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Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from its Founding to the Revolution.

Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from its Founding to the Revolution. By Barry Levy (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. vi plus 354 pp.).

Popular culture notions of early American history usually root the origins of democracy in the United States in two intersecting bedrock institutions, the New England town meeting and the free market: allegedly the town meeting empowered local voters to free themselves from the oppression they had experienced in the European past and they used this newfound freedom to indulge their latent Yankee ingenuity in the unfettered pursuit of economic opportunity. Barry Levy argues in Town Born that this hazy quasi-Libertarian interpretation of colonial American economic democracy is dead wrong. Although town meetings did dominate New England polities, the freemen used local power coercively to shape the economy through activist, interventionist strategies developed in cooperation with the colony-level governments.

Levy is hardly unique in his interpretation: professional scholars have long battled the romantic image of a subsistent economy dominated by self-sufficient, sturdy, and ruggedly independent yeoman. Town Born, however, adds multiple levels of explicit detail to our picture of an economy far too fragile and far too complex to be trusted to liberal, laissez-faire market forces. In chapters on the transit of political economy from England to New England, punishment, geographic stability and mobility, cloth production, urban development, shipbuilding, seafaring, child labor, and generational relations, Levy shows the magnitude of control exerted by the town over resources and planning. It was, indeed, prodigious.

At the center of virtually all of New England's political economy lay an unswerving commitment to create and control an adequate supply of labor. As Levy argues, New England tried something no other region did--to forswear reliance on forced labor either through slavery or indentured servitude and to rely instead on free labor. New England had slaves and indentured servants but they made up only a small fraction of the population: the Puritan migration consisted primarily of middle-class families most of whom paid their own passage over. Not only did this pattern of migration create a free labor market, it also created a relatively even gender balance unlike the southern and middle colonies where single young men predominated and thus further enlarged the labor pool. New England faced a dilemma: how could it squeeze enough muscle and sweat from the population without employing undesirables or plunging the sons of freemen into landless status?

Puritan social goals helped much according to Levy. New Englanders never intended towns to be sanctuaries and, once settled, each town jealously guarded the right to admit only a small number of carefully scrutinized newcomers. Town born labor was thus greatly privileged over external labor which had the affect of raising wages. Young men often could earn enough money in a short period to buy their own land independent of their fathers. Puritans also put their own children out in the labor pool in large numbers at astonishingly young ages. Masters taking on young farmhands or craft workers treated these employees somewhat as their own children and assumed responsibilities for their moral education as well as vocational training. Thus the Puritan sense of community--of being each other's brothers and sisters--blurred the distinction between children and servants. And, on the less attractive side of the Puritan ethos, the town fathers embraced an unusual--even by 17th and 18th century standards--willingness to inflict severe punishment on the lazy or unruly. Whipping posts provided a powerful negative reinforcement of the work ethic as well as of Christian morality.

Many aspects of Levy's analysis hearken back to earlier eras of New England historiography. After a generation of town studies that emphasized diversity among types of towns, Town Born reminds us of the many properties towns shared in common. It also brings back the concepts of control and authority that we associated with Puritans before the last half century of attempts to soften and humanize them. Levy explicitly examines and rejects the widely supported argument that New England fathers exercised a tyrannical control over their sons by withholding property from them and delaying the sons' rise to full economic independence: high wages and a protected market, he argues, gave sons the wherewithal to be their own men far before they inherited the family patrimony.

Levy's research is substantial but in most cases he relies on "thick description" more than on predictive models. In several instances just a few swallows are used to make a whole summer, and one would feel more comfortable with a greater reliance on empirical data. He also chooses some language that is too inflammatory to be persuasive: thus Puritan children are "traumatized" into becoming easily controlled workers (pg. 3), John Winthrop "delighted" in watching a father join in the whipping of his daughter (pg. 67), and "in most New England households, the middle-aged master was implicitly if not explicitly attracted to his female servants" (pg. 82). And, finally, Levy is inclined to lay claim to a greater originality for some of his conclusions than they deserve. He may well be justified in arguing that recent scholars have overstated geographic mobility and understated town loyalty but many other scholars have long argued that large family kinship units exerted a gravitational hold on generations of town sons.

Town Born has more virtues than vices, however, and it will assume a valued place in the already rich literature on towns and Puritans. It also reminds us that no matter how crowded a historiography may be, there is always room for a new good book.

Bruce C. Daniels

University of Texas, San Antonio
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Author:Daniels, Bruce C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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