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The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism.

Historians are leery of "grand designs" and all-encompassing explanations of the past, and of none more so than the Marxist theory of history. They complain (often with good cause) about the tendencies of such approaches to force weak empirical evidence into a predetermined framework. At the same time, much has been written of late about the need for a new chronology, one that focuses on long-term economic and social trends rather than political events. Alan Kulikoff's latest book confronts both of these issues. The book is really a collection of essays, most of which have been previously published. But these appear in revised versions, and all the essays gain from being read in the broader context of Kulikoff's unifying focus, the capitalist development of rural America and "the making of independent small-holding farmers and artisans and dependent women and slaves into capitalists and wage laborers...."

The introduction offers a brief overview of the Marxist analysis of the emergence of capitalism and of economic classes, particularly the growth of class identity among farmers. The remainder of the volume is organized into three sections: "Perspectives on Rural Capitalism," "Capitalism and the American Revolution," and "Rural Migration and Capitalist Transformation."

In the first two chapters of section one, Kulikoff surveys the ongoing debate between historians of early America who stress the transformative power of market forces and the willing involvement of farmers in the market, and those who emphasize the noncommercial behavior of farmers and their resistance to market threats to their economic independence. Long after the Revolution, he argues, non- and anticapitalist elements persisted in rural America and yeomen continued to seek independence on the ever-moving frontier. The rural language of class that began to emerge in the eighteenth century, Kulikoff contends in chapter three, reflected farmers' belief that it was their own improvements that brought value to the land; they rejected the language of nostalgic pastoralism invoked by the rural gentry. Even while many farmers willingly adopted a more entrepreneurial ideology in the nineteenth century, others continued to embrace a language that emphasized productive labor over speculative investment.

The second section explores a theme that has aroused similar, if less focused, controversy among early American historians--whether the American Revolution was, in fact, a bourgeois revolution. Kulikoff restates the view that the Philadelphia convention marked a victory for the ruling class and created a national government with power to construct a legal and political structure friendly to capitalist development. But he also stresses that revolutionary ideology was filled with ambiguities and contradictions, both anti-commercial and individualistic at once. Yeomen in Massachusetts, New York, and the Carolinas, he shows, developed their own revolutionary ideologies and their own views of upper-class conspiracies as a result of the particular economic and social conflicts they found themselves engaged in during the 1750s, 1760s, and 1770s. Wealthy patriots needed yeomen's loyalty if the Revolution was to succeed and were forced to make numerous political concessions. Small farmers continued their advocacy in the years after the war, petitioning governments for a more democratic society and a new type of moral economy that would guarantee their survival. Little of this argument is new to historians, but it does help to place the Revolution and the Constitution in a wider, non-political framework.

The final chapter of this section examines yeomen's contribution to the Revolutionary War effort in Virginia. Kulikoff focuses on the role of the militia and explores the various ways in which the colony filled its quotas for the continental army--through drafts, enticement of volunteers through bounties, allowing the hiring of substitutes, and self-selection by militia members. Even late in the war, yeomen continued to serve enthusiastically in defending their own neighborhoods when the British invaded that region, even while they proved reluctant to re-enlist in the Continental army.

The two chapters in the book's concluding section explore white and black rural migration. Chapter seven is a wide-ranging examination of free migration and cultural diffusion between 1600 and 1800. It analyzes the similarities and differences between internal colonial migration in the north and south, and the longer-distance migration that characterized the ante-bellum period. In each case, Kulikoff concludes, migrants sought to re-create the cultures they had left behind and to retain a strong sense of communalism. Black slaves showed similar desires. The war, the rejuvenated African slave trade (until 1808), and the burgeoning internal slave trade all disrupted communal and family life. Blacks moved to rebuild families and communities almost as soon as they arrived in new areas, and the fragmented families left behind did the same.

Kulikoff concludes by emphasizing the cycle of conquest, colonization, improvement, and migration that has characterized the movement of rural peoples in America throughout its history. Farmers have succeeded in achieving their goal of the independent family farm often enough to sustain its myth long after the reality has faded.

Kulikoff is clear and convincing in his advocacy. Though there are gaps in the story, he has provided us with a satisfying theoretical model for understanding the emergence of capitalism in rural America through the nineteenth century, and a suggestive analysis of the relationship between such change and more visible political events. In the process, he has highlighted a number of familiar and not-so-familiar themes, such as the relationship between gender relations and rural capitalism, and the persistent search for economic independence that has characterized American rural migration. Even traditionally-minded historians will find most of these essays refreshing in their rigorous approach to theory and their unfailing reliance on the historical record. In short, this is one of the most rewarding, far-ranging analyses of American agrarian history yet to appear, and one can only hope that historians will follow the author's suggestions for future research with the same enthusiasm and skill.

Ronald P. Dufour Rhode Island College
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dufour, Ronald P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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