American social historians are, figuratively speaking, moving to the country. After a period when they heavily concentrated on cities and industrial workers, they are now turning some of their attention to the rural settings in which most Americans lived before the twentieth century. To the “new rural history” they are bringing many of the theories and methods associated with the “new social history” in general. Among these are demography and the quantification that goes with it, and a comparative international approach that undercuts extreme notions of “American exceptionalism.” One also finds a neo-Marxian preoccupation with the formation of social classes and the struggle of “precapitalist” ways of thinking and living in a world increasingly dominated by a commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.

The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation, edited by Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, is a kind of progress report on the new rural history; it not only offers samples of recent work by some of its leading practitioners but also highlights issues that remain unresolved or open to conflicting interpretations. It contains eleven fine essays on topics ranging from itinerant portrait makers in the rural North during the period before the Civil War to cases of forced labor in the American West between 1600 and 1890. Because of the diversity of the collection it is impossible to do justice to individual contributions (I will not even be able to mention them all), but several of them deal with critical issues that are also addressed in John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek, the detailed case study of one rural community and a notably successful example of the new work being done on the social history of rural America.

Until recently, one of the great truisms of American historians was that rural people in this country had little or nothing in common with European peasants, or at least not since the early colonial period, when New England towns recreated some aspects of the traditional English agricultural village. Commercialized agriculture—production for markets beyond the local exchange community, the view of land as a commodity rather than as a permanent source of family subsistence, and the willingness to move to new lands with greater fertility or access to markets—has been seen as the norm since the late eighteenth century, if not earlier. As late as 1970, historians of various ideological and methodological persuasions seemed firmly agreed that American farmers, with the possible (but highly debatable) exception of slaveholding southern planters, were essentially agrarian capitalists or “agricultural businessmen” who welcomed improvements in transportation, the expansion of markets, and the growth of capitalism.

The new rural historians are challenging this consensus by calling our attention to the times and places when American farmers engaged in self-sufficient domestic production, and some of them are claiming that there was considerable reluctance to sacrifice this independent “precapitalist” way of life to the dependencies and vagaries of a market economy. In the anthology edited by Hahn and Prude, we learn from Gary Kulik about the opposition of eighteenth-century Rhode Island farmers to dams that interfered with the fish runs on which they depended to supplement their diet. Steven Hahn and Robert C. McMath write about the resistance of late-nineteenth-century southern yeomen to the fencing of live stock and other assaults on a “commons” tradition that encouraged self-sufficiency rather than cultivation of cash crops. A remarkable essay by John Scott Strickland argues persuasively that post–Civil War black farmers in the South Carolina low country not only practiced a peasant type form of semisubsistence agriculture but consistently supported a “moral economy” at odds with the acquisitive ethic of capitalist development. (Local values derived from a peculiar slave experience involving self-directed work and unusually large and stable plantation communities. After emancipation, low-country freed people tended to put loyalty to place, kin, local community, and traditional work habits over personal ambitions for economic advancement.) In a piece that summarizes some of the findings of Sugar Creek, John Mack Faragher describes a self-sufficient frontier community in Illinois which might be viewed as exemplifying “the communal order of a traditional society.” (As we shall see, however, Faragher’s view of midwestern rural life in the early to mid nineteenth century is a complex one that does not fully sustain the theme of rural resistance to capitalist modernization.)

Do these essays taken together effectively refute the older view that most rural Americans of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were expectant capitalists who valued the prosperity promised by industrialization and the growth of market more than they feared the loss of independence and self-sufficiency? It seems clear that some farmers in certain periods were dedicated to self-sufficiency and were uneasy about changes that threatened it. The discovery that there was a strain of peasantlike conservatism among American farmers fits with the findings of the economic historian Gavin Wright, who has demonstrated that antebellum southern yeomen did not produce as much cotton as they would have if immediate profits had been their goal. They recognized the perils of dependence on a cash crop that fluctuated greatly in price, and were careful to devote enough acreage to foodstuffs to ensure that they would not go hungry.1 Here, and in a more extended study, Steven Hahn shows that post–Civil War southern farmers with little or no crop land of their own resisted laws that deprived them of their customary right to graze their livestock or hunt on land owned by others.2


Particularly impressive is the evidence presented by Strickland and others that the freedmen of the Reconstruction era preferred to grow subsistence foodstuffs on small plots of their own instead of staples like rice or cotton, which inevitably required greater dependency on white landowners and merchants. Still, examples of deliberate efforts by farmers to be self-sufficient (as opposed to the necessarily self-sufficient farms in newly settled areas not yet linked up to the market) are hard to find in the North after about 1800. Even in the South’s peculiar stable economy it remains unclear how much strategies for subsistence owed to a “premodern” or “precapitalist” world view and how much to the practical calculations of marginal producers about the immediate material risks or disadvantages of dependence on the market.

Some of the authors in The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation refer to the persistence in rural America of a traditional “republican” ideology that endorsed hostility to commercialization on the grounds that it threatened the personal independence and public virtue essential to a commonwealth of free citizens. There is now a vast literature on the question of whether this version of republicanism, which was clearly a vital force in the Revolutionary period, persisted into the nineteenth century as a significant tendency in political culture or was quickly overwhelmed by “liberalism,” with its identification of individual liberty and material progress.3

My own view is that liberalism, sometimes cloaked in the shreds of republican rhetoric, had clearly triumphed by mid-century. No doubt alienated or dispossessed groups, such as artisans being threatened by factory production, held on to elements of this anticommercial ideology as a means of self-defense. Other aspects of it surfaced in the southern effort to defend slave society against the aggressively entrepreneurial free-labor ideology of the North—but not unambiguously; southern planters could not forget completely that they were the prime beneficiaries of expanding capitalistic commodity markets.

To what extent traditional republican hostility to commerce, credit, and industrialism survived in frontier or back-country regions is unclear. In the wake of panics and depressions rural people tended to blame banks and the prevailing monetary system for their troubles—that much is obvious. In the post–Civil War era, railroads and “middlemen” were also blamed for agricultural distress. What remains to be proved is that nineteenth-century agrarian protest was based to a significant degree on a principled opposition to an expanding national and international market economy rather than on the pragmatic desire to structure the terms of trade within that market, by government action if necessary, so as to assure adequate returns to agricultural producers.

One feature of rural “traditionalism” that was clearly present in many of the communities examined was a strong commitment to family and kinship. Whatever their pattern of economic behavior might have been, farmers did not normally behave like individualistic businessmen pursuing short-term profits. They acted rather as trustees for family groups and were generally more concerned with providing for their children than with their own standard of living. A tendency to use profits to buy additional land rather than to introduce improved methods of cultivation on land already possessed may be explained, at least partially, by such motives. A fine essay by Kathleen Neils Conzen in The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation explains how German farmers in Minnesota were successful in adapting Old World strategies for passing farms on to the next generation; and in another essay Hal S. Barron describes how a nineteenth-century Vermont community kept its family farms intact through mixed farming and the habit of taking younger sons into partnership.

What is the precise relationship between the strong family ties which produced a sense of community in rural areas and the “capitalist transformation” of the countryside? The implication in the introduction by Stephen Hahn and Jonathan Prude and in some of the essays is that a culture based on kinship or familialism is “precapitalist” or “premodern” and was thus likely to be threatened or undermined by the market revolution. Yet Barron, Conzen, and Faragher show that the tendency to put “family first” survived the great transformation and can scarcely be regarded as an inevitable casualty of commercialization.


It appears to me that family-based agriculture and closely knit rural communities have had a remarkably long and successful history in part of the United States, especially in the Midwest and outlying areas of the Northeast. Hahn and Prude write in their introduction that what “normally” happened to rural communities after capitalist transformation was “stagnation and decline, occasioned by the increasing hegemony of cities and industry.” This does not seem fully warranted by the evidence provided by the essays that follow. It is certainly true that rural impoverishment and dependency increased in the South during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a development that seemed to go hand in hand with commercialization and urbanization. But it is difficult to determine how much of the blame for what happened should be ascribed to the logic of capitalist development and how much to the sagging world market for the South’s traditional staple or such noneconomic factors as the cultural legacy of slavery, the devastation caused by the Civil War, and the persistence of a status order based on racism. So many specific circumstances undermined the small-to-medium-scale independent farms in the post–Civil War South that it is hard to isolate “commercialization” as the ultimate source of rural disaster.

In the Far West, there was no comparable displacement of semisubsistence farmers because aridity and the need for irrigation gave the advantage to the large-scale, capitalistic producers from the beginning. Where family farmers settled in well-watered areas of the Midwest and eastern Great Plains and developed a mixture of crops, normally a flexible combination of livestock and grains, they were not only able to survive but to prosper from the growth of industrial capitalism. Of course they were hard hit by depressions and eventually required substantial government assistance. As in the case of the Vermont region studied by Barron, midwestern rural communities “aged” in the sense that after a certain point there was no arable land available for expansion, and population could not continue to grow. But the core families that remained often experienced an improvement in material conditions without losing a sense of community based on church and family.

For sheer efficiency and productivity, the mechanized American family farm of the era of industrial capitalism has been one of the most successful forms of agriculture the world has ever known. It is not clear therefore that there is a necessary incompatibility between family farming with its community life based on kinship and a modern industrial society. That the proportion of farmers in the total population was reduced did not necessarily mean that those who remained on the land became demoralized or that the quality of their lives declined.

These reflections were inspired to some extent by John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek, which is the story of a successful and durable agricultural community. Faragher set out to study a one-hundred-square-mile area along a creek in central Illinois which was first settled by whites in 1817 but lacked a town center until the railroad came through in the 1850s. The records left behind by the first generation of settlers turned out to be rich and fairly comprehensive. Out of them Faragher has constructed a vivid portrait of everyday life as well as an analysis of how the community developed and changed. The pioneers of this region came from the southern back country and brought with them traditions of self-sufficient farming and neighborly cooperation. For the most part they came in family groups, and despite the fact that they lived on dispersed farmsteads rather than in or around a village they quickly developed strong communal ties or “customs of association.” Before the 1850s the economy was based almost entirely on local bartering of commodities, tools, and labor. Although little money was in circulation, the settlers kept records of the monetary equivalent of what they owed or what was owed to them.

This system of accounting meant that people were aware of the market economy and its price system, but since they charged no interest and did not try to balance their books at regular intervals their economic behavior was governed very little, if at all, by the kinds of calculations we associate with commercial or market relationships. Most work was performed by families on their own farms and most of what was produced was used to supply family needs. Men cleared land, cultivated corn, and herded livestock. Women not only prepared meals and took care of the house and the children, but also engaged in a variety of essential productive activities. They were responsible for the kitchen garden, the dairy, the henhouse, the spinning of cloth and making of garments, and even the manufacture of soap. Faragher does not romanticize this way of life; he makes it clear that women, at least, were overworked and became prematurely old from excessive labor and childbearing. (There was apparently little or no practice of contraception during the pioneer period and fertile wives became pregnant on the average of every two years.)

This pattern of family autonomy and isolation was broken in a variety of ways. Some tasks were too great for family labor to perform, such as the raising of a house; consequently the neighbors might be invited to a “bee” or a “frolic” which would involve the sharing of work as well as a chance for drinking and socializing. Churches, founded in the earliest stage of settlement, rapidly became centers for community life; under their auspices members of the original kin groups intermarried to form broadened family networks. For the men, politics and militia duty provided occasions for conviviality, but also at times for quarreling and brawling. Women had fewer chances to escape from hard labor, but they found company and release from the daily routine at “frolics” or in religious activities, especially by participating in emotional camp meetings. These various kinds of association created a degree of sociability and cooperation that belies the conventional view of the pioneer as a solitary individualist.

But another side to the story blurs the image of people putting down roots and building a community. As in most other early-nineteenth-century American communities there was also a very rapid turnover of population. Although the population grew from 650 to 1200 between 1830 and 1850, most of the people who had been there in 1830 were no longer residents twenty years later. Indeed, during the decades 1830–1840 and 1840–1850, only 37 percent and 32 percent of the residents, respectively, stayed put. The people who moved on were likely to have been squatters rather than landowners in the early period of settlement and tenants rather than proprietors later. In other words, a minority of pioneers, often because of an initial advantage of capital or family connections, were able to persist and build a community, while a majority failed to make it and presumably went further west to try again. Unfortunately social historians have not been able to trace the fate of this “floating” majority in a definitive or quantitative way, but such a high level of mobility should make us think twice before concluding that “stable” agrarian communities of a traditional European type were formed on the American frontier.

When Faragher comes to describe the transformation to a commercialized market economy in the 1850s a paradox emerges. It appears that those who were the principal architects of a community with precapitalist or traditional features were also those who made the most successful transition from the era of self-sufficiency to the new system of production for market. They were the “persisters” who had accumulated land and kin, become leaders in local churches and associations, and were later to be honored as “old settlers.”

Increasingly, during the 1840s and 1850s, farm owners oriented their work to the production of agricultural commodities, and Sangamo [county] men appeared to be more and more convinced that transportation development offered the best way to break into the market economy. The agitation for better transportation soon turned to the prospect for railroads.

Faragher makes it quite clear that this was not a case of market capitalism being imposed on an unwilling or reluctant rural community from the outside; the new order reflected the rise within the community of a relatively prosperous group among the settlers that was apparently eager to produce for market. There is no evidence that I can find in Sugar Creek that anyone opposed the development of railroads and commercial links with the outside world. Women would have especially welcomed the change because their lot was normally improved by the decline of self-sufficient farming. When some of the things that they had made at home could be bought in stores and some of their most burdensome tasks could be performed by hired help, they were free to concentrate on more pleasant activities like quilt making or cooking and baking. Although Faragher does not make the point explicitly, it does not appear to me that rude self-sufficiency had ever been valued by this community as an end in itself. It was rather seen as a stage that had to be gone through before a higher level of “civilization” could be attained.

Faragher emphasizes the cultural continuity between Sugar Creek in the era of settlement and the mature rural community surrounding the new town of Wineman (later renamed Auburn) that developed after the 1850s. The social structure became less egalitarian as wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the established families, and a class of tenants and farm laborers emerged. Nevertheless, Faragher concludes,

community did not “break down” with the approach of the modern world; community, in fact, provided a means of making the transition to it. Like the society that bound the households together, cultural sentiments along the creek were essentially traditional and conservative. Family and household remained the essential social building blocks; community continued to be constructed from the relations among kinship, neighborhood, and church.

Faragher’s work suggests to me that categorical distinctions between “premodern” and “modern” or between “precapitalist” and “capitalist” can inhibit the understanding of American social history if used, not merely as convenient concepts for analysis, but also as if they referred to inherently contradictory or mutually exclusive tendencies. Some ideas, customs, and institutions that believers in patterns of social evolution tend to associate with premodern stages of historical development turn out to be readily adaptable to a market society or even conducive to success within it. The persistence of family farming in regions of the United States with adequate rainfall and mixed crops—along with the “traditional and conservative” way of life that went with it—would seem to be a conspicuous example of this phenomenon.

On the other hand, farming that depended on open ranges and access to “commons” of one kind or another has proved incompatible with commercial agriculture and a market economy. If one were to try to generalize about the attitudes of American farmers of the nineteenth century perhaps the safest conclusion might be that most of them favored “internal improvements” and the expansion of markets just in order to strengthen and fortify a traditional, family-centered way of life. Unlike some historians, they did not view tradition and economic progress as antithetical. Often they were disappointed by the results, but they generally sought to solve their problems by expanding or regulating the market rather than trying to abolish it. Some of them, like the descendants of the Sugar Creek pioneers, were able for a considerable period and with singular success to live simultaneously in the market and in the “traditional” community that their self-sufficient forebears had created.

This Issue

April 23, 1987