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 “ 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 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 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.


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 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.

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)

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”?

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 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 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.

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 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?

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.

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.

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 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 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 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 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.

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)

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.

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 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 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)

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

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.

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 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.

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...

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.

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 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 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: 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 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.

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 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.


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 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

Pronatalism or nostalgic modernism?

Laura L. Lovett
Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938

The 1998 UC Berkeley dissertation underlying this book was subtitled
Nostalgic modernism, reproduction, and the family in the United States, 1890-1930. This title seems more representative of the whole work. In the new introduction, Lovett says the U.S. “invested heavily in the reproduction of its citizenry during the early twentieth century.” She labels this covert, relatively non-coercive public policy focus “pronatalism” and suggests the subjects of her study “promoted reproduction indirectly.” But the argument seems to circle back on itself, and at times it is unclear whether these reformers promoted families, motherhood, and reproduction for its own sake, or as a means to another end. Setting aside the pronatalist framing argument she introduced in the book, Lovett’s study of five reformers shows how they all used symbols and images of family and rural life, and asks important questions regarding the power these symbols had, over the reformers as well as their audiences.

Idealization of rural family life is complicated by the two distinctly different uses Lovett shows it put to: for Mary Elizabeth Lease, “political decisions had effects on the daily lives of women and children,” (6) whereas for urban reformers like Roosevelt and Ross, family and the rural home are tools for “controlling and directing a changing social order.” (4) In the two other cases (George H. Maxwell’s national irrigation plan and the Arts and Crafts movement that grew around it, and Florence Sherbon’s popular eugenics), the motivations of the principals seems much less straightforward. All the cases are interesting, and seem to scream for more attention. Other attractive ideas for further study include the deployment of a “Jeffersonian” agrarian ideal, and how its definition and use may have changed over time, a broad assessment of Populism in both its positive and negative incarnations, a closer look at Edward A. Ross (especially his relationships with Rita Hollingworth and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), and an investigation of the Craftsman and Back-to-the-Land movements. And, as Lovett says, the use of nostalgia and especially rural nostalgia by reformers.

Racism and fear of white “race suicide” seems to have been an important motivator for some reformers. Lovett and Danbom seem to agree that urban activists had agendas beyond the good of country people, when they advocated “Country Life” improvements. The chapter on Mary Lease extends the story by beginning to look at what country people thought. Lovett enriches this story further by creating continuity from the populist era into the progressive (Danbom begins his study around 1900, and ignores rural agitation in the 1890s, implying that those issues had been resolved and the Country Life issues are new and unprecedented). When Mary Lease sees “the spread of Iowa evictions as a clear omen that English-style landlordism was establishing itself,” and when she further notes that the evictions “coincided with the government giveaway of 300,000 square miles of public domain land to railroad corporations,” the rural critique of the system takes on dimensions of intelligence and sophistication lacking in some depictions of populism. (27, 28) Lease’s charge that Roosevelt’s “Progressive party stole the Populist Platform plank by plank, clause by clause, without casting even the faintest shadow of a word of credit” also suggests a closer look at politics across this transitional period might be a good idea.

Another unexpected idea is that although Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the frontier closed, George Maxwell “spent much of his time arguing was merely underwatered.” (48) The National Irrigation Association and railroad sponsorship of the water projects that reshaped settlement and agriculture deserves more attention. J.J. Hill’s role as “empire builder” might be worth a closer look, as well as the Little Landers, the evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement (especially William Morris’ London “Red House” and the connection to anarchist Peter Kropotkin. 63). Finally, the thinking of E. A. Ross seems to have continued to develop through the years, unlike that of Roosevelt. Ross might be a subject for closer study.

Similarly, the racism of the Country Life movement (and in the idealization of “yeoman” rurality in general?) might be something to look at more closely. If the “Huck” accounts in Shutesbury were actually fabricated, and if classification of Swift River Valley people as “degenerates” helped Boston get the Quabbin Reservoir, there might be a story there. In the popular eugenics chapter, the AES seems to have a grasp on the need to make rural life more “economically and culturally attractive.” Their identification of the automobile’s ability to enhance “access and mate selection in rural communities” goes a long way to explaining the dramatic increase in rural cars in the 1920s noted by Danbom.

Critics: Jennifer Fronc reviewed
Conceiving the Future for Reviews in American History (at the time, Fronc was at Virginia Commonwealth University -- they are now colleagues at UMass/Amherst). Fronc says the book’s greatest strengths “rest in Lovett’s perspective on the problems created by urbanization and her analysis of the gendered implications of pronatalist thinking.” (631) I found the argument for pervasive pronatalism less convincing than the argument for pervasive racism, when it came to the motivations or hidden agendas of these people and groups. For example, even accepting the sincerity of Roosevelt’s “indictment of childless women,” (95) his pronatalism was in service to his fear of “race suicide.” For me, the stronger arguments concerned racism and nostalgia.

Interesting References:

American Eugenics Society Papers, American Philosophical Society Archives, Philadelphia
Bellamy, Looking Backward
Iyenaga, Japan and the California Problem
The Problem of Civilization Solved
Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population
Mead, Helping Men Own Farms
Perkins, Herland
Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation
Plunkett, The Rural Life Problem of the United States
Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century
Roosevelt, Rural Life
Ross, Foundations of Sociology
Ross, Principles of Sociology
Ross, The Social Trend
Ross, Social Control
Ross, The Causes of Race Superiority
Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America
Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class
Walker, Immigration and Degradation
Wichita Independent


Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America
The Book of the Roycrofters
The Country Life Movement
A Social History of the American Family
Tomorrow a New World
Reluctant Modernism
Cronon, Nature's Metropolis
Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race
An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas
The Populist Moment
Race: The History of an Idea
The Roots of Southern Populism
Building Suburbia
Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency
Populist Revolt
The Age of Reform
Mystic Chords of Memory
The Populist Persuasion
The New Empire
Land of Desire
Levenstein, Revolution at the Table
Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest
Malone, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest
Preserving the Farm Family
The Tolerant Populists
Pisani, From the Family Farm
Pisani, Water and American Government
Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt
Rafter, White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies
From Private Vice to Public Virtue
Cadillac Desert
Queen of the Populists
Tindale, The Populist Reader
White, "It's Your Misfortune"
Rivers of Empire