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From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers

Author(s):Kulikoff, Allan
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred B.
, Winifre

Published by EH.NET (August 2002)

Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers.

Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiii + 484 pp.

$59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2569-7; $22.50 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-4882-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Winifred B. Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts


“Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please; they do not

make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances

directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”1

Marx’s famous dictum might well serve as the epigraph for Allan Kulikoff’s

study of small (white, incidentally) farmers “in the context of ” the

capitalist transformation. Kulikoff, Baldwin Professor of Humanities at the

University of Georgia, is a prodigiously well-informed scholar of early

American history whose research over the last two decades has been devoted to

understanding the yeoman farmer in early America. Small farmers, it turns out,

left so large and deep a footprint on the American historical landscape, and

one that Kulikoff is able to describe at such an astonishing level of detail,

that he has had to divide this, his capstone work, into two volumes. The first,

From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, covers those aspects

of the story that one would call broadly ‘economic.’ Although there is nothing

on colonial fiscal or monetary policy and little on foreign trade, he deals

well with the English background of colonial settlement, the process of

emigration, the acquisition and allocation of land, agricultural developments,

internal migrations, encounters with Indians, and “the relation [that] farm

families forged with the market”(p. 4). The companion volume, The Making of

the American Yeoman Class (forthcoming), will deal more intensively, he

writes, with questions of class identity, kinship, community, ethnicity, and

faith that have long been identified with this author.

Kulikoff calls this book a “master narrative,” by which I understand him to

mean a narrative around which he has braided a commanding interdisciplinary

synthesis that draws from more than 2,000 works from the many proliferating

sub-fields into which history as an academic discipline has splintered since

the Sixties: women’s history, family history, African-American, Native

American, rural, environmental, social, demographic, religious, economic, a bit

of political, and enough of contemporary English, Dutch, German, Irish and

Scottish history to understand their emigrations to the American colonies.2

Kulikoff begins his history with the Black Death and the depopulation of

England that was its consequence. Here, although dense with absorbing detail,

the broad outline of his argument is a familiar one: much of the surviving

peasantry was loosed from the manor lands and wandered into an emerging labor

market. Two centuries later, in the course of the enclosure process, “agrarian

capitalists” threw peasants off the lands they had enjoyed for centuries in

secure tenure, “leaving them and their descendants with a great yearning for

land”(p. 2). In Kulikoff’s telling it was the yearning for land — not for a

New Jerusalem or new markets or empires or geopolitics or trade routes or raw

materials, but for land — that drove the settlement of England’s North

American colonies.

In what sense should American history begin in 1348? To ask that

question is to ask another: what interpretive theme is threading its way

through this story? I can think of three. It can be read as a long-running

dialectic between individualism and communalism. Or as a declension narrative:

from communities (to which Kulikoff attaches a positive valence) to markets. Or

as a redemption narrative: “the same men who evicted peasants financed colonial

ventures that promised land to former peasants” two-thirds of whom, and their

descendants, became landowners in a new Eden. The three interpretations have

this in common: that capitalism is central to all. It motivated the expulsion;

it financed the colonization; it secured the property rights by which peasants

came to hold land in fee-simple tenure. Looked at in any way, says Kulikoff,

“Capitalist transformation, stands at the center of our story” (p. 2).

Once capitalism is made to stand at the center it cannot be ignored, although

– as always — it immediately causes trouble. In the first place, capitalism

– which is here defined as “a society dominated by two classes: capitalists

who own the means of production (banks, factories, tools, and productive land)

and workers who have only their labor to sell” — did not reach our shores,

says Kulikoff on page 2, until after the American Revolution. That is,

until after the book ends! In his 1992 book he had gone even further: he argued

there that even after the Revolution, ‘capitalism’ (so defined) ill serves to

describe an economy of yeomen farmers who themselves owned the means of

production with which they produced a surplus as well as their labor to sell.3

Hence the question, how then can capitalism stand at the center of our story?

Kulikoff replies, “Because Britain had turned capitalist, colonists swam in a

capitalist sea” (p. 2). I find that to be a fascinating and provocative answer,

for it implies — does it not? — that capitalism is not embedded in a

particular material substratum or set of productive relations; it is not even

rooted in the forging of class identities. It is rather a set of behaviors,

responses, incentives, a culture that is learned in the act of ‘swimming’ in

it; a meme, perhaps, carried to these alien shores by the swimmers.4 If that is

so, what happened? Did they shake it off, like a dog, when they reached the

shore? As I said, ‘capitalism’ only causes trouble.

One would also like to engage Kulikoff in a discussion around the origin of

private property rights. I refer to these two statements: “enclosers created

private property” (p. 17); and “private property in land (with the absolute

right of alienation that went with it) was new in seventeenth-century England”

(p. 71). J. H. Baker, in his authoritative Introduction to English Legal

History, explains that a distinction was indeed made in Grenvill’s court

(1290) between the alienability of an acquisition and of a patrimony: “What [a

man] had himself purchased he could alienate without restriction; but what he

had inherited he could only alienate in exceptional circumstances.” But within

a generation that restriction had been abandoned. In Bracton’s time:

“If land were granted to A and his heirs, A received an inheritable fee which

he could alienate in its entirety to B and B’s heirs…[I]f the ancestor

alienated in fee during his lifetime, the heir had nothing to inherit and no

legal standing. The reason given was that the identity of the heir could not be

known until the ancestor’s death. Heirs were made by God not man: solus Deus

facit haeredem. No ascertained individual was therefore cut off by an

alienation inter vivos; an heir apparent or presumptive had an

expectation of inheriting, but not a vested estate. The tenant who was granted

land ‘to himself and his heirs for ever’ thus had something quite different

from a life estate. His estate was of infinite duration and during his lifetime

he could alienate it forever.”

That the privacy of property has its origins in the early fourteenth century,

not the seventeenth, is of immense importance, for it exposes to scrutiny the

association — so often assumed — between capitalism and the emergence of

libertarian institutions. But lest I be carried far beyond my competence I

return now to Kulikoff’s book, a skeleton outline of which he renders as


A Prologue “examin[es] how English peasants organized their households; how

rich Englishmen got capital to finance colonies; and how others lost their

land, tramped the countryside, and became eager to emigrate. Chapter 1 details

immigrant recruitment in seventeenth century England and patterns of migration

to the colonies. Once they arrived, Chapter 2 shows, colonists faced hostile

Indians, deep forests, and a climate far more extreme than England’s. Despite

the struggle with Indians, most families did get land and made it their own. As

Chapter 3 relates, during the eighteenth century, after coastal lands filled

with settlers, colonists moved to new frontiers, chasing Indians away and

improving more land. Chapter 4 shows who left eighteenth century Britain and

Europe and explains why so many peasants moved east rather than west. Turning

from economic and demographic issues to the process of farm making, Chapter 5

describes the gender division of labor on the farm, exchange between farm

families, and the relation between market and household. The American

Revolution, the epilogue argues, temporarily stopped migration, ended

international trade, thrust families into subsistence production, and ignited

vicious partisan and Indian warfare; after the war internal migration and farm

making resumed and intensified” (p. 4).

This outline does not begin to capture the scale and scope, the density and

complexity of the synthesis he has achieved. His two chapters on medieval and

early modern English rural history do a superb job of fixing the Great

Migration in its historical context. One is grateful for the close attention he

gives to financing the emigration process by means of subsidies, monopolies,

joint stock companies, chartered companies, and trading companies, and for the

penetrating detail he brings to his discussion of the settlement process.

Particularly noteworthy is his treatment of the colonists’ encounters with

Indians. Not having been familiar with these materials, I was struck — as I

have been by Peter Mancall’s work — at the amount of information Native

Americans appear to have left in the historical record. Tribe by tribe Kulikoff

tracks the systematic degradation of Indians from King Philip’s war to their

‘domestication’ through conversion, dispossession, absorption into the labor

force, indebtedness, servitude, and enslavement to other Indian tribes. But

most impressive is Kulikoff’s ability to write with equal authority about every

one of the thirteen colonies. In this field, expertise on one town has

sufficed to build an academic career on. To command, at this level of detail,

an intimate familiarity with the literatures on every colony is really

rather extraordinary. And he remains, as he has always been, acutely sensitive

to the roles women have played in sustaining the worlds that British peasants

and American farmers made.

But it is precisely with respect to “level of detail” that this review pivots

from an encomium to a critique. Let me start with a few of his paragraphs for

purely illustrative purposes.

1. “All but 4 of the first 238 inhabitants of Salem, Massachusetts got land,

and later arrivals fared nearly as well, eleven-twelfths (134 out of 146)

getting land. New England land continued to be widely distributed. In three

towns in Essex County, Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century, half the

men owned land before they were 30, as did 95 percent of men over 36. Before

1660, two-fifths of Connecticut settlers, most of them young men, had no land,

but by the 1690s six-sevenths of all farmers owned land. Similarly high levels

of landownership could be found in the Chesapeake colonies. In 1660 four-fifths

of the white men in Charles County, Maryland were landowners; as the

opportunity for former servants to get land plummeted, the proportion of owners

among taxable men declined to seven-tenths in 1675 and six-tenths in 1690. Most

landless men either moved from the county or died young, before they could

acquire land. In both 1687 and 1704 nearly two-thirds of the household heads in

Surry County, Virginia held land, as did three-quarters of householders in

Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in 1704. Landownership, moreover,

might have been nearly universal in early Pennsylvania; during the 1690s

eight-ninths of the householders in one Chester County township owned land” (p.


2. “Six-sevenths of Connecticut men held land, and nine-tenths of those between

ages 40 and 70 farmed their own acreage. … [N]early eight-ninths of the [New

Hampshire] householders owned land. But in the ports of Portsmouth and

Newcastle only two-thirds of the householders owned land; most held just enough

for a house lot and small garden. During the Revolutionary era two-thirds of

taxed men in East New Jersey owned land, but four-fifths of men over age 27 —

nearly all the household heads — did” (p. 131).

3. “The proportion of cottagers and wage laborers among household heads grew

from one-quarter before 1560 to two-fifths by 1620, and at the same time the

proportion of small-holding husbandmen dropped from about two-fifths to less

than one-third. During the 1650s only half of the men in three Lancashire

villages worked in agriculture, while two-fifths worked in the textile

industry. By 1688 only a quarter of rural families … leased or owned land.

Half were cottagers, landless farm laborers, or vagrants, and one-seventh

worked exclusively in textiles, mining, and other village industries. At least

a third of late-seventeenth-century rural families lacked even a cottager’s

garden …” (p. 22). And on and on. Most of this could have been put in tables,

charts, graphs, and figures without which it is impossible to make sense of the

numbing superfluity of fractions, the numbing superfluity of ‘fact-lets.’ I put

the blame for this on the editor, and chalk it up to a serious failure on the

Press’s part to identify the book’s target audience. To what readership is it

aimed? For the lay or undergraduate reader the forest is all too often obscured

by the trees, while graduate students and professionals will be excessively

irritated by the absence of even the most elementary processing of quantitative

information: percents are as scarce as hens’ teeth.

I am reminded of the recent review of a biography of Marcel Proust: “Every

conceivable fact about Proust and about Proust’s friends and friends of his

friends, and about what they wrote, read, saw, heard, and loved is literally

stuffed into the Life, usually in very short segments that are, despite

the author’s desire to suggest otherwise, a hasty collage of disconnected

scenes et portraits … Tadie’s insights are almost always surrounded by

innumerable facts that end up clouding a sustained meditation on the inner

Proust. Tadie machine-guns facts with vertiginous dispatch, for he not only

knows everything there is to know about Proust — but he also means us to know

it.”6 In like manner, Kulikoff machine-guns facts with vertiginous dispatch,

for he not only knows everything there is to know about the small farmer in the

colonial period — he means us to know it. But, like a pointilliste painting,

it is meaningless up close, and a blur from a distance.

A still larger question has to do with the presentation of materials across

disciplines. A recent article in the Journal of Economic Literature

provides the hook on which to hang this, the principal point of my critique.7

On the assumption that interdisciplinary conversation contributes to the

diffusion of knowledge, the authors of that article propose that “actual

communication flows” between the various social sciences be measured by the

number of ‘high value’ citations an article garners in other journals. To that

I would add another metric: the authenticity of the translation from origin to

destination across disciplines. Narrative disciplines that import findings from

hypothetico-deductive disciplines (and modern economic history is one) have an

obligation, both to the reader and to the original author, to define

constructed variables, to report the research design as modeled, and the

findings as provisional.8 An example of successful ‘translation’ is McCusker

and Menard’s Economy of British America, which throughout treats early

American economic history as “a laboratory containing sufficient diversity to

encourage analysis but enough similarity to allow control of at least some

variables.”9 In Kulikoff’s book, on the other hand, I find many examples of

what I would consider to be bad ‘translations':

? Mistaking the size of a study sample for the size of the ‘universe’ from

which it was drawn. Thus, “In 1714 the Massachusetts land bank lent to 110 men

in Middlesex County; two-thirds were farmers, one-third artisans.” And “between

1650 and 1750 Middlesex County residents took out 619 mortgages.” Kulikoff is

citing work of mine here, and in both cases he is confusing the size of a study

sample with the size (unknown) of the ‘universe’ from which it was drawn. When

these two examples are followed by an example from New York State —

“Landholders in two Dutchess County precincts alone took out 329 mortgages

between 1754 and 1770″ (all on p. 219) — one wonders if that too is only the

sample size.

? To explain migration flows within and among the colonies, Kulikoff declares

that the decision to move: a) “was driven by increased land prices in older

areas and cheap frontier land” (p. 148); b) “depended on father’s age, the

number of children at home, opportunities at home or on the frontier, and

previous moves by friends or neighbors” (p. 149); c) depended on prices: “when

prices were good, propertied families risked the peril of moving to a frontier;

during depressions or wars, they stayed put or moved short distances” (p. 145);

d) depended on assets: “only families with assets could move long distances”

(p. 145). This is a regression waiting to happen. Regression analysis was

imported into social-science history just to prevent ‘effects’ from having an

unlimited number of equally plausible ’causes.’

? “Agricultural productivity rose” (p. 170). Kulikoff is too familiar with

economics jargon to use the word ‘productivity’ often, but using it at all

imposes an obligation to define the measure of it, particularly when the

magnitude (total factor productivity) is a construct, and the measure of it in

the original research was proxied, as it so often is, by rents which have data

problems of their own.

? The end-notes — again, perhaps, an editorial decision. The practice of

bundling all references in a paragraph into one footnote (or end-note) is not

uncommon in narrative histories, but in this book virtually every paragraph

carries an end-note, and each end-note bundles together as many as twenty

citations. This impedes the serious scholar who wants to locate a source or

validate the authority of a ‘fact-let.’ In a hypothetico-deductive discipline

where the results are for the most part ‘made,’ not ‘discovered,’ their

provenance deserves to be known.

It would be a great pity if decisions made on the editorial level misjudged the

audience for this book. A more sophisticated treatment of the staggering amount

of quantitative material between its covers might have garnered it the

gratitude and respect it would then deserve.


1. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1849), quoted

on p. 5.

2. Two thousand is my rough count, approximately four hundred of the two

thousand works were published in the last decade, and I recognized seventy-five

as the works of economic historians.

3. Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism

(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), p. 34.

4. A meme — “An idea that seems to have a life of its own,” Edward Rothstein,

“The Mysterious Meme, A Seductive Metaphor,” New York Times (August 2,

2002), p. A15.

5. J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, second edition.

(London: Butterworths, 1979), pp. 222-24.

6. Andre Aciman, “Proust Regained,” New York Review of Books, July 18,

2002, p.58.

7. Rik Pieters and Hans Baumgartner, “Who Talks to Whom? Intra- and

Interdisciplinary Communication of Economics Journals,” Journal of Economic

Literature (June 2002), p. 484.

8. This issue is knowingly discussed by John Komlos in “Interdisciplinary

Approaches to Historical Analysis,” in Peter Karsten and John Modell, editors,

Theory, Method and Practice in Social and Cultural History (New York:

New York University Press, 1992).

9. John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America,

1607-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), pp.


Winifred B. Rothenberg, Associate Professor of Economics at Tufts University,

is the author of From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation

of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century