The Roots of Rural Capitalism
Christopher Clark, 1990

Christopher Clark retired last year from the University of Connecticut. He grew up in Mitcham, a suburb of London, went to the University of Warwick and then Harvard, and taught at York University before moving to UConn in 2005. Between 2012-ish and 2017 he was a member of my dissertation committee.

Clark is perhaps best known for his contribution to the description of social change in New England during the Early Republic period. He was a voice of moderation in the famous “market transition” debate of the late 1970s and early 80s. Clark’s account of the shift from a “subsistence-surplus” economy to “rural capitalism” in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, described in
The Roots of Rural Capitalism, was built around his observation that it was not an ideological shift that prompted this change, but “the search for livelihoods and security” (318).  Clark’s story revolved around five elements: “Demography, land shortage, the ‘market,’ household strategies, [and] capital accumulation [which] came together, taking different forms at different periods” and places. The result was a slow, uneven change and and evolution of the meaning and significance of relationships and activities, in places where the basic organization of society didn’t change.

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

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

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

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

Clark quoted European travelers in 1787, remarking on the “large variety of exchanges which would not be done in Europe other than with a considerable quantity of money” (33) Cash, he said “implies abstraction - a social distance” different from the “complex webs [and] networks of obligation” created by local exchange. These webs were exactly what I was running into as I read the letters of upstate New York merchant-millers trying to create a cash economy and Ashfield merchant Henry Ranney buying peppermint oil from Michigan farmers in his family network. Were they unique, I wondered, or was there an intermediate story waiting to be told about how these guys tried to adapt the “local” economic model of trust, relationships, and complex webs of exchange and credit, to allow them to function in the wider commercial world?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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