- Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780–1860
A decade ago, and for over a decade before that, as part of a wider discussion of the emergence of American capitalism, there was an intermittent debate about the character and significance of rural exchange and markets in early America. Two main things happened to this debate. On one hand, after doing a substantial amount to recover an understanding of rural life, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Northeast, various protagonists found that there was relatively little disagreement left between them. On the other, in part through the influence of Charles Sellers’ 1991 volume The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846, attention was switched from rural societies to a broader, national canvas and the concept of a “market revolution” in this period fixed in contemporary historical discourse. That concept has, in its turn, undergone two fates. Many established scholars have been skeptical. A generation of younger historians, by contrast, has taken the “market revolution” as a stepping-off point for exploring the rich array of sources that can illuminate early Americans’ economic, social, and cultural lives. Martin Bruegel’s work both addresses the earlier debate about rural societies and provides material that will contribute to the discussion of a “market revolution.”
As author of locally-based studies that formed part of the original debate, I have an interest to declare. My admiration for this book is formed by my own concern to see historians trace the processes of social and economic change as they grew from, and in turn influenced, the lives of the men and women who lived through them. In addressing what he calls “the construction of a market society” (p. 226) from the perspectives of the farm families, storekeepers, and merchants of the Hudson River Valley, Bruegel adds notably to our understanding of how and why a new way of life came about in the two generations following the American Revolution. His account deserves attention from all historians interested in understanding how, in concrete terms, social change came about and was experienced.
Bruegel’s subjects lived in the mid-Hudson Valley counties of Columbia and Greene, which lie respectively east and west of the great river as it flows south from Albany towards New York City. He argues that their economic activities [End Page 247] and ways of doing things changed substantially over this period. Population growth, soil exhaustion, competition from newly-emigrated “western” farmers, and the massive expansion of demand from New York, all influenced crop-raising, household activities, and the ways in which farm families used and traded goods. At one level, Bruegel traces quantifiable changes in the Hudson Valley’s economy: shifts in agricultural output; merchants’ involvement in trade and transportation; the various sources of manufacturing development; and the emergence of new patterns of consumption and wealth distribution. But at the same time he offers valuable insights into the conditions that structured or motivated these developments. Late-eighteenth century people faced a world of comparative scarcity in which the risk of disaster led both to cautious strategies and efforts at productive improvements. By the mid nineteenth century they and their successors had built markets that considerably allayed risk, and provided many with modest, but tangible comforts. In the process, as Bruegel’s work in account books and other sources reveals, they had altered many aspects of their own relationships with each other. Economic dealings, at first grounded in familial, personal, and local contacts, had become more instrumental and abstracted from personal ties. Changes in production entailed both rearranged gender roles on farms and greater class segmentation among the region’s population. At the ideological level, Bruegel suggests, arguments for laissez-faire in commercial dealings took root as tools for restraining the influence of personal ties and preferences, but also came to combat “producerist” claims of equal rights to the fruits of labor.
Like all regional historians Bruegel must deal...