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The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New York, 1652-1836.

The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New Yprk, 1652-1836. By David G. Hackett (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. xv plus 240 pp. $29.95).

Readers of Paul Johnson's work on Rochester, Mary Ryan's on Oneida County, and Randolph Roth's on the Connecticut Valley of Vermont will be startled to learn from this prize-winning volume that "we have no sociological interpretations of American religious history that are grounded in the data of social experience" (p. 160). David G. Hackett's study of Albany departs from these (most obvious) models in its chronological scope (Albany was settled earlier than the other regions) and in its persistent recourse to the theories of Clifford Geertz and Ann Swidler for interpretations of his narrative. Following their lead, the author distinguishes "settled" historical periods when culture is a "coherent system" from "unsettled" historical periods when ideologies govern actions, though significant elements of "traditional" cultures persist.

When did Albany become "unsettled"? In one place the author chooses 1720, at others 1740, and at still others 1760. If one selects the earliest date, the period of stability must have been short indeed, since it was based upon the dominance of approximately 150 "stable core" families who emigrated from the Netherlands in the years between 1657 and 1664. At yet another juncture in his analysis, Hackett draws from Kenneth Lockridge and Rhys Isaac a picture of "settled" colonial society characterized by limited distribution of wealth, "little social differentiation," and independence from the market economy (p. 163). Since the social order of colonial Albany rested on extended family networks dominated by patriarchs who drew their wealth from monopoly of the fur trade and extended their influence through a virtual monopoly of office in the Dutch church and the Common Council, neither independence from the market economy nor lack of social differentiation seems a pertinent descriptor.

Fortunately, Hackett devotes most of the book not to grand theorizing but to concrete description of historical changes in the economy, the institutional structure, and the religious ethos of Albany. This is the level of analysis at which he excels.

In the beginning, Albany (or Beverwyck) was a fortified Dutch village that reproduced the mercantile, Calvinist oligarchies of its mother towns in the Netherlands. Soldiers from British garrisons who arrived after 1664 married into Dutch families, joined the Dutch church, plied skilled trades and filled the lesser public offices. Abraham Yates, grandson of such a soldier, tried to lead the local revolt against British mercantile intrusions into the economy during the Seven Years War, and re-emerged, as an Anglican, as a leader of the Committee of Correspondence and of the local branch of the Livingston faction in state politics.

Immigration after 1760 made Albany a Yankee-dominated town and the Dutch a small minority by the turn of the century. By the end of the revolution, American nationalism and identification of the nation's laws and its citizens as Christian replaced Dutch ethnicity and the Dutch church as the bases of moral order. Presbyterians and Anglicans joined the oligarchs of the Reformed Church on the Common Council.

Sons of New England and sons of Ulster (like 1789 migrant William James, grandfather of his namesake the philosopher) innovated in business, diversified the city's economy, and increasingly pressed the Council to define patriotism in terms of new streets and wharves to accommodate the business of a city that was seventh in size in the nation by 1817. The Erie canal, begun in that year and completed in 1825, spurred still greater growth and diversification of the economy, with attendant division and deskilling of labor, class stratification, and separation of home and workplace. Five years after white manhood suffrage came to New York, three quarters of the voters among the bottom fifty percent of taxpayers were not church members at all, and nearly that proportion of church members were women, predominantly the wives of Albany's well-to-do Calvinist merchants, professionals, and public officials. New voters were less likely to choose elders than to opt for professional politicians like Martin Van Buren, and to select for Common council representatives of parties more united by economic interest than by confession. These representatives, in turn, made the business of Albany's government business, skimped on provision for the poor and rejected petitions that would have had them enforce moral order through prohibitionist or sabbatarian restrictions.

Members of the Calvinist churches took to interdenominational prayer meetings, temperance, Bible and Sunday School societies. Wives liberated from the demands of household production took to looking after the poor, the orphans, and the other uneducated children on an interdenominational basis. Evangelical Presbyterian and Methodist ministers preached human ability and practiced rigid moral discipline. They attracted increasing numbers among the skilled workers and entrepreneurs in the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. By the end of an eight-year period of intense revivalism, in 1835, the evangelicals constituted a majority of the church members in Albany. Abstinence from drink, orderly deportment, and much-examined character seem to have paid off with rapid upward mobility among those congregants of the evangelical churches who stayed around.

Churches and interdenominational reform societies did not monopolize the production of ideologies in Albany. Joel Munsell's Albany Microscope spoke the free-thinkers' fear of evangelical union between church and state, and their contempt of the clergy. Like-minded members of The Young Men's Society for Mutual Improvement agreed with Munsell's emphasis on study, reflection, and reason. Like the evangelicals, however, freethinkers stood four-square for temperance, education, technological improvement, economic growth, and universal salvation.

Hackett's examination of the Workingmen's movement in Albany uncovers similar ideological overlap. The Workingmen's Party, founded in February, 1830, sought not a classless society, but one in which virtue, talent, and industry might find their proper reward. Most of their candidates were not workers, and perhaps because the state legislature enacted so many of the reforms they espoused, the party lasted only 15 months. Most of its activists became Whigs. Workingmen and evangelicals agreed on the importance of economic growth, democracy, education, and individual rights. Both tended to recruit members among the same social groups. Yet only a third of Workingmen's Party leaders were church members and only a quarter of those, evangelicals. Approximately the same proportions prevailed within the other parties. Regency leaders included more merchants, professionals, and public officials; Workingmen's leaders included more workingmen. Both parties received significant support from every class.

Hackett bases his findings both on Charles Gotsche's 1976 dissertation on the Albany Workingmen's party, and his own comparisons of 1830 census and city directory information with information from the city directory of 1817. Political activism among long-term community residents provided the base of support for all parties. Because city directories leave a lot of people out, one might question the significance of his finding that the Regency party had the largest bloc of supporters among long-term residents (41 per cent as against 36 percent for the Workingmen). Hackett's thorough treatment of the Workingmen's Party and its ideological and social resemblance to the longer-lived Methodist connection offers an interesting contribution to the historical sociology of religion. Fellow travelers in the realm of grand theory may suspect, however, that he has rediscovered the civilizing mission of Methodism among the working class and the triumphant (if never uncontested) rise of the bourgeoisie.

Mary Young University of Rochester
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Young, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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