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Not a Liberal

In response to:

Inventing American Capitalism from the June 9, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

In Inventing American Capitalism [NYR, June 9] Gordon S. Wood attributes leadership to Charles Grant and me (rather mysteriously without references) as “liberal entrepreneurial historians” or “market historians” of early America. Let me make four points in response to him.

First, I have always been troubled with the propensity of early American historians to find the magic moment of transformation in America. Professor Wood falls into this trap as do most of those he reviews, marxian and otherwise: “In the 1780s we can actually sense the shift from a premodern traditional society to a modern one….” This is just too much—the ideas are too big for one event. Among those he reviews Winfred Rothenberg says she had nailed down the switch from “market-place to a market economy.” This is too much. The marxian “moral economy” historians do likewise in creating their image of capitalism. They too want to find the decisive change. Wood connects this with the release of energy triggered by the American Revolution. A more cautious view would be that, yes, the revolution may well have brought “a release of aspirations and energies,” but this event was one among several times of intensification through restructuring of management that have occurred in the history of the western world and North America. A market economy was there before 1780, market-places after 1790. To my mind there have been far too many attempts to find the key, final, ultimate, decisive, incredible moment of change. New England has long been a fertile ground for this kind of endeavour: the obvious reason for scholars seeking what amounts to the holy grail during their period is that they want to make their mark in the academic world.

Second, Wood is correct to say the marxian historians have a “moral” agenda. But then don’t we all? The difference is that their agenda is overwrought with utopian expectations. They build their hope on a past in America that was kinder and gentler, when people were not, as one says, pursuing “profits.” But then, their utopianism is hardly noticeable in the tide of utopian Americanism that glorifies the entrepreneur and free enterprise—that America has ended history and with American principles there could be a glorious future for the rest of the world if they would just pay attention. Wood comes close to this: “Something momentous was happening in the society and culture that released the aspirations and energies of the common people as never before in American history, or perhaps in world history.” Perhaps in world history? Again too much. When and where did utopian notions arise? Obviously, the old world and immediately for America, in England. The interesting question is why do utopian notions tied to American exceptionalism persist.

Third, the notion of common people comes up frequently in Wood’s review. A mistake of most historians dealing with these issues is that they fail to distinguish among better, middling or poorer sorts, or those with power, and so mostly likely to be entrepreneurs or inheritors of wealth, those with more modest aspirations, and those who are unable to improve their condition, often dependent on others for sporadic work. There is a sense that all people were at the same level—another populist American myth. I must admit that in my study of early Pennsylvania, The Best Poor Man’s Country (Johns Hopkins, 1972), I made too little of these social distinctions. I do not believe every American, before or after 1776, has pursued “profit.” Most households, back then and now, have sought, to use Daniel Vickers’ phrase, “comfortable competency.” As Vickers (listed oddly by Wood among the moral economy historians) says in Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850 (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), that did not prevent them from participating in markets, in fact encouraged them to a degree. Most people limit themselves or are limited by conditions from the wholesale pursuit of wealth to achieve status.

Fourth, it is nice to be set up as an icon of one viewpoint, but I wish that Wood and the moral economy historians would stop referring to me as a liberal. That I described early Pennsylvanians as liberal does not make me a liberal, any more than Louis Hartz. Rather like Vickers, also a Canadian, I see myself as a rather a-utopian social democrat.

James T. Lemon
University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada

Gordon S Wood replies:

No historian, as far as I know, has accused Professor Lemon of being a “liberal” in today’s politics. But many have rightly viewed him as one of the most important of those eighteenth-century historians who have assumed that most early American farmers were “liberal” in outlook and behavior, “meaning,” as Lemon wrote in his book on early southeastern Pennsylvania, The Best Poor Man’s Country, “placing individual freedom and material gain over that of the public interest.” As to Lemon’s other points: he doubts that any historian can ever actually find moments of decisive change and that those historians who do are just career-mongers. It is true that nothing big like an economy ever changes overnight and that all major events have backgrounds and underlying forces. Nonetheless, we historians can legitimately say that certain points, certain decades, were decisive in changing a society or economy. Would Lemon think a historian wrong in stating, for example, that World War II decisively changed the economy of the United States? The Revolutionary War, which went on for eight years, affected the American economy in a similar way. Supplying the needs of three armies—the British and French as well as the American—brought into being hosts of new manufacturing and entrepreneurial interests and made market farmers out of husbandmen who before had scarcely ever traded out of their neighborhoods. Saying that the 1780s, like the 1940s, were a decisive moment of change does not mean, however, that everything was created de novo.

Maybe everyone has a “moral” agenda, but even in this soggy postmodern age there are still many historians who try not to bring their agendas into their history writing. But that’s not what really irritates the Canadian Lemon; it’s those American notions of exceptionalism. But the fact is that for better or worse nineteenth-century America became an even more attractive “poor man’s country” than it had been in the eighteenth century: by 1920 the arrival of over 35 million immigrants over the previous century testified to the reality of this “utopian notion.”

I, like Lemon, am aware of the many social and other distinctions that exist among the so-called common people. But for the purposes of my review those distinctions were less important than the commonality of ordinary people, that is, the common working people (the producers) as distinguished from those who in the eighteenth century were labeled leisured gentlemen (the consumers). It was the blurring and transformation of this age-old distinction that lay at the heart of the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the American version of which was carried further than elsewhere. Of course, not all Americans became pursuers of profit, but many of them did tend to work harder (and still do) than the people of other countries. Explaining this remarkable phenomenon is a major historical problem.

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