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In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in early modern English political economy. Most of it has in one way or another [End Page 187] backdated the emergence of capitalist modernity: to the earliest years of the East India Company, to the growth of credit and the slave trade, to the push for the free market in 1688, and so on. Brodie Waddell’s God, Duty, and Community in English Economic Life draws on a wide range of sources—petitions, correspondences, cheap print, prescriptive religious literature, state proclamations, ballads, almanacs, guild regulations—to make the not necessarily incompatible case that the modern capitalist mindset was foreign to the majority of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English people. They no doubt understood what counted as earthly necessities, but their worldly lives were inseparable from God’s will, traditional household duties, and communal bonds, the three major and often complementary parts of a “moral economy” that was robust throughout the late Stuart era despite the changing views of better known theorists and merchants.
The first of the book’s three main chapters anatomizes the theological palliation of economic conduct. Contemporaries, we are told, subscribed to a notion of stewardship, according to which all property ultimately belonged to God and “no individual had an exclusive claim to his or her possessions” (p. 35); their aversion to Mammonism made worldly riches suspect; their belief in Heaven and Hell offered incentive to obey moral limits; providence actively made examples of the good and the bad. Few would deny that these were typical views in the earliest part of modern times, but Waddell’s point is that they offered little space for unrestrained self-interest well into the eighteenth century.
A similar argument underpins the second big chapter, which turns to the patriarchal household. Taking a cue from Naomi Tadmor among others and writing against an earlier generation of historians who examined the household economy only to demonstrate that it was eroded by unilinear capitalist development, Waddell contends that the structures of the household—an ethos of industriousness, paternal provisioning, and patriarchal governance—were intact into the Hanoverian era, in part because the system could be maintained from below through petitions and other forms of redress.
The longest and most subtle chapter turns to communal bonds. Waddell recognizes that, to a degree, community began to break down in the broader early modern period, thanks to the fragmentation of Christianity. But he argues that some economic institutions that fostered community, namely urban corporations and craft fellowships, gained in strength, if only to weaken again in the early eighteenth century, while other—if more unfortunate—sources of community, namely patriotism and xenophobia, were more durably on the rise during this period alongside a more widely shared notion of what counted as “Englishness” and national interests. [End Page 188]
Waddell is right to critique economic reductionism and to approach the late seventeenth century on its own terms. But much of what he describes as “teleological” is better characterized as taking the long view in order to describe and explain change over time, a perspective the book unfortunately shuns in favor of a largely synchronic account of late Stuart economic culture. I also sense that I am getting revisionism more than reality in his characterization of religion. While he can admit that spiritual attitudes about wealth were slowly transforming in the late seventeenth century (p. 82), he offers us a fixed religious framework in which the message that acquisitiveness is sinful managed to survive cultural transmission fully intact in order for English Protestantism, whatever its varieties, to curb materialism. For this interpretation to be convincing, we need to hear more about the message’s reception even if the relevant sources are scarce. We need to hear as well about ambiguities in the prescriptive literature itself. Max Weber’s Restoration hero, Richard Baxter, was no possessive individualist and generally railed against acquisitiveness, but he still sent the occasional mixed message, as...