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From Market Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850.

Professor Rothenberg has written two books in a single volume. The first book occupies Chapters 1-3, deals primarily with the years before 1750, takes the form of an ideological attack against advocates of a "moral economy" (who are characterized in the Acknowledgments as "my 'dear enemies,'" a very unusual salutation in a work of scholarship--and a very revealing one at that), and is based on very little quantitative evidence. Its conclusions are contradictory: on the one hand, Rothenberg strongly suggests that New England farmers were motivated by a "profit motive" from the very beginnings of settlement and that a "proto-market" was "carried, so to speak, to New England aboard the Arbella". On the other hand, she admits that there is little statistical data to sustain those propositions and her qualitative evidence, which suggests the breakdown of "the communal order" in the 1740s (as a result of the Great Awakening, currency inflation, and "the relaxation of administrative and statutory controls over the Boston Market"), essentially concedes the existence of a "moral economy" for most of the colonial period. As she notes at another point, only "beginning in 1750" was there "a centrifugal process marking the prolonged transition from a social control regime to a market economy".

The second book focuses on the period between 1785 and 1840, is based on social-scientific methods and a wealth of quantitative evidence, and is an important--and largely convincing--demonstration of the gradual emergence of a market economy. In Chapters 4--7 Professor Rothenberg successively establishes the increasing convergence of prices in widely separated markets "shortly after the revolution" in some commodities (but as late as 1820 in others, pp. 98, 106), a clear sign of market integration; the American Revolution as "an extraordinary breakpoint" in the market for securities--with the widespread appearance of government notes and shares in banks, insurance, and transportation companies; the increasing productivity of farm labor after 1780 and the appearance of regional labor markets within Massachusetts by 1800; and the growing preference among commercial farmers for contract-labor rather than day-labor and, after 1830, a reliance on non-local or foreign-born workers. Finally, in Chapter 8, the author uses tax valuations between 1771 and 1801 to suggest the process of "capitalist transformation ... a reallocation of resources to achieve, within agriculture, a rate of productivity growth sufficient to sustain the exodus of resources from it in pursuit of higher returns elsewhere".

This sector by sector summary of Professor Rothenberg's presentation mirrors its character: it is less an integrated descriptive analysis of the Massachusetts economy than a loosely related set of chapters, each of which seeks "to date the onset of market function" with respect to a particular factor of production. However, by the end, most readers will be persuaded that a market-oriented economic system had appeared in Massachusetts by the first decades of the nineteenth century and was steadily becoming more important.

This transformation produced "both winners and losers." As Professor Rothenberg suggests, "Perhaps the most politically significant losers" were the followers of Daniel Shays, whose rebellion "happened in 1786, annum mirabilis in the time path of rural market integration and agricultural productivity growth". The author shows that "the towns that did not throw their lot in with the insurrection had significantly more prosperous agricultural enterprises than did the towns supporting the insurrection" and sensibly concludes that "Shays' Rebellion seems now to loom as a deeply conservative impulse, a fist shaken at impending change". Was it also "a defense of the moral economy in rural Massachusetts," and thus yet another refutation of the argument in the first "book" in this volume? The author's evasions notwithstanding, that would seem the obvious conclusion.

But let me end on a positive note: in the substantive sections of her study, Professor Rothenberg has made a strong case that the transition to capitalism in Massachusetts took place between 1785 and 1800 as a result of changes in the domestic farm economy: "the dynamism ran from agriculture to industry. It was market-driven productivity increases in agriculture that prompted the diversion of resources and of labor from the family farm to manufacturing". To have specified the chronology of that most important transformation in the American economy and to have probed many of its causes and consequences is no small achievement.

James A. Henretta University of Maryland, College Park
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Author:Henretta, James
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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