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The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism.

For fifteen years, "new rural historians" of America have emphasized the broad historical significance of the countryside in the evolution of early American society. In this important book, Allan Kulikoff presents several of his own essays (some new, some revisions of previously published articles) that suggest a fresh overarching interpretation. As Kulikoff previously pointed out, the debate over rural history once divided "market" historians employing the assumptions of neoclassical economics from "social" historians drawing on the Marxian tradition; he called for a synthesis to move the discussion on. This book now provides it, and it is one with which I must declare my sympathy. Grounded in Marxian theory, but making crucial conceptual modifications for American circumstances, the book is constructively provocative. Rural history is not just about the history of agriculture, or of markets, but fundamental to an understanding of American capitalism itself and to the analysis of social classes that has so long been marginal to general interpretations of American history.

"Although colonial America developed out of England's capitalist economy," Kulikoff argues, "the United States was not born capitalist but became capitalist". This transition was rooted in changes within northern rural society from the mid-eighteenth century onward. This is logical: southern society took a different path; northern urban society and commercial influences were too small at first to drive change on their own; any analysis must take account of the preponderant rural population and its complex relationships with the wider North Atlantic economy. In essays on the rise and fall of the American yeoman class and on the "languages of class" in early America, Kulikoff shows that small landowners' determination to avoid control by elites established an influential ideology that pervaded debates and policies concerning the land until the mid-nineteenth century.

Further essays discuss the importance of the American Revolution, both in disseminating an ideology of agrarian democracy and in securing the conditions under which farmers settled much of the trans-Appalachian West. Desire for independence, both from political domination and from capitalist markets, was a significant impetus behind the rapid demographic and geographical expansion that followed the Revolution. But Kulikoff also stresses the Revolution's "bourgeois" character, meaning not that it was motivated by commercial interests, or that it finally established American capitalism, but that its constitutional settlement and the individualistic roots of democratic ideology created the political conditions for capitalist development. During the nineteenth century, commercial farming and the increasing use of wage labor transformed both the rural economy itself and the ideology and languages by which it was interpreted. Populism represented the final unsuccessful attempt of the yeoman class formed in the eighteenth century to resist the logic of capitalism.

Kulikoff develops these themes in five of his book's eight essays, all based on an impressive range of recent secondary work. Three more essays explore tangential issues concerning labor and migration: military enlistment in Revolutionary Virginia; the importance of forced slave migration between 1780 and 1840 both to the expansion of the cotton economy and to African American culture; and the long-term relationship between free migration and the spread of capitalism in America. This diversity reflects the purpose of the book as a whole, which is less to explicate a straightforward line of argument than to set out agendas for further research and discussion. In pointing both to the importance of rural societies in American development and to the many levels on which they must be analyzed, Kulikoff succeeds in an imaginative and thought-provoking way.

This approach does leave the reader a little unsure as to where Kulikoff would place "the agrarian origins of American capitalism." On one hand, they evidently lie in the language of individual rights, which farmers used during the Revolution to assert their political power, yet which also formed a basis for the emergence of a capitalist society that would eventually transform their way of life. But this language did not belong exclusively to farmers, and it formed only a strand in the complex changes they would confront. On the other hand, though Kulikoff gives a brief account of the dynamics of nineteenth-century rural change he does not provide a single, focused statement of what he sees as the process of capitalist development in America. Farmers and their yeoman ideology often feature in these essays as victims of capitalism. Yet as Kulikoff also points outs, commercial farming and the proletarianization of rural labor were intrinsic to rural society, not simply imposed on it.

An achievement of the "new rural history" has been to emphasize the influence of the dynamic tensions within rural societies on patterns of economic change. The problem of how these interacted with forces extrinsic to the countryside still remains to be fully resolved. This book will be widely consulted by scholars and students seeking to do so.

Christopher Clark is senior lecturer in history at the University of York, England. Among his recent publications on American rural history is The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860 (1990), which won the Organization of American Historians' Frederick Jackson Turner Award for 1991. He is currently working on a book about utopian communities in Massachusetts in the 1840s.
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Author:Clark, Christopher
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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