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  • The Social Relations of Farming in the Early American Republic:A Microhistorical Approach
  • Martin Bruegel (bio)

"All economic activity is entangled in a web of social institutions, customs, beliefs and attitudes. Outcomes are indubitably affected by these background factors, some of which change slowly and gradually, others erratically. . . . Economic theory can only gain from being taught something about the range of possibilities in human societies."

Robert E. Solow, "Economics: Is Something Missing?" in William N. Parker (ed.), Economic History and the Modern Economist (Oxford, UK, 1986), 22, 24.

In a useful review of the state of historical knowledge on farming in the northern United States during the nineteenth century, Jeremy Atack, Fred Bateman, and William Parker conclude that "American farmers behaved consistently with rational choice: they settled the best soils first, their mobility patterns maximized their human capital, they diversified against risk, they responded to prices, they tried to smooth out seasonal labor usage, and they capitalized on knowledge of markets and production techniques. . . . While individual performance varied enormously, northern farmers as a group proved to be economically responsive actors in a capitalist system." The description attributes extraordinary efficiency to the rise of what Max Weber defined as Zweckrationalität, the cost-effective adequation of means to goals. Of course, there were protesters [End Page 523] who challenged that massive evolution because "the system produced large numbers of losers who had much to complain about." Yet even if their fate were to succeed in sustaining the authors' attention, they hardly ever seemed to offer alternative visions of society because they accepted (what might be called) the rules of the game. Their discourses positively betrayed their marginalization, their incapacity to profit from the development they proposed to rein in, to regulate, but not to stop. In any case, their objections were doomed to failure and thus corroborate the evolution's overarching and assured success. The authors leave no doubt about the inevitable forward march of progress, in this case the triumph of the most lucrative way of running a farm (or of modernization or, as it stands, capitalism).1

The view from The First American Frontier, Wilma Dunaway's amply documented account of the "Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia" between 1700 and 1860, provides a detailed, richly textured picture of how the capitalist "center" expanded into the known world's periphery. Capitalism, at once personified (it "survives, grows, and combats") and reified (it combines "three major mechanisms"), determined and directed the choices open to, and made by, the region's inhabitants. They engaged in activities that linked Appalachia to the world market: the fur trade at the very beginning, agriculture (grains, livestock, tobacco, cotton, fruits, and wool) and extractive industries (such as iron ore, copper, lead) later. The general movement's logic appears inescapable, and people's lives indeed "reflect[ed] their location within the hierarchical division of labor [in the world system]." This peripheral, subordinate position in turn appeared to shape the very forms of resistance to oppose the juggernaut's inexorable forward march. The region as a whole "seemed to be replicating many of the characteristic patterns of development that had advanced to a higher technological level in other parts of the capitalist world economy." In short, the monographic narrative serves as an illustration of a general dynamic: economic efficiency based on regional advantages assured participation in the world system, which [End Page 524] left little, if indeed any, choice to people but to follow predetermined life paths.2

Things, of course, appear in a different light when approached from the other end. This is not to deny the existence of "big structures and large processes." But it means reaffirming the place and role of women and men who encounter them. Take the variegated social experiences of rural "losers" in the long-term movement toward economic rationalization (moving to agricultural wage labor, to far-off lands, to other occupations?) or the different modes of organizing labor in the capitalist world system (twelve types of arrangements in the Appalachians alone). Take, too, frontier settlement in western New York: However much profits were on the mind of its promoters, they had to overcome ecological inconveniences that retarded quick returns on...


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pp. 523-553
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