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?)

Imagined Civil War

Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 2002

“The real war will never get in the books.” Walt Whitman 1882 (1)

Fahs says our division of texts into elite and “trash” is a way of “organizing cultural authority…that readers, writers, and publishers would not have recognized at the time.” (3) It’s also interesting, how there were not only “shared rhetorics” in Northern and Southern war writing, but common practices stemming from a shared “commercial literary culture.” (6) In the popular sphere, the commercial nature of writing and printing is (perhaps) more influential than in high literature.

“Conventions of popular literature shaped many Americans’ expectations when war began,” Fahs says. (7) To what degree did the recent shared print experience of the Mexican War (1846-8) influence this? She describes a trajectory of group allegiance leading ultimately to “nation-based individualism,” but it’s hard to distinguish this from an ongoing reaction against the tug of the mainstream. As nationalism grows, and some writers “celebrate the nation as a newly abstract entity,” others begin to assert an individual’s position relative to this new center of gravity. (11) The “felt tension between the needs of the nation and the needs of the individual,” and a “culture-wide sense that all stories were valuable” could both be a response to the overwhelming of individualism and crushing of individual stories that took place in a military camp, a battlefield death, and a mass grave. “As the mass movements of armies increasingly defined the war and the outcome of battle was increasingly mass slaughter, sentimental literature often explicitly fought against the idea of the mass, instead singling out the individual soldier as an icon of heroism.” (94) In this sense, we have a birth of the modern, and a scene-setting for the mythology of the West.

Fahs early on comments on the change produced by technology, but she doesn’t take it far. “Both north and south,” she says, “war became not just an obsessive, all-consuming subject but also a mode of perception and a way of life.” (18) “Newspapers suddenly became an urgent necessity of life,” (a deliberate nod to Gilmore?) satisfying “the public’s desire for news on an hourly, not just daily, basis.” (19) Railroads and telegraph moved mail and information like never before. But this benefit accrued more to the North, which was much better wired. Oliver Wendell Holmes called the result “perpetual intercommunication,” suggesting writers were well aware with the change.

Fahs reports that southern critics claimed “Had a Southern novelist truly painted in as engaging a style” as
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, popular opinion would have been swayed and America would have finally understood “the real workings of out Biblical system of labor, and its truly Christianizing and elevating effects on the slave.” (27) It’s unclear, from her presentation, however, whether this is a widely-held view, or just the ravings of a few critics at the Southern Monthly, who may or may not have believed it themselves. Certainly, no novelist seems to have stepped forward to carry that torch, which probably says something about different the opinions of artists and critics.

There are several more interesting points along the way. Southern papers were regularly indignant over the fact “old patrons of the Yankee weeklies and monthlies would buy them at any price.” (41) At least in more elite literary circles, the political break between north and south doesn’t seem to have created the hoped-for (at least among editors) cultural divide. Fahs also mentions that “the issue that especially exercised the letter writers was [
Harpers Weekly’s] assertion that the war would ‘inevitably sooner of later become a war of emancipation.’” This claim apparently cost Harpers some of their ongoing southern readership – it would be interesting to know how much of the heat came from northerners who’d been hoping it just wouldn’t go that far.

Fahs says “the median age of soldiers was 23.5. Yet imagining soldiers as ‘boys’…suggests a distinct cultural unease with the idea of soldiers as full-grown men separated from the maternalist culture of home.” (109) But maybe the atrocities both sides were able to perpetrate on the other is the real source of this “unease.” Whereas in both north and south, “early wartime poems imagined women renouncing men who would not be soldiers,” (128) maybe neither side was so happy, getting what they’d asked for.

In the book’s fifth chapter (one of the issues with
The Imagined Civil War is that it seems a little like a series of essays, each briefly exploring an area that in the future might support a wider treatment. This is typical of groundbreaking books, though, so maybe that’s a good problem to have.) Fahs explores the changing descriptions of black men in these “low” print media. She reports that some southern propagandists continued to predict a massive return of runaway slaves, as they realized how good they’d had it on the plantations. Northerners were somewhat ambivalent to portraying black men (and it was nearly always MEN) as heroes, until the “aftermath of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth’s fight at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.” (169) Even then, northern whites seemed most comfortable when heroic, armed black men died at the end of their stories. Whites persisted in “refusing to imagine the continuing lives of black men.” (171) W.E.B. Du Bois commented on the irony of black men achieving status in the minds of whites only when they killed white men. Even Louisa May Alcott, who published a story of an inter-racial relationship in Moncure Conway’s radical Commonwealth in 1864, seems to have felt “a fundamental discomfort” with ideas like “black soldiers killing whites they had known.” (173) Fahs doesn’t compare this with portrayals, in the same types of media, of whites killing their neighbors and even relatives. So it’s unclear whether the discomfort was primarily racial, or more a more general feature of coming to grips with the fratricidal nature of the war.

In a chapter on war humor, Fahs raises some interesting questions about the “critical distance” of satirists, who “emphasized the fear, incompetence, cupidity, avarice, and racism of those involved in the war effort.” (201) Between the lines, she hints at a growing class division, as humorists “puncturing prevailing heroic ideas of war,” begin to question the logic that has “so long made all peoples the ready military sacrifices of some people.” (quoting Robert Henry Newell writing as Orpheus C Kerr in the 1861
New-York Mercury, 204). This type of sharp satire was apparently widespread. Fahs describes Lincoln reading satire to his Cabinet, and mentions that Charles Farrar Brown (Artemus Ward) became editor of Vanity Fair in May 1861.

The final two chapters didn’t seem as gripping (or didn’t correspond to my own interests as much), but raised one really significant point, about the shift in story-telling about the war, toward spotlighting individual experiences. It seems as if the increasingly anonymous ways in which Civil War soldiers fought and died spurred a reaction in popular consciousness. The Civil War did not produce the (high) literary response of World War I, possibly because the rich and literate didn’t volunteer for service the way educated Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford went to the trenches. So maybe Fahs exploration of “low” print culture opens the door for an exploration of the birth of American modernism in the Civil War. I hadn’t ever really noticed that Stephen Crane’s
Red Badge of Courage was published thirty years after the war, by a young man who hadn’t even been born until 1871! There’s a lot more to explore here – Alice Fahs has opened a Pandora’s Box that probably contains many more surprises.


The authors of the anthology introduce slavery with the observation that perhaps no other element of American history is as guilt-ridden, and that historians are not immune from the emotional power of slavery or contemporary race issues. “Had the country been conceived of as existing primarily for the benefit of its actual inhabitants,” they say, things might have been much different. This reminder that colonialism and its pace of development was directed by the European powers spreads some of the guilt, but certainly doesn’t shift it from American shoulders.

On the other hand, a lot of work seems to have been done in recent years, situating slavery in the development both of capitalism and of the “atlantic world.” International trade, which “immensely stimulated the production of staple crops” at the expense of a more balanced, internally-focused agricultural economy, encouraged large-scale operations and slavery as an economically “rational” solution for labor. (We still need to develop an economics that prevents short-sighted, immoral, and socially destructive practices like slavery from seeming rational.)

W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Winthrop Jordan, Richard Dunn, and David Brion Davis all look like people I’ll want to circle back around to, when I have the time. The two selections in the chapter, one by Breen and Innes and the other by Higginbotham, address the question of which came first, slavery or racism?

Breen and Innes begin (the excerpt is from
“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676) by reminding the reader that “Men have been enslaving one another for over three thousand years, receiving philosophic justification from every major Western thinker from Plato to Locke.” They claim “there was nothing inevitable about the course of race relations, at least in the years before Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The idea that “race itself becomes a sufficient cause for behavior,” they say, “flies in the face of social reality.”

Breen and Innes criticize authors who rely too heavily on Virginia statute law. “Statutes usually speak falsely as to actual behavior,” they say, quoting Winthrop Jordan, who went on to try to justify his use of them. They reject Jordan’s argument that statutes at least reveal “communal attitudes;” countering that “many whites were indentured servants,” who felt so much common cause with their black neighbors that “the House of Burgesses became sufficiently worried about the unruliness of the colony’s landless white freemen that they disenfranchised them.” In fact, they suggest, later Virginia statutes can be viewed as attempts to pry apart poor white and black Virginians, to prevent them from challenging the Colony’s power structure.

Much has been made of a piece of 1640 legislation that has been interpreted as an order to disarm black Virginians. Breen and Innes show this to be an error, reviewing the wording of the law and citing later court records dealing with guns which clearly do not deny blacks the right to bear arms. They review several cases in which runaways were caught and punished, which have been used to suggest unequal treatment. Breen and Innes admit this possibility, but call attention to the fact that blacks and whites ran away together, apparently trusting each other with their safety and futures, if not their lives. This reinforces their point, that “the possibility of large-scale, interracial cooperation continued to worry the leaders of Virginia.”

Finally, Breen and Innes challenge the argument that court records that list the race of participants are evidence of racism. The records did not in fact list race all the time, they say. “Many routine items – the sale of land and livestock for example—did not carry the convenient racial indicators.” Once historians realize that some of the “normal” court transactions involved black people, they say, they may be able to widen their view of black history beyond the “sexual and criminal activities that presently occupy a disproportionate place in the analysis of early American race relations.”

The second selection, from
Shades of Freedom by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., probably should have been put first in this chapter. Breen and Innes were clearly criticizing this author and his belief that the early Virginia legal tradition represents an effort by racist whites to institute race differentiation as a precursor to establishing lifelong, hereditary slavery. Higginbotham, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, limits his discussion to the judicial record. There are no details in his analysis from outside the judgments.

“When the first Africans arrived at Virginia in August 1619,” Higginbotham says, “they were initially accorded an indentured servant status similar to that of most Virginia colonists.” While he admits that unlike indentured whites, the blacks came involuntarily with no contract for eventual release, he says an equally important reason for their difference from white servants was that “since the fifteenth century, Englishmen had regarded blackness as “the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.” Higginbotham seems to be quoting Jordan, and apparently believes this attribution proves the claim, because he doesn’t try to support it further.

I’m actually really pleased that I was able to comment on Breen and Innes first, because it gave me an opportunity to talk about something
other than religion. Unfortunately, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Higginbotham’s premise in Shades of Freedom is that the notion of black inferiority was the chicken to slavery’s egg. His experience as a federal judge showed him that a presumption of inferiority continued to influence the highest levels of public policy. Fighting this prejudice is a heroic goal; unfortunately, Higginbotham’s claims about racism in this selection can be sustained only if you avoid looking at the elephant in the room with him, which is religion.

“Prior to 1680,” Higginbotham says, “the colonies would often follow the Spanish and English practice that blacks who had been baptized into the Christian religion were to be accorded the privileges of a free person.” He doesn’t specify what these privileges were – clearly becoming Christian didn’t make you free. This is demonstrated by one of the cases Higginbotham goes on to cite.

In the first case,
Re Tuchinge, 1624, “John Phillip A negro Christened in England” is allowed to testify against a white defendant. Higginbotham claims the language shows the court’s assumption of a black man’s inferiority: “In a jurisdiction where black did not carry the stigma of inferiority…the blemish of his race would not need to be washed clean by the grace of his Christian religion.” That’s a possible explanation. Another is, that non-Christians could not swear and testify in court. They had no standing in the English legal system (the “disability” of non-Christians lasted into the nineteenth century in England). A black man would be assumed to be a non-Christian, unless proven otherwise.

In 1630, the second judgment,
Re Davis, has the defendant being “soundly whipt before an assembly of negroes & others for abusing himself to the dishon[o]r of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro.” Higginbotham infers that Hugh Davis is white, because his race is not mentioned. His offense, described as a crime against Christianity, is according to Higginbotham that he slept with a black woman. The whipping in front of “negroes & others” is “especially humiliating, because he would have been debased in front of individuals who were his legal inferiors.”

Higginbotham’s explanation seems strained, in a culture where “a white master had the right to demand sexual compliance of his female slaves, just as surely as he had the right to ride his mares. This practice…was, to be sure, already tolerated in secret as a matter of privilege in 1630.” If, as he says later, Davis was a poor man who would not be entitled to such privileges, would he have felt the humiliation Higginbotham suggests? And in any case, if we’re looking for crimes against Christianity, “abuses” that “defile” a person, isn’t it more likely that Davis (whether black or white) and the “negro” he lay with were both male? Is it just an editor’s slip that has Higginbotham concluding that in the case “the black person’s irredeemable inferiority was measured by
his presence as the reason for the white man’s punishment”?

In 1640, another sex case,
Re Sweat, has the court whipping a pregnant black woman and forcing the white father to do “public penance for his offence at James city church.” Higginbotham says the judgment focuses on humiliation rather than compensation to the woman’s owner for the fact that “during the pregnancy and post-childbirth period, she probably became less valuable,” completely ignoring that since no mention is made of the child, the slave woman’s owner apparently gets to keep her (assuming she survives the whipping). Higginbotham is so convinced of the shame of sleeping with a black woman, that to him the meaningless slap on the wrist of “penance” is worse than the “monetary damages” Sweat wasn’t forced to pay.

The final case,
In Re Graweere, describes how John Graweere, a black slave, bought his son’s freedom from the mother’s owner. When John’s owner made a claim, on the basis of his ownership of the father, the court ruled in John’s favor and freed the son. Higginbotham says the decision turned on John’s promise that the boy “would be made a Christian and be taught and exercised in the church of England.” The court declared “the child shall be free…to be and remain at the disposing and education of the said Graweere and the child’s godfather who undertaketh to see it brought up in the Christian religion as aforesaid.”

Higginbotham says “this case is correctly interpreted as significant evidence that, by 1641, the legal process had not contemplated the institution of hereditary slavery.” But if this is the case, why was it necessary for John Graweere to
buy his son away from the boy’s owner? Higginbotham deduces that Graweere is probably not a Christian himself, which seems reasonable. But then he jumps to the conclusion that the godfather mentioned in the judgment must be white. Wouldn’t it be reasonable, if the father was non-Christian, for the court to be interested in the Christian godfather’s role in training the boy? Wouldn’t it be likely, if Higginbotham’s claims are correct and racism is creeping into the picture, that something as unusual as a white godfather promising to train a freed slave boy, might be mentioned more explicitly?

Higginbotham claims that “if the precept of black inferiority meant anything, it certainly meant that, in the court’s estimation, the child’s Christian education would have been better safeguarded if entrusted to the care of a white colonist than if placed in the hands of a black servant, Christian or otherwise.” It seems less of a strain to conclude that “the precept of black inferiority” actually
didn’t mean anything, in this time and place. Higginbotham also claims that if a black godfather could insure the boy’s Christianity, then blacks would have converted “en masse” and petitioned the court for their freedom. He forgets that John Graweere had bought his son’s freedom, and the court was simply protecting him from a claim that would have undermined property conventions that were, contrary to Higginbotham’s claim, moving towards institutionalizing hereditary slavery.

Higginbotham finds racism in these accounts, and maybe it’s there. But the language of the judgments suggests the court was at least as concerned about religion. In the final case, he says large numbers of blacks would convert in order to improve their circumstances. Passing over his mistaken equation of Christianity with freedom, it does seem that Christian blacks enjoyed privileges and status denied to the unconverted. So, why didn’t more blacks become Christians?

Higginbotham says the sexual crimes were dealt with harshly because the two white men involved were “poor whites or servants who had managed to sleep with black women.” If this was the case, why did one court decision carefully record the black person’s owner, while the other made no mention of it? While it does seem reasonable to think the authorities may have wanted to minimize fraternization between potentially rebellious black and white populations, was rebellion even an issue at the time of these cases?

If we take a cue from Higginbotham, and assume the cases in court records tell us something about what’s going on in society, what do these cases suggest? Certainly, that there was a lot of sex happening, that religious and civil authorities wanted to prevent. Maybe that some of this illicit sex was leading to pairings (marriages, families, domestic alliances) that circumvented normal social channels and the controls of proper marriage, inheritance, and even property rights (if we conclude, contrary to Higginbotham, that the whites were already institutionalizing permanent, hereditary slavery). In each of the cases, Christianity is at least as visible a factor as race, and the blacks’ status as non-Christians is central to the problem. Maybe the hidden social issue was that there was something in black culture that prevented slaves from becoming Christian to improve their social status. A cultural element that gave them something more valuable, which they weren’t willing to turn their backs on. Just the type of thing you’d want to eliminate, if you were planning to establish lifelong, hereditary slavery.


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

Chapter Three of this historiography textbook begins with an enigmatic quote: “’I am an Indian,’ wrote Virginia planter-historian Robert Beverley in his 1705 preface to his The History and the Present State of Virginia.” The authors suggest Beverley’s identification with “Indianness” highlights “some of the unique problems in attempting to track the historiography of American Indians.” But the sample readings they provide show how far the study of native cultures and their encounter with “America” still has to go.

“Historians of Indians,” the authors say, bring not only their “political agendas...[but] their personal desires, identifications, and hatreds” to the study. In their chapter introduction, they mention a number of writers who’ve criticized the colonists’ treatment of the natives, beginning with “Bartholeme de Las Casas…
The Devastation of the Indies in 1552.” They quote Puritan leader Cotton Mather’s celebration of the plague that wiped out “Nineteen of Twenty” people among the tribes near Plymouth prior to the Mayflower’s arrival, “so that the Woods were almost cleared of those pernicious Creatures, to make Room for better Growth.” (Mather’s italics) Also quoted is John Underhill’s conviction that “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

These are insane statements, which go a long way toward either undermining the reader’s belief that colonial leaders were actually religious people. Or to confirming a suspicion that the religion they professed was imperial, white-supremecist, and in the end, all about power and domination.

That’s why it’s so surprising to me that the two passages included, about the new perspectives on Indian history, are both so deeply committed to exploring Indian culture’s response to America solely from the perspective of religion.
Colin Calloway begins by saying that “in the eyes of the Christian invaders, Indians had no real religion.” But would finding a pious, recognizably religious (even a Christian) native community have changed their actions? Or are we right to “question the missionaries’ assumptions, finding their arrogance repellent and despising them as agents of cultural genocide” (they were agents of actual, not cultural genocide)? And if “Christianity was a weapon of conquest, not a path to salvation,” is the Indians’ relationship with colonial religion the most valuable cross-cultural element to explore?

Calloway gives nearly all his attention in this selection to Indian adoption of (or adaptation of) Christianity. Some tribes, he says, found common ground between the missionaries’ teaching and their old beliefs. Some treated the “Christian saints…[and] Franciscans…as additional shamans.” Others, finding the French wouldn’t sell guns to non-Christians, “accepted baptism to secure firearms.”

If some Indian women converted in order to learn to spin wool or to read, and some men joined for weapons, it seems to me that the things they learned and got (spinning, reading, guns) are at least as relevant as the theology they embraced. There are so many points of contact between the natives and the colonists, it seems like there would be other, more interesting dimensions to the interplay and resulting cultural change. Trade, technology transfer, farming, travel, buying and selling land, fighting – not to mention all the cultural elements (ethical, economic, philosophical, political, scientific, and even household knowledge and fashion) that aren’t part of the catechism – all seem more vital to understanding the Indian encounter with the white man than how natives reacted to white religion.

Religion seems to me most relevant to the ongoing relationship between the Indians and whites, not in how the Indians reacted to it, but in how the whites used it. Whether in the sense of “Spanish missionaries [who] regarded resettling Indian people as peasants…as a prerequisite of Christianity,” or in the more passive sense of using religious communities (that “resorted to whipping, branding, and solitary confinement to keep the Indians on the path to ‘civilization and salvation’”) to sweep together the refugees of villages wiped out by white diseases, it’s the colonists’ use or abuse of religion that’s really relevant. Or their refusal to engage when it suited them, as when “in 1782, American militiamen butchered ninety-six pacifist and unarmed Morovian [Christian] Indians in their village at Gnadenhütten.”

The most interesting element of the Indian response to Christianity might be Calloway’s brief mention (quoting Axtell) that some “Indians ensured the survival of native culture by taking on the protective coloration of the invaders’ culture.” They appeared to convert, while secretly “giving traditional meanings to Christian rites, dogmas, and deities.” They learned from their conquerors that the religion was an empty vessel that could be filled with anything at all, so they hid their culture in the last place whites would look for it.

Gregory Evans Dowd, like Calloway, seems to put religion at the center of his study of the Indian response to invasion. In Dowd’s case, native spirituality is the vehicle for a prophetic nativist resistance to continuing white encroachment. This quasi-religious movement was challenged by (presumably Christian or secular) Indian groups who favored accommodation.

In this excerpt (hopefully not in the book it came from, nor in the author’s complete body of work), the emphasis on religion is (slightly) less of a problem than Dowd’s formulation of these two groups, the nativists and the accomodationists. Although Dowd allows that “Militant religion [was] in somewhat of a hiatus during those years,” he insists that religion “provided and continued to extend the intertribal network upon which unity depended.” Citing the “intertribal, even diplomatic character of prophecy,” Dowd argues that militant networks possessed a “shared symbolic lexicon.” He implies that this was the only symbol system shared among the far-flung, linguistically distinct tribes of North America.

But this is exactly the point that argues against the other side of Dowd’s formula. There was no “Indian” national consciousness. “The heritage of Indian diversity and of highly localized, familial, and ethnically oriented government” made it extremely difficult for many Indians to join the artificial, newly-created “nativist” Indian nation. Those “Indians who identified with ‘tribal’ leaders” can’t simply be lumped together and written off as “advocates of
accommodation.” And the nativist prophets’ use of language and symbols seemingly borrowed from their enemies’ religion cannot have made matters any easier for the dissenters.

When “prophets and shamans…accused them of the neglect of ritual and warned of an impending doom,” skeptical listeners may have examined their own local experience against the prophets’ generalized complaints. Were they neglecting the rituals? Did they believe in a vengeful, angry God? Thoughtful Indians might have noticed that accusations that “they had failed in their commitments to the sacred powers,” and that they must “kill witches…to purify themselves,” had a remarkable resonance with the New England Christianity of the recent past. And the emphasis on “the Great Spirit, the remote Creator who became increasingly important, probably under the influence of Christianity,” probably raised some doubts in the minds of tribes intent on preserving their own local traditions in the face of American encroachment.

Given ongoing American aggression that impacted resisters and appeasers alike, a united, continent-wide Indian resistance was a reasonable response. But, notwithstanding the efforts of Neolin, Tenskwatawa and others, basing the nativist case for unity on a vaguely Christian-sounding religious appeal seems like it was a bad idea. In the end, this selection leaves me wondering if, in fact, there were other bases for Indian unity, and to what extent they may have been tried. Restricting the conversation to the religious sphere may have been the Indians’ great mistake. At least in the way we think of religion. If we widen the scope of the idea, to encompass all (or nearly all) of Indian life, then the Indians’ actions make more sense. But then we’re talking about apples and oranges, and the argument presented in this excerpt needs much wider and deeper elaboration.


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

The Puritans: The basic claim seems to be that Puritanism is one of the main sources of American Exceptionalism, and possibly of the American character in the colonial and early national periods. Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson talk about “traits which have persisted long after the vanishing of the original creed.” But then, in distinguishing between “authentic Puritanism” and what its descendents (evangelism and universalism) retained of its elements, they immediately call into question whether the traits which persisted were peculiarly Puritan, or part of the underlying culture.

“Puritanism,” they say, “has not been sustained by any denomination stemming from it.” It is a distinct and different thing, which would repudiate the new lights as enthusiasts and the universalists as materialists. So what were they, and more importantly, why do they matter?

Miller and Johnson make the insightful (and widely applicable) point that “notwithstanding the depth of this divergence [between the Puritans and the English Church], the fact still remains that only certain specific questions were raised.” It’s possible to be bitter opponents, and be very much alike. In fact, “the vast majority [of] ideas held by New England Puritans…were precisely those of their opponents…about 90 percent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices” that made up Puritan culture, were those “of all Englishmen.”

Certainly, it was on the other ten percent that the Puritans defined themselves, when they set out to remove themselves from England and set up their own society in the New World. But just because they did this, are we obligated to agree with them? In fact, when they were NOT addressing the rationale behind their emigration, were these differences with their old neighbors and relatives in England really the guiding principles of life for the New England Puritans?

Miller and Johnson point out that when historians try to “trace developments and influences on subsequent American history and thought, we shall find that the starting point…is as apt to be found among the 90 percent as among the 10. So again, if this is the case, how do we justify our acceptance of the 10% as the guiding lights in the daily lives of all the people who lived in Massachusetts Bay?

The situation is complicated if you’re not a Christian, and as a result don’t appreciate the subtleties of the theological differences that made up this putatively critical 10%. Yes, you can appreciate that
they may have felt very strongly about issues you consider trivial. But the question remains, why are these differences historically significant? The answer, for the unbeliever, would have to be found in the different actions these rival theologies inspired.

Miller and Johnson admit that, to a large extent, the “conflict between the Puritans and the Churchmen was…a debate among pundits.” The question remains, how much was this debate relevant to the non-pundits? In what ways did the people of Massachusetts Bay participate in the debate? How did it affect their lives?

Puritan doctrines held the seeds of their own undoing – or at least of challenges like the Antinomianism of Anne Hutchinson. Miller and Johnson describe the Puritan leaders’ attempts to control these excesses, which seem like nothing more than the logical conclusions of their differences with the English Churchmen. In this sense, the Puritans appear hypocritical; unwilling to consistently and completely apply the ideals they profess.

“New England theocracy,” Miller and Johnson say, “was thoroughly medieval in character.” But again, was this due to the 10% that was different, or the 90% that was the same as English religion? Or do the needs of both sects, to propagate and maintain themselves by controlling the beliefs and behavior of their followers, require just such a feudal social order?

“In America,” they continue,” “the frontier conspired with the popular disposition to lessen the prestige of the cultured classes” and the church hierarchy. Isn’t this another way of saying that the urban elites and Puritan divines had little to offer that could lessen the struggles or enhance the wellbeing of pioneers struggling to survive on the frontiers? “Sermon after sermon reveals that in their eyes the cause of learning and the cause of hierarchical, differentiated social order were one and the same.” That centralized, “higher” learning supported ministerial claims to social dominance. Doesn’t this suggest, by extension, that “New England theocracy” was designed to play the same role?

Seems to me that, far from rehabilitating Puritanism as the leading source of American exceptionalism, Miller and Johnson have called out a number of ways in which the small set of beliefs that set the Puritans apart from their theological adversaries are shown to be insignificant, self-contradictory, and possibly irrelevant in the creation of American culture. In the end, isn’t the Puritans’ real contribution, not their eccentric theology (abandoned and misrepresented even by their direct descendants, the new lights and the universalists), but rather their
dogged insistence that they were, in fact, exceptional? Isn’t that the basis of the American myth? That we’re special, even when we’re exactly the same?

Philip Gura’s 1984 contribution to the Puritan story suggested more attention should be paid to the radicals like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who challenged the Puritan authorities. Gura says “in many cases, theirs were the same Protestant principles Winthrop and the others earlier had defended in England yet, under pressure to settle the wilderness and codify their ecclesiology, soon enough condemned as seditious or heretical.” That’s a polite way of saying that when they’d become the establishment, Winthrop and his allies denied the ideas that had formed the basis of their rebellion.

Gura criticizes Miller for “treating the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence,” and thus missing any subtle differences or development over time that might be seen in Puritan documents. He says “Miller viewed New England dissent as a sideshow to the events on the main stage of…intellectual and social history.”

Looking at town and church records, Gura claims, supports his argument that “
Heterogeneity, not unanimity, actually characterized the colony’s religious life.” However, unlike others who questioned the reach of Puritan ideas across the wider working-class New England population, Gura continues to view New England as an area “settled in the belief that it was to become nothing less than a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.”

Gura’s exclusively theological focus allows him to conclude “what is apparent in the colonists’ elaborate definitions and justifications…and evident in their polemics against dissenters is that the New Englander’s ideological self-image was shaped…by an unyielding effort to neutralize the influence of those who argued for a much more radical reorganization of the society.” Again, this seems like a polite way of saying that, once they had gained power, the Puritans wanted to reinstate centralized authority and eliminate any further dissent or theological elaboration. This rigidity toward those outside the power-group, who may not have realized the reform game was officially over, is what prompted Roger Williams the “monstrous Paradox [that] God’s children should persecute God’s children.” The fact that New England congregationalism “produced supporters as harsh and intolerant as the English prelates” suggests that there really wasn’t that much difference between the Puritans and their adversaries back in England. Theology was an excuse for a power struggle; and was jettisoned as soon as the Puritans obtained the power they sought.

Of the two excerpts presented in the text, it seems Miller and Johnson had a more ironic sense of the narrowness of Puritan thought, and the likelihood that although the Puritans contributed to the myth of American uniqueness, it may not have been through their theology; but rather through their arrogance. Their declaration that they were exceptional, not the theological details of their position, seems to be the key to their contribution. That, and the subsequent consolidation of social and political power that allowed them to dominate New England for more than a century.

Michigan Copper

Apparently the story-telling pretty much begins with Angus Murdoch’s 1943 epic, Boom Copper. Later retellings, even if they only deal with a narrow topic like Calumet and Hecla, refer to Murdoch as the source of much of the color and legend associated with the region. The book is divided between the historical narrative of the copper industry in the region, and the stories of the communities and personalities of the region.

Interesting that the UP was the scene of North America’s first mineral “rush,” complete with Deadwood-esque boomtowns and characters. Pure metal deposits were unknown to science, and scientists had trouble believing that commercial quantities of copper could be brought up that would require no smelting to remove impurities. What were the implications for the overall US copper industry? Compared to foreign competitors who had to smelt their ore (until Coro Coro, Bolivia)?

“Three quarters of all the metal taken from the Cliff came out in the form of masses weighing anywhere from a ton to a hundred tons…Nowhere in the world had so much copper ever been taken from so small an area of mineral land.” (54, 56) Sam Knapp’s “Minesota” mine holds the record for the size of a single chunk: either 420 or 564 tons, depending on 1856 reports. Murdoch says the Minesota is also distinguished as the most productive copper mine in history, “in proportion to the amount of labor and capital expended.” From 1852-1856 (after four years of development beginning in 1848), “the stockholders’ investment in the mine had doubled itself, and by 1876 they had received thirty dollars in dividends for every dollar invested. At one time in the fifties, more than 2,000,000 pounds of mass copper was in sight, much of it all ready for cutting up...Probably nowhere else on earth has there been a mine whose skips ran up and down through a solid copper shaft.” (92-3)

Murdoch’s economic analysis of Michigan copper is a little sketchier than his setting and character descriptions. He notes that 1870 was the first time in history copper went below twenty cents per pound (95), and that “fissure mining” was only successful three times (the Central, the Cliff, and the Minesota), but spurred a generation of mining ventures. “Of the 112 discoverable mining corporations which have operated in Ontonagon County,” he says, “only the Minesota has paid more in dividends than it collected in assessments” (97). The story of silver (especially on Silver Islet in Thunder Bay) provides an interesting contrast between the economics of precious metals and copper.

Several of the characters like Sam Hill, Alexander Agassiz, and Sam Knapp would probably make interesting subjects. Murdoch’s treatment of the Secrétan scandal, the paternalism of C & H, and the relationship between organized labor and the mining companies, is suggestive but short on detail. He mentions that copper demand is relatively inelastic, but follows economic trends due to its use in infrastructure. This is probably more true since the maturity of the electronics industry than it was during most of the Michigan heyday. But it’s interesting that he distinguishes between copper and other minerals from a demand perspective.

Crisis of the Standing Order

The Crisis of the Standing Order, Peter S. Field (Amherst: Univ. of Mass Press, 1998)

Field’s thesis is that the Standing Order self-destructed in a war between proto-Unitarian “Brahmins” and orthodox Congregationalist leaders. The Brahmin ministers represented the interests of their supporters, the Boston merchant elite, and developed a high literary culture to meet their needs. The orthodox establishment, seeing their influence and authority slipping, attacked the Brahmins in an attempt to retain their role as intellectual rulers of Massachusetts.

Field notes early on that Puritan practice banned ministers from holding secular office, so their authority rested entirely on their leadership role in the intellectual life of their society. (1) He says the ministers of the “Standing Order gained cultural authority in direct proportion to society’s uncoerced adoption” of their ideas. (2) It’s ironic that the story of the orthodox fight to retain control in Mass is filled with their (futile) attempts to coerce. It’s not until they’ve completely hit bottom that Lyman Beecher convinces them to try revivalist persuasion. But then, they weren’t interested in reaching the middle class until the Brahmin ministers stole the upper class from them.

He cites an early 20th c. article on
“The Revolt Against the Standing Order” I should probably read. And like Staloff, he builds on a foundation of Weber (Economy and Society), which I should probably read soon too.

Field proposes a “social history of intellectuals,” that treats the idealism of intellectual historians with a big dose of skepticism (if not cynicism), while retaining a focus on intellectuals as not only agents, but as a class (which he observes is missing from Marxist analysis. As a “new-class” theorist, Field argues with Weber that “ownership of the means of production is not the sole measure of the social division of labor.” (5) He seeks to undermine the “belief that intellectuals are heroically engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth,” but it’s unclear to me whether he proves his case. Jedediah Morse is a really nasty guy in Fields’ story, but I’m not sure he’s insincere.

What is clear is that the increasingly public disagreements between the orthodox clergy and their urbane, polished, and increasingly rich adversaries made it clear to anyone paying attention in the early decades of the 19th c., that the ministry was filled with partisans. This devolution of the Puritan edifice into competing sects eliminated their claim to cultural dominance and divine inspiration. It’s incredible to me that Morse managed to survive the Illuminati hoax with any credibility at all – and that might be a topic for further study.

The fight over the Hollis Professorship of Divinity in 1805 begins (in a rare moment of physicality) with the completion of the West Boston Bridge, Nov. 23rd 1793. The orthodox leaders fight viciously, but lose control of Harvard. But did they have it before? Field mentions that David Tappan’s pupils are among the brightest lights of the new Brahmin ministry. Is he finding an abrupt change where there was really a slow evolution? Similarly, Field says no reasonable Federalist believed Morse’s Illuminati story. So what was going on? Who were the orthodox ministers talking to (besides themselves)? Were they carrying public opinion? At what point did the Brahmin elitist ministry lose touch with regular people? Or was it ever in touch with them? Certainly not through the Athenaeum or the Anthology. And what about western Mass? Revivalism began there in the 1790s, long before Beecher moved to Boston.

Field passes quickly over the first Great Awakening, saying it was a great threat to the Standing Order but not how. He places the ministers firmly on the side of the revolutionists (and says that until the Committees of Correspondence, they were nearly the only conduits of information, 26), which again illustrates a Boston-only focus. Most of the western ministers were Tories until they had no choice, and some remained Loyalists. Maybe highlighting Chauncy, Mayhew and Thacher gives Field an origin of orthodox ministers’ view of their role in politics. But in the Puritan colony, this would have been taken for granted. Its survival after the revolution is the issue.

Field mentions several items that don’t fit smoothly into his interpretation, like the fact that Joseph Hawley brought a bill to the General Court in 1777 to disestablish the church, but “he could not muster enough support even to bring it to the floor for a vote.” Field credits the clergy with defeating the 1778 Mass Constitution, but doesn’t provide any context (
but he refers to this). William Gordon, chaplain of the Court, got himself fired for criticizing the constitution in the papers, and thirteen ministers attended the convention as delegates of their towns. Where were these towns, and what was the agenda of the ministers? Lots of western Mass towns instructed their representatives to block the constitution if possible; but not over religion. How did religious objections stack up to civil ones? Field doesn’t discuss.

According to Morison, there were “At least twenty-nine towns [that] distinctly stated their opposition to Article 3” establishing the church. Hawley said: “it is far from indisputable, and positively denied by many, viz, That it is the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons to worship, &c….It is inconsistent with the unalienable rights of conscience, which rights are certainly unalienable, if mankind have, (as the first article avers they have) any such rights.” (38)

Field doesn’t really deal with the gradual shift of attitudes
observed by some at the time, and he credits the revolution with imposing a “limited moratorium on theological controversy” (52). He does outline the family ties between the proto-Unitarians and the merchant elite, and makes a good case that theirs was “as much a social as a religious enterprise.” (80) In fact, this seems to be the chief complaint of the orthodox. John Thornton Kirkland married the daughter of George Cabot; William Ellery Channing married Ruth Gibbs; Harvard professors Andrews Norton and George Ticknor married the daughters of Samuel Elliot; and Edward Everett married the daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks, the first millionaire in Boston.

Field says the wealthy Bostonians left politics when the Federalists were defeated, and set about establishing high culture. But his chronology wanders back and forth from the 1790s to 1808 and beyond. This seems to undermine his claim that these groups were acting as self-aware, unified classes when they battled over the Illuminati in 1798 or David Tappan’s Hollis chair in 1803-5. Field says “Almost to a man, Brahmin ministers had begun to eschew the kind of active participation in politics entailed in…election-day sermons and fast days.” (91-2) But is that chicken or egg? Their patrons, the Boston merchants, were disaffected with politics after 1800. They weren’t looking for their ministers to rub their noses in their defeat. The Brahmin ministers might have faced a different set of expectations if Jefferson had been defeated.

“Theology,” said Joseph Stevens Buckminster, “is the subject upon which much of our genius and learning has always been employed, and not seldom wasted.” (97) It’s funny, in a sort-of “Emperor’s New Clothes” way. The merchants and their make-believe ministers made a show of religion to please the society they lived in and advance their own social standing. What a shock to the orthodox, who thought it was something else entirely. Fifty years from the “visible sainthood” of the New Lights to the Anthology’s editorial policy of “useful knowledge and harmless amusement, sound principles, good morals, and correct taste.” (97)

It is a sound point, though, that Boston was different from the rest of the state because its churches were NOT supported by taxes, they were all voluntary (a legacy of John Cotton?). As a result, those who contributed more expected to be treated accordingly, even if they were not “members” on the basis of a conversion experience. But Field doesn’t explain how the half-way covenant mitigated the requirements for membership, or what effect that had. And again, Field admits on p. 143 that John Adams wrote to Morse that the ideas he complained were recent and Unitarian had been around for 65 years.

Field remarks that there were two distinct responses among the (nearly 100%) Federalist ministers. The Brahmins retreated from politics; the orthodox went nuts. Of course, the orthodox couldn’t retreat, because the Brahmins had already claimed that hill. Who were their constituents? What was their market? But by 1820, even Morse’s own parish tired of his “engagements in, and encouragement of controversies [and] indiscriminate distribution of contradictory pamphlets and tracts.” (146) They replaced him, and he accused them of being “obviously Unitarians.”

In a letter to Oliver Wolcott Jr. (July 13 1798), Morse went so far as to declare it was “necessary to exterminate [their] dangerous enemies,” the Boston clergy who disagreed with them and refused to knuckle under to Morse’s self-appointed authority. (150) In his biography of Harrison Gray Otis, Samuel Eliot Morison says “neither Otis nor any other prominent Federalist subscribed to the [Illuminati] theory.” While they’d tried to support Morse’s attacks on the republican plot, Federalist papers like the Columbian Centinal and Chronicle were nervous about their own credibility. “Embarrassed by his recklessness, they shut Morse out.” (150) Maybe part of the problem ministers like Morse were having is they believed they were living in an earlier world; where the clergy was not only the only source of information about the outside world for most people, but the prestige of the clergy virtually guaranteed that whatever the pastor told his flock would be believed. Newspapers, pamphlets and broadsheets of the revolutionary era definitely widened the average person’s view of the world. But maybe the biggest damage was done by ministers like Morse, who showed themselves to be petty, partisan, and worst of all, miserably wrong.

The Yale connection to all of the orthodox leaders is too good to pass by. Timothy Dwight demands a closer look. I need to get Speaking Aristocracy, to give myself at least one chance to see a positive portrayal of Yale and its presidents. In addition, the careers of the presidents of Amherst, Dartmouth and Williams will probably have some surprises in them. Griffin, who Knowlton talked with a couple of times while living in Adams, seems to be up to his elbows in controversy in the 1800s and 1810s.

Morse’s Panoplist claimed to be the “antidote” (153) to the wickedness and infidelity spewed by the Anthology. Morse wasted little time in calling for ministerial examinations to insure creedal uniformity. Without rigid enforcement of correct doctrines, he said, “liberty, free enquiry [and] private judgment [were becoming] instruments of infidelity, and a fair mask, under which apostasy from Christianity and hatred of all goodness have disguised themselves.” (159) I wonder about this type of language. Who is he talking to? Hatred of all goodness? These are other Congregational clergymen he’s talking about, and the people who fill their churches every Sunday. Not some crowd of blood-drinking Satan-worshippers. Field doesn’t really explain who the audience for this type of rhetoric is, or how effective it was. Without that context, it just seems absurd.

The Andover Seminary’s creed, which all faculty had to swear and renew every five years, pledged “unswerving opposition , ‘not only to Atheists and Infidels, but to Jews, Papists, Mahomatans, Arians, Pelagians, Antimonians, Arminians, Socinians, Sabellians, Unitarians, and Universalists.” (168) So basically, they hated everybody. The Brahmins “deemed the doctrinal hairsplitting of the orthodox distasteful, uncharitable, and anachronistic.” (171) William Ellery Channing called the creed part of Andover’s “espionage of bigotry.” (167)

Field points out that the “growing class nature of Massachusetts society may not have been the efficient cause, but it was certainly a necessary cause of the crisis…” (183) He says the older (and increasingly female) communicants were less prosperous than their neighbors, implying that the time required to achieve their high level of religious devotion cut them off from worldly success. There’s a good chance these people may have “believed that the shrinking number of public confessions signaled a serious decline in religiosity” in Massachusetts, as Field says. He doesn’t show this, and it’s an area for possible research. (In general, Field ignores the audiences of the clerics he writes about, which is unfortunate) During the Dorchester conflict (when Codman refuses to exchange pulpits with Brahmins as his parishioners want), the orthodox minister’s enemies are described as being “exceedingly fond of amusements.” (197) Field points out this statement points to an underlying class conflict, but again he doesn’t describe how it was received. The ultimate secularization of the church occurs in this conflict, when wealthy parishioners demand a say in the church equal to their contribution. This is democracy! And exactly what the orthodox have been fighting all along.

Field points out the irony of ultra-conservative Boston elites fighting for liberal, democratic ideals in their churches. (204) But maybe he’s missing the point. Maybe the Brahmins’ position was like the Baptists’ during the revolution: they weren’t really against estabishment and authority, they were against someone else having it over them. But the irony resolves itself, when the 1821 Dedham decision rules that the assets of the church belong to the parish, not the saints. At that point, the orthodox seem to realize Morse and his crew have done them no good. Morse seems to disappear very rapidly from the picture, to be replaced with Lyman Beecher. Beecher tells them that establishment is against their interests, because they’re the outsiders. So, having nothing left to lose, the orthodox finally embrace their “age-old populist rhetoric concerning the ungodliness of the wealthy and the dangers of materialism,” (205) creating what Field calls “the American Religion.”

Abandoning establishment allowed the orthodox to go after the middle class people who’d been drifting toward Baptist and Methodist sentiments. The ministers swallowed their pride and embraced revivalism, holding 116 in Mass in 1831 (232). 81 “churches” (ministers and communicants) were “exiled” by parish revolts by 1833, according to a study made by the orthodox and presented to their General Association of Massachusetts Ministers. (229) Is this the meeting Mason Grosvenor attends, which prompts him to go after “infidelity and licentiousness” in Ashfield? The 1832 meeting of the General Association of Massachusetts Congregational Ministers was held in Northampton and dealt extensively with temperance. Where was the 1833?

The 11th amendment to the Mass constitution, disestablishing religion, went into effect January 1 1834. This fits perfectly with the issues in Ashfield, and may explain some of the undercurrents and tensions behind them.

American Thinking Class

The Making of an American Thinking Class by Darren Staloff (1998)

This was a challenging text, which assumed a prior knowledge of the events of the Puritan period, and applied the formulas of what Staloff calls a post-revisionist approach that was heavily influenced by Marx and Weber.

Texts he refers to a lot: Perry Miller, Alvin Goldner (
The Dark Side of the Dialectic), George Conrad and Ivan Szelenyi (Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power), Larzer Ziff,

“Marxist outlaws have not surrendered the dialectic, but continue to probe and wander its dark side. Only those who can move without joining packaged tours of the world can afford such a journey.” (quoting Alvin Gouldner, 2) This is a great image. Of course, Marxists aren’t the only types of outlaws running off the beaten paths…

Staloff’s thesis is that Puritan Massachusetts was run by an alliance of intellectuals (ministers, the producers of culture) and intelligentsia (magistrates, who administered culture through politics). The basis of their shared power he names cultural dominance, which he says is built on four principles:
1. public recognition or ritual acceptance of leaders
2. leaders always agree publicly (avoid schisms)
3. public expressions of the dominant culture are “socially privileged” and single source
4. dissent is suppressed, as are unauthorized expressions of culture

Staloff’s history of the Bay Puritans is a series of challenges to, defenses of, and ultimately violations of these principles, resulting in the gradual undermining of the ruling party’s cultural dominance. Staloff doesn’t disparage the notion that the Puritan rulers, dissidents, and the laity had sincere theological differences; but he’s clearly not interested in them. He suggests at several points that he’s examining the true underlying causes of individual and group actions, even when the people involved were unaware of them.

The way the Bay Colony was established certainly lends itself to the type of self-conscious, premeditated construction of the state Staloff claims. The colony was, as he says, “Designed and staffed by a class-conscious and dissident educated elite.” (12) Staloff mentions events in England only briefly (although his historiographical appendix is mostly about English Puritanism), but reminds the reader that the Bay Puritans are (or at least may consider themselves) the radicals in an intercontinental movement (actually, Staloff lets his theory get away from him for a moment and calls them the “vanguard of the militant Protestant internationale”).

Staloff argues that the colony’s toleration of high-ranking dissenters like Roger Williams (who was treated with kid gloves at a time when lesser men were being “whipped, have his ears cutt of, Fyned £40, and banished…for uttering mallitious and scandalous speeches against the government and the church of Salem.” 21) was due to his status as a member of the intellectual ruling elite. Every attempt was made to reconcile Williams’ differences with the ruling consensus, to avoid the appearance that the fundamental truths on which Puritan society was based were open to a variety of interpretations. Anne Hutchinson was more easily dealt with, because she was a woman; the magistrates took much greater care bringing John Cotton (her mentor and the teacher of the Boston church) back into the fold.

John Cotton presented his fellow leaders with an ongoing dilemma. He argued for a more charismatic faith, where evidence of grace was somewhat disassociated from works (not as much as Anne Hutchinson believed, as it turned out). In a sense, Cotton was “seeing” the Puritans’ miraculous-biblical social basis, and “raising” them with claims of contemporary miracles (experiences of saving grace as a qualification for “saint” status). How could they deny him, and sustain their own claims? This would later prove their undoing, when Increase Mather took it too far and prophesied against the British authorities.

It’s interesting that these Puritan issues foreshadow later Massachusetts religious issues. The Edwards controversy in Northampton revolved around a charismatic minister, a revivalist message, and election by a claimed experience that was beyond the control of the regular hierarchy. The communion of saints was at the same time more exclusive and more democratic (or at least anarchistic, because it wasn’t based on the accepted tests of worth). In addition, Roger Williams’ call for disestablishment challenged the legitimacy of the state’s role in allying with a particular group of religious leaders. This issue reappears in the Ashfield Baptists’ fight to relieve themselves from taxes to support the Congregational church. And Cotton’s preference for at will offerings (in the richest parish in New England) over forced tithes reappears in Chileab Smith’s schism with his son Ebenezer over ministerial salary at the end of the 18th century.

The Antinomian dissent was apparently supported by many of the Boston merchants, but Staloff doesn’t make it clear how or why the “urban bourgeoisie” transformed their dissatisfaction with the “arcane economic policy” (40) of the inner party into Anne Hutchinson’s theological break with Puritan orthodoxy. Staloff seems unclear about who’s using whom in this passage. On the one hand, he agrees with Ziff that “so long as the doctrine itself was under attack, he stood by them, but when it became clear to him…that they aimed at a social revolution and were willing even to pervert doctrine to achieve it, he abandoned them.” But in the next paragraph, “Cotton attempted to use the Antinomians in the same fashion that Mao Tse-tung used the Red Guards in his struggle for absolute preeminence against the other members of the inner party elite.” (42) So which is it? Was Cotton a theological idealist, or a cynical political infighter?

By 1637, the Quakers had identified another danger to the Puritan regime. If the orthodox leaders allowed the existence of an “inner light,” then anyone could claim a personal revelation that was superior (or at least equivalent) to the Word as preached by the ministers. The Synod of 1637 identified and condemned it as Error #53: “No Minister can teach one that is anointed by the Spirit of Christ, more than hee knows already unlesse it be in some circumstances.” (45) This is obviously true as well of Cotton’s saints, but they weren’t pressing the point and Cotton was still one of the foremost ministers in the colony. Going after him and his flock would violate the second rule. And Cotton avoided violating “the ritual code of deference that surrounded the clergy and supported their system of cultural domination.” (first rule)(50)

Eighteenth century clerics might have justified their intrusions into politics based on Puritan traditions. “At the beginning of each annual Court of Elections, a duly appointed member of the ministry would preach a decidedly political and often factionally partisan election sermon to the assembled freemen.” (74) But as the civil and religious organizations began to drift apart, crossovers of magistrates (like Winthrop) into religious theorizing began to be resisted by the ministers. It seems to have taken much longer for the ministers to be judged as incompetent to hold political opinions (if it ever happened at all).

“Harvard College (named after Rev. John Harvard of Charlestown, who died Sept. 14 1638 leaving £1600 and a library of 400 books) played an indispensable role in supplying cultural cohesion and hierarchical control. The college collected a common cultural core which, through the ministers, would be exported to every settlement in the land. By 1660, there were 135 college-trained leaders among the second generation, of whom 116 were Harvard graduates.” (q Harry Stout, 94-5) (cf New England’s First Fruits) In addition, the college graduated magistrates for the General Court and teachers for the Latin schools, to prepare the next generation of Harvard men. The college’s 2nd president, Henry Dunster, was sacked for becoming a Baptist, but he was neither banished nor excommunicated, even though standard treatment of Baptists included floggings and heavy fines. Staloff attributes this to the fact that Dunster humbly complied with his admonitors. “Here lay the key to Puritan toleration and repression: orthodox unanimity was sought not as an end in itself but as a means to cultural domination,” Staloff concludes. (100)

In 1638, the church took its first steps toward establishment. The court ordered that “every inhabitant in any towne is lyable to contribute to all charges, both in church and commonwealth, whereof hee doth or may receive benefit.” (106) This is an interesting construction, clearly showing the author’s belief that church and commonwealth are two elements of a single society that everyone is responsible to keep up. The difficulty is that the strict covenant (and Cotton’s even stricter requirement for signs of “saving grace”) disqualified most of the population from church membership. The colony’s original inclusive churches had evolved into very exclusive communities of saints. So the involuntary assessment for their support amounted to taxation without participation. This foreshadows the next century’s difficulties with establishment, and helps explain the tradition that formed the clergy’s expectation of support from their flocks.

Samuel Gorton was thrown out of Boston, and then out of Portsmouth (RI) for his heretical ideas. He went to Providence, but annoyed even the liberals there; so he went to Pawtuxit (Pawtucket). Massachusetts annexed Pawtuxit in 1642 to drive him out and secure the hinterlands from heresy, and Gorton bought land in Shawomet. “Gorton and his followers had purchased their land from Miantonomo, the sachem of the Narragansetts. Unfortunately, two of his subsachems who resided in the locality, Punham and Sacononoco, objected to the sale. In the spring of 1643, the two traveled to Boston to place themselves and their followers under the Massachusetts jurisdiction and thus regain control of the land…” (109-110) This is an interesting example, 32 years before King Philip’s War, of the natives interacting with colonial government as if they consider it legitimate.

After the Cambridge Platform, the “one-party regime” reached its peak. “The word was widely preached to forced attendance, the number of orthodox gathered churches grew, three intercolonial synods were held, remonstrants were imprisoned and heavily fined, Baptists were banished, and Quakers were flogged and executed. How much more Puritan could the Bay Colony be?” Staloff asks. The ministers were growing more distant from their people, evidenced by their correspondence. “Shall I tell you what I think to be the ground of all this insolence, which discovers itself in the speech of men?” Peter Bulkeley asked John Cotton. “Truly I cannot ascribe it to any outward thing, as to the putting of too much liberty into the hands of the multitude, which they are too weak to manage…” (115) Staloff says the laity’s loss of power in the church was partly balanced by a gain of some control over politics, as the deputies began disagreeing more frequently with the magistrates. The Halfway Covenant was the ministers’ attempt to regain control over the population, by bringing them back into the church that “saving grace” had disqualified them from.

The “saints” in the congregations resisted this change, because it devalued the position of the laity overall. A larger and generally less educated congregation increased the power of the minister, by widening the distance between him and his flock in terms of biblical knowledge and theological authority. But the distance between the people and their leaders continued to grow. The synod of 1646 authorized the General Court to pass laws regulating religious behavior. In addition to a number of finable offences, they decided “the death penalty was prescribed for blasphemy and, more pointedly, for any person who dared ‘reproach the holy religion of God, as if it were but a polliticke devise to keep ignorant men in awe.’…Failure to attend the ministers’ public exercises—‘the ordinary meanes to subdue the harts of hearers not onely to the faith, & obedience to the Lord Jesus, but also to civill obedience, and allegiance unto magistracy;--would draw a fine of 5 shillings for each such occurrence.” (125) Clearly, these measures were not adopted for no reason.

In 1657 the Quakers came and threw themselves into martyrdom, apparently interesting a lot of common people in the process. Staloff claims “the ultimate significance of the Quaker movement for the orthodox Bay regime was that it thus forced the magistrates and ministers to neutralize the danger of an unchurched majority that might easily be induced to support heterodox dissent.” The solution was to bring the people back into the church using the halfway qualifications. “Discipline was our great Interest,” claimed Increase Mather. (136) “The most important way in which the half-way covenant centralized church power was by devaluing lay consent,” (137) as well as the learning and emotional commitment required to qualify for membership. Of course, only full members could vote.

By the mid 1670s, the magistrates were using friendly clergy regularly to support their political agendas. The 1676 pre-election speaker, Harvard graduate William Hubbard, told his audience that those who called for “a parity in any Society, will in the issue reduce things into a heap of confusion.” (174) In other words, shut up and do what we tell you. The problem the people faced was, the messages from the pulpit were becoming more fragmented, as the clergy’s unanimity started to fray. Sometimes, the message was downright incredible, even for Puritans.

“Do not say that the Ministers of God cannot tell you why this Judgment has come,” Increase Mather told his listeners. Mather tried to reclaim the clergy’s authority over day-to-day secular events, by claiming to have prophesied King Philip’s War. He predicted further troubles for the colony, unless the people obeyed his directions for making peace with an angry God. A reforming synod was called in 1679, that adopted most of Mather’s proposals. Interestingly, it was Solomon Stoddard who turned the synod from requiring testimony of saving grace, to “a personal and publicke profession of their Faith and Repentance,” (181) which paved the way for the half-way covenant. Staloff’s chronology seems confused here (or more likely his narrative is just too convoluted), but I should look into the debates between Stoddard and the Mathers (Cotton and Increase), and follow the thread down to Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. (cf Mather, A Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostacy, 1677)

Mather’s perpetual insistence on an immanent crisis wore his supporters out. By 1682, Mather was complaining that Satan attacked the people in his church, and “he causeth them to sleep at Sermons.” (182) Mather warned his listeners that “God himself is speaking to you…though by mortal men like unto your selves,” (183) and that not only the minister but the almighty was offended when they dozed off. But his sermons had strayed so far from any relevance with their lives that they were unable to stay awake for them.

The colony’s relationship with the British Crown also suffered from Increase Mather’s stubborn insistence on his own infallibility. When it became clear that the king wanted changes in the Bay charter, reflecting increased religious liberty and toleration of other sects, Mather declared that there could be no compromise. At the 1684 elections, Mather purged the “accommodationist” members of the Court, and prayed for deliverance. On Feb. 6 1685 after fasting and meditation, Mather claimed that “God will deliver New England!” Coincidentally (when did Mather claim his vision?), King Charles II died the same day.

Unfortunately for Massachusetts Bay, James II suspended the colony’s charter and disbanded their government. The Dominion of Edmund Andros ended with the Glorious Revolution, but unlike Rhode Island and Connecticut, Massachusetts was not allowed to reinstate its previous government. Increase Mather negotiated a new charter, which was far less generous than the deal the other colonies got. Staloff concludes his account by observing that the “calumnies heaped on Mather perfectly symbolized the breakdown of cultural domination for which he had been largely responsible.” (188)

Radical Sects ignores the irreligious

Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

Mentioned by Gilmore in his notes and bibliography. Covers the religious sectarianism of the revolutionary decades (1770-1790). Completely ignores any challenges to religion from the outside. As if there were no rationalists, materialists, “infidels,” deists, or atheists at all in New England. The overall effect is to misrepresent the radical impulse, as if it was a denominational issue debated and decided within the religious community.

This isn’t useful to me. Although the religious scholars see a huge difference between the Old and New Light Congregationalists, to me they’re pretty much all Calvinists. The Baptists in Ashfield are interesting, with their appeal to King George III for their rights
against the Puritans and their supporters in the Massachusetts legislature. But Marini doesn’t mention even this. Ashfield gets a brief nod as a site of Shaker activity, but without acknowledgement that the Ashfield Congregational Society voted to run Mother Ann and the “tremblers” out of town.

I think there
is some interesting history buried in the stories of these churches and their disintegration into rival sects in the revolution and early republic. But I’m more interested in what these changes say about the social situation in towns like Ashfield. What if Baptist hisotry in Ashfield was as much about resistance to the people (mainly river-valley proprietors) running the Congregational Society as it was about theology. It’s easier for me to see Chileab Smith as a social dissident than as a theological disputant. We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, Radical Sects goes in the discard pile.

Changes in the Land

Changes in the Land by William Cronon (New York: Hill & Wang, 2003). Begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledges some of the changes Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but explodes the idea that this represents some “fall” from a pristine, a-historical initial state. The landscape is always changing, and was changed by the “Indians” before white people arrived. “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be a cheap shot at ecologists, but it’s an instructive metaphor for historians.

Cronon’s economic argument centers on the ideas that European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness I’d imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of these differences is one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: like that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases they brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

“Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) Cronon argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminds me a lot of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (relative to the colonists’ monoculture). (43, 51)

Cronon’s point is that the Indians had a more stable approach to their environment than did the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. He may be leaning to heavily on Turner when he assumes they all simply planned on moving west when they exhausted their farms.

The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. In another passage that Tudge echoes in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control (was it by restricting fertility, or by the starvation of the weak?). Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The latter half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636 as the latest in a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) Overhunting to the point that “Hunting with us,” says Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” (101) A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” (120) “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.” (140) And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, this was a good read. Cronon proves his case well, as far as it goes. I don’t feel compelled to mine his bibliography at the moment, although I’m more interested in reading Timothy Dwight’s
Travels as a result of this. And maybe Marshall Sahlins.