Calomel and the Fight for Medical Legitimacy

This is a short account of the fight over Calomel, “empirics,” and medical legitimacy in the first half of the nineteenth century. It's not Environmental History, but I think it involved a distinctly urban/rural dispute over legitimacy. As well as a bit of class conflict. And who doesn't love old accounts of crazy medical nightmares!


In March 1844 a Massachusetts country doctor named Charles Knowlton wrote a letter to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. He suspected himself of having infected a new mother with Erysipelas, giving her a fatal case of Puerperal Fever. Oliver Wendell Holmes had published “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever” only a year earlier in the New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine, and the issue of contagion was still hotly contested, so Knowlton was not only demonstrating he was up to date with the literature, he was taking a stand on a politically charged issue.[1] But he went further. Aware that his actions would be questioned by his peers, Knowlton argued:

if my treatment of the cases is to be criticized at all, let it not be done by the city practitioner, who, instead of spending most of his hours in buffeting the winds and storms 'o'er hill and dale,' as in country practice, may spend them at the bedside of the sick, acquiring practical experience--or in his study, treasuring up the experience of others; who can examine and re-examine both his patient and his library within the space of half an hour…But rather let it be criticized by the country practitioner, who…knows what it is…to be caught, perhaps in the night, some five or ten miles from home, at the bedside of a patient presenting urgent and alarming symptoms with which he is not practically familiar, and all this without any aid at command beyond what he may chance to have in his pockets and saddlebags. These are the circumstances that 'try men's souls,' and qualify country physicians to sit in judgment upon the practice of each other."[2]

Knowlton’s remarks suggest a certain tension between urban and rural physicians; they also point to his respect for
experience as a mark of professionalism and expertise. But Charles Knowlton wasn't a typical physician. He was a freethinker and the author of America’s first birth control manual. He had written his 1824 thesis for the medical lectures at Hanover, on the importance of anatomy. Dartmouth, like other respectable schools, held medical lectures nearby but outside the college's official walls. Dr. Nathan Smith, who had organized the medical programs at Dartmouth, Bowdoin, and the University of Vermont, was extensively grilled by Timothy Dwight regarding his religious and moral orthodoxy (and suspicions he was an “anatomist”) before being allowed to commence teaching at Yale.[3] On his graduation from Dartmouth's "lectures," Knowlton walked from Hanover directly to Worcester to serve three months at hard labor for stealing bodies from a local cemetery. But to what degree did Knowlton’s remarks reflect or speak for the developing profession? The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal holds a possible answer, in the form of a decades-long debate over the effectiveness and dangers of the drug Calomel. The conflict was between authority and experience, and the battle-lines were drawn largely on an urban-rural and class axes.

Calomel was a chloride of mercury, known since the days of the alchemists. Its use was promoted in the leading medical schools at London and Edinburgh, and eighteenth-century Americans who had studied overseas taught Calomel’s purgative, tonic, and cathartic properties to their own students at home. Along with bleeding, Calomel became a centerpiece of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s “heroic” style of treatment and was featured in authoritative American texts.[4] Calomel became such a standard part of the American
material medica that in Dartmouth lecture notes of the 1830s, students didn’t even bother to give the drug its own descriptive page. For many early nineteenth-century doctors, Calomel was the panacea, the “Samson” drug they turned to when all else failed.[5]

The harmful effects of mercury were well-known to early doctors. Along with bloodletting, Calomel was used as a “depletive,” since medical theory held first that inflammation, and later that “excitement of the blood” caused most illness. But early in the nineteenth century, the general public also began to understand the dangers of mercurial medicines, and to distrust physicians who relied on them. This distrust was fueled by popular critics like William Cobbett, who quipped that Benjamin Rush’s heroic practices were “one of the great discoveries…which have contributed to the depopulation of the earth.” More testimony against Calomel came from the legions of Thomsonian botanical healers, hydropaths and homeopaths who challenged traditional doctors in the early nineteenth century. These “sectarians” took advantage of horror stories that circulated about patients injured or killed by heroic treatment, to erode the social standing of traditional physicians they said were doing more harm than good.[6]

In 1828 the
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (Journal) began offering doctors from New England, New York, and the western territories as far away as New Orleans a forum for sharing cases, and a place to read about medical advances. It was active in the ongoing battle against “quackery” and the struggle to establish medicine as a respected profession. The Editors of the Journal were aware of the public’s distrust of heroic treatment, and especially of the growing fear of Calomel. But rather than addressing these concerns open-mindedly, they rejected and demonized skeptics and dissenters, even when these were fellow doctors relating their cases. The continued use of Calomel and the Journal’s dogged defense of it in the face of mounting evidence from the late 1820s to the late1840s set rural doctors and urban academics in opposing camps. Leading physicians’ obvious lack of consensus on the safety and effectiveness of treatments further undermined the public’s acceptance of the profession.

Although aware of its dangers, the medical profession defended Calomel in its publications. In April 1828, Dr. Finley of Bainbridge Ohio proposed using solutions of water and “tartarate of antimony for checking mercurial salivation,” indicating that the problem was already well-known.[7] A September report of a British lecturer’s comment, “To calomel I am averse; on some bowels it acts roughly, and I have seen it apparently occasion miscarriage,” suggests that by the late 1820s the use of mercurials was falling out of favor across the Atlantic.[8] In America, doctors had begun reporting cases of “Ptyalism” and “Gangrenopsis.”[9] The effects of Calomel poisoning on patients, particularly children, were gruesome. One doctor described a ten-year old girl who was treated (by another doctor) with eight doses of calomel over the course of three weeks. She complained of swelling and soreness in her mouth that the other doctor had dismissed as canker. This swelling progressed “uninterruptedly to gangrene and sphacelation [morbidity] of both lips, and the greater part of the right cheek, before her death, and left such a hideous spectacle…as made it desirable she might not survive.” In another case, a forty-year old man “to whom much mercury had been given, and pursued for a considerable time, in small doses, and even after profuse ptyalism had been established…His mouth and face swelled; he could not distinctly articulate for several months; his teeth fell out; and portions of his lower jaw, including the sockets of the teeth, came out. At the end of nine months he died…”[10]

Dr. George Packard of Saco Maine wrote in 1830 about treating “an uncommonly healthy” ten-year old girl for fever. He gave several doses of calomel, and on the second day of treatment, her cheek began to swell. Packard was “confident that the constitutional effect of calomel was not produced, though…a fetor, somewhat resembling that of a mercurial sore mouth, was for some days perceived.” In the fourth week of treatment, the girl’s left cheek became swollen and painful. The doctor tried blisters, poultices, and tonics with no success. The "mercurial fetor" gave way to a gangrenous stench, and “a large slough came away” from the inside of the girl’s cheek. The “erosion proceeded rapidly,” and the girl began to have regular hemorrhages, which finally killed her in the eighth week of her illness. By this time, the erosion, “commencing at the angle of the mouth, passed by the nose to the upper edge of the malar bone,—thence, by the ear…came anteriorly, including half of the throat and chin.” The girl was unable to eat for much of the two months she suffered from this erosion, and her death “was for many days heartily desired by her attendants and friends, and, when it came, was not an unwelcome visitor.”[11]

Although it continued to print alarming letters from country doctors describing catastrophic results of Calomel use, the
Journal was unwilling to offer an opinion contradicting medical canon. In early 1831 the Editors denounced a “REFORMED Medical College” that had been opened by Dr. John J. Steele in Worthington Ohio. The college’s “chief object of reform,” they said, would be to “dismiss from the material medica, the internal use of mercury, antimony, lead, iron, copper, zinc, arsenic, and other poisonous materials.” The Editors called this “the most weak, absurd and contemptible affair…we ever met with in print.”[12]

In 1834 Dr. Stephen W. Williams of Deerfield, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the Berkshire Medical Institution, wrote in defense of mercury. Williams gave the case of a ten-year old boy with scarlet fever, to whom he had prescribed calomel. After nine days of treatment, the boy was “attacked with severe haemorrhage from the small arteries of the cheeks and gums, which continued without much intermission for two or three days, and prostrated his strength considerably.” Williams complained, “about this time I was attacked, with the ferocity of a tiger, for administering mercury in this case and destroying the patient…Such is often the gratitude that is awarded to physicians.” Dr. Williams insisted the patient would have died under any other treatment, and proceeded over several pages to cite dozens of medical authorities supporting his use of mercury. His citations went back to the seventeenth century, and included advocates of heroic treatment like Rush.

Dr. Williams’ article marks a perceptible change in the rhetoric surrounding the Calomel argument. Spurred by growing concern over the profession’s declining public image, the Editors of the
Journal chose to stand for tradition and the authority of medicine’s canonical texts. “A great change is evidently taking place in regard to the old mode of theorizing,” the Editors complained. “Facts are now first demanded, and every one may then dispose of them according to his own individual fancy.”[13] Country correspondents of the Journal objected to this “intolerant and overbearing” approach, charging that if any doctors “have the boldness or temerity to doubt their infallibility…they [the Editors], in the plentitude of their wisdom and power, are determined to inflict summary vengeance on them…by a ten times more frequent and greater use of the article in question, than they otherwise would have done.”[14] But the Editors continued, in columns like their “Remarks on Itinerants,” to declare that “although mercury is “anathematized by quacks and their unconscious dupes, it is a valuable medicine, and could not be dispensed with in general practice.”[15]

The basis of the Editors’ argument for Calomel seems to rest squarely on the authority of tradition. In 1838 the
Journal devoted several issues to reprinting a London lecture on Materia Medica that traced mercury’s use from Pliny and Dioscorides, through the Arabians, to Paracelsus and the alchemists, for whom it was “the summum magnum of all their labors.”[16] In an 1839 conclusion to a “Medical Essay,” on another subject, the Editors attacked “the empiric…[who] is absolutely ignorant of the nature and proper operation of calomel, and therefore in his hands it becomes an edged-tool, which should never be in the hands of the ignorant, the prejudiced, or the insane.”[17] Though the term empiric was then widely used as a derogatory catch-all for Thomsonian herbalists, homeopaths, and others, its literal meaning is equally relevant. In the minds of the Editors and their supporters, physicians, like contemporary professionals practicing law and the ministry, claimed their authority not from experience, but from their mastery of medicine’s ancient, canonical texts.

The battle raged on, in literally dozens of
Journal articles and letters. Most often correspondents and country doctors argued from their observations, while the Editors and their academic experts argued from the texts. At the same time, the Journal and other organs of the medical press complained of physicians' low social standing relative to ministers and lawyers. One of the first priorities of the American Medical Association, founded in 1847, was setting minimal standards of education for its members. While this ultimately resulted in the highly empirical, science-based medicine we are familiar with today, at the time it may have functioned like the Association's committees to investigate secret remedies, patent nostrums, and other “quack” cures: more as a reinforcement for authority over experience than as a search for new discoveries.[18]

By mid-century the weight of evidence was unbearable. Its acceptance coincided the establishment of medical schools
within the elite institutions that had once held them at arm's length. Perhaps moving inside the walls gave medicine the prestige it needed to address its critics. Experience became institutionalized as medical science and Calomel faded from use. In his 1850 “Valedictory Address” to the AMA, President John C. Warren remarked “I do remember that at one time most diseases were attacked by mercurials; not only general but local; inflammations and fevers; affections acute and chronic, syphilitic and scrofulous; in short, nearly all diseases, all ages, both sexes, were invaded by this potent mineral.”[19] Warren’s position as Professor of Anatomy at the Harvard Medical School thirty-seven years after Nathan Smith arrived at Yale under a cloud of suspicion illustrates how much had changed in a little over a generation. Memory faded rapidly regarding the divisiveness of the Calomel debate and the authoritarian philosophy of medicine it illustrated. Young doctors were no longer jailed for studying anatomy on stolen corpses. The profession had grown up and empiricism had won, if not a decisive victory over authority, at least a seat at the table.


[1] “A gentleman’s hands are clean,” claimed opponents. Meigs, C. D. (1854). On the nature, signs, and treatment of childbed fevers; in a series of letters addressed to the students of his class. Philadelphia, Blanchard and Lea. Holmes article was reprinted in Holmes, O. W. (1883). Medical essays, 1842-1882. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
[2] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1844). "Erisypelas and Puerperal Fever." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XXX(5): 89-95.
[3] Smith, E. A. (1914). The life and letters of Nathan Smith, M.B., M.D. New Haven, Yale University Press; [etc.].
[4] Eberle, J. (1834). Notes of lectures on the theory and practice of medicine, delivered in the Jefferson medical college, at Philadelphia. Cincinnati, Corey & Fairbank.
[5] Cobbett, W. (1885). How to get on in the world, as displayed in the life and writings of William Cobbett. New York, R. Worthington.
[6] Thomson, S. (1822, 1972). A narrative of the life and medical discoveries of Samuel Thomson; containing an account of his system of practice, and the manner of curing disease with vegetable medicine, upon a plan entirely new; to which is added an introduction to his New guide to health, or botanic family physician, containing the principles upon which the system is founded, with remarks on fevers, steaming, poison, &c. New York, Arno Press.
[7] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1828). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
I(9): 137.
[8] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1828). "Lectures Delivered at Guy's Hospital." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
I(29): 458.
[9] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1828). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
II(43): 679.
[10] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1830). "Some Account of Affections of the Face." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
II(48): 758.
[11] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1830). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
III(21): 337.
[12] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1831). ""REFORMED" Medical College." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
IV(6): 101.
[13] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1835). "Self Limited Diseases." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XII(26): 413.
[14] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1835). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XII(26): 411.
[15] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1837). "Remarks on Itinerants." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XVI(1): 14.
[16] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1838). "Mercury, from Dr. Sigmond's Lectures on the Materia Medica." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XVIII(9): 133
[17] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1839). "Medical Essay." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XX(6): 94.
[18] Davis, N. S. B. S. W. and ed (1855). History of the American Medical Association from its organization up to January, 1855. Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo & Co.
[19] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1850). "Dr. Warren's Valedictory Address." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XLII(20): 409.
Cobbett, W. (1885). How to get on in the world, as displayed in the life and writings of William Cobbett. New York, R. Worthington.
Davis, N. S. B. S. W. and ed (1855). History of the American Medical Association from its organization up to January, 1855. Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo & Co.
Eberle, J. (1834). Notes of lectures on the theory and practice of medicine, delivered in the Jefferson medical college, at Philadelphia. Cincinnati, Corey & Fairbank.
Holmes, O. W. (1883). Medical essays, 1842-1882. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1850). "Dr. Warren's Valedictory Address." The Boston medical and surgical journal. 
Meigs, C. D. (1854). On the nature, signs, and treatment of childbed fevers; in a series of letters addressed to the students of his class. Philadelphia, Blanchard and Lea.
Smith, E. A. (1914). The life and letters of Nathan Smith, M.B., M.D. New Haven, Yale University Press; [etc.].
Thomson, S. (1822, 1972). A narrative of the life and medical discoveries of Samuel Thomson; containing an account of his system of practice, and the manner of curing disease with vegetable medicine, upon a plan entirely new; to which is added an introduction to his New guide to health, or botanic family physician, containing the principles upon which the system is founded, with remarks on fevers, steaming, poison, &c. New York, Arno Press.
James Cassedy,
American Medicine and Statistical Thinking, 1984
John Duffy,
From Humors to Medical Science, 1993
William Rothstein,
American Medical Schools and the Practice of Medicine, 1987
Michael Sappol
, A Traffic of Dead Bodies, 2002
------------, “The Odd Case of Charles Knowlton: Anatomical Performance, Medical Narrative, and Identity in Antebellum America,”
Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2009.
Jayme Sokolow,
Eros and Modernization, 1983

Things I learned from 1491


Okay, I'm a grad student, not a tenure-track EnvHist professor. So maybe it's easier for me to admit this. I learned stuff from Charles C. Mann's 1491.

Yep, in spite of doing a PhD teaching field in Global Environmental History. In spite of teaching American EnvHist several times. Mann covered things in 1491 I had not heard of, and other things I had heard of but hadn't dug deeply enough into. So I'm going through the book again with a fine-tooth comb, looking for things I ought to add to my course, study up on, or read his sources. And while I'm doing that, I'm going to try to pay careful attention to the organization of the book, the language, how Mann presents his material. All the things that, along with choosing interesting material in the first place, made the book a national bestseller.

First thing I noticed, as I reopened this book, was that Mann says he has been thinking about these topics for over two decades. It shows. In addition to 385 pages of text, my paperback edition includes over 150 pages of appendices, endnotes, bibliography, and index. In comparison,
Down to Earth has 295 pages of text, 71 pages of back matter. McNeill's An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World has 362 pages of text and about 50 pages of back matter, although its footnotes are at the bottoms of pages. More important, there's a lot of overlap between Mann's sources for his popular history and the academics' citations in their textbooks. And actually, there's material in Mann's story and sources that I haven't seen before -- possibly because it comes from outside the silo of academic History.

When I talk about American EnvHist, I like to start about 80 thousand years ago, when the
Homo sapiens who were our ancestors left Africa. So I loved the whole premise of Mann's book: that there was a lot going on in the Americas before Columbus's arrival and we should know about it. I immediately related to Mann's introductory attack on the Pristine Myth, and I appreciated the way he added urgency and suspense by contrasting the revisionists and the people (like Holmberg) whose work they were revising. Even so, I was unaware of William Denevan's discoveries in the Beni region of Bolivia, or of the efforts of people like Denevan and Henry Dobyns, who have been arguing these points since the 1960s. I'm still going to talk about Alfred Crosby in my class -- but I'm going to start mentioning these geographers too!

And yes, there's something to be learned about language and tone. I don't think any academic would have named a chapter "Holmberg's Mistake" or observed that "it was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving" (10). People have criticized Mann for dwelling too much on conflicts -- or even of trying to create them where they didn't really exist. But there are social and political consequences to the question of how many people were in the Americas before Europeans and what their lives were like. I often wonder if the critics of "confrontation" wouldn't prefer to go back to a time when we just didn't have to worry about these issues.

Another of the very effective elements of
1491 is that Mann has traveled to a lot of the places he describes and met a lot of the people whose work he cites. The personal observations Mann makes, the hardships, and even the trivial incidents of travel bring us into the story. Suddenly we're reading a narrative of discovery rather than a historiography. But my exercise today is combing through the book for material to add to my course. So what specifically am I going to add, that I hadn't covered before reading 1491?

The Beni region, because I think it's interesting and compelling that things are still being discovered.

"Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine [in 1501]. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings" (47). I'm going to try to put more stress on the idea that Whites and Indians interacted in a wider variety of ways. Especially in New England in the century
before the 1616-17 epidemic and the beginning of English colonization.

The depopulation of the territory first explored by Hernando De Soto in 1539 and revisited in 1682 by La Salle, who found the land "deserted--the French didn't see an Indian village for two hundred miles" (108).

The section on challenges to Clovis chronology is excellent, but I'm already covering that. And since the book came out, there have been genetic discoveries that fill out the story of Kennewick Man (and "Hoyo Negro Girl") which I'm already planning to add.

Aspero and Caral, in the Norte Chico. If Aspero is actually in the running for the world's oldest city, this is probably worth mentioning (201-9).

I might assign the passage (212-24) on Maize. It includes a description of how many varieties are still eaten in Mexico, and introduces the concept of landraces, which would be useful because the idea comes up again later in the semester.

I might also assign Chapter 9, "Amazonia," (315-49). It introduces the idea that the Amazon region may have been much more heavily populated in the past, discusses agro-forestry, and covers another controversy. This one is interesting, because part of the argument seems to be over present use of the Amazon. Opponents of the idea that a lot of people have been able to support themselves in the region claim that accepting that conclusion would open the doors to further deforestation and development. Despite the fact that the evidence suggests the people who thrived there in the past did so by tending the trees! So obviously, this could lead to an interesting discussion in a class.

Finally, Mann's suggestion that the die-off of most of the Americas' Indians caused other animal populations to boom is probably worth mentioning. Especially since (like many people, I imagine) I already mention the extinction of the passenger pigeon and quote American authors' descriptions of the flocks that took days to pass by. Another opportunity to talk about dynamic systems being more accurate descriptions of the world than steady states.

Enriching the Earth, but for how long?

Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production
Vaclav Smil, 2001

In a book that has recently been discovered and promoted by Bill Gates, Vaclav Smil identifies the nitrogen-fixing technology of the Haber-Bosch process as the single most important invention of the modern age. Without the abundant nitrogen fertilizer provided by the process invented by Fritz Haber and brought to commercial scale by Carl Bosch, Smil says, the world population would not have been able to grow from roughly 1.6 billion in 1900 to the current 6 billion plus. Smil does mention that this human population explosion has not been without consequences for the rest of nature, and he notes that the Haber Bosch process is extremely energy-intensive. The reader gets the impression that if energy shortages drive up the value of natural gas, the cost of fertilizer -- and food -- can be expected to rise with it. But Smil doesn't really explore the question hanging in the air: did global population rise in the last century beyond a level that can be sustained? I imagine this is a question that doesn't seem serious if you believe that energy production and consumption will continue to increase -- perhaps changing forms as society transitions from fossil fuels to something new, but never really decreasing. Maybe it's best left to science fiction writers to wonder what happens to basic stuff like fertilizer and irrigation, if energy becomes scarce or very expensive.

The history of fertilizer is a rich (pun intended) story that has only recently begun to be told. Those with access to academic journals can read more about the earlier, guano-based fertilizer boom in my friend Ted Melillo’s award-winning article, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930.” It’s unfortunate this type of material is locked behind academic paywalls, but you can also read about guano in Charles C. Mann's
1493 (which quotes Ted's article). Melillo tells the story of the early 19th century, when the concentrated nitrogen of seabird droppings made islands off the western coast of South America hot commodities. Long before the Haber Bosch process, there was a global trade in nitrogen. After the guano period described by Melillo and before the Haber Bosch era, the Chilean deserts provided nitrate to the world agricultural and munitions markets. Chile had a virtual monopoly on Nitrate at the end of the 19th century, after winning a war of conquest against its northern neighbors, Bolivian and Peru. So yeah, there’s a lot of history surrounding how we fertilize our fields.

There’s little doubt Smil is correct in his claim that at least 40% of the people now living owe their continued existence to the cheap fertilizer produced by the Haber Bosch process. There’s also no doubt that questions about issues like quantity vs. quality of life, humanity’s impact on the ecosystem, and the distribution of the fruits of progress, which Smil avoids addressing, are valid ones. Maybe another question we ought to ask has to do with the role of Environmental History. Should it be about simply recording the things humans discovered they were able to do, and the positive consequences? Or should it call attention to unintended consequences like the ones Smil avoids, and suggest people think about these questions. Since we continue to develop technologies that allow population to rise, it’s a question about the future as well as the past. The way books like Enriching the Earth mix the history of science and technology with economic, social, and cultural history creates an interesting opportunity to really use environmental history (broadly conceived) to understand the present and speculate about the future.


In the postscript Smil mentions that in addition to his work on nitrogen fertilizer, Fritz Haber also oversaw the German Chemical Warfare Service. Ten days after Haber supervised the first German gas attack at Ypres (4/22/1915), when he returned home, Haber's wife Clara shot herself through the heart with his army revolver. A brilliant scientist herself, Clara left behind not only Haber but their thirteen year old son, Hermann. “By the war’s end,” Smil says, the casualties of gas warfare amounted to about 1.3 million” (227). So there’s definitely a way to tell this story, as a sort-of Faustian tale of the double-edged nature of technological progress. Smil chooses not to focus on that interpretation, but to his credit he provides readers with all the details necessary to draw their own conclusions.

More thoughts on Part 2 of Steinberg's Down to Earth


Once again, because this book is one of the de facto EnvHist textbooks, I thought I'd look at it very closely. So I'm being much more critical than maybe I ought to be. This is a fine book -- but it's also a model and an opportunity to explore the choices the author made and consider other options.

Down to Earth is broken into three parts (I've already said some things about Part 1). Part 2 is called "Rationalization and its Discontents." As before, I question the idea of going with a thematic organization. I wonder if everything that needs to be said to cover the "middle" of American Environmental History can be captured in this net of "rationalization?" What if the theme of the early industrial era was conceived not as the rationalization of nature but the uneven distribution of outcomes? Wouldn't a chronological presentation help us explore more perspectives and find themes that present themselves from events?

Chapter 4, "A World of Commodities," commences with Henry David Thoreau, who we are told "saw in apples, not dollar signs, but the wondrous glories of life on earth" (57). I know I'm repeating myself here, but is anybody else even a little suspicious of the degree to which we lean on Thoreau for our critique of modernity? There are plenty of other critics of early commercialism and industrialization. Some of them even offered alternatives. The conversion of nature into a mere input for the capitalist mill is a serious issue. I'm not sure a guy who fled to a woodlot he didn't own and lived on the largess of his rich friends is really the best champion for the other side of the argument.

Steinberg, of course, is aware of the distributive dimensions of this "rationalization." He concludes the pages devoted to water power in New England (based on his own fine work in
Nature Incorporated) by suggesting that there's an element of class conflict in the struggle over nature. Industrialization, he concludes, "led to a major rationalization and reallocation of natural resources, enriching some at the expense of others" (61). I might emphasize that element a bit more -- maybe even to the point of titling the chapter "A Class Conflict Over Nature."

In the next sections, Steinberg tells the story of the grid and grain, and then of the timber business. The template for this material seems to be Cronon's
Nature's Metropolis, and like Cronon he talks about how monocultures spread and how wheat became an "abstract commodity." Again, I may be nitpicking here, but is abstraction really the historical point here, or is it a point that's attractive to historians? Put another way, is the abstraction of actual grain into futures contracts on the CBT really the crucial historical change? I'd suggest that although it's an interesting and sort-of postmodern cognitive shift, the bigger and more widespread change was the consolidation of sacks of grain belonging to particular farmers into an undifferentiated pile of grain in elevators and rail cars. The point is not what happens in the mind, but what happens on the ground when farmers go from being identifiable people providing a product to consumers, to faceless suppliers of a raw material for an industrial process. Again, it's about who benefits and who loses in this altered transaction.

Similarly, Steinberg points out the lumber barons' carelessness regarding both future yields and ecological consequences in the forests they clearcut. This seems like an opportune time to talk about the alienation of public resources. About the idea that a distant capitalist is
naturally going to be less concerned with these issues than, say, a local community that controlled nearby resources. The outcome wasn't inevitable, but on the other hand, you can't really blame the lumber barons for their "stick-and-move" strategy. Or, if you want to blame them, you'd need to examine more closely how they helped create the social and legal regime in which they operated.

A passage I particularly liked was Steinberg's discussion of industrial change as "a kind of war waged against seasonal variation" (71). Or really, variation of any kind. He goes on to say that commodities "lost binding ties with their place of origin." That the "almighty dollar" became a "frightful leveler" that eliminated uniqueness and identity in favor of "unconditional interchangeability." This is what he means when he says rationalization, I suppose. But I like it better when he spells it out. The local becomes global. The particular becomes generic. Individuals fade into masses. And most important, who benefits and how does society change when this happens?

Part 2 continues with a look at "King Climate in Dixie" that incorporates a reference to E.P. Thompson's moral economy and a passage describing the importance of Peruvian guano in the mid-19th century. I liked the suggestion that the guano trade helped start a process where "Farming began to lose its attachment to place." And I thought Steinberg's conclusion was right on: that the "commercial farming of staples split production off from consumption" and made the social and ecological costs less visible to consumers. The next couple of chapters, about the Civil War and the Reconstructed South, continue these themes and throw in a few more interesting elements. I was particularly fascinated by the story of chestnut trees. And by the fact (which I had not known) that Gifford Pinchot had been the forester for George Vanderbilt's hundred thousand acre estate.

Next come a chapter on the "Unforgiving West," following Marc Reisner's
Cadillac Desert, which illustrates the wishful thinking and bad science that led to problems like the Dust Bowl. Interesting points include the fact that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo "respected the prevailing Hispanic property rights regime" (120). A key feature of Latin American property law was the long tradition that subsurface resources (minerals, oil) belonged to society, not to the individuals holding deeds to the acreage. This tradition was repudiated by a series of California legal decisions between 1859 and 1861 which "overturned the public nature of mineral resources." That probably warrants a closer look. Similarly, the story of the early cattle industry and the overstocking of the plains shows how incredibly inefficient and careless people were. In the winter of 1871-2, half the cattle in parts of Nebraska and Kansas died. In 1884-5 in Nebraska and Colorado, "cattle die-offs reached as high as 90 percent" (131). Steinberg mentions that some people blamed fences. But it's pretty clear that overstocking the plains with a creature that wasn't adapted to survive harsh winters was the real problem. Ignorance and greed.

Finally, Steinberg reaches the Progressive Era, with chapters on conservation and urban sanitary reform. The conservation chapter discusses the battles between the conservationists and preservationists and criticizes the idea of "efficient use" of nature, comparing Gifford Pinchot with time-study pioneer, Frederick Taylor. Steinberg criticizes the forest managers' extermination of predators and suppression of fires, which led to unanticipated problems. But he doesn't really connect the fire-suppression program to the dozens of devastating fires that swept the cutover region in the last decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th. The Peshtigo Fire, which happened the same day as the Great Chicago Fire and killed at least five times as many people, was just one of the disasters that followed the clearcutting of the pines in the upper midwest. Hubris and unintended consequences are also central to the story of the national parks, which follows Karl Jacoby's
Crimes Against Nature. And the final chapter, "The Death of the Organic City," compares the relatively closed system of waste-composting and local market-farming of 19th-century cities to the "flush-and-forget" sanitation and globalized commercial agriculture of today. This is a really interesting section -- I'm looking forward to reading more about this in Gotham Unbound.

Background on a 19th-Century Family of Farmers

So who were these Ranneys, who left four decades worth of primary source material in a local archive?  What can we find out about them, to set the scene for this series of letters?  Looking for information on a family like the Ranneys in nineteenth-century America, we have a pretty wide variety of sources available to us. As many descendants of more recent immigrants to the Americas have found, European communities were not always big on record-keeping. There may be nothing written down about an average family except births, deaths, and marriages in a local church register — and that register may have been lost or destroyed. Luckily, Americans seem to have valued genealogical information from very early in our history. The list of birth-dates Lewis provides for Henry in the first letter (which I'll post tomorrow) is an indication of this. And this impulse wasn’t limited only to Mayflower descendants.  Between the middle and the end of the nineteenth century people started publishing books tracing the genealogies of families like the Ranneys. According to the Ranney book, (The Ranney Memorial and Historical Association: Preliminary Report, 1904), the family in America originates with a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Ranney, born in 1616, who settled in Middletown, Connecticut in the mid-1650s. Although no one knows precisely why Thomas left Scotland, the Scots were defeated by Cromwell’s parliamentary forces at Dunbar in 1650, leading to the unification of England and Scotland in 1653. It’s possible that Ranney, like many of his countrymen, chose to emigrate as a result of these events and the social changes they caused. The book on Middletown’s early history (Charles Collard Adams’s Middletown Upper Houses: A History of the North Society of Middletown, Connecticut, from 1650 to 1800, with Genealogical and Biographical Chapters on the Early Families and a Full Genealogy of the Ranney Family, 1908) agrees with the Ranney book (not unusual, since most of these early sources borrowed freely from each other without attribution) and continues the story. Thomas Ranney became a landowner in Middletown in 1658, and married seventeen-year old Mary Hubbard, daughter of another founding family, in 1659. By 1670, Thomas was paying £105 in taxes, placing him ninth on the list of 52 town proprietors. Thomas was not a member of a church (a tradition his freethinking descendants continued). He died at age 97 in 1713, the last surviving Middletown settler. In his will, Thomas gave grants of land to each of his ten surviving children. In addition to his homestead, valued at £110, Thomas’s estate included nearly 400 acres of land and was valued at £757. After a humble beginning, Thomas Ranney died a fairly wealthy man.

Thomas Ranney’s great-great-grandson, George Ranney III, was born in Middletown in 1746. By this time, Middletown had become the largest port city between Boston and New York, with more international shipping than Hartford or New Haven.  The oldest son of a main branch of what was already a large and complicated family tree, George entered the “West India trade” as a young man. The trade, which flourished from the 1750s until the Revolutionary War, is evasively described by local historians as “carrying out mules, horses, and hay, and bringing back rum, sugar, molasses, and fine woods.” Although Middletown had a larger slave population than any other Connecticut city (peaking at 218 in 1756, according to most accounts), it is unclear whether the young George Ranney was involved in this aspect of the trade, or whether he ever actually went to sea. But since the money that islands like Barbados used to buy New England livestock, food, and fodder was derived from sugar produced by slaves and sold in the British market, there is little point splitting hairs: Middletown’s “West India” economy was part of the British colonial system and the slave-based sugar economy.

is known about George Ranney is that he married Esther Hall, daughter of Captain Samuel Hall, in January 1771. George was 25, his wife 20. Captain Hall was not a ship’s master, but rather a member of another Middletown founding family, a deacon, and a captain of the militia. The Ranney and Hall families have a long history of intermarriage, and in fact George’s younger brother Francis married Esther’s younger sister Rachel two years later. George and Esther’s first child, named Samuel Hall after his grandfather, was born in March, 1772.

The West India trade in Middletown never really recovered from the American Revolution. The British West Indian colonies found other sources of supply during the nearly decade-long conflict, and after the war the Sugar Islands found other trade partners within the British Empire. With the loss of commerce, Middletown’s economy began to shift toward manufacturing.  In 1791, a rum distillery that came symbolize this transition was begun by a Hall relative of George’s wife Esther. As the connection with the Caribbean waned, the new manufacturers explored other businesses. The distillery, a “last relic of former days…distilled annually, 600 hogs-heads of rum,” but by the early years of the New Republic most of Middletown’s merchant-manufacturers had turned their attention to textiles, according to another old history, Whittemore’s 1884
History of Middlesex County: The Town and City of Middletown.

George and Esther Ranney moved their family to Ashfield Massachusetts in 1780. In addition to young Samuel, who was eight at the time of the move, the young family included Jesse, age five, and Joseph, three. George IV, called George Jr. in Ashfield records and born in May 1780, may have been the first Ranney born in Ashfield. George III’s younger brothers, Francis and Thomas, also moved to Ashfield in in 1786 and 1792, leaving their much younger brother Jonathan (b. 1765) to care for their aging parents and inherit the family homestead in Middletown. By the early 1800s there were many Ranney cousins in the neighborhood, including the prominent merchant and selectman Captain Roswell Ranney and his large family.


George Ranney III bought a 100-acre “farm” from Lamberton Allen, and built a log house. Ashfield histories suggest that Allen’s so-called farm was really an uncleared tract of forest, and this suspicion is strengthened by the fact George Ranney built a log house rather than moving into an existing structure. Lamberton Allen was originally from Deerfield, about fifteen miles away on the rich, flat farmland beside the Connecticut River. In August 1746, during one of many Indian conflicts preceding the Seven Years (“French and Indian”) War, Lamberton’s father Samuel Allen had been killed by a native raiding party while working in his fields. Two of his older children were at work with him: Eunice was “tomahawked” and Samuel Jr. was taken as a captive to Canada. The younger Samuel eventually escaped from the Indians as they were making their way northward into Canada and returned to Massachusetts. Samuel and his younger brothers Lamberton and Enoch settled in Ashfield, after the two younger men married daughters of the Belding family. The Beldings were another old Deerfield family who were very active in the early settlement of Ashfield. (Converse, Some of the Ancestors and Descendants of Samuel Converse, Jr…., 1905)

George and Esther’s sons grew to adulthood in Ashfield in the years between the Revolution and the War of 1812. When the Ranneys had arrived in 1780, Ashfield was a tiny upcountry village that had already attracted attention beyond its borders for its “Yankee” rebelliousness. In the 1760s, the town’s new Congregational church had taken the land of Baptist residents who had refused to pay the Congregational church’s “tax” because they rightly claimed their church had been there first. The Baptists protested to the colonial legislature in Boston. But the Congregationalists, led by Harvard-educated Israel Williams, refused to give back the 400 acres taken from the Baptists, and got the government to back them up. The Baptists appealed to London, and in 1769 King George III’s Privy Council gave them back their land. When Bostonian patriots like Samuel Adams established committees of correspondence and sent out their revolutionary call just a few years later, many Ashfielders called them hypocrites. “They were calling themselves the sons of liberty and were erecting their liberty poles about the country,” said Baptist leader Ebenezer Smith, “but they did not deserve the name, for it was evident that all they wanted was liberty from oppression that they might have liberty to oppress.”  (Quoted in Mark Williams’s
The Brittle Thread of Life, 2009)

Lamberton Allen, the Ashfielder who sold his land to George Ranney, moved north to Vermont where his cousins Ethan and Ira Allen were local heroes. He settled on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain, between Vermont and Canada, helping to found a township called Middle Hero. At this time, Vermont was a wild frontier area between New York, New Hampshire, and Canada.  The Allens and their Green Mountain Boys resisted the territorial claims of their neighbors and played each against the others, until 1791 when Vermont finally joined the union as its 14th state. Samuel Allen remained in Ashfield a while longer than his brother Lamberton, according to US Census data. Although he had been a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, Samuel opposed both local and Bostonian aristocrats who he believed had betrayed the spirit of the Revolution as a people’s independence movement. Samuel led a company of local men during Shays’ Rebellion, and then refused to sign the loyalty oath required by Massachusetts authorities when the rebellion failed. Although this refusal made him unable to hold any public office due to his continuing “rebel” status, Samuel stayed in Ashfield through the 1790s before moving to Grand Isle. He was remembered by Ashfielders as “Barefoot Allen” for one of his many eccentric habits.

The Ranney sons were remembered for helping their father George turn his homestead into one of the best farms in Ashfield. Samuel, the oldest, had been eight years old when the family arrived in Massachusetts. Samuel settled on a parcel just south of his father’s, and in 1821 he built a two-story brick house that still stands beside Route 116 south of the town center. Second son Jesse settled on the land north of his father’s farm, which he later sold to his brother Joseph when he bought a larger farm in Ashfield. Jesse raised his family in Ashfield and died at his home in 1861, age 86. Joseph lived in Ashfield until 1838, when he was killed by a falling tree in his woodlot. Youngest brother George Ranney IV (George Jr.) was born in Ashfield in 1789.

Samuel Ranney's House, Ashfield Massachusetts

George Ranney Jr. inherited the family homestead when his father George died at age 75 in 1822. Inheritance by the youngest son was traditional in early America, because older sons generally started their own farms or businesses long before the parents were ready to stop working and hand over their assets, and the youngest would be more available to take care of his parents in their old age. George lived in the family home another eleven years, and then became the first brother to leave Ashfield, migrating to Phelps (then called Vienna) in western New York in 1833, when he was 44 years old.  He took his entire family (wife Achsah Sears Ranney and eight out of their nine children) to their new home 260 miles west of Ashfield, leaving behind only his third son, 16-year old Henry Sears Ranney.

Bidwells' Rural Economy, a century later

I mentioned a couple of days ago that when he lectured in front of popular audiences, Hugh Raup was channeling the ideas of academics such as Percy Bidwell. Bidwell's work is part of the historiography of Agricultural History, and is interesting in spite of the challenges that it has faced over the years. So I thought I'd say something about Bidwell.

Percy Wells Bidwell
Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century, 1916
"The Agricultural Revolution in New England," The American Historical Review, July, 1921

Percy W. Bidwell (1888-1970) had a wide range of interests. He wrote over a dozen articles between 1930 and 1960 for
Foreign Affairs, mostly on raw materials, tariffs, and international trade. Early in his career, he wrote one of the central books of Agricultural History. Bidwell based Rural Economy on the 1810 Census and related documents. So he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier, and another century has passed since he wrote. Bidwell began with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He was careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Like everyone else, farming was their primary occupation and the source of family security. (256-7)

Bidwell attributed the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of an effective, full-time division of labor to the lack of robust markets. Quoting
The Wealth of Nations, he said “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market’” (267, n. 1). Bidwell implies that agricultural markets were a precondition for economic activity -- that businessmen and professionals would not be able to thrive until people had money to spend. And that depended on farmers selling surpluses and, over time, producing for markets rather than home (or village) use. The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies (we often forget this lucrative market, 294). The problem, Bidwell said, was getting products to the coast.

“The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further” (309). Since transportation initially limited access to markets, Bidwell expected 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 domestic critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale. Bidwell didn't inquire whether this characterization of New England agriculture was factual or a just a distinguished prejudice, and the image of sloppy farmers working rocky hillsides remained unchallenged until recently (in works like Brian Donahue's
Great Meadow, 2004).

Bidwell said “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were reasonable excuses for the poor state of farming (345). “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insisted (346). “Land was cheap and labor dear,” Bidwell said, echoing George “Washington’s explanation” (349). Bidwell agreed that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), 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,” Bidwell reminded, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded” (353). “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insisted, “were futile as long as a market was lacking." This argument seems valid in an intuitive, theoretical sense, but it ignores the markets created by earlier events like the Seven Years War (1754-63) and especially the English Civil War (1642-51), which cut off Barbados from supplies from home and provided a West Indian market for New England farm products at the very beginning of colonial history.

"Between the years 1810 and 1860," Bidwell continued, "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” (353). He expanded this train of thought five years later, attributing change in agriculture to the growth of "factory villages…[with] a new demand for foodstuffs and raw materials," and ultimately cities ("Agricultural Revolution," 683). Between 1810 and 1860, the population of the southern New England states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) more than doubled. In 1810 only Boston, Providence, and New Haven had more than 10,000 people. "Taken together their population was only 56,000, less than seven per cent. of the total population. In 1860 the towns of over 10,000 numbered 26, containing in all 682,000 persons, or 36.5 per cent. of the total of southern New England" (685). This is a significant social change. In 1860, Boston was home to over 177,000 people and over a third of New Englanders were urban. Although these urban populations were mobile, other evidence (Like the work of Thernstrom and Knights, which I'll cover another time) suggests that transient city folk tended to move from city to city, not from the city back to countryside. So it's easy to imagine these two distinct populations beginning to grow apart from each other in interests and perspective.

Another interesting observation Bidwell made in the last few pages of the 1921 article concerned farm families' transition from homespun to commercial textiles. "The rapidity of the change from homespun to factory-made textiles," he said, "bears eloquent testimony to the hardship which the household industries had imposed upon the farm women" (694). Bidwell quotes Litchfield minister Horace Bushnell, who told his rural parishioners in 1851, "This transition from mother- and daughter-power to water- and steam-power is a great one…one that is to carry with it a complete revolution of domestic life and social manners" (from
Work and Play, 1881). We don't have to accept contemporary anxieties about the "evil work the Devil might find for idle hands" or the conclusion that moving to Lowell and Lawrence to work in the mills was the inevitable consequence, to recognize that contemporary commentators were right: a monumental change was underway.

A Farmer's Letter from 1857

I was lucky enough, some years ago, to do research in the hill-towns of western Massachusetts. One in particular stood out. Ashfield is a town of about seventeen hundred people, located at an elevation of about 1250 feet in the Berkshire foothills. It was the home of Dr. Charles Knowlton, the first American to publish a birth control manual (in 1833. He was promptly jailed for it), who I wrote about in An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy. Ashfield was also home to the Ranney family, at least until they spread out across upstate New York and southwestern Michigan.

The Ranneys are great, because like many nineteenth-century families, they kept in close touch with each other -- and luckily, the
Ashfield Historical Society has held onto their letters! So I had the opportunity to photograph, transcribe, and read correspondence that spans four decades. I promised my friends at the Historical Society that one day I'd put all the letters together and publish them. Time to get back to work on that project.

Lucius Ranney has two 80-acre parcels in the section to the right of Duck Lake

So here's a representative letter, from Lucius Ranney of Michigan to his older brother Henry, who was the sole family member to remain in Ashfield. The Ranneys had moved first to Phelps, New York in the late 1830s. Then several of the brothers picked up and went to Michigan. By the mid-1850s, Lucius was well-settled on a 160-acre parcel in Allen Township. The parcel is no longer in the family, but you can still see the grid-lines from space.

The parcels previously owned by Lucius
Lucius writes to Henry in the summer of 1857, after what he describes as a long silence. The gap in their communication was probably not as long as the gap in the archive, because Henry went to Michigan in late 1856, and their mother Achsah had returned home to Allen (she actually split her time between Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan). Lucius writes about the farm and the family.  He says Achsah did not go to Coldwater to visit their cousin, Lucretia Ranney Hathaway in the fall, as she had apparently planned to do. Coldwater is about twelve miles from Allen. Their younger brother Harrison, who was married in early 1856, had a son in April, and (another brother) Anson’s son who is just over a year old “walks all over the house.”

Lucius mentions that he has traded his team of oxen for horses, and that Harrison and (yet another brother) Lemuel also have a team of horses. Horses were slightly more of a luxury than oxen, because they're faster and can pull a wagon quickly to town. But horses were more expensive, since they needed oats whereas oxen can survive on grass. So the brothers were doing well. Lucius also says Anson doesn’t have a team at all, so he has been doing his brother’s “team work.”

Lucius invites Henry to visit again in September, when their brother Alonzo Franklin will be coming out from Phelps. He also invites his niece and nephew, Henry's children, suggesting to Ralph that he take up a peddler’s basket and come out on west. This is a joke, because Ralph is only twelve — but Ralph does go out on the road as a Yankee Peddler several years later.


My Transcription:

Allen July 19th 1857
Dear Brother

It has been a long time since I have written you a letter, & the reason is not because I have forgotten you for I presume that there is not a day passes but what I think of you & also think of what a fine visit we had together last fall.  But it is my negligence.  We are all well as usual & also the other Boys & their Families for aught I know.  I see them quite often.  Mother’s health is about the same as it was when she came home last fall.

We had a very long & severe winter & the spring & summer are very backward, & very wet.  We had a very hard thunderstorm last night.  Provisions are rather dear here this summer, although there seems to be a plenty in the country.  We have a plenty of old wheat on hand yet, old potatoes & old pork &c.  Potatoes have been worth during the summer, one dollar a bushel. 

Wheat, the average price about $1.50 a bushel &c.  One year ago today I had my wheat harvested & in the barn & the most of my hay, and now I have just begun to hay & my wheat will not be fit to cut under about a week.  

Crops look very promising at present.  I think I shall have two hundred bushels of wheat.  I call it 12 acres.  You recollect where it was sowed.  I should estimate it higher, but the Weavle are injuring it some.  Don’t know how much.  The little piece across the road is injured by being too large straw, it is lodged flat to the ground the most of it. Grass is very good.  I shall cut double the hay that I did last year.  I have a piece of oats that looks well.  Potatoes look first rate.  Corn is backward but is a growing finely now days.  

Anson’s crops look very well.  He will have nearly two hundred bushels of wheat.  Harrison & Lemuel’s wheat is rather small, their other crops are good.  Lewis says that it has been too wet to hoe his corn much, but it will all be right with him in the fall.  

I suppose that you have heard that Harrison has a boy about three months old.  Anson’s boy walks all over the house.  Anson has not got any team this summer, consequently I do the most of his team work. I have no oxen this summer, I work horses.  I traded my oxen for horses last winter.  I have about such a team as the Boys had when you were here.  They have the same now. 

We have three cows this summer.  I sheared the same flock of sheep that I had last fall when you were here.  There was 66 of them.  We saved 2 fleeces, the other sixty-four sheared 291 lbs of which I sold for 44 cts a lb.  Beat that with a common flock of that size in your county if you can.

Mother says I must write more about my horses.  I keep that black colt that you saw.  She is raising a fine colt this summer.  I have the boy 2 year old colt, & I also have a yearling colt that I bought last winter.  Which makes in all six horse kind.  I have since shearing sold all of my wethers, both old & young.  23 in number for $2.25 per head.  Beef cattle are very high here at present.  There is a great many buyers about these days.  

I moved the house from across the road over near where you & I staked out & I find it much better or handier rather.  It also looks better.  We are a having a great deal of fruit this season.  We shall have a number of bushels of peaches from the old, apparently dead trees.  Our orchard is a bearing full.  We shall have a great many greenings & we are a having lots of currants.  In fact there is a going to be a great many beechnuts, butternuts &c.  

We have not heard from Priscilla in a long time.  She was well the last we heard from her.  We are expecting Franklin out here in Sept & we would like to have you come out with him if you thought you could make it pay.  We are a fitting up some roasters.  I think it will be doubtful about my going East this fall as A.F. is a coming out here.  Mother did not go out to Coldwater to see Mrs. Hathaway last fall.  It did not seem to be convenient for her to go until we was afraid that Mrs. Hathaway was gone.  Andrew is not a living with us now.  His mother got married last winter & wanted him to go live with her, so he went.  I have got a lad to work for me this summer, about seventeen years old.  

I might perhaps write many more things which would be interesting to you, but it is chore time & I must draw to a close.  I must try to write often & hope that you will do the same.  We want that you should all write.  We were all very much pleased with the large mail that we got from you at one time last winter.  Ralph, can’t you take a basket of essence & take a trip out into Mich and make a dime or two & see your kin?  They would like to see you very much.  Ella how can you manage to come out, try and study out some way can’t you?  If you cannot don’t forget to write.  Carroline goes to school to Mr. Howes this summer.  Down in Anson’s dist. 

Yours in Haste H. S. Ranney
From Lucius Ranney

P.S. Please do not delay writing but a short time after you receive this.  Mother says that Ralph is a great hand to write.  Can you make any of your townsmen believe many moderate Mich truths?  We all send our love to you all.

John Sanderson's Farm

There are two very influential articles Environmental Historians usually read together although they’re separated by forty years; both about “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm.” The first was written in 1966 by Hugh M. Raup, who was the director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham Massachusetts on the site of Sanderson’s farm. Raup described the growth and decline of New England agriculture and its impact on the forest, attributing change to economic forces outside the area and beyond local residents’ knowledge or control. Although this isn’t the main point of Raup’s essay (his main point is that conservation planning doesn’t work), Raup paints a vivid picture of the inevitable decline of New England farming, with the farmers as first the beneficiaries and then the victims of market forces they can neither anticipate nor influence.

An important element of Raup’s article is the fact that it was originally a public lecture that Raup frequently gave to diverse popular audiences. The story he presented has over the years become the widely-accepted, seldom-questioned history of Eastern agriculture. Raup’s description of farming popularized the work of Harvard and Yale professors
Percy Wells Bidwell, Harold Fisher Wilson, and John Donald Black, whose books are still required historiographical reading for Agricultural Historians despite the fact that many of their conclusions have been contested. Raup popularized their ideas very successfully: in addition to the many lectures where Raup presented his case, the article has become possibly the most widely read and cited article in the long history of the Journal of Forest History (now Environmental History).

According to Raup’s story, early New England communities were based on subsistence farming because the roads were so poor. Farm products couldn't easily be brought to seaport markets, so rural life reflected the “simplicity and self-contained quality of the farm economy” (Raup, 3). Between 1791 and 1830, better roads and the growth of local industrial centers caused a farm boom, and New England's ratio of cleared land increased to 60 percent (4). But although New Englanders like John Sanderson planned for the future and invested in their farms, “a different kind of people,” financial investors, built the Erie Canal which spurred “expansion of agriculture in the Middle West.” New England farmers were caught by surprise, Raup says, because “the conceptual frame they had for their lives didn’t allow for such unknowns.” Their farm “economy collapsed…rather suddenly and on a large scale,” and the abandoned farms of the region were quickly overrun with second growth forests (6).

I have several issues with this story. First, neither Raup nor the sources he cites actually demonstrate the supposed cultural simplicity of rural New Englanders. And Raup’s description of the building of the Erie Canal puts the cart before the horse. Transportation did not produce products. On the contrary, a growing volume of expensive overland freight justified the canal project. This is shown by the immediate use of portions of the Canal as they were gradually opened before the completion of the entire line. Raup not only fails to mention this, he gets the Canal’s opening wrong by five years. But perhaps the biggest flaw with the story is Raup’s continuing use of the idea of “another kind of people” (8). “The people who visualized and built the canal,” he says, were only interested in the flow of products, and “where they came from or went, at either end, was of secondary importance as long as the flow continued” (10). This claim is not only extremely presentist, it’s inaccurate. The promoters of the Erie Canal were mainly western New Yorkers like William H. Seward or agriculturalists like Elkanah Watson -- who incidentally was born in Plymouth Massachusetts and lived in Pittsfield, which by Raup’s logic should have made him either oblivious to or opposed to the project. And perhaps most anachronistic and damaging element of Raup’s story is the assumption that capital is always external and (so obviously in Raup’s mind that he doesn’t even need to say it) urban. To be fair, this is a misconception that's at the heart of a lot of Banking History (more on that some other time). Economic development  projects from this perspective were always investments that “had to be made attractive to [outside] investors so that capital would flow into them” (8). Raup’s assumption of rural people’s passivity and ignorance as capitalists is especially difficult to swallow, because a few paragraphs earlier he had complained that the Sanderson heirs had liquidated their father’s farm at a profit, “took their capital and started a bank” (8).

One final note, based on my own research: Raup seems to conclude that although Sanderson’s “heirs did well by themselves when they sold their property while land prices were still high,” their profit was basically accidental (10). The story Raup tells hinges on “comfortable old New England farmers…actors in each segment [who were] essentially uninformed about what those in other segments had in mind” (10). I don’t think this was the case. My own primary reading suggests that most New England farmers by the 1830s and 1840s had friends and relatives in the newer western farming regions. My research suggests that these family connections were extremely active in passing information, money, and people along the new east-west land, water, and rail connections. Some farmers even had relatives that had gone into commerce and even banking in eastern cities. So I suspect that the farmers of New England towns like Petersham were not only aware of the economic changes going on around them, but that many of them welcomed these changes.

In “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm,” Environmental Historian Brian Donahue challenges Raup on several of the points I’ve mentioned. The thrust of Donahue’s article (published in
Environmental History, January 2007) is that the economic growth that Raup believed would always provide better solutions than "planning" actually depends on unsustainable and environmentally destructive practices that generally happen far away, where we don’t see them. Donahue concludes that conservation provides a “moral brake on economic drives [that] is necessary to ensure greater ecological and social well-being,” but that “conservation cannot succeed if it is subjected to short-term economic tests” (Donahue, 31). Donahue's conclusion implies that there's a mismatch of both physical and temporal scale in the ways these practices are judged. Externalities of distance (out of sight, out of mind), time, and distribution (short term benefits to the few, long term costs to the many) are hidden in Raup's conclusions. And along the way, Donahue challenges many of Raup’s facts as well.

In Donahue’s story of the early New England farm economy, Petersham grew naturally and forests were cleared steadily. Population grew and farmers’ sons became farmers in their turn. Returning agency to people like the Sandersons, Donahue says population and farm growth would have happened, “increased outside stimulation or not” (18). Looking more closely at the structure of these farms than Raup had, Donahue points out that “the idea that Midwestern grain could have caused the collapse of New England farming is an odd one, considering how little of New England farmland was committed to tillage to begin with” (20). Contrary to Raup’s story, Donahue says “the number of acres in tillage scarcely grew at all and never rose above 4 percent of all the land in town” (18). Instead, pastureland was added; partly for wool but mostly for dairy production. Western grain actually took the pressure off New England farms. Corn and wheatfields were turned over to hay and pasture, and marginal pastures were allowed to grow up to pines. As a result, “Between 1880 and 1910, the acreage in agricultural production in Massachusetts fell in half…[while] During the same thirty years, the value of agricultural production doubled” (20). Massachusetts agriculture actually peaked not “around the time of the Civil War, as standard accounts like Raup’s would have it, but about 1910,” 85 years after the opening of the Erie Canal and 41 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Donahue admits the farm economy of New England did ultimately decline. “Population in hill towns like Petersham fell in half between 1860 and 1910,” Donahue says (20). But then he turns aside from the agricultural story, to return to his main theme about conservation (I would have preferred sticking with the farmers a little longer, to find out what happened to them). Population decline could have been the result of children moving away, old people dying, or simply of no one moving into a town like Petersham for a couple of generations. Who died, who moved away, and who decided not to come seem to be the crucial questions at this point in the story. If most Petersham families had sent sons and daughters into the West, then the deaths of the old folk back home or their retirement to the homes of their children in New York or Michigan takes on a much different emotional tone than the standard tale of a region crushed and impoverished by the wheels of progress. But we won’t know, until someone looks for the actual people, examines their records, and tells their story. Somebody needs to take yet another look from Sanderson’s farm, and this time follow the people rather than the trees.

After Horwitz, Steinberg


Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England Theodore Steinberg, 1991

This book was originally Ted Steinberg’s dissertation. His advisors were David Hackett Fischer, Morton Horwitz, and Donald Worster (nice committee!). Steinberg’s thesis is that “industrial capitalism is not only an economic system, but a system of ecological relations as well” (11). This idea goes beyond the obvious (but important) recognition that the environment influences social and economic choices, toward a more subtle discussion of how “the natural world came to represent new sources of energy and raw materials [that were] perceived more and more as a set of inputs.” Steinberg mentions Environmental Historians William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant in this context, but the thrust of his argument develops Horwitz’s theme of “an instrumental conception” of both resources and the “law that sanctioned the maximization of economic growth” (16). Basically, Steinberg takes Horwitz’s argument that the law became a servant of economic progress and extends it to the natural world, which also became an “instrument” of particular human designs rather than a common ground shared equally by all.

I assigned Steinberg’s Introduction to my EnvHist class last semester, and my lecture video incorporated much of the story Steinberg tells of the takeover of the Charles and Merrimack Rivers by textile industrialists, and the associated shift in social ideas of the public good and the changing role of incorporated organizations from providers of public services to private, for-profit business. A key issue in Horwitz’s
Transformation of American Law, which Steinberg picks up, is that this sneaky hijacking of common law and attitudes toward ownership, along with the confusion of public and private sectors that springs from it — all these changes have distributional and social justice consequences. So the point is not only that over time it became “commonly assumed, even expected, that water should be tapped, controlled, and dominated in the name of progress,” but that the rewards of this control legitimately belonged to the few, to the exclusion of the many. This was a big change, and it opened the door for the modern world.

Steinberg’s story of the beginning of textile milling in Massachusetts calls attention to the contested nature of all the changes the mills tried to make to the flow and control of rivers like the Charles. How and why people reacted to these sneaky changes in the social contract was the element missing from Horwitz’s story (why we don't remember these challenges better in US History is a question yet to be addressed). Steinberg begins filling in the details, including the story of how the Boston Manufacturing Company used the legal system to settle what amounted to a class-action lawsuit in 1848, by paying just $26,000 to get permanent uncontested control of the Merrimack River. In 1850, as a consequence of their uncontested control of what had once been a common resource, the BMC made $14 million. I stressed this moment in my lecture, because it seemed so typical: a corporation (which is technically immortal) uses the courts to buy off the people it has injured with a pile of cash that seems significant to them, but is actually minuscule in comparison to the damage the corporation has evaded responsibility for. How many superfund sites, oil spills, and industrial accidents have been bailed out over the years by this trick, I wonder?

Like Horwitz, Steinberg also shows how much the changes in our society’s understanding of property rights and commons owed not to free competition in the market, but to government interference on behalf of the rich, through the courts. This is another important thing for students to understand, I think. Current debates about the relationship between businesses and the environment are too often framed as a sort of
Atlas Shrugged episode, with “statist” environmentalists trying to infringe on the rights of “individualist” businesses. Steinberg’s story of the textile industry helps explain that building corporate power was a social process — the BMC was given power in the elaborate set of choices Steinberg describes. And some people objected, but the changes went ahead despite the regular complaints of area farmers and upstream fishermen. This led many people in places like the Charles River valley in the early 1790s to believe “their natural rights [had been] stolen from them, and their best property at the mercy of one or two Millers, still the lucky favorites & likely to remain, so long as the rage for Factory at every place, whether others sink or swim, continues the rage of Government” (37). Interesting that these complaints were made early in the story, when Massachusetts residents were still filled with the “Spirit of ’76” and the populist understanding of natural rights that led to the Revolution. By the end of the story in the middle of the 19th century, the language of resistance had been forced to change because the things people were resisting hadn’t even been dreamed of in the Revolutionary era.

Steinberg describes the Boston Associates’ campaign to control Lake Winnepissiogee, the destruction of fisheries and then the capitalists’ attempts to reintroduce fish and manage what was formerly a common good, and the problem of industrial and urban pollution in rivers controlled by the industrialists. Each of these topics have been expanded by others, along the lines Steinberg suggests. The only flaw in the book, for me, is the Thoreau-ian wrapper Steinberg adds at the beginning and end. As recorded in the 1849 classic,
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau was horrified by what he saw happening in New England, but I don’t think Steinberg shows how Thoreau represents any type of viable alternative. Of course, Thoreau is familiar to most students from High School, and my students got a bit caught up in the Thoreau thing -- so it works. At the conclusion of the book, Steinberg admits that “greater command over…nature in general, had its positive points.” But, he concludes, “this aggressive, manipulative posture toward the natural world [is] a problem that penetrates to the core of modern American culture” (271). Like Thoreau, this sentiment is easy to agree with but difficult to act on. In addition to the sneakiness of the legal and social changes, our inability to see how things might have gone leads to a sense of inevitability. So when I taught this segment last semester, I tried to frame the story with Robert Owen. At the beginning of the story, Nathan Appleton and Francis Cabot Lowell went to Scotland to visit Owen’s mill city New Lanarck. By the end of the story, the BMC had built cities on the Merrimack, made millions, polluted the water, and then took their money and left when the industry went into decline, leaving behind permanent social and environmental problems. Owen, on the other hand, had left industry to found the cooperative community New Harmony in America and became the father of the Cooperative movement in Britain. It’s not a perfect counterpoint, but Owen’s story compared to Appleton’s and Lowell’s at least suggests that things could have gone differently in Lawrence and Lowell.

Every Historian should read Horwitz. Twice.

The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860
Morton J. Horwitz, 1977

Harvard Law professor Morton Horwitz’s opus is not an EnvHist text, by any stretch. Nor is it a well-known volume outside legal history circles, unfortunately, in spite of winning the Bancroft Prize in 1978.
Transformation is not an easy read, but it answers an important question. That question, basically, is “How the hell did we get here?” This is a longish review, but please bear with me. Transformation is possibly the indispensable book in American History. No kidding.

According to Horwitz, changes in American law only rarely arise from headline cases like the Supreme Court decisions on Dred Scott, Brown v Board of Education or the more recent Citizens United debacle. More often, legal changes are invisible to most people. We turn around one day, and things are (often distressingly) different, but we can’t say how it happened.

Horwitz says in his introduction, “I seek to show that one of the crucial choices made during the antebellum period was to promote economic growth primarily through the legal, not the tax, system, a choice which had major consequences for the distribution of wealth and power in American society.” The legal system he’s talking about, though, isn’t the legislative lawmaking process where changes can be debated and representatives accountable to constituencies can vote on them. It’s not even the Supreme Court, where judgments usually receive a lot of scrutiny and comment. Most frequently, Horwitz says, major changes in American law happened incrementally, in lower (often even local) court decisions, and also in evolving laws and social conventions governing contracts.

Horwitz argues a fairly radical case, which unfortunately is not widely understood because of the book’s subject matter and style. Horwitz also has some interesting ideas about the way “the internal technical life of a field generates autonomous forces that determine its history” (xi). We make a mistake, Horwitz believes, if we fail to account for the activities and
interests of lawyers, judges, the legal profession, law schools, etc., when looking at how “the law” influenced history. The same could probably be said, with equally interesting results, for religion, medicine, or the study of history itself.

Horwitz focuses on common law. Constitutional law, he says, “represents episodic legal intervention buttressed by a rhetorical tradition that is often an unreliable guide to the slower (and often more unconscious) processes of legal change in America” (xii). Constitutional law also focuses on judicial review and not on what Horwitz characterizes as a very active, constructive, legislative role assumed by nineteenth century jurists. “By 1820,” he says, “the process of common law decision making had taken on many of the qualities of legislation. As judges began to conceive of common law adjudication as a process of
making and not merely discovering legal rules, they were led to frame general doctrines based on a self-conscious consideration of social and economic policies” (my emphasis, 2). The august tradition of “an eternal set of principles expressed in custom and derived from natural law” gave way to an understanding of law as “an instrument of policy” that could be used “for governing society and promoting socially desirable conduct” (30). Once this change had been accomplished, the game became defining the terms “socially desirable.”

The major examples Horwitz uses to illustrate the creeping, nearly invisible change in American law are the competing uses for water (mill power, irrigation, navigation, fishing) which he says illustrate the problems that arose when “a conception of ownership [including] a commitment to absolute dominion” pushed aside any notion of common use rights (31). Water resources’ “natural use” came to be seen as a lowest common denominator, that would block socially desirable improvements like the building and operation of mills (33). The problem was, this reconception opened a pandora’s box. While it made sense to grant initial exclusivity to a developer (how many grist mills did a new town need, after all?), where would society draw the line? “Can the claims of still greater efficiency through competition be denied?” Horwitz asks (34).
Transformation fails to really examine whether the “greater efficiency” that justified these decisions ever really produced its claimed social benefits (or even existed, other than as short-term paper gains) -- but probably people at the time didn’t ask these questions either. The point is that “By changing the rules and disguising the changes in the complexities of technical legal doctrine, the facade of economic security can be maintained even as new property is allowed to sweep away the old” (again, my emphasis 34). This is Horwitz’s major point, and it’s a radical one. The legal system, he says, was used to not only change the rules of the game to benefit an increasingly elite class, but also to hide the fact that these changes were being made.

This is a great argument. What it needs, to be more widely understood, is some people in the story to show how it happened and how people reacted, assuming anyone on the short end of the transaction knew it was happening. That's where Steinberg jumps in, with
Nature Incorporated. But going forward from there, this raises an interesting historical question. How do we tell stories about things we now see were happening, but that people of the time were unaware of? Because the evidence was hidden, or they just didn’t see things the way we do. Especially when people know something is wrong, but can’t quite put their finger on it -- or blame the effects they see on the wrong cause? Maybe in twenty or thirty years, that’s how they’ll tell the story of Climate Change. The story isn’t just about unintended consequences, it’s about misunderstood consequences.

Horwitz says the court’s decision in the landmark 1844 water mill case Cary v. Daniels was “premised on the desirability of maximizing economic development even at the cost of equal distribution” (41). The precedent opened the door for courts to support business by citing the public good and “enabled common law judges to choose the direction of American economic development,” at least when it came into contact with older legal ideas of property and equity (42). Horwitz says some people at the time responded to these changes, pointing out the “storm of bitter protest” caused by the “extension of the mill act to manufacturing establishments” (51). So apparently there were some people able to see through the court decisions. They complained that while early mills had been almost communal in nature, “manufacturing establishments were private institutions” benefiting the few (51). Citizen activists also saw through the law’s provisions for relief, arguing “Generally, the mills and mill seats are in the hands of the active and wealthy -- able to make the sufferers repent, if they resort to the law” (52).

One of the state’s main tools for economic development was eminent domain. But tied up with it was the idea of chartered monopoly and of limited liability. A State grant was no good if “the grantee cannot exercise it without being subject to ruinous damages, so as to swell the cost of their enterprise” beyond its ability to make a profit, one pro-business commentator warned (69). Rather than examine whether these social costs were an effective argument against the business going forward (especially in the cases of railroads in the 1840s-60s), Horwitz says the courts socialized “consequential damages.” This allowed the pro-business faction to ignore social costs and other externalities, using the legal justification that “The law gives no private remedy for anything but a private wrong” (quoting Blackstone, 76). So the costs were socialized (in economic terms, externalized) at the same time the benefits were privatized in the form of corporate profits. Horwitz doesn’t say much about the decision to do projects like Canals and Railroads in the private rather than the public sector; but it seems the legal changes he describes were the foundation for that choice.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, Horwitz says the basic “attitude toward legal liability” became “based on the assumption that the ‘quiet citizen must keep out of the way of the exuberantly active one.’ Indeed, the law of negligence became a leading means by which the dynamic and growing forces in American society were able to challenge and eventually overwhelm the weak...After 1840 the principal that one could not be held liable for socially useful activity exercised with due care became a commonplace in American law” (99). The effect of this change was “to create immunities from legal liability and thereby to provide substantial subsidies” to developers (100). “Change brought about through technical legal doctrine,” Horwitz says, “can more easily disguise underlying political choices [than] Subsidy through the tax system” (101). He concludes, “there is reason to suppose” that this “was not simply an abstract effort to avoid political contention but that it entailed more conscious decisions about who would bear the burdens of economic growth.” This is a really interesting claim, but it needs a smoking gun. Luckily, students of Horwitz such as Ted Steinberg began telling the stories of some of these conscious decisions.

“In every state after 1790,” Horwitz says, “a political decision to avoid promoting economic growth primarily through taxing seems to have crystallized” (109). Shays’s and the Whiskey Rebellions probably helped that crystalization, and also a recognition that there wasn’t really that much money out there to get through taxing. Horwitz continues, “By 1800 a pattern of private ownership of banks, insurance companies, and transportation facilities had become dominant in America” (110). Attributing change in the definition of corporations (from state-chartered public-service organizations to for-profit private enterprises) to an individualist spirit as we usually do seems to put the cart before the horse, since early corporations “continued to argue both that their charters were grants of exclusive property interests and that economic rivalry was, in effect, a private law nuisance to property” (114). This seems like a blatantly opportunistic attempt to have your cake and eat it too. Corporations were capitalizing on their existence in the limbo between public and private, and claiming the benefits of both.

Horwitz says “eighteenth century...contract law was essentially antagonistic to the interests of commercial classes,” because it sought to judge the underlying fairness or justice of the exchange in question (167). But that means all commerce is local and personal. Judging each contract on its particular terms was based on the idea that value was subjective and circumstantial — that the two parties in a transaction (or a dispute) had differing interests and thus valued things differently. But wait: promissory notes (contracts for future payment on present goods or services) were used in place of specie. These notes became paper money, and “in order to make notes negotiable a subsequent endorsee [must] be allowed to recover on the note regardless of the consideration between the original parties” (177). In other words, the note must represent a fixed, objective sum, not a contingent, subjective value. Eliminating local variables was absolutely crucial to establishing the wide, impersonal commerce we associate with the "market transition." After the judges revised contract law, price could be viewed as an impersonal intersection of the seller’s value (supply) and the buyer’s value (demand) decisions. In addition to enabling the entire field of economics, the same-as-specie nature of the new money enabled “merchants to exclude the question of the equality of a bargain by transacting their business through promissory notes.” Notes also excluded the courts from playing a role in judging the fairness of a transaction. The contract became an authority unto itself, and was no longer seen as part of a tradition of local dealings between peers based on just prices or practices. Contract law also changed the laborers’ world through the “doctrine of ‘assumption of risk,’ [in which] contract ideology...emasculated all prior conceptions of substantive justice.” The fiction of “equal bargaining power inevitably became established as the inarticulate major premise of all legal and economic analysis. The circle was completed: the law had come simply to ratify those forms of inequality that the market system produced” (210).

Horwitz concludes by describing the “rise of legal formalism” in the 1840s and 50s. “If a flexible, instrumental conception of law was necessary” to promote economic development, he says, “it was no longer needed once the major beneficiaries...had obtained the bulk of their objectives” (254). In fact, just the opposite. Just as money had become formalized as an objective standard of value, the law needed to become — and
be seen as — “self-contained, apolitical, and inexorable;” built on scientific logic and practiced by disinterested professionals. Having changed the law to get to power, Horwitz says, the ruling class used legal formalism as a way of “disguising and suppressing the inevitably political and redistributive functions of law” (266). This is a startling conclusion, if a reader came to this book thinking the law was apolitical or objective. It might even be argued that when a society treats the law as an eternal set of objective rules (as many Americans seem to do today, especially when discussing Supreme Court decisions), that’s a clue that the ruling class has achieved its goal. Horwitz says at the outset that recent (1960s and early 70s) historians have been “more concerned with finding evidence of governmental intervention than they were in asking in whose interest these regulations were forged” (xiv). His depiction of the law as a battleground for class war, and of court decisions as the tools of legislation and social engineering, deserve to be more widely appreciated. Horwitz’s student Ted Steinberg’s 1989 dissertation, which became the EnvHist classic Nature Incorporated, illustrates Transformation’s argument in the story of the New England textile industry.

The Declension Story

As I prepare my lectures for US EnvHist, I'm reading Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth very closely. Maybe a little too closely, and certainly more critically than most students read the text. But I'm using it as a template to some degree, since it's the de facto undergrad textbook; trying to decide what I like about the way these ideas are presented to students, and what I'd do differently.

I just finished reading the conclusion to Part One, "Chaos to Simplicity." It more or less covers the chronological beginning of the story, although the book is organized thematically and not chronologically (I'm not sure I agree with this choice, but I distinctly recall having a conversation about thematic organization with an Oxford acquisition editor, so I imagine there's a story behind this choice. I'll probably return to that theme some other time). The thing that really struck me about this section, though, was that it was really a downer. Or, to put it academically, a story of declension.

"Wilderness Under Fire," the first of the three chapters in this section, begins by challenging 1492 as the beginning of US History and the pristine myth as an inaccurate image of precolonial America. Steinberg uses the debate over the Holocene Extinction of American megafauna to talk briefly about the conflict between romance and reality. And, as I've already
mentioned elsewhere, he draws a distinction between subsistence and commercial lifestyles. Indian use of fire to alter the landscape (and what happened when the Indians stopped) is an important element of this early part of the story. But I do think it would be helpful to mention that the Indians had more tricks up their sleeves than just shifting agriculture. Extensive farming was appropriate for the landscape, climate, and population density of the Atlantic coast. But Indians in Mesoamerica and the Andes were masters of much more intensive techniques. And those regions were the sources of many of the crops (including maize) raised in New England. So it's likely the Indians practicing shifting agriculture were doing it by choice, and not just because they couldn't think of an alternative.

The second chapter, "A Truly New World," describes the catastrophic results faced by English colonists when they tried to apply European styles of farming and land use in places like Jamestown. This section follows the thread of histories like
Changes in the Land, and like them offers an antidote to the idea that Indians were ignorant and Europeans sophisticated. I agree that "Focusing only on the successful efforts of the colonists has…obscured the very real struggle they faced in coming to terms with the environment." But at certain points, the story gets away from me. Steinberg describes "pools of stagnant water" around Jamestown, "contaminated with human waste" and breeding pathogens like typhoid fever and dysentery. Well, yeah -- but that's nothing new. The colonists could have learned that lesson in England. The problem was, the people who came were not the type of people who paid attention to that kind of thing. Or who could be bothered with actually farming, which is another reason so many died.

Similarly, in the third chapter, "Reflections from a Woodlot," there's a long discussion of sustainable farming and of the Little Ice Age. But the story seems to shift. In one passage, climate change seems to be causing colonists all kinds of trouble, and even driving them to embrace the market as a kind of insurance against starving. But a few pages later, we're told that agricultural yields were increasing during the same period: that in fact, "By the late eighteenth century, New England's food supply became less dependent on seasonal changes." Steinberg describes wasteful extensive farming, but then says there wasn't enough land to go around -- which you'd think would make farmers more careful not to exhaust their soil. And the experience of Concord, which the text draws from Brian Donahue's study,
The Great Meadow, seems to contradict the narrative arc. As does the advice of early agricultural reformers to use manure and practice crop rotation. I think the problem here is there's just too much jammed into a very few pages, which leaves the reader confused about the overall theme.

Finally, "Reflections" begins and ends with Thoreau's ambivalence toward first farmers, and later industrialists. And it takes Thoreau pretty much at face value, which I think is problematic (this is also a theme for another day, but I think Thoreau has to be read as a complex and somewhat ironic character. A guy who made some really important observations but was completely blind to his own privilege). In a passage on the "Malthusian Crunch," Steinberg says that even if nature could be dealt with, "there was still a threat posed by too many people pressing against a limited resource base." Overcrowding in New England, he says, "forced up the price of land…America, the land of opportunity, was in trouble." He goes on to say that inefficient farmers "remained wedded to an extensive mentality," and agriculture "foundered on the limits of meadow grass." But it didn't. Half a dozen pages later we learn that "Between 1801 and 1840, Concord farmers doubled their English hay output," and stopped relying on marsh-hay. And there's plenty of Early American History supporting the idea that New Englanders didn't agonize that much over the scarcity of land or the inflated prices. Many sold their old farms at huge profits and moved west to Upstate New York and the Ohio Valley. They didn't see this as a disaster, but as an opportunity.

And maybe that's my real issue here. It's one thing for environmentalists today to look back on the past and identify problems we now face such as sustainability, soil mining, and an excessively commercial agriculture. But I think we also have to convey to our students and readers that that's not how people saw things at the time. They were happy about some of the things we're calling out as errors, and they weren't necessarily wrong. The real story, I think, is more complex. It's not that self-sufficiency is good and commercialism bad, for example. It's about how the two things interacted with each other and changed over time -- when we got too much of a good thing.

Pollution Permits and Monopolies

So I'm reading this op-ed piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot. He's talking about keeping the coal and oil in the ground. Because if it comes out, it will be used. And I'm thinking yeah, that sounds logical, but impossible, given human nature. How are you ever going to get people to leave it in the ground? He talks about a global auction in pollution permits. I'm not sure if the real point of that is making the added expense to corporations a disincentive to using fossil fuels (and an incentive to explore cheaper alternatives), or to build up a slush fund (pun intended) to mitigate the effects when they go ahead and use the fossil fuels anyway.

But as I'm wondering this, an image comes to me. I was cleaning the garage yesterday and on a shelf I found a bag from the local fleet store containing a couple of packages of yellow rope. It's your basic braided synthetic, I remember buying it. And what I particularly remember is that it's made by Koch Industries.

I needed some rope for a job. I went to the store to get some. I noticed that the type I wanted had a little Koch Industries logo sort-of hidden on the back. I'm a little bit politically aware, and I thought, I'd really rather not give my money to the Koch brothers. What other type of rope will work for my job?

It didn't matter. Every variety of rope and twine on the shelves was from Koch Industries. Didn't matter if it was synthetic or natural fiber. Whatever I bought, the Koch brothers were going to get my money.

My point is, so what if big corporations have to buy pollution permits. It's just another tax that they'll either avoid, or offset with tax savings wrung from the nations, states, or cities where they operate. Or, failing that, they'll pass to cost on to their consumers.

As long as we don't do anything to address the overwhelming (and still growing) power of monopolistic multinationals, we're basically just taxing the little people.

1491 and Historians

In the process of reading 1491, writing a bit about it, and deciding how I'm going to use it in my next EnvHist class, I've run across some environmental historians and some others who -- how to put it -- seem less enthusiastic about Mann's book than I am. This led me to wonder how academics responded to it when it came out. It was a big hit with readers and popular reviewers, as I already mentioned. But how did experts and scholars respond?

I've read several reviews, and most of them are pretty positive. However, this may be due to the steamroller effect of
1491's popular and commercial success. So what did academics say amongst themselves? Luckily, the prominence of the book created an opportunity for several panels and fora in the years after its publication. The transcripts of these events provide an interesting look at the relationship between academic research and popular writing.

Autumn 2004 issue of the Journal of the Southwest featured an article composed of the reactions of several of the researchers Mann relied on, including Henry F. Dobyns, William M. Denevan, and William I. Woods, and also a response by Mann. These scholars were mostly pleased with the popularity of 1491 and its success getting their ideas in front of general readers. And according to their responses in the article, they seemed pretty satisfied with the accuracy of Mann's portrayal of their ideas.

Another forum, sponsored by the American Geographical Society and published in the
Geographical Review in July 2006, discussed 1491 in even greater detail. ( and the eight articles that follow)

In his review, geographer Jerome Dobson quoted his colleague Dan Gade at a recent CLAG (Conference of Latin American Geographers) conference forum on
1491, asking simply "What's wrong with us? Why can't we [geographers] write our own story?" Dobson rephrased the question: "How odd is it that geographers can't excite the public about geography, yet others do so routinely?" That's an interesting question, but I was even more interested in what Dobson said next.

1491," Dobson continued, "and you'll find the 'stealth discipline,' geography, operating beneath the public radar. From Carl Sauer on, geographers led the way toward new understandings of the ancient Americas...Profound ideas reported in geographical literature and widely accepted by geographers did not reach broad public awareness for half a century or more, and then not directly from geographers themselves but from the able pen of science journalist Mann."

This is an interesting dilemma for geographers. Even more interesting to me is the idea that geographers like Carl Sauer and William Denevan were leading the revision of American history more than fifty years ago: Sauer in the 1930s and Denevan in the early 1960s. Historians only caught up when Alfred Crosby started writing about these issues in the 1970s, and Crosby couldn't find an academic publisher willing to touch
The Columbian Exchange. So as a historian, I think I've got even more claim to Gade's question. What's wrong with us?

Most of the geographers' criticism in the forum consisted of complaints that Mann hadn't spent enough time and effort covering the particular specialties of the reviewers. There's not a lot of "you got this wrong." More "why didn't you say more about this?" or "maybe by simplifying and dramatizing this point, you didn't do justice to the complexity of the issue." Those are fair criticisms, and Mann responds to them gracefully. It's great that geographers spent a lot of time thinking and talking amongst themselves about Mann's work and the relationship between scholarship and public understanding of their field. It’s a bit disconcerting that historians didn't.

I trolled JSTOR pretty extensively, hoping to find reviews of 1491 in history journals or the transcripts of similar panel discussions. Without much luck. I did find a review article by Colin Calloway in the January 2007 issue of
Ethnohistory, covering both 1491 and Julian Granberry's 2005 academic monograph, The Americas That Might Have Been. Calloway, who has written extensively on Native American History, had good things to say about 1491. The most interesting to me, though, was this: "Specialists will learn nothing new about their own areas of expertise…and ethnohistorians who have spent their lives dealing with the issues it covers may wonder what all the fuss is about." To be fair, Calloway explains what all the fuss is about and concludes by saying "The fact such a book is getting a lot of attention is surely a good sign." But still, I think he makes an important point.

The basic question in
1491, that Mann keeps returning to, is why do high school textbooks still mislead students about early American History? After all that geographers have uncovered and written about the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere, why have historians not revised their stories? How have we managed to drop the ball so completely?

For Many, this is EnvHist

William Cronon, Changes in the Land, 1983

This is the first Environmental History book many students read. For general readers like those who made it the #1 EnvHist book on Goodreads, this may be the only book they’ve ever encountered on the subject. Partly that’s because this is one of the books that helped establish the field. Also, it covers a time period that forms the beginning of many traditional American Histories. My own course includes two units before North American colonization, but lots of traditional histories in the United States still start with the Pilgrims or Jamestown.

William Cronon was a young man when he wrote
Changes, and in some ways it’s a young (idealistic) man’s book. Although he breaks the icons of the pristine landscape and the noble savage, Cronon’s Indians are still pretty heroic relative to the English colonists. Cronon begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” which in my mind also suggests the youth of the discipline — many early Environmental Historians seem to have come from a Cultural History background, so it’s not surprising that a discussion of Thoreau’s perceptions of Nature precedes Cronon’s narrative of how the environment influenced the Indians and Colonists who lived on it and how those people changed their surroundings to suit their needs. And Cronon takes on not only the Pristine Myth, but also the unsound ecology of the “timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, [the] 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 unfair to ecologists, who had recognized their error and begun developing more complicated systems theories, but it’s a good reminder for historians, who sometimes lag behind the state of the art in scientific disciplines we borrow from.

Cronon’s argument in the body of the book is that the Indians knew what they were doing and the European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage. The land was rich because the Indians worked it, and the high valuations Europeans placed on the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, even in the case of something as simple as  firewood. Cronon throws in with the “capitalist” side of the “Market Transition” debate that was raging at the time, arguing that the colonists were firmly embedded in  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 most popular histories depict, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of the difference are one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, the reader picks up a lot of interesting details: for example, 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 the colonists brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. Many of these plagues raged before the colonists arrived. But even so, Cronon doesn’t hide the uncomplimentary fact that Puritan settlers saw this depopulation as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

Cronon says “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) He argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. 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 completely 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 — especially relative to the colonists’ monoculture. (43, 51) Cronon’s claim is that the Indians had a more stable, sustainable approach to their environment than 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 (I think Brian Donahue made this point brilliantly in
The Great Meadow). Cronon may have been  leaning too heavily on Frederick Jackson Turner when he assumed the colonists all simply planned on moving west when they’d exhausted their farms.

Indian land management clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. 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, territorial expansion, or by letting the weak starve? Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t necessarily disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The second half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Cronon throws in several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636, was one of a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) English colonists who had been restricted by the Game Laws in their home country, over-hunted their new home to the point that a century later “Hunting with us,” said 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,
Changes in the Land is still a very good read. Cronon makes a strong case for the importance of developing an environmental understanding of early America, so it’s fair that Changes is the book most people think of when you say Environmental History in the US.