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Town Born

The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution

By Barry Levy

Publication Year: 2009

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British colonists found the New World full of resources. With land readily available but workers in short supply, settlers developed coercive forms of labor—indentured servitude and chattel slavery—in order to produce staple export crops like rice, wheat, and tobacco. This brutal labor regime became common throughout most of the colonies. An important exception was New England, where settlers and their descendants did most work themselves.

In Town Born, Barry Levy shows that New England's distinctive and far more egalitarian order was due neither to the colonists' peasant traditionalism nor to the region's inhospitable environment. Instead, New England's labor system and relative equality were every bit a consequence of its innovative system of governance, which placed nearly all land under the control of several hundred self-governing town meetings. As Levy shows, these town meetings were not simply sites of empty democratic rituals but were used to organize, force, and reconcile laborers, families, and entrepreneurs into profitable export economies. The town meetings protected the value of local labor by persistently excluding outsiders and privileging the town born.

The town-centered political economy of New England created a large region in which labor earned respect, relative equity ruled, workers exercised political power despite doing the most arduous tasks, and the burdens of work were absorbed by citizens themselves. In a closely observed and well-researched narrative, Town Born reveals how this social order helped create the foundation for American society.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. 1-16

In1760, some fifteen years before the American Revolution, the young John Adams witnessed and became fascinated with, though somewhat frightened by, the exuberance of autonomous workers at play. Taking a break from his legal studies, Adams ‘‘rode to the Iron works landing’’ in Weymouth, Massachusetts, ‘‘to see a vessel launched.’’ These happy affairs symbolized...

PART I: Foundations

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ONE: Political Economy

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pp. 17-50

Blessed is he that considereth of the poor, the Lord will deliver him in. When the principal inhabitants of Swallowfield met together in a town meeting for the first time, they defined themselves as ‘‘a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenants among themselves.’’ They agreed to hold more meet-...

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TWO: Stripes

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pp. 51-83

Stripes, or whipping, is a correction fit and proper in some cases, where the offence is accompanied with childish or brutish folly, with rude filthiness, or with stubborn insolency, with beastly cruelty, or with idle vagrancy, or for faults of like nature. But when stripes are due: it is ordered,that not above forty stripes shall be inflicted at one time...

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THREE: Settlement

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pp. 84-124

In1845, Nathaniel Hawthorne returned to his native Salem from Concord. In 1846, he obtained a position at the Salem Custom House, the subject of the opening of his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. In that introductory sketch, he puzzled about why the town of Salem had ‘‘a hold on my affections.’’ Speaking of the present, he remarked, ‘‘the spell survived, and...

PART II: Development

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FOUR: Political Fabric

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pp. 125-152

In his1654 history of Massachusetts, Edward Johnson boasted that the residents of Rowley ‘‘were the first people that set upon making of cloth in this Western World.’’1 Although Johnson failed to recognize Native American weaving, which utilized a variety of local materials and flourished well before European contact, his declaration’s ethnocentrism is intentional. The colo-...

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FIVE: Of Wharves and Men

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pp. 153-182

The New England ideal of the godly city included limiting outsiders,making labor more valuable, and attaching workers to the locality. In turn,city dwellers were required to attend church, to keep the Sabbath, to speak no oaths except on special occasions, to learn the Bible, and to attempt to transform their own sinful selves and their children into Christians. Equally...

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SIX: Rural Shipbuilding

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pp. 183-206

After 1650,Boston merchants invested thousands of pounds sterling in rural Massachusetts towns to develop shipbuilding and the resources it required. Boston merchants capitalized shipbuilding enterprises not only in coastal towns such as Salem, Charlestown, and Newburyport, where their investments supplemented those of local merchants, but also in inland towns...

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SEVEN: Crews

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pp. 207-236

New England’s first knight was William Phips, a mariner and shipbuilder from the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. In 1687, with English and Boston financial backing, he discovered and retrieved a treasure of some£300,000 in gold and silver from the sunken Spanish galleon Concepcion in the shallows north of Hispaniola. Finding and retrieving the treasure was...

PART III: Town People

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EIGHT: Orphans

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pp. 237-262

The prescriptive literature read in colonial Massachusetts demandeda well-ordered patriarchal household. Yet this normative ideal, coupled with Puritans’ reforming zeal, often justified the intrusive intervention of public authorities into the family. Many town selectmen took the patriarchal ideal...

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NINE: Prodigals or Milquetoasts?

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pp. 263-288

Thomas Shepard, the minister of Cambridge, Massachusetts, complained in 1672 that ‘‘there are divers children who . . . grow to that pride, and unnaturalness, and stubbornness, that they will not serve their parents except they be hired to it.’’ Shepard’s concern about the premature autonomy...

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pp. 289-296

In 1727, the selectmen of Middleborough, Massachusetts, petitioned the General Court for an abatement of their provincial taxes on the ground ‘‘that their husbandry has been neglected and the people greatly impoverished’’because of ‘‘a very grievous sickness by which great numbers among them have been carried off, and most of the survivors visited therewith.’’ The town...

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pp. 297-338

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pp. 339-344


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pp. 345-352

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pp. 353-354

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202618
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241778

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Early American Studies

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • New England -- Economic conditions.
  • New England -- Social conditions.
  • City and town life -- New England -- History.
  • Power (Social sciences) -- New England -- History.
  • Land settlement -- New England -- History.
  • New England -- Politics and government -- To 1775.
  • Cities and towns -- New England -- History.
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