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The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions

Author(s):Matson, Cathy
Reviewer(s):Ryden, David B.

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

Cathy Matson, editor, The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. viii + 380 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-271-02711-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David B. Ryden, Department of History, University of Houston-Downtown.

In her lengthy overview of the intersection between economics and the field of history, Cathy Matson leads us to the conclusion that the New Economic history is all but fizzled out in Early American studies. Seventeenth and eighteenth century data are simply too thin to solve long-running regional income debates; to evaluate theories on economic growth (i.e. the staples model); or to conclude whether the colonials and early nationals were capitalists, proto-capitalists, or anti-capitalists. Furthermore, the cliometric approach has been unable to keep up with the non-quantifiable questions pursued by linguistic and cultural theorists. The point of this book, then, is to showcase new approaches that attempt to reframe social and cultural history into the field of economic history. While some economists might be initially suspicious of this agenda, it appears that the book is written for historians, with the hopes of persuading them to be more receptive to adopt economic themes in their research.

Eleven out of the twelve contributions to this volume were delivered at the inaugural Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES) Conference, in April 2001. As the subtitle suggests, this collection of essays is all about taking stock of the field and divining “new directions.” Much of the book is therefore historiographic and Matson has chosen John McCusker and Russell Menard’s The Economy of British America (1985) as a reference point (for full disclosure, Rus Menard was my graduate school advisor). Both Matson’s general survey and David Hancock’s “Rethinking The Economy of British America” mark the publication of the McCusker and Menard synthesis as a breaking point for the economic approach to colonial history. The problem with McCusker and Menard’s volume, according to Hancock, was that it “seem[ed]” (1) “to close more doors than it opens,” (2) “to be too ‘economic’ in its orientation” and (3) “to be insufficiently connected to historian’s emerging interest in cultural studies.” Thus, fashion and the apparent certitude of the conclusion mapped by McCusker and Menard cemented in many minds (particularly that of younger historians) that there are no longer exciting colonial-era avenues for statistical research. Echoing Matson’s call to fit more scholarship under the economic-history umbrella, Hancock laments the fact that cultural histories are absolutely bereft of economic history, calling this development to be just plain “weird.” While he doesn’t hold out high hopes for a resurgence of the statistical studies championed by McCusker and Menard, he sees the “boundaries of political-economic history … waiting to be pushed.”

The interloping contributors to this volume are Lorena Walsh and Russell Menard himself. In her review essay on recent trends in the demographic history of British America, Walsh sees continuity between the quantitative history of the 1970s through today. She points to the relatively recent migration studies by David Eltis and P.M.G. Harris. Added to these macro-studies are the quantitative regional work by Billy Smith, Daniel Vickers, and R.C. Nash. But Walsh emphasizes that there is still more statistical work to be done. She sees the greatest need in the areas of slave demography, material culture, and consumption patterns. Even the conclusions of The Economy of British America are suggested to be worth revisiting, for the “often tentative synthesis of the state of the art in 1985″ became “far more concrete and enduring … than the authors [McCusker and Menard] ever intended.” In the final sentence of her paper, Walsh’s uncompromising position is loud and clear: she proclaims the urgent need for senior researchers, such as those listed above, to “persuade younger scholars to roll up their sleeves and get on with the important tasks remaining” in the field of economic and quantitative history.

Walsh briefly complies with the volume’s theme when she notes that material-culture topics offer the best opportunity for a dialogue between economists and those operating within the cultural approach. Menard’s chapter, on the other hand, ignores the book’s agenda altogether. Rather, his paper follows through with the same neoclassical themes he laid out with his coauthor in 1985. This time, however, Menard uses the opportunity to survey recent findings on colonial agricultural production in order to hammer away at Peter Mancall and Thomas Weiss’s contention that there was no colonial economic growth (1999). Menard coins the phrase “Mestizo agriculture” to catalogue a long list of on-the-spot farm innovations that integrated skills and methods from Europe, America, and Africa. For Menard, the widespread advances in productivity provide sufficient evidence that there were at least modest gains in real income.

With the exception of Christopher Tomlin’s summary of colonial servant migration and Brooke Hunter’s impressive research on the economic impact of the Hessian-fly infestation, the remaining chapters are indeed significantly different from the approach laid out by McCusker and Menard. These pieces are working within an entirely different historiographical framework, dealing with more political and social issues of the late colonial, early national, and Jacksonian periods. A repeated theme in these chapters is the debate over how Americans felt about the “Market Revolution” during the early nineteenth century. As mentioned in the book’s preface, there is not a consensus on many points, including this one. Seth Rockman, for example, emphasizes the exploitation that was at the heart of the “Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” while Donna Rilling’s study of Philadelphia entrepreneurs focuses on a group that directly benefited from market integration during the early national period. Because this debate over attitudes toward the market is so prominent in these essays, it is no surprise that political economy reverberates throughout the second half of this volume.

Every essay included in this book is insightful and offers solid documentation on the current state of the field. Its fundamental limitation, however, is in its narrow geographic scope. Each author fits his or her work within the literature of United States history, but there is a marked concentration on Pennsylvania subjects. This is no surprise, given that the PEAES is located at the Library Company in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, with the rise in “Atlantic history” since the publication of The Economy of British America, one might expect that trade and mercantile connections would figure more prominently. Attitudes towards consumption of foreign goods and imperial restrictions on British West Indian commerce are mentioned several times, but never explored deeply by any of the contributors. This complaint, however, should not distract from the book’s contributions. Matson’s seventy page “Thoughts on the Field of Economic History” is a powerful introduction to the intersection of the two disciplines, while each individual essay offers an impressive survey of the literature. Economists and historians interested in early America will find this provocative collection to be a worthwhile read that might motivate them to challenge or endorse the PEAES-school approach.

Table of Contents:

Preface
1 A House of Many Mansions: Some Thoughts on the Field of Economic History by Cathy Matson
2 Rethinking the Economy of British America by David Hancock
3 Colonial America’s Mestizo Agriculture by Russell R. Menard
4 Peopling, Producing, and Consuming in Early British America by Lorena S. Walsh
5 Indentured Servitude in Perspective: European Migration into North America and the Composition of the Early American Labor Force, 1600/1775 by Christopher Tomlins
6 Capitalism, Slavery, and Benjamin Franklin’s American Revolution by David Waldstreicher
7 Moneyless in Pennsylvania: Privatization and the Depression of the 1780s by Terry Bouton
8 Creative Destruction: The Forgotten Legacy of the Hessian Fly by Brooke Hunter
9 The Panic of 1819 and the Political Economy of Sectionalism by Daniel S. Dupre
10 Toward a Social History of the Corporation: Shareholding in Pennsylvania, 1800/1840 by John Majewski
11 Small-Producer Capitalism in Early National Philadelphia by Donna J. Rilling
12 The Unfree Origins of America Capitalism by Seth Rockman

David B. Ryden is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown. His research focuses on the economy of British America. Most recently, he coauthored (with Russell R. Menard) “South Carolina’s Colonial Land Market: An Analysis of Rural Property Sales, 1720-1775,” Social Science History (2005). He is presently completing a book manuscript on the West India lobby and the abolition of the British slave trade.

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