Historians used to call it the Industrial Revolution; some social scientists labeled it modernization; the economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi termed it the “Great Transformation”; Marxists called it the transition from feudalism to capitalism. But by whatever name it has been known, scholars of all sorts have been fascinated with the emergence in the late eighteenth century of the great industrial or capitalistic market economies of the Western world. Now with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe this fascination has taken on a new relevance. In its struggle to invent capitalism and market societies in the present, does Eastern Europe have anything to learn from the way it originally happened in the West?
Marx thought that the destruction of a dependent agrarian peasantry and the emergence of a free labor force were crucial to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe. Most other thinkers have followed Marx in believing that the essential secret of the transition lay in the changing nature of rural society. Despite differences of emphasis nearly all the more recent theorists agree, in the words of the French Marxist historian Guy Bois, that “the decisive part in the transition from feudalism to capitalism is played out in the countryside.” Nearly all, in other words, agree on the crucial importance of agricultural productivity in stimulating capitalistic development in the various Western countries. Only when the farming population could increase its productivity to the point where it could allow an increasing proportion of its members to engage in manufacturing and at the same time provide a home market for that manufacturing—only then, it is assumed, could the takeoff into capitalistic expansion take place.
If agricultural productivity is important for the transition to capitalism, then why did this transition occur first in England? Why was English agriculture more productive than that of the continent? Nearly twenty years ago the Marxist historian Robert Brenner offered a stimulating answer to these questions. In an influential article published in the historical journal Past & Present in 1976 Brenner argued that the production of peasants on small lots could not provide the agrarian basis for economic development. What was needed for a real agricultural breakthrough into economic development, he said, was some form of large-scale capitalist farming. As population grew in the late medieval and early modern periods, landholdings on the continent, particularly in France, were increasingly fragmented, and agriculturally inefficient petty proprietorships came to dominate the rural landscape with a corresponding decline in agricultural productivity. In England, however, the development was very different. Instead of fragmentation there the tendency was to build up larger and larger farming units, to consolidate holdings and lease them out to large tenant farmers who in turn cultivated them with the aid of rural wage laborers. It is Brenner’s contention that the emergence of this peculiarly English structure of class relations—of landlords, capitalist tenants, and wage laborers—made possible the extraordinary increase in early modern England’s agricultural productivity, and that “this, in turn, was the key to England’s uniquely successful overall economic development.”
Brenner’s article aroused responses from scholars all over Europe. Some of these argued that Brenner had exaggerated the difference in agricultural productivity between England and France; others admitted the difference in productivity but contended that technological factors, not class structure, lay behind it: and still others gave examples of large-scale capitalist farmers in Europe who were not remarkably productive as well as examples of small peasant farmers who were. Despite these spirited responses, however, Brenner’s Marxist argument remains a formidable explanation of the English transition into capitalism. In the mid-Eighties Brenner’s article and some of the responses along with a lengthy rebuttal by Brenner were collected together and published as The Brenner Debate.
As an explanation of the rise of capitalism among the English colonies on the western side of the Atlantic, however, Brenner’s argument has had virtually no effect. None of the historians who write on the origins of American capitalism, including those with Marxist leanings, has tried to enlist Brenner’s support for his or her cause; only a couple of them have even bothered to cite him. One can readily see why. Brenner’s theory that the absence of small peasant landholders and the emergence of a landlord-capitalist, tenant-wage labor structure were the crucial sources behind the rise of capitalism in England has no applicability in explaining what happened in America. Indeed, America’s example, at least in New England, is a major challenge to Brenner’s general argument: the northern parts of eighteenth-century America contained almost no large-scale capitalistic farming dependent on wage labor; yet no one denies that capitalism arose in just those northern regions where small-scale family farming dominated. How did all those family farms of New England become productive enough to lay the basis for the emergence of capitalism?
It is a major puzzle that for the past couple of decades or so has stimulated an intense and vigorous debate among a number of historians of early America. For the most part this debate has been carried on in articles in various scholarly journals. Recently, however, many of the participants in the controversy have collected their various contributions together and published them as books. Which makes for an appropriate time to take stock and see where we are.
It has long been accepted that northern American farmers in the colonial period, especially those in New England, were wasteful and not very productive. Some contemporaries blamed the poor and unproductive state of American agriculture on the bad quality of soil; others thought the ignorance, laziness, and conservatism of the farmers were at fault. George Washington put his finger on a central aspect of the problem in 1791. The land, he said, was too plentiful for the available labor; consequently, “much ground has been scratched over, and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been.” But as the agricultural historian Percy Bidwell declared early in this century, the low productivity was not a mere matter of the conservatism of the farmers or the prevalence of land and the scarcity and expense of labor; it was the lack of local markets for their goods that kept northern colonial farmers from producing at more than a subsistence level. This notion of a northern agricultural economy retarded by limited markets dominated historical thinking through the first half of the twentieth century.
Only in the prosperous decades following World War II did this perspective begin to change. More and more historians, led by Charles S. Grant and James T. Lemon, began discovering that colonial farmers were not involved in mere subsistence agriculture after all; many of them were very busy producing surpluses for markets and were as acquisitive and profit-driven as any other capitalists in American history. In fact, wrote Grant, far from resembling the self-sufficient “contented yeoman” of folklore, the speculative and land-hungry farmers of New England were more like “the embryo John D. Rockefeller.” America did not have to become capitalistic, said Louis Hartz in his Liberal Tradition in America, the book that best summed up postwar thinking about America’s past; it had been so from the beginning. From the seventeenth century on, it seemed, nearly every white American “had the mentality of an independent entrepreneur”—eager to make money and get land and get ahead. Some of the early settlers were actually interested in economic development, and many others were involved in trade of various sorts—sending tobacco and rice to England, selling fish, foodstuffs, and lumber to the West Indies, and exchanging a wide variety of goods among themselves. For these liberal entrepreneurial historians—whom Allan Kulikoff labels “market historians”—explaining the origins of capitalism in America was not even an issue. America had always been capitalistic.
Still, there was the problem that Bidwell had noted at the beginning of the century—the low productivity of northern agriculture. If the New England colonial farmers were already capitalists, they were apparently not very good ones. If markets and outlets for their goods were already available in the eighteenth century, as the post-World War II market historians suggested, many of the northern farmers did not take advantage of them to the extent they would later. Something in the eighteenth century was inhibiting them from fully expressing their presumed capitalistic instincts.
In the early 1970s several historians, beginning with Kenneth Lockridge, John Demos, Philip Greven, and Michael Zuckerman, in a series of studies of New England colonial communities challenged this picture of a modern “market oriented” capitalistic and entrepreneurial world. These, antropologically minded historians found that the colonial New England towns, far from being centers of speculation and capitalist enterprise, actually resembled traditional peasant villages; they were stable, self-sufficient, patriarchal, disciplined, homogeneous, and profoundly religious—in Lockridge’s words, speaking of Dedham, Massachusetts, “a Christian, utopian, closed corporate community.” The people who lived in these colonial villages wanted order, harmony, and regularity and were willing to coerce one another to get it. The last thing they seemed to have in mind was allowing private individuals the right to make money at the expense of the public good of the community.
These New England town studies were soon followed by a number of works on the economies of these rural villages that reinforced the view of their being premodern, precapitalist, peasant-like communities. The authors of these works include James A. Henretta, Christopher Clark, Allan Kulikoff, Michael Merrill, Daniel Vickers, Robert E. Mutch, and others. Kulikoff calls these historians “social” historians to distinguish them from the “market” historians, while Winifred Barr Rothenberg, who has emerged as their principal critic, calls them “moral economy” historians. According to Rothenberg, these so-called “social” historians have married cultural anthropology to Marxism, and, following the lead of the late English Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, they have created a model of a “moral economy” that they have tried in various ways to apply to the New England towns.
These moral economy historians argue that the New England farmers were unproductive not because they lacked markets but because by and large they chose not to sell to these markets. It seems that the farmers did not possess an entrepreneurial and capitalistic mentality after all; they were not primarily interested in working for profit—a lack of interest that for these “social” or “moral economy” historians is something to be admired and cherished. The less capitalism the better, as far as they are concerned.
These historians have thus mounted a major challenge to the older Hartzian view that Americans were born free, equal, and capitalistic in the seventeenth century. All of them one way or another are seeking, in the words of Henretta, “to confound an uncritical ‘liberal’ interpretation of American history,” primarily by demonstrating that “capitalist practices and values were not central to the lives of most of the inhabitants of British North America before 1750.” Many American farmers, especially in the South and middle colonies, may have been producing for distant markets, but most New England farmers were not. (Henretta argues that even farmers outside New England were less commercially minded than we have usually thought.)
To be sure, many colonial farmers produced “surpluses” that they sold to distant markets, but the very term suggests that this sort of production was not normal or primary. Most of their rural output was for family or local consumption, not for sale in the market. These anthropologically minded historians, borrowing an important distinction Marx made, argue that most of the northern farmers were not producing for exchange; they were producing for use. Farmers were involved in a household mode of production in which they sought not to maximize profits but only to satisfy their family needs and maintain the competency and independence of their households. They sought land not to increase their personal wealth but to provide estates for their lineal families. Indeed, providing for their families and transmitting their accumulated property and customary beliefs from one generation to another were the major preoccupations of these farmers.
The economy that resulted, these historians say, was inevitably a moral one. Household interests and communal values overrode the acquisitive instincts of individuals. The farmers were enmeshed in local webs of moral and social relationships that inhibited capitalistic behavior. Self-aggrandizement gave way to concern for one’s family and neighbors, and community-regulated “just prices” were often more important than what the market would bear. Not the Atlantic world but their tiny communities were the places where most of these farmers’ exchanges occurred. Most of them may not have been technically selfsufficient, but the towns and small localities in which they lived more or less were.
Rather than relying on the market, farmers supplied their needs by producing their own goods for consumption and by swapping or exchanging goods and services within their local communities. They charged each other for these goods and services, but the prices were set by custom, not by the market; and in the absence of much specie or coin the charges were usually not paid in cash but were instead entered in each person’s account book. Through these numerous exchanges farmers built up in their localities incredibly complicated networks of credits and debts, “book accounts,” among neighbors that sometimes ran on for years at a time. Although litigation could and did result from these obligations, such credits and debts were based largely on mutual trust, and thus they worked to tie local people together and to define and stabilize communal relationships. Therefore, instead of seeing the New England farmers as would-be entrepreneurs waiting for markets to rescue them from stagnation, these social historians see them as premodern husbandmen trying to avoid market participation in order to preserve their moral and communal culture.
This debate between the so-called market economy and moral economy historians is no petty ivory-tower dispute; it actually goes to the heart of what kind of people we Americans are or would like to become. The moral economy historians in particular have been very explicit about this; they have more at stake than just recapturing an idyllic past that we have lost. For them such an eighteenth-century communal world offers a noncapitalist vision of what still might be, in the words of Michael Merrill, a vision of
a lived and viable alternative to capitalist relations, institutions and practices…. Alongside the world of capital and its ways we would point to an alternative world of labor and its ways; alongside the world of cities built on money and contract we would point to an alternative world of the countryside built on personal credit and mutual obligation; alongside a government designed to secure to the few the opportunity to rule the many…we would point to an alternative government designed to secure to the many the chance to rule themselves.
Historians are rarely as frank in expressing their hopes and dreams as this, but there is little doubt that some such vision, some such deep antagonism to capitalism, underlies the writings of most of the moral economy historians. Still, some of them are more professional historians than they are utopian reformers and have thus struggled to reconcile their contemporary moral values and their dislike of capitalism with their respect for their discipline and the integrity of the past. Henretta, who is perhaps the most distinguished of the group, confesses openly to this struggle. His analysis, he says in the introduction to his collection of essays, is not only empirical and historical; it is also moral. He wants not only to describe but to comment “critically on the values and behavior of historical actors and institutions.”
All this moral criticism may be good for the soul and may be useful for the society. But does it create good history?. Certainly the moral economy historians have produced some new and stimulating interpretations of the rural communities of the northern colonies. They have called into question the anachronistic neoclassical assumption that everyone has a natural propensity to exchange. And they have offered a solution to the problem of the low productivity of northern farmers raised by Bidwell early in this century. These are no small achievements. But are their interpretations correct? Were the colonists actually premodern and precapitalistic? Were capitalistic practices and values peripheral to the lives of colonial Americans in the eighteenth century?
What do we do with all the evidence accumulated by earlier market historians like Grant and Lemon showing that many colonial Americans were engaged in commercial activities? It seems obvious from many sources that many Americans were very busily involved in buying and selling, and not just in their neighborhoods. Otherwise how do we explain the hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat and corn exported yearly from northern colonies? How do we explain the repeated popular demands for paper money to carry on trade? How do we explain the ferment of land speculation that affected even the towns of New England?
Despite the writings of the moral economy historians, evidence of the colonists’ commercial activity has only grown in recent years. A variety of monographs ranging from Stephen Innes’s study of Springfield to John Frederick Martin’s account of land speculation in New England seems to deny the interpretation of the moral economy historians at every turn. Take, for example, the communal religious activities of the New England Puritans, which have always stood as the prime reminder that there was more to early America than the making of money. It has been usually thought that the Puritans’ religious and communal zeal lasted only a generation before what William Bradford of Plymouth called the sly serpent of greed ate away the original bonds of community, and declension set in. But recent studies like Martin’s actually show that the drive for profits and economic development was there among the Puritans from the beginning, especially in the desire for land.1
So prevalent is the evidence of land speculation in early America that a popular historian like Daniel M. Friedenberg can easily pick it up and run with it. The “bedrock on which rests early American history,” writes Friedenberg in his Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Land, “is the use of land to gain wealth and reach high political office.” Everyone from John Winthrop to George Washington wanted land, and this “universal greed” for land, he says, was the most important driving force of early American society and politics. Probably Friedenberg’s relentless pursuit of the theme of land greed through two centuries of American history tells us more about ourselves in the present than it does about early America. Yet despite his anachronistic exaggerations, Friedenberg is not wrong in emphasizing that the desire for land and the pursuit of economic prosperity were present in colonial America from the outset.
Do such economic desires and commercial pursuits make for capitalism? Even if widely present, did they run deep in the society? Did most people share them and participate in profit-making and market activities? Trade and economic exchange of various sorts have of course gone on since the beginning of history. If the existence of acquisitiveness and market place activities is to be the criterion of a capitalist society, then much of the world has always been capitalist.
But that is not what Marx or the Marxists meant by capitalism, and it is not what most of us mean by capitalism either. “Marxists,” writes Allan Kulikoff (who sees himself as someone “influenced by Marx and Marxist writings”), “understand capitalism as a mode of production in which capitalists, who own the means of production, expropriate surplus value from proletarians, who own only their labor power.” This is the traditional definition, essentially the one used by Brenner in his account of the origins of British capitalism. The problem with this definition, as Kulikoff admits, is that it does not fit rural American conditions. Most American farmers in the north, especially in New England, were small producers who used family labor and only occasionally employed outsiders; thus they were “neither exploiter nor exploited,” but both at the same time.
As a way out of this Marxist conundrum that he has created for himself, Kulikoff proposes that we consider farmers as resembling both proletarians and bourgeoisie and thereby locate them in more than one class simultaneously. “The idea of contradictory class locations,” he believes, “suggests a way to understand American farmers.” So it goes with “class,” “expropriation,” “surplus value,” “proletarianization,” and all the other special terms that Marxist historians of early rural America like Kulikoff have to fit together and make sense of. It is extraordinary sometimes to see the degree to which Marxian theory leads some of these historians into one awkward and convoluted position after another.
No wonder then that the economic historian Winifred Barr Rothenberg has sought to bypass all the clumsy apparatus and perplexing categories of Marxian theory by concentrating on some simple questions about the rural New England economy that can be empirically verified. She has sought to use the behavior of the prices of farm commodities, farm labor, and rural savings in order to date the emergence of a market economy in the New England countryside. The result is one of the most important books about the economy of early America I have read.
Crucial to Rothenberg’s analysis is her distinction between market-place economies and market economies. Market-place economies, she says, have probably existed for close to ten thousand years; people have always bought and sold goods, even over long distances, without experiencing market economies. The same is true of the kind of capitalism that existed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; that capitalism, she writes, involved only a thin layer of merchants, adventurers, and bankers, and never penetrated beneath the shallowest surface of society. Only when the market separates itself from the political, social, and cultural systems constraining it and becomes itself an agent of change, only when most people in the society are involved in buying and selling and think of bettering themselves economically—only then can we talk of the beginnings of a market economy.
All these characterizations of a market economy may be correct, but for Rothenberg they are much too vague and general. She wants a technical definition that is much more empirically based and measurable. For her a market economy exists not simply where there are buyers and sellers but rather wherever these buyers and sellers are in such free exchange with one another over a region that the prices of the same goods tend to converge—what she calls “market integration.” The wider this market is in space and time, the more likely that resources will be used most productively; “therein lies the link between a market economy and economic development.”
Her book is an attempt to measure empirically the emergence of a market economy in rural New England at the end of the eighteenth century. To test the pattern of price convergence over time in rural New England commodity markets Rothenberg collected annual price data from fifty-four account books and daybooks and from nine hundred probate inventories for each of a variety of farm goods. To study the emergence of a capital market among farmers she examined the probate inventories of 512 decedents in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, between 1730 and 1838. And to identify the development of farm labor markets she gathered 3,285 specific daily wage payments for day labor recorded between 1750 and 1855 in ninety farmers’ account books from sixty-five New England towns. Finally, she has studied the tax valuations of hundreds of towns from 1771 to 1801 in order to understand the relation of market integration to the “capitalist transformation” of New England, by which she means “a reallocation of resources to achieve, within agriculture, a rate of productivity growth sufficient to sustain the exodus of resources from it in pursuit of higher returns elsewhere.”
Out of these several inquiries Rothenberg is able to date the emergence of a market economy in New England in the decade following the American Revolution. She discovered that market integration—with the convergence of prices for commodities—took place sometime in the 1780s, brought about not by the appearance of the railroad or by any other technological breakthrough, but by the purchasing and selling activities of “the farmers themselves.” Rothenberg also found the crucial turning point in the development of capital markets in rural New England—the basis for eventual industrialization in the region—to be the 1780s. This was the time when farmers were clearly lending more money more often to ever more scattered and distant debtors and shifting more of their assets away from cattle and implements toward liquid and evanescent forms of wealth such as bonds, mortgages, and promissory notes. Beginning in 1785 Rothenberg found interest rates, or the price of money, “floating free of their ancient and customary restraints, free enough, presumably, to rise to the level of the returns on physical capital, a phenomenon critical to the historical development of capital markets.” Discovering the moment when market processes brought farm wages into convergence was more difficult, but again Rothenberg found the 1780s to be crucial. She found in fact that her sample of farmers began to experience growth of output per worker as well as output per acre as early as 1785. From this time agricultural productivity of all sorts began to increase rapidly. By 1801, for example, the output of grains in all the Massachusetts towns Rothenberg sampled was two and a half times what it had been in 1771.
Since this remarkable increase in labor productivity occurred well before the availability of any new farm machinery or any other technological change, it can be explained only by the more efficient use and organization of labor; that is, the farmers were somehow or other working harder and exploiting their available resources more effectively. But why they would do so is not so easily explained. Rothenberg suggests that perhaps a long-term shift in the climate accounts for the change in the farmers’ behavior. But obviously something else was at work, something that seems connected to the American Revolution.
Although Rothenberg spends a good deal of time criticizing the moral economy historians, whom she affectionately calls her “dear enemies,” her book actually works to reconcile the differences between the market and social historians. First of all, her empirical method, Rothenberg admits, will not allow her to say anything about the period before 1750—since there are very few surviving account books and thus very few prices to observe before that date. Thus, she concedes, the moral economy model may have characterized New England farm life before mid-century, though for her this moral economy model still involved exchanges and market places. But around 1750 prices began to diverge in what she calls “a protomarket process,” an observation that at least Henretta among the moral economy historians explicitly endorses. In fact, Henretta cites Rothenberg’s findings in support of his thesis “that the emergence of a new system of economic behavior, values, and institutions occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”
Christopher Clark, despite the sophistication and subtlety of his account of the agricultural transformation in the Connecticut River Valley, nevertheless also dates the beginning of the first phase of the development of rural capitalism to the 1780s. Thus all the moral economy historians seem to recognize the validity of Rothenberg’s chronological pattern and to accept the view that the transition to a capitalist society was accelerated during the years immediately following the American Revolution. Indeed, writes Kulikoff, “the American Revolution may have been the most crucial event in the creation of capitalism.”
Actually many of the differences between the so-called market and moral economy historians would disappear if the many local exchanges that everyone concedes existed among the farmers could be seen as variants of market behavior. In fact, complains Kulikoff, the debate has ignored the traditional Marxist problems of the means and relations of production and concentrated exclusively on the patterns of exchange. And on this issue Kulikoff admits that the debaters are not very far apart: “the two sides contend over the degree of local self-sufficiency and the extent of market exchange rather than the fact of exchange.”
The hitch seems to be the moral economy historians’ commitment to Marx’s distinction between producing for use and producing for exchange, a distinction that in fact seems very dubious. When the so-called social historians come to examine the actual behavior of the New England farmers, they keep falling back on this distinction to explain why the farmers were not really market-oriented—in effect relying on their ability to decipher the motives of these rural people. So that when farmers locally exchanged wheat for tools or vegetables for cloth, “their goal,” says Henretta, “was not profit but the acquisition of a needed item for use.” Even when farmers sold some of their goods to the wider market outside their region, “their chief purpose,” writes Clark, “was not to engage in the market economy but to satisfy the demands placed on them by the household economy.” What seems to be the farmers’ profit-seeking or land speculation the moral economy historians dismiss as merely the farmers’ looking after the needs of their families. (Presumably this is what those modern ballplayers seeking a ten-million-dollar contract also mean when they say they are only trying to ensure the security of their families.) No matter how sharp or avaricious the farmers might be—and even the moral economy historians admit that they could indeed be sharp and avaricious—these characteristics apparently did not turn them into entrepreneurs; as Henretta says, “there was no determined pursuit of profit.”
The moral economy historians seem to have an overdrawn and caricatured image of an entrepreneur (perhaps taken from market historians like Grant) as someone who thinks about nothing but the bottom line and has an all-consuming drive for profits that rides roughshod over the needs of his family or his relationship with the community. If this is what it takes, then very few farmers in history have ever been out-and-out entrepreneurs of this kind.
Still, the moral economy historians have shown us that something was inhibiting the behavior of the eighteenth-century farmers, and it was not just the lack of transportation or the absence of markets. The farmers were not working as hard as they might have or as they did later on. There was indeed something in the mentalité or cultural outlook of many of the northern farmers during much of the eighteenth century that was not conducive to hard work or productivity. But it was not that the farmers had an aversion to exchange and markets and were sentimentally attached to their limited productivity; it was rather that many of them could not as yet see any reason why they should work harder and produce more. In Western culture it had been that way for ages.
From the beginning of history work had not been much valued by anyone. Labor was traditionally associated with pain and trouble, and even as late as the eighteenth century manual productivity did not have the superior moral value that it would acquire in the nineteenth century. To be sure, industriousness and hard work were everywhere extolled, and the Puritan ethic was widely preached—but only for ordinary people, not for leisured gentlemen, and not for the sake of increasing the society’s productivity. Hard, steady work was good for the character of common people: it kept them out of trouble, it lifted them out of idleness and barbarism, and it instilled in them the proper moral values; but it was not yet thought to expand the prosperity of the society.
Although theorists like John Locke had argued that labor was the source of property, most conventional thinking did not yet regard labor as a source of wealth. People worked out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which those who had to labor for their living had been held since the ancient Greeks. Freedom was valued because it was freedom from the necessity to labor. Most people, it was widely assumed, would not work if they did not have to. “Everyone but an idiot,” said the enlightened English agricultural writer Arthur Young in a startling summary of this traditional view, “knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.” It was “poverty,” wrote Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts in 1761, that “will produce industry and frugality.” And, as Edmund S. Morgan has shown, most ordinary people in the premodern world did not actually work very hard, for to most people leisure seemed more attractive than work.2 Which is why gentry elites spent so much time and energy urging the common people to be industrious.
Idleness or leisure was supposed to be the prerogative of gentlemen only—that 5 to 10 percent of the population who stood at the top of the social hierarchy. Gentlemen, the seventeenth-century English theorist James Harrington had written, were those who “live upon their own revenue in plenty, without engagement either to the tilling of their lands or other work for their livelihood.” In the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe defined “the gentry” as “such who live on estates, and without the mechanism of employment, including the men of letters, such as clergy, lawyers and physicians.” In other words, gentlemen included those who lived off what we today call “unearned income,” those whom we label professionals, and those who did not work with their hands and were not directly engaged in the business of making money. And that remained the definition of gentlemen through much of the eighteenth century.
But not without challenge. Indeed, the history of the eighteenth century in the Anglo-American world is the history of redefining what a proper gentleman was and of the consequent blurring of what distinguished that gentleman from the rest of the populace. In this redefining and blurring of social ranks the traditional view of work began to change. Common, ordinary working people—farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, traders, and those who would soon be called “businessmen”—held in disdain by gentry elites since the dawn of history at long last began claiming a place in the sun; and their emergence into power and respectability in the Western world is what we mean by the “democratic revolutions” of the late eighteenth century.
One of the ways ordinary people emerged into power and respectability in the eighteenth century was by imitating their betters, that is, the gentry. And they did this mainly by consuming goods that hitherto had been the preserve of the gentry—everything from lace curtains and feather beds to china tea sets. Traditionally the gentry regarded the consumption of most goods other than necessities as its exclusive prerogative and indeed its moral obligation. As Montesquieu said: “If the rich do not spend so lavishly, the poor would die.” When unemployed silk workers rioted in London in 1765, George III’s natural reaction was to order the ladies of his court to buy expensive silk gowns for the next ball and thereby put the silk makers back to work. Consumption was a kind of gentry indulgence or favor done for those producers dependent on it, a form of patronage for clients. The role of the gentry therefore was to consume; the role of common folk was to produce. “To be born for no other Purpose than to consume the Fruits of the Earth,” wrote Henry Fielding in 1751, “is the Privilege (if it may be really called a Privilege) of a very few. The greater Part of Mankind must sweat hard to produce them, or Society will no longer answer the Purposes for which it was ordained.” Sir Joseph Banks, the famous English botanist, agreed: he even worried that farmers were growing rich enough to send their sons to college to become “Lawyers, Parsons, Doctors, etc.,” and thus turning them “into Gentlemen Consumers and not Providers of food.”
But the common folk’s increasing consumption of genteel goods during the eighteenth century—so great as to be called a “consumer revolution” by recent historians—blurred these distinctive roles and made elites fearful that too much luxury was corrupting the society. 3 Yet it was precisely the possibility of buying luxuries that lay behind the increased exertions and greater productivity of common people in the eighteenth century Anglo-American world. Really for the first time in history ordinary people on a large scale were willing to work harder because they glimpsed the prospect of changing their status or their standard of living by such hard work. And the more equal the society, as in much of colonial North America, the greater the incentive for emulative consumption: if the purchase of a Staffordshire tea set was all it took to move up a notch in the social hierarchy, then working harder in order to acquire such an item became worthwhile. When, as Benjamin Franklin tells us in his autobiography, his wife Deborah replaced his pewter spoon with a silver one and his earthen bowl with a china one simply because “she thought her Husband deserv’d a Silver Spoon & China Bowl as well as any of his Neighbours,” she was both raising her family’s status and standard of living (“Mark how Luxury will enter Families, and make a Progress, in Spite of Principle”) and contributing to this consumer revolution.
Sometimes, as in the case of Franklin, rising commoners simply shed their humble origins and became leisured gentlemen themselves. But in many more cases the ordinary folk who rose into authority and respectability through hard work brought the value of their lowly labor with them. By the late eighteenth century, farmers, artisans, and other working men who had made it were denouncing leisured aristocrats as useless drones and celebrating the hitherto menial work that had made their rise possible. Mason Weems, popular biographer of George Washington and spokesman for the new entrepreneurial values, sought in all of his publications to destroy that old-fashioned “notion, from the land of lies,” which had “taken too deep root among some, that ‘labour is a low-lived thing, fit for none but poor people and slaves! and that dress and pleasure are the only accomplishments for a gentlemen!”‘ Northern elites who had for so long praised the value of work for ordinary people were in no position to resist these charges, and thus everywhere outside the slave-ridden South the worth of work was enhanced and the culture was transformed.
We are just now finding out about the nature and extent of these social and cultural changes in late eighteenth-century Anglo-America—changes that quickly spread through the relatively egalitarian society of New England. Ordinary farmers began working harder and increasing their productivity when they found that there were genteel goods available for them to purchase. They did not just grow crops but scrambled every which way to produce goods for exchange in local markets—putting their wives and children to work spinning cloth or weaving hats, making hoops and barrels, distilling rum or cider, fabricating whatever might sell—all in order that they might buy an increasing variety of consumer goods. By the time of the American Revolution common people were eager as never before to buy luxury items—an eagerness the egalitarian sentiments of the Revolution only intensified. “Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry?” asked Benjamin Franklin in 1784—a question that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. New England farmers worked harder and produced surpluses during the war, not, as traditional thinking would have it, out of poverty and necessity, but in order to increase their purchase of luxury goods and to raise their standard of living.
Although the farmers’ increased production at the time of the Revolution was for exchange—to meet the inexhaustible needs of the army—it was ultimately for their personal use as well—to meet the developing consumer needs and desires of their families. In fact, if those expanding household needs and desires were not met, their production of supplies for the armies ceased. As historian Richard Buel, Jr., has shown for Connecticut, when the much desired consumer goods, many of them prewar imports, became less available in the late years of the war, the Connecticut farmers stopped working hard and their “surpluses” disappeared.4 Political and military leaders exhorted the farmers to produce for the sake of the revolutionary cause, but in vain. The New England farmers were not about to produce surpluses of wheat or beef to sell to the army in return for inflated paper promises to pay if they could not use that paper money immediately to buy those luxury goods they were becoming used to. Buel’s research on Connecticut’s war mobilization is the most important concrete illustration we have of the connection that was emerging between the New England farmers’s productivity and their desire to consume luxury goods.
It is not surprising therefore that Rothenberg should have located the emergence of a rural New England market economy in the 1780s. For the 1780s were, as John Fiske wrote in 1888, even in the aftermath of the Civil War, the most critical moment in the entire history of America. The few years following the end of the War of Independence clearly revealed for the first time all the latent commercial and enterprising power of America’s emerging democratic society. In the 1780s we can actually sense the shift from a premodern traditional society to a modern one in which the business interests and consumer tastes of ordinary people were coming to dominate. Something momentous was happening in the society and culture that released the aspirations and energies of common people as never before in American history, or perhaps in world history. The American Revolution with its declaration that all men were created equal and had the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness became an expression and justification of this release of aspirations and energies. Thanks to the recent work of all of these historians of early American capitalism, we now can better understand the cultural and economic circumstances that lay behind the Revolution and its explosion of entrepreneurial power.
June 9, 1994
John Frederick Martin, Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century (University of North Carolina Press/The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1991). ↩
Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Norton, 1975). ↩
Neil McKendrick et al., The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Indiana University Press, 1988); Carole Shammas, The Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford University Press, 1990); T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690–1776,” Journal of British Studies, Vol.25 (1986), pp. 467–499. ↩
Richard Buel, Jr., “Samson Shorn: The Impact of the Revolutionary War on Estimates of the Republic’s Strength,” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, editors, Arms and Independence: The Military Character of the American Revolution (University Press of Virginia, 1984), pp. 157–160. ↩