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Conclusion “All the World is becoming commercial,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington after the Revolution, though he would not say “whether commerce contributed to the Happiness of mankind.”1 Ambivalence over commerce, which brought great wealth and sudden disaster, was at the heart of heated transatlantic debate over human nature , authority, and economy. Commerce, as everyone could see, was social and interdependent. In the minds of some philosophers, these qualities made it the basis of civil society, because the conduct of commerce instilled trust and friendship.2 Adam Smith believed that for the majority of people, “the road to virtue and that to fortune . . . are very nearly the same,” because their success “almost always depends upon the favour and good opinion of their neighbors and equals; and without a tolerably regular conduct these can very seldom be obtained.”3 For Americans of the early republic, who had just declared their freedom from relations of dependence, commerce looked less benign. Jefferson ’s doubts about whether commerce fostered “Happiness” referred to a familiar construct in American political thought and culture in the early republic. Should the United States be a nation of farmers, whose independence lay in their ownership of land? Or would it be a commercial nation, whose influence came from wealth and trade? Political rhetoric hinged on stark contrasts between the two options, masking interaction among property, commerce, and constructions of dependence that already pervaded American lives. This oppositional way of framing the problems of a newly independent nation contributed to the attenuated patriotic consumer campaigns in the early republic as well. Writers found it increasingly difficult to conceptualize a voluntarily virtuous consumer and so fashioned a solo, stalwart producer to fit their political needs. This producer was a man. Even as the number of paid female laborers increased, political writing established a gendered opposition of the feminized consumer and masculine producer. Some forms of this rhetoric had circulated for decades in Anglo-American writing, in which commerce was frequently feminine, given its seeming irrational changeability Conclusion 191 and its ties to fashion and desire. “Lady Credit” presided over transactions between countries and between neighbors. “Effeminate luxury” tempted consumers to buy things they did not need with money they did not have. These concepts filtered into the consciousness of Americans in the late eighteenth century so that, for example, Philadelphia merchants, fearing that an aura of feminine servile dependency clung to their commercial relationships, struggled to insist that such ties were instead “manly mutual service and connections.”4 At every turn in revolutionary America, then, the perils of commerce were linked to dependence, moral weakness , and femininity. But commerce, like femininity, also had improving tendencies in the minds of those who wielded gender metaphors. Commerce had potential to calm and civilize raw masculine aggression. Luxury, according to some, would “soften and humanize our manners.”5 A home well appointed with material goods could both soothe a tired laborer in the evening and motivate him to work harder the next day to save for more purchases. Commerce and productive labor, for that matter , supported each other. This concept of mutual support between gendered production and consumption found its most sentimental allegory in the idealized middle-class home depicted in advice books and romantic tales. The literature of domesticity did not really describe a world where free women knew nothing about money but rather one where free, middle-class women domesticated commerce, muted its reliance upon competition, and bolstered its potential for civilizing men and promoting cooperation . American conduct books for women suggested that women’s commercial savvy was particularly important in a nation without fixed ranks. Enos Hitchcock, for example, told his female readers: “In a free country, under a republican form of government, industry is the only sure road to wealth; and economy the only sure means of preserving it. . . . It is an old adage, ‘A man must ask his wife, whether he may be rich.’ He gets the estate by his industry; she preserves it by her economy. If she has no economy, he labors in vain.”6 Female economy, Hitchcock believed, was the complement of male industry. He worked hard for the money; she was its steward, through well-informed purchasing and saving decisions. And yet, under law and in common perception, it was his estate. His work was productive, hers visible only when she failed to do it well. By the early decades of the nineteenth century economic autonomy, and the market economy itself...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780812203943
Related ISBN
9780812221596
MARC Record
OCLC
802047770
Pages
264
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-20
Language
English
Open Access
No
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