Book Reviews

The West Indies Trade

Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, Matthew Parker, 2011.

I listened to the audiobook version of Matthew Parker’s book, on my drives to and from work at UMass. I’m writing a dissertation about a commodity and about families, so I was very curious. And some of the characters in my story begin their American careers in the “West India Trade,” out of Middletown CT, so I thought I might pick up some data or ideas. I learned a lot about the chronology of Caribbean settlement, the development of the sugar industry, and even the growth of buccaneering and piracy (which sheds an interesting light on British historian Christopher Hill’s articles about the New Model Army and pirates). And I realized that the sugar trade was a key element in the development of the British colonies in North America that often goes unmentioned in US History textbooks.

But there’s actually much less in Sugar Barons about the people than I’d hoped -- especially regular people. The book opens with a description of the voyage to the Indies, from the perspective of a more-or-less ordinary person who wrote a memoir. But the story moves quickly to the people who’d be central in any traditional political/military history from the last century. The book is a pretty standard history in that sense: the main action involves the building of the British sugar empire in Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. There are several big names the story revolves around for a while: James Drax, his son Henry, Peter Beckford, Christopher Codrington. They all seem like very interesting characters, but Parker doesn’t give them much room to move around in. For the most part, the story moves quickly from battle to battle, recounting the major events that shaped the development of the British West Indies.

And it really is the story of the
British West Indies. Although the Spanish and French are present as antagonists, and the Dutch are in Brazil, there’s very little said about their activities or points of view. Even where a description of other nations’ efforts cultivating sugar could have helped contextualize the scope and style of British sugar production, it’s largely missing. Also missing is a discussion or the demand side or the cultural impact of sugar, beyond a few lines describing changes in per capita consumption over time.

An interesting aspect of Parker’s story for me was the impact of sugar and the Caribbean on the development of New England. I used material from Parker’s story in my US History survey, to set the scene for the traditional stories of the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Virginians. Because I think initially, colonists’ expectations for the new world included not only a place to build a new society, but a place where they would get rich. Even religious idealists like the Pilgrims looked forward to opportunities for social mobility that were unavailable to them in England. And right from the start, European colonies in North America were commercial. In addition to fishing, growing tobacco, and trapping beaver, the North American colonies benefited from the booming sugar economy of the Caribbean. Islands such as Barbados that had once produced their own food began to specialize in the highly profitable commodity, so they looked to their neighbor colonies for food supplies. John Winthrop, remembered as the pious Puritan leader who helped establish Boston and was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony four times before 1650, actually sent his second son Henry to help establish Barbados in 1626. When Cromwell’s English Civil War stopped the flow of trade to the ten-year-old Bay Colony, trade with the West Indies saved Boston’s economy. Winthrop’s younger son Samuel joined the growing community of New England traders in the sugar islands in 1647. And in the southern colonies, commercial cultivation of tobacco for the European market required lots of cheap labor. At first, many of the workers were poor English men and women, who came to the colonies as indentured servants. Later, when the supply of British workers was cut off (by the Civil War, and then again by the American Revolution), southern planters began to rely on enslaved Africans, already present on West Indies sugar plantations, to do the work.

Although there’s slavery throughout the story, Parker steps around much of the brutality and general debauchery when he’s talking about his main characters. Not that he tries to whitewash them — they’re not even really “heroes” in the standard sense. They’re just the central characters of a chapter or two, that the story hangs on or close to. But it might be interesting to dig deeper into the lives of some of these guys, and see them more completely. Slavery is clearly one of the big elephants in the room, but probably not the only one. The younger Christopher Codrington was a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who during his student years hung around with the lights of London. But he was also a bloodthirsty sod who joined William III’s army in the Netherlands just for the joy of battle. These guys are very complicated, and I would have been really interested in a deeper look into their complex, self-contradictory personalities. I wonder if Parker has a whole lot more of that type of material stored away, that got edited out of the final manuscript?

What's the Worst that Can Happen?

Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change
David Holmgren, 2009

David Holmgren isn’t a historian, he’s one of the two founders of the ecological farming movement known as Permaculture. Bill Mollison is the other, much more visible name behind permaculture. Holmgren has often been described as the quiet guy in the background, but he doesn't lack ideas.
Future Scenarios also has a home on the web, where Holmgren has added a new chapter to the book, written in 2012, called “Crash on Demand” that can be downloaded free. Although, like the possible futures outlined in The Collapse of Western Civilization, Holmgren’s sketches are settings waiting for plots and characters, they’re much more engaging than Oreskes's scenario, and they explore more alternatives than the single future presented in Collapse.

Holmgren explores four possible futures, based on the varying severity of two factors: Climate Change and Peak Oil. Holmgren doesn’t waste any time trying to prove either of these factors; if you don't believe in peak oil, there's still a pair of scenarios that will interest you. After a brief introduction to the two ideas, he gets right to business. Although he isn’t a historian, Holmgren borrows Daniel Yergin’s perspective when he says, “the history of the twentieth century makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies” (7).

The four possibly futures Holmgren explores are “Techno-explosion,” which assumes new energy sources or new technologies will allow us to avoid or fix our problems, “Techno-stability,” where technology like photovoltaics will enable a smooth transition to a “steady state” without much social change, “Energy Descent,” a return to more rural, more pre-industrial energy use and population density as fossil fuels run out, and “Collapse,” rapid, catastrophic failure of many interlocked systems, causing human die-off and loss of infrastructure and knowledge. Basically, a new dark age.

Although this is a small book with a lot of graphic elements, Holmgren makes some interesting technical points. For example:

The promotion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of research showing an anergy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 1.6 for ethanol as a ‘good result’ indicates how the understanding of these issues is very poor, even by the scientifically literate. A society based on an energy source of this quality would constantly be investing 62 percent of its energy back into the energy industry (the 1 in 1.6), leaving only the remaining 38 percent of the total energy in society for everything else—health, education, culture, food production, law, leisure, and so on. Our modern industrial society has been fueled by energy sources with EROEI rates as high as 100 and no lower than 6 (requiring between 1 percent and 17 percent of the wealth created being invested to get the yield) (44).

Of course, the "investing 62 percent" part is why the USDA is so interested in ethanol in the first place. It gives big corn farmers a reason to keep producing at bonanza levels. It's not really about producing efficient energy, at least not in the US. Holgren gives a succinct explanation of why the USDA's promotion of ethanol is really about enriching big corn farmers and the corporations that run refineries and not about producing a sustainable biofuel. And in contrast to the bland, “welfare loss will occur” language of other futurist books such as
Limits to Growth, Holmgren isn’t afraid to say “The low EROEI of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, suggests biofuels may be a way to deplete natural gas [one of the main ingredients used in manufacturing nitrate fertilizers] while degrading agricultural land and starving the world’s poor” (58).

Holmgren associates four social responses with the four possible futures he describes. The details of these scenarios are a bit arbitrary and there’s room for endless tweaking or argument over the details. But unlike
Limits to Growth, Holmgren’s scenarios are fascinating, if only because they’re so alarming. For example, “Brown Tech” (severe climate change, slow energy depletion) leads to fascism, food riots, and forced sterilization (61-5). “Earth Steward” (mild climate change, fast energy depletion) leads to the emptying of cities and starvation for former urban hipsters lacking useful skills (75-8). On the scarier side, “Lifeboats” (severe climate change and fast energy depletion) leads to chaos and “a halving of the global population in a few decades” (82).

These are all dystopias. People have become accustomed to seeing these worlds in science fiction movies and dismissing them. We have a lot of trouble admitting even the remote possibility that this may be the world we’re leaving to our kids. Holmgren’s scenarios may be extreme, but he presents plausible evidence that they’re within the range of possibility.
Future Scenarios is an answer to the flippant question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Who is Environmental Humanities for?

I'm reading the inaugural essay in the Journal Environmental Humanities for the University of New South Wales's FutureLearn course, Remaking Nature, that began this week (Excellent course on an excellent platform!  I'll have more to say about that soon).
The authors say
"the approaches coalescing under the banner of the environmental humanities have explicitly rejected the way in which humanities work on the environment has frequently been cast as ‘non-science’, with the primary role of mediating between the natural sciences and ‘the public'." While I agree there's a larger role for disciplines in the humanities to help re-conceptualize "human agency, social and cultural formation, social change and the entangled relations between human and non-human worlds," I think Environmental Humanities makes a big mistake if it looks down its nose at the work to be done communicating academic arguments and findings to the public. Who do the authors think is going to actually make change happen, if it's ever going to happen?
The authors say, and I see this thought repeated everywhere, that the humanities have traditionally been the home for questions of "meaning, value, ethics, justice, and the politics of knowledge construction." I tend to agree, although I think this is a big-tent humanities that includes many disciplines often considered Social Science in the US (at least when it comes time to fight for funding). They introduce the idea of a "thicker" concept of the human, which "rejects reductionist accounts of self-contained, rational, decision making subjects." Again, I think they have a point. I can think of several disciplines that rely too heavily on statistical or even
statistically-modeled behavior of abstract, out-of-context actors. But as valuable as post-modernism is, I think we need to go beyond merely freighting our conversations with deconstruction. Examining "entangled cultural and philosophical frameworks" can get just as far from the contingency faced by actual people on the ground (especially non-elite people) as looking for agency in the convergence of market forces.
The authors say the anthropocene undermines the idea of "the unlimited, autonomous human." Again I agree, but with qualifications. I think the anthropocene actually throws a spotlight onto the very limited nature of the idea of freedom, which
has never extended to as many people as we'd like to believe. But if we need the anthropocene to finally convince us that the freedom of the elite was the foam on a really big pitcher of beer, so be it.
The tension between "unsettling" and action may be the most interesting aspect of the essay. In the past, the humanities have been home to critics of "dominant narratives," but with widely varied degrees of actual engagement in the struggles of the present. We may need to look outside the English-speaking world for inspiration and examples here.
The authors give Environmental Historians credit for "highlighting the fact that the 'natural world' is not a passive background to human dramas." Their argument at this point seems to be a subtle re-branding effort, in which Environmental History becomes a subset of their discipline, all motivated by an "eco
philosophical" drive to position humans within a wider environment. A big element of this process involves giving voices to non-human agents in this larger ecology. That's a really fascinating issue, if the discipline can avoid getting lost in the weeds of trying to conceptualize the points of view of inarticulate (or even sometimes inanimate) agents in the environment.
These are important questions for philosophers, but I think if Environmental Humanities is really committed to activism on behalf of the environment, the philosophers need to remember to come back to earth from time to time and communicate with people who don't share their interest in these questions, but desperately want to know
what went wrong and what can we do about it right now? 
In the end, I think the biggest contribution Environmental Humanities can make to the planet may not be "challenging and unsettling traditional approaches to the humanities." Species facing extinction may be better served by clearly-articulated, understandable descriptions of the situation facing us and explanations of what we might do about it now. "We" being not just philosophers and scholars, but working people, families, and children.    

Looking Backward Again

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, 2014

Since I wrote fiction before I became an academic historian (and still do, from time to time), it always interests me when academics cross the big canyon separating these two genres and try their hands at fictions that illustrate important contemporary themes. Once upon a time, this happened a lot more than it does now. Edward Bellamy’s 1889 novel,
Looking Backward, was the second most popular American book in the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin). George Orwell and H. G. Wells also came to mind while I was reading this, but they lived in a time when the separation of disciplinary silos maybe wasn’t as severe as it is now.

Unlike a classic science fiction tale such as
1984 or The Time Machine, The Collapse of Western Civilization doesn’t have any characters (except the narrator who occasionally exhibits a bit of personality), and it doesn’t have a plot. It’s all setting. This is a very little book, whose point is simply to suggest that there is a crisis at hand. The future world the narrator speaks from could easily be the scene of any number of stories. But sometimes setting gets lost behind story. Like Environmental History, this book puts setting front-and-center.

The Collapse of Western Civilization
is basically a fictional retrospective on what went wrong in our present, and what happened as a result. The physical consequences are all the ones predicted by the scientific consensus on climate change. Their timing and future societies’ reactions are fictional, but plausible. In a nutshell, the authors blame runaway climate change on the inadequacies of Western scientific culture and the power of neoliberal politics. They are both historians of science, so their choice of emphasis is not surprising. And they make some important points.

Scientific institutions, the authors say, are rigidly locked in a disciplinary silo system “in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry” (14). Scientists also impose on themselves an “excessively stringent standard” of proof, they say, perhaps to distinguish their search for truth from common experience or authority-based religious belief. The authors compare the “disciplinary severity” of science to earlier, monastic asceticism (16). I think there’s a lot left unsaid here, about the ways scientific institutions have embraced religious organizational paradigms even while they argue for a standard of truth that is fundamentally different from the authority of sacred texts. But in any case, scientists in this scenario were undercut by their own refusal to abandon 95% statistical significance, by their ignorance of what was happening in adjacent disciplines, and by a huge PR campaign promoting climate change denial.

The most interesting criticism of science, to me, comes in an off-hand remark of the narrator’s, when she criticizes the “archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” (2). This is the same, in my mind, as the convention that allows economists (neoliberal or otherwise) to ignore “externalities” until (and sometimes even after) they become “market failures.” As the authors suggest, ignoring externalities was much easier when the environmental “sink” seemed infinite. But even in light of our current knowledge, the argument seems only to have shifted from “not a problem” to “not
our problem.”

And maybe that leads to the element of
The Collapse of Western Civilization’s approach that didn’t work so well for me. There are no people in it. Even though the authors blame the “carbon-combustion complex” for financing a campaign of denialism at the beginning of the 21st century (and it’s very important to note that climate change denialism was manufactured — up until very recently, Americans pretty much believed what the scientists were saying), the only time it gets remotely personal is when they mention that Exxon-Mobil did a deal with the Russian government to exploit the Arctic in 2012. This would have been a great opportunity to say a little more about extra-national corporations and power. Or even, perhaps, to examine why scientists were so respected while their efforts were enabling the military-industrial complex’s profits during the Cold War, but were jettisoned when their science turned against its patrons. Maybe science has never really, independently held the esteemed position the authors claim it lost in American culture. But in any case, the authors shy away from talking about the climate disaster as an abuse of power by people. So it becomes the story of two impersonal historical forces that ruined the world. Not about people who had choices to make, and made the wrong ones.

But then again, I’m the guy who wrote a revenge-tale based on the 2000 water wars in Cochabamba (too violent, so it remains unpublished). The story needs to be personal, for me. And these people are historians, not science fiction authors. And they’ve tried to do something important here. If
The Collapse of Western Civilization gets read and discussed, then it’s a huge success. Maybe it will help more academics cross that canyon, and start writing books (fiction or non) that can be read by the general public. And maybe it will inspire people to think more about the actual people making — or evading — the important decisions that will lead us into this disaster or help us bypass some of it.

The Elite Stay Elite

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility
Gregory Clark, 2014

I just finished reading a book that claims social mobility in modern America is basically the same as in modern Sweden, and that both are in fact just about the same as in sixteenth-century England. Everywhere, Gregory Clark says, persistence of social status is much higher than we normally suppose. Where most sociologists estimate persistence in the range of 40%, Clark puts it between 75% and 80%. And as mentioned, he says it has never really changed throughout history and that it's the same pretty much everywhere. As a result, the descendants of the victorious Normans  of 1066 are still disproportionately represented in the British Parliament, and the famous but tiny Pepys family has sent many more than its share of young men to Oxford and Cambridge.
First, I've gotta say that it doesn't really come as a surprise to me that the elite stay elite or that it can take 20 or 30 generations for a family at the top of the heap to "revert to the mean." Although Clark says it's statistically improbable for the Pepys clan to have continued to send more than its share to the best British schools, I don't think it's socially improbable at all. In fact, it's the outcome I expected.
The interesting thing about this book, though, is that Clark posits (without ever really coming right out and saying it) a genetic component to elite status and persistence. Rather than saying that the Pepys boys were accorded special privileges at elite British schools or that the sons and grandsons of hereditary MPs were more likely to be elected to Parliament, Clark says there's something called underlying social competence, and that it is inherited.
Hang on, what? Clark says that elite status is in the genes? Well, not exactly. What he says is that there's an unknown cluster of characteristics that, taken together, make a person socially "competent," and that these characteristics seem to be inherited. Although Clark's equation has a term built in for dumb luck, he thinks the randomness is much less than we normally believe it to be. If you're looking for a marriage partner, Clark says, don't trust the status of the individual alone. It might be luck. Look at the status of the whole family, and you'll get an indication of your potential partner's "competence" genes.
I haven't been able to find any reviews of this idea by historians (and just a couple by economists), possibly because the book was only published in 2014 and the glaciers of academic reviewing haven't ground it down yet. However, Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution wrote a three-part take-down called "
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" in March 2014. Reeves, who also recently wrote a long essay supporting the rags-to-riches perspective of Horatio Alger, says Clark's perspective is racist. Or at least genetically deterministic, which he suggests is basically the same thing. Clark responded that he wasn't being racist, some of the elite groups he tracks in the book are in fact of African descent. But Reeves has a point. "Racism is not History," he says. Yeah, the guy from Brookings is saying the effects of slavery and the rest of America's racist history are still being felt. Wow.
Clark's main point isn't really about race, though. He uses adoption and twin studies to suggest that there's an element to life success that isn't explainable by nurture. Even if that effect isn't as complete as Clark implies (I think he brushes by some of the caveats and exceptions in the studies he cites a little to quickly), it's a challenging idea.
The problem is, there's not enough to grab onto. The 11 herbs and spices remain secret -- we never find out what mental, emotional, physical, or other characteristics make a person "socially competent." And it's hard to believe that the factors that made people successful in the sixteenth century are all the same as those that make people successful today. Nor is there any real explanation of how particular families got to the top of the heap in the first place. The mobility equation takes center stage, and we don't really get to look under the hood at the social factors that could have led to success and then sustained it. This is unfortunate, because since Clark hasn't really identified the machine working behind the scenes, it's entirely possible that the effects he's measuring to derive the equation are in fact social rather than biological.
When Clark says the social mobility in Sweden is as low as in America or early-modern England, he's not saying that inequality is the same. The penalty of being at the bottom in a welfare society like Sweden is obviously much lower than it was in England or is in the US (I wonder if the lesser downside of low social mobility in Sweden doesn't have something to do with it continuing?). Clark does suggest that in a society like the US where Reeves's Horatio Alger dream is pretty much an illusion, we ought to think harder about our safety net.
Clark's numbers suggest that a person's status at birth can predict a lot about their life chances. That's a slap in the face to the American Dream. But let's think about it. If he's right at all -- even if we have no idea why he's right and disagree with the theory he advances to explain it -- then we really ought to be doing more to make it less painful to be average or poor in America.

The Long Tail of the 19th Century

Vaclav Smil
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Vaclav Smil likes technology, but he’s reasonable. In this volume, Smil argues that in spite of the focus usually being on culture and politics, the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” He observes that although we think we’re living in an age of rapid technological transformation (or even “
disruptive innovation”), many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization ha[ve] not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” (5) Taking aim at prophets of discontinuity like Ray Kurzweil, Smil says that currently fashionable “perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by zealots of electronic faith.” The idea of accelerating evolution, Smil says, is teleological. In its place, he offers a combination of “phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.” (6) Well, so much for the singularity.

reiterates his belief that the “most far-reaching of all modern technical innovations...[was] the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” (7) The Haber-Bosch process made nitrogen fertilizers available on an unprecedented scale (relative to previous sources, Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrate), allowing the world’s human population to expand to its current level. Without it, Smil says, “the world could not support more than about 3.5 billion people.” (23) As usual, Smil leaves the other shoe hanging in midair: what happens when the fossil fuel resources that make this cheap nitrogen so abundant begin to dry up?

Interestingly, Smil prefers the words “technical innovation” or “technique” to “technology.” Toward the end of the book he congratulates George Orwell for the same thing (quoting a passage from a 1942 BBC broadcast, 259), and calls attention to the fact that he has not used the fuzzier term “technology” a single time in the text. This might be frustrating for researchers searching keywords in the future, but it’s an interesting distinction.

The key characteristics of the “Unprecedented Saltation” of 1867-1914, Smil says, were:

  • that the impact of these technical advances was almost instantaneous,
  • the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances,
  • the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction,
  • the imagination and boldness of new proposals, and
  • the epoch-making nature of these technical advances. (8-12)

While discussing periodization, Smil mentions that he is “deliberately ignoring” dating technical changes by economic cycles like the Kondratiev wave. He’s also avoiding, although he doesn’t say so, discussion of cultural, economic and social changes that impacted things like producer financing and consumer behavior. Tracing the feedback loops between technical innovation and these other areas is not the mission of this book. But Smil does acknowledge the world beyond science. “Edison’s key insight,” he says, was not technical, but “that any commercially viable lighting system must minimize electricity consumption and hence must use high-resistance filaments with lights connected in parallel across a constant-voltage system” (41). Edison was not designing a light bulb for the laboratory, he was designing a complete electrical generation and delivery system. The bulb was just the visible end-point of a much more complex (and profitable) project.

Smil also calls attention to the fact that “between 1880 and 1896 more than $2 million was spent in prosecuting more than 100 lawsuits” for patent infringement (43). Technology was no place for the faint-hearted, and the best technician didn’t always win. Not until 1943, a few months after Nicola Tesla’s death, did the US Supreme Court finally acknowledge the priority of his patents over Marconi’s, Smil says. And ironically, the court’s decision wasn’t to support Tesla, but was “merely a way for the court to avoid a decision regarding Marconi Co.’s suit against the U.S. government for using its patents” (251). Smil compare’s Marconi’s ability to “package, and slightly improve, what is readily available,” and benefit from “alliances with powerful users” with Microsoft’s success marketing Windows. He identifies Bill Gates with Marconi, whose status as “not a great technical innovator” was exemplified by his insistence that his radio would only be used to transmit Morse code.

Smil gives Edison credit for being able to play the game, but he clearly has a soft spot for Tesla and even George Westinghouse, who he reminds us had 361 patents to his credit (but how many of these were really Tesla's?). The stories of these people and their technical innovations would be even better if they were expanded to include personal and business elements, which will probably lead me to read biographies of many of them when I have some free time. In his conclusion, Smil reiterates his argument for the unique influence of technical change during this period by pointing out that “only two of today’s 10 largest multinationals...were not set up before 1914” (301). In addition to this short list, a quick look at the Fortune 500 would probably show that most of the world’s business is based on techniques whose origins can be traced to Smil’s Age of Synergy. Although that’s clearly a trailing indicator, it does seem fair to conclude that claims about the exceptional nature of the digital age are overblown. Smil shows that technical changes -- and common sense suggests that the associated economic and social changes of the late 19th century still account for most of the world in which we live.

Thoreau in a History class

I’ve read Walden with my Environmental History sections as a Teaching Assistant, and when my turn came I considered assigning a bit of it to my class. In the end I didn’t, but Thoreau was present anyway, in Ted Steinberg’s Introduction to Nature, Incorporated, and in my lecture about Environmentalists in America. Thoreau is a landmark for environmentalists and for historians, but like many landmarks, we don’t really examine him that closely anymore, which is unfortunate. Although they were all aware who he was, only a couple of my students had ever read any Thoreau. It was interesting for me talking about Thoreau in a history class, rather than in English, which was where I first encountered him. I wonder if that led to a greater effort on my part to talk about context—or is that just me?

There were certainly things about
Walden that surprised me, and that I had not picked up on when I read it as a teenager. One thing was, the way Thoreau seems to jump back and forth from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the same page where he sublimely observes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau also says, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave driver of yourself.” Stephen Fender, the editor of the Oxford World Classics edition, apologizes for this passage by saying Thoreau was one of the first critics of the northern factory system. Fender tries hard to put a “free labor” spin on what really amounts to a ridiculous, insensitive statement. But ironically, I think it’s partly Thoreau’s middle-class, northern-white-guy ignorance and self-centeredness that makes Walden so rich and enduring.

Sure, there are enough literary and cultural references to keep classicists and concordance-writers happy. But is this why we still read
Walden? And there are beautiful, graphic passages about nature, and about Thoreau’s experience of the woods and the pond. But I don’t think this accounts for his continuing popularity, either. I think it comes down to two things: Thoreau gives us a view of nineteenth-century America from a perspective way outside the frame; and he’s a white, middle-class, suburban intellectual, like most of us.

It’s very difficult to critique the system from within. By leaving and looking at his society from the outside, Thoreau helps us see things that ought to be obvious but are not. He reminds us that “the principal object” of the new textile factories is “not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.” Once we’re pulled out of the frame a bit by that thought, Thoreau continues, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” Thoreau is a sensible guy, but he’s not a saint — he keeps reminding us that his perspective is personal and limited. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross,” Thoreau says. “It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune.” But just when you want to hit him upside the head with a 2x4, he redeems himself and concludes the paragraph with “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

When Thoreau looks at Concord and sees “the village was literally a
com-munity, a league for mutual defense,” it’s easy to recognize echoes of the culture of fear playing itself out in our own time. Thoreau is right: “if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with.” The wish to “live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” is as contemporary as it could possibly be. Thoreau’s critique only becomes stronger, as our culture moves farther from simplicity. In the end, it may be the ahistorical nature of Walden that has made it so enduring. Marching to the beat of a different drummer and cultivating wildness (a fabulous oxymoron) are timeless. As opposed to something like Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular contemporary book Looking Backward, which was filled with specific recommendations that don’t wear nearly as well, a hundred years later.

But when I’m reading
Walden with my history class, I question the historical accuracy of those “lives of quiet desperation,” even though the statement is intuitive and resonant. I suspect that it’s a bit of a projection, both when Thoreau originally said it and when we read it and nod knowingly. But yeah, there’s something to it, then and now. Similarly, the idea that they built a telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas have nothing meaningful to say to each other is just a bit of a sneering, elitist misrepresentation, isn’t it? There will be a lot of data and facts in my dissertation, but the real meat of the thing will come from thousands of letters that people wrote to family members. They clearly thought they had something meaningful to say to each other, even if it was only “I just planted six acres of potatoes” or “How is Mother?” If Thoreau doesn’t deign to consider that type of communication worth the penny postage, that’s his problem.

But I
did still compare the telegraph to Facebook and Twitter, and the students got it.

Living on a Few Acres

In preparing to start living on a "hobby" farm, I read all kinds of gardening, permaculture, small farm, and animal husbandry books. I read Brett Markham’s Mini Farming, which I think is pretty good. Before that, I read Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal (also pretty good), Gene Lodgson’s Holy Shit! (very good), and Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (really great!). Each of these books, in addition to providing good information for aspiring homesteaders, comes with a point of view I’m starting to think of as the Chelsea Green perspective (after the Vermont publisher that produces a lot of these titles). The perspective is, basically, that the world is on an unsustainable path that could lead to some type of eventual collapse and/or descent from the high-energy lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to in the last century (at least for some people), and that we’d be well advised to learn how to feed ourselves before this happens. This claim comes both from science such as climate change and peak oil, and from a critique of contemporary culture that finds little to praise in global corporate consumerism.

I’m fairly sympathetic with these ideas, but I’m also a historian. So I wonder whether there have been other periods when this combination of apocalypse and “back to the garden” came together
or what other combinations may have occurred to our ancestors. After all, this is not the first time the country and the city have been set against each other as competing models of the good life.

So I was really excited when I found Bolton Hall’s 1907 book,
Three Acres and Liberty. Apparently, this is the book (and he’s the guy) credited with launching the “back to the land” movement in the early 20th century although he called it by the much more appealing name, “forward-to-the-land.” I’m struck by the number of times what I’m reading in this hundred year old book could have been written by Lodgson, Salatin, or Ussery (or for that matter, by me). Some examples:

“In truth, teaching is but another department of gardening.”

“It is hardly too much to say that when we are tired out or ill either we have been doing the wrong thing or doing it wrong.”

“You raise more than vegetables in your garden: you raise your expectation of life.”

And that’s just the first chapter!
My reaction after reading the rest of the book is mixed, but that’s typical of my reaction to everything from the Progressive Era, and for that matter, to the Era itself. On the one hand, I’m very impressed that a lot of what passes for state of the art innovation in the organic/sustainable farming world is in fact very old ideas that were abandoned and forgotten under the pressure of the twentieth-century consumer lifestyle and agribusiness model of agriculture. On the other, the author is entirely too impressed with the role of experts in helping poor, benighted workers of the world get back to the land.

The initial thought of the book is a great one, though. So I’ll repeat it again. Hall says, “We are not tied to a desk or to a bench; we stay there only because we think we are tied.”

Among the other important ideas, which somehow we failed to act on in the twentieth century, is this one: “It is more important that small power be developed on the farms of the United States than that we harness Niagara.” Where would the power grid conversation be, that people like
Maggie Koerth-Baker are having now, if we had developed local, sustainable power sources?

Hall’s premise in this book is that “One hour a day spent in a garden ten yards long by seven wide will supply vegetables enough for a family of six.” He goes on to say “The world seems to be divided into those who have to count their pennies and those who couldn’t count their thousands.” And since this is the case, those of us who count pennies should take advantage of the opportunity to save most of our food budget by doing it ourselves.

A really interesting aspect of this program is Hall’s idea that by freeing people from having to buy their food, you free one parent from having to work outside the home. Hall is clear in his claim that this is better for the children and the family, and for society at large. Where Hall and his associates made vacant urban land available to poor or unemployed people, he claims that in addition to growing self-reliance they saw actual improvements in people’s health and in the strength of families. Working outdoors and eating an improved diet increased people’s physical health while solving problems and developing hope for the future improved their mental health.

That’s not to say the traditional gender roles are the only possible one. Only that, often, having two parents working isn’t a choice allowing women to fulfill career interests, it’s just how we get by. In addition to these interesting perspectives, Hall provides a lot of information that’s interesting to the historian. We don’t normally think about the fact that only a hundred years ago “what typically attract[ed] the gardener to the great cities is stable manure,” or “the backwoods of the Middle States [was] made accessible by cheap autos” in the first decades of the twentieth century. But this transition from horses and railroads to automobiles was happening just as Hall was writing, and beginning to erode the truth of the old adage that “Wealth, activity, and political power concentrate at the inlet and outlet of the railway funnel.”

Hall’s writing style is very effective. He combines idealistic claims such as “The best and most effective way of helping people in need is to open a way whereby they may help themselves,” with practical observations, like “idle men and idle land are already close to each other—the men can reach their gardens without changing their domiciles or being separated from their families.” Then he throws in a little humor: “‘Quite right, mother, quite right,’ came from a man nearby. ‘The world can never know the evil we men don’t do while we are busy in our little gardens.’”

Hall quotes several other writers whose conclusions match his own. For example, Liberty Hyde Bailey: “An area of 150x100 feet is generally sufficient to supply a family of five people with vegetables.” And here and there he adds a bits of contemporary wisdom that now seem hopelessly lacking in political correctness: “when there is a large job of…weeding to be done, you can hire Italians or other foreigners to do it better and cheaper.” But he also quotes Varro’s
De Re Rustica, written in 37 BCE, and says “historians have made a mistake in not reading it.”

Hall recommends a wide variety of intensive gardening techniques: use of manure instead of commercial fertilizers; “super close culture,” (which we might now call square foot gardening) where plants are set very close together to use the land and water efficiently and keep down weeds; “companion cropping” and “double cropping,” to extend the growing season; rotation to reduce the impact of pests; soil inoculation using nitrogen-fixing legumes (long known to farmers, but just recently discovered by agronomists when he wrote); mulching to save water; raising chickens, ducks and rabbits to use waste and produce food and manure; canning and drying to preserve even small quantities of food; and even disposal of city sewage by using human waste on urban gardens. He talks about Robert Owen-inspired British Rochdale cooperatives, politics, and economics as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. And he quotes a passage from Lincoln that I’ve never run into before: “Population must increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms. Such community will alike be independent of crowned kings, money kings, and land kings.”

Western Farms and the Safety-Valve

Clarence H. Danhof, "Farm-Making Costs and The "Safety Valve": 1850-60."
The Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 3 (1941): 317-359.

This old article by Clarence Danhof helped change the
Turner-inspired idea that the West functioned as a “safety-valve” for American society in the 19th century. Danhof finds the claim that western migration acted as a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 “to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land,” (325) but also that this fact was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. There were very few people who could hope to save a thousand dollars, even in ten years.

Danhof quotes many interesting contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the New York Agricultural Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets” (318). Mid-19th century authorities knew “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” according to the
Working Farmer magazine in 1859 (319). Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them” (322). So the question is, where did these emigrants get the money. My own primary research suggests that for many, close family ties and serial family migration were the key.

Contrary to some accounts that complain about the “wage-slavery,” practiced by Western agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high” (323-4). Perhaps this Western labor demand, more than farm-making itself, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high. As
Thernstrom and Knights found, it’s particularly difficult keeping tabs on people who moved around often and didn’t own land. But that’s no reason to conclude the West didn’t have as many transient workers as the East.

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says (329). And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum” (330). The federal government assigned to individuals and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. The remaining [43% of] land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies” (But remember that until the Transcontinental Railroad project began, the federal government granted land to states rather than directly to railroads, 331). Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of 'the public lands' have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement” (quoting 1857
Annual Message, 332). This certainly seems to be the case for the Illinois Central. If they got government land free, then bought more at $1.25 or below per acre and sold it for $11.50, they made at least a thousand percent profit on the land alone, not to mention their railroad revenue.

Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing farms in the east, where population growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new Western farmers were old Eastern farmers. This could be verified demographically using census data, and I suspect we’d find a lot of Eastern farmers like the Ranneys retiring onto their sons’ new farms in the West. Danhof notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the West. These other activities might have been tried by adventurous or desperate single people he says; families would usually have made more solid preparations and thought things through.

Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, I think, was often financed by extended families. People who had gone before and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. Brothers or cousins in the East helped the new Western farmers find markets for their produce. And people seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods. I think next time I teach the “moving West” unit of my EnvHist survey, I’ll spend a few more minutes comparing the cowboy image of the West with a more complicated picture of western expansion.

The Growth Economy Begins

Walter LaFeber
The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898

It’s interesting, given Walter LaFeber’s reputation as a critic of American Empire, that he refaces this book by saying “I have been profoundly impressed with the statesmen of these decades [the last of the 19th century]…I found both the policymakers and the businessmen of this era to be responsible, conscientious men who accepted the economic and social realities of their day, understood domestic and foreign problems, debated issues vigorously, and especially were unafraid to strike out on new and uncharted paths in order to create what they sincerely hoped would be a better nation and a better world” (ix). This sincere appreciation on LaFeber’s part for the people whose decisions he will be criticizing so thoroughly, suggests his story is much more subtle than the standard good guys vs. bad guys approach taken in many texts (and unfortunately, often by critics of the establishment).

Similarly, LaFeber begins his first chapter by debunking the myth of antebellum isolation. “Between 1850 and 1873,” he says, “despite an almost nonexistent export trade during the Civil War, exports averaged $274,000,000 annually; the yearly average during the 1838-1849 period had been only $116,000,000” (1-2). So while it is true, LaFeber admits, that “until the 1890’s the vast Atlantic sheltered America from many European problems,” the fact that we were not drawn into European wars does not mean that many Americans (especially businessmen and financiers) were not intimately connected with the continent. The histories of businesses such as J.P. Morgan's Anglo-American financial empire are ample proof that American businessmen considered themselves players on the Atlantic stage. Even my western New York Peppermint King, Hiram Hotchkiss, made his name by taking his peppermint oil to London's Crystal Palace in 1851 and getting a first prize medallion with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's images on it! These long-standing connections had important implications in politics and diplomacy, as the twentieth century began.

1851PrizeMedalLabel copy

LaFeber says William Henry Seward “deserves to be remembered as the greatest Secretary of State in American history after his beloved Adams. This is so partially because of his astute diplomacy, which kept European powers out of the Civil War, but also because his vision of empire dominated American policy for the next century” (25). “Grant, Hamilton Fish, William M. Evarts, James G. Blaine, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, and Thomas F. Bayard assume secondary roles,” LaFeber says (24). He notes also that Seward suggested “Mexico City was an excellent site for the future capital of the American empire” (28). This is interesting, not only because it implies some type of U.S. annexation of Mexico, but because Mexico City has
nearly always been the largest city in the Americas. It was in 1490, and again in 1600, 1800, and 2000. Seward also predicted that “Russia and the United States may remain good friends until, each having made a circuit of half the globe in opposite directions, they meet and greet each other in the region where civilization first began” (30).

LaFeber’s point is that American empire was seen by nearly every influential contemporary as an inevitable result of the economic changes of the late nineteenth century. LaFeber says there was very little pressure to “occupy every piece of available land in the Pacific,” but I’d add there was clearly pressure to
control many of those islands and their resources, as shown by the Guano Islands Act of 1856. There was also a general understanding that “Latin-American and Asian markets were vitally important to the expansive American industrial complex” (416). The machine, late-nineteenth century policy-makers seem to have realized, needed to be constantly fed with both raw materials and new markets. The growth economy had begun.

The Ironic West

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987

In an August 1989 review article in
The Western Historical Quarterly, Patricia Limerick said she “wanted to narrow the widening gap between ‘sophisticated, scholarly history’ and ‘readable, simplified, popular history.’ If you cannot express your findings in terms that an intelligent freshman can understand, I have long felt, then you haven’t yet figured out those findings” (318). This is a sentiment I agree with 100%. Limerick wrote Legacy of Conquest in 1987, so she had not only the heroic, Turnerian history of the West to debunk, but the even more wildly out-of-touch Reagan-era western myth. Her attack on the normal view of the West split between history and current events. Limerick argued for the continuity of western history to the present, and for the use of current newspapers as “primary sources” for that current view. Since most of these issues were particularly intense in the 1970s and 1980s, the reader needs to work a little, to bring them up to date. But many of Limerick's arguments have inspired others to expand on them. First is the idea that “the sharp and honest term 'conquest’ ” enhances our understanding of the morally ambivalent nature of western expansion. As one of the 1989 review's panelists remarked, it’s not only the South that Americans need to feel guilty about.

Limerick begins 
Legacy of Conquest by quoting Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on history (not "The Significance of the Frontier”): “The aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past...the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past” (17). This T.S. Eliot-esque statement connects historical study with both the present and the public and suggests that Turner, like the West itself, was more complicated and multidimensional than we're often led to think. On the subject of the frontier thesis, Limerick says (paraphrasing Lamar) that it created an artificial barrier between “America’s rural past and its urban-industrial present” (22). The frontier thesis was so widely adopted, she says, because the West had “no watershed comparable to the Revolution or the Civil War.” But it was inaccurate and oversimplified. “One could easily argue,” for example, “that a sudden concentration of population marks the opening stage [of the frontier] and that a population lowered through...the departure of people from a used-up mining region marks the end of the frontier and its opportunities.” However, even that complication may not be enough, since many areas went through cycles of growth, decline and regrowth, as conditions, technologies, and human goals changed. On a more concrete level, Limerick points out that in 1890, when the frontier was declared closed, “one-half of the land remained federal property” (23). She says, “If it is difficult for Americans to imagine that an economy might be stable and also healthy,” their addiction to growth may be related to the frontier myth, with its prospect of endless western opportunity. (28) If so, this is doubly ironic, because Turner’s whole point was that the frontier had closed, and America was going to need to find a new way to uphold its individualist, democratic values.

But, as Limerick observes, “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” Historians should be interested, she says, in not only what happened, via “the keepers of written records,” but in what people believe happened, via “the tellers of tales” (35). The discrepancy that interests Limerick most is the “idea of innocence.” People moved west, she says, for “improvement and opportunity, not injury to others” (36). This sentiment certainly fits with the apparent motives and sensibility of the Ranneys, whose primary letters I've been using in my classes. But of course, other people
were injured in the process. Limerick highlights the contradictions: “Squatters defied the boundaries of Indian territory and then were aggrieved to find themselves harassed and attacked by Indians.” They “felt betrayed when the rains proved inadequate...Contrary to all of the West’s associations with self-reliance and individual responsibility,” she says, “misfortune has usually caused white Westerners to cast themselves in the role of the innocent victim” (42). Because the national government has been an ongoing player in western affairs, Limerick says government became both a favorite scapegoat and a source of recompense (44). She finds the origins of the “injured innocent” attitude all the way back in Colonial Virginia, where “Having practically destroyed the aboriginal population and enslaved the Africans...the white inhabitants of English America began to conceive of themselves as the victims, not the agents, of Old World Colonialism” (quoting Carole Shammas, 48).


The generalizations are broad. It’s quite possible to imagine subgroups in both the colonial and western-expansion periods who did not necessarily share the same degree of “guilt” as the “agents” and main beneficiaries of western development. The rest of the book discusses these groups and the increasing division of wealth and power in the developing west. “ ‘Power always follows property,’ John Adams said bluntly” (58). In the West, “The advantage always accrued to the wealthy man of influence, regardless of what the law said” (quoting Malcolm Rohrbough, 61). A case in point, Limerick says, is William Stewart’s 1866 Mining Law, which established the ground-rules for massive accumulation of patent claims. “A great deal of Western property right,” she says, “rested on this narrow margin of timing” (67). While “Speculation is extremely disillusioning if you are trying to hold onto the illusion that agriculture and commerce are significantly different ways of life,” it might be interesting to highlight the ways property laws were devised to enable accumulation of vast tracts of undeveloped land under the ownership of individuals and corporations.

The ironic contrast between the myth of private enterprise and the reality of federally subsidized railroading, mining, and western state development continues throughout western history. “Western settlers were so abundantly supplied with slogans and democratic formulas,” Limerick says, “that putting our trust in their recorded words alone would be misleading” (83). The seemingly heroic, seemingly populist “squatter government” of Sioux Falls were actually “agents of a land company, financed and organized by Minnesota Democrats” (84). States like Wyoming and Colorado received subsidies far exceeding what their taxpayers “sent to a government [they] considered meddlesome and constitutionally threatening” (87). And the West
regularly got more than its share: “Per capita expenditures of federal agencies in Montana from 1933 to 1939...were $710, while they were only $143 in North Carolina” (88).

“Despite the promises of the Homestead Act,” Limerick says, “much good land was already in possession of railroads and states, and ‘purchase continued to be the most usual means to obtain a farm after 1865’ ” (quoting Everett Dick, 125). The cost of outfitting a farm with “a house, draft animals, wagon, plow, well, fencing, and seed grain could be as much as $1,000,” putting homesteading out of reach to many eastern wage-earners (125). When grasshoppers wiped out Minnesota farms, governor John Pillsbury actually
argued against state aid for family farmers (127-8). But how much state aid, in the form of subsidized railroads, government flour contracts, and the legal fiction of corporate rights, went into the building of Pillsbury’s flour empire?

The “split character” of the farmers’ social position, halfway between workers and businessmen, “curtailed the radicalism of their protests,” says Limerick (129). This seems like a failure of imagination on the part of radicals, or perhaps it was a social engineering victory for their opponents. Limerick says, “The economy of scale required by certain kinds of irrigation confirmed the pattern” of agribusiness in the dry states (130). But the assumption that no other arrangement of resource use was possible is anachronistic and avoids confronting the forces that enabled the victory of global economic concentration over community and regional self-sufficiency. Limerick agrees with Williams that “attribut[ing] ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match” is as old as history, but it would still be useful to critically examine how rural nostalgia has been mobilized as a propaganda tool, from Jefferson to the present (131).

The rest of the book tells the story of the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Indian presence in western history, and of the government’s continuing presence, especially in conservation in the era of Pinchot and Roosevelt. Limerick concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that a closer look at the complex history of the West might help solve some of America’s ongoing problems.

Happy New Year from Eaarth

In the preface to his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben begins from the position that “It’s true that we’ve lost that fight, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into” (p. xv). We grew up, McKibben says, on the planet astronaut Jim Lovell described as “ ‘a grand oasis.’ But we no longer live on that planet” (p. 2). Things have already changed so significantly, he claims, “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations” (p. xiv).

This isn’t academic Environmental History, but I don’t imagine anyone will deny the relevance of McKibben’s claims, even if he's only just a little bit right. And I’ve been particularly interested in working on bringing my American Environmental History syllabus up to the present and engaging students with the issues we face now. So toward the end of the semester, we talk about the science, the propaganda, and what’s at stake in the current debate.

As you might expect, the first part of
Eaarth, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West” (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.

The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.

McKibben is famous as the man behind, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).

And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). Even if some of these labor hours can be saved by switching to sustainable technologies, McKibben’s point that we’ve been getting a free ride and thinking it would last forever is a good one. “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).

Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be acknowledged, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). The “developed world” sees starving people as a huge future security threat. No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).

So what does all this mean? At the very least, it suggests we have to stop looking to prestigious, pseudo-academic idiots like Larry Summers for answers: “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). I don’t know why anybody would pay attention to this guy—oh, wait! He was president of Harvard! But the problem isn’t just that elite pseudo-academics tend to be tools of the ruling class. Too many Americans still hang on the words of nuts like Jerry Falwell who has announced, “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). And liberal politicians have also proven their ineffectiveness. Barack Obama, “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks [said] ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). That’s code for “Let’s do nothing and see what happens.”

At the end of the book, McKibben tries to navigate from this laundry-list of disaster to a very short description of localism and community-building. His story ends with a retelling of the event in October 2009. Maybe he believed at the time this event would lead to a groundswell. Maybe he’s done his job describing the current situation, and it’s up to others to take the next step. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to describe what’s at stake, rather than leaving to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he did mention Mad Max (p. 146), so it’s clear where McKibben thinks the story could go.

How Historians and Economists differ

Martin Bruegel
“The Social Relations of Farming in the Early American Republic: A Microhistorical Approach”
Naomi R. Lamoreaux
“Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment”
Journal of the Early Republic 26, Winter 2006

I’ve been reviewing mostly books on this page, which I think is most appropriate since relatively few people have the types of academic access that makes journal articles easy to find and read. But there’s no denying that academics still rely on articles to break new stories and (possibly more interesting) to fight over evidence and interpretation. One of the big battles in Early American History that impacts Environmental History and that has been fought primarily in journals is the question of the “Market Transition,” which at its core may really be a fight over the meaning and importance of Capitalism in American History.

In the first of a recent pair of articles that takes the debate on the market transition to a wider and much more interesting place, Martin Bruegel argues that the economic determinism represented by most business histories can and should be counteracted by a very detailed, microhistorical approach to the tasks and relationships necessary to running an early nineteenth-century farm. Bruegel criticizes histories that simply reduce “the scale of observation to illustrate the local impact of larger processes,” suggesting that they simply “normalize” peculiarities and thus validate the “general hypothesis” held prior to observation (525). In contrast, he says, microhistory “deepens and enriches the analysis of economic transactions” by providing “a more circumscribed, grass-roots focus [that] suggests…the malleability of conventions” (552).

Economic Historian Naomi Lamoreaux responds by suggesting that attempts like Bruegel’s verge dangerously on “antiquarianism” (a term she uses frequently, 555). Speaking for economists, Lamoreaux says she does “not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing” (556). While at first glance, Lamoreaux’s suggestion that historians writing narratives are doing the same thing as economists building models might strike historians as annoying and just, intuitively,
wrong; I think it’s incumbent on historians to think about this and articulate the differences.

Lamoreaux suggests that in order to lead to new knowledge, acts of “complication” must not only show us how the previous “simplification” failed to account for something both real and
important, but they must then arrive at a new re-simplification that incorporates this new insight (557-61). Lamoreaux deploys Paul David’s elaboration of Robert Solow’s famous growth model to illustrate her point, in a way that I think illustrates both the validity of her point, and a fundamental gap between the interests of economists and those of historians. Her point is that economists have recently begun to understand that “Many economic phenomena are…’path dependent’ in that they are conditional on the particular sequence in which events unfolded” (558). This is important, because in addition to what might seem like a belated acknowledgement by economists of contingency and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it means in Lamoreaux’s words, “that contingency matters—that history matters” (557-8). And maybe it means that economists realize there’s a difference between models and the way things actually work out in the real world. That’s good news for historians who want to work with economists, but Lamoreaux’s argument also highlights the main difference between the two fields.

“The words
exogenous and endogenous are economic jargon,” Lamoreaux says, “but they capture an essential feature of all narratives. There is always an inside and outside to a story; there is always something external to the dynamics of a story that sets its events in motion” (558). This may or may not be true, but I suspect it is nowhere near as relevant to the historian as it seems to be to the economist. Lamoreaux argues that the two important elements of any story are the “equilibrium growth path” and the “external shocks” that can alter it. Shocks are usually big events, occasionally big people. “They are unlikely to be induced by the actions of people who are relatively powerless. If that is the case, however, what is the role for microhistory? What is the role for history written ‘on the ground’?” (559)

I think the answer is obvious to historians. But again, I think we have to spell it out. So here’s my answer, as it occurs to me today at least:

History can’t afford to, and most historians couldn’t bear to, reduce the past to a series of equilibrium growth paths and exogenous shocks. We’ve been in that trap before. The path dependency and contingency we see have infinitely more variables than those sought (and therefore usually found) by economists. Historians should take college-level statistics and econometrics courses, so they can understand the way economic models are constructed. No matter how much they strive to be empirically descriptive rather than normative, the fact that they put the equation at the center means that the assumptions, caveats, exceptions are all pushed to the margins. All of Environmental History, viewed this way, is basically an exploration of things economists have regularly dismissed as “externalities.”

And then there’s temperament. The economist wants to simplify: wants to find rules that can be projected into the future. To predict. Most historians I know would prefer to complicate a picture than to “clean it up.” Sometimes this introduces trivialities—but from whose perspective? Is it fair to say that everybody who fails to be big enough to be an “external shock” is irrelevant? Irrelevant to whom? Most historians, I think, are not interested in returning to a whiggish world where only elite white men have agency. In the end, I think it comes down to two things. Epistemology and markets. What do you think is important in the nature of reality? Waves, or particles? And, who do you think you’re working for?

Saving the World with Manure

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon, 2010

Gene Logsdon is described on Wikipedia as “An American Man of Letters,” which seems to be accurate, since he has written dozens of non-fiction books and a handful of novels since the seventies. He’s about eighty years old, so he can write about his personal memories of many of the momentous changes in rural life in the last half century (and he can also get away with saying things like “Nothing is more overrated than sex and nothing so underrated as a good healthy bowel movement”).

Holy Shit, Logsdon’s 2010 book about manure and compost is based on his conviction that soil fertility is the key to human survival. He says it very clearly in the introduction: “My bias— it will be called bias anyway— is that only on smaller, decentralized farms and gardens can food and manure be managed in a truly economical way. Only if populations of animals and humans are spread out over the land will we be able to survive” (I’m going to quote without giving page numbers, because the Kindle version of this book wasn’t paginated). This is not unlike the position taken by many of the other Chelsea Green authors, the difference is that Logsdon is an old guy who has been thinking and writing about these ideas for almost five decades. For me at least, that adds a little something to his argument.

The soil destruction = collapse argument has some popular-history credibility, since it was Jared Diamond’s thesis in
Collapse. Of course, the situation in the ancient world may have been much different: they were not able to make up for used-up or eroded fertility with chemical fertilizers. But maybe that’s not such a bonus for us. Another way of looking at it is their problems were not exacerbated by reliance on chemical fertilizers, and they still failed. Logsdon observes that many ancient civilizations failed after depending on a monoculture crop (ironically, often maize), and then points out that we don’t understand how serious our situation is: “A society so utterly urbanized as ours may not want to face up to what that means, but the end of cheap chemical fertilizer would be almost as earth-shaking as a nuclear bomb explosion.”

Like some of the other guys I’ve been reading lately, Logsdon cites old books (like
F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, 1911) whose authors seem to have been aware of the issues we’re rediscovering today. I really ought to go through the literature and do a history of soil fertility advocacy. When did it begin? Logsdon quotes a 1908 article in the Breeder’s Gazette, which says “. . . Southern Michigan, denuded of fertility by continued wheat growing, discovered a route to prosperity through the mutton finishing lot and farmers in that state now feed sheep and lambs regardless of the cost, to get a supply of manure.” Were these authors ignored or forgotten? Was it Progressivism? Agribusiness? In any case, Logsdon thinks the age of manure is ahead of us. As chemicals become more expensive, he says “People could raise their own meat, milk, and eggs almost for free by buying feed for their animals with the proceeds from selling the manure.” The big problem with this idea is that manure is heavy. The same oil crunch that’s going to make chemicals outrageously pricey is going to make it impossible to transport compost from where it’s produced to where people might pay big bucks for it. So the only lasting solutions, as he says repeatedly, are local ones.

Other books Logsdon mentions are
Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding, 1915, and Alva Agee’s 1912 Crops and Methods for Soil Improvement, which Logsdon says “basically announced the arrival of the manure pack.” Most of the rest of Logsdon’s book is devoted to descriptions of manure handling strategies for different types of animals, including humans. It’s interesting, looking at farm manure not as a nuisance by-product that needs to be dealt with, but as a central product of animal agriculture. Barns, Logsdon remarks at one point, “should have been designed for making and preserving manure of high fertility value and for ease of handling.” Maybe in the future they will be, at least among small farmers who read books like this one.

There’s also an interesting discussion of the differences between thermophilic composting, which is familiar to most gardeners, and the slow composting of the deep manure pack in animal stalls. I’ll need to spend some more time thinking about this – already we have about three or four potentially different things going on outside: a pack of horse manure we inherited from the previous owners, a pack we’re building under the sheep, goats, and chickens, a garden-variety compost pile, and a worm farm. Clearly I have more reading to do on this topic, as well as a good deal of experimenting!

And just when you think the whole thing is based on old, folksy wisdom from the depression era, Logsdon rolls out scientific research done by Harry Hoitink and his students at Ohio State University about the disease-suppressing qualities of composted manure. “We now know,” Logsdon quotes Hoitink, “what the genes are in plants that mediate the natural systemic, induced resistance in plants by active composts. Can you believe that?”

Finally, Logsdon points out the possibly surprising fact that unlike what we were taught for so many years in Agricultural Economics classes, the economics of small production is often better than that of highly capitalized, debt-leveraged corporate farming. For example, Logsdon says, “An up-to-date, 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm needed a corn price of around $ 3.86 a bushel to break even in 2009, economists at the University of Illinois said recently. Others say $ 4 is more like it today. A farmer told me just yesterday he thinks the number is closer to $ 5. Yet anyone with 40 acres of land— and it need not be an Amish farmer either— can plant it to corn and net at least $ 2 a bushel at a $ 4 selling price, using hand, horse, or small tractor power. At 150 bushels per acre, he or she could net $ 12,000 for their labor on 40 acres, a tidy little income for spare-time work, especially in these times of serious unemployment.” And that’s corn – there are any number of more profitable alternatives for small farmers these days. Holy shit! It’s a lot to think about!

Energy and Progressives

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2011

I’m going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it’s a really effective introduction to contemporary energy issues. Maggie Koerth-Baker makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about. This is not a book of academic Environmental History. But it’s about energy, and it has a historical element. And I like my EnvHist reading to be about more than just the academic literature, and I’d especially like them to be relevant to current issues.

That said, I think that in addition to the story of how the power grid got to be the way it is, the other interesting historical element in Koerth-Baker’s account is the Progressive idea she seems to channel that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism from a hundred years ago -- not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they’ve taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.

The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between “what the activists thought the public believed” and what has actually inspired people to change their energy behaviors in the past (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it’s a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding
actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they’re alarmed about global warming? Should we?

“Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more),” Koerth-Baker says. “Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn’t done much to solve our energy problems” (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn’t spread too evenly across the population. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it’s probably important to think about.

One of Koerth-Baker’s big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time discussing, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it’s difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. That seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources removed demand from the grid, they’d be self-balancing. That’s a way to implement alternative power sources Koerth-Baker fails to adequately explore.

Rural America didn’t get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: “it’s not the planet that needs saving. It’s our way of life. More important, I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share” (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we “won’t get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis” (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn’t exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.

Energy isn’t obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it’s hard to see in spite of being all around us. “People don’t make a choice between ‘undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company’ and ‘go without a DVR,’” she says. “They simply decide how they’d prefer to watch TV and don’t have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to” (because they’re always on, DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: “Conservation says, ‘Don’t do it.’ Efficiency says, ‘Do it better.’ That’s a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we—human beings, that is—have been, where we’re going, and what we’re afraid of,” she says (pp. 143-144). Koerth-Baker can’t seem to get to the point of admitting that things can’t go on as they have – can’t acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So she’s left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“You have to give people insights, not data,” she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, “There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family—free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security—I don’t know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he’d have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well” (p. 144). Okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had were the two she mentions. That’s anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big
systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the effects and externalities of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.

At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says “A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy—like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone” (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn’t another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Or even asking a local, and relying on some of that informal
Mētis knowledge James Scott was talking about in Seeing Like a State? Wouldn’t that be the best way to do efficiency and conservation?

Corporate Responsibility and its Elite Opponents

Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe
Erik Loomis, 2015

The story Erik Loomis tells in this dissertation-book is basically about hiding externalities. I picked this up because I've been thinking about how I'm going to talk about economic externality in my American Environmental History class this spring. Loomis argues pretty effectively that the two big reasons for American companies moving offshore or contracting with foreign producers are evading environmental regulations and reducing labor costs. I've been focusing on the environmental, but I think Loomis has convinced me to add a bit of labor history to this section of my course.

Loomis begins with New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. He mentions in the first few pages that millions of American workers faced dangers, and lists the death-tolls of several mine accidents in the early 1900s. But the Triangle fire is important because it was so visible. The fire happened someplace where the consumers of the factory's product as well as upper-middle class and elite activists could actually witness the charred corpses in the locked factory and the broken bodies of women who had jumped to their deaths rather than being burned alive. The horror of these events and the complicity people felt when confronted with them both helped set the scene for reform.

In my lecture and
chapter on industrialization, I mention the Pemberton disaster of 1860, when a textile factory in Massachusetts collapsed, killing 145 workers and injuring another 166. This was a visible disaster, too, and in terms of what happened was probably a closer match to the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 workers and injured at least 2,500. But unlike the Triangle fire, the Pemberton collapse didn't result in any consequences for the factory's owners, and didn't really change anything. I think this supports Loomis's point that when these things happen out of sight, they're easy to push out of mind.


The most memorable moment, for me, was when Loomis quoted Lawrence Summers, the nephew of famous economist Paul Samuelson who has been Chief Economist for the World Bank, President of Harvard, and partner in a $30 billion private equity firm. Summers, who advocated deregulation of the derivatives markets while Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, is still a respected adviser of neo-liberal politicians like Clinton and Obama. Loomis quotes Summers's attitude toward externality:

I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa  are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City." Loomis didn't include Summer's conclusion, but here it is: "health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The fact is, based on the way many economists define their field, the economic logic behind dumping really is impeccable. This is NOT how all economists define their field, but it's worth remembering that Summers became a professor of economics at and president of Harvard long after his thoughts on these issues were well-known. This narrow approach to economic logic illustrates why important issues cannot be decided using only the decision-making tools provided by mainstream economics. Academic economists might object that the work they do is much more nuanced than the Summers memo suggests. If so, they need to stand up and challenge this type of argument when it is made by a Chief Economist of the World Bank, just as historians need to stand up and challenge presidential candidates when they misuse history. (In an ironic coda,
Harvard Magazine basically forgave Summers for his "whopper" of a mistake in 2001. The article's concluding paragraph equates the dangerous worldview of the memo with a "break of service" in a company-picnic tennis game. See, Harvard says, it's no big deal. Larry's a great competitor and a swell guy.)

But back to
Out of Sight. Loomis argues that the era of relatively active government regulation following the Great Depression gave us strong labor unions and later, environmental regulation. Organizations like the EPA and OSHA were essential, Loomis argues, to help codify and cement the gains made by labor activists and environmentalists during periods of high popular awareness and support. Loomis describes the conservative attack on "nanny" government regulation in the 1980s. And then he says the most effective tactic of businesses seeking to avoid labor and environmental oversight was to move to places without regulations.

There are several items along the way I thought were particularly interesting. First, I was struck by how many times in the 19th century labor disputes weren't caused by workers banding together to force employers to give them more, but when they objected to employers demanding they take less. Rent increases in factory dormitories, wage reductions, and higher prices in company stores caused strikes. Not workers deciding they wanted something new and unprecedented that the company couldn't afford to give them. This is a fact that has been forgotten in most history textbooks. While it would be completely legitimate for people to desire workplace improvements, especially when the companies they work for are wildly profitable, workers were usually fighting corporations seeking even more profit by squeezing out costs.

Loomis shows the movement of industry to lower-wage regions didn't begin with NAFTA. The textile industry moved to the South in the early 20th century, and then to Latin America and Asia. RCA moved from New Jersey to Indiana in the 1930s; then to Tennessee and Mexico. Loomis calls attention to the fact that the Obama-supported TPP would create a free-trade zone including Vietnam, which has a 28 cent per hour minimum wage. Loomis says a former Federal Reserve vice-chairman estimated TPP would result in an additional 36 million jobs moving to Asia. I'm not really sure how neo-liberals like Obama and Clinton suppose we'd recover from that.

The only problem I see with the idea of returning to a society where government is used to check the excesses of the market is that last time, it took the Great Depression to wake people up to the need for government involvement in markets. Several times when Loomis describes the gains of the twentieth century, I find myself thinking it would help to explain how bad it had to get, before people supported change. In the end, Loomis calls for a return to effective government regulation that imposes reasonable requirements on businesses, no matter where they operate. Basically, he's suggesting that if businesses selling to American consumers are not allowed to trash the environment or poison their workers in America, they shouldn't be allowed to do it in Bangladesh either. I agree completely. The question is, how do we get there?

Carl Becker and a little Douglas Adams


Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker Carl Lotus Becker, 1958

Carl Becker is, along with Charles Beard, the most influential “relativist” in American historiography, according to Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream. So I thought I’d read some of Becker’s essays. They seem pretty even-handed and insightful. Becker isn’t arguing for anything more radical than Hume (who he calls on in one of the pieces), and he's pretty much writing in plain English. I wonder, if we had understood this material deeply enough, if postmodernism would have evolved differently?

Something about Becker's writing seems really comfortable and reasonable. Maybe that's because, like many grad students, I was exposed years ago to the objective/subjective battle in historiography, in the form of Arthur Marwick and Hayden White. I liked White better, but I was disappointed he couldn't render his thoughts in more standard English. I've ground this axe before, but I really think there are few ideas that are really so complex they can't be described in ways that regular people could understand -- and that it's our job to try to do this, if we want to be relevant beyond the walls of the academy. That's probably why I like Becker, because he seems to agree with me.

Things that I thought worth keeping on hand, for occasional inspiration:

the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is supposed to be completely antithetical.” (10)

while we speak of historical facts as it they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ‘facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.” (11)

I think it’s interesting how this anticipates postmodernism -- but then so does Plato’s
Allegory of the Cave. The question, I suppose, really is: what do we do with this understanding? Most historians are careful to limit and qualify our claims when we're writing for each other. But if only a small number of elite historians write "magisterial" histories for public audiences, is this humility lost?

It seems, then, that the great point in historical synthesis is selection: which of the numberless particular facts will the historian select?” (18)

Regarding “facts,” “
the historian...cannot deal directly with this event itself, since the event itself has disappeared. What he can deal with directly is a statement about the event. He deals in short not with the event, but affirmation...There is thus a distinction of capital importance to be made: the distinction between the ephemeral event which disappears, and the affirmation about the event which persists...If so the historical fact is not the past event, but a symbol which enables us to recreate it imaginatively...The safest thing to say about a symbol is that it is more or less appropriate.” (47)

The most important question to ask may be, what was the motivation to remember this particular event in this particular way? But I read and wrote novels before I read and wrote history -- I'm always asking myself whether my characters' actions make sense and whether their motivations are plausible.

One historian will therefore necessarily choose certain affirmations about the event, and relate them in a certain way, rejecting other affirmations and other ways of relating them...What is it that leads one historian to make, out of all the possible true affirmations about the given event, certain affirmations and not others? Why, the purpose he has in mind will determine that. And so the purpose he has in mind will determine the precise meaning which he derives from the event.” (55)

I'm okay with admitting this, as long as the historian also tries to judge the "affirmation" for consistency with others. Tries to understand the author’s point of view and motivation for affirming. Tries to integrate this into an overall understanding based on context and agreement of sources, rather than just cherry-picking the ones he thinks are most interesting or agree with his thesis. But again, we probably need a more thorough peer review process for popular history.

On the difference between history and science: “
The historian has to judge the significance of the series of events from the one single performance, never to be repeated, and never, since the records are incomplete and imperfect, capable of being fully known or fully affirmed.” (57) I thought that was interesting, because as the sample size collapses to one, statistical inference goes out the window and we have to rely on other types of pattern recognition. This reminds me of what Douglas Adams says in one of my favorite books, The Long Dark teatime of the Soul:

“What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? ‘Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ ”
“I reject that entirely,” said Dirk sharply. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbably lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is that it is hopelessly improbable?...The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and...there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality.”

But back to Becker: “
the kind of history that has the most influence on the life of the community and the course of events is the history that common men carry around in their heads. It won’t do to say that history has no influence on the course of events because people refuse to read history books. Whether the general run of people read history books or not, they inevitably picture the past in some fashion or other, and this picture, however little it corresponds to the real past, helps to determine their ideas about politics and society. This is especially true in times of excitement, in critical times, in time of war above all.” (61) That's what I'm talking about.

Becker also said it was "
not wholly the historian’s fault that the mass of men will not read good history willingly and with understanding; but I think we should not be too complacent about it.” (64)

Where should we get our copper?

Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World
Bill Carter, 2012

I picked this book up because it struck me that I might build my lectures and chapter about mining around copper mining. Although gold and silver mines were prominent in
Part One of my class and textbook, copper is even more vital to creating and maintaining the modern world than precious metals. The modern world could arguably live without gold. But not without copper.

Another advantage of focusing a chapter on copper is that I've already done a bit of research on copper mining in the Americas. I wrote a Masters Thesis on Chilean copper and then when I returned to grad school I spent a season reading about Michigan mining communities. Bill Carter lived in Bisbee, Arizona, so his 2012 book includes some Arizona mining history. Even more interesting is the way Carter weaves his personal experience and the current state of the copper industry into his story.

Bisbee Arizona was once a center of copper mining in the Southwest. Phelps Dodge took $8 billion worth of copper out of the ground there between 1880 and 1975, and the
Freeport-McMoRan which bought out Phelps Dodge reopened mining operations in Bisbee in 2013. Concerned over how the town would change when the mine reopened, Carter and his family moved out at the end of his story. But although he decided not to raise a family by the mine, Carter says if it had been up to him, he would have chosen to reopen the mine.

Carter's thoughts about where copper should be mined are an important element of the book. The modern world can't survive without copper, so it has to come from somewhere. In addition to being a Bisbee resident and an author, Carter is a fisherman who has spent several seasons working in
Bristol Bay, Alaska during the salmon run. Bristol Bay is the site of the planet's biggest sockeye salmon run. Although the area is sparsely populated, 75% of residents make their livings fishing and processing salmon. And the area is seismically active.

A consortium of international mining corporations calling themselves the
Pebble Partnership want to open the largest mine in the Americas, fourteen miles from the headwaters of the salmon run. Carter reports on a visit to a scientist concerned with copper contaminating the streams. "As little as two parts per billion of copper above normal background copper in the water," he says "can make a salmon lose its sense of direction." In other words, locating a mine next to the biggest salmon run in the world is probably a bad idea, even if the mines don't spill or leach any of the chemicals they use to process copper into the environment (122). And mines rarely, if ever, manage to stop chemical spills. It's not really a matter of if, but of when.

Carter must have done a pretty good job disguising his feelings while he was researching the book, because he gets a lot of access to mine company executives, prospectors, and other pro-mining types. He is invited to tour the site with guests of the Pebble Partnership, and then interviews the company's CEO, John Shively. During the conversation, Shively tells Carter he doesn't believe the Exxon Valdez spill "actually hurt the salmon at all" (158). Carter comments that "To even hint that the spill's long-term effects are negligible is borderline psychotic and definitely delusional," and yet Shively impresses him as a fairly decent guy. Again and again, though, Carter shows mining company people projecting sincerity and concern as they overconfidently predict that they have everything well in hand and won't let anything go wrong.

Grasberg Mine
Returning to Bisbee, Carter wonders whether he can trust the promises of the mine company to respect the town and its environment if they reopen operations. Freeport-McMoRan, which bought the Phelps Dodge mine, also owns the world's largest gold reserve and third largest copper operation, at the
Grasberg mine in New Guinea. The company has bribed Indonesian officials, hired the country's military and intelligence services to intimidate critics of the mine, and the mine's environmental record is so bad that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation revoked Freeport's insurance policy for environmental violations. This is one of the interesting elements of the story of mining in the 21st century. Although technically, US laws would prohibit many of the practices used at Grasberg, do government officials in Phoenix or Washington have the will or the power to make them stick? As decisions about mine operations are increasingly made in the boardrooms of stateless global corporations, will practices once restricted to powerless, "third-world" mines become prevalent everywhere? Maybe being treated the way the residents of faraway resource peripheries have always been treated will help people in developed countries develop a sense of solidarity with environmentalists in the developing world.

And yet, as Carter says, the modern world needs copper. It has to be mined somewhere. Carter's conclusion suggests we need to develop better criteria than NIMBY to decide where the mines should be and how they should operate. Bisbee was always a mining town, Carter says, which is a good point. But more important, Bisbee is in the desert. It seems reasonable to suspect there may be less environmental damage associated with digging a big pit in the Arizona desert (or in the Atacama) than next to the world's biggest salmon run. Not that there's no damage -- that's not a choice available to us. But less.

A Really Long View of American History

Tim Flannery is an Australian paleontologist specializing in mammals and an environmental activist. I wasn't really aware of Flannery, until a reader of my blog reviews asked if I had read anything by him. So I read his 2001 book, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. Although I liked the entire book quite a bit, I think the title is a bit misleading. Flannery's story of pre-human America, brilliantly described in the first half of the book, is much more comprehensive than his story of humans in the Americas.

Most of the reading I've done about prehistory, recently, has focused on the rise of humans. Flannery offers a detailed view of the story leading up to humans. Beginning with the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, Flannery traces the re-population of the planet by the plants and animals that survived the disaster. This material really made up the meat of the book, and I learned quite a bit about the evolution and migration of mammals across the planet. I had not known, for example, that "North America can be thought of as having given rise, at an early stage, to virtually all of the larger herbivorous mammal lineages inhabiting the planet today" (53). Hadn't really thought about America as a "climatic trumpet" whose geography amplifies climate changes and even seasonal weather extremes. And it was interesting to watch Flannery apply the rules of his specialty, and explain how "Centripetal evolution constantly generates new species at the centre of a group's range," but leaves peripheral species unchanged (78). I was a little more skeptical when Flannery started applying the rules of his specialty to American society.

In the introduction, Flannery says he is seeking "the quintessential determinants of life in North America" (6). In the concluding chapter, he sums these factors up as "the founder effect, ecological (and social) release, and adaptation" (394). Although I'm fascinated by idea that adaptation really doesn't begin until we begin to hit environmental limits, I thought the way Flannery equated ecological and social release was a little too casual.

I also had a problem with Flannery's casual dismissal of Tim Dillehay's discoveries in Monte Verde. I tried to remind myself that Flannery was writing in 2000, and a lot has changed in the field since then. But even so, I had a bit of a negative reaction to his rejection of anything pre-Clovis and then his immediate embrace of a "Nadene" migration at a time when Beringia was again submerged by rising post-Glacial sea-levels. Flannery says it is hard to believe people sailed all the way from Beringia to southern Chile, as if they never stopped along the way. They may in fact have stopped all along the way, and left remains that were then erased as the coastlines of the glacial era disappeared under the rising ocean. Flannery also seems to suggest that human migration (like animal migration?) had to be an all or nothing affair, when more recent evidence suggests there were several waves of migration from Beringia/Alaska into America. So maybe there's something a bit more variable happening in "social release" than there would have been in ecological release?

Flannery's interest in Frederick Jackson Turner is evident from the book's title, and he returns to Turner in his conclusion. Flannery suggests that academic historians' rejection of Turner might be a bit faddish and premature, which is probably a fair assessment. But the portion of his story dealing with the historic period might have benefited from a bit more engagement with the work historians have done in the field. Flannery leans heavily on Jared Diamond's
Guns, Germs and Steel, and Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. While I think one of those sources was an excellent choice, Flannery should probably have read a few more books before writing these chapters outside his own specialty.

But these later chapters still have a lot of interesting material in them. Flannery's description of bison changing in response to Indian hunting is fascinating, and seems to occupy an interesting middle ground between evolution and selective breeding that probably deserves more study--especially for people interested in the beginnings of agriculture and animal husbandry. The way western society often made "ruthless exploitation, greed and senseless environmental honored tradition" is also described clearly and Flannery connects this with "breakdown of authority" in an interesting way. Finally, Flannery's suggestion that "a society genuinely adapted to North American conditions" won't emerge until we confront the end of the growth economy is interesting and appropriately ominous.

REALLY Bad History

The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People Oscar Handlin, 1951

Yesterday while I was making a case for teaching historians to write in ways that appeal to general audiences, I bashed this book. I think Oscar and Mary Flug Hamlin's Handlin’s 1947 work, Commonwealth, was valuable. But I think The Uprooted is an embarrassment to the profession. Here's why:

Handlin's thesis is that the “history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences” (4). But he never mentions anyone in particular. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” he says (308). Freed from any obligation to support his generalizations with the experiences (much less the voices) of real people, Handlin paints a picture of superstitious, ignorant peasants who are too thick to understand the new society they find in America. They huddle together in ghettos until they are told by their social betters that they must become American; and then they discover the depth of their alienation -- they will never belong, and they can never go home.

It’s a real tale of woe. “The mighty collapse” of “the peasant heart of Europe...left without homes millions of helpless, bewildered people,” Handlin says (7). These peasant immigrants belong to a pre-modern, pre-commercial, and definitely pre-industrial world in Handlin’s account; so it makes sense that they are naively religious, believe in fairies, and feel attuned to the rhythms of nature (94-9). Their village communities give structure and meaning to their lives; so they are adrift the moment they leave. The horror of the passage weeded out the weakest and hardened the rest (43). Once here, peasants who had known only the land were unable to escape the cities and find a place in the countryside. Instead, they became unskilled workers on canal, then railroad, and then highway crews (66).

“Often,” Handlin says, “they would try to understand. They would think about it in the pauses of their work, speculate sometimes as their minds wandered, tired, at the close of a long day” (94). It’s as if he’s talking about an alien species -- and perhaps from his perspective, he is. The incredible condescension and sheer distance between the historian and his subjects is remarkable, in a book still regarded by many as a classic text. Handlin consistently denies the immigrants agency: they are orphan birds forced from their “nests” and unable to return; “and if they failed to reach the soil which had once been so much a part of their being, it was only because the town had somehow trapped them” (64).

There are some interesting facts sprinkled into the melodrama, that suggest the skeleton of a more accurate and more interesting story. “A single year in the 1830’s saw seventeen vessels founder on the run from Liverpool to Quebec alone,” Handlin says (48). And in 1847, he says, “eighty-four ships were held at Grosse Isle below Quebec...ten thousand died.” Unfortunately, he continues this passage not with facts, but with an italicized but unattributed statement written in slang, to sound like it’s a first-person account: “
I have seen them lyin on the beach, crawlin on the mud, and dyin like fish out of water” (55). By 1910, Handlin says, there were not only 350,000 miles of railway, but 200,000 miles of paved highway (66). And he says that Henry George was popular with foreign-born voters (218). Interesting details that could have been the basis of an interesting book.

Two of the most problematic elements of
The Uprooted are Handlin’s discussions of why the immigrants didn’t move to country, and his musings on their sexual difficulties. “Reluctance to pitch on the cheapest frontier lands,” he says, was based on “the expensive compulsion to settle on farms already brought under cultivation by others,” rather than the timing of their arrival and availability of accessible land (84). Isolated farms, where “neighbors lived two or three miles off,” also discouraged village-oriented peasants, Handlin claims (165). But this is a very late, high plains type of farming; for much of the period he’s discussing it would not have applied. And Handlin completely mis-characterizes truck farming close to urban centers; turning it into a sad affair where “Would-be agriculturalists...found used-up bits of ground...[and] took up the sterile, neglected acres” (88). The fact that they were successful and provided perishable foods to city-people while re-establishing their relationship with the land, goes almost unnoticed in Handlin’s gloomy account.

On the sexual front -- I’m not even going to go there, except to say that it’s unnecessary, it’s a blatantly condescending caricature, and it’s probably a figment of Handlin’s own fevered imagination. “
Better sleep out on the fire escape, Joe” (238) ...REALLY?  This is a Pulitzer-winning book from a revered historian. Give me a break.

Popularizing (& Confusing) the Market Transition

The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846
Charles Grier Sellers, 1991

I read this after reading a lot of books and articles debating the market transition, and it was a strange experience. While the debate was usually conducted within the academy, this book crossed over a bit into th realm of popular history. And Sellers really doesn't engage with the academics who had been writing about the subject for a couple of decades. Instead, he tells his own story of antinomianism, arminianism, and peasant animism, wavering between a sort-of determinist conspiracy theory where “Lawyers were the shock troops of capitalism” and a religious morality play, where “Edwards’s revolutionary New Light, as finally modulated to the stresses of capitalist accommodation by Finney’s genius, nerved Americans for the personal transformation required by a competitive market” (47, 235). Neither is satisfying, but along the way there’s plenty of interesting information I can look into further.

The Jeffersonians aren’t heroes in Sellers’ story. In 1802 Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin “convinced Congress to allocate land revenues from the new state of Ohio for a National Road connecting it with the Potomac via southwestern Pennsylvania, where his own investments were concentrated”(62). The “Fourteenth Congress, convening in prosperous peace in December 1815, was filled with enterprise-minded lawyers” who took credit for “saving the republic from the military ineptitude of penny-pinching, old-fogy Republicanism” (70). Monroe “falling thousands of dollars in debt to the [Second] Bank’s chief promotor, John Jacob Astor, who regularly subsidized his habit of living beyond his means,” is also interesting (80). But “The Adamses epitomized both the fruits and human costs of the self-repressive effort exacted by capitalist transformation.  The sublimation of psychic energy that fueled the country’s astonishing surge of production also generated the emotional intensity that John Quincy Adams displaced onto his beloved republic” (95). I agree Adams was high-strung, but seriously, what do these sentences mean? I think the story flows much more smoothly when Sellers describes events like “the dramatic reversal of Republican tradition” when, in President Madison’s words, Republicans were “reconciled to certain measures and arrangements which may be as proper now as they were premature or suspicious when urged by champions of Federalism” (101). Sellers has an eye for irony: this is a beautiful explanation of the role of parties in American politics.

In another ironic passage, Sellers describes Senator John Taylor (“of Caroline”) and his 1814
Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the United States. Taylor’s analysis of “capitalist exploitation of American agricultural labor” anticipates Marx, Sellers suggests. But it’s also absurd. “This doomed aristocrat, elaborating the labor theory of value while slave labor supplied his every want,” Sellers says, “epitomized the contradictions of the capitalist transformation” (120). This is the tension I always feel when reading Foner. Is it possible for a group as wrong as Southern Congressmen were, to articulate a valid indictment of Northern wage-based industry? And if not, is part of the tragedy of the antebellum period the fact that there was no one in a credible position to say what needed to be said about the way capitalist institutions were developing? Is that the lesson of American politics in this period, that both sides are so compromised that there is never any pure ground to stand on, so you make your choice of the lesser evil? Did people at the time “get” this?  “Rotation in office” became the “spoils system” under Jackson -- was anyone surprised?

Sellers says “it is not surprising that the state banks, most having suspended specie payments during the war [of 1812], were reluctant to resume redeeming their notes in gold or silver coin on demand. With specie payments suspended, new banks could open on no other capital than stock loans and a little borrowed specie, and then force their notes into circulation by lending freely. Established banks could earn dividends of 12 to 20 percent by extending loans and note issues far beyond their specie reserves. The resulting uncontrolled inflation threatened sound growth,” but of course it seemed like a good idea at the time, to each person who took the notes or loans from their eager local banker (133). The question Sellers doesn’t really address is, how is it these banks were
allowed  to do this? There’s more going on than just an old fashioned culture (in which Jefferson cosigns his friend Nicholas’ loan and loses his fortune, 138) that doesn’t understand what’s happening, isn’t there?  Time to read some books on banking history.

In 1818, “with Henry Clay as its well-rewarded supervising attorney, the [new] national Bank [began] ruthlessly stripping its western debtors of their property. Most of Cincinnati fell into its hands” (138). But the people reacted and “General William Henry Harrison, popular hero of Tippecanoe, bank director, and longtime grandee, was hard run for the state senate by an upstart radical lawyer and hero of the city’s working class” (165). Image politics began in 1828, Sellers says, when “Farmers and workers were baffled as well as threatened by the abstraction and complexity of the interests and issues that engaged calculating elites,” and as a result “Jackson’s charisma froze voters into a pattern of party identifications favoring his entourage” (297). Were the issues that difficult? Were the people that dim? Who, then, was the audience for “self-taught mechanic/intellectual” William M. Gouge’s 1833
Short History of Paper Money and Banking?

When Jackson vetoed the Bank recharter, was he leading or following?  The rhetoric was right on target: “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes...Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress” (325) If the “Bank War was the acid test of American democracy,” how is it no one in Jackson’s administration understood what throwing control back to unregulated state banks was going to do to the money supply? (321) It’s hard to see, recalling the post-1812 inflation Sellers described, how anyone believed that without controls the result would be a return to metallic “real” money. So either part of the story is missing, or people weren’t honest. “Legislatures chartered over two hundred new banks in three years, pushing the total over six hundred. As the money supply (bank notes, deposits, and circulating specie [he forgets promissory notes, which were used extensively and functioned as cash]) swelled from $172 million in 1834 to $276 million in 1836, prices shot up 50%.” Thomas Hart Benton complained “I did not join in putting down the Bank of the United States, to put up a wilderness of local banks...I did not join in putting down the paper currency of a national bank, to put up a national paper currency of a thousand local banks” (344). What
had he expected?

The Specie Circular was overturned by Congress in December 1836 by Whigs and “Conservative Democrats,” and “Jackson’s last official act was a pocket veto sustaining his hard-money policy against the bipartisan dismay of politicians.” Jackson came to Washington as a result of the Panic of 1819, and left after setting off the Panic of 1837. “Economic disaster and multiplying immigrants--from 38,914 in 1838 to 104,565 in 1842--soon brought plebeian nativism to a boil” and launched America on its irrevocable path toward urban industrial capitalism. Really?  US population in 1840 totaled 17,069,453. The 1842 "tsunami" of immigration amounted to less than one percent of the total population. Even if the immigrants had all arrived in and remained in New York City (they didn’t), they would have made up only about 25% of that city’s population. A little more engagement with data, and a little less armchair psychology, would have made this a more readable and persuasive book.

So how did the academy react? In 1992, the
Journal of the Early Republic invited a panel to participate in a Symposium on Market Revolution  (Somehow, the Journal managed to not invite a number of social historians who had been working on the market revolution for decades. But many of these historians had a chance to be heard in Stokes and Conway’s 1996 book). Kicking off was Richard Ellis, a former student of Sellers’ who said that although the book did “not pay the careful attention to detail” that people had come to expect from Sellers, his comprehensiveness [and]...aggressive presentation of meaningful and provocative generalizations...will act as a catalyst for numerous doctoral dissertations” (447). Mary Blewett hinted that social historians had already moved well beyond Sellers’ generalizations and suspected they would be frustrated and disappointed by his synthesis (454). Joel Silbey subtly suggested that Sellers was simply following a line of argument “so well explored and synthesized previously by Harry Watson." In his turn, Watson recalled that resistance to the market transition has been discussed in the terms Sellers uses by Henretta, Clark, Kulikoff, etc.

In his defense, Sellers admitted that the “theologisms” in the book are daunting, but says that’s the way it has to be. He reiterated his belief that “the Protestant tension between antinomianism and arminianism was the central tension in early American life.” Religion, he said, “demands the special attention of historians because through it, as through politics, the largest numbers of people most visibly register their reactions to their circumstances.” This is probably my biggest issue with Sellers approach.  Politics is an imperfect mirror of regular people’s ideas about life and society, because they most often are choosing from a set menu (between the giant douche or the turd sandwich, to put it in South Park terminology). But
at least there are no institutional barriers to political participation. Regular people are at least theoretically eligible to play. The whole point of the religious game in early America was control from above. Even where the message was individual, internal salvation through grace, the medium was still an elite white guy in the pulpit, who the lay people were indoctrinated to believe and follow. “Nothing could be more liberating for American historians,” Sellers says, “than recognizing our own embeddedness in the liberal ideology we should be subjecting to critical analysis” (475). I actually agree, but I think the same goes for Sellers’ own embeddedness in theology.

Climate talks and Joan Scott


One of the things I've been noticing, as the COP21 talks have progressed, is the media attempting to tell the climate change story as if it's not an argument, and as if the time for hope and positive action was not past. I think the second point is important, that there's  reason for hope and immediate action based on the idea that we can still mitigate the negative effects of modern life. But the shift in the language used in some of these stories, and the widespread avoidance of identifying the "sides" in the debate has reminded me of some observations Joan Scott made in a different context.

I read Scott when I was thinking about how to do histories of outsiders. According to Scott, “Positive definitions rest always...on the negation or repression of something represented as antithetical to it.” The definition of anything naturally  involves the exclusion of those things that are not considered part of, or germane to, or important in its nature. That's the common sense part. It gets interesting when she says the thing's “nature” is based on its perceived use or value to particular people in a particular time and place.

Maybe a better way of thinking about definition would be in terms of set theory rather than some type of unitary equality or inequality. A thing (noun) is a set of attributes (adjectives); the most crucial ones “defining” its nature -- but only in a given place and time, based on the locally predominant values. Looking at identity this way would enable us to observe changes in the set of attributes considered most important, and to ask questions about these changes. It would also allow us to ask questions like, "why didn't urban wage workers and farmers find more political common ground in the nineteenth century?"

Scott points out that “categorical oppositions repress the internal ambiguities of either category” (in
Gender and the Politics of History). When people define things as binary pairs, the characteristics that separate them may not do so as completely as the definers believe. The characteristic that differentiates two "opposite" things may not be as clear-cut and unambiguous as it seems to the definers. Or as clearly-perceived by the members of the opposing groups. And there may be other characteristics of the “opposites” that are similar or the same -- but these are not considered “essential” at the particular time and place where definition is being done.

Scott says a major element of Derrida’s deconstruction spoke “precisely to this arrangement [in which] the second term is present and central because required for the definition of the first.” This focus on opposition tends to ignore the “non-essential” characteristics and zero in on the binary, which may validate the initial definition to an undeserved degree. It’s okay as far as it goes -- we just have to remember it only goes so far. Conflicts over meaning thus “attempt to expose repressed terms, to challenge the natural status of seemingly dichotomous pairs, and to expose their interdependence and their internal instability.”

I’d add that, inasmuch as meanings continue to be “constructed through exclusions,” the changing relevance of specific elements in a definition set over time is a particularly interesting question for the historian. What happens when an apparently “natural” category’s definition changes? Especially, when characteristics that were once considered “essential” slip in importance, to be replaced by other characteristics that were less important when the initial dichotomy was formed? Does the binary evaporate? Or does it persist, even though the elements that constituted the initial definition-by-exclusion are no longer relevant?

Scott says academic history is based on “a politics that sets and enforces priorities, represses some subjects in the name of the greater importance of others, naturalizes certain categories, and disqualifies others.” She reminds us that “history, through its practices, produces (rather than gathers or reflects) knowledge about the past,” which means that “history operates as a particular kind of cultural institution endorsing and announcing constructions of” (she says gender, I’m going to substitute) social identity.

What I was thinking, as I read this, was that I could formulate an “outsider history” along some of the same lines Scott used to define gender history. One of the interesting questions would be, what happens when outsiders win? What happens to people and ideas, defined by opposition to something no longer relevant, when they achieve some type of legitimacy.

One of the things I’d want to do, would be to keep it about people and ideas. Not about ideas and categories. Even if the “meanings of concepts are taken to be unstable [and to] require vigilant repetition, reassertion, and implementation,” I keep wondering,
why do people choose to continue expending energy on their maintenance? When you bring people back into the story, you have to start asking about actual choices rather than set theory. I think that leads pretty quickly to the classic forensic question, Cui bono? That's a question that's relevant to the current situation.

A Personal View of the Rise of Agribusiness

A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 Paul K. Conkin, 2008

Paul Conkin is an intellectual historian who wrote extensively about the Progressive Era and the New Deal. He's also the historian who bashed David Danbom's book, The Resisted Revolution, saying Danbom's work “illustrates how a historian, by the intellectual games he plays with his sources, can do much more to impede than to aid understanding.” Conkin said Danbom's “imprecise word use, indefinite or illegitimate groupings of people, the reification of ideal types, and unwarranted references from evidence all make it impossible for me to understand, let alone accept, Danbom’s major contentions.” This review appeared in Agricultural History, the same journal in which David Danbom had used more or less the same words in 1975 to bash William L. Bowers's The Country Life Movement in America: 1900-1920, which had basically followed Conkin's interpretation of the period. So the man had a long memory.

Conkin was 80 when he published
A Revolution Down on the Farm.  He features his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, which illustrate a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal, Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.

One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States” (x). Technology, but also markets, economic change and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 million in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today” (xi). This was a victory from the perspective of economic efficiency, and Conkin seems to think critics of this change haven't focused enough on the benefits of this change. So, what does he think the benefits were, and who benefited?

Conkin begins by trying to change our perspective on the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, he says, “from the beginning [they] depended on markets” (1). As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food” (2). It now takes only a few percent.  This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enabled them or the social changes that followed them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it, both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability, is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded. Ironically, this is the same portrayal of rural people by Progressive intellectuals that Danbom had objected to in the book Conkin didn't like.

Conkin's reminiscences of farm life in the first half of the twentieth century don't always seem to match his thesis. He remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks” (4). At harvest time, he says, work was more strenuous and prolonged. I guess this is inefficient from a particular point of view. In my mind, it depends on what you spend those extra hours doing.

One of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000)” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may be too strong a term here -- smaller farmers may simply have been unable to afford a new tractor or combine. It's also possible that smaller operators didn't buy into the the logic of expansion. If you don’t buy the big combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250.

Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Herbert Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date” (30).  Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting claim that may merit a closer look sometime (52). But the digression into politics doesn't completely fit into what had been a story of what people experienced "down on the farm."

Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he gives some examples from his own experience (49). These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s economic perspective seems to have originated in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow” (49). He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, nor are the externalities and subsidies associated with many of these inputs. But it's important to note that just as they are not obvious to Conkin, they may have been equally hidden to other people who experienced the change.

Conkin also describes the transition of his boyhood farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin was able to witness “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices” (84). And his family experience reinforced the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans (94). But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his professional expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the New Deal to the present, without actually shedding too much light on the subject.

In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States” (96). This trend towards concentration, he says, continues in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” In this case, his metric of success isn't even overall economic efficiency -- it's strictly labor efficiency. Economic issues such as the corn subsidies that contribute to raising the chickens or the illegal-immigrant status of the people processing the broilers it only took a man-hour to raise are completely absent from his analysis.

Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history” (164). His frustration that certain malcontents might wish to disagree with that claim seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion, and the risks associated with new techniques continue to change, the rational economic decision-makers he praises might legitimately need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors.

The word “ now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is absolutely true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of their sustainability arguments or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible,” he says, and I couldn't agree more.

Conkin seems to realize that something weird has just happened to his argument. “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” he concludes, “so be it” (205). I think it's great that he ends with a call for more accurate cost accounting and greater responsibility for externalities. It's unfortunate that Conkin didn't really see the flaws in the arguments and experiential impressions that led to the present situation, but it's very helpful that he gave us a personal view of where those arguments and impressions came from.

Suggestive rather than Conclusive

The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930 David B. Danbom, 1979

David Danbom portrays the Country Life Movement as an urban-led crusade to save rural America, but he argues that the movement's Progressive leaders were frequently hostile to rural people and their interests. Ultimately, he says, the goal of the reformers was to ensure steady supplies of cheap food to support urban growth and low-wage industry. This thesis interests me, because I've often thought the people leading the Progressive Movement were just a bit too urban, educated, and elite.

Danbom takes a sort-of cultural approach to demonstrating his claim, using a wide array of print primary sources, rather than letters or journals of the reformers or the testimony of rural people. So there's no smoking gun document, where one reformer says to another, "these damn country folk. All they're good for is feeding city wage workers." Luckily, many of his print sources are now available online via Google Books, so we can read them ourselves and see if we see the same things Danbom did.


Danbom's narrative tends to portray good guys and bad guys, when the reality (even in primary passages he quotes from, in my opinion) is clearly more layered and complex. But Hofstadter and others have done the same with the Progressives. It’s a contentious period, and one that seems to invite over-generalization. Or is that just my discomfort with the cultural/intellectual history approach? I often find arguments of this type suggestive rather than conclusive, especially when they rely mostly on elite sources. Although he cites a lot of texts, Danbom doesn't use some of the obvious ones you'd expect to see. There's no
Horace Plunkett, for example. Is that because Plunkett, though a foreign aristocrat, was too sympathetic to farmers to fit the mold?

In the end, Danbom concludes that, although there was a net loss in farms in the 1920s, medium sized farms fared worst. Tiny and gigantic farms both increased in number, just as they seem to have done in the recent Ag. Census (when the giant farms were agribusiness corn producers and the tiny ones were CAFOs). An inference that might be drawn from this is that the “farmers” Hofstadter focuses on in
Age of Reform may be different from the rural people Danbom writes about. A change in what we define as farmers in this transitional period might explain a lot. A more balanced sample of sources that included some rural voices might also help. Reading the sources Danbom cites, I get more of a sense of privilege and technocracy than hostility. But I'd really like to know how the farmers felt.

Of the eight reviews I found of
Resisted Revolution, several were positive, a couple called attention to flaws in characterization, and one (Paul Conkin's in Ag. Hist.) blasted Danbom for shoddy and ideologically tainted work. There's a story behind that, which I'll explore tomorrow.

Some of the sources Danbom used:

Bailey, The Country Life Movement in the United States Bailey, The Training of Farmers Bailey, New York State Rural Problems Bailey, The State and the Farmer Bryan, Farming as an Occupation Butterfield, A Campaign for Rural Progress Blackmar, Social Degeneration in Towns and Rural Districts Boyle, Agricultural Economics Butterfield, The Farmer and the New Day Butterfield, Chapters in Rural Progress Cance, Immigrant Rural Communities Carstens, The Rural Community and Prostitution Carver, Principles of Rural Economics Carver, Selected Readings in Rural Economics REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON COUNTRY LIFE Coulter, Influence of Immigration of Agricultural Development The Craftsman, Why Back to the Farm? The Craftsman, Getting Back to Our Base of Supplies Danielson, The Hill Folk (Hereditary Defectives) Devine, Misery and Its Causes Dugdale, The Jukes Dillingham, Recent Immigrants in Agriculture Fiske, Challenge of the Country Forbes-Lindsay, The Rural Settlement Galpin, Rural Life Gathany, What's the Matter with the Eastern Farmer? Gillette, Constructive Rural Sociology Gillette, Rural Sociology Goddard, The Kallikak Family Groves, The Rural Mind and Social Welfare Hall, Three Acres and Liberty Hall, A Little Land and a Living Harger, Middle West's Peace Problems Harmon, What's the Matter with the Pennsylvania Farmer? Harris, Health on the Farm James Jerome Hill, Highways of Progress Hill, The Natural Wealth of the Land and Its Conservation Hill, Addresses by James Jerome Hill Holmes, The Passing of the Farmer Holmes, Movement from City and Town to Farms Jenks, The Immigration Problem, “Recent Immigrants in Agriculture” Knapp, Causes of Southern Rural Conditions and the Small Farm as an Important Remedy Kolb, Rural Primary Groups C.L., Two Views of the Back to the Land Movement Lighton, "The Riches of a Rural State" McKeever, Farm Boys and Girls Mills, What's the Matter with the Farmer? Northrup, Rural Improvement (1880) Nourse, The War and the Back to the Land Movement Phelan, Rural Economics and Rural Sociology Ross, Agrarian Changes in the Middle West Spillman, Farming as an Occupation for City-Bred Men Steiner, Our Recent Immigrants as Farmers Strong, The Challenge of the Country Twitchell, Outlook for New England Agriculture USDA 1940 Yearbook: Farmers in a Changing World Vandercook, Rural Delinquency Vincent, “Countryside and Nation” Waugh, Rural Improvement Wilson, “Country Versus City”

One More Look at Down to Earth


I remember someone saying to me they thought Ted Steinberg's Environmental History textbook, Down to Earth, was stronger when he was exploring contemporary issues than when he was covering colonial and early America. I can't remember who said it, but I think the reason might be that Steinberg seems to have taken an editor's advice. The text tries to organize itself thematically from the outset. Steinberg divides the book into three thematic sections: Chaos to Simplicity, Rationalization and Its Discontents, and Consuming Nature. That's one of the reasons, I think, that I consider this as more of a "History Majors" or even a "Grad Survey" textbook than as a "Gen Ed" text or a survey for popular audiences.

But to get back to the comment on the more contemporary chapters, I thought they were very effective and I think it's more appropriate to handle the contemporary material thematically, because so much of it overlaps. Especially the closer we get to the present. Also, I think Steinberg's focus on the law is extremely useful and gives the legal elements of environmental change attention they don't get in other texts.

In the Moveable Feast chapter, for example, Steinberg outlines how food regulation went beyond the Pure Food and Drug Act's response to
The Jungle. Laws like the 1917 Fresh Fruit, Nut, and Vegetable Standardization Act not only helped turn agricultural produce into an "identical commodity," they were sponsored and supported by the representatives of the big growers who would benefit the most. Later in the same chapter, Steinberg outlines the 1937 Central Valley Project, which brought northern California water to the southern growers and "left agriculture largely in the hands of the corporate growers--the main beneficiaries of government intervention" (183). I have family in the Central Valley, so I visit there occasionally. There's such a strong sense of inevitability about the way California ended up, that I think is probably echoed in a lot of other places. We need to talk much more about issues like this.

Another passage with a lot of law in it is Steinberg's discussion of how environmentalism led to legislation in the 1970s in the chapter titled Shades of Green. Although he doesn't describe each piece of legislation, the list of specific laws is useful for people wanting to learn more. Steinberg calls the legislation "a gigantic handbook on how to counter the ills of a corporate, consumption-oriented society" (251). I'd like to read more about how the legal and cultural overlapped. Personally, I'm much more comfortable  tracing actions (like "In 1932, GM launched a plan to buy up urban transit systems throughout the nation" on page 208. There's probably a great story in that!) than culture and
mentalities, so that's an where area I'd love to have the dots connected a little more.

Maybe that's my overall reaction to
Down to Earth. There are some really great descriptions of interesting moments and events (another one is the Planned Obsolescence movement pioneered by GE in the 1930s, 228), that I'd really like to learn more about. But not quite enough events to be a complete survey of what happened in American Environmental History. And there are some really interesting hints and suggestions about culture, which I'd also like to know more about. But there aren't quite enough of either, and how the two fit together isn't clear to me. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Probably means there's enough material here for a bigger (or two-volume) new edition.

Bam! American Environmental History Part One


I've gone ahead and pulled the trigger. Part One of my American Environmental History is now available on Amazon as a print book and a Kindle Ebook. I self-published this, which I think I ought to explain, since although plenty of novelists (myself included) have had success self-publishing, it isn't something that has really caught on yet in nonfiction, and especially in not academic publishing. So what's this all about?

I've been teaching American Environmental History for UMass/Amherst for several years. I actually TA-ed the class while I was doing my PhD coursework there, after taking the graduate version of the class with David Glassberg. Then I did a Global Environmental History teaching field with Ted Melillo down the road at Amherst College. Then I wrote my own syllabus and taught the class online in 2014 and 2015. I'll be teaching it again in the Spring semester, 2016, beginning in a few weeks.

All of that, to be honest, is me establishing my platform. I had a chat with an editor many years ago at a writers' conference. He said I could submit any fiction I wanted to him, but nonfiction would need to be accompanied by a convincing platform in order to be considered. That's actually what convinced me to go back to UMass for the PhD. That PhD is nearly completed--all that's left is the pesky detail of finishing the dissertation. But in any case, I think I have at least a plausible claim to a platform for this book.

I think so, but one of the reviewers the Oxford University Press sent my book proposal out to last year didn't agree. Of the six reviews, three were negative and three positive. So I didn't get a contract offer. One of the reviewers was simply not buying the project from an author without the PhD. The other two had constructive criticisms that I used to make the manuscript better. The outline was too New England-centric, one reviewer said. That was true.  It isn't anymore. I hadn't made a firm commitment to chronological or thematic presentation, said the other. That was true, too, but a little more complicated. I've split the project into a mostly-chronological Part One and a mostly-thematic Part Two as a result.

But then there were the other three reviewers, who all said they would use the book as proposed. That was
very encouraging. One reviewer said "I have long wanted a straightforward account of environmental history to use with undergraduate classes." Another agreed with me that there is currently no comprehensive survey available. Ted Steinberg's and Carolyn Merchant's textbooks, I had argued, are more oriented toward historiography, theory, and special topics. A reviewer agreed that "Neither Steinberg nor Merchant emphasize momentous events. This study will focus students' attention on the most significant moments in American Environmental History."

So all that gave me the confidence to revise my course and my manuscript. And then I decided not to resubmit the proposal to Oxford America. Why not?

It took nearly six months for my first proposal to go through the process. I didn't want to do that again. And even after the book was accepted somewhere, I'd still be looking at another year before it hit the shelves. Life's too short.

The suggested price-points mentioned in the reviews ranged from $45 to $75. I didn't want my work to have that high a tag on it. I'd really like some general readers outside the academy to pick this up. That's not going to happen if the book is priced like a college textbook. I don't blame publishers for pricing books the way they do. They have a lot of overhead to pay for. But I don't.

What if I could get the thing out for under $25? Okay, there would be some sacrifices. It would be printed on regular paper rather than glossy textbook stock. The illustrations would all have to be in black and white. More significantly, they'd all have to be public domain images, since I don't have the administrative capability or the budget to license hundreds of maps, photos, and drawings. And I'd have to handle all the page layout and proofreading myself. I taught myself InDesign and learned the tricks to submitting a clean interior to Createspace and then a completely different format to Kindle Direct Publishing. The big nail-biter, frankly, was the proofreading. We're all aware how easy it is to miss errors in your own writing. Luckily, I have talented friends and family to help with that.

So there are a lot of reasons to try the self-publishing route, I think. Some challenges I've tried to work through.  And one big, uncontrollable unknown. Will anybody buy it?

Because, let's face it, in addition to the editing and production expertise a publisher like Oxford brings to the table, there's the logo on the spine. It's a lot safer to buy a history with a label authenticating it. Yes, we can all point to something that managed to sneak into a major publisher's catalog that shouldn't be there. But there's still a sense of safety. I'm not an enemy of the publishing industry, I just think it should change with the times. A really good self-published history might help shake things up.

I can't change the power of branding. What I
can do is make it easy to take the risk. Part One is on Amazon for $11.99 in print and $8.99 on Kindle; the Kindle is free when you buy the print book. And I'll be happy to send a free (print) copy to anyone who'll write a review.

So come on. Let's shake things up a bit.

Presentism 60 Years Later

The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R. Richard Hofstadter, 1955

I referred to this book the other day, so I thought I ought to say something more about it. Introducing his subject in 1955, Richard Hofstadter said “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4).  While admitting a progressive movement would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter preferred to separate out a cultural spirit of  progressivism, which he said was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation.” (5)  Why?  Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he could cut its ties with the Populist political movement that preceded it.  And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, was at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognized as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7).  Hofstadter tried to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11).  Populism leads, he said, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wanted progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he called liberalism and conservatism were presentist (in 1955), and his concerns were very much those of his own day. Attempting to shoe-horn the past so you can draw a lineage from progressivism to the 1950s Democratic platform while claiming the crazy, racist populists begat the Republicans seems a bit problematic. Did nobody notice at the time? This book was big. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

“The United States,” Hofstadter famously began Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23).  It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age.  The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20).  And on some level, Hofstadter was clearly aware of this. He reminded his readers that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25).  Hofstadter concluded too readily, I think, that farmers embraced the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admitted was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29).  That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35).  I think Hofstadter lost sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he said he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about.  I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53).  Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67).  These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62).  At the very least, I think we might be able to separate those two phrases and examine whether farmers were really objecting in total to either of them--or just to their excesses.

I think the interpretation hangs on which conditions farmers wanted to reverse.  When Hofstadter called attention to Populists' use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hit the nail on the head and simultaneously undermined his argument.  Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who had characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting
The Populist Revolt p. 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel suggests), but to who benefited from change and how power was being misused to achieve those changes.

Jefferson's commercial yeoman, via Appleby

Joyce Appleby "Commercial Farming and the 'Agrarian Myth' in the Early Republic" Journal of American History 68:4, March 1982
Joyce Appleby uses Early Republic agriculture as a jumping-off place for an argument about the Jeffersonian Republicans’ attitudes toward commerce and national growth. Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book,
The Age of Reform, had found “the roots of the nostalgia that flowered with the Populists” in Jefferson’s feelings for the “noncommercial, nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspects of American farm life.” Appleby says Hofstadter’s Jeffersonians “created an ‘agrarian myth’ and fashioned for the new nation a folk hero, the yeoman farmer” (833-4). Hofstadter misunderstood or misrepresented Jefferson's attitude toward commerce, she claims, based on two “very shaky” citations (834). Neither A.W. Griswold nor C.E. Eisinger were saying what Hofstadter thought they were, Appleby says. In fact, they were arguing not for a Jeffersonian preoccupation with noncommercial yeoman self-sufficiency, but for a freehold concept linked to rising population, increasing demand for food production, and foreign grain markets.

Although “yeoman has become a favorite designation” for early American farmers, and “a code word for a man of simple tastes, sturdy independence, and admirable disdain for all things newfangled,...Anyone searching for the word yeoman in the writings of the 1790s will be disappointed...The error in current scholarly usage, however, is not lexical, but conceptual” (835, 837). In reality, she says, after a post-war depression that ended in 1788, American farmers enjoyed a generation of rising wheat prices based on the growing inability of Europe to meet its own needs. Farmers “anticipated participation in an expanding international commerce in foodstuffs created the material base for a new social vision...the battle between Jeffersonians and Federalists appears not as a conflict between the patrons of agrarian self-sufficiency and the proponents of modern commerce, but rather as a struggle between two different elaborations of capitalistic development in America” (836). Appleby’s Jeffersonians, unaware of the impending technological revolution we see so clearly in hindsight, looked to the “long upward climb of prices...[of] crops that ordinary farmers could easily grow” as the basis of continued growth and stability in the new republic (839). The shift from tobacco to wheat farming in the mid-Atlantic “promoted in two decades the cities, towns, and hamlets that had eluded the Chesapeake region during the previous century of tobacco production” (839-40). “Philadelphia and New York, both drawing on a grain-raising hinterland, surpassed Boston in population, wealth, and shipping” (840).

This is an interesting approach to data that Allan Kulikoff uses quite differently. “In the single decade of the 1790s,” Appleby says, America’s 75 post offices increased to 903 while the mileage of post routes went from 1,875 to 20,817. The number of newspapers more than doubled; circulation itself increased threefold” (841). Things were going well for many American farmers and communities. And maybe this leads to the main point: after “1788 a new upward surge in grain and livestock prices ushered in a thirty-year period of prosperity” (840). Increased opportunity for American farmers, rather than a successful political settlement, insured the peace after 1787. Appleby stresses the idea that international demand for grain allowed farmers “to increase surpluses without giving up the basic structure of the family farm.” There was no wide, difficult transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture: farmers could remain diversified, meet their families' needs and still “could participate in the market with increasing profits without taking the risks associated with cash crops” (841). In a complete reversal of conventional wisdom, Appleby suggests “diversification, not specialization, held the key to raising crop yields and maintaining soil fertility...Economies of scale had no bearing” (842). To support this claim, she notes that “the wealth of the North surpassed that of the South for the first time in the period from 1774 to 1798,” before Northern industrialization.

Appleby goes on to make a case for the Jeffersonians’ belief in commercial agriculture, rather than some pristine pre-capitalist yeoman competency. A growth-oriented agricultural vision meshes better with Jefferson’s political program of western growth. She notes that “Hamilton’s response to the Louisiana Purchase” was that “the extension of America’s agricultural frontier...threatened to remove citizens from the coercive power of the state” (848). From this point (and in several later articles), the argument goes toward  interpretations of democratic versus federalist issues. The value of the argument, from my perspective, is that it suggests there was change in the way these Jeffersonian ideas have been understood. By the time the Populists called on Jefferson, America believed he had said something different. This may or may not be what Hofstadter says it was -- that will take more investigation. But long before the end of the nineteenth century, the myth was already in motion.

Digging into the Market Transition

From Market-Places to a Market Economy Winifred Barr Rothenberg, 1992

Two things to note: First, WBR is a professor of economics at Tufts University.  Second, this book is substantially a compilation of a series of articles that appeared (partly) in Agricultural History and (mostly in) The Journal of Economic History.  Some of Rothenberg’s opinions about the “moral economy” model appear in a review of Hahn and Prude’s Countryside in the Dec. 1987 Reviews in American History, titled “Bound Prometheus.”

Through extensive primary research and mathematical modeling, Winifred Barr Rothenberg came to the conclusion that the “capitalist transition” began around 1750, and was substantially underway in rural Massachusetts by 1800. While she performs a little sleight of hand navigating between a tight, economist’s definition of capital and markets, and the expansive, politically charged language used in the historians’ market transition debate, Rothenberg uncovers some really valuable data which helps advance our understanding of events, wherever we stand on the “social vs. market” historiographical spectrum.

Economically, Rothenberg rests her evaluation of whether markets are operating on a combination of two related ideas. “Synchronicity and convergence in the behavior of prices,” she says, “is an acknowledged diagnostic of the role of market forces in their determination” (xiv). As transportation and communication improvements allowed farmers to participate in distant markets and to use price cues from those markets as guides in their local exchange relationships, Rothenberg says “markets embedded within and constrained by values antithetical to them within the culture” evolved into “the 'disembedded' market whose values penetrated and reinvented that culture” (3).

Rothenberg is drawing from and commenting on a long lineage of sociological, economic, and cultural critique, in a way that seems unnecessary and overly polemical. She borrows the word “disembedded” from Karl Polanyi, with all its political baggage. The idea that price synchronicity defines a market economy is Braudel’s, while the concept of convergence Rothenberg adds to it comes from Alfred Marshall (20-1). As she’s pulling these two ideas together, Rothenberg considers and rejects Marc Bloch’s suggestion that a market exists when people don’t simply buy and sell, but “live by buying and selling” (20). How would you measure that? she asks. A good question, but difficulty measuring the effects of an idea doesn't disprove it. And her assumption that price convergence led to a radical change in the culture's understanding of markets has a long lineage -- but that fact doesn't prove its validity, either. So the question is, does Rothenberg prove this point with her data?

I’m less interested in the general question of when “market-place economies” become “market economies,” than with how the market expanded into rural Massachusetts. The breakdown of Puritan strictures against usury seems likely to be a part of this change, as Rothenberg suggests. But if this is caused by the introduction of “the fundamental assumption of modernity...that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person,” how did that work?  (quoting Daniel Bell,
The Cultural Conditions of Capitalism, which maybe I should look at for an answer. 15) It’s all well and good to observe that “the market (for better or worse) objectifies some of the culture’s most cherished values,” but Rothenberg seems to say it also created these values, without resorting to cultural or intellectual history or mentalités.  This is important, because if we can agree on the values (for example, “the sovereignty of the individual,” 16), we can then begin examining what happened and asking if events and actions were consistent with these ideals?  Did “market” ideas matter?  Did they direct change?  Or did they just serve as rhetorical cover for other processes and other goals?

In any case, Rothenberg finds some great material! Here’s George Washington to Arthur Young, Dec. 5 1791: “The aim of farmers in this country is, not to make the most from the land, which is or has been cheap, but the most from labour, which is dear: the consequence of which has been, much of the ground has been scratched over, and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been” (25). Throughout the book, Rothenberg shows that farmers’ actions can be understood as economic decisions (and often sophisticated and reasonable ones) reflecting more knowledge and understanding of their environment and options than they are normally credited with having. This is extremely helpful, even if I don’t go as far as she does in rejecting the influence of other sources of information and values on farmers’ decisions.

The moral economy model, as Rothenberg sees it, involves four basic features. Its members, being risk averse (because the whole point of the moral economy is the extremely tenuous nature of early modern existence) prefer “minimizing expected losses over maximizing expected gains” (reminds me of Cronon's application of Liebig's Law in
Changes in the Land. 29). Individualism is “subordinated to community norms,” and “The two institutional pillars of the market system--the rule of contract and private property--are conspicuously absent” (quoting Platteau regarding third world villages, which I think raises a question about the relevance of this type of atemporal sociological comparison. 29). There may, she says, be a “two-tier system in which exchanges within the village...are insulated from exchanges with the outside world...The ‘prices’ at which goods exchange within the village are mere ‘cultural constructs,’” Rothenberg concludes, as if prices arrived at by “market outcomes” were not.

“Indexes of individuation” are linked to the 1740-45 religious upheavals of the Great Awakening, Rothenberg says, because both are caused by “the breakdown of community solidarity [that] in turn can be traced to rapid population growth” (38). Even if she misses the influence of irreligion and anti-religion in the early nineteenth century, it's nice to see an appraisal of the Awakenings that doesn’t treat religious motivations as free-standing, causeless causes. Similarly, she not only lists the many difficulties of studying persistence (for example, varied and changing town dimensions that make it difficult to compare two towns or to compare the same town in different time periods), she also asks the important question, “what in fact does persistence measure?” (40) Is it a measure of community harmony? Or of the expense and difficulty of leaving?

“The capacity to produce surpluses,” Rothenberg says, “is often treated as so necessary a condition to trade that the moral economists infer the absence of marketing solely from calculations that the local resource base would have been insufficient to produce surpluses” (46). This is the “principal misconception in the historical literature on markets,” because it implies that households and communities evolve from self-sufficiency to market involvement, which in many cases (illustrated by the cobbler’s bare-foot children) is untrue. Based on her data, Rothenberg argues “that ‘time’s arrow’ may very well have gone from marketing to self-sufficiency” in rural Massachusetts (49).

Rothenberg’s specific arguments about market activity and productivity gains in Massachusetts seem reasonable, for the most part. But there are some lapses. She spends several pages relating hog slaughter weights to corn prices, for example, before admitting that in this period “Corn is not in fact the basic feed of hogs” (106). However, through most of the economic analysis I didn’t feel that she was going wildly off the tracks.  But I also didn’t feel particularly compelled to abandon a “social” perspective that could accept this data and integrate it with other, non-market factors Rothenberg believes she is refuting.

“Local markets relayed the shocks [of the national and world economies] as changing relative prices,” Rothenberg says, “and resilient farmers responded by shifting from grains to hay, from hay to dairying, and finally from agriculture to commerce and industry” (113). The interesting thing is, the increases in agricultural productivity and the  diversification of rural capital investment that made these changes possible seem to date from the years between the end of the Revolution and Jefferson’s election. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Joyce Appleby’s claim that the Jeffersonians were pro-commerce, but it suggests they were riding a wave not of their own making.

“Central to such a [rural capital] transformation must have been the development of an effective mechanism for increasing the liquidity of the regional economy,” so that the gains farmers were accumulating were free to move within (and to leave) the local agricultural economy. I think my own Upstate New York data suggests that one may have led to the other. The requirements for this change, Rothenberg says, were “institutional elements” allowing “credit instruments [to] become more fully negotiable,” an “increasing size and widening geographic spread of individual credit networks,” and sufficient “liquidity of financial instruments and therefore the propensity of rural wealthholders to substitute them for physical assets” (114). I think this is exactly the role played by my miller/storekeepers in the 1840s, aided by the New York State Banking system. Ironic that the R.G. Dun reporters considered one of them a complete deadbeat. Does that suggest the Dun guys were a little conservative? Their clients were urban creditors, after all. I wonder if anyone has written about this?

Rothenberg’s discussion of negotiability picks up right where Morton Horwitz left off, so it’s lucky I read them back to back. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to accept both Rothenberg’s conclusions on when and how credit and negotiable notes penetrated rural markets, and Horwitz’s suggestion that legal changes were producing a “capitalist” political/economic regime for the benefit of the rich. In fact, Rothenberg’s data shows “The very rich appear to have been borrowing in order to lend, using their underwrite their borrowing while at the same time shifting the composition of their assets out of farming and into commercial paper. The very rich were coming into the capital market on both sides. And they alone were emerging as net creditors” (143). In other words, a widening of the gap between the wealthy and their neighbors preceded the industrial transformation often blamed for it.

The final chapter on productivity is surprising because Rothenberg finds evidence that “Massachusetts farmers were moving away from cereals to specialize in advance of significant western competition;” in fact “by 1801” (221). This would seem to support the view that
demand from what Bidwell (1921) calls a “home market” may have driven productivity growth, but may have begun much earlier than previously supposed.  The earlier beginning of significant demand, increases in productivity, and the resulting returns to rural farmers could have financed the New England industrial revolution, just as Rothenberg suggests. But New England farmers would have been agents of this change rather than victims of it. Additionally, rural demand for “outside” goods may have been encouraged by the increased reach of storekeepers and peddlers into previously remote hinterlands. The Revolution seems like the second major mobility-enhancing event in the eighteenth century; the Seven Year War may have been the real beginning. And the story of Shays’s Rebellion is enhanced (but not completely rewritten, since Leonard Richards has already improved on David Szatmary’s account) if an increasing upland/lowland disparity of farm prosperity adds to the other social and financial factors already cited as causes of that conflict.

Not all farmers wanted the same things

Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917
Elizabeth Sanders, 1999

Elizabeth Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I” (1). But she also says they didn't really get what they wanted.  This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class” (2). Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism” (3-4). In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream (5). And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism” (4). So why didn't farmers get what they had wanted?

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets” (28). Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous, diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. It's interesting that the diversified farms, the ones that basically disappeared, are considered in this context as the strong, central farms, and the monoculturists we normally think of as the source of Populist criticism of railroads and flour monopolists was the shaky, "peripheral" group. Maybe they
did get what they wanted, at least in terms of moving to the center of the debate.

The more diversified “hinterland” farmers were dependent on their local urban markets, and their political behavior reflected this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when we read accounts of the farm movement.

For me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture.  “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction
per se has limited explanatory power in American politics” (16). And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the diversified farmers. (17)  The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers (27). Rather than thinking of rural people as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps.  This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be left out of the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that agrarian-labor coalitions failed because they were “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority” (412). But most interesting, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc” (388-9). So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?

The Founders' Temporary Republic

The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America
Drew R. McCoy, 1980

The basic premise of
The Elusive Republic is that the Jeffersonian Republicans, especially James Madison but even including Benjamin Franklin, thought they could use the frontier to substitute development across space for development over time.  In this way, America could be kept in a sort-of artificial infancy, forestalling the what these men, all familiar with classical antiquity, universally believed was the inevitable declension of republics into decadence. Their objective, says Drew McCoy, was to keep America in an intermediate state which they hoped would allow for commercialization without the corruption of public morals and dependence on imported luxuries they believed marked the beginning of the end for a republic. McCoy says the republicans were obsessed with personal virtue because they believed only a “Spartan” citizenry could maintain a republic. The irony, understood by only a few, was that in its attempt to keep people virtuous, Sparta had eliminated the freedoms and individual rights the republicans sought to protect.

McCoy begins with the very important observation that “Contemporary Americans all too often presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forebears. It is easy to assume that our basic concerns were theirs, and especially that our understanding of the Revolution and its legacy accurately reflects the meaning and significance they attached to it...few acknowledge how frightening and even distasteful twentieth-century America might appear to the members of a Revolutionary generation” (5). This misunderstanding is due, he says, not only to the unimaginable changes that separate them and us, but also to the fact that they were knowingly engaged in an anachronistic, “poignant struggle to adapt the traditional, classical republican impulse to modern commercial society” (9). Since “The Revolutionaries lived during an age when a consideration of the normative dimension of economic life” was still expected, McCoy sets out to describe their attempt to “establish...a republican system of political economy in America” (7).
“American republicanism.” McCoy says, “must be understood as an ideology in transition” (10). It might also be described, to extend his train of thought, as a system idealists like Jefferson tried to apply to a reality they didn’t (and didn’t want to?) completely understand. Or, if one were cynical, it might be described as a political discourse, presented to a European audience (via Francois Marbois) wondering how America was going to arrange its affairs. Consider this famous description of yeoman virtue by plantation owner and noted deist, Thomas Jefferson:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition...generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer to measure its degree of corruption. (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia)

This is supposed to be the core statement of the Jeffersonian agrarian myth. But why should the breasts of farmers be the only possible “deposit for substantial and genuine virtue”? Is it only because Jefferson says so? Is that why he needs to resort to “God”? And “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators...” He’s conveniently forgetting not only that he and his fellow Virginian cultivators own slaves, but that they own slaves specifically because they were not living in virtuous subsistence, but producing a staple crop for foreign commercial markets! And if his virtuous cultivators are actually the slaves, then there goes his whole republican formula.

“Dependence begets subservience,” is only a short step from some type of Rousseauvian belief that any social interaction is a “fall” from a pure state of nature. It’s not a state of nature Jefferson or any of his readers has ever seen. But back to McCoy. Republicans like Jefferson and George Mason, he says “never doubted that the natural sequence of social development would culminate inevitably in the form of society he feared” (16). It was the classical paradigm of declension, the fall, the feet-of-clay story. It's interesting, as McCoy notes, how these people are able to mix these ancient paradigms with “enlightenment” ideas from Hume and Adam Smith, in ways that seem unreasonable to us now. But I'm still not convinced these were actually beliefs these folks honestly held, rather than rhetorical devices they used.

McCoy spends some time defending Adam Smith, in an argument that seems to fit well with Joyce Appleby’s contributions to the “capitalist transition” debate. He says Smith both “emphatically approved of an advanced division of labor as the basis of continuing economic growth and social progress, [and] was also concerned with its concomitant tendency to relegate the laboring classes to a brutish existence that crippled their minds and bodies” (37). Smith is the smartest guy in McCoy's story, offering nuanced, qualified observations, such as his statement that under mercantilism, “the private interest of a part, and of a subordinate part of society” was taken to be “the general interest of the whole” (quoting
Wealth of Nations, 43). Other insights are provided by Franklin: “Manufactures are founded in is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture” (quoting “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” 51), and John Adams: “the balance of power in a society [parallels] the balance of property in land [so society must] make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society [or] make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates” (68).

McCoy suggests there was some “uneasy suspicion (and sometimes recognition) among the Revolutionaries that even predominantly agricultural America was already a relatively advanced commercial society” (70). They made practical distinctions, however, between “wealth that accrued through the perseverance of habitual industry” and the “sudden fortunes acquired through the manipulation and chicanery of speculators and stockjobbers” (85). This seems to go to the heart of the republican objection to Hamilton. After all, as Thomas Paine said, “Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe” (quoting
Common Sense, 89). But did anybody really think you could build a nation on commerce and not create fortunes?

The cause of America’s problems, in McCoy’s story, was the new nation’s inability to sell its agricultural surpluses freely in Europe and the West Indies. In this sense, Britain nearly defeated the new American republic by causing a political crisis that split the founding generation into republican and federalist partisans. Jefferson and Madison’s idea of “developing across space rather than through time” depended on both the availability of a frontier and the “ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market” (121-2). The Embargo and attempts to eliminate foreign luxuries and focus on domestic manufacture of “necessaries” raise interesting questions about the role of government in economic development. McCoy reminds the reader that even Hamilton insisted “the development of advanced manufactures in America would require extensive government encouragement” (quoting the “Report on Manufactures,” 159). He concludes that the republicans’ revolution, the “escape from time,” had always been understood by Madison as temporary (259). At some point, the frontier would close. By his 1815 annual message, Madison had begun explicitly supporting “manufacturing establishments...of the more complicated kind” (245). Was this Madison’s  acknowledgement of the basic mismatch between classical republicanism and nineteenth century America? Was it a political victory for the capitalists and their cronies in professional government? Maybe the defining moment, in political changes like the demise of agrarian republicanism and its reappearance as an American myth, is not when the other guys finally win out, but when its proponents give it up.

Industrial Farms and Objectivity

Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture Deborah Fitzgerald, 2003

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series.  Lots of good stuff in this series. This one is about how an overarching idea may have guided change in American agriculture. Timely, because I've been writing my chapter on "Farmers and Agribusiness" the last couple of days.

Deborah Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4).  This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” would take over farm life. the title, “Every Farm a Factory,” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

Even if it's difficult to quantify, I suspect this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both agricultural markets and inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its next harvest. Of course, the idea of the family farm is also complicated. Much more of a thing at the beginning of the twentieth century and an ideal (or political slogan) by the end.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf. Postel on Populists, but also Paul Conkin 2008 for a rebuttal). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines
needed to be built so big and so expensive that it only sense to run one on a field that occupied a full section of land. And it was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local coops and associations, or harvest contractors. But I'll grant that it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this logic, and especially to International Harvester marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity. It's worth remembering that IH itself was a trust created by J.P. Morgan which was hauled into court in an antitrust action in 1927.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something objective, rather than on opinions. The binary nature of the questions that often lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these yes/no choices exist in a wider range of unexamined possibility that the question simply ignores.  Even prices (the ultimate hard data) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator for some people. It might also explain why many actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers throughout the Progressive Era.

I’ve really got to revisit Taylor’s
Principles of Scientific Management soon.  Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 A.M. Todd, my Michigan Peppermint King, appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave!  I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.

Two Views of Gotham


New York is one of the most written-about American cities. There are histories of specific periods in the city's past, of particular parts of the city, and of particular groups that have lived, worked, or passed through New York. Recently, Environmental Historian Ted Steinberg published what he calls an Ecological History of Greater New York, called Gotham Unbound. Like Steinberg's earlier book, Nature Incorporated, Gotham Unbound examines the way relationship with the Manhattan landscape interacted with changing ideas about the natural world. The specific focus of this story is the development of the underwater land surrounding the original island of Manhattan.

Others have described the leveling of Manhattan and erasure of the hills, streams, forests, and ponds settlers found. Steinberg focuses on the filling and development of tidal salt-marshes and shallows close to shore. Between the early nineteenth century and today, he says, "an area of marshland four times the size of the island of Manhattan was destroyed. Nearly three Manhattan Islands' worth of open water, moreover was filled." Not only would the city itself be unrecognizable to its early explorers and settlers, says Steinberg; so would the Bay and waterways surrounding it.

Steinberg reminds us of characteristics of greater New York that are difficult to remember because they disappeared so long ago. When Europeans arrived, he says, they found a complex ecosystem that provided an incredibly abundant variety of foods. And unlike London, which had to protect itself from a twenty-foot tide, the tidal range around Manhattan was less than five feet. This made building docks and reclaiming land much easier for New Yorkers, which helped make New York Harbor a center of Atlantic Trade.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Steinberg says, a grid was imposed on the island and extended into the shallow water offshore, and offshore lots went on sale. Gradually, features of the terrain became less important, and the lots marked on the grid (whether above or below the tide-line) became understood as sources of potential profit rather than as parts of a natural environment. Like the rivers of Steinberg's earlier book, the marshes around Manhattan became economic instruments rather than parts of a world with its own rules, needs, or rights.

It's fascinating to imagine a Manhattan covered by old-growth oaks and hemlocks rather than skyscrapers, and to learn of vanished bits of landscape and how they were erased. At the end of the book, Steinberg tells the story of Hurricane Sandy and speculates about the future of New York in an age of rising seas. Like his descriptions of the undeveloped island, these passages provide a lot of fuel for the imagination.


In contrast to Steinberg's ecological approach, another recent history titled Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 covers the growth of the city from a variety of angles. The book is over 1,300 pages long, so its authors had ample space to look at politics, social and cultural history, and to tell the stories of all types of colorful New Yorkers. While the 1999 volume might reasonably have been subtitled "More than you'll ever want to know about New York," the story is very engaging and includes something for everyone, including Environmental Historians. For example, Gotham's coverage of mid-nineteenth century New York's pig problem is thorough and very interesting to read.

Gotham and Gotham Unbound are good examples of two different styles of history. Gotham represents the twenty-year collaboration of its authors, and is billed as "the first volume in the definitive history of New York City." Gotham Unbound represents the continuing work of a scholar pursuing a very specific theme. One is a broad synthesis of everything, a survey (albeit possibly the most thorough and detailed survey ever). The other is a deep look at a single issue that isn't well understood, a monograph. The survey, as you might expect, includes a bibliography that uses eight-point type and four columns per page, and still covers forty-two pages. The monograph cites primary sources, highlights the author's original research, and incorporates scientific findings and data from Historical GIS. The monograph makes a new contribution to the interpretation of New York's past. The survey makes a wealth of information about New York accessible and interesting to regular readers.

But in an interesting and slightly counterintuitive twist, the monograph was published by Simon and Schuster, a popular press, and the survey by the Oxford University Press. Which just goes to show, I guess, that in addition to not judging by covers, you can no longer judge a book by its publisher.

Speculation, Boosterism, and Frontier Settlement

The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837 Malcolm J. Rohrbough, 1968

This mostly administrative history of western expansion is a necessary if not joyful read; but Malcolm Rohrbough offers some interesting hints at culture, mostly unintentionally and between the lines. “The distribution of the public domain had a profound effect on the economic life of the nation,” Rohrbough says. Not only for the “great agricultural empire” of the early twentieth century, but because “In the first fifty years of the Republic’s history, citizens spent much time devising ways to get something for nothing from the public domain” (238). As time passed, “The politicians who increasingly administered the public domain did not do so out of a feeling of service but to make a profit” (229). Rohrbough shows that appointees as early as Albert Gallatin were heavy speculators. “Land speculation,” he says, “was part of the American scene from the first settlements.” So, it seems, was the tendency to mix the public and private domains for personal enrichment.

A recurring issue in distributing public lands was how to deal with “pioneer families [who] defied the Indians [and] challenged the authority of entrepreneurs,” speculators, and bureaucrats (3). Pre-emption deals had to be made throughout the period of western expansion, to accommodate but also to rein in those who squatted on frontier lands.  But the land and money expended on this was a drop in the bucket, compared with the fortunes and political power that accrued to the well-connected. “Congress...sold one million acres to the Ohio Company of Associates in the same week that it passed the Northwest Ordinance.” And “John Cleves Symmes (a territorial judge and William Henry Harrison’s father-in-law) concluded an arrangement with the Treasury Board for one million acres.” (11, 18-9)

Public officials dominate Rohrbough’s story, even when he describes the distribution of small parcels to actual settlers.  “As a Congressman, Gallatin...constantly supported the sale of small tracts to individual settlers,” he says (24). Perhaps, given the size of the western frontier, distributing some small parcels did not seem at odds with Gallatin's speculations, or those of his social set. “William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, made a series of extensive purchases from the Indians” in the first decade of the 1800s, Rohrbough continues (30). The terms of these purchases are not disclosed, but it’s not surprising that the Indians next appear in the story as “two thousand infuriated Hell Hounds” (quoting a settler, 49). Chances are, even if the settlers didn't know what had infuriated the Indians, people like Harrison and Gallatin had a clue.

The War of 1812 “had broken the grip of the Indian on the western lands,” Rohrbough says.  And the urge to move west wasn't restricted to people in the original 13 states. “Altho you say the Ohio feever is abated in Vermont--the Missouri & Illinois Feever Rages greatly in Ohio, Kentucky, & Tennessee and carried off thousands” (quoting a letter from a son to his father back east, 74). Indeed, “Old America seems to be breaking up, and moving westward,” wrote a contemporary traveler. “We are seldom out of sight, as we travel on this grand track, towards the Ohio, of family groups, behind and before us, some with a view to a particular spot; close to a brother perhaps, or a friend, who has gone before, and reported well of the country” (103). In 1819, the eastern half of Michigan was contained in a Land District whose office was at Detroit. By 1834, a new District had been formed for the western half, centered on Bronson (Kalamazoo), est. 1831. The towns of White Pigeon and Bronson were “strategically placed on the Chicago Road.” June 1835 land sales in Bronson totaled $138,000; in October, White Pigeon’s sales exceeded $194,500 (193). Much of this purchasing was speculative and based on shaky credit, as shown by the experience of Allegan, Michigan, “One of the paper cities that vanished beneath the waves of the panic of 1837” (194).

Around 1816, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford complained that many “Banks have been incorporated, not because there was capital seeking investment; not because the places where they were established had commerce and manufactures...but because men without active capital wanted the means of obtaining loans, which their standing in the community would not command from banks or individuals having real capital and established credit.” This is an interesting chicken-egg statement. To some extent, it could be interpreted as a desire to limit economic access to the “haves.” But it also seems reasonable that when “bank capital increased from $65,000,000 to more than $125,000,000” between 1813 and 1819, some bad credit decisions were probably made (111). The Second Bank of the United States’ “loss of regulatory power...following Jackson’s veto of the bill for recharter and the removal of deposits led to the rise of innumerable state banks which expanded loans at a dizzy rate” (178). As a result, “In the thirty months from the fall of 1834 to the spring of 1837, the American people generated the largest land office business in the history of the Republic. From the timberlands of Maine to the Cotton Kingdom of Mississippi, in city lots of Chicago, and in the wilderness of central Michigan, the dimensions of the land boom touched people of all stations and locations” (187). This is certainly true of the people I've been studying. The Ranneys made a side trip to Michigan and invested in land there just as they were moving from Ashfield Massachusetts to Phelps New York!

April, 1837 land purchase by Samuel Ranney

“The desire for lands,” Rohrbough says, “was not dampened by Andrew Jackson’s declaration that after September 1 only specie would be received in payment for public lands. The Bank of Michigan in Detroit quickly ordered specie from the East, acquired $500,000 in hard money from New York in October alone, and supplied land office money to continue the Michigan boom” (197). Perhaps the Panic of 1837 and the subsequent ongoing scarcity of cash in places like upstate NY can be attributed partly to the fact that hard money continued to flow toward the frontier. But in spite of the continued Michigan boom, Rohrbough concludes that “The specie circular...and the panic of 1837 marked the decline of the land office business as a dominant force in American life...The depression marked the passing of a period in which the land business dominated the thoughts and dreams of the nation. A new world was emerging. It was a world in which people would be drawn to cities rather than the land, in which the rise of the factory system would sharply distinguish a laboring class, in which great industrial complexes would attract the investment capital of the nation” (238).

This conclusion seems to raise more questions than it answers. Looking back at this period, Rohrbough describes what happened next, but he seems to miss an opportunity to explore why. Of course the factories created their own success; but did changes in access to land or the administration of the land office, dampen the speculators’ enthusiasm? Why did such a high percentage of immigrants stay in Eastern cities of move to Western cities rather than farms? Was there a difference between the German immigrants of the later 1830s and people who had preceded them? Did a reduced interest in the west by speculators diminish the flow of real settlers? Were there no longer enough reports of “fabled tracts of rich land, fertile beyond all imagination,” just over the next hill? (4) More needs to be said about this change. Rohrbough made a good start -- now a social and cultural history of the people who came west, and the communities they formed, needs to take the next step.

Political History, Ideals, and Rhetoric

Agrarians & Aristocrats: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837-1846 John Ashworth, 1983

Lately, I've been reviewing quite a bit of history that's strictly outside my main field (and this site), because I'm preparing to finally write my dissertation. Although I'm thinking of my project as an Environmental History of the single-commodity-study variety, I want to make some points about rural 19th-century politics and economics. So I've read a bunch of that sort of material, and I've found some ideas I think are relevant for EnvHist.

I'd never be a good Political Historian. Too much of a cynic. I'm really disinclined to believe that party politics springs directly from philosophy like Athena from the head of Zeus. I have no patience for political histories
that never follow the money. I'm always on the lookout for interests that inform ideologies, and for alignments of political theory and practical benefit. In the back of my mind, I'm always thinking, yeah, that's the party platform. But is it a philosophy waiting to be put into action or just rhetorical cover for the same old same old?

But I do recognize that in politics, people tend to identify with broad, epic ideas. So it interests me when John Ashworth says “Essentially Democratic leveling theory implied an agrarian, pre-capitalist society. The meritocratic outlook of the Whigs, on the other hand, implied a welcoming response to the quickening pace of commercial change...” (1). Whether Democrats actually practiced leveling, it says something that it resonated with some of their supporters. And that those same (presumably northern, rural) Democrats perceived the Whigs as not sharing that vision.

Ashworth says about the Bank of the United States controversy that the Jacksonians “charged that the bank represented privilege: it took from the poor in order to give to the rich” (3). The basis of this idea in anything but scapegoating is hard to see. I've never understood why Jackson and his people believed that eliminating the central bank would resolve this? And cynic that I am, I always suspect, when an argument doesn't add up, that there might be something more behind it. Often I'm wrong, and arguments just don't make sense. But sometimes...

Ashworth traces this “cherishment of the people” to Jefferson, which is okay, as far as it goes. But what about the top-down, elite leadership model of Jeffersonian democracy? It’s very similar to Whiggism, and only looks left because the Federalists were so far right (10). Ashworth does note a political change, “where previous republican theory had sought to facilitate the emergence, and guarantee the retention, of a superior governing elite, many Democrats now wished to place in office men whose chief personal characteristic was their similarity to the people whom they represented....John P. Tarbell of Massachusetts...believed that ‘plain farmers are as capable of judging as lawyers’ ” (14). Does this suggest a recognition by Jacksonian politicians and their constituents that the law was becoming less “common” and more of a friend of the rich? (cf.
Horwitz) Why not? This would be a generation that grew up remembering Daniel Shays, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

“Martin Van Buren publicly complained that ‘all communities are apt to look to government for too much’ ” (19). But what is the basis of this? WHO is looking to government at this point? Is this like Reaganite conservatives attacking welfare mothers?


“The Democratic view of politics thus emphasized self-interest as the basis of liberty and democracy” (20). This division of elements between the parties -- how did this happen? How could self-interest actually be a trait of the members of one party and not the other? And if it's just a rhetorical device, we're already halfway to my cynical suspicion that rhetoric simply serves agendas. According to Silas Wright, “a well-educated, industrious and independent yeomanry are the safest repository of freedom and free institutions” (22). The Democrats’ approach to Adam Smith was that “provided that government did not intervene, the natural laws of supply and demand would direct mens’ labour into productive and rewarding activities and ‘would tend to equalize the distribution of wealth’ ” (quoting The Democratic Review, Sept 1839, 29). This is awfully hard to distinguish from the Whig position. So once again it seems as if the real job of a political historian like Ashworth ought to be to examine actual events and see how people lined up.

In the states, the argument against internal improvements, according to Ashworth, was that “The minority who secured the unfair advantage of a canal dug or a railroad built,” benefited at the expense of those farther away (43). This sentiment probably stems from the frantic maneuvering that went on in communities to get railroads and stations built through particular land to specific spots, to benefit the landowners. But generalizing this corrupt elbowing for position into a political ideology seems a bit ridiculous. It never occurred to anyone to discuss mitigating the costs, or spreading the benefits? They REALLY believed that building a railroad or canal was a zero sum enterprise? Isn’t it more likely the conflict was over the specific results on the ground of these internal improvements and not the overall theoretical legitimacy of internal improvement?

“At the core of Whig ideology lay a individuality," says Ashworth. "The Whigs stressed the dissimilarities among men. They perceived in Democratic egalitarianism a fatal desire to...deny the diversity which unavoidably existed” (52). Yeah. When it suited them. When the proposed internal improvements, they argued that society as a whole would benefit. Or in other words, they stressed the similarities among people and their shared interests. Similarly, the Democratic complaint in the last paragraph, that a minority secured unfair advantage, indicates a recognition of the "dissimilarities among men." So again, it may really be about marshalling appropriate sounding rhetoric for the occasion, and the continuity of Democratic or Whig tropes may just be coincidence.

Horace “Greeley believed that the...fundamental difference between the parties lay in their conceptions of the role of government. The Whigs held that ‘government need not and should not be an institution of purely negative, repressive usefulness and value, but that it should exert a beneficent, paternal, fostering usefulness upon the Industry and Prosperity of the People’ ” (quoting
Hints Towards Reforms, 1850, 54). So it's a bit ironic that the Whigs become Republicans, whose entire platform revolves around a very necessary and important, but basically "negative, repressive" function of government, eliminating slavery.

One of my buddies at UMass is working on a Political History dissertation on the period between the end of the Civil War and 1912. Talking with him, I've been struck by the way the whole bundle of Democratic beliefs was brought into complete disrepute for a generation by the Democrats being the Party of Slavery. To whatever extent any element of the constellation of beliefs that became identified with Democrats was valid, it was because some of those ideas about small central government or states' rights had resonated with people who weren't Southern slaveholders and weren't mouthing the words just because they provided cover for their real agenda. But we're not going to be able to tease out those threads of real ideological commitment that might be of genuine interest until we disqualify all the insincere propaganda in the way.

Professionalism, Audience, Subjectivity in the History Game

That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession Peter Novick, 1988

Okay, not Environmental History per se. But something that any academic historian has been asked to read at some point. And something anyone planning to write should read and think about first.

Peter Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of History as an American academic profession. This was very helpful to me when I was working out a historiography for my oral exam fields, and remains interesting because like to understand genealogies. Novick also addresses issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even a quarter-century after the book’s publication.

Novick begins his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” is a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (1). Novick calls objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explores. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions.

Novick describes a myth of objectivity, which he says includes assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and , above all, between history and fiction” (1-2). Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, is “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made’ ” (2). This mythical objectivity is important, he says, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture” (3), but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, is that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a quasi-religious mindset where there are patterns in history because there's a divine plan, even if the god is materialist determinism.

“The e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick says, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past” (5). I don’t see why we can’t agree that there’s a single reality, though, and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need.

Novick quotes Isaiah Berlin, who he says follows Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets” (quoting
Concepts and Categories, 7). But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical dialogue.

“There appears to be a residual great man theory of historiography,” Novick says (9). He later adds to this, that there’s also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations that have been noticed and read by many people. So these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick points out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period.

In his introduction, Novick mentions the choices he had to make in writing, to balance accurate representation of historians‘ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place. He suggests that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,‘ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction” (9). It might also be true that, since many of the historiographical arguments seem to involve the selective misinterpretation of historians‘ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less deep approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate.

Novick seems aware of this issue. He claims that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians, especially on the objectivity issue; and yet he acknowledges that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors” (11-12). The question he raises, of course is, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas, including overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, professional historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their amateur predecessors never needed to do.

So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments, and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?

Novick begins his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association, and with the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace” (21). It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is normally grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867 (25). And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick says, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered” (27). Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written
wie es eigentlich gewesen, is complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote those words, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it” (28). And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him” (29). So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.

Novick makes a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he calls “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas (34). If that's true in academic history,
how much more true must it be in popular writing? As an example, he points out that although Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (from a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett) Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species,” and “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked” (35-6). These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example” (38).

Novick shows that to some extent the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick says, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular and imitated author in early nineteenth-century America” (45). By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator” (40). But of course, they were novelists and those were
literary devices. “Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works (45). The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists” (46). The question is, are we talking about style or substance? Were these changes in writing really announcing significant differences in content?  Substantial changes in interpretation, or just the same type of partisanship content hidden in fashionably changed forms?

The “criteria of a profession,” Novick says, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice.” In other words, a monopoly that can impose barriers to entry (48). But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute such a monopoly, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships” (49). Examples include J.B. McMaster,
History of the People of the United States; Ellis Oberholtzer, History of the United States Since the Civil War; James Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick says, “had offered their wares in a classically free market” (53). Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents” (54). The professionalization of history not only shifted power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization” (63), it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson, 56). “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick says. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor” (57). I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.

Novick also calls attention to how much historiography owes to current events. “Prewar [WWI] confidence in progress generally,” he says, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity” (105). The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’ s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes” (130).

As the story continues, writers outside of professional history continue to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by nonhistorians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks)” (178). In contrast, Schlesinger and Fox’s twelve-volume
History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against AHR editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies” (193). Another group of journalist-historians Novick doesn't mention, who I find very interesting, were "muck-raking" authors like Ferdinand Lundberg, whose America's 60 Families is packed with names and numbers, and makes a point I've never seen in a mainstream history: that every Presidential election but two between the time of Lincoln and the Great Depression, came down to who spent the most money.  The Beards' Rise of American Civilization, 1927, sold over 130,000 copies. (240)

In the Cold War, the story just gets so nasty and spiteful that it’s difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake.  The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-seller-dom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised (372). In the end, I’m not convinced that the Objectivity Question is the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of
That Noble Dream.  The relevance question, which Novick also substantially deals with, seems to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America.

Novick's story shows the incredibly personal nature of twentieth-century professional history, and the small handful of significant personalities. For example, Oscar Handlin, who clearly had a longer-than-average career, appears throughout the book. Handlin appears in many different guises: early on, as a young Jewish historian thankfully allowed to enter the profession; then, in the 1940s, as a consensus critic of the progressives’ “Bulletin 54” (392); and finally as the Pulitzer-winning author of
The Uprooted, announcing that he had “learned to live with relativism.” (607) Novick mentions that critics of The Uprooted (1951) called it “engaged...personal, value-laden.”  Somehow, he fails to mention that it completely abandons even a semblance of objectivity.

Handlin trumpeted
The Uprooted as an epic and acknowledged that in the spirit of epic authors he “did not find it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation” (The Uprooted, 308). This is an interesting statement, coming from one of the stalwarts of what Novick calls objectivism. Handlin’s use of novelistic techniques like interior monologue (Handlin actually puts his words in the heads of Italian immigrant women!) in The Uprooted suggests a position closer to the one characterized for ultra-relativists like Hayden White, than for “hyperobjectivists” like Handlin, who are supposed to find “correspondence of a representation with its the small pieces which together form the record” (quoting Truth in History, 608).

I wonder if Handlin’s narrative choices were based on his ideas about the largely popular audience he addressed in
The Uprooted? Variations in historians’ philosophies and techniques may have been related to their (or their editors') ideas of their audiences in ways Novick didn’t stress. Carl Becker, for example, seems to focus a good deal of thought on “the history that common men carry around in their heads” (Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, 61). But more to the point of That Noble Dream, I think the inconsistent and shifting positions of Handlin and others in Novick’s account suggest a contingency based not only on changing American politics and culture, which Novick addresses, but also the shifting needs of careers and personal reputations. On that score, Novick is less conclusive, but provides some very suggestive pointers.

Ethanol and the Illusion of Inevitability

Today I'm writing a textbook chapter on transportation. As  I’m writing about internal combustion and energy,  I'm thinking about the illusion of inevitability.

The argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn’t new: it has been going on for nearly a century. Samuel Morey’s 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw ethanol as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering’s statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar “income” than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel “capital.” And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were “in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?”

Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren’t we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it’s true. They can’t go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it’s usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil’s 2005 book,
Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil’s history, there was no solution to the “violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline.” This is simply not true, so why doesn’t an expert like Smil know the facts?


Ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the kerosene and petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians, even historians of technology, seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?

Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A seemingly comprehensive history of the petroleum industry can be written, based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like DuPont and Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. Anyone who undertakes a new history of these subjects must read all this material, which leaves little time to dig for other perspectives.

The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, unlike the corporations, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They’re advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.

As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey toward the petroleum-powered world we live in today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them. When we assume the outcome was inevitable, we conclude that if it hadn’t been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that’s the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.

Interesting, but unconvincing

The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition W. J. Rorabaugh, 1979

Interesting, but unconvincing.

Rorabaugh believes that between 1790 and 1830, “the United States underwent such profound social and psychological change that a new national character emerged,” and that excessive drinking during this period was a symptom of this stress (xi). America’s democratic ideals and cult of individual freedom made men (after a few initial remarks, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about gender differences in consumption) desire independence and achievement, but Rorabaugh says they lacked the will or “motivation” to really work for their goals until the Second Great Awakening (yeah, so you can already see what my problem with this is going to be).  Their frustration and guilt led them to alcoholism, and maybe other forms of social action.  Rorabaugh claims there is “little psychological difference between a drunkard’s hallucinations and an Anti-Mason’s hysteria” (173). “America,” Rorabough concludes, “was left as a culture dominated by an ambivalence that could be transcended only through an anti-intellectual faith” (219). Or, as his data shows, by drunkenness.

Rorabaugh introduces clergymen and temperance moralists in the first paragraph of the book; but in a study that purports to deal with hidden psychological causes, he never really addresses
their motivations (5). The data, especially on changing rates of per capita consumption, is sometimes startling.  Americans now drink more than 18 gallons of beer per capita! (9) I wonder who is drinking mine?  Similarly, I wonder about the distribution and change over time of early drinking patterns.  Rorabaugh says that by the 1820s “half the adult males...were drinking two-thirds of all the distilled spirits” (11). At least, I think that’s what he said -- the endnotes are completely impossible to follow.  A reviewer actually attacked the Oxford Press for the illegibility of the references in this book.  The problem is, they exacerbate the overall lack of specificity in the text, by making it impossible to nail down times and places where critical observations were made, or check the sources who made them.  Another reviewer complained of the overgeneralized, almost caricature way that Rorabaugh talked about his subjects. Americans ate too quickly and drank too much because their food was horrible (118). Farm owners were not heavy drinkers, but “is it any wonder that farm hands turned to strong drink?” (128)

In spite of these flaws, Rorabaugh provides some interesting data, and a perspective that shines light on the nineteenth century from an interesting angle.  “Between 1790 and 1810,” he observes, Americans managed “to bring into production almost as many acres as had been planted in the preceding two centuries...In 1790, only one hundred thousand of four million Americans resided in the West; by 1810 one million of seven million did” (126). This is dramatic change, and it seems reasonable to suspect that it created social stresses that may have driven some increased alcohol consumption, although I don't think drinking was probably the most interesting or important result of these stresses.  And then there’s the supply side.  Rorabaugh provides a really good synopsis of early American distilling, especially “across the Appalachians” where corn was abundant, but too bulky to bring to market.  His depiction of the west as a cash-poor land of unprecedented farm surpluses helps explain the growth of western distilling in the decades before canals and railroads (80). “From 1802 through 1815,” he says, “the federal government issued more than 100 patents for distilling devices...more than 5 percent of all patents granted” (73). By 1810, distilling was concentrated in Kentucky, Ohio, western PA, and upstate NY, and these four areas produced more than half of the nation’s grain and fruit spirits (77). Western New York production peaked in 1828, and continued even while flour shipments ramped up.  “By 1840 distilleries in southwest Ohio, upstate New York, and...Pennsylvania distilled more than half of the nation’s grain spirits.” (85)  New York state’s distilleries peaked in 1825 at 1,129, producing an estimated 18 million gallons. By 1840, the industry seems to have consolidated, with 212 distilleries producing 12 million gallons. In 1850, 93 distilleries made 11.7 million gallons, and in 1860, 77 distilleries made 26.2 million gallons (chart, 87).

This data is really useful to me.  Rorabaugh’s analysis is less helpful, but still instructive. Although his chart shows a steadily increasing value of the product of New York distilleries, Rorabaugh’s narrative describes a “whiskey glut” that he says “exemplified the inability of Americans who clung to traditional agrarian values to promote change.” The “surplus grain had the potential to become either food for industrial workers or, if sold in the market, the means of acquiring money that could be used as capital to build factories” (88). But western farmers lacked the author’s 20:20 hindsight. Rorabaugh’s response to their choice to make whiskey rather than become industrialists illustrates a problem faced by contemporary historians looking at the rural past.

Market and non-market rationality in the rural economy

Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860 Martin Bruegel, 2002

For Martin Bruegel, the market transition happened when “Commercial transactions...moved from a physical setting to an abstract, intangible sphere where prices mattered more than people and relationships.”  (2)  This description seems consistent with the consensus that has emerged from the “transition” debates, with the caveat that since the Hudson River Valley was settled so early, the same dynamics might not necessarily apply to "second-generation" settlements in places like Western New York or Michigan.  It’s Bruegel’s extensive use of individual accounts, to an almost microhistorical level, that sets this book apart. Bruegel says he’s going to describe the “social and economic processes that underlay the movement from an understanding of the world rooted in concrete and particular experiences to general abstractions.” (3-4)  While he rarely has an opportunity to present “before” and “after” views of an individual’s changing orientation, I think he successfully shows evidence of a changing understanding of relationships and social realities in the Hudson River Valley.

The non-market, neighborhood relations that dominated Hudson Valley culture in the late eighteenth century, Bruegel says, was based on the subsistence basis of the agricultural economy.  Risk of starvation was real, and to mitigate that risk, farmers chose the safest route.  “Rather than adapting to the environment’s average productivity,” for example, “their experience taught them to prepare for bad years.” (16)  “Safety nets...created a community.” (21)  Even when they traded, “the apparent utility of the traded good or service neither structured nor exhausted the meaning of the exchange.  Participation was what mattered.”  Because of the precariousness of rural life, Bruegel suggests the emphasis on self-sufficiency of farm households (vs. communities) is misplaced.  “It is impossible to think about them separately,” he says, “because it was precisely the constant exchange of labor and tools that conditioned the family’s subsistence and held the neighborhood together.” (21)

Interestingly, the transition involved a lot of overlap.  Bruegel says the shift toward a commercial orientation was gradual and was marked by  “the coexistence of nonmarket and market rationality in the rural economy” for much of the early nineteenth century.  (62)  “In practice,” he says, “farmers straddled two worlds that historians and ethnologists have often tended to construe as incompatible.” (42) “Commercial exchange,” Bruegel suggests, was both a “part of the farm families‘ strategy to achieve a competence,” and occurred in a market dominated by “personal relations: these bonds actually predicated trade on the Hudson.” (42-3)  “Trust lowered transaction costs,” and this “privileged bond...helped diminish the farmer’s prejudice against the conniving merchant,” or indeed, any outsider. (42, 59)  But even though the majority of extralocal trading was done by only the most prosperous farmers, “in a world of insecurity, where risk reduction guided the behavior of farm families, the establishment of dependable and durable credit and debt connections lay in the interest of both merchant and farmer;” especially those of humbler means.  Their participation in the markets at the Hudson landings created a two tier system, in which the seller could choose either the local or the “New York price.” As a result, “over long periods of time, prices of locally produced goods in the neighborhood trading center remained constant and unresponsive to metropolitan fluctuations.”  (59)

Bruegel's narrative suggests that this two-tiered market coexistence would have persisted, if external social forces had not changed the game.  “Political interventions in favor of deregulated internal commerce,” he says “show that there was nothing natural about the rise of a market society.”  (66)  Echoing Horwitz, Bruegel says “it was the law’s aim to do away with the favored client status that liberal theory construed as collusion,” but that locals at the landing valued as the relationships that tied commerce to community. (67)  But the biggest factor was clearly the growth of New York City, and its markets.  Demand for hay and dairy products rose.  Soil exhaustion and better transportation helped push farmers into hay and livestock.  By 1852 the president of the state Ag. Society was able to claim that “farming is no longer that uncertain, profitless work, which it once was.” (97)  One Kinderhook resident noted “About 1790 this land was sold for $1 an acre: now it brings $75 or $80.” (95)  Farm productivity “growth relied on the intensification of well-known work practices,” introduction of cast-iron plows, and increasing use of wage labor throughout the season.  “The extension of employment length distinguished a new labor force from the neighbors who still helped each other during the crest of harvest work.” (112)

These new workers, Bruegel suggests, lived separately from the farmers, and bought food and supplies at the local market, for cash.  This is interesting, if true -- I've always found farm workers farther west to be young, single men, who lived with the farm family.  Maybe this varied by region.  Bruegel also suggests the shift to dairying improved the status of women.  He cites an 1820 book called
Dialogues on Domestic and Rural Economy and the Fashionable Follies of the World, by Hannah Barnard, which seems to complicate the traditional view of separate gender spheres.  “The agricultural family, in Barnard’s depiction, was a collective in which men and women joined their forces and talents.”  (115)  Bruegel cites several other contemporary local sources to suggest that Harriet Martineau and other European observes were wrong to conclude that American women had no place in the outdoor work of the farm.

Growth of manufacturing, Bruegel says, followed national events: the Embargo and the War of 1812.  It quickly became “more fashionable and dress in fabricks of our rapidly increasing manufactories,” as Sterling Goodenow observed in 1822. (in
A Brief Topographical and Statistical Manual of the State of New York, 150) But in spite of this, “As late as 1837, Kinderhook grocers J. and P. Bain still carried ‘Home-Made Woolen Cloths, also low prices Broad Cloths.' ” (148)  Based on his sources, Bruegel concludes that rural consumption had not become “rural the 1840s.  Rather, the dissemination of everyday articles projects the image of a world whose demands remained moderate...the quest for necessities, not luxuries, propelled the consumer behavior of the majority of rural dwellers,” Bruegel says. (161-2)

Good Ideas, not enough People

City and Hinterland: A Case Study of Urban Growth and Regional Development Roberta Balstad (Miller), 1979

Roberta Balstad says studies of population and industrial growth in America have too often ignored the “regional hinterlands” around dramatically growing cities.  She suggests national markets and inter-regional transportation “affected cities and their hinterlands separately as well as the entire city-region as a unit.” (4) Balstad defines the city-region so it’s synonymous with the county, which is convenient in that data is collected and stored at the county level.  While giving the customary nod to von Thünen and central place theorists, she points out that many American cities “did not begin with the isolated subsistence village economy...Nor did growing American settlements and their hinterlands experience well-developed intraregional trade prior to interregional trade,” so the American experience differs from theory both physically and temporally. (3-5) Balstad’s thesis is that “the differentiation of the frontier area into city and hinterland” resulted not from industrialization, but from “transportation innovations,” specifically in this text the Erie Canal and the railroads that followed it. (10)  The interesting twist is, she demonstrates that a rural area that was previously economically diversified was actually driven toward a market-agriculture-only form by the changes she describes.

Balstad tells the story of Onondaga County, settled by migrants from the east in the 1790s along the Seneca Turnpike. Mail service between Utica and Canandaigua began in 1804, an Academy was begun in 1811, and the Dutch and German farmers from the Mohawk Valley were joined by German and Irish immigrants attracted to the wage-work available at the Salina salt springs.  Balstad calls attention to several elements of Onondaga development that challenge traditional expectations.  First, she says “the county did not have a stable agricultural population,” but like other frontier areas, saw “a great deal of mobility within as well as into and out of the county during the early years of settlement.” (19) She says “The persistence rate...was low, even for those who were landowners...of the 203 men of...Camillus who were electors in 1807...only 41 percent were still present as taxpaying landowners in 1825.” (20)  Also, contrary to de Tocqueville (who she takes several  opportunities to disagree with throughout the book), residents “were not necessarily isolated from their families or their past,” but in many cases demonstrated a “pattern of serial migration within kinship and friendship networks” that Balstad believes was widespread during westward expansion. (which I
obviously enjoyed seeing, 20-1)


Rural villages were located, Balstad says, based on “social and commercial centrality for the surrounding agricultural area.” (22) But the fact that two townships “had 47 and 28 percent of their population in villages [almost immediately]...suggests that this was not a region of subsistence agriculture from which local trading villages would only gradually emerge.” Extractive industries (especially salt, which had been mined and traded by the Indians before the whites ever arrived) were immediately linked to the national economy, and by 1820, the county “had a diversified economy that boasted agriculture, processing and manufacturing industries...[that] did not suddenly surface after the population reached a specific size or density; rather, they were begun by the original settlers and expanded gradually with the growing population.” (23)  “Industrial activities were located in rural areas, independent of residential or commercial centers...[and] there were a number of rural industrial enclaves located on good water power sites several miles from any town or village.” (25-6) With the exception of salt and whiskey ($63,705.60 in 1810; there were fifty distilleries by 1820), most of the products of these sawmills (99 by 1820), tanneries, fulling and grist mills were sold to local people.  The high correlation of sawmills to population growth, Balstad says, indicates “the service areas of locally manufactured and processed goods were narrow.” (28)

The presence of salt springs and gypsum (“first discovered in the United States in 1792 in the township of Camillus” 29) gave Onondaga County an opportunity to participate in the national market.  A gypsum corporation was formed in 1809, and a year later sold 100 tons.  By 1810 the salt industry was producing 2400 bushels daily, which were sold throughout the northeast and Canada, and as far west as Cincinnati and the Michigan territory. (28)  Wood for barrels and fuel for the 444 kettles in continuous operation and food for salt-boilers and other workers were supplied by locals, providing a “multiplier effect” in the county’s economy.  By 1820 (the year the middle section of the Canal opened), the region shipped 458,329 bushels of salt over river-and-portage routes that reached Chesapeake Bay, the Ohio River, and Lake Ontario. (31) The salt trade was so substantial that it was mentioned by boosters of the Canal when they lobbied New York legislators (the State collected a salt duty on every bushel sold). So the coming of the Canal benefited Onondagans more, and more quickly, than others along the route.


Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Oswego (linking the Erie Canal with Lake Ontario to the north) in 1828 created Syracuse.  Balstad does not mention the politics behind the choice of Syracuse as a meeting-place for the Erie and the Oswego canals, but it suggests how important Onondaga County must have been, in the minds of Albany legislators. Turnpike transportation costs were “30 to 70 cents per ton-mile during the first two decades of the nineteenth century.  In sharp contrast, canal charges were only 1.68 cents per ton-mile between 1830 and 1850.” (46) If the salt business had been profitable before, it was a goldmine after the opening of the two canals.  “In the first five years of the canal’s operation, before the entire canal was completed, salt production increased by an average of 70,492 bushels each year as compared to ...30,004 bushels from 1810 to 1820...Between 1826 and 1830...salt production increased by an average of 105,060 annually.  Shipment by canal facilitated the growth of salt markets as far away as Chicago and Cincinnati [where it was used to process pork] and gave Onondaga salt a competitive advantage in eastern urban markets over imported salt, which had previously dominated.” (64) “By 1830, the population of Syracuse [which swallowed up the old salt-town of Salina] had risen to 2,565 people...the largest settlement in the county.” (50)

The benefit to the salt-producers was offset somewhat by losses to the county’s farmers.  Ohio Valley wheat and wool began to out-compete New York produce in Eastern markets, “and by 1847 more than half the agricultural produce shipped on the Erie Canal came from the western states.” (61)  The decline of Onondaga farming was not absolute, though -- in either sense of the word.  Between 1820 and 1840, the number of farmers in the county increased by 69%, and “the number of acres of improved land nearly doubled by 1835.” (62)  Balstad says rural outmigration was caused by the “crowded and discouraging agricultural prospects of the county together with the inflation in the cost of farmland” and declining crop yields due to soil degradation. Another possible explanation is that farmers aware of the fragile nature of their exhausted soils may have capitalized on the opportunity to sell their lands at unexpected windfall profits, and moved west to bigger, more fertile farms. Similarly, Balstad says the canal “destroyed” the distilleries (which “shrank in number to eleven in 1835 and to six in 1845”) because “transportation costs for grain were so low that distillation became unnecessary” (66).  But does it make sense that existing buyers of whiskey in the east would abruptly stop, just because they could buy cheap grain and make their own?  There seems to be more going on here than the existence of the canals explains.

Balstad says the pattern of primary processing was altered.  People close to the canals produced fewer yards of cloth at home, presumably buying their textiles from the east.  But this would suggest that “carding machines and fulling mills [that] did custom work for farm families” would have moved farther from the canal, not “disappeared from the county.” (68)  And, “by the late 1820s and early 1830s...industry became increasingly concentrated in Syracuse,” indicating a shift in the reasoning of the people running mills and shops, who’d previously sited them “in rural locations and always near good sources of water power.” Why did they decide to move to the city?

These questions are important, because the point Balstad is trying to make is such an interesting one.  “The dispersed rural settlement pattern of the pre-canal period gave way,” she says, “the the now familiar agricultural settlement pattern characterized by large multi-purpose villages surrounded by farm lands inhabited only by the farmers themselves.” (68)  “Townships without sizable villages became more completely dominated by agriculture and between 1820 and 1840 experienced a decline in the proportion of the workforce engaged in manufacturing.”  But why?  What was it about the presence of the canals and Syracuse that all of a sudden made industry want to move to town?  Labor?  Customers?  A chance to make products for a seemingly unlimited national market instead of a known, finite local one?  Balstad said earlier that “industries ...were frequently owned and operated by the same people who ran the local commercial establishments...they built an ashery and a distillery to process their customers’ wood ashes and grain.” (27) These entrepreneurs were often merchants who got paid in produce, and had to convert it for sale in the markets where they got their merchandise.  Surely these weren’t the same people who took up manufacturing in the city? Or, if they were, they weren’t doing it for the same reasons.  Balstad insists, contra Lampard, that it was not “specialization of economic functions” that caused industry to move from country to city, because “urban and village industry in the county differed little from rural industry in terms of its technology or the organization of production.”  Commercial changes in “interregional marketing patterns” caused the change. (69) This means that, in spite of nothing changing in the country, an entirely new form of manufacturing for markets outside the region grew up in the city.

And this is the main question, isn't it?  Was this industrial growth, like the earlier “declension” in farming, really an instance of runaway growth on the one hand and stability or organic growth on the other?  Is the real point that the country wasn’t declining in absolute terms, but only relative to the explosive growth next door?  And if so, then the real story is about what people believed about the situation, at the time.  And this isn’t going to jump out of the data.  By 1840, “second-level villages which were scattered throughout the county...had recovered from the earlier competition of the canal villages and were thriving.”  (70) Why?  Their having “locational advantages in the growing regional transportation network” doesn’t seem like an adequate answer.

Between 1840 and 1850, Balstad says the “total population of the hinterland increased only 5 percent.  Given an estimated crude rate of natural increase for the decade of 21 percent, this...indicates that the rate of out-migration was 17 percent of the 1840 population.” (88) She seems to believe that this net number doesn’t hide any significant in-migration, even though she admits the northern township of Lysander “increased its total population in the 1840s by 35 percent.” In the 1850s, Balstad says hinterland population actually declined by 3%, but in order to arrive at that figure she seems to have reclassified Elbridge (at the western edge of the county on the canal) out of the hinterland, because it grew.  There’s clearly a change going on here, but Balstad’s presentation seems to gerrymander the data into a story of declension and stagnation.  She admits that “Farmers in the townships circling the city also began to plant more acres in garden crops to meet the growing needs of both the city of Syracuse and eastern urban markets,” but she doesn’t show whether revenues and profits from this activity were higher or lower than they had been in the earlier, wheat-growing regime.  In a chart of land values and holdings, Balstad shows the average value of an acre of land on the canals or railroads increased from $46 to $69 between 1850 and 1860, and away from the transportation network, from $34 to $48. (96) In both areas, the average farm size decreased by about ten acres.  This suggests to me that lots of farmers were taking advantage of higher land values by selling off unused (possibly unimproved) acres to generate cash. With such a windfall, many farm families may have been able to send sons off west to buy land, since clearly local acres were no longer going to be cheap.  The effect Balstad describes may be accurate, but instead of tragedy, it may have seemed like good news to Onondaga farmers.

Although Balstad leaves these social historical questions unanswered, the real value of
City and Hinterland is the data she uncovers that allows them to be asked. As Syracuse grows, (250 in 1820, 2,565 in 1830, 28,119 in 1860) foreign immigrants drive the growth until the majority of households are headed by people born outside the US. By 1855, 58% of Syracuse households are headed by foreigners, primarily German and Irish. (108) Many of the men had come to the salt-works before the canals were built, and then stayed on as construction workers.  Since Balstad has stressed the idea of “serial migration” and family solidarity among Anglo residents, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the early immigrants may also have brought over brothers and wives from the old country.  And, because immigrants’ children were tallied as Onondaga-born, a good portion of those in the “native” column are actually second generation immigrants living with their first generation parents. In the data, two thirds of Syracuse’s population came from outside the county.  These would have been the adults; most of the other third would have been children born in Syracuse.  And of that two thirds, roughly one third were Irish, one third German, and one third native (mostly New Yorker). (108-112)  In other words, there were twice as many foreign-born adults as natives in 1855 Syracuse.


Balstad says migration from the hinterland to the city was limited to “people in the upper levels of the socioeconomic hierarchy in rural and village Onondaga,” and that they took their money with them.  (127) This weakened the county’s hinterland financially, and in the loss of its “best and brightest.”  Farmers, she says, were committed to an agrarian lifestyle, and tended to leave for new western farms rather than the city. (139)  Rural persisters were likely to be the most successful landowners, who had a greater economic incentive to stay. Their ability to consolidate the useful parts of the properties of those who left may have helped them end up with “an average of 20.6 acres more per land-owning persister than per land-owning migrant.” (142) Their ability to change from wheat-growing to market gardening and dairying came at a good time, since soil exhaustion and western competition made the old practices unprofitable. This may have had the effect, as Balstad concludes, of changing “what had been a mixed rural economy into a specialized agricultural economy supported by occasional villages,” but the motivations and processes involved need closer examination. (153) As she says, looking at other “city-regions in other sections of the United States and over other periods of time” would indicate how representative this story is.  And looking into the minds of the people involved, if possible, might tell us whether this was a tragedy or a comedy.

Manufacturing and mercantile account books, centennial and memorial histories, census and tax records, and the letters and memoirs of merchants and industrialists provided a wealth of data, which Balstad used to paint a richly detailed picture of the changes in Onondaga County. But, except for brief moments, the picture lacks people.  I wonder if there were few opportunities to add contemporary reflections from regular people (even newspapers might have helped), or if Balstad thought it was beyond the scope of what she wanted to do in this case study.  And I wonder if anyone else has gone back over this territory, to find the people? Or gone forward, in the way she suggested, but also with an eye to the human story?  Might be something to think about doing...

That Pessimism Which is Really Optimism

The Populist Vision Charles Postel, 2007

Charles Postel won the Bancroft Prize for this book about “how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s.” (vii) Populists, Postel says, were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” (vii)  Throughout the book, Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding.  This view, he says, challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially Hofstadter), that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy.  A key example is the populist approach to railroads. Postel never suggests this new technology didn’t radically improve life in the countryside. The issue was, how should these new technological enterprises be organized, and for whose benefit?

This is a refreshing change, and it reframes the issue in a way that's relevant today. Postel gives regular people a lot of credit for intelligence, political awareness, and active involvement in the key issues of their day. He begins his introduction with a description of how a voluntary association of florists (a coop) “embraced the new technology” of the telegraph, which had “annihilated time and space” (3). They standardized their businesses and products to allow the customer to order uniform products that could be delivered across town or across continents. All by themselves, these scattered florists became FTD. Populists "believed in the transforming power of science and technology,” Postel says. “They believed in economies of scale...they believed in the logic of modernity” (4). Just as important, he shows that they understood these issues perhaps better than we do now. “Populism was known as ‘a reading party’ and a ‘writing and talking party’ ” (4). It is as important to understand what the Populists “were for” as what they were against, says Postel. If they were pessimistic (as Turner and Hofstadter claimed), then Postel says it was with
Hamlin Garland’s “kind of pessimism which is really optimism...that is to say, people who believe the imperfect and unjust can be improved upon” (my italics, 11).


Postel also explores the connection between Populists and labor activists. Although the standard story is that they could never get together because farmers were proprietor/employers and wage workers were not, Postel finds many examples of cooperation, especially among rural workers. “Farmers were often part-time coal miners, and coal miners often farmed to supplement their diet and income” (19). This approach shows a greater sensitivity to conditions on the ground than many other historians who stick to the categories. But Postel is also quick to point out problems with the populist vision, such as when it veered toward racism and advocated majoritarian, government/industrial organization on a scale that would later (elsewhere) be called fascist.

If farmers had any antipathy toward universities, Postel says, it was only because rather than catering to rural needs, the schools “seemed to lavish resources on future lawyers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals” (47). So once again, their objection is not to change itself, but to who benefits from the change. Many farmers took their educations into their own hands. It was the “great equalizer in commerce, technology, and social standing,” so they “built lecture circuits across some thirty states, and a network of approximately one thousand weekly newspapers” (49).

I have to pause here a moment. This is jumping out at me right now, as I think about preparing to be a college-level teacher. To a great extent, the early 20th century rise of professionalism and universities in America killed off this 19th century type of local self-education. But today, the web opens a possibility for people to take control of their own educations again. I think I need to spend some quality time thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and for whom?

Postel's book is also full of interesting people and things to research someday: Charles Macune, Luna Kellie, Marion Cannon, the National Cordage and the National Union Company (did the 1893 National Cordage bankruptcy precipitate the stock market crash?), the Gulf and Interstate Railway Company (north-south transcontinental), William Peffer, 2nd class postage and RFD, Anna Fader Haskell, who sounds like a 19th century female version of Tyler Durden, and doesn’t even have her own wiki page! Marion Todd (1893,
Railways of Europe and America), Daniel Weaver, a Chartist who tried to organize coal miners in the 1860s, and of course Darrow v. Bryan at the Skopes Monkey Trial (1925), and Eugene V. Debs.

The "Rural Problem" A Century Ago

The Rural Life Problem of the United States
Sir Horace Plunkett, , 1919 (originally published as a series of articles in Outlook, 1908-9)

horace_plunkett_1923Horace Plunkett was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Born at Dunsany Castle, he was the third son of the 16th Baron Dunsany and an uncle of the 18th Baron, the Lord Dunsany who wrote the fantasy classic, The King of Elfland's Daughter. Horace Plunkett became a leading activist for home rule and developed the idea of Irish rural cooperatives.  Plunkett’s thesis in this book, which seems to have influenced a lot of American sociologists and Country Lifers, is that “the city has developed to the neglect of the country,” and that of Theodore Roosevelt’s three pillars of Country Life, “better farming, better business, better living,” the business problems of farmers should be addressed first. (3, 12-13)  Plunkett refers briefly to his experience in rural Ireland and also to Denmark, which has come up so many times in these primary texts that it probably demands some attention.

It's interesting to see what reformers were concerned about a hundred years ago, especially when many of the same issues face us today. Being an aristocrat, Plunkett had access to American leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and James Jerome Hill.  He portrays these men as being genuinely concerned with “The Future of the United States” (title of a 1906 J.J. Hill speech I need to find a copy of), and especially with soil conservation.  Plunkett argues for continuing the strong connection between what he saw as the two key elements of Roosevelt’s administration, conservation and rural life improvement.

During the first phase of the industrial revolution, Plunkett says “economic science stepped in, and, scrupulously obeying its own law of demand and supply, told the then predominant middle classes just what they wished to be told.” (37) “Social and political science,” he says, “rose up in protest against both the economists and the manufacturers,” but were pushed aside in the rush for progress. (39)  Interestingly for an analysis written a hundred years ago, Plunkett introduces the idea of a “world-market,” (40) and says neglect of rural regions is caused in part by the fact that “reciprocity” between city and country “has not ceased; it has actually increased...But it has become national, and even international, rather than local.” (41)  Plunkett notes that “Forty-two per cent of materials used in manufacture in the United States are from the farm, which also contributes seventy per cent of the country’s exports.” (41-2)  But the complexity of new trade patterns and supply chains has hidden the mutual dependence of city and country. Plunkett concludes “until...the obligations of a common citizenship are realized by the town, we cannot hope for any lasting National progress.”  (42)

If there is specific blame to be laid, Plunkett directs it not at the system, but at what he thinks of as profiteers.  “Excessive middle profits between producer and consumer may largely account for the very serious rise in the price of staple articles of food,” he says. But even though urban middlemen are to blame and the problem impoverishes rural people at the same time it aggravates poor city people, Plunkett says “the remedy...lies with the farmer” rather than with legislative action or government reform. (43) I wonder, given the overwhelming market power today of the retail consumer goods sector (which is what his "profiteers" evolved into) whether there really was a chance a hundred years ago that farmers and their customers could have remedied the situation themselves? Or whether this was the big mistake -- the missed opportunity to intervene and change the direction of the last century of agribusiness consolidation?

But the interesting thing is, like the Country Life advocates who followed him, Plunkett's heart seems to be in the right place. Although he doesn’t explain how the system has managed to marginalize them, Plunkett suggests that excluding rural people from the political sphere has damaged democracy.  Farmers’ experience of the cycles of nature, which Plunkett pictures as slower and less mutable than the commercial and industrial processes city people live within, give them a more balanced political sense.  City dwellers’ “one-sided experience” may account for “that disregard of inconvenient facts, and that impatience of the limits of practicability, which many observers note as a characteristic defect of popular government.” (49) Plunkett also suspects farmers might be less amenable to “the cruder forms of Socialism...perhaps because in the country the question of the divorce of the worker from his raw material by capitalism does not arise.” (50-1) Unlike the British, Plunkett believes most American farmers are not alienated from their means of production because most of them are proprietors rather than tenants.  So farmers aren’t victims of capitalism in the same way urban wage-earners are.  (Plunkett avoids any reference to the ethnic immigrant contribution to American life, with the exception of a subtle nod to the success his countrymen have had infiltrating urban politics)

Plunkett tries to call for “a moral corrective to a too rapidly growing material prosperity,” but he fails to identify the motivation for the “reckless sacrifice of agricultural interests by the legislators of the towns.”  (54)  The issue he avoids confronting directly seems to be the increasing unevenness of the prosperity he cites.  Even in rural areas, the rewards are going disproportionately to the few.  And in most cases, profits are captured by the middlemen, at the expense of both rural producers and urban consumers.

Suggesting that even though they have no public voice, farmers “keep a full stock of grievances in their mental stores,” Plunkett warns of “serious unrest in every part of the United States, even in the most prosperous regions.” (61-2)  Compared to urban people, farmers' “material wealth is unnaturally and unnecessarily restricted; their social life is barren; their political influence is relatively small.  American farmers have been used by politicians, but have still to learn how to use them,” he says.  (63) This is at least partly due, Plunkett believes, to the way the west was settled.

Based on his personal observations of the Middle West in the 1880s, Plunkett says “settlers, knowing that the land must rise rapidly in value, almost invariably purchased much larger farms than they could handle...they invented a system of farming unprecedented in its wastefulness.  The farm was treated as a mine,” and soil fertility was turned into corn crops year after year, without fertilizer or rotation. (67) Though averse to blaming government, Plunkett does recognize the “opening up of the vast new territory by the provision of local traffic for transcontinental lines was an object of national urgency and importance...the policy of rewarding railroad enterprises with unconditional grants of vast areas of agricultural land,” he concludes, is “one of the evidences of urban domination over rural affairs.” (69-70)

“Under modern economic conditions, things must be done in a large way if they are to be done profitably,” Plunkett says, “and this necessitates a resort to combination.”  (89) Corporate organizations have three benefits, he says: economies of scale, elimination of “great middlemen who control exchange and distribution,” and political power. (90) For better or worse, he says, “towns have flourished at the expense of the country by the use of these methods, and the countryman must adopt them if he is to get his own again.” (91) But farmers, Plunkett admits, being “the most conservative and individualistic of human beings,” are unlikely to organize themselves in joint stock companies and hand over control to others. (94)

Plunkett’s solution, the farmers’ cooperative, acknowledges the fact that “when farmers combine, it is a combination not of money only, but of personal effort in relation to the entire business.”  (96) While this description is not exactly accurate (by the early twentieth century farmers produced a fairly standardized product, but there are limits to centralization and scale economies relative to say, steel production, so the economic comparison with industry is complicated), Plunkett is trying to emphasize that the “distinction between the capitalistic basis of joint stock organization and the more human character of cooperative system is fundamentally important.” (97) Compared to Ireland, where Plunkett had been instrumental in developing rural cooperatives, “as things are, the [American] farming interest is at a fatal disadvantage in the purchase of agricultural requirements, in the sale of agricultural produce, and in obtaining proper credit facilities.” (114)  Cooperatives could address each of those needs.

The long-term result of “Better Business,” Plunkett says, are Roosevelt's two other priorities, “Better Farming and Better Living.”  Cooperatives would begin a process of renewing rural social bonds, leading to a new neighborhood culture.  Rather than trying to “bring the advantages of the city” to the country, rural communities would “develop in the country the things of the country, the very existence of which seems to have been forgotten.”  “After all,” he says, “it is the world within us rather than the world without us that matters in the making of society,” once the physical necessities like clean water, medicine, and electricity have been made available by attending to “Better Business.” (127)

Plunkett was well aware that his “subject is rural, my audience urban.”  (143)  This may explain why his final chapter de-emphasizes the establishment of business-oriented cooperatives, and focuses instead on education and socialization.  One point he does make is that existing rural organizations, the Grange, and the Farmers’ Union could all be enlisted into the cause of helping establish and support rural coops.  It would be interesting to read further, and see why the Country Life Movement ignored this advice and stuck with a top-down approach, and if that limited its reach and efficacy.

The Legacy of Railroad Land Grants

“The Railroad Land Grant Legend in American History Texts” Robert S. Henry, 1945

In a 1945 attempt to stem the tide of liberalism in American History textbooks, Robert S. Henry says the public (especially students reading high school and college texts) has been misled by accounts of “huge,” “breath-taking” tracts of land given to railroad companies out of the public domain.  The truth, he says, is that much less land was actually given: only about 9.5% of the continental U.S.. Henry claims the government ultimately got a good return on its land grants in the form of increased value of the rest of the land due to railroads going through them, and also in special government freight rates. And in any case, he says, the social, political, and military benefits of national unity outweigh any costs incurred or opportunity costs.  The old maps, he says, mislead the public by drawing broad swaths across the west, when actually the railroads were only granted half the area drawn, in alternate sections, like a checkerboard, and some of the grants were forfeited because no one built railroads to qualify for them.  In all, only about 131 million acres were ultimately gifted to the railroads, according to Henry.  After the 1884 presidential election, he said, “when the Democratic party issued a campaign poster featuring what purported to be a map of lands granted to railroads,” the issue became a political football and the facts gave way to legend.

Henry’s article appeared in the 1945 Mississippi Valley Historical Review and set off a storm of protests, many of them carried by the same journal, and reprinted in Carstensen,
The Public Lands. David Maldwin Ellis suggested that 49 million acres of land grants by the states were also relevant in the discussion. (145)  And, even if granted lands had been forfeited or released, they still counted as grants and they had still made those lands unavailable to settlers for many years -- in some cases well into the 20th century.  The real extent of the land ultimately granted, according to dissenting historians, was slightly over 223 million acres or nearly 17% of America (146).  Ellis pointed out that “The General Land Office withdrew from public appropriation not only the primary limits [of the land grants] as required by law, but also the lands within the indemnity limits...The railroads sometimes tried to oust genuine homesteaders who had made their selections before the location of the railway route.” (146-7) In other words, the broad swaths drawn across the West were pretty accurate.


Fred A. Shannon called Henry’s article “a piece of special pleading for the current lobby of railroad interests to secure the repeal of clauses in the land-grant acts...for rate concessions on carrying government traffic.” (157) Henry was assistant to the president of the Association of American Railroads when he wrote his article. The big black swaths across the map, Shannon said, should be widened “by 50 per cent so as to show the indemnity zones,” rather than shrunk in the public imagination. “It must not be forgotten,” Shannon said, “that until 1887 settlement was excluded from government sections...and from 50 per cent of their width clear beyond the zones proper.” And what about Henry's claim that ten percent of the nation handed over to corporations wasn't so much? “The railroads got just about one-tenth of the United States and for years restricted settlement in three-tenths of the United States,” Shannon concluded.  “This ratio is much higher in the West, where most of the grants lay.” (158)

I think this series of articles says some interesting things about how history (especially popular history, but really all history) has often been done, and about what we need to be wary of when reading.  In the first place, even taking Henry’s numbers, railroad land grants were breath-taking.  Nearly ten percent of the land area of the nation?  Proportionally more, in unsettled areas, where pioneers were competing for farmlands.  And an area at least double that (or nearly 1/3 of the land in the United States) held back from sale?  That’s pretty extreme.  Second, whether the government got it’s money back is not the question.  Everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that private, corporate, for-profit railroad development with government handouts wasn’t the only way transportation, or the American West, could have been developed.  And it’s not like there weren’t people saying this at the time (one of the "Peppermint Kings" of my dissertation, A.M. Todd, for example).  We just don’t remember them.  What does that say about the textbooks that are being read by high-schoolers now?


Before Origin of Species, Vestiges


Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared anonymously in 1844.  Its author was Robert Chambers, a publisher and philanthropist of Edinburgh.  Vestiges, “alarmingly popular despite a merciless critical pounding, was regarded by the orthodox as pernicious in the very highest degree.”

This quote comes from the Introduction of Milton Millhauser’s Just Before Darwin (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).  The other book I’ve found (which I ran across accidentally, because it mentions Charles Bradlaugh) is James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  I read these because I was developing an impression, after discovering the Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts, that ideas of biological evolution were popular among regular people for several decades before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.  It almost seems that Charles Darwin was merely the figure who forced the scientific establishment (represented by the Royal Society) to consider a topic they’d been studiously avoiding or even repressing ever since Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus published his Zoonomia in 1796!

Millhauser says part of the problem with
Vestiges is that it was in plain English and it was inexpensive.  This made it available and affordable for the masses.  “Once again,” Millhauser says (when he says again is he referring to Erasmus Darwin?), “the public was informed, by a glib pseudo scientist without even Lamarck’s pretensions to authority, that the true Adam of the human race was a baboon” (5).  This sums up the issue nicely: it has to do with public, rather than scientific, understanding of humanity’s origins.  It has to do with the control of scientific information by an elite cadre of authorities, naturally drawn from the upper classes and educated at the best “public” schools.  And it has to do with the inevitable demise of a biblical creation story that few educated Englishmen actually took seriously, but that nearly all believed should be upheld (like Plato’s Noble Lie) for the common people, especially in lieu of an alternative story that maintained the authority of a state-sponsored institution like the established church.

Millhauser dismisses Erasmus Darwin and Charles Lyell in an endnote, saying “they each devote to evolution only a small portion of a work dealing with some other major theme” (191 n. 4).  This is true, and
Vestiges deserves recognition as the first complete book on the subject to achieve wide readership.  But it ignores the relationships between the ideas of Darwin and Lyell and those of Chambers.  Making his case for a serious study of Chambers, Millhauser identifies the issue of synthesis, and especially of synthesis by amateurs.  He says “An early Victorian layman might still feel…that he had perceived a truth that the professionals had somehow managed to ignore or even to hush up, and that this might provide the principle of unification, the frank definition of the central tendency of science, for which the world was waiting” (8).  This is an idea that has particular resonance for me at this point, not least in the political implications such a changed understanding of the world might have on regular people in the early 19th century.

Urban Migration was the Tip of the Iceberg

“Men in Motion: Some Data and Speculations about Urban Population Mobility in Nineteenth- Century America”
Stephan Thernstrom and Peter R. Knights, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1970)

Thernstrom (UCLA, later Harvard) and Knights (Illinois, later York) agree with
Joseph C. G. Kennedy, one of the leading statisticians of the nineteenth century and the Superintendent of the Census, that “the roving tendency of our people” is given too little attention by historians (7, quoting "Report of the Superintendent of the Census," 1852). Rural mobility, they say, has been studied by Malin (1935), Curti 1959, and Coleman 1962. But the point they make about urban population change may apply equally to rural populations, and to movement between city and countryside. Recorded “net population changes from census to census,” they say, “though often dramatic, pale into insignificance by comparison with the actual gross volume of in and out movement.” (10) “Even in the most stable small or medium size community which has yet been examined approximately half of the population was transient within a relatively brief span of years.” (11)

So even in places where dramatic growth is noticed, the real story may be more about movement patterns that aren't captured by the net numbers reported every ten years. To illustrate their point, the authors examined Boston documents to dig beneath the apparent fact that “the proportion of the city’s 1890 residents who had moved into Boston in the preceding decade [when the city’s population rose from 363,000 to 448,000] was...fully one third.” At first glance, the increase in population might be attributed to births and immigration exceeding deaths. In fact, they say, because people were constantly leaving the city throughout the decade, “Nearly 800,000 people moved into Boston between 1880 and 1890 to produce the net migration increase of 65,179.” (17) The turnover of the Boston population means that just about 700,000 people left the city in ten years. (18) The interesting point, for me, is that these 700.000 people all went somewhere.


The 1880s were not unique in this regard, the authors continue. Between 1830 and 1890, when population increased from 61,000 to 448,000, “the number of migrants entering Boston...was an amazing 3,325,000, eight and a half times the net population increase.” (22) Again, that means nearly three million people left Boston and went someplace else. Where did they go, and when they got to that next place, did they settle down and stop moving about? There’s apparently no reason to suppose they did.

“Returning to the same dwelling after the passage of only 365 days, the city directory canvasser had less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding its former inhabitants living there,” the authors say. Of course people who owned businesses and real estate, were much more persistent than the poor. So the rich, in a sense weighed down by their possessions, tended to become less mobile. Thernstrom and Knights even speculate that the transience they've uncovered might be even higher than they can measure, because many poor workers may not have stayed long enough to be counted. Poor people also tend to have more reasons to deliberately evade census canvassers.

A political consequence of short tenancy was disenfranchisement. This may have led, the authors speculate, to a widespread feeling of alienation from the political process and a corresponding inability to organize effective dissident organizations. It may also have contributed to the growth of regional voluntary organizations (possibly even the Knights of Labor) that could offer people some continuity in spite of their movements. Bruce Laurie mentions Thernstrom several times in
Artisans into Workers, but the extreme mobility of poor people and unskilled workers probably doesn’t impact his story of the skilled tradesmen unionized by the A.F. of L. as much as it would a story of unskilled factory workers or migrant farm hands. It might help explain the “ruralization” of the Knights of Labor Laurie notes, though.

If accurate (which it certainly seems to be), the existence of a high-mobility “floating proletariat” (31) challenges Robert Wiebe’s image of “a nation of loosely connected islands,” (32, quoting Search for Order) because these invisible migrants would have been moving constantly between these islands. Or, more interesting to me, between the urban islands and the rural sea. Taking ideas and attitudes with them as they travelled from place to place. This hidden migration could have huge implications for popular culture. It could also support the idea that's been forming in my head recently, that the separation of city and country is much greater now than it was in the past, and that we tend to project the current alienation of these regions from each other back onto an era when it was less true.

Although this article made an impact, the people who've picked up this thread seem to have been mostly interested in urban populations. Howard Chudacoff paraphrased and cited it as the first note in his article, “A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History,” (1994) taking Thernstrom and Knight’s thesis pretty much as proven. David Ward, writing on American ethnic ghettos in the 1982
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, also cited this article as evidence that Irish immigrants were highly mobile. Edward Pessen cited the article in 1972 to explain why the poor did not become involved in antebellum urban politics. That's all very interesting, but I think the implications for rural history and for the interactions of city and countryside in the nineteenth century might be even more important.

Walsh deserves more consideration

The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry
Margaret Walsh, 1982

Margaret Walsh follows up on her 1972 book,
The Manufacturing Frontier, with a look at the transition (between 1840-1870 more or less) of pig butchering from a local, part-time activity to a major processing industry.  She says “pork packing is a good tool of analysis because agricultural processing early disseminated an industrial experience to newly settled farming country.” (ix)  I think this is an interesting claim, but it's not one I'm prepared to accept without some evidence. Sure, butchering a 400-pound animal and preserving the meat with salt is a strenuous process. But not much moreso than, say, butchering a bison and processing the meat into jerky. Would we call plains Indian practices industrial? Or are we just tempted to call early pork processing that because we know the end of the story?  Even so, I wonder if similar work could been done on flour milling, lumber, tanning, cooperage, and especially brewing and distilling?  By 1870, Walsh says, the Midwest was already “responsible for 27 percent of the nation’s value added.” (3)  William Cronon notwithstanding, a lot of that took place outside Chicago, and the things that made Chicago an interesting subject for Nature's Metropolis might also make its example less applicable to smaller, more "regular" places.

Early packers, Walsh says, were usually merchants in towns like Chillicothe, Hamilton, Circleville, Ripley, and Maysville Ohio, Terre Haute and Lafayette Indiana. (17)  Although she doesn’t elaborate much on the farmers raising these swine, Walsh says by the 1840s they had moved past semi-wild “razorbacks” to “foreign pigs, such as the Suffolk, Berkshire, Yorkshire, Irish Grazier, Poland, Essex, Chinese, and Chester Whites...They debated the merits of the different breeds...[and knew] the defects of particular strains could be countered by crossbreeding, a practice that most farmers quickly advocated” (19, sources for this include Towne and Wentworth, Clemen, H.D. Emery, Arny, and
The Prairie Farmer). But the same thing could be said about the breeding enthusiasm of the chicken fanciers who launched the "Hen Fever" of the 1840s. Most of them were not big producers or industrial in any sense of the word (I'll have more to say about chickens in a later post).


A closer look at the supply side of  pork packing would help explain what was happening on farms during this period.  Walsh shows farmers were making business decisions about the market by the 1840s, calculating “the value of corn when sold in the form of pork” to determine whether to fatten hogs or sell their grain. (23)  This calculation required knowledge of feeding yields and prices, but also of transportation costs and risks. And it involved either knowledge of or guesswork about demand in faraway markets.  So, farmers needed to be aware of the wider world even before the railroads came to town. But as I've seen reading the Ranney brothers' letters to each other, farmers in Western New York and Michigan had ready sources of information. And at least some of them had access to markets and even financing through relatives left behind.

The operational costs Walsh reports for even a medium-scale packing operation were substantial.  Fixed costs were low, especially relative to “machinery plants or textile factories;” but the cost of hogs meant that a “country pork merchant in the Middle Ohio Valley in the mid-1840s might need $45,000 to process 6,000 hogs.” (27) The “city capitalist in Cincinnati, Louisville, or Madison might process 15,000 hogs...[and] needed between $100,000 and $125,000 to carry out his season’s work in the mid-1840s.”  (28)  This suggests two things.  City packers had the backing of capitalists (Walsh traces several of these formal and informal relationships), and rural packers had extensive networks of trust and credit.  Assuming the average general store owner could not raise the money to do a cash business, his ability to pack hogs testified to extremely solid relationships between farmers, packers, and possibly retailers in remote cities.

So while I don't accept her claims and conclusion uncritically, I think
The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry explores a great topic and asks questions that deserve more consideration.

Rural History shows our food issues aren't new

First Majority-Last Minority
John L. Shover, 1976

In his history of American agriculture and rural life in the three decades following World War II, John L. Shover identifies a change he calls the “Great Disjuncture.” Although his name for the change didn’t stick, his observations have become widely-accepted truisms.  And yet, thirty-five years after its publication, many of the issues Shover calls our attention to in
First Majority are farther from resolution than they were when he wrote.

Shover begins by observing that “emigration from country to city in the years following the Great Depression has been greater in numbers than the entire immigration from foreign shores to the United States in the 100 years between 1820 and 1920.” (xvi)  Shover says rural exodus was enabled—actually forced—by increases in agricultural productivity.  In 1820, he says “one farm worker was required to supply subsistence for four people; in 1945 the ratio was 1 for 14.6; in 1969 the estimate was 1 for 45.3.” (5)  The first improvement was brought about by tractors and nitrogen fertilizers, Shover says; the second by pesticides, herbicides, and hybrid crops and livestock.  Along with these productivity increases went “consolidation.  Nine-hundred thousand fewer farms operated in 1970 than in 1960, but virtually all the land except that diverted by government policy, remained in production.” (6) Fewer but bigger farms; the beginnings of agribusiness as we now know it.

A lot of the information Shover provides will be well-known to the contemporary reader of agricultural or rural history.  But it’s interesting to see how much of the material publicized by others in the last few decades was already being discussed in the 1960s.  Shover says, for example, that “rural America has traditionally been on the move,” (38) and he notes that “surprisingly few studies of American farms and villages have given attention to their ethnic makeup.  This lack has produced a myopic view of rural politics, overlooking often intense and deep-seated ethnic and religious rivalries.” (48)  Both these observations are still quite relevant for historians and sociologists, especially in places where agribusiness has brought large numbers of migrant workers or low-paid semi-legals to work in meat packing and other ag-related industries.  Shover also notes that “the major market for motor vehicles shifted between 1905 and 1908, from the big city to the country town.”  (116)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of First Majority, which is fascinating precisely because the book is a generation old, is Shover’s coverage of agribusiness.  Recent bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s
Omnivore’s Dilemma, documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn, and Justice Department/USDA probes of Walmart’s “stranglehold” on rural communities, have sensitized us to problems facing food producers and rural Americans, but may also have created an impression that these issues and crises are recent.  In fact, Shover was calling attention to the same problems 35 years ago.  In 1968, he says, “the 1 percent of the feedlots that have a capacity greater than 1,000 fed 47 percent of the cattle marketed.” (160)  Poultry consumption, which had been stable at about 16 pounds per person in the first half of the twentieth century, rose to 50 pounds per person in the early 1970s. (146)  And even then, the industry was already dominated by “producer corporations” that paid the “farmer-caretaker in 1972…fifty dollars for every 1,000 chickens he raised.” (146) I'm going to make a point of mentioning this timeline of development when I talk about agribusiness next time I teach that unit. Maybe the Delmarva chicken industry after WWII would be a good illustration.

By 1970, the declining power of farm operators relative to their corporate overlords was already apparent.  In a 1970 report, the USDA declared that “poultry growers were working at an average wage of minus fourteen cents hourly.” (147)  “Us folks in the chicken business are the only slaves left in the country,” Shover quotes an Alabama striker saying.  “They call all the shots—they give you a contract for as many or as few chickens as they want and then they pay you whatever they want.” (147)  Shover also called attention to the environmental cost of agribusiness.  “In 1969,” he says, the nation’s 107 million cattle, 57 million hogs, 21 million sheep, and 2.1 billion chickens produced approximately ten times more biological waste than the entire human population.” (161)  And the factory farms were just getting going!

While the producer’s share of the food dollar “pie” wasn’t as low in the 1960s as it has become, the growing slice taken by manufacturers and marketers was already a concern.  “Thus in 1969,” Shover says, “farmers received 67 cents of every consumer dollar spent on eggs…50 cents for milk; 22 cents for fresh oranges; 14 cents for two loaves of bread…Producers of wheat and cotton could give away their entire crop free without creating more than a minor effect on the price of bread or shirts.” (177)  The fact that these problems have been known for decades, and during that time the situation has only gotten worse, should concern today’s activists.


Shover shows some of the changes rural historians were beginning to explore in the mid-1970s, in the decade before the election of Ronald Reagan and the political sea-change it brought about (or reflected). I suspect it's important to locate these changes appropriately in time. They're not really recent effects of globalization and hyper-capitalism, as we often see them portrayed. Actually, they're part of the story of the middle of the twentieth century, along with the baby-boom, suburbia, and the wonder years.

The Manufacturing Frontier

The Manufacturing Frontier: Pioneer Industry in Antebellum Wisconsin, 1830-1860
Margaret Walsh, 1972

This is an interesting book which isn't read enough by American Environmental Historians, possibly because the author is neither an American nor an Environmental Historian. In her introduction, British Economic Historian Margaret Walsh says resource-frontiers such as farming, mining, lumbering, “even the military frontier” have been well covered by historians, but the “development of an urban and a manufacturing frontier...begun contemporaneously with the cultivation of land” has not. Exceptions she notes are Richard C. Wade,
The Urban Frontier and James D. Norris, Frontier Iron (v). The industries she's talking about on the manufacturing frontier were mainly “primary processing industries -- lumber planed and sawed, flour and grist milling, brewing, leather tanned and curried, and meat packing -- industries whose existence have been ignored, or have been dismissed as being merely ʻpre-industrial,ʼ even though they were of major importance” (vii). She notes:

There was no clearcut dichotomy between an industrial East and an agrarian West. The existence of new and relatively quick modes of access to other parts of the country, using first the seasonal water routes and then the year-round railroad, meant that the frontier no longer needed to be a series of self-sufficient communities, nor did it have to go through cumulative stages of growth. A more complex process of economic growth ensured the co-existence of several kinds of economic activity. (viii)


For example, Grant County lead mining began 1826; peaked in 1845 at 54.5 million pounds. (2) Grant County "was settled at an earlier date than other parts of Wisconsin, and often by Southerners traveling up the [Mississippi] river.” (70) "Crops cultivated in Wisconsin -- corn, oats, barley, wool, and tobacco -- served mainly for local consumption either directly or indirectly, as did the small amount of dairy and cattle production.” (5) “In 1840 those counties south of a line drawn from Green Bay to the Mississippi River contained 85.2 percent of 1850 the percentage was 93.1...and in 1860 it was 82.7 percent.” (7) So apparently the growth in German population in the northern part of the state (see Gannett maps from 1910 census) happens after the Civil War. Importantly, rivers and the lake meant that “even before the construction of railroads in the 1850s, most settled areas of Wisconsin were able to reach outside markets.” (8)


Jefferson County, located in the heavy wheat-growing region of southeastern Wisconsin, might be regarded as typical of many western pre-railroad counties. The main resource was land, the main occupation was farming. Yet there also developed a remarkable range of small-scale manufacturing (in a note on her selection of counties, Walsh summarizes central place theory, 31). Wheat production “provided a basis for industrial the stimulus given to the primary processing industries, notably flour milling and, to a lesser extent, tanning, meatpacking, brewing, and wool carding. But agriculture also functioned as a market as well as a source of inputs.” (38) Farming quickly became commercial, meaning farmers needed specialized tools and the things they no longer made at home.

The market remained relatively local, Walsh says, and “Even when the railroad came, it merely brought merchandise manufactured in other places” (39). I'm not sure this distinction makes sense to me. Manufactured elsewhere but sold by a local merchant still seems significant. But maybe the question she's pointing at has to do with how did the Jefferson County farmers pay for this merchandise? Unless sheʼs saying they sold agricultural products outside the county, but not manufactures. “There was little room for the development of even a rudimentary kind of division of labor. Most firms in Jefferson County were very small operations, employing one or two skilled artisans.” (42) “Within [the] processing group flour milling contributed the largest share -- almost 40 percent of the value added -- and lumber planed and sawed furnished 20.6 percent. Jefferson County was concentrating on processing its local products.” (46) ...for local consumption... Manufacturers like furniture-makers worked “often in exchange for lumber or farmersʼ produce. But cabinetmakers...did not enjoy a monopoly, for by 1847, retail merchants...were advertising ready-made goods at competitive prices.” (63) Did the difference between cash and farmersʼ-produce markets keep some of these little guys in business?

Racine and Milwaukee became urban and industrial very quickly, in Walsh's story. By 1850, Racine, “well- placed for the development of...[an] industry focused on the prosperous wheat-growing region,” was making a third of the stateʼs farm machinery. (150, 142) The market expanded, and “By the mid-1850ʼs [J.I. Case] threshers were known throughout the West, especially in Iowa and Minnesota, and in 1860 he even shipped six machines to California.” (155) This was bad news for blacksmiths, who “in Racine County...were ceasing to be regarded as manufacturers. They either took on general service and repair functions or began to specialize...the more ambitious turned to other craft trades, such as making plows or wagons.” (169)

Milwaukeeʼs population was “20,061 in 1850 and 45,286 in 1860.” (171) Its industry was uncharacteristically (for Wisconsin) diversified. “In 1850 six branches of manufacturing -- flour milling, clothing, construction materials, iron, furniture, and boots and shoes -- were responsible for half the countyʼs value added.” (172) “Several large firms...employed from fifty to eighty workers, often using machinery to fabricate articles for mass consumption. But at the other extreme there was a proliferation of shops run by owner-operators or craftsmen and their one apprentice.” (176)

“The...manufacture of lager beer, was the third leading processing industry in the county in the antebellum years and indeed was the fourth-leading industry in Wisconsin. Its origin and steady growth lay not so much in the accessibility of agricultural crops...but rather in the presence of an ethnic group -- the Germans -- both as producers and consumers.” (185-6) “Consumption...was high among the working class of Milwaukee, and especially among the German element, which formed about one third of the cityʼs population...Most of the successful brewers were German [and] were experienced in the business.” (187)

Lots to think about here. Given that Walsh wrote well ahead of others such as Cronon and Steinberg (William Cronon cites her work pretty extensively in
Nature's Metropolis, as a matter of fact), it's too bad Walsh's books aren't more widely read by Environmental Historians.

What Turner got wrong and right

William Cronon
“Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner”
The Western Historical Quarterly
18:2, April 1987

In this article written about a century after Turner, Cronon reviews the historiographical impact of the frontier thesis and reevaluates its implications.  He suggests that the flaws in Turner’s ideas can be ignored or forgiven, and a core set of ideas remain that inform new (especially environmental) approaches to American history.

Cronon defines the frontier thesis using Turner’s words: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”  Turner combined Darwin's ideas about evolution and Haekel's evocative but largely incorrect idea that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" to narrate “an evolution which recapitulated the development of civilization itself, tracing the path from hunter to trader to farmer to town,” and forming “a special American character...marked by fierce individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism.” (157)  This formulation is problematic, Cronon says, because its “fuzzy language conferred on Turner’s argument the illusion of great analytical power only because his central terms...were so broad and so ill-defined.” (158)  I’d also suggest that the scientific metaphor is not a perfect fit for historical development, recapitulation is attractive but ultimately false. And that even if the frontier experience fostered individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism generally, it’s crucial to understand how these traits were expressed and distributed.  Clearly everyone didn’t have them all in equal quantities.  How and why some people became radically egalitarian while others became oppressive or radically libertarian seems like it should be a central concern in western histories.

Cronon says Turner’s critics have pointed out that “westerners looked to the East,” and that “Among the eastern institutions dominating western life have been the Federal government, the corporation, and the city.”  (I'd add Banks, but I'll say more about that when I've written that chapter of my dissertation, 158)  He calls attention to the “urban character of much western settlement,” (169) especially in “rising urban centers whose growth was central to frontier expansion itself.” (like Chicago in
Nature's Metropolis, 173) The impact of these points, for me, is that they break the smooth flow of the westward teleology, just as they break the static von Thünen model. Western (or any regional) history should challenge the idea that the story “of any given American place could be written in terms of a progressive sequence of different economic and social activities [and] embodied in representative figures who might serve as ‘types’.” (166) Cronon suggests that in place of Turner’s narrative arc, which he admits “set American space in motion and gave it a plot,” (166), historians could focus on changes in “People’s notions of abundance and scarcity--of wealth and poverty.” (172) “Among the deepest struggles in American western history,” he says, are “those among peoples who have defined abundance--and the ‘good life’--in conflicting ways.” (Or, less kindly put, among those who have tried to scoop up all the abundance for themselves and those who resisted, 175) New histories might “discover a subtler periodization...[and] create a finer-grained sense of movement that will reflect interconnections between regional diversity and the shifting dialectic of scarcity and abundance.” (174)

Historians these days appreciate tightly-focused, evidence-based, bottom-up narratives. But we seem to miss the big, sweeping histories of the nineteenth century.  In a recent book, Alan Kulikoff says he’s planning on bringing back the master narrative (we’ll see).  My question is, how do we put together histories that will drill down into the details of specific people’s experiences in particular places and times, and at the same time suggest (if not prove) a “big” point about the relationship between country and city?  Turner’s use of “great men” as representative “types” was limited and nineteenth-century, but it highlights the problem of believing any particular story can claim to be a general, representative view.  Maybe a series of well-chosen microhistories could be sewn together into something that resembles a wide view.  Doing my rural history project, I might look more closely at the idea of cores and peripheries, which may show unexpected interactions between east and west.  I might find cycles of growth and decline that follow different trajectories from Turner’s.  Cronon has already told a story of the simultaneous growth of a center and periphery, but more might be said about the people living in the shadow of a “Chicago” (or maybe a Minneapolis).  There must be ways rural people crearted change rather than reacting to it; also ways their lives remained unaffected, just as there are ways they were never free of the fact of the city’s existence.  And Cronon’s final question is a good one to keep in mind: “To what extent
has the peculiar nature of American class consciousness and republican government been shaped by the shifting resource base of our economic and social life?  How do nature and humanity transform each other?” (175) This question might help break an exclusive attention to the city-country binary, to focus on the changing ways rural areas relate to their environments in American history, and how that can be much different from the way cities do.  This might go a long way toward a story of how culture, class consciousness, and politics developed the way they did in rural America.  Comparing these to the stories city-Americans have always wanted to tell themselves about the character and qualities of their rural neighbors, might help explain how we got to where we are.

Seeing Like a State in America, with Dust

Red Earth
Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, 2004

Oklahoma is most frequently portrayed by environmental historians as the site of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Popular memory, if it extends far enough, conjures images like the one I use in my lecturesor Dorothea Lange's portraits of refugees. There's the anger of Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath, but also a kind of human spirit thing mixed in with it.  Donald Worster wrote his classic tale of ecological mismanagement in the same year that Paul Bonnifield wrote a story of the triumph of Oklahoman spirit in the face of natural disaster (1979, The Dust Bowl and Dust Bowl, respectively).  William Cronon used the 180 degree disparity between these histories to comment on the incredibly subjective nature of (even environmental) history, finally threading a way (after four rewrites, he says) through post-modern concerns regarding narrative and cognition, to embrace history as a more-or-less moral fiction, aiming at but never quite reaching truth (“A Place for Stories,” JAH March 1992).


In contrast to these tales of declension and progress, Bonnie Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Dust Bowl Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been.  “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain” (145).  Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside” (147).  In their place, “an elite group of native-born white farmers were eventually triumphant” and a “highly diverse ecology of native plants, animals, and people” became “a more simplified ecology centered on a scientifically approved list of domesticated crops and animals.”


The white farmers who came to what had been the Indian Territory embraced large-scale agriculture and turned for advice to experts at Ag. Extension offices rather than the farmers who had worked those lands for generations. In a sense, the same preference for central authority over indigenous wisdom James Scott described in Seeing Like a State. This turned out to be a fatal error. And, ironically, an error we may have made again, as much of the are that blew away in the Dust Bowl has been reoccupied by farmers using deep-well irrigation. But the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeline of this remade farm region, is drying up.  Lynn-Sherow's conclusion, that “white farmers’ acceptance and enthusiasm for mechanized agriculture…initiated and sustained the simplification of the territory” seems like a moral declension, in the sense Cronon said Worster’s book was.  Or is it?  A more simplified ecological system like the one modern agriculture has implemented in Oklahoma is more fragile and subject to disturbances like drought.  So she’s using Cronon’s "second set of narrative constraints" (making "ecological sense") to get past the subjectivity of her judgment that monoracial commercialized monoculture is bad.  Cool.

City Money vs. Country Money

A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States
Stephen Mihm, 2007

Mihm’s argument is actually a little wider than the sensational title suggests. Basically, he says the monetary chaos of the antebellum years prevented Americans from feeling confident in their currency, and by extension, in their economy and nation.  “The Civil War, and the search for national unity it fostered, compelled the federal government to secure the right to make money.”  The nation’s fight against counterfeiters (including the establishment of the Secret Service by near-criminal William Patrick Wood) and nationalization of the currency were necessary steps in the United States becoming “a genuine nation...[with] confidence in both our country and its currency.” (374)  In my opinion, this argument is anachronistic. I think it's nearly impossible for American historians to imagine an America without a single, national currency, and this shows in the way we talk about the period before the Lincoln administration consolidated the money supply. Most of Mihm's narrative, however, covers the colorful lives of the counterfeiters themselves, and doesn’t advance his thesis; which in the end seems like an afterthought, used to justify Mihm’s interest in the story of counterfeiting -- which is interesting enough on its own, it didn’t need justification.

For my purposes, the interesting bits are the glimpses into the chaotic but legally legitimate world of antebellum state banking -- although I have to admit, Waterman Ormsby, founder of the Continental Banknote Company, is a really attractive character that I’d love to read more about.  By the 1850s, Mihm says, “with so many entities commissioning bank notes of their own design...the money supply became a great confluence of more than ten thousand different kinds of paper that continually changed hands, baffled the uninitiated, and fluctuated in value according to the whims of the market.” (3) Not only was some of the money phony, says Mihm; a lot of the paper circulating in remote areas was “the floating issue of broken banks.” (quoting Maine storekeeper John Neal from
Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life, 1869. 6) I think the situation was chaotic, but also an attempt by people in rural communities and even Western cities to achieve economic independence from the Eastern money center-- and that this self-determination was squashed by the Lincoln administration's banking and currency policy.

“It was a popular remark among men of business at this time,” Mihm quotes Allan Pinkerton saying in his 1884 memoir, “that they preferred a good counterfeit on a solid bank to any genuine bill upon [a] shyster institution.” (10) The Maine storekeeper agreed: “In
our establishment, all such moneys, whether counterfeit, or only questionable, were always put back into the till.” (10) The willingness of people to pass on suspect notes reveals not only a decision not to be a martyr for the sake of “good” money, but what I see as an already well-developed, fairly sophisticated understanding that the money itself was only a symbol.  Mihm quotes a Michigan resident’s recollection that “counterfeiting and issuing worthless ‘bank notes’...was not looked upon as a felony as it would be today.  Of course it was taken for granted that it was a ‘little crooked,’ but the scarcity of real money, together with the necessity for a medium of exchange, made almost anything that looked like money answer the purpose.” (Mihm quotes from Mevis, Pioneer Recollections: Semi-Historic Side Lights on the Early Days of Lansing, 1911, 33-4. 159) “Money” doesn’t have to have intrinsic value, as long as it represents value -- which it would continue to do, until someone took it to a bank and had it refused.  Not wanting to be that person, anyone who received a note would pass it on, and so bogus notes would tend to stay in circulation, boosting the money supply.  An 1857 newspaper reported “it is a favorite maxim with some to ‘keep bad money in circulation,‘ for they say it makes no difference whether a bill is counterfeit or not, as long as it will pass around freely.” (from The Weekly Pantagraph, 233)  I wonder to what degree shaky local banks benefited from the note reluctance of holders to find out their circulating currency was worthless?

Counterfeiting seemed to some critics to highlight the deficiency of paper money. To many hard-money enthusiasts, paper currency wasn’t payment, it was the “
promise to pay, which, by universal understanding, is meant to signify the promise to pay on condition of not being required to do so.” (quoting United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1839, emphasis in original. 9) Any paper issue not 100% backed by specie was in their opinion, a swindle on somebody.  Of course, the biggest enthusiasts of hard money were the holders of specie. Paper money was just a little too…democratic.

Even in states with sophisticated regulatory arrangements, like New York (which had an insurance pool, but also had free banking), the authorities clearly recognized that even legitimate banks might be tempted to print more notes than they “should.”  “In an attempt to prevent these ‘genuine counterfeiters,’ New York passed a law in 1843 requiring that banks deposit their plates with the state’s comptroller of the currency.” (283)  By the time the guys I’m researching became bankers (in Western New York in the early 1860s), there was a semi-governmental printing office that they would write to, for more notes.

Another character who seems to demand a closer look is John Thompson.  Originally a counterfeit detector, Thompson founded the First National Bank of New York in 1863, when other New York bankers were resisting LIncoln’s consolidation of National Banking.  Thompson was forced out in 1873, but went on to found Chase National bank in 1878, named after his good friend Salmon P. Chase (Mihm quotes from Thompson's  “
Sixty Years in Wall Street,” in The American Banker, 25 April 1891)  Thompson was born in 1802 on a farm in Peru, Berkshire County, Mass. So there's probably a good story to be found there. All in all, even though Mihm’s interest in the counterfeiters doesn’t line up completely with my interest in the “legitimate” but still quite sketchy free state banks, I got a lot out of A Nation of Counterfeiters.

Social History and Contingency in Rural America

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

Yankee Migrations into Michigan

The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier
Susan E. Gray, 1996

I thought after the previous longish criticism of
Carolyn Merchant's Ecological Revolutions, I'd give an counter-example of a book I thought did a good job trying to get at the mentalities of rural people. I don't want to give the impression I don't like mentalities. I'd love to know what (especially rural) people were thinking in the past. But actual people, not so much "The People." So here's an example.

Gray’s story of three townships in the neighborhood of Kalamazoo Michigan could have been told as “the mundane march of the farm boy who collects the herd in the back forty and drives it resolutely toward the barn,” she says, except that “the circumstances under which the townships were settled were by no means mundane, and the settlers saw themselves as anything but plodders” (1).  Gray draws on many of the texts I’ve read lately that describe the market transition and migration, as well as important old regional sources like the many memorial atlases and Lois K. Mathews’ 1909
Expansion of New England.  The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central” (3).  Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality” (5).

Gray describes the typical “Yankee migration” pattern as “chain migration, usually, but not always, in family groups” (11).  The two important elements of this type of migration are that there are familiar faces waiting for immigrants, after the first settlers arrive; and that there are family members still back in the old New England and New York communities, who are a source of not only ongoing migrants, but ongoing access to eastern capital.  This is why both migration and “capitalism for Yankees seemed to promise not the destruction but the intensification of familial and community ties” (12).  The primary sources I’ve been reading (especially letters from migrants to siblings “back home”) seem to support Gray’s argument.

Although she spends quite a lot of time on the religious conflicts of these frontier communities, Gray acknowledges that although “organized settlements in Michigan, such as the one at Vermontville, near Lansing, involved relocations of entire congregations...they were not usual.  Most settlements--no less Yankee--were founded by groups of families” (18).  In fact, Richland township’s largest landholder, John F. Gilkey, was “ ‘Behind none’ in contributing barrels of flour to the poor, he was known for his benevolence, but he belonged to no church” (176).  Gray reminds us there were “two New Englands--one coastal, commercial, and Congregational; the other, agrarian, democratic, and pluralistic” (8).  I might amend that statement in two ways, to suggest that western Massachusetts and Vermont were also quite commercial, and to suggest that many Vermont deists and New York/New England freethinkers were still alive and well in the 1830s, when southern Michigan was first settled.

Michigan’s growth in the 1830s was driven in part by land sales at the Kalamazoo District Land Office.  Although “open only 169 days in took in $2,043,866.87.” (44)  Michigan’s “General Banking Law of March 15, 1837, enabled any twelve landowners to form a banking association on application to the county treasurer or clerk” (45). The Specie Circular slowed but did not stop land sales, Gray says; but the Panic of 1837-9 crushed the bankers, ruined rail and canal companies, and slowed population growth for decades.  “The legislature stopped construction of the southern [rail] line at Hillsdale in 1843 and funded the central line only to Kalamazoo, which the line reached in 1846.”  The “panic and ensuing years of depression--was to arrest Michigan’s economic development until the Civil War” (47).

Gray’s discussion of Kalamazoo politics seems to draw heavily on Formisano, who she seems to think provides a fairly accurate description of conditions around Kalamazoo.  She observes that “although Kalamazoo was an intensely anti-Democratic county, it supported continuously only a Democratic paper, the
Kalamazoo Gazette” (152). In 1849, she says, “Democrats simply gave up the fight,” allowing the Whigs to “elect unanimously Uriah supervisor” (154). Upjohn was a British-born Doctor, and father of famous industrialist W.E. Upjohn.  Gray calls him “the sole known antislavery man who compiled a winning record in township elections... [as] a Whig who ran as a Free-Soil candidate for state senator in 1848” (157). “The formation of rural elites,” Gray suggests, “is a relatively understudied aspect of the transition to capitalism in the countryside” (159). The politics of Kalamazoo’s civic leaders is also problematic, since Gray suggests it represents ethnic, religious, and social antagonisms from the home regions of these immigrant elites (167-8).

Gray's monograph on Michigan Yankees is probably unknown by most historians not particularly interested in Yankee migrations or the region. That's unfortunate, because Gray's approach balances historiographical consciousness, a theory of the
mentalities of her subjects, and a ton of actual evidence. Citing primary sources, you might argue, is easier when you restrict the scope of your study the way Gray did. It might be harder for Carolyn Merchant to assemble a convincing display of primary material that would be specific enough to anchor her narrative but general enough to support her much more global claims. But maybe that's the point.

Merchant's Ecological Revolutions

Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender & Science in New England
 Carolyn Merchant, 1989

This is a longer-than-usual post, because Merchant is an important figure in the field, so I feel I should address the issues that make her approach less effective for me. Ecological Revolutions followed nine years after Merchant's extremely well-received The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, which focused on the period of Francis Bacon (1561-1626).  Merchant mentions in the preface that her manuscript was completed before Cronon’s Changes in the Land came out; and that it “pushed me to expand and differentiate my approach from his.” (xiv) She’s much more theoretical, which is a little ironic, since in the early chapters her sympathies seem to be with the more “Dionysian” (she calls them Homeric) natives as opposed to the “Apollonian” (she calls them Platonic) whites, even during the colonial period before the capitalist ecological revolution.

Merchant’s thesis is that “ecological revolutions are major transformations in human relations with nonhuman nature.  They arise from changes, tensions, and contradictions that develop between a society’s mode of production and its ecology, and between its modes of production and reproduction.  These dynamics in turn support the acceptance of new forms of consciousness, ideas, images, and worldviews.”  She posits two major ecological revolutions in the period under study: the first surrounding the change from a native pattern of settlement/agriculture to a colonial style; the second when subsistence agriculture gave way to commerce.

In 1985, presumably while planning or writing
Ecological Revolutions, Merchant wrote a review for Isis of Peter Lopston’s edition of Anne Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.  Conway was a friend of Francis Mercury van Helmont (now obscure, but a big name in seventeenth-century cabalistic/alchemical mysticism) and a forerunner of Leibniz.  Merchant’s interest in the interplay between holistic mysticism and early modern science is evident in her ideas about the mentalities behind the colonial ecological revolutions.

There are four layers to Merchant’s colonial ecological revolution, ranging through what she calls “ecology, production, reproduction, and consciousness.”  Although she describes these at length, and includes a diagram, this is difficult area of Merchant’s discussion.  She combines a very general economic discussion, where subsistence production and barter give way to commoditization and markets with a nod to Marx and Engels, with a new “dynamic approach [that] views systems as dialectical interactions.”  The implication seems to be that in the later chapters, pre-modern animistic approaches to nature will be reconciled with “open systems” and Ilya Prigogine’s dissipative, chaotic structures, to model radical, rapidly changing, new ecological organizations.  Something like this approach has led to controversy in the discipline; one 2001 article charges that “Deep ecologists, in particular, aspire to ground environmental ethics and politics in premodern modes of life and thought. This move fails to account for the myriad important connections between Enlightenment themes and those of contemporary ecophilosophy.” (Hinchman and Hinchman, “Should Environmentalists Reject the Enlightenment?”
Review of Politics Autumn 2001, 663-692)

The treatment of ecological change from a cultural/intellectual history perspective is an interesting challenge.  While others have focused more on the actual changes in the New England environment, trying to unravel the networks of influences and interactions, Merchant has tried to focus on what she calls “consciousness.”  This term seems similar to but not synonymous with
mentalities, as it incorporates both the intellectual and emotional attitudes of the people involved, at both a conscious and unconscious level.

Part one is a discussion of Merchant’s theory of ecological revolutions, and of the generalized consciousnesses she attributes to the period and to members of the various groups that populated colonial New England.  The first revolution “resulted in the collapse of indigenous Indian ecologies and the incorporation of a European ecological complex of animals, plants, pathogens, and people.”  The details of the material, economic, and social changes are thoroughly covered by Cronon and others; Merchant’s interest is on how this revolution “substituted a visual for an oral consciousness and an image of nature as female and subservient to a transcendent male God for the Indians’ animistic fabric of symbolic exchanges between people and nature.”  The second, capitalist, ecological revolution, “split human consciousness into a disembodied analytical mind and a romantic emotional sensibility.”

Readers looking for specific evidence of how Indian and British colonial consciousness changed in response to settlement, trade, conflict, disease, missionary work, etc. will be frustrated.  Merchant sets up a fascinating analytical structure, but it is too lightly anchored in evidence from the period.  It’s difficult, but not impossible, to retrieve traces of the thoughts and attitudes of common people.  Merchant’s argument would have benefited from more data about the populations she was describing. Merchant says “ideological frameworks or worldviews ‘secrete’ behavioral norms,” and she goes on to observe that “their related values are not accidental.”  This is a profound insight.  It would be exciting to see it demonstrated with references to events, records, or writings from the colonial era.

Instead of telling a story of Indians and colonists, based on sources from the period, Merchant narrates a legend of the fall.  She describes a native American culture of “mimetic consciousness,” where “the primal gaze of locking eyes between hunter and hunted initiated the moment of ordained killing when the animal gave itself up so that the Indian could survive.”  Tragically, in a declension from this state of nature, “the primal gaze of the Indian was submerged by the objectifying scrutiny of fur trader, lumber merchant, and banker who viewed nature as resource and commodity.”

“The rise of an analytic, quantitative consciousness was a feature of the capitalist ecological revolution.”  Merchant says this after a discussion of Plato, Homer, and the “imposition of visually oriented consciousness," so it’s unclear whether she’s speaking globally, or about New England colonial experience.  Non-Western scholars might dispute the implied inevitable association of Greek rationality with market capitalism.  Although Merchant’s discussion of subjects and objects opens interesting doors, she fails to conclusively locate these issues in the minds of colonial New Englanders.  “Animals, plants, and rocks were alive [for Indians] and could be communicated with directly.  For…farmers, nature was an animate mother carrying out God’s dictates in the mundane world.”  Who held these thoughts and beliefs? How did these thoughts inform the rest of their world-view and their actions?  Is this difference in myths actually responsible for the history of the Indians and colonists in New England?

Discussing the transition from “Animals into Resources,” Merchant briefly describes the New England habitat and gives a table of tribal populations.  But she quickly returns to the intellectual, to focus on the “polar opposites” of “wildness” and “civilization;” “animality” and “humanity.”  Her discussion touches briefly on the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, before addressing sexual crime.  The “totemic world…of symbiotic participatory consciousness” is set against “Transcendence [which] undermines the epistemological equality of the senses, through its emphasis on the visual.”  In their “struggle to set humans apart from nature, Puritans, like Europeans, soon outlawed human sex with animals, making ‘besitality’ (or buggery) a capital crime for males.”  She says “the erotic relations between Indians and animals and the lack of sharp distinctions between them reinforced the colonists’ own separation between the human and animal worlds.”  There’s a core idea here that makes sense and seems intuitively correct.  Unfortunately, Merchant buries it beneath broad generalizations and sensational, minimally documented claims that may confuse gender preference with species preference.  I was left wondering whether farmers were really having that much sex with their livestock; and more importantly whether the intuitive sensibility of Merchant’s conclusions is legitimate, or just resonates with our contemporary beliefs and biases?

Land ownership, permanent farmsteads, and disease are a few of the factors that seem to undermine Merchant's focus on consciousness.  Epidemics that wiped out from fifty to ninety percent of Indian communities must have affected both the Indians’ ability to resist white intrusion onto their ancestral lands, and their ability to work their farming, hunting and fishing resources well enough to support themselves.  Was the Indian way of life already fatally compromised by loss of population, before the objectifying, commoditizing, approach of the whites gained the upper hand?  Merchant’s conclusion, that “critical processes at each structural level destroyed the Indians’ productive-reproductive balance and brought about the collapse of Corn Mother cultivation,” may be too general to shed light on the actual changes that shook colonial New England.

Merchant continues her discussion of consciousness by contrasting the “writings of Puritan divines and merchants [which] record ideas about the nature of literate elites,” with “folklore [which] offers clues to the culture of ordinary people.”  She alludes to medieval paganism, maypole frolics and Puritan anxiety over witchcraft, concluding that the “patriarchal homes” thrust into the “open, shifting homeland” of the Indians, “were constricted domains mapped onto space as private property.”  The colonists brought Calvinism, “Cartesian grids,” and “the legacy of the Platonic mode of thinking and knowing…ultimately transform[ing] American Indian mimetic consciousness.”  The long-term effect on consciousness was that “being dragged out of the becoming of story recollection into the being of arithmetic and science, the psyche itself must emerge and clothe itself in new garments.”  Again, this conclusion is intuitively appealing, but without evidence that the people involved experienced these thoughts and feelings, the reader has no “reality check” against anachronism.

In a later chapter, Merchant qualifies her argument, saying “Like the consciousness of the Indians, the consciousness of most rural farmers was participatory and mimetic.”  Colonial rural consciousness, however, was “a participatory consciousness dominated by vision.”  Merchant describes a “hierarchical cosmos” that “ascended” through the great chain of being, to “God the creator.”  The alchemical unity of microcosm and macrocosm and “Egyptian and Greek views based on the circular cosmos…mingled with Judaic and Christian schemes” and “informed farmers’ continuing efforts to predict weather” as well as their image of their place in the world.

Merchant’s claim that farmers understood their “macrocosmic role was to mediate between… the heavens and the fertilizing salts produced in the bowels of Mother Earth,” hinges on almanacs.  She traces a lineage, from ancient mystic and folk traditions, through Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus and Renaissance neo-Platonists, to the Harvard-educated authors of early almanacs; suggesting that “the planetary influences were not physical causes…but meditative vehicles through which the human spirit merged with God’s spirit in a connective fabric that clothed the soul.”  But, as Merchant notes, there were two different types of almanacs: “by the end of the seventeenth century, almanacs containing information specifically for farmers had begun to appear, and by the early eighteenth century they had replaced those of the Harvard scholars.”  So, although the almanac may have “served as a set of mediating symbols that connected the individual to the larger cosmos,” it’s extremely unclear to what degree colonial farmers were aware of this intellectual tradition.

Merchant cites the Abbé de Vallemont’s 1707
Curiosities of Nature and Art in Husbandry and Gardening as a source of ideas “representative of the eighteenth-century belief system,” after admitting that the book “may not have found its way to the American colonies.”  The New England farmer may have considered himself a “link and mediator between earth and heavens,” but the word of a French Abbé is inconclusive evidence at best.  Vallemont was neither a farmer nor an American, and Merchant didn't convince me that his interests, including a fascination with the alchemical properties of “niter,” were shared by rural New Englanders.

Finally, Merchant addresses “The Mechanical Philosophy,” through which “humans increasingly appropriated [Nature’s] restorative functions for the purpose of increasing yields and profits.”  Francis Bacon’s view that “the objective of the human race was to recover it’s right to the garden lost in the fall” is an expression of a “modern” movement to purge nature of animism and set men as “masters of its processes.”  Descartes, Newton and Boyle contribute to this movement, and it emerges in Calvinist New England, where “the orderly life of the merchant exemplified the logic of market trade.”  Merchant briefly mentions New England religious development, saying “the emergence of Unitarianism in Boston was rooted in the primacy of matter over spirit.”  In contrast, Jonathan “Edwards’ beneficent universe was infused with light, sun, and spirit, reminiscent of the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance.”  In the end, “a literate populace became a calculating populace, nature a calculable order of forces.”  This objectification and systematization of what had once been a pure, unmediated experience of nature, is at the heart of Merchant’s theory of New England’s ecological revolutions.

For readers familiar with the shifting boundary between holistic/mystical and reductive/materialist early modern thought, or with eco-feminism, or even with new age paganism, Merchant’s themes will strike familiar chords and seem intuitively right.  Merchant has taken a different approach to explaining the causes of ecological change.  I found her suggestion that the
mentalities of common rural people may have led them to resist the structures of society very compelling, especially in light of the ongoing defection of early colonial people who went off to live with the Indians.  But, given the lack of evidence regarding the thoughts and attitudes of the people involved, I was left wondering whether the generalizations can be sustained.  Merchant's attribution of changes in New England ecology to a shifting consciousness of humanity’s role in nature is interesting, but could have been more deeply grounded in evidence.

Hornborg's Power of the Machine


The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment
Alf Hornborg, 2001

“Like all power structures,” Hornborg begins, “the machine will continue to reign only as long as it is not unmasked as a species of power.”  If only it was so easy.  We may realize that the emperor is naked, and he may be embarrassed. But that doesn’t stop him from being the emperor.

This isn't Environmental History, despite the title. It's more a cross between economics and philosophy. And the argument is not backed up by any historical claims or evidence, it's completely theoretical. But Hornborg went on to write and collaborate on books that do call themselves EnvHist, so I thought I'd look at his argument. Turns out, Hornborg’s analysis is built on two big ideas. The first is his definition of power as “a social relation built on an asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks” (1). When I read this, the image that came to my mind was Beowulf. Risks can either be taken or imposed. When you take a risk, you accumulate honor and become a hero. When you impose a risk on someone else, you accumulate power.

The second is the idea that beyond the cultural construction or idea of “the machine,” there are
actual machines. And Hornborg says “the actual machine contradicts our everyday image of it.” Hornborg believes “the foundation of machine technology is not primarily know-how but unequal exchange in the world system, which generates an increasing, global polarization of wealth and impoverishment” (2). We believe machines embody progress and an escape from Malthusian disaster. But they don't feed themselves: “We do not recognize that what ultimately keep our machines running are global terms of trade. The power of the machine is not of the machine, but of the asymmetric structures of exchange of which it is an expression” (3).

The way machines concentrate resources from the periphery into the center while seeming to be making something out of nothing, is by keeping our attention firmly focused on the spinning gears and flashing lights in that center. To prove his point, Hornborg cites the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Ilya Prigogine’s elaboration of it in his theory of Dissipative Structures. Increases in order, which Hornborg calls negative entropy or negentropy, are only possible locally, and are fueled by energy  taken out of the wider environment. “Any local accretion of order,” Hornborg says, “can occur only at the expense of the total sum of order in the universe” (123). In the case of biomass, the energy to create this order is taken from sunlight by photosynthesis. This isn’t a completely efficient process, but it hardly matters on a human scale (so far). Where the entropy law becomes really important, though, is in the creation of what Hornborg calls “technomass” out of non-renewable resources. This is not only a zero-sum game, Hornborg says, but it has distributional implications that are “systematically concealed from view by the hegemonic, economic vocabulary” (3).

“Industrial technology,” Hornborg says, “depends for its existence on not being accessible to everyone.” Industry presupposes cheap energy and “raw material” inputs and high-value outputs. Entropy insures that there isn’t enough to go around. “The idea of distributing [technology] evenly among all the peoples of the world would be as contradictory as trying to keep a beef cow alive while restoring its molecules to all the tufts of grass from which it has sprung” (125).

What are the historical implications of this bleak argument? Well for one thing, once machines and the exchange relationships they represent “assumed the appearance of natural law…the delegation of work from human bodies to machines introduced historically new possibilities for maintaining a discrepancy between exchange value and productive potential, which in other words means encouraging new strategies for underpayment and accumulation” (13). Why? Because while it is relatively easy to recognize the basic justice that an individual owns his own work, it’s harder to say who should own the work of the machines built with (cheap) resources and (cheap) labor bought far from the high-priced central markets.

This was the thing that Marx missed, either because it was harder to see in his time, or because (as Hornborg suggests) he “fetishized” machines and expected them to solve the historic problem of the proletariat (there’s a whole chapter redefining Marx’s theory of fetishism and applying it, but I'll save that for another time). At some point, Hornborg says (I'd say pretty early on), global growth became primarily based on “
underpayment for resources, including raw materials and other forms of energy than labor.” Hornborg replaces Marx’s labor exploitation with resource exploitation as the central factor in capitalist accumulation. This change is a great bridge from a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism, to a “green” critique. Money values may increase and the illusion of global economic growth may temporarily hide the zero-sum nature of the game, but in the long run “what locally appears as an expansion of resources” turns out to be “an asymmetric social transfer implying a [hidden] loss of resources elsewhere” (59).

Another implication is that, historically and “still today, industrial capitalism is very far from the universal condition of humankind, but rather a privileged activity, the existence of which would be unthinkable without various other modes of transferring…resources from peripheral sectors to centers” (60). This should impact discussions of the “market transition” in history just as it affects our understanding of contemporary economic development.

The other major implication, for me, is that locality is key. In nature, systems tend to regulate themselves. “As long as a unit of biomass is directly dependent on its local niche for survival, there will tend to be constraints on overexploitation and a long-term (if oscillating) balance. Industrial growth, however, entails a
supra-local appropriation of negentropy” (123). The concept of mobile, impersonal capital breaks this local ecology, and creates what Hornborg calls “a recursive (positive feedback) relationship between some kind of technological infrastructure and some kind of symbolic capacity to make claims on other people’s resources” (61). When capital can begin to be accumulated far from its source, we’re on our way to a world where “the 225 richest individuals in the world own assets equal to the purchasing power of the 47 poorest percent of the planet’s population.”

But one could also respond to this by saying Hornborg takes the thermodynamic argument too far. It's a compelling metaphor, but it needs some measurement attached to it. Sure, all order is temporary and a battle against entropy. But we have a more benign name for that than the ones Hornborg uses. We call that life.

Like The Country and the City, but with History


Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
William Cronon, 1991

The basic thrust of most of Cronon’s writing is that dualities like nature and humanity, ecology and economy, country and city are not merely two sides of the same coin, but are parts of a complex whole that has been obscured by both market and anti-market (romantic) forces. Nature’s Metropolis uses the history of Chicago to illustrate this point. Beginning and ending with his personal memory of a childhood journey from New England to Wisconsin that took him through the city, Cronon concludes “We fool ourselves if we think we can choose between [country and city], for the green lake and the orange cloud are creatures of the same landscape” (385). The text is a series of increasingly fine-grained illustrations of this point.

Cronon uses several interpretive frames to explore Chicago’s history, and he points out some of their limitations. Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the frontier “recapitulated the social evolution of human civilization” and provided the “source of American energy, individualism, and political democracy” (31) fails to account for the rapid, booster-driven growth of Chicago as an urban center. Turner did not give enough credit, Cronon says, to the market as an agent of both rural and urban change. “Urban-rural commerce,” he says, “was the motor of frontier change, a fact that the boosters understood better than Turner” (48). Of course, you could argue that Turner
had to ignore the role of capital, precisely because it undermined his evolutionary, democratic vision of the frontier and America.

Cronon uses Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s Isolated State theory and more recent central place theory to complicate and partially correct Turner’s perspective. Von Thünen’s idealized economy creates a series of concentric rings drawn primarily on the basis of transportation cost. While acknowledging the heavy qualifications necessary to apply this model in the real world, Cronon says it fits Chicago to a certain degree. By focusing attention on the growth of rail transport, which not only lowered costs but more importantly eliminated risk and smoothed seasonality, the model explains some of the features of Chicago’s western “hinterland.” But, as Cronon says, both theories are “profoundly static and ahistorical.” Worse, like Turner, a model of Chicago based on the Isolated State is simply untrue. “Far from being a gradual, bottom-up process...nearly the opposite was true," Cronon says. "The highest-ranking regional metropolis consolidated its role at a very early date, and promoted the communities in its hinterland as much as they promoted it” (282). Since the west is the result of  symbiotic, simultaneous growth of city and country, neither can claim historic precedence as a basis for moral or social superiority. The arguments of Jefferson and Jackson don’t apply -- at least not in the straightforward ways their proponents had hoped they would.

Throughout the book, Cronon uses an idea of “‘first nature’ (original, prehuman nature) and ‘second nature’ (the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature)” that he attributes to Hegel and Marx (xiv). Cronon’s use of this distinction is complicated by his recognition of the complexity surrounding the term nature -- "Traced most subtly,” he says, “in the work of Raymond Williams.” So he keeps it on a relatively allusive level. In several places, he conflates these ideas with the commonplace sense of a way of thinking becoming “second nature” -- and this connection seems to make sense and work.

As readers familiar with Cronon would expect, he is always quick to point out ecological and historical backgrounds often ignored by others. The Western Frontier was not “free” as Turner said, Cronon reminds. It was taken in conquest from the previous residents. Nor was it pristine. Western prairies were the product of Indian burning and hunting practices, as demonstrated by the incursion of oak and hemlock on ranches and homesteads once whites suppressed fire. Similarly, Cronon regularly begins descriptions of regions like Wisconsin timberlands or western rangelands with surveys of their ecological histories going back to the ice age. This nod to “big history” not only helps reinforce the ecological sensibility underpinning his argument, it serves as an antidote to the alienation Cronon says is produced by separating economic production from consumption.

Chicago, says Cronon, cannot attribute its rapid growth in the last third of the nineteenth century simply to being a central place. Chicago is a central place now (albeit of a much smaller hinterland than it possessed in its heyday), but it grew as a gateway. Beginning with a typically Crononesque description of the many ways Chicago stood at the boundaries of ecosystems, continental watersheds, glacial termini, rural and urban society, railroad “trunk and fan” (90), and “natural and cultural landscapes” (25), he shows Chicago growing by bridging the gap between the east (primarily New York) and the west (all the way to the Rockies). In Chicago, eastern capital met western raw materials and consumers. Railroads, finance, and information gave Chicago temporary, “second natural” advantages. Boosterism, the Civil War, and momentum added to Chicago’s lead, which the city held until newer technologies, population changes, and the problems of success ended its predominance.

Along the way, Cronon tells fascinating stories about the standardization of time (74-8), the growth of organization and capitalism in the railroads (80), the abstraction of commodities into currency (116), the conversion of food production into industry (246-56), and the creation of the familiar consumer world (338-40). Each successive story highlights the market’s increasing and ironic tendency to “obscure the connections between Chicago’s trade and its earthly roots (264)" The "geography of capital,” Cronon says, “produced a landscape of obscured connections” (340). But he doesn’t really explain the process behind this progressive attenuation of producers from consumers, so it’s unclear whether it is unique to Chicago, or a symptom of a more universal alienation.

I think
Nature’s Metropolis makes its case with only occasional reservations. Perhaps Cronon de-emphasizes the temporary nature of Chicago’s advantages to some degree. The Civil War trade (which allowed Chicago to pull ahead of Cincinnati in meat packing) and the closing of New Orleans (which devastated rival St. Louis) may have been given less credit than they are due, for Chicago’s rapid rise to preeminence. Agrarian resistance is mentioned primarily in the context of the Granger Laws, with a few suggestive references to Chicago-published papers like the Prairie Farmer. And once or twice, Cronon seems to reach too far into an allusive moralizing, such as when he describes the Chicago Board of Trade as “boxes within boxes within boxes, all mediating between the commodified world inside and the physical world outside” (146). The most important feature of Nature’s Metropolis is Cronon’s story of the actual historical development of the middle west, rather than an abstract or theorized rural and urban world, as a single, interdependent process. While earlier Eastern settlement may have followed a different path, the growth of the middle west as a single unit is crucially important; especially when evaluating the politics and cultural construction of rural/urban relations in the Populist and Progressive eras.

California and Chile are Complementary and Connected

Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection
Edward Dallam Melillo, 2015

Fueron las cordilleras, begins the Introduction to Ted Melillo's new book, using the words of Pablo Neruda. Cordillera is what Spanish speakers to our south call the sharp backbone of the Americas that stretches north to south, connecting the two Mediterranean regions of Melillo's study. In Chile, the cordillera is more visible than in much of America. At its widest, the country is only about 110 miles east to west--so the Andes are always over your shoulder, delaying the sunrise. The tallest mountain outside Asia, Aconcagua, is sometimes visible through the smog of the capital, Santiago.

Melillo's book, drawn from his dissertation, basically argues that Chile and California are connected by a shared history, which has largely been erased by a commitment (in both places) to exceptionalism. Melillo says the two places are "complementary zones," and that cultural "links between complementary zones are likely to produce profound ecological effects because these sites offer elevated potential for long-term integration" (6). He also suggests that the cultures of the two places are very similar. For example, "neither Chile nor California has ever functioned as a self-contained entity." Rather, "such assertions of autonomy conceal the ecological and cultural border crossings that have historically linked both places to countless displacements, exchanges, and influences from beyond their boundaries" (183). Displacements, exchanges, and influences are three analytical categories Melillo employs to trace contacts that (respectively) affect one party but not the other, affect both parties, or represent the deliberate attempt of one party to alter the other. He shows ample examples of each of these types of contact, in both directions, between Chile and California from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century.

One of the things I admire about good histories is that in addition to arguing a new interpretation of known events or re-framing a debate, they uncover new material and tell us things we didn't know about the past. Melillo does this several times. I didn't know, for example, that the ubiquitous fodder plant, alfalfa, entered American through California. Known for decades as "Chili clover," alfalfa was introduced by Chileans around 1849. This fact illustrates two of the important themes of
Strangers. That we see something different if we look at American history from West to East. And that the connections between Chile and California that would have seemed so obvious to people 150 years ago have become largely invisible today.

Strangers isn't really a history of either place. It's a revelation of the connections between Chile and California that are missing in the histories of either place. These connections include the fleet of Chilean merchant ships that form the foundation of the San Francisco waterfront. The experienced Chilean prospectors and miners who taught many greenhorn Forty-niners how to get gold out of the Sierras, and then were harassed and frequently lynched by jealous Yankees. The Chilean wheat that fed both San Francisco and the gold country before commercial agriculture was established in California. The Chilean nitrate that fed California's citrus groves at the beginning of the twentieth century. The plantations of Monterey pine that replaced native Chilean forests.

The book touched on many topics I'd like to read more about. For example, Melillo devotes considerable attention to the career of Henry Meiggs, whose activities in San Francisco and Chile contributed much to the development of both places. Discussing the predominantly east-west character of Chile's early, extractive railroads, he calls them
venas abiertas (after Eduardo Galeano's famous history). It would be interesting to contrast the organization of these lines, designed to carry raw materials to ports, with some other development scheme. Melillo suggests there's an environmental history of railroads waiting to be written; I agree. Similarly, the passages on the wine industry mentioned names it would have been interesting to follow. I realize the book seeks to look less at the people than at the environment, but Chile more than most places is a land of elite families. So when you mention names like Errázuriz or Larraín, you're opening big storybooks.

The one topic I thought would have improved
Strangers is copper. Melillo told me he had a chapter on copper, but it ended on the cutting room floor. I think a little more attention to the early copper industry would have helped explain how Chileans journeying to California happened to be so experienced in prospecting, mining, and smelting metals. A description of the differences between Spanish and Anglo ideas about ownership of mineral resources would have been valuable. And the post-Pinochet copper boom would have offered an opportunity to reinforce the Chilean-Chinese connection -- but maybe that would have expanded the book's scope to a trans-Pacific triangle rather than a trans-equatorial duality.

Melillo introduces topics that will certainly be expanded on by himself and others. He produces an interpretive frame others can use to explore the Pacific world and transnational interactions. And he uncovers things we didn't know, but should, about the past.

Radkau's right on Environmentalism, wrong on J.S. Mill

Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr.
Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, 2002, 2008 tr.

There are too few global environmental history books in English that function well as textbooks. This is one of the better ones. Joachim Radkau says he was painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by authors of big histories when he chose to write a global history of the environment. But he believed several themes including European exceptionalism, the dialog between the ideals of wilderness and sustainability, the effects of state, local, and individual control on environmental engagement, regulation of sexuality and xenophobia deserved greater attention. His decision to have
Nature and Power translated into English was motivated by these issues, and also by a belief that “Old World” experience was key to 21st century environmentalism. American textbooks have already forgotten Chernobyl, Radkau says, and “continental Europeans have rarely lived with the illusion of unlimited resources” (xv, xvi). Both good points. The result is a book that surveys several fascinating ways people have interacted with their environments, acknowledges the particularity and contingency inherent in these accounts, and tries to draw some tentative conclusions and lessons for the future from them.

In his 2002 Preface to the German edition, Radkau wonders what the “ecological and economic disaster of the communist bloc mean for that kind of environmental history whose basic assumptions would have led one to assume that a socialist state-run economy would be able to undo the environmental damage caused by the private profit motive?” (xi) Radkau examines several ancient and modern societies, including Maoist China and Nazi Germany, and ultimately concludes that “effective environmental protection requires” neither strict laissez faire capitalism nor top-down, totalitarian central planning, but rather “a spirited civil society, the courage of one’s convictions, citizen initiatives, and a critical public” (308). Environmentalists looking to the past for a definitive answer on how to move forward may be frustrated, he says, but history seems to suggest that environmental failure or success has little direct connection to the particular political and economic forms a society chooses. While “in the end, the apparatus of the state remains the only - at least potential - counterweight to the omnipotence of private capital interests,” Radkau adds that even though its environmental policy was slightly less totalitarian than its social theory, national socialism “wrecked” any chance for idealistic Hegelians to believe “that the state by its very nature embodies the common good and higher reason above all human selfishness” (300, 306).

That this should be a surprise may illustrate the most challenging element of
Nature and Power. Radkau dips one foot into the ecological experience of several ancient cultures, including some like Egypt whose history extends to the present. But he keeps the other foot firmly in the present, both in his analysis of ancient social/environmental interactions as they may relate to present problems, and in his narrative of the history of modern environmentalism (and the somewhat parallel historiography of environmental history, especially in Europe). Of course, major environmental changes are happening in the present, and environmental awareness has changed dramatically in the immediate past. Radkau himself is politically active in a region of the world that actually has a viable green party, and is known in Europe as both a biographer of Max Weber and an anti-nuclear power activist.

“Sometimes the problems become worse if one strives for a grand solution,” Radkau frequently warns (93). His analysis of ancient China, Egypt, and the Inca empire improves on K. A. Wittfogel’s theory of the “hydraulic society” (most familiar to Americans through Donald Worster’s
Rivers of Empire). Ancient public forest and water projects were not motivated solely to consolidate the elite’s power, Radkau says, but even so, “ecological necessities often go hand in hand with opportunities for the exercise of power” (86). This is a general human tendency, Radkau reminds us: even German environmentalism tends to devolve “from a movement into a bureaucracy” (307). In the end, Radkau agrees with Max Weber that “many historical experiences suggest that powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses,” he concludes, “are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness” (329). The same might be said about powerful historical explanations.

The population problem, and the “Epochal...development of effective contraceptives,” is a recurring theme (258). “The potato and coitus interruptus are key innovations of the eighteenth century that are environmentally relevant,” Radkau says, in a memorable line that suggests a useful widening of the traditional definition of environment (6). When the “Bhutanese ecotopia” is shown to be sustainable only through the expulsion of 100,000 Nepalese refugees along the Indian border, population control in democratic societies becomes a visible issue (285-6). Not only is “Bhutan ecology...intertwined with the preservation of the political system,” but so is the country’s culture and existence, as shown by “the fate of neighboring Sikkim, which lost its independence when Nepalese immigrants had grown into the majority of the population.” If environmental disasters force large-scale migrations in the future, what does Radkau’s skepticism of “Bhutanese exceptionalism” suggest about the tension between local identity and global governance?

“After the collapse of socialism,” Radkau says, “environmentalism is left as the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption” (299). This is an interesting idea, and one that might provide a common ground for far left and far right opponents of the status quo. But even if we agree that environmentalism’s role is to take on Neo-liberal economics, Radkau seems to assume a unity of outlook and purpose on the part of the “bad guys” that is not demonstrated by his historical examples. This is the point where
Nature and Power’s tension between Radkau the historian and Radkau the environmentalist reaches its peak (and I congratulate him for pushing it that far). Although Radkau argues that “Not in every situation are the nature protectors the ‘good guys’ and their adversaries the ‘bad guys’,” (especially in the third world where colonialism and tourism motivates approaches that may exclude locals from the environment altogether); the real issue is that in history, unlike environmental politics, there aren’t always clear good guys or bad guys. Often there’s just a bunch of guys (borrowed from the movie The Zero Effect 308). This is especially true because throughout the history Radkau covers, the people making environmental policy were almost never ecologists. They were national leaders or village elders or farmers, making political or social or agricultural decisions. Their awareness, their motivations, and their goals may have had a vaguely, more-or-less environmental element. But their attention was almost always dominated by other considerations.

Nature and Power, Radkau provides valuable glimpses into distant cultures, from the unfamiliar angle of their relationship to their environments. These perspectives improve the reader’s understanding of these cultures, and widen the scope of many environmental issues we may have believed were recent developments. In some cases, his interpretation may be undermined by inadequate context. Radkau mentions, for example, John Stuart Mill’s “belief that the discomfort every sensitive person felt about a world in which every scrap of land was cultivated” suggests an instinctive realization by Englishmen that “it was dangerous to live without reserves” (324). The actual context of Mill’s statement (which, based on the secondary source he cites, Radkau may have been unaware of), however, was a political argument over compulsory cultivation of thousands of acres of “waste” land held by aristocrats as game reserves. Mill was (as usual) a middle-of-the-road land reformer, facing pressure from a much more radical “Land and Labour League” led by working people and their champions. Radkau may be right on the interpretation, if we privilege the subset of Englishmen represented by Mill. But he’d probably prefer the complete context of Mill’s statement, which underlines a class element of environmentalism Radkau would appreciate. On the whole, Radkau avoids easy, monocausal explanations like Jared Diamond’s Collapse thesis, on the basis of data as well as interpretation. According to pollen evidence, Radkau says, Easter Island was “nearly treeless” for a millennium before the Dutch discovered “a flourishing agriculture with a rich variety of fruit” in 1722. Far from eco-suicide, the culture’s destruction was “completed in 1862 when the majority of the population was dragged off by Peruvian slave traders and the island was transformed into a large sheep ranch” (166). So much for blaming the natives.

Institutional Blindness, Weapons of the Weak, and Highlanders

A few words about two books by Political Scientist James C. Scott.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009

“Nomads and pastoralists…hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states,” begins Scott (1). Primitive premodern states, he continues, had great difficulty “seeing” their people, and this interfered with “the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion” (2). Some less primitive premodern states, such as the Egyptians and the Incas, had some success seeing their people, as shown by the pyramids and the Mita labor system. But it’s probably fair to say that increasing “civilization” leads to increased “visibility.” Efforts to render populations more “legible” included “processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the invention of freehold tenure…language and legal discourse.” Interesting to think of freehold land ownership--the very centerpiece of America's yeoman Free Soil idealism--as a process that allows states to keep closer tabs on their citizens. These “simplification” practices of early modern states, Scott says, paved the way for “huge development fiascoes” of the modern era like China’s Great Leap Forward. (which killed at least 45 million people, 3)

These modern-day state disasters, Scott says, rest on four elements: 1.) the administrative ordering of nature and society, 2.) a high-modernist ideology that puts undue confidence in technicians’ ability to reorganize the world through top-down planning, 3.) an authoritarian state that can enforce the technicians’ plans, and 4.) a prostrate population that cannot resist these plans (4,5). I wonder what it would look like if someone wrote an American Environmental History survey course based on these principles? I don't think I'll go quite that far, but I do think I'll build this into the next syllabus I use for my course.

“Designed or planned social order,” Scott reminds us, “is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order." Scott doesn’t really specify whether this ignorance is natural (the map always fails to faithfully represent the territory) or deliberate (malcontents are left out so they can be dealt with). The failure of the schematic, Scott says, is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified.” It’s the unacknowledged, unpaid, invisible contributions of the workers, creatively fixing problems that arise, that actually makes systems work, Scott argues. “By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production” (6).

To support his point, Scott describes early modern forests, modern city-builders, Bolsheviks, African villages, and modern agriculture. Comparing modern monoculture to shifting and polycultural farming styles, Scott calls attention to the difference between experimental findings and real-world results. He describes the “Blind Spots,” “Weak Peripheral Vision,” and “Shortsightedness” of industrial agriculture, as well as the fact that “Some Yields are More Equal than Others” (290-306). Again, the problem is that we’re seeing, talking about, and making policy based on maps and mental schematics, and the experimental answers to narrowly-framed questions, rather than on what’s really happening on the ground.

The missing link, Scott says, is local, practical knowledge, which he calls “Mētis” (309). Interestingly, Scott says that many early technocrats, including Frederick Taylor (founder of the Efficiency Movement and author of
The Principles of Scientific Management), were aware that “under scientific management…the managers assume…the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen…” (Taylor, quoted in Marglin, Dominating Knowledge, 336). The objective, from the manager’s perspective, is to eliminate the possibility of a work-to-rule strike by owning all the knowledge. This idea has interesting implications for contemporary intellectual property theory.

The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott continues the story of organizations and their discontents, from the perspective of the “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare” (ix). “Civilizational discourses,” Scott points out, “never entertain the possibility of people voluntarily going over to the barbarians,” and often even have difficulty understanding why the outsiders on the hilltops resist the civilizing influences of the valley cities. And of course, most of our Histories come from these valley civilizations.

This has interesting resonance in Early America, where English colonists had a continuing problem with people from the lower end of the social order running off to live with the Indians. And I've just been listening to the audiobook version of Mann's
1493, which is full of descriptions of Maroon communities hidden in the hills--often until really recently (more on that soon). The region Scott looks at in this book is called the Zomia, which is a new name for all the territory located more than 300 meters above sea level in Southeast Asia. It covers 2.5 million square kilometers and includes about 100 million people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The common feature of all these hill people is that they are relatively out-of-reach of the nation-states that nominally include them in their territories. And that the authorities of these nation-states consider them upland barbarians.

But “the valley imagination” of the authorities that considers these highlanders premodern, Scott says, “has its history wrong. Hill people are not pre-anything. In fact, they are better understood as post-irrigated rice, postsedentary, postsubject, and perhaps even postliterate. They represent, in the longue durée, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp” (337). In other words, a sort-of global, off-the-grid rebel population, that tries to live on its own terms by going far away from the centers of power. Whether these “post-civilization” hill people will be more resilient, if anything goes catastrophically wrong with the civilizations at the center, may be the big question lurking behind Scott’s stories.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Water Knife

Just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, The Water Knife. It's a futuristic thriller, set in a dystopian Nevada and Arizona. How distant the future setting might be is not specified, and I suppose depends on your opinion of how quickly the water is going to run out in the Southwest. However, it's not the remote future. Texas refugees are the "Okies" of this story, called "Merry Perrys" due to their irrational belief that if they just pray hard enough, the rain will come.


Bacigalupi is the former Web Editor for High Country News and lives in Colorado, upstream from the action of the novel. Unlike some of the other sci-fi books I've been reading this summer (Seveneves, The Three Body Problem, Howey's Silo Series, and even Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), there's not a lot of really out-there speculative science to grab onto here. There are Arcologies, but that's not so undoable in today's world. The only tech we don't have might be the growth-hormone drip the protagonist uses to recover from being shot full of holes.

So this is a story about the present, disguised as a story about the future. An interesting solution to the problem another of the main characters has in the book, when a scary "executive" from a California water company suggests she "could write about anything I wanted, but maybe I should stop worrying about what California was doing here or there and spend more time worrying about other things." (p. 164) Later in the story, the reporter agonizes over the stories that don't get written. Made me wonder whether Bacigalupi or any of his journalist friends had ever had a conversation like that. Also reminded me of why my revenge novel about the 2000 Cochabamba Water War is still in a drawer. Needs to become a little more fictional.

The most interesting but also LOL aspect of the book, for me, was the constant reference to Marc Reisner's Environmental History classic,
Cadillac Desert. The evil water-queen of Vegas has a signed first edition. A mid-level Cali water exec also has a copy, in which he hides the document everybody is looking for. And close to the end, the protagonist says to the reporter:

Every water manager, every bureaucrat--even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending like you know shit…Acting like you saw this shit coming…That guy Reisner now, That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They're the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren't listening back then.

So. We can consider ourselves warned.