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Tales of Two Cities: Race and Economic Culture in Early Republican North and South America

Author(s):Townsend, Camilla
Reviewer(s):Crothers, A. Glenn

Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Camilla Townsend, Tales of Two Cities: Race and Economic Culture in Early

Republican North and South America. Austin: University of Texas Press,

2000. xxiv + 320 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-292-78167-9; $19.95 (paper),

ISBN: 0-292-78169-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by A. Glenn Crothers, Department of History, Indiana

University Southeast.

In 1997 Peter Temin asked economic historians, “Is it kosher to talk about

culture?” and answered his own question with an emphatic affirmative.

“Economic institutions,” he wrote, “are creatures of our culture”; thus

economic historians “should include [culture] within the view of our studies”

(Temin, 268, 282). In Tales of Two Cities, Camilla Townsend, Assistant

Professor of History at Colgate University, could not agree more. Indeed, she

argues that culture — by which she means “a constantly contested and

gradually shifting terrain that . . . ultimately consists of humans’

relationships with each other” (p. 4) — is crucial to understanding the

process of economic development and stagnation.

To make her case she compares the “economic culture” of two port cities

between 1820 and 1835, Baltimore, Maryland and Guayaquil, Ecuador. The

comparison makes sense because in the 1820s the cities were structurally

similar: both were mercantile ports dependent on the exports of staples; after

revolutions both experienced a boom period followed by a relative decline;

both were surrounded by an agricultural hinterland; both shared a declining

slave labor economy; and both had limited manufacturing. By comparing the two

ports, Townsend argues, scholars can better understand what was truly

different about the economies of the United States and Latin America in the

nineteenth century and what factors account for their different economic

trajectories. Ultimately, Townsend’s primary concern is to reject the

arguments of those scholars who believe that Latin America’s economic doldrums

can be traced to a culture that devalued work and individual initiative.

Indeed, she finds a place where all classes worked hard to survive and grow

wealthy. In Guayaquil, however, there developed an economic culture that

devalued workers (rather than work), helping to create an exclusionary

society that funneled wealth and economic rewards to a small elite. In

contrast, only a small portion of Baltimore’s population was excluded from the

rewards of economic development. Most of the city’s population conceived of

themselves as citizens, who with hard work could succeed and benefit from the

city’s expanding economy. In both ports race played the key role in

determining who was excluded from citizenship. However, in Guayaquil, where

the great majority of the population were Afro-Indians or mestizos only

recently freed from slavery or the payment of tribute, this meant that most

people failed to benefit from economic growth and had little incentive to

contribute to it. In Baltimore, only the free black and slave populations

–approximately 20 percent of the total — were excluded from the benefits of

citizenship and economic development. For the white population — whether

native-born or immigrant — the city presented a landscape of hope and

opportunity, “a relatively egalitarian world,” (p. 231) even for those

individuals who found themselves in the almshouse.

Townsend delineates the consequences of these two contrasting economic

cultures in some detail. Complementary chapters explore the lives and

decisions of elites, middling sorts, and the poor within each city, revealing

the ways in which their decisions and life chances contributed to and were

shaped by the economic culture of their home. In Baltimore, for example,

employers increasingly favored free labor and paid them relatively high wages,

while in Guayaquil elites consistently favored some form of coerced labor and

paid free laborers less than a living wage. In Baltimore the apprenticeship

system still survived into the 1820s, promising upward mobility for working

men and lessening resort to petty crime; in Guayaquil a craftsman’s assistants

remained assistants and petty crime was rampant. In Baltimore elites and

middling sorts contributed to efforts to improve the city’s infrastructure —

transportation facilities, financial and educational institutions — because

people believed that almost everyone could benefit and the consumer market

was large enough to ensure that such expenditures would pay future dividends.

In Guayaquil, where the poor were systematically excluded from profit-sharing,

elites and the small middling sort failed to support internal improvements or

develop the economic and social infrastructure because the domestic consumer

market was so limited and civic leaders considered the vast majority of the

population inappropriate beneficiaries.

To tell this story Townsend interprets imaginatively a variety of primary

sources — court and municipal records, travel accounts, and personal papers

– painting a vivid picture of the details of daily life in each city. This is

history in which people — from the young Indian girl Ana Yagual to the

wealthy merchant Vincent Ram?n Roca, from the young slave Frederick Bailey

(later Douglass) to the elite merchant’s daughter Lydia Hollingsworth — are

at the forefront of the story, not hidden by social forces and economic

trends. All of this is to be commended.

However, this is also a book that will frustrate historians looking for a

clear sense of causation. What, in the end, was the source of the differing

economic cultures of Guayaquil and Baltimore? Why did elites in the South

American city denigrate the social standing of the vast majority of population

while Baltimore’s elite increasingly accepted the white population as social

and political equals? Townsend argues that these cultural differences lay

“buried in the past,” (p. 47) and to seek answers she provides a brief history

of each place. In Guayaquil the Spanish created a system based on the

exploitation of indigenous labor, in which a small white elite prospered at

the expense of tribute-paying Indians and enslaved Africans. Even independence

from Spain, achieved in 1820, did not end “the custom . . . that the many

should work toward the profit of the few” (p. 65). In contrast, in the English

colonies of the Chesapeake a substantial population of land-owning yeomen

farmers thrived and prospered, despite the rise of slavery in the

late-seventeenth century. The American Revolution and Napoleonic wars opened

new economic opportunities and new markets for Baltimore residents and

enshrined “the idea that relative equality in wealth distribution was an

antidote to political tyranny (p. 133).” In short, the history of each place

created a distinctive economic culture that remained relatively fixed over

time.

Thus, despite Townsend’s assertions that culture is a constantly evolving

entity, the reader is left instead with a rather inert concept of economic

culture. Changing political and economic conditions — for example, the effect

of revolution and war, the impact of British and American merchants on the

economy of Guayaquil, the declining importance of slavery in Baltimore, the

impact of capital development and changing overseas markets — remain largely

unexplored as Townsend consistently argues that the economic cultures of each

place — first forged in the early years of settlement — best explain their

dramatically different patterns of growth. Undoubtedly she is correct; culture

does indeed shape economic institutions and structures. In the end, however,

Townsend seems only to have replaced one unsatisfying cultural explanation

with a second intriguing, but ultimately static cultural analysis. The study

of culture in economic history may be kosher, but such studies must also

account for the ways in which changing economic, social and political

conditions shape culture.

Reference: Peter Temin, “Is it Kosher to Talk about Culture?” Journal of

Economic History 57 (June 1997).

Glenn Crothers is an assistant professor of history at Indiana University

Southeast. His research explores the question of economic development within

the slave economies of the antebellum American South. He has published

articles in the Business History Review and Agricultural History

and is presently revising his manuscript, “The Projecting Spirit: Economic,

Social and Cultural Change in Post-Revolutionary Northern Virginia.”

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