Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century
Percy W. Bidwell, 1916

Percy Bidwell based this study (originally his dissertation) on the 1810 United States Census and related documents. He was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier. Bidwell included descriptions of inland towns and the types of people found there. He made a point of noting that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Farming was their primary, and fall-back, occupation. I found this to be true of the people I studied: even the freethinking Ashfield doctor about whom I wrote a biography kept horses, a milk cow, and pigs.

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

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

Bidwell admitted “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggested that there were good reasons for the state of farming. “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insisted. “Land was cheap and labor dear,” he said, “Washington’s explanation.” Bidwell agreed that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture, but he insisted that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.” 

“The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” he observed, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded.” Bidwell insisted, “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement were futile as long as a market was lacking [but] Between the years 1810 and 1860 such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns.”

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

Looking back on this source, which I read a bit uncritically when I was just beginning my graduate studies, I suspect Bidwell leaned a bit too heavily into a declensionist interpretation of New England agriculture and maybe also took Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about the lure and function of the frontier a bit too seriously. Much more recent work by people like Hal Barron, Brian Donahue, and Martin Bruegel added complexity to the story which I was able to recognize in the lives of the subjects I studied myself.