Social History and Contingency in Rural America
Saturday, October 10, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
The Roots of Rural Capitalism
Christopher Clark, 1990
Christopher Clark’s account of the transition from a “subsistence-surplus” economy to “rural capitalism” in Western Massachusetts argues it was not an ideological shift, but “the search for livelihoods and security” (318). Clark's story is very contingent, involving five elements: “Demography, land shortage, the ‘market,’ household strategies, [and] capital accumulation [which] came together, taking different forms at different periods” and places. The result was a slow, uneven change; and changes in the meaning and significance of relationships and activities, in places where the basic organization of society didn’t change.
Widespread freehold property ownership and the lack of an exportable staple “cash” crop, after the “blast” and soil exhaustion killed off the wheat, Clark says, prevented the growth of a strong New England elite. Shire towns like Northampton that had been influential in the eighteenth century under the “River Gods” lost their status as central places, while households and local communities became the cores of social and economic life. The household economy expected a lot from women and children, and Clark suggests 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. Clark’s stress on the importance of household strategies in this transition makes sense makes sense to me, although my own research on the growth of the peppermint oil market in the hills above the Pioneer Valley complicates the narrative of decline (more on that when I finish writing the dissertation!).
But Clark's points are well-taken. “It is no longer acceptable,” Clark says, “to portray rural people simply as passive victims of ‘the extension of the market’ that ‘broke down family-based household structures’” (323). While rural people were certainly not omniscient, and unintended consequences happened everywhere, Clark shows there was fairly widespread awareness that “a clash between two ethics” was taking place (324). This clash was felt especially during economic downturns like the one preceding Shays’s Rebellion in 1786. Against the standard interpretation’s emphasis on individualism and the profit motive, Clark insists “Family and household concerns indeed played a central role in capitalist development; perhaps it was only after family security had been achieved that thoughts of profits and individual interests could develop in the minds of members of the successful middle classes” (326). The success of the household strategy helped create this middle class and enabled the next phase of capitalist development.
Historiographically, Clark attributes the standard view that urban markets and transportation improvements led to rural capitalism to historians like Richard Hofstadter (The Age of Reform, 1955, ch. 1), D.C. North (“Location Theory and Regional Economic Growth” 1955), and George Rogers Taylor (The Transportation Revolution, 1951). More recently, objections have been raised by Winifred B. Rothenberg (1979-88), and James A. Henretta (“Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America” 1978) and Michael Merrill (“Cash is Good to Eat: Self-Sufficiency and Exchange in the Rural Economy of the United States” 1977); and by Clark himself (1979). In this book, Clark suggests “a synthesis between ‘market’ and ‘social’ interpretations, based on the observation that ‘markets’ are not determinant but are created in and derived from social circumstances” (See also Allan Kulikoff, 1989, and Gregory Nobles, 1988. 13)
Along the way, he makes several observations that are very interesting for my purposes. “The diffused economic power of rural households and their commitment to independence,” he says, “posed a potential problem for ministers and political leaders seeking to impose a concept of authority in the countryside” (23). This is especially interesting in light of Ashfield events I’m researching. The distinction between household and personal independence is also suggestive. “The methods [households] adopted were not individualistic but rested on cooperation and a division of labor. ‘Independence’ required ‘interdependence’ within households and between them” (24). Nor did independence imply self-sufficiency (27). “By 1800, households spent as much as 25 percent of their disposable incomes on goods obtained outside their localities” (28). Of course, “disposable” is the operative word here: these goods were luxuries, just as “products exported beyond the Valley were necessities extra to the requirements of local households or by-products of their production.” Market exchange was happening very early in the story, but it was not relied upon for household livelihood. I think this is an important distinction that is too often passed over.
Clark quotes European travelers in 1787, remarking on the “large variety of exchanges which would not be done in Europe other than with a considerable quantity of money” (33) Cash, he says, “implies abstraction - a social distance” different from the “complex webs [and] networks of obligation” created by local exchange. These webs and networks are exactly what I’m running into as I read the letters of upstate New York merchant-millers trying to create a cash economy. Are they unique, or is there an intermediate story waiting to be told about how these guys tried to adapt the “local” economic model of trust, relationships, and complex webs of exchange and credit, to the wider commercial world?
In his discussion of the elites and debt, Clark says New England lacked a landed gentry because there was no staple crop and no slavery. But there was also the issue of the River Gods being on the “wrong” side during the Revolution. And the debt crisis that leads to Shays’s “regulation” has a lot to do with “rural resources...being overwhelmed by the speed with which repayment of debts was sought” (45). This begs the question, how did the social climate change so dramatically, that Bostonians felt they could demand immediate payment on rural debts that had accumulated over long periods? What moral force could bring the word “embarrassed” so quickly into common usage as a synonym for indebted?
Clark shows that rural people understood what was happening to them. “‘We are sencable...that a great debt is justly brought upon us by the war,’ declared the town of Greenwich in 1786, ‘and we are as willing to pay our shares towards itt as we are to injoy our shars in independancy and constatutional priviledges in the Commonwealth.’ If only ‘prudant mesuers were taken and a moderate quantety of medium to circulate so that our property might sel for the real value,’ the petition concluded, ‘we mite in proper time pay said debt’” (47). This is a great passage, and I think it hints at another change we don't talk about nearly enough: the consolidation of banking in eastern cities like Boston and New York. I'll have more to say about that, too, soon.
Clark says “The ‘local’ ethic valued the longer-term reciprocity between dealers embedded in a network of social connections; morality lay in accepting obligations and discharging them over time. The ‘market’ ethic emphasized quick payment and assumed a formal equality between individual dealers at the point of exchange; morality lay in the quick discharge of obligation” (196). But the seeming equality of market exchange hides an imbalance: the merchant is assumed to be the exclusive provider of “goods,” while the “consumer” no longer exchanges household products, but pays in cash. Household products are no longer good enough. Furthermore, the inequality in the “local” ethic implied by the “formal equality” of the market was mitigated by the long-term nature of the relationships: over time, everything balances and everyone is morally equal.
The money supply (221), bankruptcies and debt suits hold a lot of information, although I wonder if they don’t push the focus a little too far to the downside? I find myself wondering what conditions were like and how people reacted to them, when the economy was growing. If long-distance commerce was a new system being tried out in these communities, how did people feel about it when it was working well? Similarly, when William Stoddard implemented his one-price policy in 1856, was this a symbolic gesture of his superiority in the exchange transaction? (223) Was there ever really that much multi-pricing? Wouldn’t keeping a variety of prices for different customers have been extremely difficult to manage, over any reasonable breadth of customers and time?
The final sequence of Clark’s story is especially interesting, where rhetoric and reality completely diverge. On one hand, “public speakers and editorial writers...continued to celebrate the republican simplicity and virtue of ‘yeoman freeholders’” (276). On the other, court decisions showed “the social structure of a diversified rural economy no longer left room for assumptions that private and public interests would coincide” (reminiscent of Steinberg in Nature Incorporated, published a year later. 310). What accounts for this disconnect? How does it come about that the “public interest” becomes synonymous with private profits at precisely this time and place, while the rural yeoman simultaneously becomes a creature of nostalgic myth? There’s something really big happening here, that The Roots of Rural Capitalism points at.