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The Soul’s Economy: Market and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920

Author(s):Sklansky, Jeffrey
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Jeffrey Sklansky, The Soul’s Economy: Market and Selfhood in American

Thought, 1820-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

xiii + 313 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2725-8; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest


Jeffrey Sklansky traces the ideas of seventeen nineteenth-century American

intellectuals as they rethought the nature of society and of the individual in

society (see listing at end of review.) He argues that this rethinking was

prompted by nineteenth-century changes in the American economy. The

Revolutionary era’s “republican” thought had assumed an autonomous individual

as the locus of economic productivity, buttressed by a wide dispersion of

ownership of productive wealth. Such an individual pursued economic interests

through contracts; society was constructed on this model (p. 5). This, of

course, paralleled the axioms of classical economics, which became the implicit

target of the intellectuals Sklansky covers.

Sklansky pictures an ever-growing dissonance between nineteenth-century

economic reality and the republican model as “manufacturers and planters laid

claim to the mantle of the autonomous individual as they consolidated control

over land, labor and capital” (p.6). According to Sklansky, the intellectuals

he writes about restated the meaning of individuality and society to conform to

this new reality, and in some measure validate it, while preserving the

terminology of the old era. For example, they “championed free will. But they

redirected willpower away from controlling labor and property, toward

controlling belief and habit instead” (p. 8). Another element common to almost

all seventeen thinkers is the interpretation of concepts once taken as

objective reality (e.g., physical property, natural law, natural prices based

on labor input) in subjective directions (e.g., intellectual property,

internalized cultural mores, or prices reflecting marginal utility). This

reconceptualization, along with others, allowed the emerging concentrated

economy to proceed with an intellectual framework to validate it, a framework

not otherwise supplied by the thought of the Revolutionary era. Sklansky is

clear that this framework had its blind spots, that its fruits were not all

good, and that it may have simply postponed the facing of some issues.

Sklansky’s book is the result of many years’ acquaintance with his subjects’

writings. It is obvious that he is thoroughly familiar with their writings and

with the nuances of their thought. Nevertheless, this reviewer would suggest

that the reader keep four caveats in mind.

First, in order to sharpen the difference between the ideas of his

nineteenth-century subjects and the Revolutionary-Enlightenment era, Sklansky

may exaggerate differences. For instance, he speaks in one place of “the

momentous shift of the center of economic analysis [in the late Enlightenment]

from the realm of production to the realm of exchange [in his subjects’

thought]” (p. 123). However, one does not find such an exclusive emphasis on

production in Adam Smith, who essentially defines economic analysis of the

earlier period. Very early in The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter

II), Smith famously argued that the full advantages of the division of labor

resulted from the human “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for

another.” Thus, Smith hardly pushed exchange to the periphery of economics.

Second, having perhaps sharpened differences too much in order to create his

thesis, Sklansky tries too hard to make his thinkers fit the pattern he has

established. I am familiar enough with Henry George to be uncomfortable with

Sklansky’s conclusion on George. According to Sklansky, Henry George “defined

the bountiful social force of market society in the terms not of political

economy but of modern sociology and psychology … not in terms of ownership of

resources but in terms of participation in a mainstream of guiding desires and

compelling social norms” (p. 135).

This description hardly describes George’s core analysis, which relied on

statements more like the following: “the denser the population the more minute

the subdivision of labor, the greater the economies of production and

distribution” (Progress and Poverty, Book III, chapter I). This quote

does not sound like psychology or sociology, but traditional political economy.

As well, there is little about “guiding desires and compelling social norms”

when George writes of urban land (which is the crux of the matter for him). He

writes “[To] labor expended in the subdivided branches of production, which

require proximity to other producers … [urban land] will yield much larger

returns [than in agriculture]” (Progress and Poverty, Book IV, Chapter

II). Not only does this not sound like psychology or sociology, but it is

typical of the technical, economic analysis that is central to George’s answer

to the question: how does progress produce poverty? George’s emphasis was

strongly on the productive process (he contributed early notions of scale and

agglomeration economies); on factors of production and their ownership (which

the single tax was to remedy); and on the staples of classical political

economy such as rent theory and the division of labor. Sklansky mars an

otherwise insightful summary of George by extrapolating to a conclusion that

lands too far from the original Henry George.

Third, it is fair enough for Sklansky to define a loose school of thought and

to concentrate on members of that school. However, given that this school

presumably arose in response to an intellectual crisis, Sklansky probably owes

his readers some check on whether other American intellectuals were aware of

this crisis. For example, Francis Wayland (not one of Sklansky’s subjects) in

the 1830s authored major texts on moral philosophy and political economy that

were to become the standards in American colleges. In them, Wayland promulgated

an economics that showed no discomfort with Enlightenment individualism,

property rights based on natural law, laissez-faire, competitive markets and

minimalist government. And he did this while replacing Malthusian pessimism

with an American optimism based on belief in technological and scientific

progress in the realm of production. Judging from the popularity and durability

of Wayland’s writings in American colleges, nineteenth-century economic changes

produced no intellectual crisis in the minds of many.

Fourth, in the nature of his case, Sklansky presents his school of thought in

contrast to what went before. Yet, at least some of the ideas of his subjects

simply restated longstanding themes in American thought. For example, several

of the ideas of Congregationalist theologian Horace Bushnell, as summarized by

Sklansky, hardly were new; and because they were not new, they can hardly be

viewed as a response to the changing economics of America. Played against

Enlightenment rationalism, Bushnell’s emphasis on faith as subjective

experience rather than as assent to the objective truth of doctrines might seem

new. However, a good hundred years before Bushnell, the Methodist John Wesley

and Moravians in Europe and America emphasized religion of the heart.

Similarly, evangelical revivalism (from as early as Jonathan Edwards) surely

was an effort to reach the heart of the listener — if not in ways Bushnell

would have approved.

Sklansky concludes, accurately I think, that Bushnell’s emphasis on the

formation of a child’s character by its family surely was a “model of social

life in which proprietary autonomy had no place, in which indeed dependence

formed the organizing principle [contrary to the republican model]” (p. 59).

True enough; but as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, Cotton

Mather implied a role for parents in shaping their children.

These caveats aside, I believe Sklansky has provided essays that catch much of

the character of the thought of these nineteenth-century American

intellectuals. I base this on familiarity with the writings of some of his

subjects — admittedly not all. Even when Sklansky goes beyond summarizing his

subjects’ ideas, his thesis — subject to the caveats above — has merit. I

draw that conclusion, in part, from my acquaintance with some of the writings

of Horace Mann, the pioneer in public education. Although Sklansky does not

include Mann among his seventeen, Mann reacted in much the way Sklansky’s

subjects reacted to the conflict between nineteenth-century realities and

Revolutionary era philosophy. In Mann’s terminology, the autonomous

individualists who resisted paying education taxes were essentially

irresponsible moral “hermits.” He had a clear vision of the socialization of

children by culture; he claimed that society collectively owed a debt to its

children. He defined producers as the beneficiaries of hundreds of generations’

worth of accumulation of capital and knowledge, not as autonomous

wealth-creators. A main focus of Mann’s educational scheme was to create

workers disciplined for the emerging industrial America; as others in

Sklansky’s book did, Mann had turned his back on the Revolutionary era’s model

of small, autonomous producers who owned their own productive capital. This is

to say that Sklansky’s thesis seems generally consistent with other things I

know about the thought of that era.

Sklansky’s book covers the following thinkers: R. W. Emerson, Horace Bushnell,

Margaret Fuller in chapter 2; Henry C. Carey, George Fitzhugh and Henry Hughes

in chapter 3; William Graham Sumner and Henry George in chapter 4; William

James, John Dewey, and G. Stanley Hall in chapter 5; Simon Pattten, Thorstein

Veblen, Lester Ward and Edward Ross in chapter 6; Thomas and Charles Cooley in

chapter 7.

Donald Frey is author of “Francis Wayland’s 1830s Textbooks: Evangelical Ethics

and Political Economy,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, June


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII