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Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century.

Each generation of historians recasts the Puritans to suit current perceptions. With John Frederick Martin's Profits in the Wilderness, we have Puritans appropriate for the Reagan-Bush era: Puritans as entrepreneurs.

Martin follows closely upon the work of Christine Heyrman in finding no necessary contradiction between Puritan culture and commercial enterprise (Commerce and Culture, 1984). As Martin writes, "Puritans did not have to shed their religion before they could don their acquisitiveness" (213). But where Heyrman finds a powerful tension within Puritanism between economic success and religious duty, Martin places religion in a largely subservient role. While the land speculation he studies is not "a sign of increasing secularism and declining piety," it does indicate "the triumph of one-half of the pious mind over the other" (127). What is not clear is if that triumph holds only for the speculators Martin examines or for all Puritans.

Martin sets himself three key tasks: to demonstrate the importance of "commercial enterprise" in the founding of seventeenth-century New England towns; to clarify the domination of town government by an entrepreneurial class; and to establish the primacy of individualism over communalism (3). Profits in the Wilderness brilliantly highlights the diversity of political and economic structures, negating the search for the typical New England town. But within that diversity, Martin locates the engine of profit-maximization. Martin's New England is founded by individuals acting in business corporations, not by groups of Puritans. The organization and settlement of towns followed strict business principles, and the heroes of the tale are the investors, who met "the considerable expenses of developing a wilderness settlement" (205). Martin describes a "symbiotic relationship between investors and the landless." The speculators "provided the capital necessary for launching new settlements, and the landless grantees provided the pool of settlers" (203).

Martin is at his best in describing the complexities of land operations, unravelling the layers of often conflicting titles. From their efforts to exploit the lands seized from the natives, the land speculators fashioned what Martin calls "the basic organizational tools of American enterprise" (59). In New England's limited economy land titles served as one of the few sources of liquid capital. Martin notes the busy market in land titles, but does not pursue its consequence, the quick separation of initial investors from actual settlement.

Martin defines entrepreneurs as "people who organized, managed, and assumed the risks of starting profit-making enterprises" (5). The core profit motivation is not evidenced but deduced: "Absenteeism, sizable acreage, multiple landholding: these are signs of profit interest" (31). Yet, as many other historians of the subject have pointed out, the purchase of frontier land was a key family strategy for securing the future of the large New England families. In numerous instances children of the absentee landowners settled on the frontier, and in a great many other cases, cheap frontier land titles were accumulated as a capital store for the use of children and grandchildren. Martin acknowledges these possibilities, and mentions examples, but dismisses them as irrelevant. "Concerned fathers would have purchased lands together and probably near home" if they wanted the land for their children (31). Oddly, Martin contradicts his own logic of the fluidity of land titles as an investment. To become a land speculator was to cease to be a Puritan. Since "Commerce in land could not have fitted any Puritan theory of proper land use," those who planned these new communities must have been entrepreneurs (120).

So who were these entrepreneurs? Martin examines "roughly one hundred" entrepreneurs (3), though the appendix supplies information on only thirty-eight of these. Readers may wonder if this thin statistical base justifies the larger generalizations. Of these thirty-eight men, Martin lists acreage owned for twenty-three, with a mean of 950 acres in three or four towns (307). One thing at least is certain, these entrepreneurs were nothing like those of the Chesapeake. Perhaps the greatest difference was the utter failure of New England's entrepreneurs to control the political process.

The town covenant is equated with a corporate contract, overlooking the significant fact that these were covenants with God. Martin does attempt to anticipate critics by noting that "some town covenants mentioned religious goals while others . . . neglected religion altogether" (144). Intent on demonstrating that towns were founded for economic rather than religious reasons, Martin shows a surprising lack of sympathy for Puritan theology, removing those who were not church members from the founding congregations. But non-membership could indicate the absence of a conversion experience, not absence from the congregation. Determined to find a secularist class, Martin establishes the relative insignificance of religion in daily life by pointing to the long delay in erecting church buildings or writing the church covenant as compared with how quickly towns dealt with the essential business of land divisions. But might not the delay in writing a church covenant be seen as a clear sign of just how important religion remained to Puritan life? Church records contain long agonizing debates among the congregation over the specifics of church governance, membership, and such arcane theological points as foot-washing.

Similarly, Martin confuses "gathering" a church with building one. The appendix contains a long list of towns lacking a religious orientation, communities in which the settlers did not build a church their first year or arrived without a minister in tow. Thus Ipswich is incorrectly listed as having had no minister during its first year of settlement. The first contingent of settlers arrived in March 1633, the Reverend John Wilson in November of that year. Medford is included for the same reason, although the settlers entered immediately into an agreement with a neighboring town to share a minister. And so it goes with town after town. Unless settlers were greeted at their arrival with a finished church building and a minister in the doorway, Martin lumps them in the secular category.

As religion is down-played, so is communalism dismissed with a syllogism. "Land fights occurred in many towns," Martin writes. "If harmony is a condition of communalism, communalism did not reign in many towns." Most recent scholars have rejected the notion that community is based on perfect harmony. Having just declared the New England town "anything but communal" (297), Martin disingenuously states that it is not "necessary to take sides in the old dispute over whether towns were communal. Everyone cherished community" (303). Suddenly, on the book's penultimate page, Martin discovers that the "record of self-sacrifice, subordination of personal to communal interest, and intrusiveness in the economic and personal lives of townsmen is prodigious" (303). One wonders where this observation has been during the book.

Most significantly, Profits in the Wilderness leaves hanging the exact nature of this society. Martin describes a rigidly hierarchical society, "the political monopoly of shareholders," a business culture with status premised on financial position and portfolio (174). The New England town was an extended land company, a "shareholder democracy" which "apportioned rights and responsibilities according to business principles" (3-4). Though Martin studiously avoids phrases like oligarchy and class conflict--preferring "the ruling club" and "tension" (288, 209)--he does insist that towns were "devoted . . . to the exclusive interests of shareholders" (239). But his is a rather fragile oligarchy.

As Martin points out, the Massachusetts and Connecticut Assemblies constantly intervened to force absentees to either settle or sell, reserving the right to dispossess those who did neither. But more remarkably, even the new frontier towns exercised this authority, seizing the land of supposedly powerful and necessary entrepreneurs. In New England society, "land was meant to be settled, not merely owned" (38). Martin mentions tiny Simsbury petitioning the legislature to compel its absentees to fulfill their commitments. Martin writes that the assembly did not choose "to punish or dispossess the absentee owners" but to encourage them (42). He fails to mention that the legislature not only ordered the absentee proprietors to settle, but even told them where to build their houses.

It seems fair to ask why an entrepreneurial society allowed a legal system which outlawed usury, did not recognize expectation damages, limited the use of private property by both priority rights and communal need, favored notions of equity which preferenced a fair exchange over the wording of a contact, and did not perceive a contract as a convergence of free wills but as a communal instrument? At the very least we must conclude that New England's was an entrepreneurial society unlike any with which we are familiar.
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Author:Bellesiles, Michael A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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