Gotta get some chicks!

Harvey Ussery, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, 2011.

A very nicely put together book, by Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction VT. I’ve been buying most everything in Kindle format lately, but this was only available the old-fashioned way. It took a little longer to read, but the layout and illustrations make the time sacrifice and extra cost worthwhile.

Ussery provides a wide range of information, from the basic (why don’t you need a rooster to get eggs from your hens?) to the fine points of different breeding techniques (the “old farmer’s method” and spiral matings seem like the most interesting, and the idea of creating crosses to reflect local conditions and your personal preferences seemed like an invitation to a fun and magical realm). The focus is on a holistic -- almost permaculture -- approach to homesteading that integrates the chickens in a bigger plant/animal farm picture. Joel Salatin is apparently a friend and neighbor of Ussery, and writes the forward for this book (which came out only a couple of days before his latest, which I’m reading now).

If you’re thinking of raising chickens (and we are), this is the place to start.

Bidwell's Rural America

Percy W. Bidwell
Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century

Bidwell based this book on the 1810 Census and related documents. So, he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier. He begins with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He is careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Farming was their primary, and fall-back, occupation. (256-7)

Bidwell attributes the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of division of labor to the lack of a market. Quoting the
Wealth of Nations, he says “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.’” (267, n. 1) The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies. (294) The problem was, getting products to the coast.

“The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further.” (309) Since transportation limited access to markets, one would expect farmers to be less interested in “improvement” and production for market than their counterparts in England and Europe. This was the case, in the opinions of both foreign visitors and critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale.

Bidwell says “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were good reasons for the state of farming. (345) “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insists. (346) “Land was cheap and labor dear,” he says, “Washington’s explanation.” (349) Bidwell agrees that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), but he insists that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.” “The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” he observes, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded.” (353) “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insists, “were futile as long as a market was lacking...Between the years 1810 and 1860 such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns.”

Interestingly, in the final page of his appendix, discussing “Other Causes of Emigration,” Bidwell says “Some men were unable to fit into the rigid, Puritanical social and ecclesiastical systems. They emigrated in order to breathe the freer, more unconventional atmosphere of the pioneer communities.” (391) Also, while describing the Connecticut Valley, Bidwell says “Middletown depended for its prosperity chiefly upon its commerce...Up to 1810 the following manufactures had been established: A rum distillery with an annual output of 600 hogsheads, a paper mill...a powder mill...and a cotton factory.” (287) Middletown, with 5,300 inhabitants, was Connecticut’s third largest town in 1810, which was about the time Samuel Ranney moved from there to Ashfield.

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...

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?

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.

Panic of 1857

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

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

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

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

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men

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

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

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

Gates' Farmer's Age

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

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

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

Railroad Land Grants

Click the map for a bigger view

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

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

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

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

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

Bankruptcy made the middle class?

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

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

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

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

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


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

Safety Valve

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

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

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

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

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says. (329) And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum.” (330) The federal government assigned to individuals 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.

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.

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.

Public Land and the frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books to check into:

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

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

1994 Panel Discussion

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

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

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

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

My initial reactions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots of Rural Capitalism

Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism,1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hill Towns

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

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

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

Land monopoly? Or is it water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not obvious until someone says it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cronon on Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the literary country

Raymond Williams
The Country and the City

Synopsis: While this is primarily about ideas of country and city in English literature, Williams makes some important points about the actual complexity of things. Between the changing natures of the two poles, there are “many kinds of intermediate and new kinds of social and physical organization.” Williams reminds us of the “temptation to reduce the historical variety of the forms of interpretation to what are loosely called symbols or archetypes,” when it is the variety and “the coexistence of persistence and change which is really striking and interesting” in our ideas about he country and city. (289)

Williams further claims that “the idea of an ordered and happier [rural] past” serves as a counterpoint to a critic’s perception of “disturbance and disorder” in the present. But any such idealization, he says, is based on a very selective view of fleeting moments in the past that “cover and evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.” (45) Even though Williams’ country is primarily in the past, his point may be equally valid for the rural world of the present: the noble, heroic country that promoters hark back to usually “rested on the brief and aching lives of the permanently cheated” who are invisible in the record. We have to be especially careful not to let them remain invisible, or else it will be “precisely at this point that the ‘town and country‘ fiction serve[s]: to promote superficial comparisons and prevent real ones.” (54)

Critics: For the most part, they address
The Country and the City’s place in Williams’ development as a socialist humanist. Like Williams himself, they remain a little too literary to be particularly useful to me from the perspective of history. I think in the long run, I may have a chance to look again at the way Williams criticizes Marx and Engels for falling into an assumption about the “idiocy of the country,” but that seems dated -- I’m not studying Victorian British rural history, and I don’t believe in putting theory before evidence in the way I think I’d need to, in order to use this more. For my purposes, Williams channeled through Cronon will probably be the best bet.

One interesting point: the editors of
Science Fiction Studies were apparently huge Williams fans. One reviewer mentioned Jeffries’ After London, which I might want to look at in a different (Bradlaugh) light sometime.

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

Rural Life, 1908

Sir Horace Plunkett, The Rural Life Problem of the United States, 1919 (originally published as a series of articles in Outlook, 1908-9)

Plunkett was an Irish aristocrat (born at Dunsany Castle, 3rd son of the 16th baron -- the author of
The King of Elfland's Daughter was the 18th baron) who became a leading figure in home rule and developed the idea of Irish rural cooperatives. Interesting guy, might warrant a closer look.

Plunkett’s thesis in this book, which seems to have influenced a lot of American sociologists and County Lifers, is that “the city has developed to the neglect of the country,” and that of Roosevelt’s three pillars of Country Life, “better farming, better business, better living,” the business problems of farmers should be addressed first. (3, 12-13) Plunkett refers briefly to his experience in rural Ireland, and also to Denmark, which has come up so many times in these primary texts that it probably demands some attention.

Being an aristocrat, Plunkett has access to American leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and James Jerome Hill. He portrays these men as being genuinely concerned with “The Future of the United States” (title of a 1906 Hill speech I need to find a copy of), and especially with soil conservation. Plunkett argues for a strong connection between what he sees as the two key elements of Roosevelt’s administration, conservation and rural life improvement.

During the first phase of the industrial revolution, Plunkett says “economic science stepped in, and, scrupulously obeying its own law of demand and supply, told the then predominant middle classes just what they wished to be told.” (37) “Social and political science,” he says, “rose up in protest against both the economists and the manufacturers,” which, if true, might be an interesting way to look at the development of these disciplines. (39)

Interestingly for an analysis written a hundred years ago, Plunkett introduces the idea of a “world-market,” (40) and says rural neglect is caused in part by the fact that “reciprocity” between city and country “has not ceased; it has actually increased...But it has become national, and even international, rather than local.” (41) “Forty-two per cent of materials used in manufacture in the United States are from the farm, which also contributes seventy per cent of the country’s exports.” (41-2) But the complexity of new trade patterns and supply chains has hidden the mutual dependence of city and country. Plunkett concludes “until...the obligations of a common citizenship are realized by the town, we cannot hope for any lasting National progress.” (42)

If there is specific blame to be laid, Plunkett directs it not at the system as a whole, but at profiteers. “Excessive middle profits between producer and consumer may largely account for the very serious rise in the price of staple articles of food,” he says. But even though urban middlemen are to blame and the problem impoverishes rural people at the same time it aggravates poor city people, “the remedy...lies with the farmer” rather than with legislative action or government reform. (43)

Although he doesn’t explain how the system has managed to marginalize them, Plunkett suggests that excluding rural people from the political sphere has damaged democracy. Farmers’ experience of the cycles of nature, which Plunkett pictures as slower and less mutable than the commercial and industrial processes city people live with, give them a more balanced political sense. City dwellers’ “one-sided experience” may account for “that disregard of inconvenient facts, and that impatience of the limits of practicability, which many observers note as a characteristic defect of popular government.” (49) Plunkett also suspects farmers might be less amenable to “the cruder forms of Socialism...perhaps because in the country the question of the divorce of the worker from his raw material by capitalism does not arise.” (50-1) American farmers are not alienated from their means of production because most of them are proprietors (had this been a problem in tenant-farmer dominated Great Britain?). So even if they aren’t fully capitalists in the sense that urban industrialists are, Plunkett seems to say, at least they aren’t victims of capitalism in the same way urban wage-earners are. (Plunkett avoids any reference to the ethnic immigrant contribution to American life, with the exception of a subtle nod to the success his countrymen have had infiltrating urban politics)

Plunkett tries to call for “a moral corrective to a too rapidly growing material prosperity,” but he fails to identify the motivation for the “reckless sacrifice of agricultural interests by the legislators of the towns.” (54) The issue he avoids confronting directly seems to be the increasing unevenness of the prosperity he cites. Even in rural areas, the rewards are going disproportionately to the few. And in most cases, profits are captured by the middlemen, at the expense of both rural producers and urban consumers.

Suggesting that even though they have no public voice, farmers “keep a full stock of grievances in their mental stores,” Plunkett warns of “serious unrest in every part of the United States, even in the most prosperous regions.” (61-2) Compared to urban people, their “material wealth is unnaturally and unnecessarily restricted; their social life is barren; their political influence is relatively small. American farmers have been used by politicians, but have still to learn how to use them,” he says. (63) This is at least partly due, Plunkett believes, to the way the west was settled.

Based on his personal observations of the Middle West in the 1880s, Plunkett says “settlers, knowing that the land must rise rapidly in value, almost invariably purchased much larger farms than they could handle...they invented a system of farming unprecedented in its wastefulness. The farm was treated as a mine,” and soil fertility was turned into corn crops year after year, without fertilizer or rotation. (67) Though averse to blaming government, Plunkett does recognize the “opening up of the vast new territory by the provision of local traffic for transcontinental lines was an object of national urgency and importance...the policy of rewarding railroad enterprises with unconditional grants of vast areas of agricultural land,” he concludes, is “one of the evidences of urban domination over rural affairs.” (69-70)

“Under modern economic conditions, things must be done in a large way if they are to be done profitably,” Plunkett says, “and this necessitates a resort to combination.” (89) Combined effort has three benefits: economies of scale, elimination of “great middlemen who control exchange and distribution,” and political power. (90) For better or worse, he says, “towns have flourished at the expense of the country by the use of these methods, and the countryman must adopt them if he is to get his own again.” (91) But farmers, Plunkett admits, being “the most conservative and individualistic of human beings,” are unlikely to organize themselves in joint stock companies and hand over control to others. (94)

Plunkett’s solution, the farmers’ cooperative, acknowledges the fact that “when farmers combine, it is a combination not of money only, but of personal effort in relation to the entire business.” (96) While this description is not exactly accurate (farmers produce a standardized product, but there are limits to centralization and scale economies relative to say, steel production, so the economic comparison with industry is complicated), Plunkett is trying to emphasize that the “distinction between the capitalistic basis of joint stock organization and the more human character of cooperative system is fundamentally important.” (97) Compared to
Ireland, where Plunkett had been instrumental in developing rural coops, “as things are, the [American] farming interest is at a fatal disadvantage in the purchase of agricultural requirements, in the sale of agricultural produce, and in obtaining proper credit facilities.” (114) Cooperatives could address each of those needs.

The long-term result of “better business,” Plunkett says, are “Better Farming and Better Living.” Cooperatives would begin a process of renewing rural social bonds, leading to a new neighborhood culture. Rather than trying to “bring the advantages of the city” to the country, rural communities would “develop in the country the things of the country, the very existence of which seems to have been forgotten.” “After all,” he says, “it is the world within us rather than the world without us that matters in the making of society,” once the physical necessities like clean water, medicine, and electricity have been made available by attending to “better business.” (127)

Plunkett is well aware that his “subject is rural, my audience urban.” (143) This may explain why his final chapter de-emphasizes the establishment of business-oriented cooperatives, and focuses instead on education and socialization. One point he does make is that existing rural organizations, the Grange, and the Farmers’ Union could all be enlisted into the cause of helping establish and support rural coops. It would be interesting to read further, and see if the Country Life Movement ignored this advice, and stuck with a top-down approach; and if this limited its reach and efficacy.

(cross-posted to my
rural history blog)

Roots of Rural Capitalism

Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860 Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1990.

“Between the 1780s and the 1860s the New England countryside underwent a profound social and economic transformation. From an economy dominated by independent farmers, it became part of a broader national market and an outpost of industrial capitalism.” (8)

But what does independence mean? Is it subsistence farming, with the goal of 100% self-sufficiency? Trade with locals, based on negotiated values rather than “market” prices corresponding to those in faraway cities? A sense of not being “dependent” on wage-based employment, afforded by land-ownership and local reciprocity? When “the distribution of wealth and the social patterns of access to the instruments of capitalistic economic power became increasingly unequal,” (17) what was happening? Were the “river gods” making themselves aristocrats, keeping the money and power in the family? Were the Boston Associates coming into the Valley, creating a mill city at Holyoke? Were these developments inevitable, and did they have to proceed to the specific ends they arrived at? Lots of questions remain unanswered.

If “Farmers traveled more to exchange produce” and “Prices...increasingly converged with each other and with those in distant markets,” (59) why were the farmers looking outside and producing for the cash market? Too many sons and not enough land? Taxes from Boston (which led to debt, foreclosures, Shays’ Rebellion)? And what about the Workingmen’s movement? Rev. Samuel C. Allen ran for governor in the 1830s, partly on a platform opposing agricultural mortgages held by corporations, “bringing the yeomanry...into a state of dependency and peril.” (205) This probably warrants a closer look...

Small Community Economics, 1943

Arthur E. Morgan, Small Community Economics. Yellow Springs, OH: Community Services, Inc. 1943

Arthur E. Morgan 1878-1975, born in Cincinnati, grew up in St. Cloud, MN. Engineer, Unitarian, President of Antioch College. 1st head of TVA in 1933, removed in 1938 for criticizing TVA’s direction. Utopian. Wrote bio of Edward Bellamy. Founded Community Service, Inc. in 1940.)

Morgan begins with foreword titled “What Is Rural Life?” He says that according to the USDA, there are “about 22,000,000 persons living on American farms.” (5) This is about 17 percent of the 1943 population, and Morgan goes on to say that the “better half of the farms” produce “90 per cent of all marketed farm produce.” If those farms would “increase their production by only 10 per cent, which seems entirely feasible, the rest could go out of business without reducing the total of American agricultural produce.”

Morgan disagrees with sociologists like T. Lynn Smith (President of the
Rural Sociological Society and author of The Sociology of Rural Life) who claim “farmer and countryman are almost synonymous terms.” (6) “Even in agricultural communities,” Morgan says, “the population of towns which directly serve surrounding farm areas is from a quarter to a half as great...Most of these village residents also are rural people. Then there are fishing towns, mining towns, railroad towns, summer resort towns, quarry towns, lumbering towns, hydro-electric power plant communities, textile mill towns, and oil well towns, all with their non-farm, rural populations. At the present moment probably about half of the rural population of America is non-farm population.”

In view of this “strikingly new picture of rural life,” Morgan calls for a balanced approach to rural community planning. The “dominant economic activity” should not be the area’s only economic activity, he says. (8) Rather, “Variety and range of economic activity” are keys to developing communities that can satisfy “the normal range of human needs.” (9) Although a “rural community is wise to produce a major part of its own food supply,” Morgan believes “producing crops for the general public seldom is profitable to the amateur.” (10) He concludes that “few American communities are more than fifty per cent self-sufficient by local production,” and urges rural communities to think about what they can produce for the outside market.

While parts of Morgan’s booklet seem to betray a slightly “New Deal” technocratic orientation, his suggestions generally make sense. And they’re directed at rural people, not at bureaucrats -- possibly a result of Morgan’s falling-out with TVA and its techno-bureaucracy. The guy makes sense, and he’s probably worth looking into a little more deeply, when I get around to writing about rural reformers and radicals.

Red Earth

Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Red Earth, 2004

Oklahoma is most frequently thought of by the public and portrayed by environmental historians as the site of the 1930s Dust Bowl of Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath. Donald Worster wrote his classic tale of ecological mismanagement in the same year that Paul Bonnifield wrote a story of the triumph of Oklahoman spirit in the face of natural disaster (1979, The Dust Bowl and Dust Bowl, respectively). William Cronon used the 180 degree disparity between these histories to comment on the incredibly subjective nature of (even environmental) history, finally threading a way (after four rewrites, he says) through post-modern concerns regarding narrative and cognition, to an embrace of history as a more-or-less moral fiction, aiming at (but never quite reaching) truth (“A Place for Stories,” JAH March 1992).

In contrast to these tales of declension and progress, Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been. “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain” (145). Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside” (147). In their place, “an elite group of native-born white farmers were eventually triumphant” and a “highly diverse ecology of native plants, animals, and people” became “a more simplified ecology centered on a scientifically approved list of domesticated crops and animals.”

Her conclusion, that “white farmers’ acceptance and enthusiasm for mechanized agriculture…initiated and sustained the simplification of the territory” is a declension, in the sense Cronon said Worster’s book was. Or is it? A more simplified ecological system is usually more fragile and subject to disturbances (like drought). So she’s using Cronon’s "second set of narrative constraints" (making "ecological sense") to get past the subjectivity of her judgment that monoracial commercialized monoculture is bad.  Cool.

The Adirondacks

Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 2001

The first section, on the Adirondack State Park, was most interesting to me. Jacoby highlights what he calls the “hidden history of American Conservation, by which he means the consolidation of state power, the systematic denigration of rural land use (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests this wilderness is “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” (198) Jacoby also agrees with William Cronon’s suggestion (in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 1996) that the idea of wilderness conservationists “tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” and betrays “the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth.” (Cronon, 20-22)

Jacoby introduces his subject with a reference to E.P. Thompson. He says he wants to provide a “
moral ecology...a vision of nature ‘from the bottom up.’ ” (3) Jacoby agrees rural commoners had a different response to their environments than the “appreciation of wilderness” Roderick Nash found in the “minds of sophisticated Americans living in the more civilized East.” (quoting Nash, “The Value of Wilderness,” 1977. 2) But their response was not primitive or rapacious, as portrayed by George Perkins Marsh at the beginning of the conservation movement and historians like Marsh ever after. In many cases, Jacoby says local resistance faced by conservationists was due to the fact that “for many rural communities, the most notable feature of conservation was the transformation of previously acceptable practices into illegal acts.” (2) Reading this introduction, I wondered was reminded of the “hares and rabbits” controversy in England. Jacoby gets to this point, I found -- but not directly and not as strongly as I might have liked. Which is nice, because he leaves something for me to do in a research paper.

The Adirondacks are the source of the Hudson river, and are nearly worthless as farmland. These are both important points, as is the forest’s location, close to Albany.
Marsh’s Man and Nature attracted attention in New York, and I should take a closer look at this and the other contemporary writing Jacoby mentions. For me, the most interesting feature of the story is the proliferation of “private parks,” which seem very much like the enclosed, aristocratic hunting lands of Britain. “By 1893,” Jacoby says, “there were some sixty parks in the Adirondacks, containing more than 940,000 acres of private lands, including many of the region’s best hunting and fishing grounds, at a time when the state-owned Forest Preserve contained only 730,000 acres.” Jacoby quotes Forest and Stream, which observed in 1894 that “‘Private parks in the Adirondacks today occupy a considerably larger area than the State of Rhode Island.’ ” (39) By 1899, the New York legislature was debating the monopolization of land and exclusion of poor local people from hunting. References were made to British aristocratic land enclosure, and the prosecution of “poachers.” In 1903, locals murdered Orrando Dexter, a park owner who had prosecuted several trespassers.

I think there’s a lot more to this story. Jacoby is more interested in the evolution of conservation, and tends to see these conflicts as being between conservationists and their opponents. I see it more as a conflict between locals and outsiders. The Albany conservationists have more in common with robber-baron (and some politician) park owners than with any of the locals. It’s no coincidence that they tend to overlook tree theft by the timber industry and illegal (or obscenely excessive legal) hunting by the park owners, while prosecuting locals for “squatting” on ancestral lands, taking deer or fish out of season to feed their families, and cutting non-commercial hardwood species for firewood. Jacoby tends to see this from the authorities’ point of view; I think this could be treated differently. I’m really curious, for example, about the locations of those sixty parks. How much of the very best land did they take? How many towns did they hem in, or restrict rights of way to? How much of that land is still privately owned? (
according to Wiki, in 1900, the park’s area was 2.8 million acres, of which 1.2 million was state owned. In 2000, the park had grown to 6 million acres, of which 2.4 million is state owned. After deducting for the area of towns, lakes, and small lots, that leaves about 3 million acres in private ownership. That's about the size of Connecticut. Hmm... Has anybody ever really looked at the distribution of land in America? How it was distributed initially? Who owns it now?)