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American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-bellum Economy

Author(s):Fishlow, Albert
Reviewer(s):Majewski, John

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Albert Fishlow, American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-bellum Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965. xv + 452 pp.

Review Essay by John Majewski, Department of History, University of California – Santa Barbara.

Albert Fishlow and the Road to the New Economic History

Albert Fishlow’s 1965 book, American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-bellum Economy, received widespread praise when it was initially reviewed. Jeffrey Williamson considered it “as the ripest fruit thus far to come from the vineyard of the new economic historian.”[1] Stuart Bruchey similarly ranked American Railroads as “the finest product of the ‘new’ economic history.”[2] Fishlow’s impressive evidentiary base and his carefully drawn conclusions have made American Railroads an enduring classic that is still cited today. There is more to the story of American Railroads, though, than that of well-crafted scholarly work. The book’s forty-year career is a window from which one can glimpse the transition from the “Old Economic History” to the “New Economic History.”

American Railroads is Fishlow’s award-winning Harvard dissertation written under the supervision of Alexander Gerschenkron. Fishlow’s project was, to say the least, ambitious for a graduate student: he wanted to systematically evaluate the impact of railroads on the antebellum economy. Fishlow started by calculating the social savings of railroads, which can be roughly defined as the railroad’s reduction in freight and passenger rates over the next best alternative. Calculating the social savings of antebellum railroads, given the period’s uneven statistical sources, presented Fishlow with an immense challenge. His statistical appendices, which totaled more than 150 pages, indicate how rigorously he tackled the problem. The quantitative element of American Railroads reflected the rise of the New Economic History, which was transforming their field through the use of formal models and sophisticated statistical techniques. Gerschenkron, in fact, also served as mentor for Paul David and Peter Temin, two other distinguished contributors to the New Economic History.[3]

Fishlow’s conclusions, though, differed significantly from those of Robert Fogel, often considered the leading figure of the cliometrics revolution. Fogel famously argued that railroads made a relatively small contribution to U.S. economic growth in 1890. Fishlow, on the other hand, estimated the social savings of railroads in 1859 was 4 percent of GNP. Extrapolating to 1890, Fishlow calculated, produced social savings of least 15 percent of GNP, far higher than Fogel’s estimate of 5 percent. The key difference rested on the way each defined social savings. Fishlow estimated the social savings by comparing railroads to actual alternatives available in the antebellum period. Fogel, on the other hand, calculated the social savings of railroads to a vast system of improved roads and canals that nineteenth-century Americans might have built in the absence of railroads. Fogel, in essence, compared railroads to an economy that did not exist. What William R. Summerhill calls “Fishlovian” and “Fogelian” counterfactuals have different strengths and weaknesses.[4] Fishlow’s method generally results in upper-bound estimates of social savings, but avoids what Fishlow called “[t]he inherent difficulties of measuring what never occurred” (p. 58).

If Fishlow and Fogel philosophically disagreed over the nature of social savings, their work nevertheless had much in common. Both criticized W. W. Rostow, who claimed that antebellum railroads constituted a “leading sector” that induced widespread industrialization via backward linkages to coal, iron, and machinery. Such bold claims, in fact, initially sparked Fishlow’s interest in railroads, and his book provides a devastating critique. Fishlow shows, for example, that most locomotives in the antebellum period burned wood, which meant that railroads used a surprisingly little coal. As for iron, Fishlow demonstrates that railroads accounted for only 20 percent of net consumption in the 1850s. Twenty percent was certainly significant, as Fishlow notes, but hardly revolutionary. Nor did railroads single handily create the machinery industry. Fishlow argues that the production of locomotives created “no strategic breakthroughs” in steam engine design and production (p. 152). Steamboats, in fact, demanded far more in the way of large, sophisticated engines.

In Fishlow’s account, Midwestern farmers and agricultural processing industries (such as flour milling) benefited the most from railroads. Railroads led to the creation of new farms and the growth of towns and cities that could market and process the growing surplus of grains, hogs, and cattle. Fishlow persuasively argued that these railroads were not built ahead of demand. Midwestern railroads, in fact, ran through densely populated areas, which intensified development in locales best suited for commercial agriculture. Almost from the very beginning, these railroads made substantial profits, which one would not expect from developmental enterprises built ahead of demand. Private capital markets (with occasional help from local governments) financed most Midwestern railroads, thus confirming that investors expected these companies to make money sooner rather than later.

Fishlow’s argument has important implications for understanding the relationship between government policy and economic development. Since antebellum railroads generally made money, investment from the national or state governments was not important. To the extent it occurred at all, government investment led “to excess and wasteful construction” (p. 310). The U. S. case showed that investment in railroads — an example of “social overhead capital” — produced high social rate of returns, but only in the context of a vibrant market economy. Fishlow presciently warned that underdeveloped nations — especially those “wracked with large and unproductive agricultural sectors, illiteracy, concentrations of wealth, frequently wasteful government intervention” — should avoid mechanistically investing in “social overhead capital” to magically replicate the U. S. experience (p. 311). The generally poor record of large-scale infrastructure projects in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America underscores the salience of Fishlow’s point.[5]

Fishlow’s conclusion foreshadowed a shift in his research to contemporary development issues, where he often focused on Brazil and other Latin American nations. The influence of American Railroads, not surprisingly, subtly waned. The comparison with Fogel’s Railroads and American Economic Growth is instructive. Whereas Fishlow’s book remained an expensive hardback, Fogel’s book was published in paper, suggesting a wider readership in undergraduate courses and graduate seminars. Fogel, of course, never shied away from debate and controversy. His 1979 article “Notes on the Social Saving Controversy” — which defended his previous arguments with new evidence and new models — effectively gave him the last word in the debate.

That Fogel’s book received more sustained attention than Fishlow’s attests to its greater appeal to up-and-coming cliometricians. Fogel formally modeled his conception of social savings. Equations fill entire pages of Railroads and American Economic Growth, and even the book’s subtitle, Essays in Econometric History, has a strong cliometric flavor. Fishlow, on the other, eschewed formal models expressed as algebraic equations. Instead of running regressions, Fishlow presented most of his statistical evidence in descriptive tables. As D. McCloskey has argued, Fogel’s provocative rhetorical approach — which combined the confrontational approach of a courtroom lawyer with the technical apparatus of a cutting-edge scientist — appealed to new generation of economic historians.[6]

One might think that the practitioners of the old economic history would embrace Fishlow’s work as a more conservative alternative to Fogel’s aggressive counterfactual models. Alfred Chandler, for one, certainly found Fishlow’s approach more compatible with own view that railroads fundamentally transformed the American economy. Many other traditional economic historians, though, criticized Fishlow’s conclusions. Carter Goodrich, in particular, believed that Fishlow had underestimated the importance of government action. Goodrich considered himself part of the “American System” synthesis that stressed the importance of government investment in the early American economy. Goodrich seriously questioned few of Fishlow’s specific findings, but argued that the broader history of internal improvements — whether the canals of the Early Republic or the transcontinental railroads of the Gilded Age — showed the necessity of government investment.[7] Goodrich’s critique subtly changed the question from the role of railroads in the antebellum period to the role of government in the nineteenth century economy. That, of course, is a far different question than Fishlow asked, and one that has still not been fully answered to this day. If Goodrich’s critique did not undermine Fishlow’s evidence or analysis, it highlighted the profound differences between cliometricians and those using more traditional historical methods. Politics, ideology, and culture — not counterfactuals and social savings — most interested Goodrich and his intellectual heirs.

Here, then, is the bittersweet career of American Railroads. Fishlow’s impressive scholarship was not quite econometric enough to hold the attention of economists, yet proved too statistical to appeal to the more traditional economists and historians. One might interpret the fate of American Railroads as a cautionary tale of the troubles that befall interdisciplinary scholarship in an age of specialization. Such a dire assessment is unwarranted. Fogel may have grabbed the headlines, but Fishlow’s careful analysis and extensive research have provided scholars with a treasure trove of hard-earned knowledge. That Fishlow’s book is included in this series testifies to its significance. In his preface to American Railroads, Fishlow apologized (in 1965!) for writing yet another book about railroads. Future generations will certainly acknowledge their debt to Fishlow’s work as they write their own histories of railroads and government policy.

Notes:

1. Jeffrey G. Williamson, Economic History Review, (April 1967): 196.

2. Stuart Bruchey, American Historical Review, (April 1967): 1098.

3. For more details on Gerschenkron’s Harvard workshop, see Eugene N. White’s interview of Fishlow in Samuel H. Williamson, John S. Lyons, and Louis P. Cain (eds.), Reflections on the Cliometric Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians (forthcoming, 2006).

4. William R. Summerhill, Order against Progress: Government, Foreign Investment, and Railroads in Brazil, 1854-1913 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 215-16.

5. William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 25-44.

6. D. N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 113-137.

7. Carter Goodrich, “Internal Improvements Reconsidered,” Journal of Economic History, (June 1970): 289-311.

John Majewski is an associate professor in the history department at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and is currently writing a book on the political economy of Confederate secessionists. He thanks John Lyons and Robert Whaples for their helpful comments on this review.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-term Economic Growth

Author(s):Lipsey, Richard G.
Carlaw, Kenneth I.
Bekar, Clifford T.
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.NET (August 2006)

Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, and Clifford T. Bekar, Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-term Economic Growth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xxi + 595 pp. $45 (paperback), ISBN: 0-19-929089-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University.

Richard G. Lipsey is one of the most distinguished general-purpose economists of his generation. This reviewer used his introductory textbook as an undergraduate, and in graduate school read many of his path-breaking papers in monetary theory, international trade, and industrial organization. Later in life Lipsey seems to have discovered his true love, namely Big-think economic history, and as if to make up for the time spent doing other things, has summarized his thoughts and ideas in a large, ambitious, sprawling book coauthored with two of his former graduate students. With apologies, this review partly subsumes them under the Lipsey name.

The book is hard to summarize because it is unusually rich and diverse. It contains long discussions of technological change, its nature, sources, and consequences. Lipsey maintains that technology is at the heart of modern economic growth and asks — once again — what the sources of Western success are. Among other things, the book also treats at length the economics of technological change, the history of science, and population dynamics. It is part grand synthesis, part textbook, part statement of the author’s idiosyncratic views, and throughout an excellent read — informed, curious, unafraid of being unconventional or politically incorrect. The book reflects both the unfailing deep economic intuition and the intellectual curiosity that are the hallmarks of Lipsey’s scholarly persona. Dick Lipsey, it might be said, has never met a black box he has not demanded be opened. With his coauthors, he makes a valiant attempt to do so in this book and offers us many brilliant new formulations.

Lipsey joins a large number of economists who, when thinking about the long run, feel that evolutionary models are more appropriate than standard neoclassical ones. No more than anyone before do the authors propose a satisfactory evolutionary model of technological progress that will explain all of history. Instead, they tell a theoretically informed tale that will join the growing literature on the topic of long-term growth, based on a number of interesting, if not wholly new, points of view on modern economic growth.

Arguably, this big volume contains at least two substantive books. One of them is about General Purpose Technologies (GPT), a theme that briefly rose to prominence a decade ago in the literature of the economics of technological change (of which Lipsey was one pioneer). The second is the “Rise of the West” and the beginning of sustained economic growth in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If there is a connection between the two, however, this book does not stress it. GPT’s, it asserts, were not the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution, and the only GPT we can associate with the period 1760-1830, steam power, was a relatively minor factor in the Industrial Revolution. The absence of a direct link between the emergence of GPT’s and the book’s theories about the rise of the West reduces the coherence of this volume a bit, but does not diminish its ?lan.

Some will argue that GPT is just another name for events and phenomena we have always known about. The term does not, as the authors are the first to admit, constitute a theory. A GPT is in fact a technique that is complementary with a lot of other techniques. How many is a lot the reader must decide, and the nature of the complementarity is left a bit mysterious. A screw, one would think, is complementary to almost any mechanical construct one can think of, but the screw is not included in their list of GPT’s. Ships, on the other hand, are. As the authors argue, ships may seem to have only one use (to move objects from A to B) but they qualify as GPT’s, as do automobiles, because they can be used to transport almost anything and are thus complementary to nearly any other technique. The same is true for printing, presumably on the argument that almost any kind of information can be printed. But this seems somehow different from, say, electrical power or microprocessors, which are a direct input into the production of many other goods (whereas the printing press only reproduces information). Internal combustion engines do seem rather obvious GPT’s, but ships and printing presses only produce one final output, even if that has multiple uses. If the engine and the wheel are GPT’s, why not the ball-bearing, the pulley, the lever etc? The confusion between multiple-use inputs and multiple-use outputs weakens an otherwise tight and informed analysis. At the same time the idea of “factory production,” which they classify as an organizational GPT, may seem a bit too vague to qualify for GPT status. Is “factory production” a technique?

The interesting conceptual ?innovation proposed here is to differentiate GPT’s from what the authors call General Purpose Principles (GPP’s) which are not embodied in a specific technique. Thermodynamics or Galilean mechanics qualify as such GPP’s and they form the basis of much subsequent technological advance, though the connection is not always fully explicated. Here the authors might have found some use for the distinction proposed by this reviewer between prescriptive knowledge (which would include GPT’s) and propositional knowledge (GPP’s). Furthermore, the authors feel (pp. 189-90) that mechanization should also count as a GPP. This is something on which reasonable people could differ.

Such squabbles are inevitable, and the authors are wise to argue that the definitions are less important than the use to which they are put. At many junctures this reviewer found the categories and terms helpful and enlightening. Thus, the book vastly enriches the concept of macro-inventions by pointing out that there are two kind of “radical” inventions, what they call use-radical and technology-radical. The printing press was use-radical: it relied on principles and ideas that had been around and recombined them to produce an output in a way very different from previous techniques. The minting of coins, for example, was one of its identifiable ancestors. Technology-radical inventions produce a technology that has no obvious parents and is based on entirely new principles and components (such as mechanical clocks, hot-air ballooning, smallpox vaccination, or x-rays). The authors also point out that the importance of a GPT should not be measured just by its contemporaneous effect on productivity. Many of its applications can lie far in the future, and it might be important even without many externalities. The distinction between a positive externality (which is a “free lunch”) and a spillover effect (which involves the application of the GPT in another use) is one of the many important insights in this book, and the authors apply it well to their historical case studies. Electrical power is not an “externality” in the sense that its users pay for its use, but it has endless spillover effects, producing huge producer and consumer surpluses by making other techniques possible altogether, which, they maintain, is quite different than the standard treatment of complementarities.

The middle part of the book is devoted the question why the Industrial Revolution and modern growth began in the West and nowhere else. The authors have few doubts or qualms about being “teleological,” “Whiggish,” or “Eurocentric.” For them, the difference between the West and the Rest is that Europe created “modern science” and others did not. They dismiss the possibility that China or Islam could have created something similar or perhaps generated economic growth from a very different kind of science. They proceed to describe the rise of Western Science from its medieval roots and explain its absence in other societies. In so doing they rely heavily on the work of Toby Huff and Margaret Jacob, among others, and describe in considerable detail the special circumstances that led to these events. This reviewer differs with the authors on some of the details, but not on the essence of their message: that the Industrial Revolution without the continuing growth of useful knowledge in the West would have fizzled out and become just another efflorescence. Whether this knowledge was “modern science” or something more complex and subtle needs to be hashed out in more detail in future work.

Much of this account will make as much good sense to economists with an interest in economic history as it will annoy and irritate professional historians of science and technology and China experts who refuse to regard China’s “case” as one of failure and abhor Western “triumphalism.” It would be easy to point to lacunae in the arguments, especially the finer details about the interaction between science and technology in the Industrial Revolution. For the specialist, a sense of puzzlement keeps popping up here and there, especially about the pivotal role the authors attribute to “Newtonian mechanics” in the Industrial Revolution. Institutions matter to growth, in their view, largely because they facilitated the emergence of modern science. Western universities were self-governing semi-autonomous corporations, and the creation of a self-perpetuating but autonomous body of scholars helped create what they call “an institutional memory,” which assured that useful knowledge would be cumulative. There is little in this book that connects economic growth to institutional change as it has figured in the modern theory of growth — the rise of commerce, contract enforcement, the role of government, implicit codes of behavior and social norms, and so on. Technology is everything. Perhaps this is just as well: the book is long enough as it is, and others like it, with greater emphasis on institutions, will doubtlessly be written.

After all, whether one agrees with the main points made this book or not, it and books like it fill a need. The questions it poses so well are too important to be left alone as taboo by post-modern social constructivists. If historians of science and technology consider these issues to be politically incorrect, economists will do the work for them. Scholars in the vein of Dick Lipsey, David Landes, and Nathan Rosenberg will continue to ask “Why the West Grew Rich?” and “Why not Elsewhere?” As Robert Lucas once put it, once you have thought a bit about that question, it is hard to think of anything else.

References:

Helpman, Elhanan, ed. 1998. General Purpose Technologies and Economic Growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Huff, Toby E. 1993. The Rise of Early Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jacob, Margaret C. 1997. Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Landes, David S. 1998. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: W. W. Norton.

Lucas, Robert E. 1988. “On the Mechanics of Economic Development,” Journal of Monetary Economics, Vol. 22, pp. 3-42.

Mokyr, Joel. 2002. The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rosenberg, Nathan and Birdzell, L.E., Jr. 1986. How the West Grew

Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books.

Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University. His The Enlightened Economy will be published by Penguin Books in the near future.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur: The Transformation of Midwestern Agriculture

Author(s):Nordin, Dennis S.
Scott, Roy V.
Reviewer(s):Danbom, David

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott, From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur: The Transformation of Midwestern Agriculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. xvi + 376 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-253-34571-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Danbom, Department of History, North Dakota State University.

The changing nature of Midwestern agriculture is not a fresh topic. It has been addressed frequently over the past quarter century or more, both specifically [1], and as part of larger treatments of change in American agriculture generally.[2] Usually chronicles of agriculture’s evolution — or devolution — express regret that the world of small family farms, close neighborhoods, and one-room schools has passed from the scene.

In From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur, however, Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott take a path less traveled, generally avoiding expressions of nostalgia for traditional farming and regret for agriculture’s relative demographic and economic decline, and praising agriculture’s survivors as sophisticated entrepreneurs.

The origins of this book are noteworthy. Over the course of his long and distinguished career in the Department of History at Mississippi State University, Roy Scott “accumulated an extensive collection … on twentieth-century Midwestern agriculture” (p. xiii), which he hoped to make the basis for a book. Unable to carry out this task alone, he called on Dennis Nordin to serve as co-author. Nordin ended up doing most of the writing.

The authors define the elusive “Midwest” as “states that grow corn” — specifically, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota, along with eastern portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and the western part of Ohio (p. 1). They present the story of change in agriculture and, to a lesser extent, rural life in this region, guided by their thesis that “the 1900s can be considered a century of struggle on North Central farms, a period when a grower either invested wisely and succeeded or squandered opportunities and left the profession” (p. xv).

Most of the book details that struggle and how successful farmers overcame the myriad problems confronting them. Among the topics the authors emphasize are the challenges presented by the environment and the economy, technological change (toward which they take a decidedly whiggish view), shifting government programs (usually discussed in an administration-by-administration manner), and the increasing sophistication of farmers as producers and “entrepreneurs.” By the end of the century, “entrepreneurial agriculture” had triumphed, bringing forth the “Midwestern agricultural miracle, a blessing that continues to provide an ever-growing population of consumers with abundant food at low prices” (pp. 204-05).

The combination of techno-capitalist triumphalism and Social Darwinism within this book will be deeply offensive to many, particularly those with a romantic view of agriculture and rural life. But the main problem with From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur is not the destination so much as the journey. Indeed, readers will find this a deeply flawed book which lacks sophistication and nuance and which does not, in the end, defend its point of view effectively.

Let’s begin with the thesis. Can farmers really be divided into “those who invested wisely and succeeded or squandered opportunities and left the profession?” I would argue that most of those who left agriculture after 1945 were not failures who “squandered opportunities.” Most were commercial producers who saw better ways to deploy their capital or who grew too old to farm and lacked children interested in succeeding them. In my state of North Dakota half of the farm land is owned by out-of-staters, mostly heirs of commercial farmers who “left the profession,” but not because they “squandered opportunities.” In addition to ignoring the complex reasons why some farmers stay while others leave, Nordin and Scott embrace the false notion held in the least-sophisticated precincts of the discipline of agricultural economics that good managers succeed and poor managers fail. Well, poor managers succeed sometimes and good ones don’t. Real life is complicated.

Then there’s the problem of the focus on the Midwest. Even if we accept the definition of the Midwest as “states that grow corn,” we must recognize — as the authors too frequently fail to do — that other states and nations also grow corn, soybeans, beef, and pork. We have to recognize that their production decisions, and the production decisions of those who raise competitive meat animals and/or feed grains, have an impact on the farming economy of the Midwest. And we have to recognize that their experiences with technology, trade, and government agricultural policies are similar to those of the Midwest. The Midwest is unique only if similar places under similar conditions are ignored. Not always, but often, that is the course the authors take.

What is even more disturbing, however, in a book that celebrates farmers’ business sense, is the weak understanding the authors demonstrate of many of the fundamental economic realities of twentieth-century agriculture. Among other errors of commission and omission, the authors show little understanding of the significance of export markets to the well-being of Midwestern agriculture; they confuse increases in production with increases in productivity; they suggest that farm operators were actually harmed by rising farm prices; they fail to recognize how the United States’ new status as the world’s leading creditor after World War I diminished export markets; they seem not to understand that overproduction occurs when consumers are unable or unwilling to consume whatever is produced, regardless of what they consumed previously; they fail to note that the inelasticity of agricultural commodity prices contributes to disproportionate price swings; and they do not recognize the centrality of dollar devaluation in 1971 to the agricultural boom of the ensuing decade. The agricultural economy is complex, and is shaped by numerous forces beyond the ability of “entrepreneurs” to control, regardless of how advanced their management skills may be. Too often that complexity is lost or ignored in this book.

A series of misunderstandings, confusions, and contradictions further mars the book. The authors assume, incorrectly, that tenancy necessarily connotes economic disadvantage or hardship (p. 9). They fall into the farmer’s habit of blaming others (e.g., the government, the banks, and even vegetarians) for agriculture’s troubles. They misunderstand the nature of rural-urban population shifts during the 1930s. They contradict themselves, as when they argue that the Golden Age of Agriculture was and wasn’t. They impart “self-sufficiency’ to Midwestern farms in 1900, when they weren’t, and in 1945, when farmers couldn’t even remember being self-sufficient. And they overstate, as on page 172 when they contend that, after 1945, “farmers placed blind faith in science and technology.” The authors put sixty charts in the book to help make their points. Usually these help, but sometimes they are senseless, pointless, or simply curious. For example, what is a chart on stress in rural life in 1974 doing in a chapter on the 1900-1920 period? And why does a chart on the number of radios on Midwestern farms count the devices only in 1925 and 1927?

Adding to the confusion are infelicitous prose choices. The authors sometimes jump into the future tense, or mix it with the past tense, for no apparent reason. They believe that “distances from farms to … consumers increased as roads … improved” (p. 66). And they argue that hog producers “increasingly stopped” selling animals on open markets (pp. 184-85). Enough said.

Nordin and Scott have a lot of good material here and a valid point to make. Unfortunately, the numerous flaws in From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur prevent them from making a significant contribution to our understanding of agricultural change in the Midwest.

Notes: 1. See, for example, Jane Adams, The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois, 1890-1990 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), and Mary Neth, Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

2. See, for example, David B. Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Hiram M. Drache, History of U.S. Agriculture and Its Relevance to Today (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1996), Gilbert C. Fite, American Farmers: The New Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), R. Douglas Hurt, Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), John T. Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Agriculture, 1609-1972 (Ames: Iowa State University, 1975), and John L. Shover, First Majority, Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976).

David Danbom is professor of history at North Dakota State University. His most recent book is Going It Alone: Fargo Grapples with the Great Depression (2005).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord

Author(s):Donahue, Brian
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred Barr

Published by EH.NET (December 2005)

Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xx + 311 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-09751-4.

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

One bleak day in early spring I saw my neighbor, desperately ill at the time, standing barefoot in his small vegetable garden — not a garden yet, but the soil had been turned over and he was pressing his bare feet deep into the cold, damp clods. “I draw strength from the earth,” he said. One cannot read Brian Donahue’s splendid book without believing that he too — a forester, a shepherd, and a farmer for many years before becoming an academic — draws upon a deeply personal (dare I say spiritual?) bond with the earth and all that grows therein.

Donahue, Associate Professor of Environmental History at Brandeis University, begins his book by inviting us to walk with him around this lovely town, across the fields, over its uplands, through the woods, and down to its two sluggish rivers. As we walk he peels off the layers of time. The first to be removed is Concord Present, then Thoreau’s Concord, then Colonial Concord, then Musketaquid — the Indians’ Concord — until he is down at last to the paleo-geological past that he reads in the floodplains, glacial outwash, glacial till, meltwater ponds, and spongy meadows left behind by the retreating ice. By the end of his book one has learned to accept his ecological determinism: the explanation of much of Concord’s — perhaps of New England’s — history is vouchsafed to the few who, like Donahue, can read this palimpsest.

As we make our way up out of the Ice Age and into the historical past, The Great Meadow becomes a paean to a vanished State of Nature. There is lyric poetry in the prose — “the forest soaked into the look, the feel, and even the flavor of this world — into its shoe leather, cider barrels, huckleberry puddings, and the plain color of its everyday clothes” — but it is not sentimental. The evidentiary base is rock-solid, built upon a meticulous reading of soil analyses, probates, tax valuations, town histories, account books, architectural drawings, biographies, genealogies, GIS three-dimensional mappings, and, above all, land deeds which have been exploited here to the fullest. The careful use of deeds has allowed him to follow the inheriting, buying, selling, partitioning, bequeathing, leasing, improving, and abandoning of the lands of seven of the founding families over a period of close to two hundred years. It is a work of high scholarship. It is not, however, as will be discussed below, a history of colonial Concord. Nor does it claim to be.

The colonists who settled upon this iconic place have fascinated generations of historians. In many respects, colonial Concord and communities like it have been the prism through which early American history has been understood. Puritan discipline, enthusiastic revivals, town government, material culture, paper money, provincial taxation, local exchange, long-distance trade, living standards, credit, debt, Revolution, Shays’ Rebellion, early manufacturing in general and clock-making in particular — these things had all been played out on Concord’s stage, but in Donahue’s book they have only a walk-on role, if any role at all. In terms of the useful categories of Annales historiography, this is histoire structurelle, what Braudel called ‘the stagnant layer of history.’ Events — save for the First and Second Divisions of the common – are barely perceptible here.

And that is as it should be: The Great Meadow tells its story through changes in the land, giving a new meaning to ‘history from the bottom up,’ in which the ‘bottom’ is not the crowd of working poor but the forests, grasses, and plants which Donahue knows by name (and Latin name); the marshes, ponds, streams, and rivers of which he knows the rhythms of ebb and flow; the rocks and ungenerous soil of pulverized granite which broke as many hearts as plowshares. Above all, Concord’s agriculture was ‘bottom’d’ on its meadows until well into the nineteenth century.

Between 1786 and 1801, county tax rates on meadow rose 32 percent to become the most highly taxed land use, while the tax rate on tillage acres fell 14 percent. When I first stumbled upon these numbers in my own research I interpreted the relative downgrading of tillage in tax valuations as evidence of the retreat of grain agriculture in Massachusetts. But Donahue tells us that the switch from grains to hay, from tillage to meadow did not signal a retreat. Meadow was the bedrock of soil fertility in Concord. Because crop rotation was not practiced in Concord, nor were nitrogen-fixing clover and turnips used to restore the fertility of the fragile soil, it depended upon manure which in turn depended upon the quality of meadow hay that maintained it. Additional nutrients leaking from higher up in the system were carried by the waterways that ran through and alongside spongy lowland meadows, including effluent from barnyards and runoff drained from the ditches that had been laid out to run downhill between strips in the common-fields. In this profoundly circular process, cattle, horses, and sheep, as producers of manure, were stabled early against the winters, requiring two to three times more hay than English livestock. The entire ecology of Concord’s agriculture was oriented, to a much greater extent than in England, around the preservation of meadows.

The early winter cold forced another adaptation that seriously undermined the commons idea. ‘Common of shack’ — the practice of letting the cattle and sheep onto harvested fields to forage on the rowen and the gleanings and at the same time to manure the soil — had been central to the regulation and control of open fields in England, for it imposed the requirement that all cottagers with strips in the arable must plant and harvest the same crop at the same time so that all cattle could enter upon the planting fields on the same day. But in New England the early arrival of cold weather forced the cattle indoors and put an end to the practice.

Winter was only one in a series of challenges that precipitated the Second Division of the undivided common in 1653, only seventeen years after first settlement. The cut-off of Puritan immigration in 1642 had interrupted the inflow of labor, capital, and specie, and threatened the Bay Colony’s West Indian trade; the winter of 1641/2 was the bitterest in New England’s history; the appearance of wheat rust — a mold or fungus — put an end to wheat cultivation in eastern Massachusetts; and population doubling every fifty years pressed upon the Malthusian frontier.

Concord dealt with these exigencies by choosing decisively to “turn away” from the common system. Donahue puts it this way:

“As the second generation came of age, the proprietors of Concord (like those of many other New England towns at about the same time) … decided to distribute nearly all of their common land to themselves and their heirs in private lots…. By dividing their commons among themselves the proprietors assured that this valuable resource would not be diluted as newcomers arrived in town and placed in their own hands the means to arrange inheritances for their progeny” (p. 101).

In so doing, says Donahue, the proprietors were “driven by a desire for equity in the way land was distributed” (p. 107).

By judging ‘equitable’ the manner in which the commons was divided among proprietors to the exclusion of newcomers, Donahue joins other colonial historians who stand accused by John Frederic Martin, of having “neglected the contentious, competitive, and unfair qualities of town life,” among which was the emergence of a social hierarchy each rung of which — inhabitant, sojourner, resident, commoner, voter, church member, freeholder, householder, townsman, shareholder, taxpayer, tenant — carried a different mix of rights and responsibilities. The sharpest distinctions were to be found in the commonage rights of proprietors and everyone else. “The group being maintained was shareholders, not town-dwellers; the purpose was to control rights, not residency.”[1]

In all fairness to Donahue, Concord was not one of the 63 entrepreneurial/commercial towns in Martin’s study sample. But if Concord was very different Martin would say of it what Stephen Innes said of Dedham: “When viewed in the larger historical setting, it was not Springfield’s commercialism but rather Dedham’s [read Concord’s] corporatism that appears anomalous.”[2]

By the mid-eighteenth century, the consequences of the choices made by Concord’s proprietors were becoming clear. Whereas the yeomanry in England had brought about revolutionary increases in agricultural productivity growth by the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century,[3] the yeomanry in Concord bumped up against what Donahue calls “interlocking ecological limits” (p. 218). “There was little slack left from which to … sustain economic growth of any kind” (p. 196).

What were those limits? Not crop land, surely, for by 1771, one-third of Concord’s land lay still in forest. But — and here Donahue’s intimate knowledge and unique perspective is revelatory — there was no point cutting forests to expand plowlands if there wasn’t enough dung to build soil or enough labor to spread it. It required “about two tons of hay for every acre tilled in order to support enough livestock to manure the corn properly” (p. 210), and twenty acres of meadow for every grazing animal, while the size of meadows and the quality of meadow grass was constrained by the regulated flow of water, which in turn required labor to ditch, drain, dike, and dam the streams. Where would the labor come from? Of the seven founding families his study has followed, only one son remained in Concord by the fifth generation.

In his Epilogue, Donahue ventures into the nineteenth century when Concord confronted the environmental depredations of what he calls ‘agricultural capitalism.’ Tax valuations had begun in 1801 to count a new category of land use called ‘unimproved.’ What is this? asks Donahue. Surely, one assumes, it is virgin land not yet broken to the plow, is it not? No, says Donahue, it is land too much broken, dis-improved, indeed exhausted by specialization and intensive farming for the market. Economic growth has been bought at the expense of ecological disarray. Here he mourns, and we, too moved to argue, mourn with him.

Notes:

1. John Frederick Martin, Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1991) p. 228.

2. Stephen Innes, Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth Century Springfield (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 182.

3. Robert C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Winifred Barr Rothenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of Tufts University, Medford, MA. She is the author of From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century

The Transformation of Scotland: The Economy since 1700

Author(s):Devine, T.M.
Lee, C.H.
Peden, G.C.
Reviewer(s):Whatley, Christopher A

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

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T.M. Devine, C.H. Lee and G.C. Peden, editors, The Transformation of Scotland: The Economy since 1700. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. vi + 279 pp. ?17.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7486-1433-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christopher A Whatley, Department of History, University of Dundee.

This book will be welcomed by economic historians of Scotland and should be of interest generally to academics and students of economic development, regional economics, and the role – and limitations – of governments in economic management. The book is an edited collection, but a strong narrative runs through the nine chapters (eleven including the Introduction and the Conclusion), and the reader unfamiliar with the economic history of Scotland over the past three centuries is provided with sufficient signposts with which to follow the main phases and features of Scotland’s development since 1700. From being a relatively under-developed economy, Scotland after the Union was transformed into a heavily industrialized society underpinned by a remarkably efficient agricultural sector. The Victorian and Edwardian economy, however, was encumbered by low pay, underemployment and the widespread use of casual labour and piecework, with resultant social inequalities that would continue to have an adverse effect on both the economy and Scottish society well into the twentieth century. From the later Victorian period the foundations of earlier achievement began to be loosened and in some cases swept away altogether – or mined out – and the country has had to rely rather more heavily than much of the rest of the UK on state support, in a variety of guises but mainly transfer payments and microeconomic policy – designed to assist Scottish industry and create employment.

Seven chapters have been written by senior economic historians, one of whom, George Peden of the University of Stirling, is better known for his admirable work on the British Treasury. Two of the contributors are more recent recruits to the field. Ewen Cameron has bravely tackled the comparatively little-investigated subject of Scottish agriculture in the twentieth century; his focus and theme is ‘modernisation,’ for which we can read a massive drop in employment, and, by and large, the marginalization of rural issues in Scotland, although the development of tourism and the retreat from the towns on the part of those seeking a quieter life but little direct involvement in agricultural pursuits are the exceptions. The thrust of David Newlands’ chapter is that, contrary to neoclassical economic theories about ‘the equalising role of prices within the market mechanism,’ regional differences in Scotland were more strongly marked at the end of the twentieth century than in the immediate post-World War Two period, an observation based on employment structures, unemployment rates and sharp variations in the incidence of poverty.

The editors have written the most substantial sections of the book. Some of this work is new or consolidated from monographs, journal articles and chapters in edited works. Aberdeen-based Clive Lee’s chapter on the financial network in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries throws up much important information that might otherwise be concealed from the non-specialist. The place and importance of financial institutions like Standard Life and Scottish Widows, and of firms such as the Scottish American Investment Trust are explored and emphasised. Notwithstanding the depiction of the Scottish Victorian economy as ‘flawed’ (p. 64), throughout the period investigated, there is ample evidence of the capacity of Scots to follow and exploit market opportunities. An age-old problem has been that these opportunities were often to be found overseas, and thus the ‘enterprising Scot’ of the eighteenth century was harder to find in Scotland in the later nineteenth century, and in fact the rate of new firm formation is still less than the UK average. Nor, until recently, did investment opportunities include working class housing. The housing deficit in Scotland runs like an open wound throughout modern Scottish history, with the much lower level of owner-occupancy in Scotland (a function of lower wage levels) being reflected in the small proportion of the UK’s building societies founded north of the border. George Peden’s chapter on the managed economy successfully places Scotland within the wider UK and international contexts, and traces the efforts of the central government and the Scottish Office, aided by the work, for example, of the influential Toothill Report (1961), to tackle Scotland’s economic and social difficulties of the twentieth century. This they did with a fair measure of success during from the 1940s through to the 1970s. It will be salutary for Tories in Scotland in 2005, with their political influence having been reduced to virtually zero, and who under Margaret Thatcher retreated from direct involvement in economic development, to read of the interventions in Scottish economic affairs of the Conservative governments of the later 1950s and early 1960s, and the real if modest achievements of the then Secretary of State for Scotland, John Maclay.

Readers looking for the promised fresh interpretations of ‘key and controversial issues,’ such as the impact of the Union of 1707 and the Highland Clearances, may be a little disappointed. The chapters that deal with these topics are largely based on the substantial work of their author, Tom Devine, completed some years ago, although the newly-appointed University of Edinburgh historian does incorporate some recent scholarship (there is less formal acknowledgement of this, however, than with the other contributors). His ‘speculative counterfactual’ (p. 27) – what would have happened if England had invaded Scotland in 1706 – is interesting enough, but is an odd question about an unlikely scenario. The Union did open up new markets, legally, even if the Scots sometimes needed state assistance to enter them. The period during which this happened was short, but crucial in creating the platform for future development. But whatever the effect of the Union in the short-run, and if there is agreement that it was economically neutral from the later eighteenth century through to the early 1900s, Lee (and Peden) are pretty certain about the value to Scotland of the country’s UK status in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly through the operation of the so-called Barnett funding formula, devised in 1978.

This is a useful book that, by and large, brings the historiography of the post-1700 Scottish economy up to date. As usual with surveys of this nature, it reveals under-researched topics and debates that are still unresolved, but that is no bad thing.

Christopher A Whatley (University of Dundee) is Professor of Scottish history and the author of Scottish Society, 1707-1830 (2000). He is currently working on The Scots and the Union, a study of the political, economic and religious causes and immediate consequences of the Union of 1707, which formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This is to be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2007.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America

Author(s):Friedman, Walter A.
Reviewer(s):Vitell, Scott J.

Published by EH.Net (September 2004)

Walter A. Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004. 356 pp. Illustrations, notes and index. (cloth), ISBN 0-674-01298-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Scott J. Vitell, Department of Marketing, The University of Mississippi.

In Birth of a Salesman, the author, an historian at Harvard Business School, provides an informative and often entertaining narrative of the evolution of selling in America from the early itinerant peddlers to the well-trained sales professional. The book essentially starts with the story of the independent, itinerant merchants who, beginning in the early 1800s, traveled from town to town and farm to farm with a diversity of goods such as pots, pans, pails and various utensils. Friedman touches upon the obstacles that these early salesmen faced including the lack of a federal currency prior to the 1860s. Of course, they also met with a good deal of customer skepticism and were often seen as disruptive by local merchants and politicians. Friedman skillfully covers all of this with a large dose of amusing and informative anecdotal evidence from peddlers of this era.

The book continues though the latter half of the 1800s explicating the roles of the canvasser, a salesman of petty goods, who traveled from farmhouse to farmhouse, and the drummer, a salesman either employed by a large wholesale house or who worked independently calling on businessmen to establish long term customer relationships. Both of these sales types were at their peak in the 1880s and both were the predecessors of the more modern salesman that was to come in the twentieth century.

Friedman continues with the development of the “modern” sales force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These sales forces were primarily the product of mass manufacturing operations that attempted to produce uniform salesmen using uniform arguments. Contrary to the drummers and canvassers, these salesmen represented the manufacturer not themselves. This led to the creation of the sales manager position — someone who was responsible for the training and managing of the sales force through quotas, commission rates and territorial assignments.

Friedman extensively covers the selling activities at companies such as Heinz and National Cash Register (NCR), among others, as well as the dynamic and innovative personalities behind these extremely successful sales organizations. Also covered thoroughly are the early years of sales as a “science.” The contributions of sociologists and psychologists, such as Walter D. Scott, to the sales profession are cited. Scott, who became head of the Bureau of Salesmanship Research at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1916, worked on various projects that resulted in isolating the characteristics of the successful salesman and systematizing the sales personnel selection process.

In the 1920s, the importance of selling and “salesmanship” became widely recognized by almost all successful businesses. Friedman highlights this era with examples from companies such as General Motors and the Fuller Brush Company and includes details about the leading sales personalities at these organizations and many of their sales tactics and strategies. He continues his narrative into the 1930s discussing the impact of the great depression on the personal selling field. During this decade, the prestige of salesmen faded significantly; however, later individuals such as Dale Carnegie, among others, helped to redeem the image of the salesman.

The narrative concludes with a brief look at salesmanship today, including the advent of the infomercial, the actual study of salesmanship today, and data such as the percent of the work force currently in sales (12%) and the number of people in sales-related jobs (16 million).

If Friedman’s text has any flaws, and they are few, it might be that the book is almost too detailed in his narrative of the “birth” of modern selling. That is, there is an almost too abundant plethora of examples throughout the text which are used to illustrate his various points, including copious endnotes for those interested in delving further into particular issues. Nevertheless, he does provide the reader with an interesting and compelling history of the birth and development of selling in America, and he does an excellent job of recreating the growth and metamorphosis of modern salesmanship over the years. Marketing professors, among others, should find this to be a valuable supplemental read for their students in a marketing history or sales course.

Scott J. Vitell is the Phil B. Hardin Professor of Marketing at the University of Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Texas Tech University. Currently he is the Marketing Section Editor for the Journal of Business Ethics and serves on the editorial review boards of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science and the Journal of Business Research. His recent publications have appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Retailing, the Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Business Ethics: A European Review, International Business Review and the Journal of Consumer Marketing, among others. He has also published in many national and international conferences.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade

Author(s):Gudmestad, Robert H.
Reviewer(s):Pritchett, Jonathan

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Robert H. Gudmestad, A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xii + 246 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-2884-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan Pritchett, Department of Economics, Tulane University.

In his new book entitled, A Troublesome Commerce, Robert H. Gudmestad defines a slave trader as “a man who bought slaves in one state and sold them in another on a regular basis as the sole or principal source of his income” (p. 4). This relatively narrow definition of a slave trader would have appealed to many contemporary white southerners. After all, from their viewpoint, a slave trader provided a necessary and useful service. He supplied labor to the planters of the lower South, and provided a ready market for surplus or disobedient slaves in the upper South. Some owners, however, would have found it difficult to reconcile the financial benefits of the trader with his harmful effects on the slaves. For owners actively engaged in the market, distinguishing their actions from those of a trader could prove difficult. For white southerners, the “difference between a private citizen and a slave trader was that the former was relying on just motives whereas the latter was acting from personal gain and the love of money” (p. 151). By imputing motives to the market participants, white southerners could maintain a distinction between slave traders and themselves.

The westward migration of slaves during the antebellum period took two basic forms: planter migrations and the interstate slave trade.[1] Although all forms of forced migration threatened the stability of enslaved families, the interstate trade was a greater threat than planter migrations. Presumably, planters took all of their slaves with them on their westward migrations, mitigating the disruptive effects on slave families. Traders, however, preferred to purchase slaves with characteristics valued by buyers in distant markets. Such selective purchases were typically done one slave at a time, often times severing marital and family ties. Because of its disruptive effects on families, the slave trade made an easy target for abolitionists and other critics of slavery and the South. As Gudmestad argues (in chapter 7), the early attempts to distance themselves from the slave trade were eventually abandoned in the years prior to the War, as white southerners became increasingly belligerent in their defense of the institution of slavery.

Gudmestad finds a number of interesting conflicts and contradictions regarding the reputations of traders. Because of the threat of sale, planters in the upper South may have exaggerated the worst aspects of the trade as a method of controlling their labor force (p. 44). Upon learning he was to be sold, however, the slave was more likely to resist the trader or to possibly run away. Consequently, traders used concealment, deception or surprise in their efforts to acquire a slave (p. 45). In an effort to gain sales, traders might have advertised their willingness to purchase criminal slaves from owners wishing to dispose of them. While helpful in the upper South, such a reputation in the lower South would have hurt them when they tried to sell the slaves. Some owners in the upper South refused to sell their slaves to interstate traders, possibly to avoid social sanctions from their church or their neighbors. This reputation would be costly, however, if it resulted in lower market prices for their slaves (p. 70). Even the traders sought social acceptance by drawing a distinctions between themselves and smaller, itinerant traders. From their viewpoint, only this latter type of speculator “destroyed families, escorted coffles, sold diseased slaves, concealed the flaws of bondservants, and corrupted whites through speculation. All others who bought and sold slaves, even if they did so on a full-time basis, were innocent” (p. 167).

Historians will be familiar with the methodology employed by Gudmestad. The author provides numerous quotations from contemporary observers of the slave trade and provides his own interpretation of their meaning (subject to the obligatory qualifications). Economists, however, will be disappointed by the absence of quantitative analysis. For example, Gudmestad argues that “Maryland slaveowners gained a reputation for having two prices for their bondservants, one for private citizens and a higher one for traders. They gladly hiked up prices by a third or a half in order to separate speculators from their money” (p. 13). Statements such as these lend themselves to quantitative analysis, yet none is forthcoming.

Another example where economic analysis might be useful deals with profitability and the reputation of slave traders. Although traders were taxed, licensed, and regulated by city and state governments, there were no effective barriers to entry or exit. The market was competitive and, in long-run equilibrium, traders should have earned normal rates of return. However, social disapprobation would have discouraged otherwise qualified individuals from becoming slave traders. The restriction in labor supply would have increased the wages of those remaining in the profession, in a manner analogous to a compensating wage differential. If slave traders had a bad reputation, then the measured rate of return to slave trading should have been higher than those in other professions.

A final example of useful economic analysis concerns the trader’s reputation for selling criminal, sick, or injured slaves in the markets of the lower South. Some traders engaged in fraud when they concealed these flaws from unsuspecting buyers (p. 95). For most buyers considering a purchase, the distrust was evident from their close physical examination of the slaves (p. 97). Although some traders practiced fraud, others worked hard to acquire reputations for fair business practices in order to encourage repeat sales. According to one trader, dealing in “Trash and defective” slaves was “never permanently profitable” (p. 154). The business reputations of traders would have been reflected in the prices of their slaves. If buyers in the lower South were distrustful, then the imported slaves sold by traders would have commanded lower prices than those of slaves sold locally at auction. Recent research indicates that the opposite was true. Traders selected higher valued slaves for shipment to the lower South in order to satisfy the buyers in that market and their slaves typically sold for higher prices.[2]

A Troublesome Commerce is a valuable contribution to the growing body of research on the interstate slave trade. Much of this literature represents an attempt to understand the psyche of those engaged in the trade. Economic analysis would be a valuable complement to the traditional methodology used by Gudmestad. Profits and prices provide useful information about market participants, even with regard to the reputations of slave traders.

Robert H. Gudmestad is an assistant professor of history at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

Notes:

1. The classification of the buying trips made by planters is problematic. Rather than deal with traders, some planters from the lower South traveled to the upper South (or exporting states) to purchase their slaves. (Such buying trips were sometimes necessary because of the legal restrictions of the trade.) Because at least one transaction occurred, current researchers (and the slaves themselves) would classify the buying trips of planters as an extension of the interstate slave trade. No doubt that contemporary planters, seeking to distance themselves from the trade, would have been appalled by this classification. As a consequence, Gudmestad considers the buying trips of planters as a separate type of forced migration.

2. Jonathan B. Pritchett and Richard M. Chamberlain, “Selection in the Market for Slaves: New Orleans, 1830-1860,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 108 (May, 1993), pp. 461-473.

Jonathan Pritchett is chair of the department of economics at Tulane University. He is the author of “Quantitative Estimates of the United States Interregional Slave Trade, 1820-1860,” Journal of Economic History, 61 (June 2001), pp. 467-475 and “The Interregional Slave Trade and the Selection of Slaves for the New Orleans Market,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 28 (Summer, 1997), pp. 57-85.

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

Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929-1945

Author(s):Grant, Michael Johnson
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (February 2004)

Michael Johnson Grant, Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929-1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xi + 233 pp. $39.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8032-7105-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Department of History (Emeritus), University of Wisconsin, Madison,

Cornucopia or cruel hoax? Bread basket or buffalo range? Our vast interior plains have challenged Americans since their acquisition. Michael J. Grant adds to our knowledge of this enigmatic region with his study of a controversial aspect of New Deal agricultural policy. Intrigued by the empty farmhouses scattered across the western Nebraska landscape of his boyhood, and remnants of a federal housing and work project that he examined as a National Park Service employee, Grant investigated federal efforts to assist farmers in the Great Plains during the 1930s. Begun as doctoral research, his book examines the farmers of the four twenty-inch-rainfall-line states, stretching from Kansas poleward to North Dakota. More specifically it is a “quantitative investigation of farm life,” focusing on farm operators that he calls “borderline farmers” (p.5), in the 1920s and 1930s. Grant explains that market forces, regional grain yield potentials, climatic variability and middle-class cultural trends forced plains farmers to expand farm units and increase the mechanization and capitalization of their business operations. In these years also drought combined with the country’s most pervasive depression to push legions of operators toward bankruptcy.

“Borderline farmers,” Grant explains, were agriculturalists who “struggled to enlarge their operations to support a middle-income lifestyle,” and who “lived on the borderline between indigence and the limited security of middle-income farmers … grossing between $500 and $1,000 annually during the 1930s” (pp., 2, 3, 30). They were, he further explains, “out of synch and overwhelmed by the expansive scale of farming” that seemed to be required in the plains states (p. 7). They “were not necessarily unfit. Rather, they were out of their league.” They yearned to expand their businesses in line with managerial trends but lacked the necessary means. “Borderline farms were large enough to aspire to such ends but not profitable enough to provide the necessary means” (pp. 34-35).

Grant lays a foundation for this study by first examining farm tenancy in the plains states. Under his definition tenants might or might not be borderline farmers but many apparently were. He then sketches the development of remedial legislation through the Hoover presidency and the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover sought to alleviate agricultural stringency by supporting large marketing and credit facilities designed to restore farm income and provide credit but maintained that grassroots relief was a state or local concern. Under Roosevelt, however, the federal government provided direct assistance to the individual farmer.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of early 1933 inaugurated an era of emergency activity on behalf of agriculture and a general commitment to the restoration of parity of income between the agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. Prior to 1935 needy plains farmers received direct relief in the form of money or subsistence supplies, work on public works projects, and emergency relief in the form of feed and seed grants, livestock purchase, and loans through programs administered by various government agencies, both extolled and denigrated, although apparently no sobriquet emerged as cutting as the transformation of the National Recovery Administration into “Nuts Running America.” Simple relief measures, however, did not prepare borderline farmers for coping with post depression challenges. In the spring of 1934 the decision was made to replace work and direct relief in rural areas with programs designed to rehabilitate the businesses of farm clients and prepare them for success in normal times. This work became the responsibility of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and, shortly thereafter, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Alone among the New Deal agricultural agencies, they provided subsistence and operating credit for farmers. The resources of thousands of plains farmers were deemed inadequate to win approval as FSA clients. Nevertheless between 1935 and the early 1940s the agencies granted loans to 95,000 plains families and 73,000 obtained cash grants. Initially the agencies sought as many clients as possible and tried “to keep commercial agricultural production down while helping their clients furnish as much of their own subsistence as possible.” This, Grant believes, “ran counter to both reason and agricultural trends in the plains,” where enhanced returns followed increases in crop acreage (p. 107). Under the Bankhead-Jones Tenant Purchase Act of 1937 the FSA assumed responsibility for assisting tenants in purchasing farms and here selection was restricted to tenant farmers who possessed substantial resources.

The rehab programs suffered from administrative problems. Conceived by humanitarian Democratic planners, program employees at the state and local levels often had Republican ties which made them unsympathetic to agency objectives and were also resentful because they did not receive full civil service status. In general, FSA personnel helped clients to develop farm plans that moved them away from cash crop agriculture toward a mixed livestock and subsistence economy. When prospects improved in the late 1930s many clients viewed that strategy as unduly restrictive.

Grant follows his general account of the development of RA and FSA activities in the Plains States with a chapter presenting a “grass roots” study of the rural rehabilitation program, selecting a county in Kansas and another in North Dakota as subjects for a closer examination of these federal programs. From the FSA clients in each county, Grant selected one case to provide detailed descriptions of the way in which the rehabilitation loan system worked, drawing upon some two dozen other case files (archived as Farm Home Administration files) to illustrate other aspects of the lending process. Administrators carefully screened applicants to insure that an infusion of capital, development of a farm productivity plan, and tutelage of the farm wife would allow families to succeed. Was rural rehabilitation in each county a success? Grant concludes that it succeeded in helping farm families survive and maintain a farm business. But emphasis on the subsistence side of the farm business meant that the clients farmed “in place” whereas, he argues, the inescapable trend in plains farming was to increase the commercial scale of farming (p. 160).

In a final substantive chapter, Grant discusses the various detractors and defenders of the rehabilitation programs within the American public and the growing consensus in Congress that the increasing prosperity of agriculture during the war years rendered them unnecessary despite the pleas of the Farmers’ Union. With the approbation of the Farm Bureau, Senator Harry Byrd, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, succeeded in slashing the FSA budget by half in 1943. Despite a flurry of interest in providing loans to veterans, by war’s end new funding had ceased. In a brief conclusion Grant argues that “the greatest triumph of the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration was in showing borderline farmers around the country that they mattered” (p. 201).

Grant’s description of the New Deal programs and their work in the Plains States is wide ranging, providing thumbnail sketches of key policy figures, the reactions of agricultural organizations and members of Congress to the programs as well as opinion in the general public. He is evenhanded in discussion of the programs, noting their limitations, shifting goals and ideological inconsistencies but crediting them with successfully assisting many deserving farmers. He enlivens the narrative with numerous references to specific farmers and their wives and quotations from farmer letters or recollections. Grant’s book is an excellent overview of an important aspect of New Deal agricultural policy.

One caveat, however. Grant presents much quantitative data and his county studies reveal the various economic factors in play at that level. Confronted, however, with detailed data sources like those provided by the agency files of the FSA (now archived as Farm Home Administration records) some researchers would have chosen clients for study by systematic sampling and prepared a data base that included common variables drawn from a considerably larger number of farm operations than those cited by Grant. Such a data base would have allowed the researcher to apply statistical techniques of analysis that could more definitively evaluate the relative importance of relevant factors than do Grant’s somewhat impressionistic methods.

Allan G. Bogue’s most recent publication (with Brian Q. Cannon and Kenneth J. Winkle) is “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” Agricultural History 77 (Summer 2003), 420-452.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government

Author(s):Holcombe, Randall G.
Reviewer(s):Dinan, John

Published by EH.NET (May 2003)

Randall G. Holcombe, From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. xv + 336 pp. $52 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11290-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Dinan, Department of Political Science, Wake Forest University.

Randall G. Holcombe is concerned in From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government with “describing the changes in American government during its first two centuries,” and demonstrating that “the great transformation occurred at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century,” when “the overriding principle behind American government was transformed from the protection of individual rights to the principle of democracy” (p. xiii).

Holcombe, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, argues that the founders “intended to create a government that would protect the rights of its citizens, ensure their freedom, and do little else” (p.1). As a result: “The role of democratic decision making was severely limited both by insulating the new government from direct voting and by constitutionally limiting the scope of the government” (p. 97). It is true, he notes, that the drafters of “the Constitution created a government more powerful and less constrained than the one that existed under the Articles [of Confederation],” and thereby “created an environment within which the U.S. government had a greater ability to grow than would have been the case under the Articles” (p. 78). Nevertheless, the founders were committed, in the main, to the proposition that “the role of a constitution was to guarantee the rights of individuals and to limit the powers of government” (p. 59).

Although the nineteenth century brought a gradual democratization of political institutions (particularly during the Jacksonian Era), as well as a major expansion of the power of the federal government (particularly with the passage of the Civil War Amendments), the major transformation of American government did not take place until the onset of Progressivism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. As Holcombe explains: “Liberty for the founders meant that the government would protect the rights of individuals but would have minimal involvement in their economic affairs. The Progressives viewed that notion as outmoded. The oppression that only the government could exert by force when the nation was founded was now being imposed by the trusts, and economic power had replaced political power as the oppressor of the people” (p. 171). To be sure, FDR’s New Deal also played a role in “establish[ing] the role of the federal government in promoting the nation’s economic well-being” (p. 219). And LBJ’s Great Society programs were critical in heralding “the ultimate triumph of democracy because for the first time there was a major expansion in the scope of government power, based on the demands of the electorate, with no extenuating circumstances” (p. 247). In the end, though, Holcombe concludes that the seeds for these twentieth-century developments “were sown in the Progressive Era prior to World War I,” (p. 208) and therefore the Progressive Era constituted the “explicit break with the past that redefined the role of government to include the protection of the economic welfare of its citizens” (p. 188).

Holcombe is certainly not alone in pinpointing the Progressive Era as the key period in the transformation of American government. A number of Progressives were quite open at the turn of the twentieth century about the extent to which they were prepared to challenge founding institutions and ideals. And a growing number of scholars in recent years have taken to reexamining the influence of Progressivism on the development of American political institutions. Holcombe’s principal contribution is to place the Progressive movement in the overall context of American political development (his sweeping survey stretches from Hobbes and Locke to Reagan and Clinton, and includes discussions of the Articles of Confederation and the Confederate Constitution along the way) and to provide a number of insightful details regarding these varied topics. In the course of tracing the development of American electoral practices, for instance, Holcombe notes that a number of states have deviated at times from the normal practice of electing members of the House of Representatives from single-member districts, and that general ticket representation and at-large representation were both used by several states as late as the 1960s. And through a careful comparison of the U.S. and Confederate Constitution, he highlights a number of ways in which the drafters of the Confederate Constitution modified or supplemented particular provisions in the U.S. Constitution, including eliminating the words “general welfare” from the tax and spend clause, prohibiting certain types of internal improvements, and granting the president the line-item veto for appropriations bills. These are just a few of the insights that Holcombe provides in the course of his survey of American political development.

These virtues having been noted, From Liberty to Democracy is not without its shortcomings. For one thing, this is a sprawling book that frequently takes up and then returns to the same topic on a number of different occasions in the course of the narrative. Another round of editing could have eliminated a certain amount of this repetition, though this is to some degree unavoidable when one is integrating several previously published articles with other chapters that appear here for the first time.

In addition, Holcombe is at his best when he is describing the transformation of American government, which is the principal focus of the book; he is somewhat less successful when he turns to evaluate this transformation, as he does at assorted points in the course of each chapter and then in a sustained fashion in a concluding chapter entitled “The Dangers of Democracy.” It is not that Holcombe’s critique of democratic decision making is without merit. In fact, he is squarely in the mainstream of public-choice scholarship when he highlights “the problems that occur with majority rule voting” (p. 257), and contends that “democratic political institutions favor policies that impose small costs on most people, who are rationally ignorant about the policies, to finance large benefits to smaller groups” (p. 263). But a comprehensive evaluation of democratic decision making would require even more attention to the advantages as well as the disadvantages of democratic institutions, and would benefit from a more extensive consideration of the leading alternatives in the contemporary era.

John Dinan is author of Keeping the People’s Liberties: Legislators, Citizens, and Judges as Guardians of Rights (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998).

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court Packing Crisis of 1937

Author(s):McKenna, Marian C.
Reviewer(s):Hudspeth, Harvey G.

Published by EH.Net (May 2003)

McKenna, Marian C., Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court Packing Crisis of 1937. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002. xxvi + 612 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8232-2154-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Dr. Harvey G. Hudspeth, Department of Social Sciences, Mississippi Valley State University, Itta Bena, MS.

As a young graduate student at the University of Mississippi, I had originally planned to devote my dissertation to the subject of the Roosevelt Court and the Court Packing Plan of 1937. Having just read professor McKenna’s study on that very subject, I am frankly relieved that my graduate advisor talked me out of it. Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War is a brilliantly researched, thoroughly documented book. It is probably the most definitive work ever written on the entire 1937 controversy.

In her introduction, Dr. McKenna, Professor Emeritus of Alberta’s University of Calgary, clearly outlines the points she intends to establish, namely:

1) How a “popular political leader can climb to dizzying heights” only to plunge within a short time to “an all-time low”; 2) How presidents can often assert even less influence over domestic affairs than exercise over foreign affairs; 3) How FDR was not the “master politician” that most historians have made him out to be; 4) How FDR’s Court Packing Plan, far from being a last-minute reaction to an “obstructionist Supreme Court,” was instead, “a long time in the making”; and 5) How FDR’s threat to remake the Court ultimately had no effect on subsequent Court decisions.

McKenna’s argument that neither Owen Robert’s notorious “Switch in Time that Saved Nine” vote in Parrish and Willis Van DeVanter’s subsequent decision to retire had not in any way been influenced by constitutional concerns as to the future political integrity of the High Bench are at best half-hearted. Even if these decisions were reached before Roosevelt’s formal announcement of his judicial scheme, neither justice could have possibly been unaware of the president’s ultimate intent. As McKenna repeatedly points out, the Roosevelt Administration had been working on a plan for “judicial reorganization” even before it took command of the government in 1933.

Nevertheless, McKenna does an excellent job in establishing her other points. In much the same way as Julius Caesar clearly yearned to become Emperor of Rome (before his assassination at the hands of senators concerned for the future of the Republic), Franklin Roosevelt’s de facto control of both executive and legislative branches of the federal government obviously were not enough to satisfy his perceived desire for absolute power. His “judicial reorganization bill” was consequently seen by most Americans (even his most devoted admirers of that time and afterwards) as a bald-faced attempt to achieve his final goal. In his effort to accomplish this, he single-handedly demonstrated McKenna’s point that a political leader can sacrifice his popularity without need of a Vietnam or a Watergate. He can also prove to be as ineffectual in domestic maters as a Bill Clinton with universal health care.

Dr. McKenna has also more than successfully established the fact that while Franklin Roosevelt may have been a “master politician,” he was apparently not the master politician that he thought he was – at least not to the extent that he could manipulate both the Congress and the American people into allowing him to take personal control over the judicial branch of the government. No matter how out-of-touch it might have seemed to most Americans with regard to their current economic and social problems, the idea of a future Court being at the mercy of Roosevelt or a future less-enlightened despot cut against the grain of American Democracy. As McKenna makes clear, patrician elitist that he might have been, even Franklin Roosevelt should have recognized this basic reality and responded accordingly. Coming at a time when such erstwhile tyrants as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were demanding similar “emergency” powers so as to allow them absolute power in Germany and Italy respectively, this was especially true for Roosevelt.

The book, regrettably, is not without its technical flaws. To my knowledge, Jim Farley was never secretary of the treasury (page three – of course, a simple comma could have avoided that error). Additionally, Olin T. Johnson was never governor of Alabama, but even if he had been as McKenna suggests (page 545), he never could have legally contested “Cotton Ed” Smith’s 1938 re-election bid to the US Senate from South Carolina. All of that notwithstanding, McKenna has made an excellent contribution to both the political and constitutional history of the United States – not to mention to a new understanding of our heretofore Teflon-like thirty-second president. Apparently, not even our so-called “gods” are quite as bullet-proof as some of us would seem to prefer.

In her epilogue, Dr. McKenna makes no bones in her by-now well-established contention that, as beloved and as talented and as well-intentioned as he might have been, America’s would-be emperor essentially had no clothes. In her final analysis of the President’s performance, she shines “a different and far less flattering light on Roosevelt’s political leadership, personal integrity, and character from that presented in previous accounts.” Citing both FDR and his advisors for “a series of political mistakes, bad miscalculation, and failures of judgment,” McKenna concludes that the Court-Packing fiasco constituted “the worst political defeat ever endured by a president at the pinnacle of his power.” Excluding scandals and wars, it is difficult to find fault with her conclusions.

Dr. Harvey G. Hudspeth is past president of the Economic and Business Historical Society. His essay, “The Roosevelt Court and the Changing Nature of American Liberalism: An Uncertain Legacy,” is scheduled for publication as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Transformation of the Supreme Court in March 2003.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII