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Rum and Axes: The Rise of a Connecticut Merchant Family, 1795-1850

Author(s):Siskind, Janet
Reviewer(s):Levy, Barry

Published by EH.NET (August 2002)

Janet Siskind, Rum and Axes: The Rise of a Connecticut Merchant Family,

1795-1850. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. ix + 191 pp. $35

(hardcover), ISBN: 0-8014-3932-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Barry Levy, Department of History, University of

Massachusetts.

In Rum and Axes, Janet Siskind, an associate professor at Rutgers

University, combines the examination of a relatively small body of data with

ambitious conceptualization and purpose. In the family archive of the

Watkinson-Collins family — a clan of rich Dissenters who migrated from East

Anglia to Connecticut in 1795 — Siskind discovers the seed of our current

social and economic malaise.

Once clothiers in England, the Watkinsons took up the West Indian trade in

Middletown, Connecticut and then went into banking and factories. They were

initially won over by New England’s egalitarian culture and even defined

themselves as fellow workers among their neighbors. However, when they took up

factory production, they formed, Siskind argues, a new relationship to work and

workers. Because their identity now depended upon exploiting the very people

they depended upon most, their wage workers, they began distancing themselves

psychologically and ethically from their fellow citizens, breaking the old ties

of the New England community, forming an isolated capitalist class..

At least they did not hide their sins. The Watkinsons helped start two

historical archives in Hartford and gave them their own large collection of

papers, including account books, letter books, and a business memoir that

focuses upon the factory of Watkinson’s nephews, Samuel Watkinson Collins and

David Chittenden Collins. The company manufactured axes, “one of the largest

and most technologically advanced factories in New England in the 1830s and

1840s.” This business-oriented material forms a dramatic story in Siskind’s

hands.

Siskind connects individual psychology and family dynamics with the production

process artfully, often using the texts she is investigating as artifacts. For

example, she bases one chapter on account books devoted to the West Indian

trade. She uses this material less to reconstruct market and labor relations

than to discuss “the powerful discourse of bookkeeping.” She argues that in a

dangerous world double entry bookkeeping provided a language and method of

providing financial and psychological reassurance. The elements of trade became

abstractions that did not bleed on the page. Among other things the

abstractions helped the merchants forget the horrors of slavery and the slave

trade (the labor source of the sugar commodity they traded). In the ledgers,

“the West Indian slaves, like English factory workers,” Siskind notes, “were

nowhere to be found, while the merchants’ ships, symbolically empowered in

their account books, became magical sites where horses were transformed into

rum” (p. 68).

The transplanted Watkinsons mixed well with their coreligionists in New

England. Yet, as Siskind shows, they were surprised by the degree of equality

they found. They defined being “Yankified” as showing a lack of deference. They

had to call those whom they knew to be servants: “help.” The Watkinsons found

labor too expensive in New England to pursue the wool trade or farming. They

became dry good merchants, importers, and investors in the West Indies trade.

In this business, they cooperated with New Englanders at various levels to make

profits. They socialized with the New England elite while treating New

England’s empowered workers with respect.

New England society and New England capitalists were transformed, Siskind

argues, when the Watkinsons and Collins turned to factory production. Siskind

tells the story of the Collins Axe Company and the Collins’s struggle with the

new labor and production system well. The Collins Company section should become

a set piece used by teachers and writers to tell the story of New England

industrialization and its psychological impact on owners and laborers. Collins

first courted skilled labor by becoming a paternalist, creating housing,

schools, and long-term contracts for coveted skilled laborers. Attempting to

gain more control over his labor force, especially under pressure from

investors, he came to champion using Irish laborers as substitutes for

demanding Yankees. He advocated the use of machinery that would make skilled

labor less necessary and powerful. By the 1830s and 1840s the Collins became

aware that many of the workers were dying of silicosis, a lung disease caused

by the particles created by the axe grinding process. Collins dismissed these

deaths as an inevitable byproduct of production and progress. Siskind

characterizes this acceptance as “a shocking and callous statement from a man

who considered himself to be a moral and decent human being.” She concludes

that “the separation of economy from society, workplace from community, and

market from morality had clearly become an internal or psychological reality,

not merely a physical or geographic fact” (p. 118).

Siskind is economically and psychologically astute. Nevertheless, much of her

argument is arguable.

While Siskind offers thoughtful detail and discussion about the construction of

factory capitalism and its unequal power relations between hired laborer and

investor, and its impact on the psychology of entrepreneurs, she merely touches

on the construction of the relative equalities and psychologies that the

Watkinsons’ found upon their arrival in New England in 1795. She explains the

empowerment of the worker as a result of labor scarcities that were natural to

America. In reality, such labor equality and power did not exist in other

American regions where either slavery or immigrant labor dominated. Worker

power grew from careful constructions of New England town and labor systems,

the creation of Puritans. The legal and institutional arrangements that

underlay the New England system were key to its existence. In other words, New

England equality and New England industrial capitalism were equally elaborate

social, cultural, and historical constructions. Siskind harbors a familiar

romantic bias, which deems American equality natural (or to be computerwise:

the default mode) and American capitalism constructed.

With slight variation, her story is a Garden of Eden narrative with the

American landscape playing the garden, corporate manufacturing capitalism

playing the serpent, and Samuel and David Collins playing Adam and Eve. In her

tale, industrial capitalism leads the once connected Collins into temptation,

corruption, and disconnection with humanity and morality, creating the fallen

class-ridden American world in which we struggle. Siskind complicates the tale

by noting that the Watkinson-Collins clan distanced themselves from the slaves

in the West Indies who, if outside the garden geographically, played a major

role in their commercial profits. This seed of psychological denial festered

toxically when the New England entrepreneurs abandoned overseas trade and

discovered manufacturing labor relations and factories at home. Siskind’s

dismissal of New England’s “colonial” labor system explains a number of errors.

She portrays Collins’s final alienation from his workers and work as marked by

his toleration of the existence of silicosis in his factory. Certainly a

horror, silicosis was no worse than the yellow and other tropical fevers that

prematurely killed thousands of New England youth during the heyday of the West

Indian trade. Death, disease, and equality were already associated in New

England minds and in the New England economy. New Englanders of various classes

had already developed distancing techniques to tolerate the profitable deaths

of their husbands, children, and neighbors. New England life did not turn grim

with the factory bell.

Siskind is also wrong when she argues that the “new” philanthropies David

Watkinson developed in the 1850s signaled innovative techniques to “transform a

struggle for control into a reigning capitalist culture that continually

rationalized itself as one of benevolence and morality.” Upper class charity

had hegemonic purposes, to be sure. There were new wrinkles in the asylums and

other institutions Watkinson supported, but these efforts to instill

“industriousness, promptness, responsibility, piety” in outsiders, youth, and

malefactors were updated versions of innovative Puritan philanthropic and

reform strategies that began in mid sixteenth-century England and were long

championed by Puritan elites. They were partly responsible for the hegemony of

New England elites but also for the empowered workers that Watkinson found in

1795. Siskind needs to familiarize herself with the work of Paul Slack and

David Underdown.1 Neither capitalism nor philanthropy nor painful labor

relations were new in 1850.

Although an anthropologist by discipline, Siskind deems the relations of

production the determiners of culture. She disregards the impact of New England

regional culture on the labor systems she describes. In so doing, she ignores

the work of Bruce Laurie and William Hartford who have shown that from 1820 to

1860 New Englanders of all classes debated, considered, and agonized over the

impact of industrial production on their regional culture.2 Discussions of the

dignity of work and the worker, leading to the development of the Republican

Party and anti-slavery fervor, were discussed passionately in New England

newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s. The distancing from, and denial of, labor

and class issues may refer accurately to ourselves and our world, but not to

the historical actors Siskind discusses. For all their mistakes they had their

eyes wide open and they did fight a war to end slavery.

Notes: 1. Paul Slack, From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in

Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999) and Poverty and

Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (New York: Longman, 1988). David

Underdown, Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth

Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

2. William F. Hartford, Money, Morals, and Politics: Massachusetts in the

Age of the Boston Associates (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001);

Bruce Laurie, “The ‘Fair Field’ of the ‘Middle Ground': Abolitionism, Labor

Reform, and the Making of an Antislavery Block in Antebellum Massachusetts,” in

Labor Histories: Class, Politics, and the Working-Class Experience,

edited by Eric Arnesen et al (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998),

45-70.

Barry Levy is the author of Quakers and the American Family (New York:

Oxford University Press, 1988) and “Girls and Boys: Poor Children and the Labor

Market in Colonial Massachusetts,” Pennsylvania History, 64 (summer

1997), 287-307. He is currently writing a book, New England Puritans and the

Origins of American Equality, 1620-1820, dealing with the construction of a

relatively egalitarian European society in early America.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century