totalitarian central planning, but rather “a spirited civil society, the courage of one’s convictions, citizen initiatives, and a critical public.” (308) Environmentalists looking to the past for a definitive answer on how to move forward may be frustrated, he says, but history seems to suggest that environmental failure or success has little direct connection to the political and economic forms a society chooses. While “in the end, the apparatus of the state remains the only - at least potential - counterweight to the omnipotence of private capital interests,” Radkau admits that even though its environmental policy was less totalitarian than its social theory, national socialism “wrecked” any chance for idealistic Hegelians to believe “that the state by its very nature embodies the common good and higher reason above all human selfishness.” (300, 306)

That this should be a surprise may illustrate the most problematic element of
Nature and Power. Radkau dips one foot into the ecological experience of several ancient cultures, including some like Egypt whose history extends to the present. But he keeps the other foot firmly in the present, both in his analysis of ancient social/environmental interactions as they may relate to present problems, and in his narrative of the history of modern environmentalism (and the somewhat parallel historiography of environmental history). Part of the problem, of course, is that major environmental changes are happening in the present, and environmental awareness has changed dramatically in the immediate past. Radkau himself is known in Europe as both a biographer of Max Weber and an anti-nuclear power activist.

“Sometimes the problems become worse if one strives for a grand solution,” Radkau frequently warns. (93) His analysis of ancient China, Egypt, and the Inca empire improves on K. A. Wittfogel’s theory of the “hydraulic society” (most familiar to Americans through Worster’s
Rivers of Empire). Ancient public forest and water projects were not motivated solely to consolidate the elite’s power, Radkau says, but “ecological necessities often go hand in hand with opportunities for the exercise of power.” (86) This is a general human tendency, he reminds us: even German environmentalism tends to devolve “from a movement into a bureaucracy.” (307) In the end, Radkau agrees with Max Weber that “many historical experiences suggest that powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses,” he concludes, “are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness.” (329) The same might be said about powerful historical explanations.

The population problem, and the “Epochal...development of effective contraceptives,” is a recurring theme. (258) “The potato and coitus interruptus are key innovations of the eighteenth century that are environmentally relevant,” Radkau says, in a memorable line that suggests a useful widening of the traditional definition of environment. (6) When the “Bhutanese ecotopia” is shown to be sustainable only through the expulsion of 100,000 Nepalese refugees along the Indian border, population control in democratic societies becomes an issue. (285-6) Not only is “Bhutan ecology...intertwined with the preservation of the political system,” but so is the country’s culture and existence, as shown by “the fate of neighboring Sikkim, which lost its independence when Nepalese immigrants had grown into the majority of the population.” If environmental disasters force large-scale migrations in the future, what does Radkau’s skepticism of “Bhutanese exceptionalism” suggest about the tension between local identity and global governance?

“After the collapse of socialism,” Radkau says, “environmentalism is left as the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption.” (299) Even if we agree that environmentalism’s role is to take on Neo-liberal economics, Radkau seems to ignore the existence of other directions from which to critique capitalism, and may assume a unity of outlook and purpose on the part of the “bad guys” that is not demonstrated by his historical examples. This is the point where
Nature and Power’s tension between the historical and the environmental seems to reach a breaking point. Although Radkau argues that “Not in every situation are the nature protectors the ‘good guys’ and their adversaries the ‘bad guys’,” (especially in the third world where colonialism and tourism motivates approaches that may exclude locals from the environment altogether); the real issue is that in history, unlike environmental politics, there aren’t any good guys or bad guys: there are just a bunch of guys [apologies to The Zero Effect ]. (308) This is especially true because, throughout the history Radkau describes, the actors were almost never ecologists, making environmental policy. They were national leaders, or village elders, or farmers, making political, or social, or agricultural decisions. Their awareness, their motivations, and their goals may have had a vaguely, more-or-less environmental element; but their attention was almost always dominated by other considerations.

Nature and Power, Radkau provides valuable glimpses into distant cultures, from the unfamiliar angle of their relationship to their environments. These perspectives complicate the reader’s understanding of these cultures, and widen the scope of many environmental issues we may have believed were recent. In some cases, his interpretation may be skewed by inadequate context. Radkau mentions, for instance, John Stuart Mill’s “belief that the discomfort every sensitive person felt about a world in which every scrap of land was cultivated” suggests an instinctive realization by Englishmen that “it was dangerous to live without reserves.” (324) The actual context of Mill’s statement (which, based on the source he cites, Radkau may have been unaware of), however, was a political argument over compulsory cultivation of thousands of acres of “waste” land held by aristocrats as game reserves. Mill was (as usual) a middle of the road land reformer, facing pressure from a much more radical “Land and Labour League” led by working people and their champions. Radkau may be right on the interpretation, if we privilege the subset of Englishmen represented by Mill. This tension between forest and trees is an ever-present danger in wide-ranging syntheses. In another case, though, Radkau persuasively argues against monocausal explanations like Jared Diamond’s Collapse, on the basis of data as well as interpretation. According to pollen evidence, Radkau says, Easter Island was “nearly treeless” for a millennium before the Dutch discovered “a flourishing agriculture with a rich variety of fruit” in 1722. Far from eco-suicide, the culture’s destruction was “completed in 1862 when the majority of the population was dragged off by Peruvian slave traders and the island was transformed into a large sheep ranch.” (166) So much for blaming the natives.

The long reconstruction

Heather Cox Richardson
West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War

This is a continuation and extension of Professor Richardson’s argument that political and social change in the middle of the 19th century was driven by conflict over ideas about individuals and their proper relationship with government. In this volume, the argument is strengthened and extended with the addition of the West. The frontier and (especially) the mythical cowboy become icons and emblems of Americanism, that echo in events as recent as the 2004 presidential election. The book begins and ends, in fact, with a discussion of the “red and blue states” and G. W. Bush, who “promised to be a cowboy president.” (1, 348) The question is still with us, she says. During the middle-19th century, “American individualists came to depend on government support while denying it to others.” (2) Today, we hear “antigovernment rhetoric from the South and western plains, regions that receive far more in federal aid than they pay in taxes.” (3) Richardson sees in this a continuous, developing tradition of defining the middle class as “true Americans” and privileging them alone with access to government intervention; combined with a national myth that “idealized the rural West as the opposite of the urban Northeast.” (5)

One of the most interesting elements of Richardson’s argument in
West From Appomattox is that she finds the origins of this middle class ideology in both the North and the South. From the Union, she draws on a tradition of “Lockean individuals” and “republican government based on the votes of economically independent” property owners. (10) From the Confederacy, the culture of “Planters who modeled themselves on European aristocrats.” (11) But unlike Foner’s formulation of the free labor ideal, neither tradition is completely open. Northern republicanism is predicated on “independence,” and nineteenth century Americans considered wage labor a “dependent” social relationship. As a result, Richardson concludes, “From the North, Americans had taken the idea of equal opportunity; from the South, they had taken the idea that not all men could rise. From the racial and industrial troubles of the 1870s, they had taken the idea that those unable to rise and those at the top of society must not be permitted to harness the government to their own interests...From the strikes and the business consolidation of the 1880s, they had taken the belief that the federal government must be used to protect American individualism.” (338) While they claimed to be protecting the rights of individuals, “mainstream Americans had come to believe that many would fail, that this was their own fault, and that they should be isolated from power before they destroyed society.” (300) So it was only a very particular set of individuals they wanted to protect. They were in, so bar the gates. The big, difficult-to-explain problem in this story is the middle class’s apparent inability to recognize the insane hypocrisy of their position.

Richardson carefully balances the middle against both the bottom and the top as she analyzes this ideology, but were the results really balanced on the ground? How significant was the middle class’s attack on trusts and the very rich, compared to its abandonment of southern blacks, condemnation of striking workers, and denunciation of rural Populists? On the one hand, a few millionaires had to reorganize the way they controlled their industrial empires; while on the other, black men were lynched, workers were shot and forced to accept starvation wages and absurd working conditions, and farmers were pushed to the political margins, where they found it impossible to organize effectively against rapidly consolidating markets and the railroads. So is it fair to say that the middle class really occupied the middle ground? Or is it possible to see them as patsies for the elite, making occasional rhetorical forays against the rich but really, very effectively, taking the poor out of the social equation?

In addition to the overwhelmingly negative results of this middle class ideology on the class below them, which I think suggest that the middle class were always (perhaps unwittingly) on the side of the rich, there’s also the way these traditions manifest themselves today. First, as Richardson says, in the anti-big-government rhetoric of Southern and Western red states, which regularly receive much more
from government than they pay to it. But what if the people who are paying aren’t the people who are benefiting?

Much of the "federal money" going back into western states probably doesn't easily trickle down to the rural main street economy (even if airbases and ICBM silos aren't included).  So the average westerner paying his federal taxes could easily (and honestly) feel he was financing lazy eastern welfare moms.  Even if he doesn't know whether federal or state taxes are paying their benefits, he's pretty sure they aren't paying their way like he is. Which means, he's paying their way.  Population disparities probably throw salt on the wound.  While urbanites are unhappy that sparsely populated states still have their two Senators, Joe-the-rancher in Wyoming (pop. 544,270) hears about "welfare mothers" in Massachusetts (pop. 6,593,587), and goes ballistic.  There are roughly 50,000 female-headed single-parent households getting "welfare" in MA.  There can't be more than about 100,000 families in all of WY.  And what about the criminals?  There are more inmates in California and Texas alone than the whole Wyoming population!

But even more suspicious, in my opinion, is the overwhelming tendency of middle class spokespeople to attack “special interests,” even when the majority of government intervention (and economic gain) is clearly directed elsewhere. I experienced the effects of this yesterday, when I walked into the local Kung Fu dojo to watch my kids’ class. Two of the other Dads were griping about the administration. The latest news, which they were talking about, was Obama’s offer of $50 billion in what they called “aid to the Unions.” Michele Malkin has called the infrastructure program they referred to, “the Mother of All Big Dig Boondoggles,” and this sentiment or something like it seemed to be present in their comments. “Don’t these Union guys realize,” one of the Dads asked, “that Obama’s just giving them back
their own money?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But even so, isn’t that better than giving it to Goldman Sachs and AIG?”

“Well, they should never have done that either,” they responded. And I agree. But isn’t it a little strange, how much easier it is to find sensible, working people bashing Unions and small social programs and calling for tax relief, while nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer money is still pretty much unaccounted for, in the hands of some of America’s biggest and richest corporations? Is this because it’s easier to visualize a “Union guy” than a credit-default-swap arbitrageur? A “Union guy,” after all, is almost the same as the rest of us (oh, wait, I’m in the UAW!) -- except that he’s one of those “special interests” that are always trying to get something for nothing from the government. Is it because these guys are being practical and choosing their battles -- and they’ve concluded that the fight against the big corporations is hopeless? Are we reduced to fighting over the crumbs these giants have left behind? Is this the culmination of the rhetorical tradition Richardson identifies in
West from Appomattox? Underneath it all, isn’t the effect of all this rhetoric that it divides and confuses, and thus conquers, the people who should be standing together against the real special interests, like Goldman Sachs and AIG?


Paul E. Johnson
A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837

The culmination of the Second Great Awakening was Charles G. Finney’s November 1830 revival in Rochester New York. Johnson says this is because Rochester was the fastest-growing city in the US at this time, one of the most industrialized (especially per capita), and the one in which, for various political reasons, “proto-industrialists” decided that “their most favored means of combatting drunkenness, spontaneous holidays, and inattention to work were the temperance society, the Sunday school, and the revival.” (6) This is especially interesting to me, because I tend to want to look past the purely theological reasons for religious revivals and enthusiasm in general (I wonder how future -- or even present -- non-christian cultures will view the millions of hours and thousands of pages American historians‘ have devoted to the intricate particulars of denominational controversy? Even someone as supposedly mainstream as Sellars, with his antinomian heretics...but I digress.), to wonder what motivates -- and
who benefits. So Johnson’s claim that “free labor could generate a well-regulated, orderly, just, and happy society,” as long as it was supported by revivalist moralism and the social controls it encouraged. “The revival was not a capitalist plot,” Johnson concludes. “But it was a crucial step in the legitimation of free labor.” (141)

This is a short book, but Johnson covers a lot of ground in it. I’m not entirely convinced by his description of “America in 1830,” as a “society in which normative and institutional restraints of every kind had fallen apart,” but I’m willing to believe that a particular group of people saw things this way and then found themselves in a position to do something about it. (9) Johnson says most historians of religion give some credence to the idea that revivals are “attempts of bypassed elites to reestablish their dominance,” but he buys into the idea popularized by Tocqueville that kin networks were disrupted, authority had collapsed at every level, and “restraints of every kind were swept away by the market, by migration and personal ambition, and by the universal acceptance of democratic ideas.”

Regardless of whether we call this change barbarism or liberty, Rochester was a place where it flourished. The “first of the inland cities created after 1815,” Rochester had been “unbroken wilderness” at the beginning of the War of 1812. “By 1830 the forest had given way to a city of 10,000.” (13) Because it was an inland city, connecting farmers with remote markets via the Erie Canal, “the wealthiest men in Rochester were merchants, millers, and manufacturers engaged directly in an agricultural economy.” (16) This setting is the part of the story that interests me, more than the details of church membership and revival participation. Rochester “exported 26,000 barrels [of Genesee flour] in 1818, a good pre-canal year. Ten years later the figure stood at 200,000, and by the close of the 1830s...a half-million barrels of flour annually.” (18) Because they dealt extensively with suppliers and customers in the countryside, Rochester entrepreneurs “kept substantial investments in the villages [and] relied on rural relatives and friends for capital and business information.” (20) Kin networks and long-term friendships determined the ways investment funds and marketable products flowed in this system. “Individual fortunes were meshed with social networks...and entrepreneurial behavior was typified by caution and cooperation, and not by ungoverned individual ambition. The result,” Johnson says, “was a remarkably orderly and closed community of entrepreneurs.” (22)

Rochester’s “pattern of family partnerships and family ties extending into the hinterland” lasted beyond its early days. As the city grew, “participation in the boom-town business world” led to “not a collapse of kinship but the strengthening of old family loyalties and the invention of new ones.” (25) Because most of the residents were new arrivals, “agreements between brothers-in-law” outnumbered father-son or uncle-nephew partnerships. This “Rochester pattern reflected the need to increase blocks of capital rather than preserve them.” (26) The result, Johnson says, was “the invention of new loyalties between distant kin and to a broadening of the concept of family.” (27)

In contrast to this tightly-knit world of extended, kinship-based business connections, in which “ungoverned ambition was a fatal liability,” Johnson describes a rapidly growing “unstable urban population.” (35, 37) In 1827, he says, only 21% of adult males “were independent proprietors. The others worked for them.” By 1826, “an editor estimated that 120 persons left Rochester every day, while 130 more arrived to take their places.” (37) If this number is anywhere near correct, the number of people coming and going dwarfed the city’s official population of 10-15,000. The social instability caused by population movement and new employment relations was exacerbated by elite family jealousies that led to political battles. The story of the Anti-Masonic party and Thurlow Weed is a dramatic suggestion that mainstream national politics can spring from bizarre and extremely local events. I’m not sure that it supports Johnson’s argument that the Rochester revival is a model of broader social change, but there’s always tension between the contingent and the representative in histories like this. For my purposes,
A Shopkeeper’s Millennium was very useful. But I wonder whether others interested in the social and economic conditions that form the story’s setting pass this book by, because they don’t want to read another religious history.

Death of Reconstruction

Heather Cox Richardson
The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901

Richardson expands on the racism/politics argument of Foner and others, saying that Northerners, “seeing ex-slaves as abstract figures in a free labor society...ignored the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and economic dislocation in the postwar black experience.” (241) Moderate Republicans couldn’t understand why blacks were not satisfied with the “free labor” social ideology that whites had associated with abolition from the earliest, pre-war, Free Soil days. They completely missed the point, ironically demonstrated by affluent blacks, that many more ex-slaves might have embraced this ideology, if only they had been allowed to actually participate. But when most “Southern African-Americans could not overcome the overwhelming obstacles in their path to economic security,” and asked the government to intervene on their behalf, “Northerners saw this as a rejection of free labor ideals, accused them of being deficient workers, and willingly read them out of American society.”

The story is really punctuated for me by two phenomena: the black exodus of 1879 and the wholesale lynching of black men in the late 1880s and 1890s. I’ll probably try to dig deeper into both of these events, as I read on. The Exodusters seem to answer an obvious question I repeatedly had while reading Foner: was it possible to leave the South? And if so, wouldn’t that have been
my response both to having been enslaved there, and then to the Black Codes, the Klan, etc.? Seems like that would have been the first thing to do, if there were any places that were even remotely welcoming. And on the lynching side, I think that could have used a little more graphic coverage. I think Professor Richardson said something once in a class about being asked to tone that down when the book was in production -- but I think it should have been starker and maybe a little less comfortable for the reader, to really make the point that Northern Republicans who were outraged about the “spoils system” of political appointments, were somehow able to ignore vigilante murders of lower-class black men (and, in 1891, of 11 Italian Americans). The fact that affluent blacks also excused this behavior is interesting, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. The race issue might even hide a more general shift in the Republican party, as the middle class turned its back on workers of all types. This is mentioned briefly in the context of the Homestead and Pullman strikes, and President Hays’s redeployment of the newly professionalized national guard against workers (instead of recalcitrant Southerners). But I think it could be an even bigger point, for me. The Republicans were consolidating a class-based party. It’s interesting that William Graham Sumner’s 1875 social-Darwinist tract pretty much marked the end of the Republicans’ insistence on economic and social harmony. Sumner “reminded readers that human history was ‘one long story of attempts by certain persons and classes to obtain control of the power of the State, so as to win earthly gratifications at the expense of others.’” (191)

It’s also interesting that this “social, economic, and political suppression...coincided with the birth of the Progressive movement, which demanded that the American government redress the excesses of the nation’s new industrial society,” (244) but also established the authority of elite, urban, middle class professionals to identify society’s problems and manage the remediation. The “logical connection between disenfranchisement and the Progressive movement” was not only the ability to “ameliorate the abuses of the industrialism without fearing the triumph of socialism,” but also to harness a huge, new government machine to the needs of the “better classes” rather than the lower. They demonized the people they couldn’t or wouldn’t help, took control of activist government, and put it to work for themselves.

The combination of idealism, ideology and rationalization still isn’t quite clear to me. I suspect that a lot of the time, high-sounding rhetoric is a cover for motives that people would prefer to keep hidden. But that doesn’t mean some of these politicians didn’t believe these ideals they knew moved the masses, at least some of the time. The question, in
Death of Reconstruction, is what was the process that took ideals and made them into party slogans? Who was pulling the strings in the Republican party, how did that change over time, and what were the consequences for workers (black and white) and the country at large? And how did some of these free soil, free labor ideals manage to migrate to the other side, and become the slogans of the other party just a few decades later? I need to go back through this again, because it seems like elements of these competing ideas (blacks as “good” free laborers or “bad” loafers, two types of workers, etc.) are present all along, and it’s more a question of which one happens to be on top at any given time.

The sources Richardson uses are primarily large, mainstream newspapers and
Harper’s Weekly, which a contemporary called “one of the most powerful organs of popular opinion” and sold over 100,000 copies a week. (xii) She says the perspective these sources offer mirrors that of contemporaries (especially rural ones), giving us “the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a Reconstruction era American and observe distant events the same way a literate nineteenth-century Northerner would have.” This is an interesting claim, since I’ve been wondering how widely distributed and uniform the news and opinion reaching rural Americans was? Was there an appreciable change in content after the telegraphic wire services began broadcasting? Did local editors cease offering their opinions? Did local readers feel more connection to distant events than they had a decade earlier?


Eric Foner
Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Foner’s task in this book is to retell the story of Reconstruction, and take it back from a “fraternity of professional historians,” who rewrote history, to the profession’s “everlasting shame.” (609) He begins with a historiography that includes a short description of the story Burgess and Dunning told their Columbia University students:

When the Civil War ended, the white South genuinely accepted the reality of military defeat, stood ready to do justice to the emancipated slaves, and desired above all a quick reintegration into the fabric of national life. Before his death, Abraham Lincoln had embarked on a course of sectional reconciliation, and during Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67) his successor, Andrew Johnson, attempted to carry out Lincoln’s magnanimous policies. Johnson’s efforts were opposed and eventually thwarted by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Motivated by an irrational hatred of Southern ‘rebels’ and the desire to consolidate their party’s national ascendency, the Radicals in 1867 swept aside the Southern governments Johnson had established and fastened black suffrage upon the defeated South. There followed the sordid period of Congressional or Radical Reconstruction (1867-77), an era of corruption presided over by unscrupulous ‘carpetbaggers’ from the North, unprincipled Southern white ‘scalawags,‘ and ignorant freedmen. After much needless suffering, the South’s white community banded together to overthrow these governments and restore ‘home rule‘ (a euphemism for white supremacy). All told, Reconstruction was the darkest page in the saga of American history. (xix-xx)

Foner notes that WEB DuBois published
Black Reconstruction in 1935, but it was largely ignored. (xxi)

Frederick Douglass said of Lincoln, “He treated me as a man...he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins.” (6) Foner (like the Dunning School, actually) avoids attacking Lincoln, but he does point out that the president’s main motivation, even for emancipation, was winning the war and preserving the Union.

Foner characterizes rural, upcountry southern whites as essentially pre-commercial, in the sense used by historians like Steven Hahn (whom he cites, 15). Many of these rural regions “like East Tennessee and western North Carolina...would embrace the Republican party after the Civil War and remain strongholds well into the twentieth century.” (18) But while the southern economy was wiped out by the war, the North experienced “a time of unprecedented prosperity.” Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson told Congress in 1867 that during the war years “the loyal states have accumulated more capital, have added more to their wealth, than during any previous seven years in the history of the country.” (
I wonder what the context was, and what else he said? 40th Congress, 2d Session, 246, 18) “Many farmers, as agricultural machinery magnate Cyrus McCormick complained, took advantage of inflation to liquidate mortgages an other debts; they ‘pursued [their creditors] in triumph and paid them without mercy.’ McCormick, however, also knew how to take advantage of the war, borrowing large sums in order to hoard raw materials, and buying up farmland and urban real estate with as small a down payment as possible. By 1865 he was Chicago’s largest landlord.” (cf Rasmussen, “The Civil War: A Catalyst of Agricultural Revolution,” Ruggles, “Economic Basis of the Greenback Movement in Iowa and Wisconsin,” Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick, 19)

“Perhaps 1 million northerners,” Foner says, “ended up owning shares in a national debt that by war’s end amounted to over $2 billion. But most bonds were held by wealthy individuals and financial institutions, who reaped the windfall from interest paid in gold at a time when depreciating paper money was employed for all other transactions.” (22) He goes on to say that “a tax of 10 cents on each dollar effectively ended the printing of money by by state-chartered banks.”
This couldn’t have ended without some protest from upstate New Yorkers... “The minimum capital requirement of $50,000 and a proviso barring national banks from holding mortgages on land restricted these institutions to large cities.” Again, this legislation couldn’t have passed uncontested. There’s a story here... And finally, “The federal budget, amounting to $63 million in 1860, rose to well over $1 billion by 1865.” (23) And these are the Republicans, the champions of free labor who want to keep the government small...

cf Merck,
Economic History of Wisconsin During the Civil War Decade, 1916

In a section called “The Meaning of Freedom,” Foner says “freedom meant more than simply receiving wages. Freedmen wished to take control of the conditions under which they labored, free themselves from subordination to white authority, and carve out the greatest measure of economic autonomy.” (103)
This is the rub -- see Richardson. The freedmen were seen as setting themselves against not the former slaveholders (on whom people like Stevens saw they had a legitimate and possibly enforceable claim), but against white workers with whom they should have been standing in solidarity. They were led to this by...who? Seems like either naivete or a classic divide-and-conquer play. Of course, as Foner says, it was not easy for the blacks to fit themselves into a free labor version of the cotton South, when “regulators...are riding about whipping, maiming, and killing all negroes who do not obey the orders of their former masters, just as if slavery existed.” (Nashfield Press and Times, quoted in Hartford Courant, 2-6-1867, 121)

What was Andrew Johnson doing in the Republican party? “Some 15,000 Southerners, the majority barred from the general amnesty because of their wealth, filed applications for individual pardons. At first, the President granted pardons cautiously, but by September they were being issued wholesale, sometimes hundreds in a single day. By 1866, over 7,000 Southerners excluded from amnesty under the $20,000 clause had received individual pardons.” (191)
Hard to not see this (and support for it) as class solidarity across party and sectional lines.

Stevens “knew that a landed aristocracy and a landless class were alike dangerous in the republic, and by a single act of justice he would abolish both.” (quoting Kelley’s posthumous remarks, 40th Cong 3d session 133-4, 236)

“Appropriate out of the vast amount of the surplus lands of the wealthy, a comfortable home for the helpless and dependent black man whose arduous labor for the last two hundred years justly entitles him to such inheritance.” (petition by J. Robert and ten others to John Sherman, 5-1-1867, 302)

“Once Grant had been nominated, Congress moved to consolidate the party’s position for the fall campaign, readmitting seven Southern states to the Union.” (338)
So Foner agrees with Dunning that it comes down to political gamesmanship -- he just sees a different set of villains.

Foner isn’t too sympathetic to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s frustration, and criticizes her “racist and elitist arguments for rejecting the enfranchisement of black males while women of culture and wealth remained excluded.” (448)

cf the change in the North, reflected in
The Education of Henry Adams, 237-8.

“Banker Jay Cooke, the ‘financier of the Civil War’ and leading individual contributor to Grant’s presidential campaign, not only had the Republican party in his debt, but a remarkable number of its leading officials as well.” (467)
So what was the process that led from the (supposedly) idealistic formation of the party to this rampant corruption an spoilsmanship? Or were the seeds of this corruption there at the beginning?

cf Charles Francis Adams, Jr. & Henry Adams,
Chapters of the Erie and other essays, 1-96: “the Erie battle seemed most of all to demonstrate that ‘our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control.” (468)

cf. Miller,
Railroads and the Granger Laws, 1971; Unger, The Greenback Era, 1964

After the failure of Jay Cooke’s bank in 1873 caused a panic and depression, “
The Nation linked the Northern poor and Southern freedmen as members of a dangerous new ‘proletariat’ as different ‘from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.’” (519) But I wonder how much easier was it to demonize all these dangerous outsiders when most of these Northern poor were not anglos?

Foner says “1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful national state protecting the fundamental rights of American citizens.” (582) He goes on to say, “Yet the government was not rendered impotent in all matters,” citing the ongoing campaign against Native Americans. The real point seems to be, that the government became much more focused in its activism, and increasingly only used it in the service of corporations and imperial expansionism. As a result of the “Great Strike” of 1877, when state volunteer militias had “proved unwilling or unable to suppress the uprising,” Charles Eliot Norton demanded they be “‘essentially remodeled’ so as to provide an ‘efficient force for the protection of life and property and the maintenance of order.‘ In the aftermath of 1877, cities retrained and expanded their police forces, while the...National Guard were professionalized and equipped with more modern weapons. In the next quarter century, the Guard would be used in industrial disputes over 100 times.” (585-6) President Hays withdrew troops from the South, and deployed them against striking workers. This was the core of the change: government power was no longer to be used to protect the citizens, but to protect the wealthy from the citizens.

Alcoholic America?

The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition
W. J. Rorabaugh


Rorabaugh writes “the United States [between 1790-1830] underwent such profound social and psychological change that a new national character emerged,” and that excessive drinking during this period was a symptom of this stress. (xi) America’s democratic ideals and cult of individual freedom made men (after a few initial remarks, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about gender differences in consumption) desire independence and achievement, but Rorabaugh says they lacked the will or “motivation” to really work for their goals until the Second Great Awakening (yeah, so you can already see what my problem with this is going to be...). Their frustration and guilt led them to alcoholism, and maybe other forms of social action. Rorabaugh claims there is “little psychological difference between a drunkard’s hallucinations and an Anti-Mason’s hysteria.” (173) “America,” Rorabough concludes, “was left as a culture dominated by an ambivalence that could be transcended only through an anti-intellectual faith.” (219) Or, as his data shows, by drunkenness. Maybe the point he missed is that those two options are somehow equivalent.

Rorabaugh introduces clergymen and temperance moralists in the first paragraph of the book; but in a study that purports to deal with hidden psychological causes, he never really addresses
their motivations. (5) The data, especially on changing rates of per capita consumption, is sometimes startling. Americans now drink more than 18 gallons of beer per capita! (9) I wonder who is drinking mine? Similarly, I wonder about the distribution and change over time of early drinking patterns. Rorabaugh says that by the 1820s “half the adult males...were drinking two-thirds of all the distilled spirits.” (11) At least, I think that’s what he said -- the endnotes are completely impossible to follow. A reviewer actually attacked the Oxford Press for the illegibility of the references in this book. The problem is, they exacerbate the overall lack of specificity in the text, by making it impossible to nail down times and places where critical observations were made, or check the sources who made them. Another reviewer complained of the overgeneralized, almost caricature way that Rorabaugh talked about his subjects. Americans ate too quickly, and drank too much, because their food was horrible. (118) Farm owners were not heavy drinkers, but “is it any wonder that farm hands turned to strong drink?” (128)

In spite of these flaws, Rorabaugh provides some interesting data, and a perspective that shines light on the nineteenth century from an interesting angle. “Between 1790 and 1810,” he observes, Americans managed “to bring into production almost as many acres as had been planted in the preceding two centuries...In 1790, only one hundred thousand of four million Americans resided in the West; by 1810 one million of seven million did.” (126) This is dramatic change, and it seems reasonable to suspect that it created social stresses that may have driven some increased alcohol consumption. And then there’s the supply side. Rorabaugh provides a really good synopsis of early American distilling, especially “across the Appalachians” where corn was abundant, but too bulky to bring to market. His depiction of the west as a cash-poor land of unprecedented farm surpluses helps explain the growth of western distilling in the decades before canals and railroads. (80 ff.) “From 1802 through 1815,” he says, “the federal government issued more than 100 patents for distilling devices...more than 5 percent of all patents granted.” (73) By 1810, distilling was concentrated in Kentucky, Ohio, western PA, and upstate NY, and these four areas produced more than half of the nation’s grain and fruit spirits. (77) Western New York production peaked in 1828, and continued even while flour shipments ramped up. “By 1840 distilleries in southwest Ohio, upstate New York, and...Pennsylvania distilled more than half of the nation’s grain spirits.” (85) New York state’s distilleries peaked in 1825 at 1,129, which produced an estimated 18 million gallons. By 1840, the industry seems to have consolidated, with 212 distilleries producing 12 million gallons. In 1850, 93 distilleries made 11.7 million gallons, and in 1860, 77 distilleries made 26.2 million gallons. (chart, 87)

This data is really useful to me. Rorabaugh’s analysis is not as helpful for my purposes, but still instructive. Although his chart shows a steadily increasing value of the product of New York distilleries, Rorabaugh’s narrative describes a “whiskey glut” that he says “exemplified the inability of Americans who clung to traditional agrarian values to promote change.” The “surplus grain had the potential to become either food for industrial workers or, if sold in the market, the means of acquiring money that could be used as capital to build factories” (88). But western farmers lacked our 20:20 hindsight. Rorabaugh’s response to their choice to make whiskey rather than become industrialists illustrates a problem faced by contemporary historians looking at the rural past. This anachronistic misunderstanding of rural people became extreme during the progressive era -- which I’ll be getting to in the next couple of months.


Wesley Clair Mitchell
A History of the Greenbacks, With Special Reference to the Economic Consequences of their Issue: 1862-65

Mitchell places a lot of the blame for the government’s need to resort to legal tender notes with the failure of the Buchanan Treasury to raise any money. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia (Vice President of the Confederacy) “for four years had been contracting debts to meet annually recurring deficits.” (7) “Public confidence in the Buchanan administration was shaken,” Mitchell says, and as a result “the government was compelled to pay such high rates of interest” as 12% on one year Treasury Notes. (6-7)

“Though Mr. Chase brought with him little knowledge of financial administration, his mind was deeply impressed with certain financial theories. From his former Democratic affiliations he had imbibed the ‘hard money’ principals of Jackson and Benton and their dislike for paper currencies...The early suspension of specie payments and issue of an irredeemable currency of legal tender paper in the Civil War occurred, then, under the administration of a secretary of the treasury who cherished a strong predilection for metallic money.” (4)

Bull Run showed the North that the War was not going to be quick, easy, or cheap. The government needed to raise a lot of money quickly. Luckily, eastern banks were in a position to help out (and profit by it), since Lincoln’s election had precipitated a “sudden panic [that] caused the banks to curtail discounts. The banks were strong, because they had been hoarding specie in anticipation of war. And businessmen had cut back spending and borrowing. “Transactions of the New York clearing house declined from $129,000,000 in the second week of March [1861]. to $80,000,000 in the corresponding week of August. The banks...found it still more difficult to lend their capital. From December, 1860, to August, 1861, bank loans in New York diminished $23,000,000; in Boston the fall from January to July was $2,000,000 and in Philadelphia $3,000,000.” (22) Heavy grain exports (due to good American and poor European harvests) shifted the balance of (gold) payments toward the US, offsetting the decline in California gold shipments as the western boom ended. In August 1861, “the ratio of specie held by the associated banks of New York to their deposits and circulation was 50 percent; for Boston it was 27, and for Philadelphia 39 percent. Thus the banks were unusually strong; but they were making little profit because the stagnation of trade gave them few opportunities of lending to business men.” (23)

“The indebtedness of the South to the North was estimated on the basis of R.G. Dun & Company’s annual circular for 1861 at $300,000,000...The losses of northern creditors were usually reckoned at $200,000,000.” (21, note 5) “The specie in circulation was estimated by the director of the mint in October, 1861, at from $275,000,000 to $300,000,000, of which he thought not more than $20,000,000 was at the South...and the bank notes reported as issued by the 1,289 institutions in the loyal states amounted to about $129,000,000.” (142) But because bank notes were redeemable in specie (by state law in places like NY), banks began issuing certified checks instead of notes, and “there was a marked contraction in the bank-note circulation in the first months of 1862. January 4, the New York city banks had outstanding $8,600,000 of notes; by March 1 this circulation had fallen to $5,400,000.” (145) But after greenbacks began circulating in April 1862, the banks resumed paying out their own notes again, and “by May 3 their circulation was practically as large as it had been January 4.” (146)

“The first greenbacks in New York came in a remittance of $4,000,000 received by the assistant treasurer April 5...and from this time on issues were so rapid that $90,000,000 was outstanding before the 7th of June.” (155) For smaller denominations and “change,” the government issues “postal currency.” Basically, stamps. (164) Greenbacks became the standard of value, and gold became a commodity. “From the published tables of the premium it appears that regular dealing in gold began on the New York stock exchange January 13, 1862.” (183) Soon “gold became as favorite an article to speculate in as petroleum stocks or railway shares.” (185) “The price of gold in currency” was a measure of the deflation of the dollar’s value [but how much it correlated to general price inflation is more complicated], and “as determined by transactions in these New York markets, was regularly reported by telegraph in all considerable towns of the United States, and everywhere accepted as authoritative.”
This may be the real point -- that New York became the money center, because there was a valuation to be made in the first place, and because there was a telegraph, to broadcast the news and create a uniform national value for gold. Did this function to stabilize prices across distances too, or did they vary with local conditions?

Price inflation was apparently less of a concern than “deflation” of the value of the dollar relative to gold. But when politicians and commentators discussed the question, “it was common to begin by demonstrating that the premium and the volume of the currency did not vary concomitantly, as they legitimately should have done [according to the accepted quantity theory of money], and then to launch into a tirade against unpatriotic gold gamblers.” (188-9) Because it was not needed for currency, gold became an export commodity. “In the fiscal year 1861 imports of gold exceeded exports by $14,900,000, but after specie payments had been suspended in 1862 exports exceeded imports by $21,500,000, in 1863 by $56,600,000, in 1864 by $89,500,000, in 1865 by $51,900,000, and in 1866 by $63,000,000.” (191) But even so, there was a desire among some [who, exactly?] to get back to a gold standard. “Lincoln’s re-election meant an indefinite prolongation of the war, and hence destroyed any chance of a speedy redemption of the paper money. On the strength of this view there was a fall on the 9th from $40.65 to $38.46. However, a reaction quickly followed.” (206)

But back to the question of prices and “real wages.” Mitchell shows that there was significant inflation during the war years. Based on a bundle of 36 retail commodities, prices rose from a “100” level in 1860 to peak at “264” in West Virginia, “283” in Ohio, and “218” in Indiana in 1864, before settling down to an average of “200” across the board by 1866. If this bundle is representative, retail commodities were twice as expensive at the end of the war as they had been at its beginning. (table, 340) Additionally, Mitchell mentions that on “almost all loans made before 1864 and repaid at any subsequent time...the creditor found that the sum returned to him had a purchasing power much less” than when he loaned the money. (364) This loss in value to the lender was theoretically a gain to the borrower, but since everything was suddenly more expensive, the borrower may not have felt like a winner either. Mitchell also suggests that “farmers of the loyal states were among the unfortunate producers whose products rose in price less than the majority of other articles, and that from this standpoint they were the losers rather than the gainers by the paper currency.” (388) But is this conclusion based on Mitchell’s knowledge that this is a point of contention in later [Populist] arguments? If greenbacks had never been adopted, isn’t it possible that supply and demand conditions in the wartime economy would have resulted in depressed farm prices relative to suddenly scarce imports and non-defense manufactures?

Mitchell’s last point is that the Civil War increased the “rapid accumulation of an unusual number of fortunes,” by changing the distribution of wealth in the US. Most “war-time fortunes,” he says, “resulted in a very large measure from the mere transfer of wealth from a wide circle of persons to the relatively small number” of people who had access to the proceeds of wartime industry. (400) This effect is probably given less attention than it deserves, Mitchell adds, because we underestimate the severity of the “transfer.” “The same trait that leads fortunate people to flaunt their material prosperity in the eyes of the world,” he says, “leads the unfortunate to conceal their small privations. Even an attentive observer may fail to notice that the wives of workingmen are still wearing their last year’s dresses and that the children are running barefoot longer than usual.” (400) Thus the enrichment of the few is noticed, and reformers complain of it, but it’s not seen as due to the impoverishment of everybody else. We believe we’re playing a positive sum game, when in fact we’re not. That’s probably true to some degree -- the question is, where and how much?

It's the supporting cast...

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

916 pages, including notes and index (757 of text). This was not central to my interests, so I went through it quickly. I was much more interested in the rivals than in Lincoln. I was much more interested in the period before Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War, and the period after (which isn’t there at all, as the book pretty much ends with Lincoln’s death). I was primarily interested in William H. Seward, and I got a lot of interesting information about him. This doesn’t replace a biography of Seward, which is probably still needed. But it’s a really good start, and puts him in an interesting national context. There’s a lot less about his local and regional roles, of course.

In the introduction, Goodwin says “By widening the lens to include Lincoln’s colleagues and their families, my story benefited from a treasure trove of primary sources that have not generally been used in Lincoln biographies.” (xviii) This is the downside of doing a biography of someone so well documented, I suppose (warning to potential Seward biographers: there are apparently about 5,000 pages of manuscript letters, diaries, etc. in the main archive alone). For regular people, getting the folks around them seems like more of a no-brainer. On the other hand, Goodwin’s observation suggests that even the “great man” biographies might benefit from a little more context in the social surroundings. And, interestingly for me, maybe it also suggests that biographies or histories of smaller, more local people and events would gain from being connected to larger people and events. Where they naturally fit. Like William Seward in my upstate New York story. Or William Jennings Bryan in the Michigan chapters.

In general, I will say that I felt weighed down by the amount of detail in Goodwin’s story. I did
not need to know what Lincoln and Seward had for breakfast on their first day together in Washington DC. On the other hand, lots of people bought, read, and loved this book. So, there’s a market for detailed description, especially when it helps the reader enter the subject’s world. I need to keep that in mind as I write. I can’t assume the setting, and focus only on my interest, the action.

And details are useful, like the fact that Seward moved to Auburn after finishing his degree at Union College in Schenectady, and married the daughter of Judge Elijah Miller, the “leading citizen of Cayuga County.” Another name and western NY social network for me to explore...

Goodwin identifies the beginning of the Republican Party (at least by that name) at an 1854 meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin. (181) The whole history of the transition from Liberty to Free Soil (and Salmon P. Chase’s influence on it) to Republican is fascinating, and I should find something more substantial to read about it.
Team of Rivals provides teaser-glimpses of it, and then moves on. Also, the Greeley-Seward estrangement is worth looking into. (242) As are Seward’s campaign visits to Kalamazoo on Lincoln’s behalf (268). And Lincoln’s “short address” at the Astor House in NYC on his way to Washington (about Feb. 20, 1861). (310)

A digression into money

Made a side-trip today, into the history of money in the U.S. Read:

John Jay Knox, United States Notes: A History of the Various Issues of Paper Money by the Government of the United States, 1894

A. Barton Hepburn,
History of Coinage and Currency in the United States and the Perennial Contest for Sound Currency, 1903

Wilford I. King, “Circulating Credit: Its Nature and Relation to the Public Welfare" American Economic Review 10:4 (Dec 1920)

Started a couple of more recent things, that will take a couple of days. The whole point of this detour, is for me to try to get a handle on the way people used money and credit in the 1840s through the late 1860s. After this, there’s a “period” shift -- we’re suddenly into the “greenback” era and the fights over bi-metalism and money that animated a lot of the Populists and ultimately led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve system after the Panic of 1907.

BUT...there seems to be a link missing in this change. The historiography seems to jump right from the “market transition” to the gilded age and its money problems, and in doing this I think it misses an intermediate period that lasted two or three decades in some places. So I’m trying to get a handle on what I think goes into this “financial transition” -- and to see if somebody really has said something about it, and I just haven’t found it yet.

Panic of 1857

Paul L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War, 1987.

Huston examines the economic events leading up to the Crisis in a very cursory fashion, then spends a fair amount of time discussing political and press reaction to it. This leads him to some conclusions about the role of the Crisis in foregrounding some economic issues in the sectional debate that led to the Civil War, although Huston is quick to qualify these claims and place them in a generalized “blame-everything-on-slavery” context. Interestingly, he misses the point that Republicans may have used this blaming technique as a way not only of focusing attention on issues they wanted to address, but as a way of diverting attention
away from issues they wanted to ignore. The Lynn strikes, for example, were recast (by Greeley and others) as an opportunity for western expansion that (darn those southerners!) was imperiled by expansion of the slave southwest. Republican “labor policy,” the idea that low wages were due to the “degradation of labor,” diverted attention to the specific abuses of (rich Republican) capitalists, as well as to systemic problems caused by the growth of corporate (as opposed to small-producer) capitalism. The irony is, early Republicans had warned of this, but had been pushed to the sidelines.

Huston’s conclusion is that "Economic issues did not have to play a role in the election of 1860. By their own intransigence,” he says, “Democrats allowed Republicans to take advantage of the economic questions that the Panic had reinvigorated." (266) Did they? Or does his story suggest that these economic policies were not hard-wired into either party's DNA, but were arrived at contingently and maybe a little opportunistically?

One thing that does come out clearly, is the sectional nature of the Panic of 1857. It had a much less lasting impact on the South and the Northeast than it did on the West. This is interesting, for my work. Also, the really clear causal role of wheat exports on the Crisis, and the impact of the Crimean War on overproduction and then collapse in the West, is helpful. I wonder how the rebound in grain shipments to Europe ("in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1859, the United States exported 3,002,000 bushels of wheat; in fiscal year 1860 the total was 4,155,000; but in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1861, the amount grew to 31,238,000." 214) effected Western politics and the 1860 elections?

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men

Eric Foner’s dissertation, which he revised and published in 1970. The 25-year anniversary edition featured a new Foreword, in which an older and wiser Foner qualified his earlier statements, and responded to the generation of social history inspired at least partly by works like this one.

This is a political history. The ideology Foner discusses is primarily that of parties and their leaders and leading commentators in the press. The character who really jumps out and demands more attention is William H. Seward (Salmon P. Chase follows close in his wake, though). That’ll be helpful for me, because the history I’m working on features cameo appearances of people like Seward. Connects local events and personalities with national issues--at least, I hope it does.

The notes above are in Tinderbox. The point isn’t so much that they’re graphic, as that they are html, so they’re completely searchable. The visual aspect is based on Foner’s chapter organization. At some point, I’ll get around to looking at form as well as content; and this should help.

Gates' Farmer's Age

Paul W. Gates
The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture, 1815-1860

Gates is one of those obligatory texts. He was apparently a really experienced, hands-on farmer -- at least you get that impression from the detailed descriptions he gives of farming practices, techniques, and conditions. The chapters are organized thematically (land, then machinery, then breeding, etc.), which doesn’t enhance the historical story. In fact, the thread of the story was pretty well lost under all the detail, as far as I was concerned. But that was okay. The detail held a lot of good material for later investigation. I’m thinking of it this way (click it for a bigger version):

It’s a little random -- related more to my interests than Gates’ -- but that’s probably a good thing. While I think he provided a wealth of valuable detail, I don’t think he sustained his basic argument that everything in American history (including the sectional differences that led to the Civil War) was the result of agriculture.

more recently...

I’ve been reading a bunch of books I haven’t gotten through writing my thoughts about. Paul W. Gates’ The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture, 1815-1860, Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, the Heidlers’ Henry Clay, Bray Hammond’s Banks and Politics in America. Also Virgin Land and The Machine in the Garden, along with a little puttering around literature including a bit of Hamlin Garland.

Not quite sure what I’m going to do about posting -- sort of seems like it’s time to start putting this all together into something. But I don’t think that’s something I’m going to blog -- at least not quite yet.

Railroad Land Grants

Click the map for a bigger view

Robert S. Henry
“The Railroad Land Grant Legend in American History Texts”

Henry said the public (especially students reading high school and college texts) has been misled by accounts of “huge,” “breath-taking” tracts of land given to railroad companies out of the public domain. The truth, he says, is that much less land was actually given (only about 9.5% of the continental U.S.), the government ultimately got a good return on it (in the form of increased value of the
rest of the land due to railroads going through, and also in special government freight rates), and the social/political/military benefits of national unity outweigh any costs, anyway. The old maps, he says, mislead the public by drawing broad swaths across the west, when actually the railroads were only granted half the area drawn (in alternate sections, like a checkerboard), and in any case many of the grants were forfeited because no one built railroads to qualify for them. In all, only about 131 million acres had been given to the railroads, according to Henry. Since the 1884 presidential election, he said, “when the Democratic party issued a campaign poster featuring what purported to be a map of lands granted to railroads,” the issue had been a political football and the facts had given way to legend.

Henry’s article appeared in the 1945
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, and set off a storm of protests (many of them carried by the same journal, and reprinted in Carstensen, The Public Lands). David Maldwin Ellis suggested that 49 million acres of land grants by the states were relevant in the discussion. (145) And, even if granted lands had been forfeited or released, they still counted as grants (and they had still made those lands unavailable to settlers for many years - in some cases well into the 20th century). The real extent of the land granted was slightly over 223 million acres (or nearly 17% of America, 146). Ellis pointed out that “The General Land Office withdrew from public appropriation not only the primary limits [of the land grants] as required by law, but also the lands within the indemnity limits...The railroads sometimes tried to oust genuine homesteaders who had made their selections before the location of the railway route.” (146-7)

Fred A. Shannon called Henry’s article “a piece of special pleading for the current lobby of railroad interests to secure the repeal of clauses in the land-grant acts...for rate concessions on carrying government traffic.” (Henry was assistant to the president of the Association of American Railroads when he wrote his article, 157) The big black swaths across the map, Shannon said, should be
widened “by 50 per cent so as to show the indemnity zones.” “It must not be forgotten,” Shannon said, “that until 1887 settlement was excluded from government sections...and from 50 per cent of their width clear beyond the zones proper.” “The railroads got just about one-tenth of the United States and for years restricted settlement in three-tenths of the United States,” Shannon concluded. “This ratio is much higher in the West, where most of the grants lay.” (158)

I think this series of articles says some interesting things about how history is sometimes done, and about what we need to be wary of when reading. In the first place, even taking Henry’s numbers, railroad land grants
were breath-taking. Nearly ten percent of the land area of the nation? More, in unsettled areas, where pioneers were competing for farmlands. And an area at least double that (or nearly 1/5 of the American land mass) held back from sale? That’s pretty extreme. Second, whether the government got it’s money back is not the question. Everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that private, corporate, for-profit railroad development with government handouts wasn’t the only way transportation, or the American West, could have been developed. And it’s not like there weren’t people saying this at the time (A.M. Todd, for example). We just don’t remember them. What does that say about the textbooks that are being written and read for high-schoolers now?

Farm, Shop, Landing

Martin Bruegel
Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860

For Bruegel, the market society happened when “Commercial transactions...moved from a physical setting to an abstract, intangible sphere where prices mattered more than people and relationships.” (2) This description seems completely in keeping with the consensus that has emerged from the “transition” debates. It’s Bruegel’s extensive use of individual accounts, to an almost microhistorical level, that sets this book apart. Bruegel says he’s going to describe the “social and economic processes that underlay the movement from an understanding of the world rooted in concrete and particular experiences to general abstractions.” (3-4) While he rarely has an opportunity to present “before” and “after” views of an individual’s changing orientation, I think he successfully shows a changing understanding of relationships and social realities in the Hudson River Valley.

The non-market, neighborhood relations that dominated Hudson Valley culture in the late eighteenth century, Bruegel says, was based on the subsistence basis of the agricultural economy. Risk of starvation was real, and to mitigate that risk, farmers chose the safest route. “Rather than adapting to the environment’s average productivity,” for example, “their experience taught them to prepare for bad years.” (16) “Safety nets...created a community.” (21) Even when they traded, “the apparent utility of the traded good or service neither structured nor exhausted the meaning of the exchange. Participation was what mattered.” (reminds me of a letter from LBH to HGH, 15) As a result of the precariousness of rural life, Bruegel suggests the emphasis on self-sufficiency of farm households (vs. communities) is misplaced. “It is impossible to think about them separately,” he says, “because it was precisely the constant exchange of labor and tools that conditioned the family’s subsistence and held the neighborhood together.” (21)

Bruegel says the shift towards a commercial orientation was gradual and was marked by “the coexistence of nonmarket and market rationality in the rural economy” for much of the early nineteenth century. (62) “In practice,” he says, “farmers straddled two worlds that historians and ethnologists have often tended to construe as incompatible.” (42) “Commercial exchange,” Bruegel suggests, was both a “part of the farm families‘ strategy to achieve a competence,” and occurred in a market dominated by “personal relations: these bonds actually predicated trade on the Hudson.” (42-3) “Trust lowered transaction costs,” and this “privileged bond...helped diminish the farmer’s prejudice against the conniving merchant,” or indeed, any outsider. (42, 59) But even though the majority of extralocal trading was done by only the most prosperous farmers, “in a world of insecurity, where risk reduction guided the behavior of farm families, the establishment of dependable and durable credit and debt connections lay in the interest of both merchant and farmer;” especially those of humbler means. Their participation in the markets at the Hudson landings created a two tier system, in which the seller could choose either the local or the “New York price.” As a result, “over long periods of time, prices of locally produced goods in the neighborhood trading center remained constant and unresponsive to metropolitan fluctuations.” (59)

Bruegel seems to suggest that this situation would have persisted, if external social forces had not changed the game. “Political interventions in favor of deregulated internal commerce,” he says “show that there was nothing natural about the rise of a market society.” (66) Following Horwitz, Bruegel says “it was the law’s aim to do away with the favored client status that liberal theory construed as collusion,” but that locals at the landing valued as the relationships that tied commerce to community. (67) But the biggest factor was clearly the growth of New York City, and its markets. Demand for hay and dairy products rose. Soil exhaustion and better transportation helped push farmers into hay and livestock. By 1852 the president of the state Ag. Society was able to claim that “farming is no longer that uncertain, profitless work, which it once was.” (97) One Kinderhook resident noted “About 1790 this land was sold for $1 an acre: now it brings $75 or $80.” (95) Farm productivity “growth relied on the intensification of well-known work practices,” introduction of cast-iron plows, and increasing use of wage labor throughout the season. “The extension of employment length distinguished a new labor force from the neighbors who still helped each other during the crest of harvest work.” (112)

These new workers, Bruegel suggests, lived separately from the farmers, and bought food and supplies at the local market, for cash. This is interesting, if true -- I had always envisioned early farm wage-workers as young, single men, who lived with the farm family. Maybe this varied by region. Bruegel also suggests the shift to dairying improved the status of women. He cites an 1820 book called
Dialogues on Domestic and Rural Economy and the Fashionable Follies of the World, by Hannah Barnard, which seems to complicate the traditional view of separate gender spheres. “The agricultural family, in Barnard’s depiction, was a collective in which men and women joined their forces and talents.” (115) Bruegel cites several other contemporary local sources to suggest that Harriet Martineau and other European observes were wrong to conclude that American women had no place in the outdoor work of the farm.

Growth of manufacturing, Bruegel says, followed national events: the Embargo and the War of 1812. It quickly became “more fashionable and cheaper...to dress in fabricks of our rapidly increasing manufactories,” as Sterling Goodenow observed in 1822. (in
A Brief Topographical and Statistical Manual of the State of New York, 150)But in spite of this, “As late as 1837, Kinderhook grocers J. and P. Bain still carried ‘Home-Made Woolen Cloths, also low prices Broad Cloths.” (148) Based on his sources, Bruegel concludes that rural consumption had not become “rural consumerism...by the 1840s. Rather, the dissemination of everyday articles projects the image of a world whose demands remained moderate...the quest for necessities, not luxuries, propelled the consumer behavior of the majority of rural dwellers,” Bruegel says. (161-2)

Culture of Credit

Rowena Olegario
A Culture of Credit: Embedding Trust and Transparency in American Business

“In a circular dated 1858, the Mercantile Agency...estimated that 157,394 village and country stores owed an average of $14,500 each to city jobbers, an aggregate value of nearly $2.3 billion. The amount of trade done on credit could be several times the capital resources of a business.” (26)

“The conventional wisdom found its way into
Walden (1854) when, criticizing the heavy mortgages under which most farmers labored, Thoreau declared that ‘what has been said of the merchants, that a very large majority, even ninety-seven in a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the farmers.’” (37)

The Mercantile Agency “relied on a network of ‘correspondents,’ including sheriffs, merchants, postmasters, and bank cashiers for its information. Attorneys, however, made up the bulk...” (49)

“As capitalist values spread in the United States and more people became drawn into the credit economy, outward appearance, or ‘reputation,’ took on extraordinary significance. So, too, did the anxiety that appearances could be manipulated: ‘Reputation, rather than character--to
seem, rather than to be,’ fumed the Daily Illinois State Journal in 1856, ‘has become the ultimate aim of too many in all departments of business and professional life.’” (80)

Mr. Madison's War

J.C.A. Stagg
Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830

Stagg admits that the dominant feature of almost all literature” on the War of 1812 “has been its emphasis on the sheer ineptitude of the American war effort.” But even so, “to stress ineptitude as the theme of the War of 1812...is to neglect an important, albeit obvious, point about its history--which is that no administration could have actually intended what happened to have occurred.” (x) The question is, was there a realistic plan behind Madison’s policy, or was he too a source of incompetence? “The incompetence that seemed all-pervasive during the war years was more than simply the failings of so many individuals; rather it was symptomatic of political and administrative problems deeply rooted in the government of American society. Yet the founding fathers, including Madison himself, had justified the introduction of a new constitution in 1789 very much on the grounds that it would provide the United States with a more efficient system of government and prevent a recurrence of the disorder that had characterized the War for Independence.” (xi) This is an interesting point, because it suggests that the founders were particularly concerned about facilitating a united military, in expectation of future wars with Britain. And because it suggests a lack of concern with what the American people actually wanted, both in the minds of the founders and of Professor Stagg.

At the end of his introduction, Stagg also seems to admit that the war didn’t really resolve anything. Nor did “the sudden rise of Anglo-American ‘friendship’ after 1815.” (xii) The real change in British-American relations was brought about by neither Britons nor Americans, but by a change in the global balance of power created by “the emancipation of Latin America.” So in that sense, a study of politics and American foreign policy through 1830 that doesn’t say another word about Spanish American independence, seems fatally myopic.

Madison’s decision for war is hard to see as sensible. When it declared war on Great Britain, the U.S. “could command little more than six thousand regular troops and a naval force consisting of sixteen vessels of all sizes.” In contrast, the British controlled the seas with “six hundred vessels in active service while also supporting a regular army at home and abroad that totaled nearly one quarter of a million men.” (3) Stagg says Madison believed America could easily take a large part of Canada, and that this would bring Britain to the negotiating table. But in 1812 his Jeffersonian political allies seem to have been on the same page: “The best-known statement of American optimism about the ease of seizing Canada was Thomas Jefferson’s claim that ‘the acquisition of Canada...as far as the neighborhood of Quebec will be a mere matter of marching.’” (note 8, 5) The critical issue was denying Britain access to raw materials it needed in order to maintain its West Indian colonies and its navy. “The growth of Upper Canada was a significant step toward freeing the British empire from the effects of American economic restrictions.” (41) Canada, as an alternative source of nearly everything supplied by the U.S., had to be neutralized. Ironically, an American diplomat in the West Indies in 1827-8 reported, “the inhabitants of this island [Barbados] as well as the others, have less regard for Mr. Jefferson than any of our Presidents (not excepting Mr. Madison...yet they say he nevertheless, though not intentionally, rendered them a great service by laying on the Embargo, which taught them to find resources within themselves, that is to say, by cultivating ground provisions, which they never did before, and were entirely dependent on the United States.” (quoting Robert Monroe Harrison to Henry Clay, 516)

Interestingly, “the growth of Canada was also stimulated by, and in turn contributed to, the growth of the United States...and the settlers in this northeastern region were as likely to cross into Canada in search of new prosperity as they were to remain in the United States.” (refs Lambert,
Travels through Lower Canada and the United States, 1813, 244-55, 40) There’s a story here...

Another interesting point, that Stagg mentions several times but doesn’t develop, is the government’s apparent difficulty raising troops. In spite of the fact that “the society of the early Republic greatly esteemed the virtuous citizen who willingly assumed public duties in a selfless, disinterested manner, recruiting in the northeast and northwest was hampered by men’s loyalty to their regions (and regional militia) in preference to national army service. (195) Troop levies in the northwest were “hampered by a series of petty obstructions, usually arising from attempts to use writs of
habeus corpus to get men discharged on a variety of grounds, mainly wrongful enlistment.” (172) This is another story, especially in light of the government’s claims that one of the “popular” reasons for war was British impressment of American seamen.

A final dramatic moment (amidst several hundred pages of really dry political history) comes on January 5 1815, when the Hartford convention convened to discuss possible New England secession. An observer warned Monroe that they “would have to be crushed immediately. If the rebellious New England states were given time to organize an effective government, he believed they could, by virtue of their large populations and well-equipped militias, successfully ‘bid defiance’ to the Union, seize all the property of the federal government, and perhaps enter into an alliance with Britain. Monroe took the advice to heart. He increased the guard on the Springfield armory and on January 10 authorized New York Republican leaders...to draw on more money and volunteers to crush a rebellion or an invasion.” (481-2) Another story here, about regional interests, force, and national union.

This is an interesting period, and it seems there are several interesting stories waiting to be told about it. Something to keep in mind....

Merchants and Manufacturers

Glenn Porter and Harold C. Livesay
Merchants and Manufacturers: Studies in the Changing Structure of Nineteenth-Century Marketing

Their thesis is that “Changes in distribution played at least as important a role in the story of our economic past as did changes in production.” (1) No one who’s studied the history of transportation would think this point needed to be made again -- but apparently the shelves of business historians are “groaning with the weight of volumes dealing with...manufactured goods.”

This is interesting, although of limited use to me, because they specifically exclude ag. products from their study. Even so, their finding that “the all-purpose merchant...was the key man in the American economy in 1815...the channel through which agricultural products flowed to market, and he supplied manufactured goods and imported raw materials to city craftsmen and country storekeepers.” (15-16) And, for my purposes, he supplied country manufactures to the urban and international markets.

They briefly mention drug jobbers, who “depended on extensive trade with the interior to provide a wide market area with a sufficient volume of trade to insure success.” (29) These jobbers began as general merchants, in Porter and Livesay’s model, and then specialized in response to increasing volumes and competitive pressures. The jobber “had to maintain a large inventory of goods...[and] be prepared to ship goods in small lots on short notice” and extend credit to their rural retailers. “Storekeepers...relied on their suppliers to act as bankers and urban agents for them.” (29) And, because the majority of drugs initially came from England, drug jobbers usually had extensive foreign connections.

Porter and Livesay say merchants were much more successful than manufacturers in obtaining bank credit in the early nineteenth century, because “merchants usually
were the banks. An analysis of the directors and officers of the banks of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore in 1840, 1850, and 1860 reveals that more than two-thirds of the officials were or had been merchants.” (72) This was probably even more the rule in smaller communities, where merchants would have been the main investors as well as the main customers of local banks.

The merchant’s value as a financial expert declined during and after the Civil War,” the authors say. The proliferation of greenbacks allowed a “switch from credit to cash [that] virtually eliminated the merchant’s role as credit consultant and guarantor of payment.” (129) “The financing of transactions became the province of specialized agencies that evolved from private banks and brokerage houses...In 1850 it would have been difficult to find a producer not dependent on his distributors for capital; sixty years later one declared, ‘the manufacturer who needs the jobber as a commercial banker is a weak manufacturer.’” (129-30)
I think the point they miss, is that there wasn’t a hard border between manufacturing and merchandizing. Like the brothers whose papers I’ve been reading, many of these early manufacturers were also merchants...and bankers.

Banks and Kinship

Lamoreaux, N. R. (1986). "Banks, Kinship, and Economic Development: The New England Case." The Journal of Economic History 46(3): 647-667.

Lamoreaux challenges “scholars [who] have seen the persistence of traditional social institutions, and especially kinship-oriented business, as major impediments to economic development.” (666) Using an approach that looks somewhat like the Zeitlin/Ratcliff Chilean kinship-network argument of
Landlords and Capitalists (albeit with a positive spin), Lamoreaux argues that “Early banks in New England functioned not as commercial banks in the modern sense but as the financial arms of extended kinship networks.” (647)

“Scholars who have explored the relationship between banks and economic development have assessed the banking system in terms of what theoretically are its two major functions: to provide an adequate money supply and to serve as an intermediary between savers and investors.” I’d add one more function, which I think was behind Rockoff’s approach: as an intermediary to safeguard and insulate urban investors’ wealth (money stock) from direct contact with rural entrepreneur/borrowers (money flow). But I completely buy her argument that it’s the personal connections and kinship groups that are key here.

In 1800 there were 17 state-chartered banks in New England, with capital totaling $5.50 million. By 1850, this number had increased to 300, and the capital available for loan to $62.87 million. Ten years later, 505 New England banks controlled $123.56 million. (chart, 651) Capital during this period came to banks not primarily through deposits, but through investment, as first the founders and later a wider range of local people bought shares. Lamoreaux disagrees with Rockoff: even if initial capital “was largely fictitous...deposited only to satisfy legal requirements and then immediately withdrawn in the form of loans...sales of new shares to outsiders gradually transformed capital stock to a legitimate source of funds. (653-4) This may be true, but does it avoid the point that by getting in cheaply and then controlling subsequent paid-in capital, bank owners gained an incredible degree of economic power?

In the long run, institutional investors like insurance companies, savings associations, and trustees of large estates contributed the majority of bank capital. In many cases, these institutions were part of the same kin networks that initially owned, and continued to run the banks. “Members of kinship groups generally held large blocks of their banks’ stock at the time of formation.” (655) The percentage of bank stock held by the initial owners tended to decrease as the banks grew, but “the groups often retained their dominant positions on the banks’ boards of directors...because other stockholders rarely took an interest in the institutions’ affairs.” (655-6) And these same “kinship groups...often dominated the boards of the institutional investors that purchased their banks’ stock.” (657)

The role of these banks (despite the public-service rhetoric they employed to get their corporate charters during the early period, when incorporation implied quasi-governmental public status) was to “become engines to supply insiders with capital.” (657) “Even a prudent businessman,” Lamoreaux says, “might find himself in financial difficulty.” (658) The panic of 1837 and depression of 1839 had certainly proven that point. An emergency might force him to “convert illiquid assets into cash to pay off debts.” A friendly bank could “prevent distress sales of assets by accepting notes to balance accounts.” (659) After spending so much of his time in New York City, observing this process, is it any surprise that my upstate merchant started his own bank? Especially since, in the words of the 1854
Bankers Magazine, “where business is constantly and rapidly expanding, the younger class of business men who are entitled to bank facilities, equally with their older brethren, cannot have their wants fairly supplied without the occasional establishment of new banks. The old circle of customers use the existing banks to the extent of their capacity, and keep their door shut against the new men.” (663)

This raises questions that were apparently understood by bankers in the 1850s. Lamoreaux answers that “although the system of group-dominated banking doubtless resulted in some degree of favoritism in credit markets, the situation was remarkably fluid. Up-and-coming groups were able to build financial empires that rivaled those of the oldest, most established merchant families in the region.” (664) But even with no barriers to entry, is this what we’d call a “credit market?”

One thing that does seem certain, though, is that these banks facilitated a particular type of economic development. “Could kinship groups have tapped the community’s savings without their aid?” Lamoreaux asks. “The market for securities of manufacturing corporations in early nineteenth-century New England was extremely narrow,” she says. Even the Boston Associates failed to raise enough capital, and were forced to borrow. “The market for bank securities was much wider...because the diversified enterprises of the kinship groups permitted them to pay high and steady dividends and thereby draw out the community’s savings in a way that most individual ventures could never have done.” (665) “Without banks,” she concludes, “kinship groups would have been forced to depend largely on their own resources to finance investment.” (666)

Even if New England’s financial system allowed relatively free entry into banking, and banks allowed a slightly wider public to participate in a diversified portfolio of investments that would otherwise have been restricted to the very rich,
was the concentration of economic activity in the hands of these “kinship groups” a good thing? Lamoreaux mentions in the first few pages of her article that lawsuits across New England challenged the “insider” ways in which these chartered corporations behaved. Even banking commissioners admitted “an almost uniform departure from the original design of banks in this respect.” (651) Although it involves counterhistorical speculation, it might be useful to ask what alternatives there may have been to simply accepting the inevitability that “kinship groups” should gain access to the “community’s savings” to finance business ventures for their individual benefit. To what degree is this a free choice, made by empowered individuals (investors and later depositors) acting in their own best interests, and to what degree is the public’s range of choices limited by laws and social conventions that allow incorporation, interlocking control, and that regulate the terms and conditions of credit? (along these lines, do usury laws actually benefit established banks, by lowering the incentive for individuals to loan money to each other at higher -- risk-appropriate -- rates of interest?)

Banking and Economic Development

Rockoff, H. T. (1975). "Varieties of Banking and Regional Economic Development in the United States, 1840-1860." The Journal of Economic History 35(1): 160-181.

Although this is essentially an economic history article (meaning it uses and then discusses statistical techniques that I’m not interested in, and don’t necessarily believe), Rockoff makes some points that are helpful to me. First, the general premise, that in “the two decades before the Civil War...the Federal Government withdrew from the regulation of banking” (irrelevant for me, but interesting for our times, Rockoff ultimately concludes that banking deregulation had little measurable effect on economic development in this period).

Rockoff measures “bank deposits and circulating notes...per capita as the measure of financial development.” (160) This approach favors areas where population and wealth (and possibly inequality) are greatest, and not surprisingly urbanity correlates strongly with “financial development.” But this may be misleading. Rockoff seems to ignore other economic
uses of money in favor of its role as a store and signal of wealth. This basically wealth-oriented perspective discounts the (possibly much) greater velocity of money in developing regions, where funds are continuously cycling through the economy as people buy, sell, build, and consume. Rockoff’s lack of interest in this distinction is shown in the fact that New York is treated as a single entity, when in fact between 1840 and 1860, the state was a textbook example of the difference between urban and rural economies.

Rockoff highlights “free banking” laws in his analysis, which “ended the requirement that banks obtain their charters through special legislative acts.” (161) But this did not mean laissez faire. Even under free banking, the law “prohibited banks from investing in real property, [and] banks had to back issues of circulating notes with government bonds deposited with a state authority.” (162) The bond-reserve requirement (he doesn’t say, but I assume it was a 100% reserve) provided some security, but perhaps not as much as a specie reserve would have done. There seems to have been a way to “game” the discrepancy between par and market values of the underlying (state-issued) bonds. And many banks seem to have been started with capital that was immediately returned to investors in the form of loans. (160) But in any case, Rockoff says “from 1845 to 1860 New York experienced virtually no bank failures.” (162)

Rockoff notes that the “rate of growth of money per capita” in New York during this period “was quite rapid: 4.41 percent compared with 2.56 percent for the country as a whole.” (163) Of course, for my purposes, there’s the unresolved question of how much of that money growth was confined to New York City, and whether any of it found its way upstate? Proximity to the city probably increased the velocity of money through producing regions along the canal, but did it also divert
accumulation to banks and their corresponding investments in the city, at the expense of local investment? Rockoff says “level of urbanization...explain[s] about seventy percent of the variance in per capita money balances.” (167) But he also admits “these coefficients refer to stocks of assets rather than flows and should therefore be compared with wealth rather than income.” (169)

And maybe this is the biggest take-away for me --- that there’s a difference between wealth and income. The way money works in a system (or the way you see it working) is different when it’s moving, from when it’s accumulated. I don’t have the language for it yet (and I should probably look for this in period, rather than in contemporary sources), but there’s a crucial difference between stocks and flows of money in the nineteenth century. To the extent that accumulation was an urban phenomenon (even for the rural elite, who deposited their wealth in secure, prestigious urban institutions), this is another “country/city” issue. And maybe it plays a role in the personalities and conflicts I’m seeing in sources like the credit reports...

Bankruptcy made the middle class?

Edward J. Balleisen
Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

Balleisen focuses on the 1841 Bankruptcy Law, “partly because it coincided with and emanated from powerful transformations in the scope and character of American capitalism.” (4) He agrees with Bushman and Lamoreaux that commercial acitivity was more universal and widespread than some of the “market revolution” historians would grant, but concedes that “financial panics, like the ones in 1837 and 1839 that precipitated tens of thousands of commercial insolvencies” not only “unleashed an upsurge of political support for a comprehensive federal bankruptcy system,” but also helped push some members of the growing middle class away from an ethic of entrepreneurial risk-taking and self-reliance, toward a desire for financial security in salaried employment. (5)

“To a great extent,” Balleisen says, “the relationship between failing antebellum proprietors and their creditors resembled a game of cat and mouse.” (84) Since anyone could fail, maybe we could extend the group -- especially in light of the fact that only recently had a transition been made from an older system of credit between family members, neighbors, and friends, to an impersonal credit market. Naturally, “Debtors sought to hide their true circumstances from the holders of claims against them,...[and] creditors...did their best to pounce on whatever assets the debtors possessed.” (84-5) This seems especially apparent in the case of the rural merchants I’m studying, who seem to have credit relationships both in the family/community and outside it. It might be interesting to see if they behave differently, depending on the creditor’s status in their local network. It might also be interesting to look at the way these relationships change over time. These guys, after all, were creditors as well as debtors.

“In addition to resuscitating the entrepreneurial exertions of myriad antebellum bankrupts and fostering considerable social flux,” Balleisin says “general releases from debt contributed to the mutability and dynamism of the nineteenth-century economy. Along with the culture of privately negotiated compromises, antebellum bankruptcy discharges increased the pool of entrepreneurs who actively sought to make their fortune by extending the reach of commercial exchange, inventing new products, or developing new marketing techniques.” (198) In other words, the ability to get out from under a failed business encouraged people to experiment and overextend, to reach for the brass ring of personal enrichment because the price of failure had been reduced. It encouraged entrepreneurs who took risks, which means it penalized prudent, conservative, old-fashioned, and especially cash-based businessmen. It allowed a small group of unusually aggressive players to keep trying until they won (whether by learning from their failures or simply by finally getting lucky), while it pushed their wiser, more prudent competitors to the sidelines. Balleisen doesn’t dwell on this, but it’s the dark side of the “perpetual search for profitable innovation that constitutes a defining characteristic of modern capitalism.” (198)

For some failed entrepreneurs, though, Balleisen says “encounters with insolvency led them away from business ownership altogether.” There was “a substantial class of bankrupts who either could not resume independent business careers [even as artisans] or chose not to accept the risks associated with doing so...Many of these individuals walked away from the scenes of ongoing financial wreckage, seeking a different and less hazardous means of securing a living...Their efforts link the experience of antebellum bankruptcy to the rise of a salaried urban middle class.” (201) The result, Balleisen says, was a “burgeoning class of clerks, bookkeepers, and agents [who] could not only take consolation in their enjoyment of relative economic stability but also lay claim to a version of republican independence--one in which the most fundamental ‘autonomy’ rested not on the responsibilities of self-employment, but on freedom from both the most severe forms of subservience and the degrading precariousness of irretrievable indebtedness.” (219) “Despite the substantial contrast between these responses to personal legacies of insolvency,” he says, “they worked together to help usher in a new economic order structured around large, bureaucratic corporations, rather than small-scale producers and purveyors of goods and services. In part, post-bellum America’s world of trusts and tycoons rested on a foundation of pervasive individual failure.” (227) One way of looking at this would be to say, “well, alright. They lost their nerve and handed over the reins to their economic ‘betters’ in return for security. In return, they got to live quiet lives as modern consumers in the suburbs.” Another perspective, though, might be that changes in the legal system allowed bad money (and behavior) to drive out good, specifically because the bad actors were absolved of their responsibility when they failed. The risks were socialized, the rewards privatized. And 170 years later, here we are...


Bushman, “Markets and Composite Farms”
Lamoreaux, “Accounting for Capitalism”
Protestant Ethic, 58-75
Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 81-6
E.M. Gibson, “Going into Business,” 1855
Asa Greene, Perils of Pearl Street, 1834

Safety Valve

Danhof, Clarence H. "Farm-Making Costs and The "Safety Valve": 1850-60." The Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 3 (1941): 317-359.

Danhof argues that the idea that western migration represented a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues that it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 (“to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land.” 325), but also that it was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. Thus, a couple of people could hope to save a thousand dollars in about ten years.

Quotes many useful contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the NY Ag Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets.” (318) And: “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” says the
Working Farmer to its readers in 1859. (319) Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them.” (322)

Contrary to some accounts that talk about the denigration of “wage-slavery,” by agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high.” (323-4) Perhaps this urban labor demand, more than farm-making, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high.

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says. (329) And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum.” (330) The federal government assigned to individuals by...sale and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. the remaining land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies.” (331) Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of ‘the public lands] have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement.” (quoting 1857
Annual Message, 332)

Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing property in the east, where growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new western farmers were old eastern farmers, which can no doubt be verified demographically. And he notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the west. These other activities would have been resorted to by adventurous or desperate single people; families would (hopefully) have made more solid preparations and thought things through.

Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, financed by extended families. Both people who had gone before, and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind, contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. People also seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods.

The Market Revolution, grand narrative style

Sellers, Charles Grier
The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846

“History’s most revolutionary force, the capitalist market, was wresting the future from history’s most conservative force, the land.” (4)

I can deal with the slight determinism Sellers brings into this from Marx. The thing I really object to is the theology. The “centuries [of] peasant animism” sound remarkably like Carolyn Merchant, whose
Ecological Revolutions is the first volume cited in Sellers bibliographical essay (429). “Protestantism’s antipodal heresies” of antinomianism and arminianism are never clearly shown to be a cause or and effect. (30) Sellers simply says “The Awakening had an ultimately profound political effect by undermining deference,” without really explaining the sources of the Awakening. (31) Sellers wavers between a sort of determinist conspiracy theory where “Lawyers were the shock troops of capitalism” and a religious drama, where “Edwards’s revolutionary New Light, as finally modulated to the stresses of capitalist accommodation by Finney’s genius, nerved Americans for the personal transformation required by a competitive market.” (47, 235) Neither is satisfying, but along the way there’s plenty of interesting information I can look into further.

The Jeffersonians aren’t heroes in Sellers’ story. In 1802 Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin “convinced Congress to allocate land revenues from the new state of Ohio for a National Road connecting it with the Potomac via southwestern Pennsylvania, where his own investments were concentrated.” (62) The “Fourteenth Congress, convening in prosperous peace in December 1815, was filled with enterprise-minded lawyers” who took credit for “saving the republic from the military ineptitude of penny-pinching, old-fogy Republicanism.” (70) The transition from the Jefferson to the Madison (?) Republicans, and then to the younger generation (Quincy Adams, etc.) is interesting and probably has some insights and story ideas in it. Monroe “falling thousands of dollars in debt to the [Second] Bank’s chief promotor, John Jacob Astor, who regularly subsidized his habit of living beyond his means,” is also interesting. (80) But “The Adamses epitomized both the fruits and human costs of the self-repressive effort exacted by capitalist transformation. The sublimation of psychic energy that fueled the country’s astonishing surge of production also generated the emotional intensity that John Quincy Adams displaced onto his beloved republic.” (95) I agree Adams was nuts, but seriously, what do these sentences mean? I think the story flows much more smoothly where Sellers describes events like “the dramatic reversal of Republican tradition” where, in President Madison’s words, Republicans were “reconciled to certain measures and arrangements which may be as proper now as they were premature or suspicious when urged by champions of Federalism.” (101) Sellers has a keen sense of irony: this is a beautiful explanation of the role of parties in American politics.

In another ironic passage, Sellers describes Senator John Taylor (“of Caroline”) and his 1814
Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the United States. Taylor’s analysis of “capitalist exploitation of American agricultural labor” anticipates Marx, Sellers suggests. But it’s also absurd. “This doomed aristocrat, elaborating the labor theory of value while slave labor supplied his every want,” Sellers says, “epitomized the contradictions of the capitalist transformation.” (120) Well, maybe not, unless we throw away Genovese and the whole idea that the South wasn’t really capitalist in the Marxist sense of the word. But Sellers is right; there is a huge irony here. This is the tension I always notice when reading Foner: is it possible for a group as off-the-charts wrong as Southern Congressmen were, to articulate a valid indictment of Northern wage-based industry? And if not, is part of the tragedy of the antebellum period the fact that there was no one in a credible position to say what needed to be said about the way capitalist institutions were developing? Is that the lesson of American politics in this period: that both sides are so compromised that there is never any pure ground to stand on, so you make your choice of the lesser evil? Did people at the time “get” this? “Rotation in office” becomes the “spoils system” under Jackson -- was anyone surprised?

Sellers says “it is not surprising that the state banks, most having suspended specie payments during the war, were reluctant to resume redeeming their notes in gold or silver coin on demand. With speicie payments suspended, new banks could open on no other capital than stock loans and a little borrowed specie, and then force their notes into circulation by lending freely. Established banks could earn dividends of 12 to 20 percent by extending loans and note issues far beyond their specie reserves. The resulting uncontrolled inflation threatened sound growth,” but of course seemed like a good idea at the time, to each person who took the notes or loans from their eager local banker. (133) The question Sellers doesn’t really address is, how is it these banks were
allowed to do this? There’s more going on than just an old fashioned culture (in which Jefferson cosigns his friend Nicholas’ loan and loses his fortune. 138) that doesn’t understand what’s happening...isn’t there? Time to read some books on banking history.

In 1818, “with Henry Clay as its well-rewarded supervising attorney, the [new] national Bank [began] ruthlessly stripping its western debtors of their property. Most of Cincinnati fell into its hands.” (138) As a result, “General William Henry Harrison, popular hero of Tippecanoe, bank director, and longtime grandee, was hard run for the state senate by an upstart radical lawyer and hero of the city’s working class.” (165) Sellers doesn’t give a name, but it sounds like an interesting story. As does the idea that image politics began in 1828, when “Farmers and workers were baffled as well as threatened by the abstraction and complexity of the interests and issues that engaged calculating elites,” and as a result “Jackson’s charisma froze voters into a pattern of party identifications favoring his entourage.” (297) Were the issues that difficult? Were the people that dim? Who, then, was the audience for “self-taught mechanic/intellectual” William M. Gouge’s 1833
Short History of Paper Money and Banking?

So, when Jackson vetoed the Bank recharter, was he leading or following? The rhetoric was right on target: “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes...Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress.” (325) But if the “Bank War was the acid test of American democracy,” how is it no one in Jackson’s administration understood what throwing control back to unregulated state banks was going to do to the money supply? (321) It’s hard to see how anyone believed that without some other controls, the result would be a return to metallic “real” money. So either part of the story is missing, or people weren’t honest. “Legislatures chartered over two hundred new banks in three years, pushing the total over six hundred. As the money supply (bank notes, deposits, and circulating specie [he forgets credit notes, which functioned as cash]) swelled from $172 million in 1834 to $276 million in 1836, prices shot up 50%.” Thomas Hart Benton complained “I did not join in putting down the Bank of the United States, to put up a wilderness of local banks...I did not join in putting down the paper currency of a national bank, to put up a national paper currency of a thousand local banks.” (344) What had he expected?

The Specie Circular was overturned by Congress in December 1836 by Whigs and “Conservative Democrats,” and “Jackson’s last official act was a pocket veto sustaining his hard-money policy against the bipartisan dismay of politicians.” Jackson came to Washington as a result of the Panic of 1819, and left after setting off the Panic of 1837. “Economic disaster and multiplying immigrants--from 38,914 in 1838 to 104,565 in 1842--soon brought plebeian nativism to a boil” and launched America on its irrevocable path toward urban industrial capitalism. Really? The US census in 1840 totaled 17,069,453. The 1842 tsunami of immigration amounted to less than one percent of the total population. Even if the immigrants had all arrived in and remained in New York City (they didn’t), they would have made up only about 25% of the city’s population. A little more engagement with nuts and bolts, and a little less psychodynamics, would have made this a more readable and persuasive book.

But they didn’t ask me. In 1992, the
Journal of the Early Republic invited a panel to participate in a Symposium on Market Revolution. (Somehow, the Journal managed to not invite a number of social historians who had been working on the market revolution for decades. But many of these historians had a chance to be heard in Stokes and Conway’s 1996 book) Kicking off was Richard Ellis, a former student of Sellers’ who said that although the book did “not pay the careful attention to detail” that people had come to expect from Sellers, his comprehensiveness [and]...aggressive presentation of meaningful and provocative generalizations...will act as a catalyst for numerous doctoral dissertations.” (447) Mary Blewett hints that social historians have already moved well beyond Sellers’ and says they will be frustrated and disappointed by his synthesis. (454) Joel Silbey subtly suggests that Sellers is simply following a line of argument “so well explored and synthesized previously by Harry Watson (who, in his blurb, called the book a “brilliant achievement... Combining vast scholarship with vivid, trenchant prose). (455) In his turn, Watson reminds readers that resistance to the market transition has been discussed in the terms Sellers uses by Henretta, Clark, Kulikoff, etc.

In his defense, Sellers admits that the “theologisms” are daunting, but says that’s the way it has to be. He reiterates his belief that “the Protestant tension between antinomianism and arminianism was the central tension in early American life.” (473) Religion is important and “demands the special attention of historians because through it, as through politics, the largest numbers of people most visibly register their reactions to their circumstances.” (476) This is probably my biggest issue with Sellers approach. Politics is an imperfect mirror of regular people’s ideas about life and society, because they most often are choosing from a set menu (between the giant douche or the turd sandwich, to put it in South Park terminology). But
at least there are no institutional barriers to political participation. Regular people are at least theoretically eligible to play. This is not the case with religion. The whole point of the religious game is control from above. Even where the message is individual, internal salvation through grace, the medium is still an elite white guy in the pulpit, who the “lay” people are indoctrinated to believe and follow. “Nothing could be more liberating for American historians,” Sellers says, “than recognizing our own embeddedness in the liberal ideology we should be subjecting to critical analysis.” (475) I agree, but the same goes for Sellers’ own embeddedness in theology.

Consequences of the Market Revolution

Melvyn Stokes and Stephen Conway
The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880

This book is primarily a series of essays responding to Sellers’
Market Revolution. The most interesting essay, from my perspective is Christopher Clark’s. Professor Clark is front and center, the first chapter and the the only contributor who “addresses the paradigm itself,” according to Sellers in his response. There’s also an interesting essay by Eric Foner, that revisits the ground he covered 25 years earlier in Free Soil.

In his introduction, Stokes mentions an 1816 Senate report “pointed out that a ton of goods could be brought from Europe for roughly nine dollars, while the same amount would pay for shipment over only thirty miles by land.” (2) Stokes also reminds us that “in the eight decades between Revolution and Civil War, government at all levels interfered constantly and with major consequences in American economic life.” (5) Both of these points are worth remembering. In addition to the books I’m planning to read, Stokes highlights Watson’s
Liberty and Power; Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy; Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties; Shade, Banks or No Banks; and Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (although this may be covered adequately by his later What Hath God Wrought, which is on my list).

Clark’s response to Sellers begins on an interesting note, with a subtle challenge to the “kind of overall synthesis that once seemed to provide clear interpretive frameworks for professional scholars and the public.” (23) This is especially interesting to me, both because I’m interested in the different ways we write history for professionals and for the public, and because that was my strongest reaction to Sellers’ book as well. After reading dozens of detailed, primary-source rich new social histories,
Market Revolution’s broad brushstrokes and Sellers’ claim to be writing the new master narrative that would overturn and replace its predecessors seemed both old-fashioned and (gotta say it) arrogant. It seems to me that in light of the twin challenges of post-modernism and the intricate webs of causality, self-awareness, and complexity found by Clark and others, it’s extremely difficult to argue for the type of straight-ahead, mono-causal approach typical of master narratives. Difficult to attribute all change to one cause, but even more difficult to refute someone else’s findings, given the universe of possible sources and stories the past holds.

But back to the text. Clark first summarizes the consensus built by himself and others, “over a generation of scholarship in several fields, particularly in the rural history of the American north,” (and remarkably, somehow absent from both Sellers book and the first round of professional response -- cf. the 1992
Journal of the Early Republic Symposium) and suggests that these findings complicate the “set of binary comparisons between conditions before and after the market revolution” presented by Sellers and most mainstream historians. (24, 28) Clark’s argument is “not that these things did not happen...but rather that they are in many ways a selective, mutually reinforcing collection of observations that direct attention away from a much richer tapestry of circumstances.” (28) “When markets and market values come to be seen as penetrating American society,” Clark continues, “we start to lose a sense of the intricate processes entailed in bringing this about. The market then becomes an abstract, catch-all explanation, resistant to detailed examination.” (29) It’s a little ironic that this should be the case for Sellers, who shares with Clark an interest in the ways many Americans resisted this growing capitalist hegemony. How much more is it a danger for pro-capitalist historians like Appleby and Rothenberg?

Freed from a strict requirement to exhaustively back up every claim, Clark takes the opportunity to extend his position a little beyond its former (published) boundaries. He says “
Market is too often conflated with capitalism,” but although he may sympathize with Merrill’s argument, Clark doesn’t repeat it. Instead, he draws a distinction between “adaptation to dependence on markets” and the “shift in social relations” brought about by wage labor and the “commercial and institutional relationships that handled finance, production, and distribution on a larger and larger scale.” (30) The institutional relationships he’s referring to include “an increasing tendency for those with economic power to make use of legal principles and court judgments that could shield their interests from public scrutiny or interference.” (35) This is substantially the Horwitz argument, modified by Tomlins (Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic, which I should read).

The picture Clark wants to leave us with is of a change that’s infinitely more varied and complicated than the words “market revolution” would imply. Religious revivalism, credit panics and depressions, cultural distrust of peddlers and salesmen, and a stubborn persistence of “moral economy” all suggest that “the process of market development was more interrupted and less unidirectional than we are often inclined to conceive of it.” (31) And that “Acceptance of the notion that the market was morally neutral was...[and is] uneven and contested.” (32)

I think the most interesting idea in the chapter (and in the book, actually) is Clark’s extension of the idea that “legal judgments tended to place decisions about property rights beyond the risk of legislative interference,” to the suggestion that “‘Privacy’ was not so much a politically neutral social consequence of a market economy, as a carefully evolved, necessary condition of its continuation in a democratic context.” (37)

“The conventional historical interpretation of the effects of the market revolution” that Sellers represents, Clark says, is rooted in a “mythology [that] was a product of the ideological hegemony of the beneficiaries and supporters of American capitalism.” (38) In other words, the capitalists hijacked the American identity myth. “Individualism, inventiveness, mobility, freedom, and entrepreneurialism were not the conditions under which most nineteenth-century people lived.” So the fact that they emerged at this time as the embodiment of Americanism needs to be explained. It
could be progressive, optimistic, positive thinking. Or it could have other motives. Or a combination of motives and responses, in some type of ongoing conversation that extends to the present. Damn! I’m going to have to read postmodernism after all...

Rothenberg's economic history

Winifred Barr Rothenberg
From Market-Places to a Market Economy

First thing to note: WBR is a professor of economics at Tufts University. Second, this book is substantially a compilation of a series of articles that appeared in
Agricultural History and (mostly in) The Journal of Economic History. Some of Rothenberg’s opinions about the “moral economy” model appear in a review of Hahn and Prude’s Countryside in the Dec. 1987 Reviews in American History, titled “Bound Prometheus.”

Through extensive primary research and mathematical modeling, Rothenberg came to the conclusion that the “capitalist transition” began around 1750, and was substantially underway in rural Massachusetts by 1800. While she performs a little sleight of hand navigating between a tight, economist’s definition of capital and markets, and the expansive, politically loaded language used in the historians’ debate, Rothenberg uncovers some really valuable data which helps advance our understanding of events, wherever we stand on the “social vs. market” historiographical spectrum.

Economically, Rothenberg rests her evaluation of whether markets are operating on a combination of two related ideas. “Synchronicity
and convergence in the behavior of prices,” she says, “is an acknowledged diagnostic of the role of market forces in their determination.” (xiv) As transportation and communication improvements allow farmers to participate in distant markets and to use price cues from those markets as guides in their local exchange relationships, Rothenberg says “markets embedded within and constrained by values antithetical to them within the culture” evolved into “the ‘disembedded‘ market whose values penetrated and reinvented that culture.” (3)

Rothenberg is drawing on and commenting on a long lineage of sociological, economic, and cultural critique, in a way that seems unnecessary and overly polemical. She borrows the word “disembedded” from Karl Polanyi, with all its political baggage. The idea that price synchronicity defines a market economy is Braudel’s, while the concept of convergence Rothenberg adds to it comes from Alfred Marshall. (20-1) As she’s pulling these two ideas together, Rothenberg considers and rejects Marc Bloch’s suggestion that a market exists when people don’t simply buy and sell, but “
live by buying and selling.” (20) How would you measure that? she asks.

I’m less interested in the general question of when “market-place economies” become “market economies,” than with how the market expanded into rural Massachusetts. The breakdown of Puritan strictures against usury seems to be a part of this change, as Rothenberg suggests. But if this is caused by the introduction of “the fundamental assumption of modernity...that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person,” how did that work? (quoting Daniel Bell,
The Cultural Conditions of Capitalism, which maybe I should look at for an answer. 15) It’s all well and good to observe that “the market (for better or worse) objectifies some of the culture’s most cherished values,” but Rothenberg wants to say it also created these values, without resorting to cultural or intellectual history or mentalités. This is important, because if we can agree on the values (“the sovereignty of the individual,” 16), we can then turn to examining what happened and asking if events and actions were consistent with these ideals? Did “market” ideas matter? Did they direct change? Or did they just serve as rhetorical cover for other processes and other goals?

Rothenberg finds some great material! Here’s George Washington to Arthur Young, Dec. 5 1791: “The aim of farmers in this country is, not to make the most from the land, which is or has been cheap, but the most from labour, which is dear: the consequence of which has been, much of the ground has been scratched over, and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been.” (25) Throughout the book, Rothenberg shows that farmers’ actions can be understood as economic decisions (and often sophisticated and reasonable ones) reflecting more knowledge and understanding of their environment and options than they are normally credited with having. This is extremely helpful, even if I don’t go as far as she does in rejecting the influence of other sources of information and values on farmers’ decisions.

The moral economy model, as Rothenberg sees it, involves four basic features. Its members, being risk averse (because the whole point of the moral economy is the extremely tenuous nature of their existence) prefer “minimizing expected losses over maximizing expected gains.” (29) Individualism is “subordinated to community norms,” and “The two institutional pillars of the market system--the rule of contract and private property--are conspicuously absent” (quoting Platteau regarding third world villages, which I think raises a question about the relevance of these kinds of atemporal sociological comparisons. 29). There may, she says, be a “two-tier system in which exchanges
within the village...are insulated from exchanges with the outside world...The ‘prices’ at which goods exchange within the village are mere ‘cultural constructs,’” Rothenberg concludes, as if prices arrived at by “market outcomes” were not.

“Indexes of individuation” are linked to the 1740-45 religious upheavals of the Great Awakening, Rothenberg says, because both are caused by “the
breakdown of community solidarity [that] in turn can be traced to rapid population growth.” (38) It is nice to see an appraisal that doesn’t treat religious motivations as free-standing, causeless causes. Similarly, she not only lists the many difficulties of studying persistence (for example, varied and changing town dimensions that make it difficult to compare two towns or to compare the same town in different time periods), she also asks the important question, “what in fact does persistence measure?” (40) Is it a measure of community harmony? Or of the expense and difficulty of leaving?

“The capacity to produce surpluses,” Rothenberg says, “is often treated as so necessary a condition to trade that the moral economists infer the absence of marketing solely from calculations that the local resource base would have been insufficient to produce surpluses.” (46) This is the “principal misconception in the historical literature on markets,” because it implies that households and communities evolve from self-sufficiency to market involvement, which in many cases (like the cobbler’s bare-foot children) is untrue. Based on her data, Rothenberg argues “that ‘time’s arrow’ may very well have gone
from marketing to self-sufficiency” in rural Massachusetts. (49)

Rothenberg’s specific arguments about market activity and productivity gains in Massachusetts seem reasonable, for the most part. She spends several pages relating hog slaughter weights to corn prices, before admitting that “Corn is not in fact the basic feed of hogs.” (106) But through most of it, I didn’t feel that she was going off the tracks (as far as I could follow the argument, with an undergrad Ag. Economics background). But I also didn’t feel particularly compelled to abandon a “social” perspective that could accept this data and integrate it with other, non-market factors Rothenberg believes she is refuting.

“Local markets relayed the shocks [of the national and world economies] as changing relative prices,” Rothenberg says, “and resilient farmers responded by shifting from grains to hay, from hay to dairying, and finally from agriculture to commerce and industry.” (113) The interesting thing is, the increases in agricultural productivity and the diversification of rural capital investment that made these changes possible seem to date from the years between the end of the Revolution and Jefferson’s election. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Appleby’s claim that the Jeffersonians were pro-commerce, but it suggests they were riding a wave not of their own making.

“Central to such a [rural capital] transformation must have been the development of an effective mechanism for increasing the liquidity of the regional economy,” so that the gains farmers were accumulating were free to move within (and to leave) the local agricultural economy. I think my upstate NY data suggests that one may have led to the other. The requirements for this change, Rothenberg says, are “institutional elements” allowing “credit instruments [to] become more fully negotiable,” an “increasing size and widening geographic spread of individual credit networks,” and sufficient “liquidity of financial instruments and therefore the propensity of rural wealthholders to substitute them for physical assets.” (114) I think this is exactly the role played by my miller/storekeepers in the 1840s. Ironic that the Duns reporters considered one of them a complete deadbeat. Does that suggest the Duns guys were a little conservative? Their clients were urban creditors, after all. I wonder if anyone has written about this?

Rothenberg’s discussion of negotiability picks up right where Horwitz left off, so it’s lucky I read them back to back. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to accept both Rothenberg’s conclusions on when and how credit and negotiable notes penetrated rural markets, and Horwitz’s suggestion that legal changes were producing a “capitalist” political/economic regime in the Merrill sense (for the benefit of the rich). In fact, Rothenberg’s data shows “The very rich appear to have been borrowing in order to lend, using their acreage...to underwrite their borrowing while at the same time shifting the composition of their assets out of farming and into commercial paper. The very rich were coming into the capital market on both sides. And they alone were emerging as net creditors.” (143) In other words, a widening of the gap between the wealthy and their neighbors preceded the industrial transformation normally blamed for it.

The final chapter, on productivity, is surprising because Rothenberg finds evidence that “Massachusetts farmers were moving away from cereals to specialize in hay...in advance of significant western competition;” in fact “by 1801.” (221) This would seem to support the view that demand from what Bidwell (1921) calls a “home market” may have driven productivity growth, but may have begun much earlier than previously supposed. The earlier beginning of significant demand, increases in productivity, and the resulting returns to rural farmers could have financed the New England industrial revolution, just as Rothenberg suggests. Additionally, rural demand for “outside” goods may have been encouraged by the increased reach of storekeepers and peddlers into previously remote hinterlands. The Revolution seems like the second major mobility-enhancing event in the eighteenth century; the Seven Year War may have been the real beginning. And the story of Shays’s Rebellion is enhanced (but not completely rewritten, since Richards has already improved on Szatmary’s account) if an increasing upland/lowland disparity of farm prosperity adds to the other social and financial factors already cited as causes of that conflict.

Clark 1991

Subtitle: "Opening up the Rural History of the Early American Northeast."

In his introduction, Clark says "These [prototypical capitalist] farmers were of little interest, except to local and agricultural historians." (280) This is an interesting comment, coming from a social historian. Suggests that not everyone is equally interesting -- that in order to be worthy of study, data has to support analysis: show how something important changed over time, etc. This could be interpreted simply as the "why should I care test," or it could be construed to imply an ideological litmus test, if you were looking for a fight.

Clark argues for a synthesis of Kulikoff's "market" and "social" points of view, in which "the former's quantitative ecvidence is incorporated into the latter's broader perspective." (281) This whole attempt at integrating data with interpretive structure is interesting -- it's a microcosm of the problem facing the history profession today. An example of this tension between evidence and theory is Clark's observation that "the rural Northeast provides an unusual phenomenon in the Wallerstein world-system: a periphery that turned itself into a core. Explaining how this happened will have important theoretical implications," not least because it will test the amenability of systems theory to data.

Henretta's Mentalité

In this essay, which stands as one of the three (with Clark 1979 and Merrill) founding documents of the new social history's approach to the market revolution, Henretta objects to Lemon's characterization (in The Best Poor Man's Country) of "settlers [as] individualists, enterprising men and women intent upon the pursuit of material advantage at the expese of communal and non-economic goals." (4) Henretta says the "data presented by Lemon do not support this description of the inhabitants' 'orientation.'" Says instead, that peopel settled in ethnic and religious clusters, suggesting the "importance of communal values [and] identity."

Henretta says early American communities showed "correlation among age, wealth, status, and power...indicat[ing] the profound importance of age as a basic principle of social differentiation." (7) He goes on to say that "geographical movement...helped to maintain social stability in long-settled agricultural towns. One-third of all adult males in Goshen, connecticut, in 1750 were without land; but two decades later a majority of these men had left the town and 70 percent of those who remained had obtained property through marriage, inheritance, or the savings from their labor. A new landless group of unmarried sons, wage laborers, and tenant farmers had appeared in Goshen by 1771, again encompassing one-third of adult males." (ref. J. T. Main and Danhof, 9) But another way of looking at this, is that families held the land (and wealth?). How many of these landless young men were members of land-owning families? Similarly, Henretta seems to underestimate migration as a family strategy, and the ability of the essential family bond to remain unchanged over great distances and successive moves. The Ranney history suggests this very strongly.

Henretta quotes Neil McNall (
Genesee Valley) that "on no frontier was there an easy avenue to land ownership for the farmer of limited means." (10) He disparages Hofstadter's "Myth of the Happy Yeoman," and respects Bidwell's logic and level-headedness. "The revolution in agriculture, as well as the breaking down of the self-sufficient village life, awaited the growth of a [large, urban] non-agricultural population," he quotes. (Bidwell, Rural Economy, 16) Until there was a stable, safe, accessible market, farmers produced for themselves and near neighbors. McNall apparently talks (in Ch. 4) about the ability of "bankers, speculators, and merchants [to] use their political and economic power th set the terms of exchange" and gain "unearned" profits -- this probably bears looking into, especially because he's talking about upstate NY.

Henretta makes the leap into culture by suggesting that social-economic realities "inhibited the emergence of individualism" on the frontier. (26) And even after the settlers became successful, "young adults of thriving farm communities," who stood to inherit land and a profitable way of life, "were not forced to confront the difficult problems of occupational choice and psychological identity as were those from depressed and overcrowded rural environments or growing cities." (30) That may be a stretch, but clearly the problems (including identity crises) faced by rural kids were probably different from those of their urban cousins.

Anti-Capitalist Origins

Michael Merrill
“The Anti-Capitalist Origins of the United States”

Adam Smith, Merrill says, was an anti-capitalist who “sharply condemned the ‘mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor should be, the rulers of mankind.’” (465) The point, of course, is that this argument (and the whole question of the “capitalist transition”) revolves around how you define “capitalism.”

Merrill says the word was not used much in the 18th century, and when it was used he says it carried connotations of “court capitalism,” the process by which political hangers-on enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of society. “Capitalism,” for Merrill, means a
political-economic organization of society by and for the benefit of “capitalists.” In this sense, he says, “the American Revolution did more to retard than to hasten capitalism’s triumph in the New World [by] bringing to power a self-conscious class of small property holders who would resist dispossession and proletarianization for more than a century.” (466)

Historians, Merrill says, “universally equate ‘capitalism’ with what eighteenth-century political economists called ‘commercial society,’ and take for granted that the expansion of the latter automatically entailed the triumph of the former.” (468) “This shift in emphasis is not inconsequential,” Merrill says. (471) The real question might be, was it self-conscious and deliberate? Because, as
he points out in 1995, equating a market economy with capitalism means that being anti-capitalist is the same as being against commerce -- which everyone realizes is absurd.

But back to the market revolution. Merrill says “if the
Wealth of Nations had a single theme, it was that the monied interest was not the same as the public interest.” (475) The cast of characters remains the same, but Merrill sees their motivations slightly differently. “Many of the former colonists,” he says, “were set to sweep away the monopolies, duties, prohibitions, and restraints that both the Declaration of Independence and The Wealth of Nations had complained of so bitterly.” (480) Hamilton tried to build a “capitalist” economy that emulated Great Britain “not so much because he admired its economic and political institutions but because he feared its political might.” (486) This is an interesting point, because it provides Hamilton with a patriotic benefit-of-the-doubt, where other historians have been quick to condemn him.

In his letters to Robert Morris, Hamilton complained “as early as the winter of 1779-1780 [before Jefferson published his
Notes on the State of Virginia] that ‘a great part of our internal commerce is carried on by barter,’ which he thought ‘inconvenient, partial, confined, [and] destructive of both commerce and industry.’ Most awkwardly, it also interfered with the ability of the government to raise an adequate revenue,” which is the main point. “The farmers have the game in their hands,” Hamilton warned. (487) “Hamilton’s funding system created an artificial interest--a class of monied men whose wealth and income was due to public largess and not to their own industry,” Merrill says, noting that this group “would ever more work to secure legislation that benefited themselves at the expense of the public.” (490) This is true, and tragic. But, following the logic of Merrill’s story, this is not why Hamilton did it. He did it to locate economic power in a group that was dependent on government, in the hopes that he and his successors would be able to control the economy through them. No one could imagine, of course, how large the economy (and thus the power of this dependent group) would grow in the nineteenth century.

The Democratic-Republican agrarian alternative, which favored discriminating between the holders of the debt (to avoid enriching speculators by assumption), retiring it quickly, reducing taxes, and limiting banking and joint-stock corporations, seems very reasonable in retrospect. Extensive, rather than intensive, development became more feasible after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The question is, did the Jeffersonians have a viable economic plan before the “revolution of 1800,” or were they arguing in a more “moral economy” direction? And how did this effect our subsequent understanding of what happened in both political and economic history?

Clark: Social Change in America

Christopher Clark
Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War

An overview of American social history over the “market revolution” period Professor Clark described in detail in western Massachusetts in
The Roots of Rural Capitalism. In the introduction, Clark outlines six areas he thinks hold the most interest: families and households, work and labor, new social structures and elites that emerge “from the interactions of households, labor, and property,” regional differences, and the tension between “extensive” growth over new territories and “intensive” development in settled areas. (x) He anchors the narrative in a “perspective that places regional social differences at the heart of an argument about national developments. These differences were not variations or exceptions to general trends,” Clark says; “rather, their interactions were the essence of social change” throughout this period. (xi)

Clark further suggests “that the inequalities of status between individuals within households played almost as significant a role in driving social change as conflicts and tensions arising from inequalities between social groups.” (xi) This is a difficult claim to sustain in a book of national scope, I think. Slavery is such a monumental problem, it seems to overwhelm local, family-based conflicts over paternalism and dependence. As Garrison said, “Poverty is not slavery.” (233) While it’s true that political freedom and economic freedom are not the same, a nuanced analysis of “unfreedom” in families and the household’s role as a model of society seems a bit trivial when compared with America’s big issue of the nineteenth century. It’s an interesting dilemma: how do you talk about smaller social issues that were more relevant to the lives of many Americans, when you have to keep jumping back to the big problem, and do it justice? The point, I guess, is that the same basic problem of power and inequality is at the root of all these issues.

This text would be a really interesting way to organize an undergrad class (or even an AP high school class). Clark introduces ideas students could run a long way with: that “Households were the primary...agents of social and economic organization,” and that “on the eve of the American Revolution, four of every five people” lacked the basic rights the Colonies were fighting for “because they held a status legally defined as dependent.” (3, 4) Interesting too, that John Adams recognized in 1790, that “the great question will forever remain,
who shall work?” (9)

In a sense, this book is a 296-page field exam. The undergrads won’t notice, of course, but as I was reading, I was able to sort-of tick off (some of) the historiography. There’s “the best poor man’s country.” (12) There’s urban growth and seasonal labor demands influencing migration between country and city. (16) But he threw in some thought-provoking surprises: “in the late colonial period, the Mid-Atlantic region was supplying about one-seventh of the world’s rapidly-growing demand for iron.” (14) Or: “When peace was signed in 1783, the British resettled thousands of black soldiers in eastern Canada.” (49) And the narrative is shaped by ideas: “the existence of elites...shaped the geography of revolution and the initial boundaries of the new United States.” (35) It would be a good exercise, as I read for the fields, to try to fit what I’m learning into an overarching narrative like this one.

Other interesting notes for me: “the population of New York State nearly trebled within twenty years, from 340,000 people in 1790 to 959,000 in 1810.” (90) And, confirming my suspicion (derived originally from Clark in the
Roots or somewhere else, I don’t recall?) that women really pushed forward the “transition” to get out of time-consuming, inefficient home textile production, Clark quotes an 1833 Dudley resident, Aaron Tufts: “Comparatively nothing is done in the household manufactory...a female can now earn more cloth in a day than she could make in the household way in a week.” (from “the McLane Report,” Documents Relative to Manufacture in the United States, Doc. no. 308, 1833, I: 69. 165) A good reminder that the new economy benefited rural people, and that they knew this and acted accordingly.

Immigration pressure during the 1840s depression is an interesting idea. “Irish immigration...100,000 in 1847 [to] as high as 221,000 in 1851.” (181) German migration, peaking in 1854 when the total of 215,000 immigrants “temporarily exceeded that of any other group.” (182) Part of the answer to the question of settlement patterns could be based in the local economies at the time these people landed, especially the relative weakness of particular agricultural markets. On the other hand, land would have been cheaper...

Northeastern urban/rural differences in inequality are also interesting. “In Boston, 1 percent of the total population held 65 percent of aggregate wealth recorded in tax lists in 1860, and the richest 10 percent held more than 95 percent...The remaining 5 percent of wealth was held by the middling 40 percent ...and the bottom half of the city’s population had nothing at all.” (193) Big difference, even when compared with places like
Northampton. A couple of pages later: “While there were about 1,800 clergymen in 1800...by 1845 there were almost 40,000.” (198) Hmm...

Good annotated bibliography, too. I found a couple of books in it that hadn’t been on my radar, that now are.

Lawyers and the Elite

Morton J. Horwitz
The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860

Horwitz argues a fairly radical case, which may not have received wide enough recognition due to the subject matter and style. He says “I seek to show that one of the crucial choices made during the antebellum period was to promote economic growth primarily through the legal, not the tax, system, a choice which had major consequences for the distribution of wealth and power in American society.” (xv) He also has some interesting ideas about the way “the internal technical life of a field generates autonomous forces that determine its history.” (xi) We make a mistake, Horwitz believes, if we fail to account for the activities and interests of lawyers, judges, the legal profession, law schools, etc., when looking at how “the law” influenced history. The same could probably be said, with equally interesting results, for religion, medicine, or the study of history itself.

Horwitz looks at common law. Constitutional law, he says, “represents episodic legal intervention buttressed by a rhetorical tradition that is often an unreliable guide to the slower (and often more unconscious) processes of legal change in America.” (xii) Constitutional law also focuses on judicial review, rather than what Horwitz characterizes as a very active, constructive, legislative role taken on by nineteenth century jurists. “By 1820,” he says, “the process of common law decision making had taken on many of the qualities of legislation. As judges began to conceive of common law adjudication as a process of making and not merely discovering legal rules, they were led to frame general doctrines based on a self-conscious consideration of social and economic policies.” (2) The ancient tradition of “an eternal set of principles expressed in custom and derived from natural law” gave way to an understanding of law as “an instrument of policy” that could be used “for governing society and promoting socially desirable conduct.” (30) Once this change had been made, the game became one of defining the terms “socially desirable.”

The major examples Horwitz uses to illustrate this change surround the competing uses for water (mill power, irrigation, navigation, fishing -- although he doesn’t really try to make the case for each of these or point out how these interests were distributed in society), which illustrated the problems inherent in “a conception of ownership [including] a commitment to absolute dominion.” (31) There was a problem, in a newly-settled land, respecting the concept that “first in time is first in right.” (32) And resources’ “natural use” came to be seen as a lowest common denominator, that would block socially desirable improvements like the operation of mills. (33) The problem was, it was a pandora’s box. While it made sense to grant initial exclusivity to a developer (how many grist mills did a new town need?), “can the claims of still greater efficiency through competition be denied?” Horwitz asks. (34) He fails to examine closely whether the “greater efficiency” ever really produced its claimed social benefits (or even existed, other than as short-term paper gains) -- but maybe the people at the time didn’t ask these questions either. The point is that “By changing the rules and disguising the changes in the complexities of technical legal doctrine, the facade of economic security can be maintained even as new property is allowed to sweep away the old.” (34) This is Horwitz’s major point. The legal system, he says, was used to not only change the rules of the game to benefit an increasingly elite class, but also to
hide the fact that these changes were being made. This is a great argument. What it needs is some people in the story to show how it happened, and how people reacted, assuming anyone on the short end of the transaction knew it was happening. (this raises an interesting question: how do we tell stories about things we now see were happening, but that people of the time were unaware of? Because the evidence was hidden, or they just didn’t see things the way we do. Especially when people know something is wrong, but can’t put their finger on it -- or blame it on the wrong thing? The story isn’t just about unintended consequences, it’s about misunderstood consequences...)

Horwitz says the Massachusetts decision in
Cary v. Daniels was “premised on the desirability of maximizing economic development even at the cost of equal distribution.” (41) This opened the door for the courts to direct business toward their idea of the public good and “enabled common law judges to choose the direction of American economic development,” at least when it came into contact with older legal ideas of property and equity. (42) I’ve been wondering how people at the time responded to these changes; maybe one place to look would be at the “storm of bitter protest” caused by the “extension of the mill act to manufacturing establishments.” (51) Apparently there were people who saw through the similarity of water power, and argued that while early mills had been almost communal in nature, “manufacturing establishments were private institutions.” (51) Citizens saw through the law’s provisions for relief, arguing “Generally, the mills and mill seats are in the hands of the active and wealthy -- able to make the sufferers repent, if they resort to the law.” (52)

One of the state’s main economic development tools was eminent domain. But tied up with it is the idea of chartered monopoly and of limiting liability. A State grant is no good if “the grantee cannot exercise it without being subject to ruinous damages, so as to swell the cost of their enterprise” beyond its ability to make a profit, one commentator warned. (69) Rather than examine whether these social costs really argued against the business going forward (especially in the cases of railroads in the 1840s-60s), Horwitz says the courts socialized “consequential damages.” This enabled them to disqualify them, under the legal justification that “The law gives no
private remedy for anything but a private wrong.” (quoting Blackstone, 76) So the costs were socialized (in economic terms, externalized) at the same time the benefits were privatized in the form of corporate profits. (Horwitz doesn’t say much about the decision to do projects like Canals and Railroads in the private rather than the public sector; but it would be interesting to understand how this choice was made in America.)

Over the course of the nineteenth century, Horwitz says the basic “attitude toward legal liability” became “based on the assumption that the ‘quiet citizen must keep out of the way of the exuberantly active one.’ Indeed, the law of negligence became a leading means by which the dynamic and growing forces in American society were able to challenge and eventually overwhelm the weak...After 1840 the principal that one could not be held liable for socially useful activity exercised with due care became a commonplace in American law.” (99) The effect of this change was “to create immunities from legal liability and thereby to provide substantial subsidies” to developers. (100) “Change brought about through technical legal doctrine,” Horwitz says, “can more easily disguise underlying political choices [than] Subsidy through the tax system.” (101) Horwitz says “there is reason to suppose” that this “was not simply an abstract effort to avoid political contention but that it entailed more conscious decisions about who would bear the burdens of economic growth.” This is a really interesting claim, but it needs to be backed up, I think, with some evidence that actual people made this decision at the time.

“In every state after 1790,” Horwitz says, “a political decision to avoid promoting economic growth primarily through taxing seems to have crystallized.” (109) Shays’ and the Whiskey Rebellions would have helped that crystalization, as well as recognition that there wasn’t any money out there to
get through taxing. Horwitz continues, “By 1800 a pattern of private ownership of banks, insurance companies, and transportation facilities had become dominant in America.” (110) Again, true, but the question is why? Attributing the change in definition of corporations to an individualist spirit seems to put the cart before the horse, since early corporations “continued to argue both that their charters were grants of exclusive property interests and that economic rivalry was, in effect, a private law nuisance to property.” (114) This seems like a blatantly opportunistic attempt to have your cake and eat it to: the corporations were capitalizing on their status as something in between public and private, with the benefits of both. But the question is, how did corporations get from the 18th century definition of a public body (like a municipality) working for the public good, to the 19th century definition of a private company doing business to produce profit for its investors?

Horwitz says “eighteenth century...contract law was essentially antagonistic to the interests of commercial classes,” because it sought to judge the underlying fairness or justice of the exchange in question. (167) But ironically, the argument for judging contracts objectively on their terms was based on a claim that value was subjective and circumstantial. Promissory notes were used in place of cash, and “in order to make notes negotiable a subsequent endorsee [must] be allowed to recover on the note regardless of the consideration between the original parties.” (177) The same-as-cash nature of the note enabled “merchants to exclude the question of the equality of a bargain by transacting their business through promissory notes,” and excluded the courts from playing a role in judging the fairness of a transaction. The contract became an authority unto itself, and was no longer seen as part of a tradition of dealings based on just prices or practices. (
This is a missing link in the market transition story -- many historians assume the change required a move to a cash-based, spot market. Horwitz shows the market could be depersonalized and objectified even before it stopped being based on long-term, credit relationships.)

Contract law changed the laborers’ world through the “doctrine of ‘assumption of risk,’ [in which] contract ideology...emasculated all prior conceptions of substantive justice.” The fiction of “equal bargaining power inevitably became established as the inarticulate major premise of all legal and economic analysis. The circle was completed: the law had come simply to ratify those forms of inequality that the market system produced.” (210)

Returning to the issue of negotiable notes, Horwitz points out that common law not only established rules allowing “subsequent innocent purchasers” to collect on the notes regardless of any defects in the original deal, but it allowed “the legal system [to] sanction private arrangements whose effect was to increase the supply of money by allowing individuals to agree to substitute their own notes for currency designated by the state.” (211) This has interesting implications for the pace and distribution of economic development. After Andrew Jackson’s specie circular, for example, currency was in short supply in already-settled areas. Growth would have been much slower, and demand for state money creation would have been more urgent, if people like my upstate NY merchants had not been able to do business using notes. But I wonder, how much was “the law”
making policy? Couldn’t it also be argued that these people were making policy, and “the law” was just trying to keep up with them? Who actually had the agency -- who was in the driver’s seat -- seems to be a major unanswered question here. Massachusetts Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons’ 1808 remarks seem the suggest the law was following: “The circulation of negotiable paper,” he said, “is extremely useful to trade, as it multiplies commercial credit, and the notes pass form man to man as cash. Any rule of law, tending unnecessarily to suppress this circulation, is therefore against public policy.” (220)

Horwitz concludes by describing the “rise of legal formalism” in the 1840s and 50s. “If a flexible, instrumental conception of law was necessary” to promote economic development, “it was no longer needed once the major beneficiaries...had obtained the bulk of their objectives.” (254) In fact, just the opposite. The law needed to become (and be seen as) “self-contained, apolitical, and inexorable;” built on scientific logic and practiced by professionals. Having used it to get to power, Horwitz says, the ruling class used legal formalism as a way of “disguising and suppressing the inevitably political and redistributive functions of law.” (266) This is a startling conclusion, if one came to this book thinking the law was actually ever apolitical or objective. From a broader context, Horwitz shows that American law in the nineteenth century was no different in this respect from that of any other time or place. He outlines some of the ways an emerging elite used and changed the law to facilitate its rise, although he leaves the names and faces out of the story. Horwitz believes recent historians have been “more concerned with finding evidence of governmental intervention than they were in asking in whose interest these regulations were forged.” (xiv) His book suggests who some of the targets of questions should be -- it remains to be seen whether it can be proved these people were acting consciously, and how they and society at large understood their actions and the changes that resulted.

Interesting references:

  1. Fogel, Railroads and American Growth, 1964

  1. Fishlow, American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy, 1965

Handlin and Handlin, Commonwealth

Zephaniah Swift,
A Treatise on Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes, 1810

Gulian C. Verplanck,
An Essay on the Doctrine of Contracts, 1825 (the “Austrian” argument of subjective value 75 years early)

Peddlers of Progress

Jaffee, D. (1991). "Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760-1860." The Journal of American History 78(2): 511-535.


Jaffee 1991: Draws heavily on Kulikoff, and talks a little too much about the bourgeoise cultural transformation, the “self-fashioning of new identities,” and the “democratization of gentility.” (513) After the Civil War, he says, the “grass-roots character of rural marketing disappeared as the flow and agents of cultural change in the countryside reversed direction, rural agents becoming urban.” (534) He spends a lot of time on Massachusetts’ Hawkers and Peddlers Act of 1846, “which established a graded level of licenses based on ‘morals and citizenship.’” (533) This was an attempt, he says, by local people to “reduce the number of itinerants in the interior settlements and maintain the dominant role of the storekeeper as mediator between producer and consumer.” (532) Not suprisingly, I’m again dissatisfied with this either-or approach to the issue. Rural is good, urban bad? But by 1846, Massachusetts peddlers (many of them based in rural towns like Ashfield) were covering not only the northeast, but the west and south on behalf of urban and rural manufacturers. So whose interests were being served by the 1846 bill? Who was behind it? Who voted against it?

Maybe I’m particularly hard on these types of accounts, because they come so frustratingly close, and then miss the mark. “The creation of the Yankee peddler in antebellum popular literature served as a rich vehicle to convey the meaning of the charged encounter...[and as] symbolic representations to rural people of changing economic transactions between individuals,” Jaffee says. (527) But then he doesn’t take it anywhere. He lets it stand as just another example of what he seems to imagine is a straightforward, black vs. white conflict in the transition to capitalism: “the market became dislodged from an actual sense of place and became an amorphoous entity, a free-floating concept” (quoting Agnew, 527). If anything, the presence of peddlers in the economic lives of rural people (both as suppliers of stuff, and as brothers, sons, and neighbors engaged in the business) argues that rural people had a more complex, layered engagement with commerce than these accounts from the Kulikoff school would suggest. Their responses to “itinerants” are as ambivalent as their responses to “capitalism,” because in both cases, they’re not engaging with those categories, but with the particulars of the situations they find themselves in.

Along the way, some interesting facts: “in the 1850s the ‘full-line, full-service wholesaler begain to market most standardized consumer goods’” (quoting Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., 534). The change from merchants maintaining a variety of supply relationships, to the one-stop wholesale shop seems to imply a radical change in power and agency. And: “By 1860...In Massachusetts as a whole, there were 1,648 peddlers, 5 percent of the total commercial population of 35,937.” (522) That’s a low percentage, but I wonder what counts as commercial population. And “Rufus Porter [founder of Scientific American]...would stroll into villages with his brightly decorated camera box, a camera obscura...Porter advertised his profiles (silhouettes) at twenty cents apiece and could produce perhaps twenty in an evening.” (521) Another guy who needs to make a cameo appearance in a story!

The Elusive Republic

Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, 1996. The basic premise of The Elusive Republic is that the Jeffersonian Republicans, especially Madison but even including Franklin, thought they could use the frontier to substitute development across space for development over time. In this way, America could be kept in a sort-of artificial infancy, forestalling the what these men (all familiar with classical antiquity) universally believed was the inevitable declension of civilization and decadence. Their objective was to keep America in an intermediate state which they hoped would allow for commercialization without the “corruption” of public morals and dependence on imported luxuries which they believed marked the beginning of the end for a republic. McCoy believes the republicans were obsessed with personal virtue, because they believed only a “Spartan” citizenry could maintain a republic. The irony, understood by only a few, was that in its attempt to keep people virtuous, Sparta had eliminated the freedoms and individual rights the republicans sought to protect.

McCoy begins with the very important (if not original) observation that “Contemporary Americans all too often presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forebears. It is easy to assume that our basic concerns were theirs, and especially that our understanding of the Revolution and its legacy accurately reflects the meaning and significance they attached to it...few acknowledge how frightening and even distasteful twentieth-century America might appear to the members of a Revolutionary generation.” (5) This is due, he says, not only to the unimaginable changes that separate them and us, but also to the fact that they were knowingly engaged in an anachronistic, “poignant struggle to adapt the traditional, classical republican impulse to modern commercial society.” (9) Since “The Revolutionaries lived during an age when a consideration of the normative dimension of economic life” was still expected, McCoy sets out to describe their attempt to “establish...a republican system of political economy in America.” (7)

“American republicanism.” McCoy says, “must be understood as an ideology in transition.” (10) It might also be described, to extend his train of thought, as a system idealists like Jefferson tried to apply to a reality they didn’t (and didn’t want to)completely understand. Or, if one were cynical, it might be described as a political ideology, presented to a European audience (via Francois Marbois) wondering how America was going to arrange its affairs. Consider this description by noted deist and suspected atheist Jefferson:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition...generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer to measure its degree of corruption.” (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia)

Okay, so this is supposed to be the core statement of the Jeffersonian agrarian myth. But look at it! In the first place, “chosen people of God”?! But okay, let’s call that a figure of speech, and give it the benefit of the doubt. Even so, why should the breasts of farmers be the only possible “deposit for substantial and genuine virtue”? Is it only because Jefferson says so -- and that’s why he needs to resort to “God”? And “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators...” He’s either not talking about Virginia at all, or he’s talking about the slaves. In either case, what’s the foundation of his virtuous republic? If it’s Virginia gentlemen farmers, then he’s conveniently forgetting not only that they owned slaves,
but that they owned slaves specifically because they were not living in virtuous subsistence, but producing for foreign commercial markets! And if his virtuous cultivators are slaves, then there goes his whole republican formula.

“Dependence begets subservience,” is only a short step from some type of Rousseau-ian belief that any social interaction is a “fall” from a pure state of nature. But again, it’s not a state of nature Jefferson has ever seen. Of course, he probably wasn’t
aware that slaves made his life as a Virginia-aristocrat-with-delusions-of-rusticity possible in the first place. This is why I can’t stand Jefferson.

But back to McCoy. Republicans like Jefferson and George Mason, he says “never doubted that the natural sequence of social development would culminate inevitably in the form of society he feared.” (16) It was the classical paradigm of declension, the fall, the feet-of-clay story. It
is interesting, as McCoy notes, how these people are able to mix these ancient paradigms with “enlightenment” ideas from Hume and Adam Smith, in ways that seem unreasonable to us now.

McCoy spends some time defending Adam Smith, in an argument that seems to fit well with Appleby’s (later?) contributions to the “capitalist transition” debate. He says Smith both “emphatically approved of an advanced division of labor as the basis of continuing economic growth and social progress, [and] was also concerned with its concomitant tendency to relegate the laboring classes to a brutish existence that crippled their minds and bodies.” (37) Smith is the smartest guy in this book, offering nuanced, qualified observations, such as his statement that under mercantilism, “the private interest of a part, and of a subordinate part of society” was taken to be “the general interest of the whole.” (quoting
Wealth of Nations, 43). Other insights are provided by Franklin: “Manufactures are founded in poverty...it is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture.” (quoting “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” 51) and John Adams: “the balance of power in a society [parallels] the balance of property in land [so society must] make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society [or] make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates.” (68)

McCoy suggests there was some “uneasy suspicion (and sometimes recognition) among the Revolutionaries that even predominantly agricultural America was already a relatively advanced commercial society.” (70) They made practical distinctions, however, between “wealth that accrued through the perseverance of habitual industry” and the “sudden fortunes acquired through the manipulation and chicanery of speculators and stockjobbers.” (85) This seems to go to the heart of the republican objection to Hamilton. After all, as Thomas Paine said, “Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe.” (quoting
Common Sense, 89)

The cause of America’s problems, in McCoy’s story, was the new nation’s inability to sell its agricultural surpluses freely in Europe and the West Indies. In this sense, Britain nearly defeated the American republic, by causing a political crisis that split the founding generation into republican and federalist partisans. Jefferson and Madison’s idea of “developing across space rather than through time” depended on both the availability of a frontier and the “ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market.” (121-2) The Embargo and attempts to eliminate foreign luxuries and focus on domestic manufacture of “necessaries” raise interesting questions about the role of government in economic development. McCoy reminds the reader that even Hamilton insisted “the development of advanced manufactures in America would require extensive government encouragement.” (quoting the “Report on Manufactures,” 159) He concludes that the republicans’ revolution, the “escape from time,” had always been understood by Madison as temporary. (259) At some point, the frontier would close. By his 1815 annual message, Madison had begun explicitly supporting “manufacturing establishments...of the more complicated kind.” (245) Was this Madison’s acknowledgement of the basic mismatch between classical republicanism and nineteenth century America? Was it a political victory for the capitalists and their cronies in professional government? Maybe the defining moment, in political changes like the demise of agrarian republicanism and its reappearance as an American myth, is not when the other guys finally win out, but when its proponents give it up.

Public Land and the frontier

Malcolm J. Rohrbough
The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837

A mostly administrative history of western expansion, that offers some interesting hints at culture, mostly unintentionally and between the lines. “The distribution of the public domain had a profound effect on the economic life of the nation,” Rohrbough says. Not only in the “great agricultural empire” of the early twentieth century, but because “In the first fifty years of the Republic’s history, citizens spent much time devising ways to get something for nothing from the public domain.” (of course, this may not have been the Indians’ perspective. 238) As time passed, “The politicians who increasingly administered the public domain did not do so out of a feeling of service but to make a profit.” (229) This is an odd statement, as Rohrbough showed that appointees as early as Gallatin were heavy speculators. “Land speculation,” he says, “was part of the American scene from the first settlements;” and so, it seems, was the tendency to mix the public and private domains.

A recurring issue in distributing public lands were “pioneer families [who] defied the Indians [and] challenged the authority of entrepreneurs,” speculators, and bureaucrats. (3) Pre-emption deals had to be made throughout the period of western expansion, to accomodate those who squatted on frontier lands. But the land and money expended on this seems like a drop in the bucket, compared with the fortunes and political power that accrued to the well-connected. “Congress...sold one million acres to the Ohio Company of Associates in the same week that it passed the Northwest Ordinance.” And “John Cleves Symmes (a territorial judge and William Henry Harrison’s father-in-law) concluded an arrangement with the Treasury Board for one million acres.” (11, 18-9)

Public officials dominate Rohrbough’s story. “As a Congressman, Gallatin...constantly supported the sale of small tracts to individual settlers.” (24) Perhaps, given the size of the western wilderness, this did not seem at odds with his speculations, in Gallatin’s mind. “William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, made a series of extensive purchases from the Indians” in the first decade of the 1800s. (30) The terms of these purchases are not elucidated, so it’s not surprising that the Indians next appear as “two thousand
infuriated Hell Hounds” (quoting a settler, 49). Chances are, both Rohrbough and the settlers knew what had infuriated the Indians, but chose not to think about it.

The War of 1812 “had broken the grip of the Indian on the western lands,” Rohrbough says. And “Altho you say the Ohio feever is abated in Vermont--the Missouri & Illinois Feever Rages greatly in Ohio, Kentucky, & Tennessee and carried off thousands.” (quoting a letter from a son to his father back east, 74) Indeed, “Old America seems to be breaking up, and moving westward,” wrote a contemporary traveler. “We are seldom out of sight, as we travel on this grand track, towards the Ohio, of family groups, behind and before us, some with a view to a particular spot; close to a brother perhaps, or a friend, who has gone before, and reported well of the country.” (103) In 1819, the eastern half of Michigan was contained in a Land District whose office was at Detroit. (map, 104-5) By 1834, a new District had been formed for the western half, centered on Bronson (Kalamazoo), est. 1831. The towns of White Pigeon and Bronson were “strategically placed on the Chicago Road.” June 1835 land sales in Bronson totaled $138,000; in October, White Pigeon’s sales exceeded $194,500. (193) Much of this purchasing was speculative and based on shaky credit, as shown by the experience of Allegan, “One of the paper cities that vanished beneath the waves of the panic of 1837.” (194)

Around 1816, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford complained that many “Banks have been incorporated, not because there was capital seeking investment; not because the places where they were established had commerce and manufactures...but because men without active capital wanted the means of obtaining loans, which their standing in the community would not command from banks or individuals having real capital and established credit.” This is an interesting chicken-egg statement. To some extent, it could be seen as a desire to limit economic access to the “haves.” But it also seems reasonable that when “bank capital increased from $65,000,000 to more than $125,000,000” between 1813 and 1819, some bad credit decisions may have been made. (111) The Second Bank of the United States’ “loss of regulatory power...following Jackson’s veto of the bill for recharter and the removal of deposits led to the rise of innumerable state banks which expanded loans at a dizzy rate.” (178) As a result, “In the thirty months from the fall of 1834 to the spring of 1837, the American people generated the largest land office business in the history of the Republic. From the timberlands of Maine to the Cotton Kingdom of Mississippi, in city lots of Chicago, and in the wilderness of central Michigan, the dimensions of the land boom touched people of all stations and locations.” (187)

“The desire for lands,” Rohrbough says, “was not dampened by Andrew Jackson’s declaration that after September 1 only specie would be received in payment for public lands. The Bank of Michigan in Detroit quickly ordered specie from the East, acquired $500,000 in hard money from New York in October alone, and supplied land office money to continue the Michigan boom.” (197) Perhaps the Panic of 1837 and the subsequent ongoing scarcity of cash in places like upstate NY can be attributed in part to the fact that hard money continued to be found on the frontier. Rohrbough mentions James Fenimore Cooper’s satirical
Home as Found -- this is probably worth a look. In spite of the continued Michigan boom, Rohrbough concludes that “The specie circular...and the panic of 1837 marked the decline of the land office business as a dominant force in American life...The depression marked the passing of a period in which the land business dominated the thoughts and dreams of the nation. A new world was emerging. It was a world in which people would be drawn to cities rather than the land, in which the rise of the factory system would sharply distinguish a laboring class, in which great industrial complexes would attract the investment capital of the nation.” (238)

This conclusion seems to raise more questions than it answers. These are the central issues, but why did they happen? Did changes in access to land, or the administration of the land office, dampen the speculators’ enthusiasm? Why did people flock to cities? Was there a difference between the German immigrants of the later 1830s and people who had preceded them? Did a reduced interest in the west by speculators diminish the flow of real settlers? Were there no longer “fabled tracts of rich land, fertile beyond all imagination,” just over the next hill? (4) More needs to be said about this change. Rohrbough has made a good start -- now a social and cultural history of the people who came west, and the communities they formed, needs to take the next step.

Books to check into:

R. Carlyle Buley,
The Old Northwest, Pioneer Period, 1815-1840, 1951

Bray Hammond,
Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, 1957

Yankee Peddlers

Richardson Wright, Hawkers & Walkers in Early America, 1927

Although old, this book is still considered the master text on peddlers and itinerants in early America. Wright devotes about half his time to Yankee Peddlers, and the rest to preachers, cobblers, tramps, itinerant craftsmen, and entertainers. There are some interesting observations about the rise of automobile and bus transportation -- Wright expects technology will begin “freeing” people from urban life just as it once “confined” them.

“The dealer in small wares, essences and such, was called a ‘trunk-peddler,’ because he carried his goods in one or two small, oblong, tin trunks slung on his back by a webbing harness or a leather strap.” (19) I’d like to see one of these set-ups. Even more, I’d like to put it on and carry a loaded rig for a couple of miles, to see what it felt like. Wright mentions Timothy Dwight’s disdain for peddlers, adding “whatever exuberant youth does, the clergy consider wrong. And these peddlers were young men.” (21)

The young peddler’s travels, Wright says, “afforded him a fairly complete survey of the rural markets; he could judge the best neighborhoods in which to open a store.” (22) They covered the entire settled area of the country; “Even Horn’s
Overland Guide to California--the Baedecker of the forty-niners--contains the advertisement of a Mr. Sypher in Fort Des Moines, who is willing to supply peddlers...at the lowest possible rates.” (26)

“The essence peddler,” says Wright, “was quite a different sort. Usually a free-lance, he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars [and] fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters. In the backwoods these bitters were in great demand. They were mixed with the local brand of homemade liquor...Other extracts were used as remedies and antidotes.” (56-7) Wright quotes Hawthorne’s 1838 passage from the
American Note-books describing his conversation with an essence peddler on the way home to Ashfield, to renew his supply.

Wright thinks “We can trace the dislike of the town for the country through practically all phases of itinerant life.” Despite the fact that “had there been no peddlers there would have been no countryside distribution, and...manufacturing, even of the humblest household sort, could never have survived,” Wright says “the peddler’s foe was the established, settled, town merchant.” (89) It’s hard to judge this argument, because Wright simply asserts it. He does not cite any examples (and although he includes a large bibliography, he includes no notes), but his general attitude is betrayed a few pages later when he comments “a vast amount of sentiment has been wasted over this Homespun Era.” (93)

In an interesting aside, Wright dates the entry of Jewish peddlers into the picture to about 1836, “following the oppressive marriage laws promulgated in Bavaria” in 1835. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, and it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my story, but it’s interesting that there’s a whole other view of peddling and the rise of Jewish families in America, that originates here. See, for example, the
American Jewish Historical Society website.

I raced through the sections on preachers and entertainers, but noticed a couple of interesting people and facts along the way: Jonathan Chapman and William Augustus Bowles are both probably worth a closer look at some point. And “the yeast man who kept his precious fluid--barm, it was called locally--in a jar in front of him in his cart,” is probably a character who should make a cameo appearance in a story, someday. (229) New York street sellers are interesting, but seem a lot tamer than London costermongers.

“Out of Boston, in 1832...ran no fewer than 106 coach lines to all parts of the State and contiguous States.” (265) Important for me to keep in mind that Ashfield was a rest-stop on the Boston to Albany mail run. There’s got to be some material on this, either in Ashfield or at the PVMA. William F. Harnden, who started the “Express Package Carrier” company between Boston and New York in 1839 is also probably worth looking into. (268)

1994 Panel Discussion

Clark, C., D. Vickers, et al. (1994). "The Transition to Capitalism in America: A Panel Discussion." The History Teacher 27(3): 263-288.


This is another in a series of what seem to be central texts in the evolution of the “market revolution.” Probably seems like incredibly old news to those who participated, so I should probably keep my mouth shut about it until I have a better sense of how it turned out.

Christopher Clark mentions in his introduction that most interpretations “stress the class and other conflicts that helped structure politics in the Jacksonian period and after.” (266) I wonder, looking at it put this way, if there’s a periodization issue? When we look at “transitions” in different regions, do we assume (like Turner) that they recapitulate a similar process? Or on the other hand, are we tied to these national political eras like the Jacksonian, and do we miss similarities between regions at different times and long, slow developments?

Daniel Vickers proposes we look at “a period in which: 1) commerce spread gradually and mattered vitally to everyone it touched but did not dominate everywhere; 2) business interests were acquiring increasing influence over the state but had not captured it entirely; 3) the rules of custom and law were changing to facilitate the expropriation of small producers, although the process of expropriation was far from complete; and 4) wage labor was growing in importance but rarely became the sole support of any family.” (268) Seems like we ought to call this “the long, slow, irregular transition to a capitalist market economy”

My initial reactions:

  1. 1. In what context did commerce matter? I like the idea that trade was often supplemental to “competence,” but it seems like women’s relatively quick abandonment of household textile manufacture is based on a very clear (and very smart) understanding that their time and energy is better spent doing other things. So it’s not just about buying little trinkets and luxuries. It’s about what’s best for the family (over the limited, contingent terrain they can see from where they stand).
  2. 2. What are business interests? Would it be useful for part of this period to say that people (white men) exercised influence in their roles as businessmen -- rather than through some other leadership role they may have used earlier (political, social, religious, wealthy-gentleman)? Don’t “business interests” really take off with (and as a result of) the widespread creation of (personalized, immortal) chartered corporations?
  3. 3. Why and how did laws and customs change to favor big producers? Doesn’t seem like it was an accident. So how was it done? (But that said, it’s true that boom and bust business cycles tend to drive smaller people out of businesses, which allows the big guys who can weather the recession to buy assets cheap, gain market share, etc. So it’s not ALL an evil plot by the rich to expropriate the poor...)
  4. 4. I really like a comment Clark makes in the wrap-up, about “the likelihood that wage work was often not an imposition, but demanded by men and women seeking to loosen the constraints imposed on them by family labor, servanthood or apprenticeship.” (280) This seems like a reasonable recognition that there are a lot of things worse than working for wages.

I do agree with Vickers that the “ambivalent sense of the opportunities and dangers that nascent capitalism presented” is really interesting. (268) How did people perceive these changes? Where were they getting their information? On what were they basing their opinions and subsequent actions?

Stephen Aron’s focus on frontier land and the role of speculators is interesting partly because it highlights the way historians have made speculators the bad guys of the west (like merchants are the bad guys of the northeast?). “Unrestrained acquisitiveness,” he says, on the part of both “backcountry men” and “better-capitalized gentlemen...interfered with the homestead ethic, undermined the potency of agrarian radicalism, and ultimately eroded the sphere of economic life that existed apart from market relations.” I’m not sure if I buy this, but the “favoritism” shown by the government to its friends when distributing land throughout the history of the frontier seems like a legitimate provocation for a “radical agrarian critique of market relations,” if that’s the way they actually saw the situation. Or did they see it as corrupt government intrusion into business, in a way we no longer do?

Nancy Grey Osterud observes that the division of labor between men and women meant that in some places, women preceded men into the market economy, while in others they trailed behind. So attitudes would have been different from place to place. It’s interesting that in women’s diaries she examined, “it is difficult to distinguish an occasion of shared labor from a social visit.” But I’m not sure this proves that “men adopted market paradigms” more readily than women, while women “maintained a mode of conceiving of cooperative labor that was modeled on kin relationships.” (276) Maybe this isn’t a (hard-wired) different response, but a difference in the
timing of a response, based on differing experiences?

Michael Merrill continues to fascinate me with his claim that the debate is “marred by insufficient attention to questions of power.” (277) “Other historians,” he admits, “use the term [capitalism] differently--to refer to a system of production based, supposedly exclusively, on private enterprise, freedom, and individual initiative. This usage obscures the fact that commerce does not have to be organized to benefit only the few...A commercial system run by or in the interests of farmers, mechanics and laborers deserves to be called something else.” (278)

Merrill offers a concrete measure this time, to support his differentiation between “capitalist” and “democratic” market economies. “The higher the return to capital,” he says, “the more powerful the capitalists.
Or, the greater the share of the national income accruing to capital rather than labor (property rather than work) the more powerful the capitalists. (This ration might be called the ‘productivity of capital.’) Conversely, the higher the real wage...the more powerful the wage earners.” (279) This is interesting, but is the power he mentions a cause or an effect? And what about technology? A higher-tech industrial base would seem to increase capital productivity (think semi-conductors vs. bricks), but buried in that conclusion are a lot of assumptions about intellectual property, who benefits from invention, etc. There are a million qualifications that need to be made, but somehow I still sympathize with the idea that you can tell something about a society from looking at the wealth and income curves. Not to mention Merrill’s conclusion: “Securing higher wages is not a diversion from the revolution. It is the revolution.” (279)

Clark concludes that “the dichotomy between ‘market’ and ‘social’ approaches” is old news, and can safely be abandoned. (282) In it’s place then, what? I think one unresolved question relates to the differentiation of public and private spheres. Both in terms of family vs. market orientation, and also with respect to private enterprise and government involvement. I think a lot of what I’m seeing, when I look at the documents I’m uncovering, can be understood as people working out not only economic, but social and political approaches to living in a rapidly modernizing world.


Appleby, J. O. (2001). "The Vexed Story of Capitalism Told by American Historians." Journal of the Early Republic 21(1): 1-18.


Definitions, again. Appleby defines capitalism as “a system that depends upon private property and the relatively free use of it in economic endeavors.” (1) This is a fairly open definition, of the type that Merrill objects to. Against this, Appleby contrasts the classical (Smithian) and Marxian definitions. “Smith discerned a benign law of unintended consequences [through which] the invisible hand of the market guided self-interested and competitive participants” to the good of society, while “For Marx, capitalists represented not only new men, but new men who shared common political goals” at odds with the interests of the majority. (8) “Neither theorist,” she says, “showed much interest in the meaning market participants gave to their activities.” (9) A more insightful approach, she suggests, would build on the questions posed by Max Weber, using a concept of culture developed by Franz Boas. (9, 15)

The historiography Appleby provides is especially useful to me. Beginning with Charles Beard, who she says “separated the economy of commercial agriculture--the capitalism of the many--from the investments of bankers and merchants--the capitalism of the few.” (2) This is a division that is still being attempted by people like Merrill, and it seems to me with good reason. One type of “capitalism” didn’t necessarily imply the other, and changing attitudes towards these different activities done by different people in different places are probably at the heart of this “transition to capitalism.” The “marked tendency of industrial capitalism to concentrate wealth and convert that wealth into political power” needs to be unpacked. (3) What elements of capitalism are responsible for this? Are they always the same ones? Do business cycles favor the rich in some times and places; while law, government policy, or even popular support help people aggregate large fortunes in others?

Progressives, Appleby says, had a “hard-wired...anticapitalist bias.” (3) Their attack was answered by Consensus Historians like Robert Brown, David Potter, Daniel Boorstin and Louis Hartz, who “rediscovered Alexis de Tocqueville’s
Democracy in America and turned the ‘tyranny of the majority’ into the most compelling and disturbing truth of their day” -- which after all it was, since all around them black, female, and other members of the majority began to challenge the status quo. But when social historians of the ‘60s and ‘70s began looking for these other voices, they “followed the Beardians in depicting capitalism as an exogenous force, thrust into the lives of unwary folk by profit-maximizing outsiders.” (4) Where their predecessors had looked at industrial labor, these “neo-Progressives” focused on “the green and pleasant countryside where tradition-bound yeoman fought to repel the relentless intrusion of the market.” (she cites Kulikoff 1989 here, although she doesn’t quote him. Apparently he stands out as the spokesman for this point of view. 5)

This is about the point where I’m beginning to have some doubts. I’ll have to read all these books and articles, I suppose, to determine whether she’s doing their authors justice here. But I do see an element of truth in things I’ve read so far, that capitalism can appear “less a historical development than a malevolent conspiracy perpetrated by outsiders.” (5) Appleby says Morton Horowitz’s
The Transformation of American Law is another book in the “promoter-resister mode,” but again I wonder if this characterization doesn’t unnecessarily limit the discussion. “The judges who transformed American law, Horowitz asserted, were responding to an elite whose entrepreneurial goals ran athwart the conservative sentiments of the bulk of the population.” (6) If this is the case (even some of the time), this is exactly the type of situation that Appleby’s continuing use of the words “capitalist” and “anti-capitalist” obscures.

Not that there aren’t anti-capitalists out there. Tony Freyer and Charles Sellers might fit that bill. Appleby lumps them with Michael Merrill, saying they create producer/capitalist and rural/urban binaries. She quotes Sellers saying “every popular cultural or political movement in the early republic arose originally against the market.” Given the “depth and breadth of antipathy to the market in Sellers account,” it’s hard to see how the Jacksonians lost. (7)

Appleby suggests that more sophisticated economic ideas might improve historians’ thinking. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, she notes made “the brilliant observation that capitalism involved a ceaseless process of ‘creative destruction.” (10) It’s an interesting idea, but for a historian wouldn’t the important questions be: whose stuff is destroyed? Whose stuff replaces it? And how do the people involved and society at large feel about this?

The postmodernists, following Horkheimer and Adorno, “defined consumption as escapist buying and commodified leisure, both substitutes for authentic experience.” (10) I think Appleby is dead-on in characterizing this as elite snobbery, especially when applied to the past. While it may be true that some contemporary first-worlders have “borrowed tastes and manufactured needs,” I agree that “Depictions of consumers as victims...leave readers with ‘an uncritical nostalgia toward a precapitalist past’” (quoting Lisa Tiersten 1993. 11).

Appleby boils the problem down to “three deficiencies in our historiography: construing as exogenous a cultural transformation that changed from within; limiting the appeal of a free enterprise economy to the lure of profit-maximizing; and interpreting discrete historical developments as parts of an inexorable process.” (14) The new economy (I’m going to stop calling it capitalism, even though Appleby continues) “resonated with those who wanted...social changes” that would “expand their scope of action and satisfy desires” (13) And clearly historians are wrong when they imply the proponents or adversaries of change had any idea “what would be the consequences of their decisions.” I’m not sure that means all the new economy’s “opponents suffered from association with fixed hierarchies and inherited status.” But in a really interesting aside, Appleby suggests “the attraction of youth to change, particularly changes that brought them early autonomy, has rarely been studied as a force against traditional...practices” (18).

I think Appleby makes a good case for looking at economic change in America as a “succession of novelties compelling unrehearsed responses” (16) I agree that re-embedding this change in a broader context of social and cultural change offers a “recovery of meaning [which] promises access to motives and, through motives, actions” (17). I’d go one step further, I think, and stop using the deceptive and politically loaded term capitalism.

So what is this capitalism, anyway?

Merrill, M. (1995). "Putting "Capitalism" in Its Place: A Review of Recent Literature." The William and Mary Quarterly 52(2): 315-326.


Merrill begins with Hartz, Hofstadter, and Schlesinger Jr., revisionists who he says “rejected the Progressive emphasis on the important role a transition to capitalism played in American history.” (315) For these revisionists, he says, the American colonists arrived as full-fledged capitalists, ready to participate in the market economy.

The error in this thinking, Merrill says, is in equating the market economy with capitalism, and people’s willingness (or eagerness) to participate in it with an embrace of capitalism. This is an error in definition, he suggests, that has been continued by historians like Appleby and Kulikoff (interestingly, from opposite political directions). When James Henretta describes “a sophisticated, indigenous capital market distinguished by the number and complexity of financial instruments in circulation,” Merrill doesn’t disagree that’s what was happening. But he suggests it might be something other than what we normally define as capitalism. (319)

Why does the definition matter? And why is it important for me?

Well, Kulikoff, for example, builds his story around a group of immigrants who “migrated to North America in an attempt to stay a step ahead of what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation,’ or the appropriation by capitalists of the ‘means of production’ (especially land) of small producers--in effect, to escape capitalism.” (322) These immigrants became yeoman farmers, but they were still “embedded in capitalist world markets,” so the result was inevitable.

Another problem is that equating capitalism with markets
creates periodization: we “see the prosperity that followed the Revolution as a sign of an emergent, radically new, capitalist order rather than as the expansion of a dynamic, profoundly anticapitalist, and democratic older order” which Merrill believes it to be. (323) This is important for me, because the guys I’m researching seem to have a foot in both camps. They’re merchants, but they’re not necessarily the protocapitalists they ought to be if the distinction between capitalism and non- or anti-capitalism is viewed through the regular lens.

Merrill doesn’t propose an exact definition to replace the broad, sloppy one he opposes. But it clearly has a political element. People “did not ask whether there should be a market; they asked who would control it and which social class would reap the lion’s share of its benefits.” (324) Of course, this is what they’re still asking; that’s the point. “To equate capitalism with any market economy,” Merrill says, discredits opposition. Any critique is “fundamentally wrongheaded and says, in effect, that...the only acceptable alternative to capitalism is a society without markets.” (325)

So it seems like it would be a good idea, rather than doing a history that says “these guys were sort-of precapitalist, and these other guys were sort-of capitalist,” to try to describe what they actually did and said, and see if they felt they were allies or adversaries. There are still fights and lawsuits -- tons of them, in fact. But the players didn’t seem to be fitting into their roles the way they were supposed to. Maybe the way to go about this is to try to figure out what groups these people thought they fit into, and why.

see also

Henretta 1998:

1994 Panel Discussion:

Speculators or developers?

Wyckoff, W. (1988). The developer's frontier : the making of the western New York landscape. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Historical Geographers are another group fascinated by Turner’s frontier thesis. Wyckoff focuses on land developers and resident land agents. Their activities, he says, “directly effected the frontier settlement pattern,” and “became an enduring legacy on the landscape, especially in the form of surviving survey lines, village locations, and road networks. That palpable imprint on the land is largely unrecognized and uncelebrated,” and Wyckoff believes “existing theories of frontier settlement...do little to interpret in any penetrating way the impact of these promoters, investors, and developers on the making of the American landscape or on the evolution of American culture.” (4)

Wyckoff acknowledges challenges made to the standard Turnerian model of frontier evolution (the one that recapitulates the evolution of western civilization), especially those of Paul Wallace Gates and A.M. Sakolski, “who began his work
The Great American Land Bubble with the dramatic words, “America, from its inception, was a speculation.’” (7) But the derogatory tone surrounding their treatment of speculators is misplaced, he says. Because it links the frontier with eastern (and even international) investors and capital markets, “the presence of the land speculator complicates and to some extent contradicts aspects of the classic Turnerian model.” But Wyckoff insists “the speculator’s frontier is just as sharply distinguished from the developer’s frontier, in which land agents were committed not only to promoting and selling land but also to reshaping and transforming the landscape in a manner that would attract settlers and would endure on the visible scene for decades.” (8)

Wyckoff also suggests, citing Douglass C. North, R.D. Mitchell, and others, that the development he is going to describe is tightly bound to commerce with urban centers, in a way that seems to anticipate central place theory -- or to imply that developers, if not immigrants, had a similar idea in mind. Wyckoff tries to bridge a gap between theory and observation and answer an important question, by suggesting that the agents of this change were the developers whose “decisions shaped the course of settlement and the subsequent look of the land.”

William Cooper’s Guide to the Wilderness is probably worth a look, as well as William Cooper’s Town.

Roots of Rural Capitalism

Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism,1990

Christopher Clark’s account of the transition from a “subsistence-surplus” economy to “rural capitalism” in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts is built around his observation that it was not an ideological shift that prompted this change, but “the search for livelihoods and security” (318). The story revolves around five elements: “Demography, land shortage, the ‘market,’ household strategies, [and] capital accumulation [which] came together, taking different forms at different periods” and places. The result was a slow, uneven change; and changes in the meaning and significance of relationships and activities, in places where the basic organization of society didn’t change.

Widespread freehold property ownership and the lack of an exportable staple “cash” crop, after the “blast” and soil exhaustion killed off the wheat, prevented the growth of a strong New England elite. Shire towns like Northampton that had been influential in the eighteenth century under the “River Gods” lost their status as “central places,” while households and local communities became the cores of social and economic life. The household economy expected a lot from women and children, and Clark seems to suggest that women may have led the shift toward a cash economy by producing for the market so they could buy textiles rather than spin and weave homespun cloth. Whether or not the women made this decision consciously and by themselves, Clark’s stress on the importance of household strategies in this transition makes sense.

“It is no longer acceptable,” Clark says, “to portray rural people simply as passive victims of ‘the extension of the market’ that ‘broke down family-based household structures’” (323). And while rural people were certainly not omniscient, and unintended consequences happened everywhere, Clark argues there was fairly widespread awareness that “a clash between two ethics” was taking place (324). This clash was felt especially during economic downturns, like the one preceding Shays’s Rebellion in 1786. Against the standard interpretation’s emphasis on individualism and the profit motive, Clark insists “Family and household concerns indeed played a central role in capitalist development; perhaps it was only after family security had been achieved that thoughts of profits and individual interests could develop in the minds of members of the successful middle classes” (326). In a sense, the success of the household strategy helped create this middle class and enabled the next phase of capitalist development.

Historiographically, Clark attributes the standard view that urban markets and transportation improvements led to rural capitalism to historians like Richard Hofstadter (
The Age of Reform, 1955, ch. 1), D.C. North (“Location Theory and Regional Economic Growth” 1955), and George Rogers Taylor (The Transportation Revolution, 1951). More recently, objections have been raised by Winifred B. Rothenberg (1979-88), and James A. Henretta (“Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America” 1978) and Michael Merrill (“Cash is Good to Eat: Self-Sufficiency and Exchange in the Rural Economy of the United States” 1977); and by Clark himself (1979). In this book, Clark suggests “a synthesis between ‘market’ and ‘social’ interpretations, based on the observation that ‘markets’ are not determinant but are created in and derived from social circumstances” (See also Allan Kulikoff, 1989, and Gregory Nobles, 1988. 13)

Along the way, he makes several observations that are very interesting for my purposes. “The diffused economic power of rural households and their commitment to independence,” he says, “posed a potential problem for ministers and political leaders seeking to impose a concept of authority in the countryside” (23). This is especially interesting in light of Ashfield events I’m researching. The distinction between household and personal independence is also suggestive. “The methods [households] adopted were not individualistic but rested on cooperation and a division of labor. ‘Independence’ required ‘interdependence’ within households and between them” (24). Nor did independence imply self-sufficiency (27). “By 1800, households spent as much as 25 percent of their disposable incomes on goods obtained outside their localities” (28). Of course, “disposable” is the operative word here: these goods were luxuries, just as “products exported beyond the Valley were necessities extra to the requirements of local households or by-products of their production.” Market exchange was happening very early in the story, but it was not relied upon for household livelihood.

Clark quotes European travelers in 1787, remarking on the “large variety of exchanges which would not be done in Europe other than with a considerable quantity of money” (33) Cash, he says, “implies abstraction - a social distance” different from the “complex webs [and] networks of obligation” created by local exchange. These webs and networks are exactly what I’m running into as I read the letters of upstate New York merchant-millers trying to create a cash economy. Are they unique, or is there an intermediate story waiting to be told about how these guys tried to adapt the “local” economic model of trust, relationships, and complex webs of exchange and credit, to the wider commercial world?

In his discussion of the elites and debt, Clark says New England lacked a landed gentry because there was no staple crop and no slavery. But there was also the issue of the River Gods being on the “wrong” side during the Revolution. And the debt crisis that leads to Shays’s “regulation” has a lot to do with “rural resources...being overwhelmed by the speed with which repayment of debts was sought” (45). This begs the question, how did the social climate change so dramatically, that Bostonians felt they could demand immediate payment on rural debts that had accumulated over long periods? What force could bring the word “embarrassed” so quickly into common usage as a synonym for indebted?

Clark shows that rural people understood what was happening to them. “‘We are sencable...that a great debt is justly brought upon us by the war,’ declared the town of Greenwich in 1786, ‘and we are as willing to pay our shares towards itt as we are to injoy our shars in independancy and constatutional priviledges in the Commonwealth.’ If only ‘prudant mesuers were taken and a moderate quantety of medium to circulate so that our property might sel for the real value,’ the petition concluded, ‘we mite in proper time pay said debt’” (47). This is a great passage -- worth the price of the book all by itself!

It’s interesting how patronage mimics “the local exchange ethic,” and that “rural support for federalism [occurred] among farmers concerned to maintain a distance from the market” (ref. James Banner,
To the Hartford Convention, 1969. 52). “The image of merchants as lazy” deserves a little more exploration (163). There seems to be an undercurrent of social commentary going on throughout this period that Clark only dips into occasionally. Maybe it would distract from the main line of the economic story; but maybe it would expand and explain the hints at rural concerns about western migration and elite social-control efforts that crop up throughout.

Clark says “The ‘local’ ethic valued the longer-term reciprocity between dealers embedded in a network of social connections; morality lay in accepting obligations and discharging them over time. The ‘market’ ethic emphasized quick payment and assumed a formal equality between individual dealers at the point of exchange; morality lay in the quick discharge of obligation” (196) But the seeming equality of market exchange hides an imbalance: the merchant is assumed to be the exclusive provider of “goods,” while the “consumer” no longer exchanges household products, but pays in cash. Household products are no longer good enough. Furthermore, the inequality in the “local” ethic implied by the “formal equality” of the market was mitigated by the long-term nature of the relationships: over time, everything balances and everyone is morally equal.

The piousness associated with the temperance movement seems to have infected economic relations through credit. Ironically, “the temperance movement had at first been an elite attempt to maintain social control” (209). Does the explicit association of prompt payment and creditworthiness with good character by Tappan’s Mercantile Agency (later R.G. Duns) happen at a time when elites feared that religious controls were losing their teeth? Did “this tightening of discipline...of credit reporting [to] insert the tighter rules of long-distance exchange into the local economy” betray a more basic effort on the part of town elites to extend their influence back into the countryside they once ruled as squires and River Gods? (220)

I need to pay attention to the economic measures Clark uses. The money supply (221), bankruptcies and debt suits hold a lot of information, although I wonder if they don’t push the focus a little too far to the downside? I find myself wondering what conditions were like and how people reacted to them, when the economy was growing. If long-distance commerce was a new system being tried out in these communities, how did people feel about it when it was working well? Similarly, when William Stoddard implemented his one-price policy in 1856, was this a symbolic gesture of his superiority in the exchange transaction? (223) Was there ever really that much multi-pricing? Wouldn’t keeping a variety of prices for different customers have been extremely difficult to manage, over any reasonable breadth of customers and time? The single (market-based) price is really a merchant’s declaration that no individual transaction or customer is important enough to go to the trouble of bargaining. It’s a way of saying “I don’t care who you are, take it or leave it.”

Clark’s narrative suggests 1837 is under-appreciated as a catalyst of this shift in the economic system. The financial panic “led to a significant shakeout and restructuring of rural industry...Merchants and traders,” who were more diversified than their proto-industrialist cousins and had wider credit networks, “had a disproportionate share in bailing out artisans and mill owners” (245). As a result, “the prominence of merchants and traders in acquiring the capital and credit...gave them an unprecedented degree of influence...they supplanted the artisans” (247). In a sense, though, doesn’t the existence of a boom-and-bust cycle always tend to concentrate wealth and power? In the absence of any other social controls...and that’s the issue and the key question. Where were the social controls? How were they deactivated?

Clark provides some answers: investment in production rather than infrastructure (269), immigration and rural outmigration, and interlocking corporate directorates (271). Does he overstate the case when he says the Northampton savings bank took from the poor to give to the rich? (271) They pooled their depositors’ funds and invested them in local business ventures -- wouldn’t this have been seen by the depositors as a wise fiduciary decision? Was there any model for a more progressive approach at this time?

The final sequence of Clark’s story is especially interesting, where rhetoric and reality completely diverge. On one hand, “public speakers and editorial writers...continued to celebrate the republican simplicity and virtue of ‘yeoman freeholders’” (276). On the other, court decisions showed “the social structure of a diversified rural economy no longer left room for assumptions that private and public interests would coincide” (reminiscent of Steinberg in
Nature Incorporated, published a year later. 310) What accounts for this disconnect? How does it come about that the “public interest” becomes synonymous with private profits at precisely this time and place, while the rural yeoman simultaneously becomes a creature of nostalgic myth? There’s something really big happening here, that The Roots of Rural Capitalism points at. It’s not in the scope of this book, but it’s out there, on the path Clark’s traveling, right over the next hill...

Capitalism? Really?

Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, 1984.

Appleby begins this series of (Phelps) lectures with an anecdote about an 1865 attempt to create a Cambridge University lectureship in American studies. It was defeated, she says, because the dons feared the republicanism undergraduates might spread among the general public, at a time when British republicanism in the form of the Reform League looked particularly unsettling to the ruling class. Richard Cobden remarked that no “Oxford of Cambridge undergraduate...could have pointed out Chicago on a map even though it was a city that indirectly fed a million Englishmen.” (1)

Appleby shares with Cobden a sense of the importance of economic facts that was probably lacking among educated Englishmen in 1865. She argues in these lectures that both the facts of economic change and the revolutionary changes in economic thinking pioneered by Adam Smith were more legitimately the property of Jeffersonian Republicans than of Hamiltonian Federalists. In spite of a tradition that would cast Jefferson as an anti-capitalist agrarian, Appleby says the real division was between a party that looked forward (with Smith and Jefferson) to progress based on natural, rational self-interest, and a backward-looking “classical” republicanism (she doesn’t mention Adams, but this seems to fit him like a glove) that believed a “virtuous” (in the old sense of politically-disinterested) elite was needed to balance the power of the interested democratic majority. This classical republicanism, she implies, was based on a no-longer-valid zero-growth (and therefore zero-sum) economy. Suspect in Europe, this Hobbesian/Malthusian vision was completely invalid in the U.S., where the frontier “stood Ricardo’s iron law of rents and wages on its head.” (99)

An interesting element of Appleby’s argument is that she’s talking about intellectual history, not economic determinism. While she acknowledges the influence of material changes, she’s really interested in the “Ideas [that] joined a group of established elite reformers to a network of political interlopers,” resulting in the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800. Appleby doesn’t completely sustain this point, I think; especially in the sense that she doesn’t identify the chicken and the egg. But it’s her characterization of the Federalists as upholders of the mainstream tradition that’s most interesting. The Federalists, she says, “never lost their posture of protecting known truths about civil society. They knew that it was their opponents who were treading unfamiliar paths and they appealed to history and common sense to prove them wild visionaries.” (6) Their problem, of course, was that something was really happening that changed the game and their opponents had a better grasp of it. But that may be more because they were
conservatives than because they were elitists. A function of nostalgia rather than ideology.

“Classical theory,” Appleby says, “emphasized that civil society was fragile...that there were two orders of men -- the talented few and the ordinary many -- ...[and] a properly balanced constitution would balance the powers of these two groups.” (9) Colonial America, she says, experienced “pervasive Anglicization.” (10) While she admits there was a “large bulge in the center of the social pyramid,” Appleby suggests that the economic security, “stability and well-being of the great majority of colonists permitted resistance to turn into rebellion and ...revolution.” (13) A desperate, violent, starving mob, she implies, would have pushed the middle class toward the British.

Appleby makes an interesting observation about our use of words whose meanings have changed over time. Liberty, she says, had three “intellectual contexts,” and the one we’re most familiar with today (“liberty as personal freedom”) was the one American colonists would have been least focused on -- at least until 1776. “Before the Revolution,” she says, “liberty more often referred to a corporate body’s right of self-determination.” (16) This distinction seems to blur the difference between individual versus group rights on the one hand, and political versus economic concerns on the other. But maybe that’s part of the ongoing issue with these ideas: that we’re never that clear about how these various ideas about individual rights and group responsibilities ought to play together.

One of the things that distinguishes the “liberal conception” of liberty, Appleby says, is its a-historic nature. Rather than looking for examples in classical cultures, “Hobbes and Locke...reasoned from an imaginary account of man in the state of nature to an abstract definition of liberty.” (19) But this system-building impulse (of the empirical enlightenment? the scientific revolution?) wasn’t universally shared. Most people stuck to the old ideas of corporate liberty, so that “Only when it became clear that their interpretation of the imperial crisis was not shared in the mother country did colonial rebels shift ground from the historic rights of English subjects to the abstract rights of all men.” (22) But ultimately it was economic change, in the form of “freedom from the fear of dearth,” that enabled this change of attitude to become widespread.” (29)

I think I need to compare Appleby’s idea about this change to accounts of Americans in England and British support for the American cause. But she moves quickly on in the next chapter, to discuss the intellectual development symbolized by Adam Smith’s
Wealth of Nations. “The actual round of economic activities in early modern England was not at all suggestive of uniformities,” she admits. But “Despite its evident diversity, the newly extended commercial system nonetheless suggested order to those who observed and analyzed it.” (30) But did the urge to systematize and depersonalize “economic laws” really originate with Smith and Ricardo’s observations of British commerce, or with a zeitgeist that influenced intellectuals across a wide range of disciplines to seek global, scientific (and ironically non-empirical, a-priori) regularity in the face of increasingly diverse and often confusing data?

The new economic system (I almost want to say ideology) had a couple of hurdles it needed to get over: social beliefs formed by observation and classical tradition. For example, “Self-interest could only be accounted socially benign,” Appleby says, “if it could be demonstrated that all this incessant striving after private ends did not lead to chaos,” but in fact to social optimization. (33) Other standards of value and motivations for action had to be ignored or subordinated to those reflected by the only measurable quantity, money. “
Homo faber, man the doer, took precedence in these writings over man the believer, man the contemplator, even man the sinner.” (35) There’s an interesting passage in Martin Bruegel’s Farm, Shop, Landing, which I’ve just started reading, where New York courts begin trying to enforce a uniform, impersonal “market” by banning preferential, relationship-based practices that had been the hallmarks of the older, physical market place (more on that in a couple of days).

Again, as I’m reading this, I’m wondering if it isn’t the explosive growth of the mercantile sector at this moment in history that allows for this reductive sleight of hand? If there wasn’t
so much to see in the world of commerce, would all the things left out of economic thinking have been more obvious? Similarly, in the New Republic, are we seeing an increase in agricultural productivity based on expansion into fertile western lands and reduced population growth, and attributing these changes to a new rural capitalism, just because we know what happens later?

Appleby mentions Jefferson’s preference for wheat over tobacco in
Notes on the State of Virginia, as a “benign conception of an economy of food production [that] was to have far-reaching ideological implications.” (42) I have a lot of trouble seeing Jefferson as someone with a clear vision of agricultural realities, but he was clearly the founder of a powerful agrarian, free labor ideology. But Jefferson’s agrarian vision (or at least the vision attributed to him) may hide more than it reveals. Albert Gallatin’s protest of the 1800 Bankruptcy Act may be more instructive. Appleby says Gallatin believed it favored merchants, when in fact “the same man [was] frequently a farmer and a merchant, and perhaps a manufacturer.” (43) Appleby quotes Louis Hacker’s complaint that American historians writing after the period of the robber barons always had an “anticapitalist bias.” (45) But Jefferson’s belief that wheat was a better crop than tobacco was based on the special case of early-cultivation bumper crops on an expanding frontier. And on the particular ways tobacco was cultivated in the south (slavery). The point is, we’re not talking about anything remotely resembling universal economic laws. We’re always talking about special cases.

Somehow, though, we’ve developed the idea that economic theories, which all developed in particular historic moments, represent some type of higher platonic reality. An expanding economy clearly leads to optimistic, laissez faire conclusions about opportunity, protection, and social responsibility that become the assumptions of the next round of theories. This seems so obvious that I’m a little embarrassed to be putting so much stress on it. But it doesn’t seem to be carried into the histories. We still say “the first capitalists were farmers and landlords,” as if we can recognize some universal definition of “capitalists” that applies equally to eighteenth-century farmers and twenty-first century investment bankers. (46) Appleby says Jackson Turner Main examined the issues dividing legislators, and then “worked back to the constituencies...and discovered that American voters were either localists or cosmopolitans,” depending on where they lived. (47) Main seems at least to complicate the economic issues by addressing locations and ultimately the sources of people’s money. (48) Maybe this type of approach allows economic events to influence historical change without letting economic theory determine it.

Appleby touches briefly on class, mentioning that the British Attorney General warned Thomas Cooper to “Continue if you please to publish your reply to Mr. Burke in an octavo form, so as to confine it probably to the class of readers who may consider it cooly: so soon as it is published cheaply for dissemination among the populace, it will be my duty to prosecute.” (Cooper probably deserves study. 60) British and American conservatives find themselves side by side in Appleby’s conclusion. Alexander Hamilton called “the belief that commerce might regulate itself a ‘wild speculative paradox,’ but Adam Smith’s invisible hand was warmly clasped by the Republicans.” (88) Thomas Cooper’s 1800
Political Essays encapsulate the libertarian creed Appleby says Jeffersonians endorsed. “Prohibit nothing,” Cooper said, “but protect no speculation.” (89) It’s ironic that the history of capitalism in America becomes mostly a story about businessmen and politicians preaching the first injunction while continually breaking the second.

Hill Towns

Started Harold Fisher Wilson’s The Hill Country of Northern New England. It’s beginning as expected, with a description of Thomas Nixon Carver’s five stages of New England agriculture. Wilson uses a seasonal metaphor for his narrative, beginning with Summer, 1790-1830. This is the age of self-sufficiency, which is followed by a fall attributed to the railroads and “external causes of unrest.” It’s interesting that in 1936, Wilson seems to be turning a corner from a Progressive/New Deal sort of optimistic elitism to a new social history concern with “those who stayed at home.” (4)

This will probably be fairly interesting, since Wilson is supposed to be a lifelong New Englander with deep knowledge of the place and people. The early pages reiterate a lot of the standard structure. The soil is thin and rocky, so “tillage is not profitable under modern conditions.” (5) But does this mean farmers were actually trying to compete head-on with western staples? Why do we generally assume they weren’t astute enough to recognize their disadvantages and choose to do something they were more competitive at? The later chapters seem to talk a lot about sheep and dairying -- we’ll see if the farmers get to be agents of this change, or if it’s just something that happens to them.

Wilson introduces the population question by remarking on the beginning of a trend in population loss as early as the decade from 1790 to 1800 (first two census decades), but accelerating in the 1820s-30s. My question, after looking at the Ashfield census is, did these towns have a loss in households? Or just in total population? Once these townships were fully occupied (all the viable farmland divided and distributed), it seems almost inevitable that a homestead farming community was going to produce too many sons within a generation or so. At that point, net outmigration is virtually guaranteed, until the “pioneer generation” stops having kids. Wilson mentions that although people in the 1790s believed many farms had been abandoned, they were in fact “unoccupied,” they “continued to be held by actual owners who paid taxes on them.” (9) Does this imply a different attitude toward these properties on the part of their owners, from the declension story we see?

Some more thoughts on Zinn

Some more things that strike me about A People’s History of the United States:

First, it tries to be a one-stop shop, for the general reader. As I recall, from first seeing the book when I was a “general reader,” it does a good job of convincing readers that it’s exposing them to the untold stories of the underside of the American Dream. For many, I think being exposed to the idea that there was an underside was a shock. This may be the biggest contribution of the book.

As I look through the book now, I’m surprised how much attribution Zinn does, right in the narrative. I ignored it before, because I didn’t recognize the names of the historians Zinn is quoting and paraphrasing. Reading it again, I’m as interested in the historiography as in the history.

Zinn says he intends his book to be a companion (and corrective) to the standard American history that we all learn in high school. I think he does a pretty good job on two important fronts. He talks about things the “standard” histories pass by, and he challenges the authority of “standard” historians. This is important, because it’s impossible to put everything into a general history survey text (or course), and a lot has to be left by the wayside. But the general reader doesn’t usually have to think about what gets included, and whose voice is ignored or suppressed. It’s the implication Zinn draws that maybe some voices have been suppressed, and not merely ignored, that makes the book memorable and controversial.

I think I read
A People’s History before Matt Damon mentioned it in Good Will Hunting, but I imagine a lot of people first read it as a result of that endorsement. I always liked the mental image of a bunch of working class guys from Southey, talking about the Arawak Indians and how the Wobblies sang Joe Hill songs and scared the shit out of the powers that be. When I loaded trucks for a living (and was a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters), I always had fun talking with guys who had half a clue, but were trying to find out more. Critics of Zinn claim that he riles up the ignorant masses, leading people to believe in conspiracy theories and all kinds of bullshit. But really, who gave them the right to say who’s allowed to know more of the truth?

Zinn said throwing your anger and tears back into the past was a waste of time. His point was that there was a connection between then and now, and that by understanding what happened, we could make better choices in the present for the future. Or at least have a better appreciation for the complexity and moral ambiguity of real people. This seems to be the hope we all secretly share, when we get into history. That’s the “why should I care” test HCR keeps bringing us back to in class. There’s something resonant or instructive about anything we get excited enough about to write a book. At least, we hope so.

I’m a little off track, but I’ve been thinking about the subjects of the story I’m writing. I had a moment of panic last week, when I thought these folks weren’t representative enough, and that their story is too full of contingency. I’ve been reading a lot of histories that leave the individual people out, so they can talk about places, forces, and how “The People” respond. I was nervous that my story would seem trivial, if it was about less than the full sweep of rural history, across the entire country from the beginning until now. Seems kind of silly, when I put it that way. But there you have it. So,
A People’s History helped me this week, as an illustration that you can talk about regular people, and still tell a big story.

Who was there and for how long?

Today I’m reading census data from 1790 to 1840. Putting together a big spreadsheet that lists everybody, so I can see who came and who left the town I’m writing about. Ran into some interesting problems along the way.

The 1810 census was a mess! I’m still not sure I got it all -- I’m going to have to search on all the missing names, to make sure they really are missing from the town. Three different census recorders took parts of the town I’m looking at, so my data is appended to the forms for three towns surrounding my target. And the machine transcription on these forms was less than perfect, so it’s a good thing I’m familiar with the family names in this town, or I’d be hopelessly lost.

I don’t want to do JUST a population study of any of these places, but with the info readily available these days, I don't see how you can avoid knowing what happened with the people, as part of the due diligence. Persistence, turnover, where people went, who came to replace them...all go to establishing the character of the place.

Yankee exodus

Stewart H. Holbrook
The Yankee Exodus: An Account of Migration from New England

Synopsis: Holbrook believes “Yankees were born with an uncommon urge to see, with their own eyes, if the grass on the other side of the mountain really was greener.” (10) He doesn’t ever completely explain why this urge would be universal, rather than be due to particular motivations like religion or economics. Holbrook does not give any thought to people who may have moved more than once (New Englanders who moved to New York, and then
moved on to MIchigan or Oregon). Nor does he distinguish between those who left and those who stayed. This might have complicated his argument (in a good way), especially where families sent some members west, while others stayed home in New England. What Holbrook does provide is a heartfelt personal connection to these old Yankees, and a lot of good details it will be fun to track down someday, when I’m looking for topics to research.

High on the list of things to check into someday are names. Along with Ethan Allen, Holbrook singles out General
Rufus Putnam, head of the Ohio Company of Associates. He doesn’t give much information about any one topic, and he doesn’t make many judgements. Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham are simply described as “Two Massachusetts speculators” who “For $100,000...bought preemptive rights to a vast tract in the western part” of New York and began the “Genesee Fever.” (17) A passage outlining the founding of Oberlin College is suggestive. The “new Oberlins” (Hillsdale College in Michigan, Ripon, Northfield/Carelton, Grinnell and Tabor in Iowa could probably figure in a story about the intellectual/social history of the Upper Midwest in its early years. (43)

Lucy Stone was a radical I’d never heard of. (45-6) Another surprise was Vermont’s “Year of Two Winters, the infamous Eighteen Hundred and Frozen to Death, when snow fell a foot deep in June and was of aid in helping thousands of Yankees to make up their minds.” (48) The story of the Mormons (and of other religious fanatics) recurs throughout the book. I didn’t know Smith had his vision of Moroni near Palmyra, or that Brigham Young lived on a farm in Mendon.

There are several references to Ashfielders, but none that are salient to my research. Hiram Alden arrived in Coldwater, Branch County, MI in about 1834, and became a leading man in the new town. James T. Barber settled in Eau Claire and became a leading lumberman. His “timber stands included yellow pine in Idaho, where the town of Barber is named for him.” (124) Ashfield’s Rev. Samuel Parker wrote a journal of his travels in the Pacific northwest, attracting immigrants to the Oregon territory. (227) And Zebulon B. Taylor went to the Tacoma area. (236) These brief mentions of people who may or may not be historically significant are typical of Holbrook’s approach. The book mentions many people, but rarely goes into depth. Abner Kneeland gets about a page and a half of coverage that includes a mention of
The Fruits of Philosophy, but not its author. Kneeland’s 1839 emigration to the Des Moines river in Iowa and his utopian community Salubria, like so many other items in The Yankee Exodus, scream for more attention.

Critics: Generally praised the “rich word-pictures” Holbrook provided, and criticized his lack of documented references and analytical rigor, and his filiopietism.

Land monopoly? Or is it water?

Donald J. Pisani
Chapter 5: Land Monopoly in Nineteenth-Century California
Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920

Synopsis: “In no American state,” Pisani says, “was land monopoly more of a perceived problem than in nineteenth-century California.” Pisani reviews Paul Wallace Gates’ indictment of monopolists, and suggests that “the state’s scarcity of water and the nature of irrigation agriculture contributed even more to the concentration of ownership than venal, shortsighted, and carelessly drawn national and state land land laws.” (86)

Bt 1872, “each of 122 individuals and companies owned more than 20,000 acres” of California farmland. (86) “Perhaps even more alarming, 2,298 people owned more than 1,000 acres, and the 620 largest farms and ranchos in California averaged 22,000 acres. By the 1870s, the state’s easily arable land was gone.” (87)

Gates argued that an 1851 law confirming prior Mexican land grants led to the rapid “grabbing” of most of California’s best land (including a big chunk in San Francisco). Pisani agrees that “The Mexican claims were the wellspring of monopoly,” but adds “Congress did little to reserve California’s remaining public land for bona fide settlers... Given the flood of miners, Congress saw no need to provide special incentives.” (88-9) Pisani speculates that the lack of land may have pushed discouraged 49ers into urban life, but they may not have been the best potential farmers. And their overwhelming presence in the state (and its resulting reputation) may have encouraged farmers to look elsewhere. Whatever the reason, “As early as 1860...21 percent of California’s people lived in communities of 2,500 or more. (Ten years after Ohio statehood only 1 percent of its people lived in towns larger than 2,500, and a decade after Illinois entered the union, that state did not contain a single community that large.)” (92) California certainly developed differently than New England and the midwest (from which concerned citizens and historians drew their models of independent, small-farm development).

Between “1868-1873, when about 6,000,000 acres of public land were taken in California, Homestead Act entries covered only 809,621 acres...California railroads acquired most of their 11,500,000-acre subsidy after 1870.” The small number of family farms, relative to ranches and giant wheat producers in the Sacramento valley, set a pattern for California agriculture, “long before the rise of ‘agribusiness’ as we know it,” or maybe as a model for agribusiness elsewhere. (90)

But the land was dry. “Most land in California’s Central Valley and south of the Tehachapi Mountains had little value without water.” (94) The failure of Californians to envision a public domain for water rights ultimately reinforced monopolistic land ownership and factory farming. “In 1875,” Pisani says, competing capitalists bought up so many small water claims that between them they “claimed 3,000 cubic feet per second from the Kern river, about three times more water than the stream had ever carried.” (94) “The Bakersfield Grange bitterly protested to the legislature,” but the capitalists owned the legislature. (95) To realize short-term, personal gains, and to avoid fighting a losing battle, “Many sold their riparian rights to upstream interests, as California courts abandoned the timeless principle that such rights were inalienable and appurtenant to the land.” (97) During the 1870s, opponents of land monopoly hoped that state ownership or control of water would force large landowners to sell their holdings. In eerily modern “red state” terminology, “arguments...against a comprehensive state water system [said] that the new bureaucracy would build up corrupt political ‘rings,’ [and] that government was essentially wasteful and inefficient.” (98)

It's not obvious until someone says it.

Patricia Nelson Limerick
The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

In a 1989 review article in
The Western Historical Quarterly, Limerick said she “wanted to narrow the widening gap between ‘sophisticated, scholarly history’ and ‘readable, simplified, popular history.’ If you cannot express your findings in terms that an intelligent freshman can understand, I have long felt, then you haven’t yet figured out those findings.” (August 1989, 318) She begins the Preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition by saying “This book...has made me happy.” (1) The significance of that statement becomes more clear, as the reader continues, into a book that, for all its insights and contributions, is filled with heavy irony and a general air of accusation.

This tone may have been inevitable. Limerick wrote in 1987, so she had not only the heroic, Turnerian history of the west to debunk, but the even more wildly out-of-touch Reagan western myth. The attack she mounts on the normal view of the west is split between history and more current events; Limerick advocates for the continuity of western history to the present, and for the use of current newspapers as “primary sources” for that current view. Since most of these issues were particularly intense in the 1970s and 1980s, the reader needs to work a little, to bring them up to date.

But many of the points Limerick makes are suggestive, and have inspired others to expand on them. First is the idea that “the sharp and honest term ‘conquest’” enhances our understanding of the morally ambivalent nature of western expansion. As one of the 1989 panelists remarked, it’s not only the South that Americans need to feel guilty about.

Limerick begins by quoting Turner’s essay on history (not “The Significance of the Frontier”): “The aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past...the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past.” (17) This Eliot-esque statement connects historical study with both the present and the public, and shows Turner, like the west itself, was complicated and multidimensional. On the subject of the frontier thesis, Limerick says (paraphrasing Lamar) that it created an artificial barrier between “America’s rural past and its urban-industrial present.” (22) It was so widely adopted, she suggests, because the west had “no watershed comparable to the Revolution or the Civil War.” But it was inherently inaccurate and oversimplified. “One could easily argue,” for example, “that a sudden concentration of population marks the opening stage [of the frontier] and that a population lowered through...the departure of people from a used-up mining region marks the end of the frontier and its opportunities.” Even that complication may not be enough, since many areas go through cycles of growth, decline and regrowth, as conditions, technologies, and human goals change. On a more concrete level, Limerick points out the very important point that in 1890, when the frontier was declared closed, “one-half of the land remained federal property.” (23) She suggests that “If it is difficult for Americans to imagine that an economy might be stable and also healthy,” their addiction to growth may be related to the frontier myth, with its prospect of endless western opportunity. (28) If so, this is doubly ironic, because Turner’s whole point was that the frontier had closed, and America was going to need to find a new way to uphold its individualist, democratic values.

But, as Limerick says, “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” Historians should be interested, she says, in not only what happened, via “the keepers of written records,” but in what people believe, via “the tellers of tales.” (35) The discrepancy Limerick is most interested in, is the “idea of innocence.” People moved west, she says, for “improvement and opportunity, not injury to others.” (36) But of course, many others were injured in the process. Limerick highlights the contradictions: “Squatters defied the boundaries of Indian territory and then were aggrieved to find themselves harassed and attacked by Indians.” They “felt betrayed when the rains proved inadequate...Contrary to all of the West’s associations with self-reliance and individual responsibility,” she says, “misfortune has usually caused white Westerners to cast themselves in the role of the innocent victim.” (42) Because the national government was an ongoing player in Western affairs, Limerick says government became a favorite scapegoat. (44) She finds the origins of the “injured innocent” attitude, in the fact that “Having practically destroyed the aboriginal population and enslaved the Africans...the white inhabitants of English America began to conceive of themselves as the victims, not the agents, of Old World Colonialism.” (quoting Carole Shammas, 48)

The generalizations are broad. It’s quite possible to imagine subgroups in both the colonial and western example, who did not necessarily share the same degree of “guilt” as the “agents” mentioned. The rest of the book discusses many of these groups, and the increasing division of wealth and power in the developing west. “‘Power always follows property,’ John Adams said bluntly.” (58) In the west, “The advantage always accrued to the wealthy man of influence, regardless of what the law said.” (quoting Malcolm Rohrbough, 61) A case in point, Limerick says, is William Stewart’s 1866 Mining Law, which established the groundrules for massive accumulation of patent claims. “A great deal of Western property right,” she says, “rested on this narrow margin of timing.” (67) While “Speculation is extremely disillusioning
if you are trying to hold onto the illusion that agriculture and commerce are significantly different ways of life,” it might be more accurate to highlight the ways property laws were devised to enable accumulation of vast tracts under the ownership of individuals and corporations.

The contrast between the myth of private enterprise and the reality of federally subsidized railroading, mining, and western state development continues throughout western history. “Western settlers were so abundantly supplied with slogans and democratic formulas,” Limerick says, “that putting our trust in their recorded words alone would be misleading.” (83) The “squatter government” of Sioux Falls turns out to be “agents of a land company, financed and organized by Minnesota Democrats.” (84) States like Wyoming and Colorado received subsidies far exceeding what their taxpayers “sent to a government...considered meddlesome and constitutionally threatening.” (87) And the west regularly got more than its share: “Per capita expenditures of federal agencies in Montana from 1933 to 1939...were $710, while they were only $143 in North Carolina.” (88)

“Despite the promises of the Homestead Act,” Limerick says, “much good land was already in possession of railroads and states, and ‘purchase continued to be the most usual means to obtain a farm after 1865.’” (quoting Everett Dick, 125) The cost of outfitting a farm with “a house, draft animals, wagon, plow, well, fencing, and seed grain could be as much as $1,000,” putting homesteading out of reach to many eastern wage-earners. (125) When grasshoppers wiped out Minnesota farms, governor John Pillsbury argued against state aid. (127-8) One wonders how much state aid, in the form of subsidized railroads, government flour contracts, and the legal fiction of corporate rights, went into the building of Pillsbury’s flour empire?

The “split character” of the farmers’ social position, halfway between workers and businessmen, “curtailed the radicalism of their protests.” (129) This seems like a failure of imagination on the part of radicals, or perhaps a victory for their opponents. Limerick says “The economy of scale required by certain kinds of irrigation confirmed the pattern” of agribusiness. (130) But the assumption that no other arrangement of resource use was possible is anachronistic and avoids confronting the forces that created the victory of global economic concentration over community and regional self-sufficiency. Limerick agrees with Williams that “attribut[ing] ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match” is as old as history, but it would still be useful to critically examine how “rural nostalgia” has been mobilized as a propaganda tool, from Jefferson to the present. (131)

The rest of the book tells the story of the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Indian presence in western history, and of the government’s continuing presence, especially in conservation in the era of Pinchot and Roosevelt. Limerick concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that a closer look at the complex history of the west will help solve some of America’s ongoing problems.

Cronon on Turner

William Cronon
“Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner”
The Western Historical Quarterly
18:2, April 1987

Synopsis: Cronon reviews the historiographical impact of Turner (especially, but not only his frontier thesis), and reevaluates its implications. He suggests that the flaws in Turner’s ideas can be ignored, and a core set of ideas remain that inform new (especially environmental) approaches to American history.

Cronon defines the frontier thesis using Turner’s words: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Turner combined Darwin and Haekel (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) “evolution to narrate “an evolution which recapitulated the development of civilization itself, tracing the path from hunter to trader to farmer to town,” and forming “a special American character...marked by fierce individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism.” (157) This formulation is problematic, Cronon says, because its “fuzzy language conferred on Turner’s argument the illusion of great analytical power only because his central terms...were so broad and so ill-defined.” (158) I’d also suggest that the Darwinian paradigm is not a perfect fit for historical development, recapitulation is attractive but ultimately false, and that even if the frontier experience fostered individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism generally, it’s crucial to understand how these traits were expressed and distributed. Clearly everyone didn’t have them all in equal quantities. How and why some people became radically egalitarian while others became radically libertarian seems like it should be a central concern in western histories.

Cronon says Turner’s critics have pointed out that “westerners looked to the East,” and that “Among the eastern institutions dominating western life have been the Federal government, the corporation, and the city.” (158) He calls attention to the “urban character of much western settlement,” (169) especially in “rising urban centers whose growth was central to frontier expansion itself.” (like Chicago in
NM, 1992. 173) The impact of these points, for me, is that they break the smooth flow of the westward teleology (just as they break the static von Thünen model). Western (or any regional) history should challenge the idea that the story “of any given American place could be written in terms of a progressive sequence of different economic and social activities [and] embodied in representative figures who might serve as ‘types’.” (166) Cronon suggests that in place of Turner’s narrative arc (which he admits “set American space in motion and gave it a plot,” 166), historians could focus on changes in “People’s notions of abundance and scarcity--of wealth and poverty.” (172) “Among the deepest struggles in American western history,” he says, are “those among peoples who have defined abundance--and the ‘good life’--in conflicting ways.” (175) New histories might “discover a subtler periodization...[and] create a finer-grained sense of movement that will reflect interconnections between regional diversity and the shifting dialectic of scarcity and abundance.” (174)

Historians these days appreciate tightly-focused, evidence-based, bottom-up narratives, but they seem to miss the big, sweeping histories of the nineteenth century. In his most recent book (which I’m in the middle of reading) Kulikoff says he’s bringing back the master narrative (we’ll see). My question is, how to put together a history that will drill down into the details of specific people’s experiences in particular places and times, and at the same time suggest (if not prove) a “big” point about the relationship between country and city? Turner’s use of “great men” as representative “types” was racist and nineteenth-century, but it highlights the problem of believing any particular story can claim to be a general, representative view. Maybe a series of well-chosen microhistories can be sewn together into something that resembles a wide view. Doing this rural history, I might look more closely at the idea of cores and peripheries, which may show unexpected interactions between east and west. I might find cycles of growth and decline that follow different trajectories from Turner’s. Cronon has already told a story of the simultaneous growth of a center and periphery, but more might be said about the people living in the shadow of a “Chicago” (or maybe a Minneapolis). There must be ways rural people’s lives remained unaffected, just as there are ways they were never free of the fact of the city’s existence. And Cronon’s final question is a good one to keep in mind: “To what extent
has the peculiar nature of American class consciousness and republican government been shaped by the shifting resource base of our economic and social life? How do nature and humanity transform each other?” (175) This question might help break an exclusive focus on the city-country binary, to focus on the changing ways rural areas relate to their environments in American history, and how that can be much different from the way cities do. This might go a long way toward a story of how culture, class consciousness, and politics developed the way they did in rural America. Comparing these to the stories city-Americans have always wanted to tell themselves about the character and qualities of their rural neighbors, might help explain how we got to where we are.

Transatlantic radical connections

Colin Bonwick, English Radicals and the American Revolution, 1977

Bonwick mentions
Christopher Wyvill early in the story, but keeps him in the background. More prominent is Major John Cartwright, whose “first reform tract, Take Your Choice! (published in 1776) advocated universal manhood suffrage and...anticipated the Chartists by more than fifty years.” (6) Granville Sharp and Thomas Brand Hollis were acquaintances of John Adams, and corresponded with him and other Americans after Adams returned to America. Catharine Macaulay was one of the few early radicals who did not soften her position as time went on.

Before fighting broke out, Benjamin Franklin and
Arthur Lee made significant contributions to British radical thought, Bonwick says. Lee wrote newspaper articles he signed as “Junius Americanus,” which he compiled in The Political Detection: On the Treachery and Tyranny of Administration Both at Home and Abroad. In 1774, he published An Appeal to the Justice and Interests of the People of Great Britain as “An Old Member of Parliament;” which he followed a year later with a Second Appeal and A Speech Intended to Have Been Given in the House of Commons. Franklin wrote under his own name, and his articles were reprinted as “Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces” by his friend Benjamin Vaughan. (41-2) The Declaration of Independence “arrived in England in August 1776 and immediately was reprinted in almost every newspaper, as a broadsheet, and in the various documentary collections.” (42)

Friendships and personal connections were at least as important as publications. When Franklin arrived in Paris in 1775, he asked Joseph Priestley to relay to their friend Richard Price his observation that “Britain, at the expense of three millions, has killed one hundred and fifty Yankees this campaign, which is twenty thousand pounds a head...during the same time sixty thousand children have been born in America.” (83) After the war ended, the Americans‘ prestige with radicals only increased, says Bonwick. “Whereas Franklin had been admitted to the radical circle [including the Lunar Society and the Royal] initially as a scientist, Adams was welcomed as an American.” His elitist
Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which he hoped would communicate his Federalist ideals to “some of the Enlightened Friends of Liberty here,” was embraced by the more conservative Commonwealthmen as a rational and very recognizable approach to government. (174) Older radicals like Brand Hollis clung to the idea that America had taken a step away from complete democracy, Bonwick says, especially after 1789. “Priestley thought that the Americans were imitating the English civil constitution and adopting a form of government similar to the British.” (184) “Adams arguments brought the American model closer to the structural forms of English constitutionalism...Radicals... believed...the American example demonstrated the feasibility of political reform in their own country.” (187)

“Catharine Macaulay [was] the only English radical to have visited the United States since its independence.” (182) She stayed with the Washingtons, and corresponded with them after her return. “After reading some Antifederalist pamphlets sent by
Mercy Warren here reservations grew stronger” that America had retreated too far from “the rights for which Americans had fought.” Only her faith in Washington convinced her that as president he would safeguard those rights.

The French Revolution changed everything. In Bonwick’s narrative, it caused Commonwealth radicals to reevaluate their reform agenda, even as it sparked a new radical generation that expanded much more widely into the artisan communities of London and other cities. Many older radicals “continued to attach greater importance to [America’s] libertarianism,” Bonwick says, while “the new men were particularly impressed with the egalitarianism they believed to be inherent in American society.” (217) Bonwick is unclear exactly what the difference between these two positions is; the only significant difference seems to be that “When the Birmingham Society for Constitutional Information told readers of a broadsheet, ‘
You have rights equal to all,’ they were saying nothing that was in itself new, what was remarkable was that they were addressing workmen.” (218)

“The new generation of radicals was born in December 1791...[when] a group of artisans formed a Constitutional Society in the new industrial town of Sheffield...Shortly afterward, and partly in emulation...the
London Corresponding Society (LCS), ‘composed chiefly of tradesmen and shopkeepers,’ was founded.” (217-8) “Thomas Hardy, shoemaker, secretary, and organizer of the LCS, had read extensively in the earlier tracts of the SCI (given him by Brand Hollis) and pamphlets by Sharp, Cartwright, Jebb, and Price.” (220) While the older radicals like Hollis and Sharp continued corresponding with John Adams and Benjamin Rush, the younger men focused on Thomas Paine and Joel Barlow of Connecticut. Barlow had arrived in London in 1788, shortly after his pamphlet The Vision of Columbus. In 1792, Barlow “reached prominence” with the publication of Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe, which discussed “principles enunciated by Price in his notorious Discourse on the Love of Our Country.” (225)

Paine “arrived in England with a ready-made reputation based on
Common Sense and had quickly made contacts with a wide range of politicians from Edmund Burke...[to] Brand Hollis.” (226) Quoting E.P. Thompson, Bonwick says Paine gave English people “a new rhetoric of radical egalitarianism, which touched the deepest responses of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ and which penetrated the subpolitical attitudes of the urban working people.” (227) “The second part of Rights of Man was an even greater success than its predecessor. It circulated with extreme rapidity among the radical groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Norwich, and elsewhere and was warmly welcomed as a work of the highest importance...A proclamation against seditious writings was intended to suppress the pamphlet, but had the opposite effect, and when Paine learned that a prosecution was immanent he arranged for the publication of a cheap edition” and moved to France. “Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold within a few years. To supplement them, five editions and ten variants of Common Sense were published between 1791 and 1793, and the SCI distributed twelve thousand copies of his Letter to Secretary Dundas.” (231)

So, the American Revolution remained very present in the minds of British radicals, although there was wide variation in their response to it. LCS co-founder
John Thelwall, “who claimed to speak for the desperately poor...remarked that the American people had too much veneration fro property, religion, and law.” (231) Joseph Gerrald, a leading LCS “theoretician,” saw “a garden of Eden...whose structure and values were the antithesis of...England.” (232) “By the middle of the [1790s] many old radicals were appalled by the ‘horrible excesses‘ of the French Revolution [and] used American experience to redress these extremist tendencies.” (234) “Christopher Wyvill...strongly disapproved of the prosecution of Paine but feared that the extremists would take over the SCI...Cartwright shared some of Wyvill’s suspicions and worked hard to counteract Paine’s republicanism, while Brand Hollis denied rumors that he saw Rights of Man prior to publication and reportedly refused Paine financial help when he was in difficulties.” (235) “Commonwealthmen saw America in light of their own needs...following the Adams model in preference to the Pennsylvania model of a unicameral legislature.” But “shortly before her death Catharine Macaulay told Washington that she had abandoned her preference for the American system in favor of the French unicameral model.” (237)

Stylized isn't that obsessive

Mark Garvey
Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style

Actually, the title promises more than it delivers by way of quirkiness. The book is partly a look at the history of
The Elements of Style, partly a glimpse at the interactions of E.B. White with a number of people including William Strunk and the Macmillan editors and managers who made the book possible. The book obsession elements seem like they were inserted at the behest of an editor, to add a little quirkiness to an otherwise pretty straightforward story.

Part of the appeal of
Stylized is the glimpse it gives the reader of New York literary culture during the years when White was one of its bright lights. In this sense, it reminds me a bit of One Drop, Bliss Broyard’s book about discovering her father was black. Anatole Broyard was a critic for the New York Times in the seventies and eighties. The difference is, Garvey is right: “few books of any size, have had the impact on American literary culture and thought that The Elements of Style has.” White’s ability to abstract (a little, not obsessively) from writing to life (“it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong”) probably accounts for much of the appeal of The Elements. That, and the fact it helps people write.

Garvey gives White credit for having “that straightforward prose that was exceptionally polished...without giving the impression of
labor.” (33) In one of the professional writers’ comments (I can’t find it -- more about this in a moment), someone makes the point that White creates a “myth” of simple prose and clear thinking. Garvey falls into this myth headfirst, taking several opportunities to attack postmodernism. He disparages theory, and even belittles attempts to make language more gender-inclusive. In drafting Strunk and White into his crusade, he’s probably oversimplifying the positions they would have taken, which would have been both more nuanced and more humorous than Garvey’s pedantic rants.

I couldn’t find the author of the part I just paraphrased, because the book is organized in such a jumble. Garvey apparently had conversations with several authors. They give their opinions on
The Elements and reflections on how it has influenced their work. Some of these are interesting, some simply reinforce points Garvey has already made well enough, and pad the pages. The real problem, though, is that Garvey or his editors chose to break these comments up, and intersperse them throughout the text. In some cases, this may hide the fact that people repeated themselves quite a bit. My objection is, many of these short blurbs come, complete with their own little boxes like textbook sidebars, in the middle of the story. They completely break the flow, and I frequently found myself paging back, to see what Garvey had been saying, before he so rudely interrupted himself.

2 views of agrarian radicalism

Alfred F. Young, ed. Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism,1993

Allan Kulikoff, “The American Revolution, Capitalism, and the Formation of the Yeoman Classes”

As you’d expect from the title, Kulikoff argues that there was class-consciousness among yeomen farmers, separating them not only from aristocrats and merchants, but also from capitalist farmers. Kulikoff has written extensively on farmers and the revolutionary period, and I’ll need to look at his books to discover whether his claims are supported, because he doesn’t provide any primary evidence in this article (this is frustrating, and may be a warning to me, never to write an article without evidence, regardless how retrospective I think it is). He defines yeoman farming as being based solely on family labor, and although sometimes selling surpluses in the market, primarily oriented toward self-sufficiency and survival (he does not use the word competency, but that seems to be the idea). There’s an intermediate group of commercial farmers, who sometimes employ wage labor and credit, and who produce for the market. And finally, there are capitalist farmers, who are completely committed to the market. Kulikoff does not provide any concrete examples of these types (which is clearly a problem, for me).

I've written my thoughts about Kulikoff's argument in italics, as it goes. This seems most useful to me, and hopefully will make sense to readers.

Kulikoff says “These Virginia
yeomen, who constituted three-fifths of the white heads of families in the colony, owned land and knew that freeholding land tenure was their only claim to political participation, their only security against impoverishment...To gain votes in the 1790s and beyond, gentlemen, especially Jeffersonian Republicans, placed this yeoman self-image at the center of their message, thereby legitimating and co-opting the political rhetoric of the sturdy yeoman.” (81-2) While I find the idea that politicians used (and partly manufactured) this yeoman image, partly to the detriment of the actual farmers, plausible, I think Kulikoff’s argument is strained and too heavily informed by theory.

Yeomen,” he says (his italics), “were small, producing farmers who owned land and participated in markets to sustain familial autonomy and local exchange. [in other words, they were philosophically committed to local, barter exchange within the community? Where? When?] Practicing ‘safety first’ agriculture, they grew much of the food they consumed and tried to procure the rest through trade with neighbors. [others put safety second? Doesn’t this really mean they had families to feed, they were living at a subsistence level, and the only people around to trade with were their neighbors, because there was no effective transportation to distant markets?] Avoiding entangling debts, they retained the independence needed to make virtuous political decisions. [they did this on purpose? Or were they living in a remote, rural, subsistence economy where they were unable to get credit, and would have had no use for it anyway. The Jeffersonians said this was virtuous -- are we falling for the same political line they sold to the yeomen?] Yeoman farmers can be contrasted with capitalist farmers, who sought greater market embeddedness, concentrated on staple crops, and on occasion bought financial instruments. Unlike yeomen, they often hired wage laborers to increase their output and profits. [am I being cynical, or do they have to use “financial instruments” and wage labor, and the yeomen have to be innocent of that sin, or the predetermined structure Kulikoff is building for us doesn’t work?] They became part of a capitalist economy, one where profits were divided between the original producers (farmers, artisans, small urban capitalists, wage laborers) and a class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production and who expropriated part of the value of goods every producer made. [how’s that again? Who are these über-capitalists? How do they expropriate this surplus value? No, not in theory -- on the ground! Who and where are they??]” (84) The citation at the end of this paragraph actually directs the reader to Kulikoff’s own book, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism, which I’ve been meaning to read.

“Repudiating feudalism,” Kulikoff says, these American yeomen “rarely held property in common; disliking capitalism, they nonetheless espoused private property in land, and the land markets, economic interdependence, and capitalist development they disliked inevitably followed.” (85)
Brian Donahue challenges the claim that commons were uncommon. And again, development of land markets (and speculation, etc.) is ironic, but is it inevitable? Is theory filling in for evidence?

Kulikoff says events like the resistance of Hudson Valley tenants in the 1760s “led yeomen to greater self-definition as a class,” (88) and this is fine as far as it goes. But so what? What did they do? What happened as a result? A “yeoman class ideology can be traced to justifications of their right to land when either gentlemen or native Americans threatened...To legitimate their rights to land, yeomen embraced a labor theory of value, one they had carried over with them from England, but that lay dormant until conflict broke out.” (90) This is really frustrating, because Kulikoff’s determination to make these guys into little proto-Marxists almost obscures some really interesting ironies. The “labor theory” these yeomen were using was the idea that unimproved land, which (deliberately?) misunderstanding the Indians‘ agricultural and hunting techniques, they believed the frontier to be, couldn’t be owned. The irony is that they had to appeal to the “gentlemen” in charge of the government for protection against these Indians, even as they tried to maintain their claims to the land and their autonomy. “Indians, John Winthrop...insisted, ‘enclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame cattle to improve the Land by,’ and therefore had no right to retain ownership of it. Only human labor improved the land, thereby bestowing ownership rights upon it.” (90) Okay, in the first place, Winthrop said this over a hundred years before the story Kulikoff is telling about the revolution. It’s unclear how much of this Winthrop believed, and how much was a justification drawn from Locke. Winthrop actually says (and Kulikoff neglects to quote) “...nor any tame cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have no other but a Naturall Right.” But in any case, this passage does not prove the yeomen espoused a labor theory of value. Based on the quote, Winthrop could as easily have been arguing for a “Cattle” theory of value, or less ridiculously for “habitation” as a basis for land title. This is a claim squatters would later make, along with the improvement argument, when defending their farms against landlords from the cities.

“Whig leaders,” says Kuliloff, “came to understand that to gain support of white property holders they had to appeal to the lived experience of the yeomen, to their fears of losing their land.” (94)
The implication is that urban Committees of Correspondence deliberately crafted their message to their rural audience, to play on fears the city-folk didn’t share. But “wherever yeomen (or would-be yeomen among tenants) saw Whig gentlemen as enemies, they joined the British or stayed neutral.” This is an interesting argument, especially if it led to the Whigs promising (or hinting at) a revolutionary settlement they had no interest in or intention of supporting, once the war was won.

After the war, in the period leading up to the Constitution, Kulikoff says the Whig delegates to the Philadelphia convention “sought a stronger national government, with the power to tax, regulate commerce, suppress internal conflict, and encourage economic development. They uniformly opposed agrarian laws, a term used to imply the redistribution of wealth and the leveling of property.” This is interesting. I’d love to know what some of these “agrarian” law proposals were. Franklin also suggested it might be a good idea to limit the accumulation of capital and land -- but he was ignored. Who would be able to vote and hold office went right to the taxation and representation claims the revolutionaries had made against England. “In pushing for greater freeholder democracy in the 1780s and 1790s,” Kulikoff says, “yeomen became more conscious of themselves as a political class, distinct from gentlemen and merchants.” (104) Again, okay -- but to what degree was somebody else (Democratic Republicans fighting the Federalists) trying to form that group consciousness in them, to lead them into the party?

“White settlers in the Ohio Valley welcomed the military campaigns of the 1790s that ultimately ended what they saw as the Indian menace.” (105) Heavy irony here: these sturdy individualist yeomen are appealing to the state to conquer the Indians, so they can have lands they will subsequently claim are theirs by natural right and not subject to taxation or competing claims by gentlemen who have the backing of that same state. Maybe the continuing presence of the Indian issue prevented these yeomen from ever really coming together to form a “party.”

Kulikoff admits that “older [yeoman] strategies of communal self-sufficiency in food [quickly became] difficult, if not impossible.” He continues, “These yeoman ideals influenced the political leaders who created a powerful ideology that historians have commonly called ‘Jeffersonian agrarianism’...Agrarian realists like Thomas Jefferson contended that the best possible society was one dominated by small, independent producers. Only widespread distribution of land could prevent usurpation of power and destruction of the republic by the wealthy.” Again, the implication is that this was a political position rather than a sincere philosophy. It’s an attractive idea, and I wish he’d provided evidence. But, in the long run, for my purposes, does it matter whether Jefferson believed or not?

“The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture illuminates the improving spirit that animated capitalist farmers. Founded in 1785 by merchants, doctors, and gentlemen (including Benjamin Rush and Robert Morris), nearly all of whom opposed Pennsylvania’s democratic constitution of 1776 and applauded the federal Constitution of 1787, the society gave its first prize...to George Morgan, a gentleman farmer from Princeton, New Jersey.” (106)
This is interesting: if they are really like Kulikoff says, are they a little proto-Country Life Movement? Kulikoff concludes that the “defeat of yeoman popular democracy in the revolutionary era was only the first stage in the struggle of yeomen to maintain their communal social order. On every frontier yeomen reinvented their class and remade a world of patriarchal family government, food-producing farms, and communal self-sufficiency. As capitalist farmers expanded on the northern frontiers, conflicts with yeomen ensued...only the radical legacy of the Revolution sustained yeomen democracy for so long, nurturing the yeomanry through their protracted struggles of the nineteenth century.” (108) This is just not true. Agricultural settlers did NOT face the same conditions, did not go out west to get away from the market economy (especially after the railroads), and certainly didn’t aspire to utopian communalism except in rare instances. But it’s a strong myth, that probably draws a lot of its strength from Turner, and a lot from the desire of historians to tell a story like this. A continuous struggle, of a self-conscious class. Maybe that’s the real central question: can people be part of a continuous class, based solely on their self-association with a myth, regardless of the fact that their life experience completely invalidates that association? Obviously, I need to plan a chapter on the myth of the yeoman farmer, and its effect on rural history/historiography (both what happened, and what’s been said about what happened).

Alan Taylor, “Agrarian Independence: Northern Land Rioters after the Revolution”

In contrast to Kulikoff, Taylor’s article is full of references to particular people and events. He quotes “Liberty-Men” who he says were “defending their notion of the American Revolution against betrayal by the Great Proprietors”:

“Who can have better right to the land than we who have fought for it, subdued it & made it valuable which if we had not done no proprietor would ever have enquired after it...Wild land ought to be as free as common air. These lands once belonged to King George. He lost them by the American Revolution & they became the property of the people who defended & won them. The General Court did wrong & what they had no right to do when they granted them in such large quantities to certain companies & individuals & the bad acts of government are not binding on the subject...”

This was a sentiment, Taylor says, that was shared by “the Wild Yankees of Pennsylvania, the Anti-Renters of New York, and the Liberty-Men of Maine...that communities must resist laws that traduced the Revolution’s meaning. This was not what General Know wanted to read.” (224) Taylor gives us two groups, with wildly different world-views and expectations of the Revolution. “As gentlemen of property and standing,” he says, “Timothy Pickering, Philip Schuyler, and Henry Know fought a war for national independence, a war intended to place America’s government in their own hands and to safeguard their extensive property from arbitrary parliamentary taxation. They expected the new order to safeguard pre-revolutionary legal contracts, especially large land grants...But those agrarians perceived Pickering, Schuyler, and Knox as de facto Tories, greedy betrayers of the American Revolution’s proper meaning.”
Why did the agrarians expect this? Who told them this is what they were fighting for? Thomas Paine, for one. How much did they know, going in, that this was not the idea the rich were fighting for? How much were they hoping to push it farther? Depending on democracy to give them that chance?

Agrarians, he says “sought an American Revolution that maximized their access to, and secured their possession of, freehold land on which they could realize their labor as their own private property. This meant minimizing the levies of the ‘great men’: taxes, rents, land payments, and legal fees.” (225-6)
This expression seems much more nuanced and reasonable than Kulikoff’s. The agrarians “sought” a Revolution, after the fact. They realized that in increasingly technological, capital-intensive, and even cooperative enterprises, they lose some of the title to their labor, which they retain in subsistence agriculture. This is a sophisticated distinction. And they realize that society creates the ownership, legal, and power relationships that allow “great men” to enrich themselves. If true, this is very cool.

These agrarians were not seen as kooks -- at least not by everyone. In 1803, Robert H. Rose said of the Pennsylvania rebels: “They can not pay at present. They are a very industrious set of people, & such as make the best first settlers in a country like this; but the difficulty of clearing the land is so great that some years expire before a man can raise a subsistence for his family from it.” (231)
This indicates an understanding that different people and personalities were needed, to settle a frontier, and presumably that there was some type of ongoing social contract with these people, even after the pioneer phase ended. Migration to the frontier “redistributed most of the population increase in the United States to new counties virtually unpopulated by whites in 1760...at the same moment that the Revolution discredited received authority and legitimated confronting rulers who imperiled ‘natural rights.’” (232) The fact that extralegal violence had been sanctified by the Revolution clearly complicated the issue for those trying to impose order from above.

Taylor suggests that “leading men” in remote agrarian communities helped the rebels, until Jefferson’s party gave them a way out of their tight spot between their neighbors and the aristocrats. “Jeffersonianism sapped resistance by winning over the leading men,” both with less draconian policies toward the rebels and with the prospect of acceptance into a slightly broader elite society. (236) After the “Revolution of 1800,” the authorities “simultaneously legislated against extralegal resistance while establishing institutional mechanisms to set compromise prices.” (235) These included a 1799 Pennsylvania “Compromise Act” paired with an 1801 stiffening of the 1795 “Intrusion Act.” Jeffersonians’ propaganda extolled the virtues of the agrarians, which may have mitigated the rebels’ frustration with compromise; but they were practical farmers who were probably by this point more interested in providing for their families than fighting for principle. Taylor concludes that the Jeffersonians’ compromises, and the general belief that this was the best deal anyone would ever get, helped the leading men sell their neighbors on ending the resistance, so that “over time, the social mobility of a strategic few shrank the contested, marginal, autonomous districts that had temporarily expanded after the Revolution.” (237) It’s tempting to think these leading men betrayed their neighbors. But the resolution of these conflicts left many of the rebels with the land they wanted, and in exchange for some autonomy allowed them to stop being marginal. Notwithstanding Kulikoff’s ideal of the self-sufficient yeoman, I think many agrarian families welcomed an opportunity to participate in the market to some degree. So, to some degree, this was a victory for them, which they would never have achieved had they not stood up to the aristocrats in the cities.

Surprises in English history

Michael T. Davis, ed.,
Radicalism and Revolution in Britain, 1775-1848

H.T. Dickinson, “‘The Friends of America’: British Sympathy with the American Revolution,”

“In 1775 Lord North admitted to George III that ‘the cause of Great Britain is not yet sufficiently popular’, and Lord Camden claimed that ‘the common people hold the war in abhorrence and the merchants and tradesmen, for obvious reasons, are likewise against it’, and he told the House of Lords: ‘You have not half of the nation on your side.’ Benjamin Franklin believed that ‘the body of the English people are our friends.’ In August 1775, John Wesley...was alarmed that the bulk of the people were ‘dangerously dissatisfied’ and highly critical of the King himself...Temple Luttrell, having returned from a tour of England, told the House of Commons ‘that the sense of the mass of the people is in favor of the Americans.’” (2-3)
But what does this mean? In the first place, are these descriptions all accurate, or are they being made by people with an agenda? And in the second place, what of it? Englishmen had relatives in America, and they probably thought of the colonists as people like themselves. They could be against coercion (how does this compare to their reaction to Irish coercion?) on general principle, without being pro-American. And, they could be against war. And then, when the war became one against France and Spain, they could become patriotic.

“In London, Arthur Lee and William Lee, the brothers of the Virginia merchant Richard Henry Lee, and Richard’s trading partner, Stephen Sayre, were very active in the American cause, with others including Benjamin Rush...Arthur Lee became influential in radical circles in London. He wrote pamphlets and a series of newspaper articles as ‘Junius Americanus’...in 1769 he persuaded the radicals to include the government’s American policy in their list of grievances...William Lee...and Stephen Sayre were elected as the two sheriffs of London in 1773 and they both unsuccessfully contested parliamentary seats in the general election of 1774.” (5) This is interesting -- we don’t normally think of the American revolutionaries holding positions of authority in England. It’s a good reminder that they were rich, influential Englishmen right up to the last moment.

“Benjamin Franklin was deeply involved with a group of radical thinkers (many of whom were Dissenters) who belonged to the Club of Honest Whigs in London.” (Joseph Priestley was a member) (6)

“Failure in the American war also encouraged a major revival of radicalism. From 1779 Christopher Wyvill began to organize a nationwide association movement committed to economical and moderate parliamentary reform...The American patriots...had shifted the debate to a prolonged discussion about who could vote and in favor of the conclusion that all taxpayers should be directly represented in the legislature.” (21)

Carlile’s Deist included writings by American Elihu Palmer. How did these get to Carlile?

Michael Durey, “The United Irishmen and the Politics of Banishment, 1798-1807”

“In 1807 the old Federalist leader Rufus King was defeated when he stood for election to the New York assembly on a nativist “American ticket’. Significant opposition to him was raised by a number of Irishmen who had recently settled in New York city and who were able to manipulate the considerable Irish voting bloc in the state. Among these new Americans were Thomas Addis Emmet, William James MacNeven, William Sampson and George Cuming, all former United Irish leaders, who in 1798, among a large group of state prisoners, had reached an accommodation with the Irish government...According to the state prisoners, their desire to emigrate to the United States in 1798 had been thwarted by an unholy alliance between Rufus King, then American ambassador to the court of St. James, and the Irish and British governments.” (96)
Durey says this story they told is substantially untrue, but it’s interesting that they were in New York and able to use this story to influence American politics.

Paul Crook, “Whiggery and America: Accommodating the Radical Threat” starts to explore some of the disillusionment with nineteenth century America.

“Disillusioned by the actions of Americans in Texas and Oregon, appalled by accounts of slavery and political corruption...[Nassau] Senior found little in the American example to confound his pessimistic analysis of democracy.” (200)
One could ask, what was he really looking for? Sounds like he managed to confirm his prejudices. But, there’s a point in this, too.

“As Chartist clamour rose for America’s ballot and universal suffrage...some of the old Whigs became positively anti-American in their efforts to oppose change...Even [Edinburgh Review editor Francis] Jeffrey conceded that in America everything depended on the suffrage and favor of the sovereign people: ‘and accordingly, it would appear that they are pampered with constant adulation...so that no one will venture to tell them of their faults, and moralists...dare not whisper a syllable of their prejudice.’” (198)

Iain McCalman, “Controlling the Riots: Dickens,
Barnaby Rudge and Romantic Revolution”

McCalman mentions that in the 1780 Gordon Riots, “that had visited more destruction on London in a week than Paris experienced throughout the Revolution,” (207) Dickens understood “it was precisely Lord George Gordon’s blending of religious enthusiasm and enlightenment rationality that made him so dangerous. Edmund Burke, himself a target of the rioters in June 1780, made the same diagnosis...forced to defend his family and house with a drawn sword...He reflected in 1796: ‘had the protentous comet of the Rights of Man...crossed upon us in that internal state of England, nothing human could have prevented our being irresistibly hurried...into all the vices, crimes, horrors and miseries of the French Revolution.’” (220)
This tends to mitigate my response to Burke as Paine’s antagonist, and explain the shift between the Burke of 1770 and the Burke of 1796. Why have I never heard of the Gordon riots before?


Stephan Thernstrom and Peter R. Knights
Men in Motion: Some Data and Speculations about Urban Population Mobility in Nineteenth- Century America”
Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1970)

Synopsis: Thernstrom (UCLA, later Harvard) and Knights (Illinois, later York) agree with Joseph Kennedy, the Superintendent of the 1852 Census, that “the roving tendency of our people” is given too little attention by historians (7,
quoting this). Rural mobility, they say, has been done by Malin 1935, Curti 1959, and Coleman 1962. But the point they make about urban population change may apply equally to rural. Recorded “net population changes from census to census,” they say, “though often dramatic, pale into insignificance by comparison with the actual gross volume of in and out movement.” (10) “Even in the most stable small or medium size community which has yet been examined approximately half of the population was transient within a relatively brief span of years.” (11)

To illustrate their point, the authors examined Boston documents to find “the proportion of the city’s 1890 residents who had moved into Boston in the preceding decade [when the city’s population rose from 363,000 to 448,000] was...fully one third.” In fact, they say, because people were constantly leaving the city, “Nearly 800,000 people moved into Boston between 1880 and 1890 to produce the net migration increase of 65,179.” (17) The turnover of the Boston population means that just about 700,000 people left the city in ten years. (18) These people all went somewhere.

The 1880s were not unique in this regard. Between 1830 and 1890, when population increased from 61,000 to 448,000, “the number of migrants entering Boston...was an amazing 3,325,000, eight and a half times the net population increase.” (22) Again, that means nearly three million people left Boston and went someplace else. Where did they go, and when they got there, did they stop moving about? There’s apparently no reason to suppose they did.

“Returning to the same dwelling after the passage of only 365 days, the city directory canvasser had less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding its former inhabitants living there,” the authors say. Of course the rich, who owned businesses and real estate, were much more persistent than the poor. Thernstrom and Knights even speculate that transience might be higher than they can measure, because many poor workers may not have stayed long enough to be counted.

A political consequence of short tenancy was disenfranchisement. This may have led, the authors speculate, to a widespread feeling of alienation from the political process and a corresponding inability to organize effective dissident organizations. It may also have contributed to the growth of regional voluntary organizations (and even the Knights of Labor) that could offer people some continuity in spite of their movements. Bruce Laurie mentions Thernstrom several times in
Artisans to Workers, but the extreme mobility of poor people and unskilled workers doesn’t really impact his story of the skilled tradesmen unionized by the AF of L. It might help explain the “ruralization” of the K of L, though...

If true, this high-mobility “floating proletariat” (31) challenges Robert Wiebe’s image of “a nation of loosely connected islands,” (32, quoting
Search for Order) because they would have been moving constantly between these islands. Or (gasp!) between the urban islands and the rural sea. Taking ideas and attitudes with them as they travelled from place to place. This could have huge implications for popular culture...

Mentioned by:

Howard Chudacoff (Brown) paraphrases and cites as first note in his article, “A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History,” (1994) taking Thernstrom’s thesis pretty much as proven. David Ward, writing on American ethnic ghettos in the 1982
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, also cites this article as proof that Irish immigrants were highly mobile. Edward Pessen cites the article in 1972 to explain why the poor did not become involved in antebellum urban politics.

Pork Packing

Margaret Walsh
The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry

Synopsis: Walsh follows up on her 1972 book,
The Manufacturing Frontier, with a look at the transition (between 1840-1870 more or less) of pork processing from a local, part-time activity to an industry. She says “pork packing is a good tool of analysis because agricultural processing early disseminated an industrial experience to newly settled farming country.” (ix) But also, it seems obvious, because primary processing is industry. I wonder if similar work has been done yet on flour milling, lumber, tanning, cooperage, and especially brewing and distilling? By 1870, Walsh says, the midwest was already “responsible for 27 percent of the nation’s value added.” (3) Cronon notwithstanding, a lot of that took place outside Chicago.

Early packers were usually merchants in towns like Chillicothe, Hamilton, Circleville, Ripley, and Maysville Ohio, Terre Haute and Lafayette Indiana. (17, see maps) Although she doesn’t elaborate much on the farmers raising these swine, Walsh says by the 1840s they had moved past semi-wild “razorbacks” to “foreign pigs, such as the Suffolk, Berkshire, Yorkshire, Irish Grazier, Poland, Essex, Chinese, and Chester Whites...They debated the merits of the different breeds...[and knew] the defects of particular strains could be countered by crossbreeding, a practice that most farmers quickly advocated” (19, sources for this include Towne and Wentworth, Clemen, H.D. Emery, Arny, and
The Prairie Farmer -- see biblio). A closer look at the supply side of pork packing would help explain what was happening on farms during this period. Walsh shows farmers were making business decisions about the market by the 1840s, calculating “the value of corn when sold in the form of pork” to determine whether to fatten hogs or sell their grain. (23) This calculation required knowledge of feeding yields and prices, but also of transportation costs and risks; and it involved guesswork about demand in faraway markets. So, farmers needed to be aware of the wider world even before the railroads came to town.

The operational costs Walsh reports (or estimates) for even a medium scale packing operation were substantial. Fixed costs were low (especially relative to “machinery plants or textile factories”), but the cost of hogs meant that a “country pork merchant in the Middle Ohio Valley in the mid-1840s might need $45,000 to process 6,000 hogs.” (27) The “city capitalist in Cincinnati, Louisville, or Madison might process 15,000 hogs...[and] needed between $100,000 and $125,000 to carry out his season’s work in the mid-1840s.” (28) This suggests two things. City packers had the backing of capitalists (Walsh traces several of these formal and informal relationships), and rural packers had extensive networks of trust and credit. Assuming the average general store owner could not raise the money to do a cash business, his ability to pack hogs testified to extremely solid relationships between farmers, packers, and possibly retailers in remote cities.

Some early rural pork found its way into international markets. Walsh says “in the 1830s the United States replaced Ireland as the world’s leading source of cheap provisions.” By the 1840s “bacon and ham exports alone reached 166 million pounds.” (36) Shipments of processed pork were made easier by the growth of the rail network. But the same trains that carried barrels could carry live animals, and the railroads led to gradual consolidation of the industry to higher volume centers. Even with the growth of regional packing in Madison IN (63,000 hogs in 1845-6), Louisville KY (67,000), and Cincinnati (246,000), smaller packing centers like Burlington IA (24,000 hogs/yr in the late 1850s), Muscatine IA (28,000), Keokuk IA (35,000) and Terre Haute IN (47,000) remained strong suppliers. (45, 94) “In the mid-1840s the Queen City’s [Cincinnati’s] annual output of 230,000 hogs produced 22 percent of the region’s total pack.” (48) Even by the late 1850s, the four major centers (Cincinnati, Lousville, Chicago and St. Louis) accounted for less than 40 percent of the region’s pack. (94) Pork remained an important
local business after the Civil War, if the experience of what Walsh calls “secondary midwestern points” is any indication. Between 1858 and 1877, many of these saw level or increasing production, with Des Moines and Cedar Rapids growing from zero to a combined total of over 200,000 hogs. (table, 68)

Part of this regional growth was the result of packers leaving centers like Chicago in the 1870s. They brought capital and technology to smaller cities like Cedar Rapids and Ottumwa (Thomas Sinclair & Co. and John Morrell & Co., respectively), in a third phase of growth that might be called exurban industrialism (which continues in places like
Worthington MN). Ice packing allowed “Midwestern outputs” to increase “fivefold, from 495,714 hogs in 1872 to 2,543,120 hogs in 1877” by making packing a year-round process. (85) In the 1880s and 1890s, major packers diversified into beef, using refrigerated freight cars. Walsh does not describe the process, but says this led directly to “Big business...in the shape of the Big Five” companies that dominated meat processing in the 20th century (Armour, Swift, Wilson, Morris, and Cudahay Packing). In what might be the only weak point in the book, Walsh suggests Yeager (1981) for the details of this change.

Critics: Universally positive, with the exception of a cranky Chicago labor historian who wanted a social history rather than an economic history.

Selected References:


Willard Barrows, Notes on Iowa Territory (1845)
Rufus Blanchard, Handbook of Iowa, (1869)
James Buckingham, The Eastern and Western States of America (1842)
William Chambers, Things as they Are in America (1854)
Chapman, Handbook of Wisconsin (1855)
Charles G. Colby, Handbook of Illinois (1854)
Joseph H. Colton, the State of Indiana Delineated (1838)
Commercial directory of the Western States and Rivers (1867)
Daniel S. Curtiss, Western Portraiture and Emigrants’ Guide (1852)
John Disturnell, the Travelers’ Guide through the State of Illinois (1838)
Simeon de W. Drown, Drown’s Record and Historical Review of Peoria (1851)
Edwards’ Descriptive Gazeteer and Commercial Directory of the Mississippi Valley (1860)
Ensign and Thayer’s Travellers’ Guide through the States of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois... (1852)
Fred Gerhard, Illinois as it is (1857)
James Hall, Statistics of the West, (1836)
Joseph T. Holmes, Quincy in 1857
Illinois State Business directory, 1860
The Indiana Gazeteer or Topographical Dictionary (1826)
Indiana Gazeteer or Topographical Directory (1849)
National Convention of Pork Packers and Provision Dealers, Proceedings of the National Convention (1873)
John B. Newhall, The British Emigrants’ Hand Book and Guide to the New States of America (1844)
William Rees, The Mississippi Bridge Cities, Davenport, Rock Island and Moline (1854)
United States Federal Trade Commission, Report on the Meat Packing Industry (1919)
William Youatt, The Pig: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine (1847)

(check by state for railroad guides, business directories, portraits, memorials, gazeteers, handbooks, “as it is,” etc.)


Lewis E. Atherton, The Pioneer Merchant in Mid-America (1939)
Bidwell and Falconer
Richard O. Cummings, The American Ice Harvests (1949)
Gilbert Fite, The Farmer’s Frontier (1966)
Sam B. Hilliard, Hog Meat and Hoecake: A Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860 (1972)
John A. Hopkins, Economic History of the Production of Beef Cattle in Iowa (1928)
Henry C. Hubbard, The Older Middle West (1936)
Louis C. Hunter, Studies in the Economic History of the Ohio Valley: Seasonal Aspects of Industry and Commerce Before the Age of Big Business (1935)
A.L. Kohlmeier, The Old Northwest (1938)
Eric E. Lampard, The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin (1963)
Isaac Lippincott, A History of Manufactures in the Ohio Valley to the Year 1860 (1914)
Wilbur T. Norton, Centennial History of Madison County (1912)
Glenn Porter, Merchants and Manufacturers: Studies in the Changing Structure of Nineteenth Century Marketing (1971)
Harry N. Scheiber, Ohio Canal Era: A Case Study of Government and the Economy (1969)
Thomas B. Searight, The Old Pike: A History of the National Road (1894)
Fred A. Shannon, The Farmers’ Last Frontier (1945)
James W. Thompson, A History of Livestock Raising in the United States (1942)
Charles W. Towne, Pigs from Cave to Cornbelt (1950)
Richard C. Wade, The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830 (1959)
James W. Whitaker, Feedlot Empire (1975)
David F. Wilcox, Quincy and Adams County History (1919)
Mary Yeager, Competition and Regulation: The Development of Oligopoly in the Meat Packing Industry


Mordecai Ezekiel, “The Cobweb Theorem” 1938
Paul C. Heinlein, “Cattle Driving from the Ohio Country” 1954
Harry L. Wilkby, “Infant Industries in Illinois as Illustrated in Quincy” 1939

Mentioned in:

Nature’s Metropolis

Artisans Into Workers

Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America, 1989

Synopsis: The introduction begins with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” Laurie defines the socialism of the question as “both class consciousness and a socialist party speaking for the working classes.” (3) After tracing the high points of labor historiography (repeated in greater detail in a final, bibliographic essay), he suggests that “the ideology of radicalism persisted longer than in any continental nation” and that this “durability of radicalism...[which] never completely repudiated the old republican axiom that active government was corrupt government...inhibited the transition to socialism.” (12) Laurie’s radicalism is admittedly ambiguous: “it harbored both individualism and collectivism and before the 1850s it was the universal language of skilled workers on both sides of the Atlantic.” (13) The transatlantic nature of radicalism is rendered even more interesting by Laurie’s claim to find both it and “capitalism in the countryside as well as the city.” (14)

Ultimately, Laurie says, radicalism split into two incompatible “strands of thought.” “Political radicalism told the artisan he was a citizen and...could eliminate economic inequality through political action.” But “economic radicalism pointed the worker toward unionism,” by emphasizing self-reliance, cooperation, and distrust of parasitic accumulators, monopolists, and the government privilege that made them possible. (213-4) This split was fatal to the movement’s viability, but even so, radicalism “remained the language of North American labor long after European working men had learned more modern social vocabularies.” (152) “That radicalism did not realize its transcendent vision,” Laurie concludes, “should not tarnish its principles.” (220)

The long transition from yeoman self-sufficiency to industrial wage slavery is outlined in the book’s first three, antebellum chapters. Laurie tells this story using demographic, wage, and financial data, as well as the comments of workers and activist/journalists. Unfortunately (possibly the book was envisioned as an undergraduate text or popular history?), he does not cite any of his sources, and the bibliographic notes at the end of the book, while giving useful hints, are not comprehensive. Along the way, he mentions several historians whose books I should find and read, as well as a long list of labor and radical activists I should research (including of course, William Heighton). The narrative places these names in context with one another, which is extremely helpful. It also identifies missing links that might benefit from further study, such as the British-American links between early radicals (Robert Dale Owen is mentioned briefly twice, once suggestively alongside Heighton) or the later incarnation of Marx’s International in America (after leaving London in 1872 following a run-in with still-very-influential radicals there) and its influence on unionism.

The second half of the book deals more with the stuff of labor history: unions, strikes, business/government repression, the failure of the Knights of Labor and the success of the AF of L. Along the way, Laurie notes the radical language used by Terence Powderly as he led the K of L (152), and the way this radicalism moved to the country when “in 1891 Powderly joined with Alliancemen in calling the meeting that spawned the Populist party.” (175) In several places, he offers reasons why socialism did not come to America: the persistence of radicalism (152), the fact that “small employers did not think of themselves as capitalists,” (153), disagreements among leaders of the International (179), and the “ferocious anti-unionism of government and corporate America,” (219) which ultimately led to what Laurie calls “prudential unionism...[which] gradually embraced a contracting vision of what was possible or desirable.” (14) Although it’s difficult, 104 years after Sombart’s question, to see how scholars could have considered America’s “evolution” to socialism inevitable, it is interesting to consider how ideas contained in radicalism fragmented and possibly damaged the movement to organize workers and others against industrial capitalism. It would be interesting to track down those ideas, to see where they ended up and whether they continue to influence our ideas about work, individuality, history, and politics.

One of Laurie's reviewers criticized Artisans slightly for focusing on the "declension" of artisanship to wage work.  The reviewer suggested this focus encourages forgetting about the vast numbers of people who became wage workers, but had never been artisans.  In addition, I think it adds an unnecessary tragic quality to the story.  There are certainly enough tragic elements to the story of labor -- but the shift from complete self-sufficiency to being part of a market economy doesn't have to be part of that.  It leads to broad statements using loaded language (such as the passage where division of labor and a little technology reduces proud artisans to mere "cogs" in the industrial machine).  Maybe this is why radicalism lasted so long in the US: American workers didn't really want to see themselves as victims, or the system as irremediably broken.



Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Edwin T. Freedley, Leading Pursuits and Leading Men
Thomas Spence

William Thompson

John Gray, “Essay on Human Happiness”

Langton Byllesby, Observation on the Sources of and Effects of Unequal Wealth

Cornelius Blatchley

Seth Luther

John Commerford

William Gilmore

John Ferral

Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property!

William Heighton

George Henry Evans

William Field Young, Voice of Industry

Mike Walsh, Subterranean

John Windt

Thomas Devyr

Henry Brokmeyer, A Mechanic’s Diary

John B. Gough, Autobiography and Personal Recollections, Sunlight and Shadow


Percy Wells Bidwell and John I. Falconer, History of Agriculture in the Northern United States, 1620-1860

James Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America”

Michael Merrill, “Cash is Good to Eat: Self-Sufficiency and Exchange in the Rural Economy of the United States”

Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism

Richard Hofstadter, “The Myth of the Happy Farmer”

James T. Lemon, The Best Poor Man’s Country

Charles Danhof, Change in Agriculture: the Northern States, 1820-1870

John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie

Christopher Clark, “Household Economy, Market Exchange, and the Rise of Capitalism in the Connecticut Valley, 1800-1860”

John Modell, “The Peopling of a Working-Class Ward: Reading, Pennsylvania, 1850”

Peter Knights, The Plain People of Boston, 1830-1860

Jonathan Prude, The Coming of Industrial Order: Town and Factory Life in Rural Massachusetts, 1800-1860

Robert Shalhope, “Republicanism in Early America”

American Quarterly 37 (1985)

JGA Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Republican Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order

Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America

Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America

David Harris, Socialist Origins in the United States

Paul K. Conkin, Prophets of Prosperity: America’s First Political Economists

Arthur Bestor, Backwoods Utopias: The sectarian Origins and the Owenite Phase of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829

Mary Blewett, “Work, Gender, and the Artisan Tradition”

Edward Pessen, “Thomas Skidmore, Agrarian Reformer in the Early American Labor Movement”

Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America

Edward Pessen, Most Uncommon Jacksonians: The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement

Paul G. Faler, Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution

Bruce Laurie, The Working People of Philadelphia

Oliver Macdonagh, “The Irish Famine Emigration to the United States”

Carl Wittke, The German Forty-eighters: Refugees of Revolution in America

Kathleen Niels Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860

Clifton K. Yearley, Jr., Britons in American Labor

Ray Boston, British Chartists in America

Charlotte Erickson, Invisible Immigrants,

Helene S. Zahler, Eastern Workingmen and National Land Policy, 1829-1862

Nature's Metropolis

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, 1991

Synopsis: The basic thrust of most of Cronon’s writing is that nature and humanity (ecology and economy, country and city) are are not merely two sides of the same coin, but are parts of a whole that has been obscured and hidden by both market and anti-market (romantic) forces.
Nature’s Metropolis uses the history of Chicago to illustrate this point. Beginning and ending with his personal story of a childhood journey from New England to Wisconsin that took him through the city, Cronon concludes “We fool ourselves if we think we can choose between [country and city], for the green lake and the orange cloud are creatures of the same landscape.” (385) The text is a series of increasingly fine-grained illustrations of this point.

Cronon uses several interpretive frames to explore Chicago’s history, and points out some of their limitations. Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the frontier “recapitulated the social evolution of human civilization” and provided the “source of American energy, individualism, and political democracy” (31) fails to account for the rapid, booster-driven growth of Chicago as an urban center. Turner did not give enough credit, Cronon says, to the market as an agent of both rural and urban change. “Urban-rural commerce,” he says, “was the motor of frontier change, a fact that the boosters understood better than Turner.” (48) Of course, Turner
had to ignore the role of capital, precisely because it undermined his evolutionary, democratic vision of the frontier and America.

Similarly, Cronon uses Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s “Isolated State” theory and more recent “central place theory” to complicate and partially correct Turner’s perspective. Von Thünen’s idealized economy creates a series of concentric rings based primarily on transportation cost. While acknowledging the heavy qualification necessary to apply this model in the real world, Cronon says it fits Chicago to a certain degree. Certainly, by focusing attention of rail transport (which not only lowered costs but more importantly eliminated risk and smoothed seasonality), the model explains some of the features of Chicago’s western “hinterland.” But, as Cronon says, both theories are “profoundly static and ahistorical.” Worse, like Turner, they are untrue: “Far from being a gradual, bottom-up process...nearly the opposite was true. The highest-ranking regional metropolis consolidated its role at a very early date, and promoted the communities in its hinterland as much as they promoted it.” (282) Since the west is the result of symbiotic, simultaneous growth of city and country, neither can claim historic precedence as a basis of moral or social superiority. The arguments of Jefferson and Jackson don’t apply -- at least not in the straightforward ways their proponents hoped they would.

Throughout the book, Cronon uses an idea of “‘first nature’ (original, prehuman nature) and ‘second nature’ (the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature)” that he attributes to Hegel and Marx. (xiv) Cronon’s use of this distinction is complicated by his recognition of the complexity surrounding the term “nature,” (“traced most subtly,” he says, “in the work of Raymond Williams.”) so he keeps it on a relatively allusive level. In several places, he conflates these ideas with the commonplace sense of a way of thinking becoming “second nature” -- and this connection seems to make sense and work.

As readers familiar with Cronon would expect, he is always quick to point out ecological and historical backgrounds all too often elided by others. The Western Frontier was not “free” as Turner said, Cronon reminds. It was taken in conquest from the previous residents. Nor was it pristine: western prairies were the product of Indian burning and hunting practices (as demonstrated by the incursion of oak and hemlock on ranches and homesteads once whites suppressed fire). Similarly, Cronon regularly begins descriptions of regions like Wisconsin timberlands or western rangelands with surveys of their ecological histories going back to the ice age. This nod to “big history” not only helps reinforce the ecological sensibility underpinning his argument, it serves as an antidote to the alienation Cronon says is produced by separating economic production from consumption.

Chicago, says Cronon, cannot attribute its rapid growth in the last third of the nineteenth century to being a central place. It is a central place now (of a much smaller hinterland than it possessed in its heyday), but it grew as a gateway. Beginning with a typically Crononesque description of the many ways Chicago stood at the boundaries of ecosystems, continental watersheds, glacial termini, rural and urban society, railroad “trunk and fan,” (90) and “natural and cultural landscapes,” (25) Chicago grew by bridging the gap between the east (primarily New York) and the west (all the way to the Rockies). In Chicago, eastern capital met western raw materials and consumers. Railroads, finance, and information gave Chicago temporary, “second natural” advantages. Boosterism, the Civil War, and momentum added to Chicago’s lead; which the city held until newer technologies, population changes, and the problems of success ended its predominance.

Along the way, Cronon tells fascinating and compelling stories about the standardization of time (74-8), the growth of organization and capitalism in the railroads (80), the abstraction of commodities into currency (116), the conversion food to industry (246-56), and the creation of the familiar consumer world (338-40). Each successive story highlights the market’s increasing (and ironic) tendency to “obscure the connections between Chicago’s trade and its earthly roots. (264) “The geography of capital,” Cronon says, “produced a landscape of obscured connections.” (340) But he doesn’t really explain the process behind this progressive attenuation of producers from consumers, so it’s unclear whether it is unique to Chicago, or a symptom of a more universal alienation.

I think
Nature’s Metropolis proves its case with only occasional reservations. Perhaps Cronon de-emphasizes the temporary nature of Chicago’s advantages to some degree. The Civil War trade (which allowed Chicago to pull ahead of Cincinnati in meat packing) and the closing of New Orleans (which devastated rival St. Louis) may have been given less credit than they are due, for Chicago’s rapid rise to preeminence. Agrarian resistance is mentioned primarily in the context of the Granger Laws, with a few suggestive references to Chicago-published papers like the Prairie Farmer. And once or twice, Cronon seems to reach too far into an allusive moralizing, such as when he describes the Chicago Board of Trade as “boxes within boxes within boxes, all mediating between the commodified world inside and the physical world outside.” (146) The most important feature of Nature’s Metropolis is Cronon’s story of the actual historical rural and urban development of the middle west (rather than an abstract or theorized rural and urban world) as a single, interdependent process. While earlier Eastern settlement may have followed a different path, the growth of the middle west as a single unit is crucially important; especially when evaluating the politics and cultural construction of rural/urban relations in the Populist and Progressive eras.

Critics: The reviews were remarkably mixed, for a book that won the Bancroft Prize. Cronon is accused of being pompous, pushing the “green line” too far, and writing a “misanthropic” book. I’m more sympathetic to some of the comments about balance (yeah, it didn’t seem to me like the deaths of the bison herds and the growth of Armour and Swift were as inextricably linked as he said. And yeah, I was bored by the White City) than the complaints about self-reference. I didn’t feel particularly condescended to, as some of the critics apparently did.

References: Too extensive to cover here. Some that jumped out (in the order they appeared in endnotes):

Richard White,
Empires, Indians, and Republics

Harriet Martineau, Society in America

Patricia Limerick,
Legacy of Conquest

Leo Marx,
The Machine in the Garden

Rebecca and Edward Burlend,
A Truer Picture of Emigration

The Prairie Farmer

Harold D. Woodman, “Chicago Businessmen and the ‘Granger Laws’”

George Blackburn and Sherman L. Ricards, “A Demographic History of the West”

Margaret Walsh,
The Rise of the Midwestern Meatpacking Industry