Nov 2015

Digging into the Market Transition

From Market-Places to a Market Economy Winifred Barr Rothenberg, 1992

Two things to note: First, WBR is a professor of economics at Tufts University.  Second, this book is substantially a compilation of a series of articles that appeared (partly) in Agricultural History and (mostly in) The Journal of Economic History.  Some of Rothenberg’s opinions about the “moral economy” model appear in a review of Hahn and Prude’s Countryside in the Dec. 1987 Reviews in American History, titled “Bound Prometheus.”

Through extensive primary research and mathematical modeling, Winifred Barr Rothenberg came to the conclusion that the “capitalist transition” began around 1750, and was substantially underway in rural Massachusetts by 1800. While she performs a little sleight of hand navigating between a tight, economist’s definition of capital and markets, and the expansive, politically charged language used in the historians’ market transition debate, Rothenberg uncovers some really valuable data which helps advance our understanding of events, wherever we stand on the “social vs. market” historiographical spectrum.

Economically, Rothenberg rests her evaluation of whether markets are operating on a combination of two related ideas. “Synchronicity and convergence in the behavior of prices,” she says, “is an acknowledged diagnostic of the role of market forces in their determination” (xiv). As transportation and communication improvements allowed farmers to participate in distant markets and to use price cues from those markets as guides in their local exchange relationships, Rothenberg says “markets embedded within and constrained by values antithetical to them within the culture” evolved into “the 'disembedded' market whose values penetrated and reinvented that culture” (3).

Rothenberg is drawing from and commenting on a long lineage of sociological, economic, and cultural critique, in a way that seems unnecessary and overly polemical. She borrows the word “disembedded” from Karl Polanyi, with all its political baggage. The idea that price synchronicity defines a market economy is Braudel’s, while the concept of convergence Rothenberg adds to it comes from Alfred Marshall (20-1). As she’s pulling these two ideas together, Rothenberg considers and rejects Marc Bloch’s suggestion that a market exists when people don’t simply buy and sell, but “live by buying and selling” (20). How would you measure that? she asks. A good question, but difficulty measuring the effects of an idea doesn't disprove it. And her assumption that price convergence led to a radical change in the culture's understanding of markets has a long lineage -- but that fact doesn't prove its validity, either. So the question is, does Rothenberg prove this point with her data?

I’m less interested in the general question of when “market-place economies” become “market economies,” than with how the market expanded into rural Massachusetts. The breakdown of Puritan strictures against usury seems likely to be a part of this change, as Rothenberg suggests. But if this is caused by the introduction of “the fundamental assumption of modernity...that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person,” how did that work?  (quoting Daniel Bell,
The Cultural Conditions of Capitalism, which maybe I should look at for an answer. 15) It’s all well and good to observe that “the market (for better or worse) objectifies some of the culture’s most cherished values,” but Rothenberg seems to say it also created these values, without resorting to cultural or intellectual history or mentalités.  This is important, because if we can agree on the values (for example, “the sovereignty of the individual,” 16), we can then begin examining what happened and asking if events and actions were consistent with these ideals?  Did “market” ideas matter?  Did they direct change?  Or did they just serve as rhetorical cover for other processes and other goals?

In any case, Rothenberg finds some great material! Here’s George Washington to Arthur Young, Dec. 5 1791: “The aim of farmers in this country is, not to make the most from the land, which is or has been cheap, but the most from labour, which is dear: the consequence of which has been, much of the ground has been scratched over, and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been” (25). Throughout the book, Rothenberg shows that farmers’ actions can be understood as economic decisions (and often sophisticated and reasonable ones) reflecting more knowledge and understanding of their environment and options than they are normally credited with having. This is extremely helpful, even if I don’t go as far as she does in rejecting the influence of other sources of information and values on farmers’ decisions.

The moral economy model, as Rothenberg sees it, involves four basic features. Its members, being risk averse (because the whole point of the moral economy is the extremely tenuous nature of early modern existence) prefer “minimizing expected losses over maximizing expected gains” (reminds me of Cronon's application of Liebig's Law in
Changes in the Land. 29). Individualism is “subordinated to community norms,” and “The two institutional pillars of the market system--the rule of contract and private property--are conspicuously absent” (quoting Platteau regarding third world villages, which I think raises a question about the relevance of this type of atemporal sociological comparison. 29). There may, she says, be a “two-tier system in which exchanges within the village...are insulated from exchanges with the outside world...The ‘prices’ at which goods exchange within the village are mere ‘cultural constructs,’” Rothenberg concludes, as if prices arrived at by “market outcomes” were not.

“Indexes of individuation” are linked to the 1740-45 religious upheavals of the Great Awakening, Rothenberg says, because both are caused by “the breakdown of community solidarity [that] in turn can be traced to rapid population growth” (38). Even if she misses the influence of irreligion and anti-religion in the early nineteenth century, it's nice to see an appraisal of the Awakenings that doesn’t treat religious motivations as free-standing, causeless causes. Similarly, she not only lists the many difficulties of studying persistence (for example, varied and changing town dimensions that make it difficult to compare two towns or to compare the same town in different time periods), she also asks the important question, “what in fact does persistence measure?” (40) Is it a measure of community harmony? Or of the expense and difficulty of leaving?

“The capacity to produce surpluses,” Rothenberg says, “is often treated as so necessary a condition to trade that the moral economists infer the absence of marketing solely from calculations that the local resource base would have been insufficient to produce surpluses” (46). This is the “principal misconception in the historical literature on markets,” because it implies that households and communities evolve from self-sufficiency to market involvement, which in many cases (illustrated by the cobbler’s bare-foot children) is untrue. Based on her data, Rothenberg argues “that ‘time’s arrow’ may very well have gone from marketing to self-sufficiency” in rural Massachusetts (49).

Rothenberg’s specific arguments about market activity and productivity gains in Massachusetts seem reasonable, for the most part. But there are some lapses. She spends several pages relating hog slaughter weights to corn prices, for example, before admitting that in this period “Corn is not in fact the basic feed of hogs” (106). However, through most of the economic analysis I didn’t feel that she was going wildly off the tracks.  But I also didn’t feel particularly compelled to abandon a “social” perspective that could accept this data and integrate it with other, non-market factors Rothenberg believes she is refuting.

“Local markets relayed the shocks [of the national and world economies] as changing relative prices,” Rothenberg says, “and resilient farmers responded by shifting from grains to hay, from hay to dairying, and finally from agriculture to commerce and industry” (113). The interesting thing is, the increases in agricultural productivity and the  diversification of rural capital investment that made these changes possible seem to date from the years between the end of the Revolution and Jefferson’s election. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Joyce Appleby’s claim that the Jeffersonians were pro-commerce, but it suggests they were riding a wave not of their own making.

“Central to such a [rural capital] transformation must have been the development of an effective mechanism for increasing the liquidity of the regional economy,” so that the gains farmers were accumulating were free to move within (and to leave) the local agricultural economy. I think my own Upstate New York data suggests that one may have led to the other. The requirements for this change, Rothenberg says, were “institutional elements” allowing “credit instruments [to] become more fully negotiable,” an “increasing size and widening geographic spread of individual credit networks,” and sufficient “liquidity of financial instruments and therefore the propensity of rural wealthholders to substitute them for physical assets” (114). I think this is exactly the role played by my miller/storekeepers in the 1840s, aided by the New York State Banking system. Ironic that the R.G. Dun reporters considered one of them a complete deadbeat. Does that suggest the Dun guys were a little conservative? Their clients were urban creditors, after all. I wonder if anyone has written about this?

Rothenberg’s discussion of negotiability picks up right where Morton Horwitz left off, so it’s lucky I read them back to back. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to accept both Rothenberg’s conclusions on when and how credit and negotiable notes penetrated rural markets, and Horwitz’s suggestion that legal changes were producing a “capitalist” political/economic regime for the benefit of the rich. In fact, Rothenberg’s data shows “The very rich appear to have been borrowing in order to lend, using their acreage...to underwrite their borrowing while at the same time shifting the composition of their assets out of farming and into commercial paper. The very rich were coming into the capital market on both sides. And they alone were emerging as net creditors” (143). In other words, a widening of the gap between the wealthy and their neighbors preceded the industrial transformation often blamed for it.

The final chapter on productivity is surprising because Rothenberg finds evidence that “Massachusetts farmers were moving away from cereals to specialize in hay...in advance of significant western competition;” in fact “by 1801” (221). This would seem to support the view that
demand from what Bidwell (1921) calls a “home market” may have driven productivity growth, but may have begun much earlier than previously supposed.  The earlier beginning of significant demand, increases in productivity, and the resulting returns to rural farmers could have financed the New England industrial revolution, just as Rothenberg suggests. But New England farmers would have been agents of this change rather than victims of it. Additionally, rural demand for “outside” goods may have been encouraged by the increased reach of storekeepers and peddlers into previously remote hinterlands. The Revolution seems like the second major mobility-enhancing event in the eighteenth century; the Seven Year War may have been the real beginning. And the story of Shays’s Rebellion is enhanced (but not completely rewritten, since Leonard Richards has already improved on David Szatmary’s account) if an increasing upland/lowland disparity of farm prosperity adds to the other social and financial factors already cited as causes of that conflict.

Not Yesterday's Tomorrow

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Watched the movie Tomorrowland twice this weekend. Kudos to Disney. Best film I've seen in a while. And best Disney movie since Tron Legacy. But that's another story. The story today is that this movie was pretty well hated by reviewers and the public. People complained about a muddled plot, and I agree there were holes (scroll to the end, but be warned: spoilers). But they were no bigger than the plot holes in any other movie you can name, that people missed because they were comfortable with the movie's theme. I think the real issue was that this movie made people squirm a bit. Especially in the climactic scene, when David Nix, the boss of Tomorrowland and the guy we had assumed was the villain says this:

Just imagine --
 
If you glimpsed the future, and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? Would you go to...who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck.
 
The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if...
 
What if there was a way of skipping the middleman and putting the critical news directly into everyone's head?
 
The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up, and the only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they had ever known or loved?
 
To save civilization, I would show its collapse.
 
And how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom?  
 
They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair. They didn't fear their demise. They repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, as books, movies -- the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.
 
Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one.
 
Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you, the coalmine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint.
 
In every moment, there is the possibility of a better future, yet you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So you dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it, for one reason.
 
Because that future doesn't ask anything of you today.
 
So, yes. We saw the iceberg, warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why?
 
Because you want to sink. You gave up. That's not the monitor's fault. That's yours.


The premise of the movie, established brilliantly in the first few seconds of dialog, is that the future isn't what it used to be. This idea is familiar to the science fiction crowd, who have been asking "where's my flying car?" for some time now. There are a lot of reasons the Tom Swift future gave way to the cyberpunk future. It wasn't a technically feasible future. It wasn't a particularly environment-friendly future -- if there was even an environment in it. But in my opinion, the main reasons were technocracy and inequality. The future was something that was going to be made for us by smart people. And, as William Gibson famously said, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed.
Both of those problems are present in some degree in the
Tomorrowland future. The creative people have actually found a place (unexplained, but apparently a pocket universe or a separate/parallel dimension) where they can be free to create without constraint. It's almost a Galt's Gulch, except that they had intended to bring the rest of the world along with them, or at least to share the fruits of their creativity. The Frank character is a bit complicated, and it's unclear why he was banished long before the story begins. He's clearly not in a sharing mood when we first meet him.
But those issues don't really detract from the point that Nix made. The signs are there, but the stories we're telling celebrate the post-apocalyptic struggle because that allows us to wait for the apocalypse. And let's face it, even if Tina Turner is singing "We Don't Need Another Hero" in the background, Mad Max is still doing all the work for us.
So the challenge, I guess, is to imagine a future that acknowledges the problems we face but retains some hope we'll figure them out. I thought
Tomorrowland made a decent start on that road. Gotta make sure I try and do the same, when I build Part Two of my Environmental History class and textbook.


The plot holes? I thought they were forgivable, and ironically probably due to the fact that Disney knew how unpopular their  theme was going to be. The biggest plot error is that after giving that intelligent and obviously caring speech, David Nix tries to shoot Frank and ends up killing Athena. This is ridiculous. Nix likes Frank, and he loves Athena. And he has just explained the situation with the monitor. He wasn't trying to destroy the world, he was trying to save it. He believes the monitor can't be turned off, not that it shouldn't be. So it's entirely out of character for him to act the villain at that point. It advances the action, but makes it a bit nonsensical.

Death in 1854

Lucius writes Henry in mid-June, 1854.  He mentions that he received a letter recently from Henry, but was waiting to write until Harrison came home from the Cherokee Nation.  Harrison is anxiously awaited, Lucius says.  The family’s anxiety would have been heightened because Lyman had died March 7th, 1854 in Van Buren, Arkansas.  None of the letters in the archive discuss or even mention Lyman’s death, which suggests that there were many more letters sent and received between the Ranney brothers than have come down to us.  But as a result of this gap, we have no information on how Lyman died.  Based on earlier letters, we know he had been ill and that epidemic illnesses were not uncommon where he was living, and in a future letter we learn Harrison is delayed returning home because of an outbreak of cholera.  But we also know that from Lyman’s point of view, Van Buren was a pretty rough town.  Lyman could as easily have been killed in a robbery or brawl as by illness.  We’ll probably never know, and this incompleteness of information is typical of this type of archival research.  We work with what we have, and hope the story we can tell using the available information hangs together and makes sense.

In spite of the fact their brother had died only a couple of months earlier, though, the Ranney family had other concerns that get a lot of attention in this letter.  A young neighbor had died, and the neighborhood was taking it hard. Lewis was looking for a new farm, with even less acreage than the reduced parcel he had been working since his illness.  A dramatic rise in land values allowed many of the Ranneys’ friends and neighbors to sell at large profits.  And Lucius wanted his mother to come home, but as always doesn’t want to come right out and say it.

1854-6-18luciustohsr
My Transcription:

Allen June 18th 1854
Dear Friends

We received a letter from you about two weeks since & ought to have written to you before this, but have waited for Harrison to come home.  But he has not come & I shall not delay writing a longer on his account.  The last letter that we got from him said that he should start for home in May.  But Henry Coon got a letter from him some 2 or 3 weeks since.  Harrison said to him that he meant to start for home about the first of June but should be at home at any rate by the fourth of July.  We are anxiously awaiting his return.

We are all well & have been since I wrote last.  Lewis & his wife are here & have been for about 3 or 4 weeks, or ever since Sarah Ann came from the state of N.Y.  She was at Franklin’s 3 or 4 days, they were all well.  Ellen had just got over the ague.  Lewis went out to Black River & drove his cow, with the intention of staying.  He did not buy any land.  He stayed two weeks & made up his mind that it was not the place for him.  Priscilla’s health was quite good, Lewis said that he never saw her as fleshy.  Densmore & Edwin were also well.  

Lewis thinks of buying about here somewhere.  He wants somewhere fro twenty to forty acres of land.  Land is a getting very high about here.  It has raised in value one third since you left.  I mean Mother.  Mother you would be surprised if you knew all the sales of land & changes even in this town since you left.  I will just mention a few that you are the most particularly acquainted with.  Mr. Bements have sold to John Baggerly and he has moved out here so that we have got them for neighbors once more.  Mr. Bement’s folks have bought 3 miles south of Hillsdale.  He sold for two thousand dollars & bought for the same 80 acres.  George Martin has sold 60 acres which was all he had to a man by the name of Edwin from Ontario Co. for eighteen hundred dollars.  Mr. Scovill has sold his that joined Holbrook.  Mr. Graves has sold his & has moved a few miles west somewhere.  Richard Aldrich has sold & moved out with his father in law.  Elder Sabin sold last fall & the man that bought him out has sold again.  Daniel Nichols has sold & bought near Jonesville.  There has been a number of small sales on & about the Prairie this spring.  There is a great many many Eastern people through the country a looking this season.  

We got a letter from Lemuel a day or two since.  It was written the 9th of May.  He says that he is well & has been.  He also says that he is a coming home next spring.  He says that he has not made his fortune yet but has been a doing well of late.  He has made the last three moths $500 five hundred dollars.  He is a mining but he says that his claim is a running out a little.  He intends to keep a mining until he comes home.  He got a letter from Lewis & one from Henry a day or two before he wrote.  

Anson is here this summer.  He is a clearing off, intending to put in about seven or eight acres of wheat this fall.  I am also a clearing off 6 acres up on top of the hill by the sugar place.  Wheat is worth two dollars a bushel.  I sold a load the other day for $1.90.  Wheat looks very poor on the ground this summer, poorer than I ever saw it in this country.  Anson’s looks well, it bids fair for two hundred bushels.  Mine looks better than on average, but rather poor.  Other crops looks well.  The weather is fine.  We had a heavy rain yesterday.  

Mr. Brockway’s folks have been sorely afflicted.  They have lost their son George.  He died about five weeks ago.  He was sick just a week.  He died with the inflammation of the bowels.  He suffered a great deal of pain through his sickness, the most I ever knew a person to in sickness.  The family (Mother) you know took it very hard, & the neighborhood feel to mourn the loss of him, for truly it is a great breach of the family & great loss to the neighborhood.  

I sent some money to Franklin by Harrison Baggerly about three or four weeks ago, & out of it there would be about 26 or 28 dollars more than was a going to him which I told him that he might send the whole or a part of to you.  Probably you have received it before this time.  As regards your coming home, I will say in this as I have said in my previous letters, you can act your own pleasure about coming home.  We would all be glad to see you, but just do as you think best & you will please us.  We do not want you should give yourself any uneasiness one way nor the other about us.  I would also say that we get along well.  I do not know how long Lewis’ folks will stay here.  Lewis’ goods are in the house across the road.

We shall write again when Harrison comes home or we hear from him again.  I have nothing more in particular to write at this time.  Clarissa says that she will not write any this time.  She is a writing to her folks.  It is nearly night.  We have been to the Prairy to meeting today.  Clarissa & Sarah Ann send their love to you all.  Wealthy Ann Howard was married to Andrew Winchester about 4 weeks since.  Write soon.

Yours in Haste
Lucius Ranney

[Notes written upside down in the margins:]

We have sheared our sheep & have sold wool for thirty five cts a lb.  
Caroline as the old saying is, is tougher than a bear.  She wants to be on the move from morning till night.  She is all over the farm & wants to know all that is a going on & she asks as many questions as her Grandmother Ranney has ever thought of.   
We raised about 30 lambs this year which I would like to sell for $1.50 a piece. 

Not all farmers wanted the same things

Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917
Elizabeth Sanders, 1999

Elizabeth Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I” (1). But she also says they didn't really get what they wanted.  This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class” (2). Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism” (3-4). In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream (5). And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism” (4). So why didn't farmers get what they had wanted?

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets” (28). Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous, diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. It's interesting that the diversified farms, the ones that basically disappeared, are considered in this context as the strong, central farms, and the monoculturists we normally think of as the source of Populist criticism of railroads and flour monopolists was the shaky, "peripheral" group. Maybe they
did get what they wanted, at least in terms of moving to the center of the debate.

The more diversified “hinterland” farmers were dependent on their local urban markets, and their political behavior reflected this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when we read accounts of the farm movement.

For me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture.  “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction
per se has limited explanatory power in American politics” (16). And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the diversified farmers. (17)  The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers (27). Rather than thinking of rural people as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps.  This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be left out of the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that agrarian-labor coalitions failed because they were “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority” (412). But most interesting, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc” (388-9). So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?

The Founders' Temporary Republic

The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America
Drew R. McCoy, 1980

The basic premise of
The Elusive Republic is that the Jeffersonian Republicans, especially James Madison but even including Benjamin Franklin, thought they could use the frontier to substitute development across space for development over time.  In this way, America could be kept in a sort-of artificial infancy, forestalling the what these men, all familiar with classical antiquity, universally believed was the inevitable declension of republics into decadence. Their objective, says Drew McCoy, was to keep America in an intermediate state which they hoped would allow for commercialization without the corruption of public morals and dependence on imported luxuries they believed marked the beginning of the end for a republic. McCoy says the republicans were obsessed with personal virtue because they believed only a “Spartan” citizenry could maintain a republic. The irony, understood by only a few, was that in its attempt to keep people virtuous, Sparta had eliminated the freedoms and individual rights the republicans sought to protect.

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McCoy begins with the very important observation that “Contemporary Americans all too often presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forebears. It is easy to assume that our basic concerns were theirs, and especially that our understanding of the Revolution and its legacy accurately reflects the meaning and significance they attached to it...few acknowledge how frightening and even distasteful twentieth-century America might appear to the members of a Revolutionary generation” (5). This misunderstanding is due, he says, not only to the unimaginable changes that separate them and us, but also to the fact that they were knowingly engaged in an anachronistic, “poignant struggle to adapt the traditional, classical republican impulse to modern commercial society” (9). Since “The Revolutionaries lived during an age when a consideration of the normative dimension of economic life” was still expected, McCoy sets out to describe their attempt to “establish...a republican system of political economy in America” (7).
“American republicanism.” McCoy says, “must be understood as an ideology in transition” (10). It might also be described, to extend his train of thought, as a system idealists like Jefferson tried to apply to a reality they didn’t (and didn’t want to?) completely understand. Or, if one were cynical, it might be described as a political discourse, presented to a European audience (via Francois Marbois) wondering how America was going to arrange its affairs. Consider this famous description of yeoman virtue by plantation owner and noted deist, Thomas Jefferson:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition...generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer to measure its degree of corruption. (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia)

This is supposed to be the core statement of the Jeffersonian agrarian myth. But why should the breasts of farmers be the only possible “deposit for substantial and genuine virtue”? Is it only because Jefferson says so? Is that why he needs to resort to “God”? And “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators...” He’s conveniently forgetting not only that he and his fellow Virginian cultivators own slaves, but that they own slaves specifically because they were not living in virtuous subsistence, but producing a staple crop for foreign commercial markets! And if his virtuous cultivators are actually the slaves, then there goes his whole republican formula.

“Dependence begets subservience,” is only a short step from some type of Rousseauvian belief that any social interaction is a “fall” from a pure state of nature. It’s not a state of nature Jefferson or any of his readers has ever seen. But back to McCoy. Republicans like Jefferson and George Mason, he says “never doubted that the natural sequence of social development would culminate inevitably in the form of society he feared” (16). It was the classical paradigm of declension, the fall, the feet-of-clay story. It's interesting, as McCoy notes, how these people are able to mix these ancient paradigms with “enlightenment” ideas from Hume and Adam Smith, in ways that seem unreasonable to us now. But I'm still not convinced these were actually beliefs these folks honestly held, rather than rhetorical devices they used.

McCoy spends some time defending Adam Smith, in an argument that seems to fit well with Joyce Appleby’s contributions to the “capitalist transition” debate. He says Smith both “emphatically approved of an advanced division of labor as the basis of continuing economic growth and social progress, [and] was also concerned with its concomitant tendency to relegate the laboring classes to a brutish existence that crippled their minds and bodies” (37). Smith is the smartest guy in McCoy's story, offering nuanced, qualified observations, such as his statement that under mercantilism, “the private interest of a part, and of a subordinate part of society” was taken to be “the general interest of the whole” (quoting
Wealth of Nations, 43). Other insights are provided by Franklin: “Manufactures are founded in poverty...it is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture” (quoting “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” 51), and John Adams: “the balance of power in a society [parallels] the balance of property in land [so society must] make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society [or] make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates” (68).

McCoy suggests there was some “uneasy suspicion (and sometimes recognition) among the Revolutionaries that even predominantly agricultural America was already a relatively advanced commercial society” (70). They made practical distinctions, however, between “wealth that accrued through the perseverance of habitual industry” and the “sudden fortunes acquired through the manipulation and chicanery of speculators and stockjobbers” (85). This seems to go to the heart of the republican objection to Hamilton. After all, as Thomas Paine said, “Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe” (quoting
Common Sense, 89). But did anybody really think you could build a nation on commerce and not create fortunes?

The cause of America’s problems, in McCoy’s story, was the new nation’s inability to sell its agricultural surpluses freely in Europe and the West Indies. In this sense, Britain nearly defeated the new American republic by causing a political crisis that split the founding generation into republican and federalist partisans. Jefferson and Madison’s idea of “developing across space rather than through time” depended on both the availability of a frontier and the “ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market” (121-2). The Embargo and attempts to eliminate foreign luxuries and focus on domestic manufacture of “necessaries” raise interesting questions about the role of government in economic development. McCoy reminds the reader that even Hamilton insisted “the development of advanced manufactures in America would require extensive government encouragement” (quoting the “Report on Manufactures,” 159). He concludes that the republicans’ revolution, the “escape from time,” had always been understood by Madison as temporary (259). At some point, the frontier would close. By his 1815 annual message, Madison had begun explicitly supporting “manufacturing establishments...of the more complicated kind” (245). Was this Madison’s  acknowledgement of the basic mismatch between classical republicanism and nineteenth century America? Was it a political victory for the capitalists and their cronies in professional government? Maybe the defining moment, in political changes like the demise of agrarian republicanism and its reappearance as an American myth, is not when the other guys finally win out, but when its proponents give it up.

Year of the Bird-flu

I decided to bring my chapter on the transformation of farms into agribusiness all the way to the present, and conclude with this:

2015 will be remembered by many American farmers as the year of the Avian Influenza. According to poultry industry sources, bird flu swept through the Midwest in the Spring of 2015 in the worst epidemic ever experienced. At least 223 outbreaks were recorded, causing the destruction of tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

By late spring, the epidemic was national news. The
New York Times reported on an Iowa farm that was being forced to euthanize 5.5 million laying hens. The farm, located in an Iowa county that earns close to $2 billion annually from agriculture, had housed its layers in battery cages in 26 barns. Although the farmers had isolated the outbreak to just two of those barns, the article said, they were being forced to dispose of all their birds and thoroughly disinfect the entire operation.

While this was clearly frustrating for the farmers and tragic for all the chickens that had to be killed, there was more to the story than the
Times reported. The Iowa farm they described was part of the Center Fresh Group, a corporation owned by eight Iowa families that controls 17 percent of the nation's poultry and is the largest producer of eggs and shell products in America. Although the operators of the farm in the story were "forced" by the USDA to destroy their birds, Center Fresh, like all the other operations that disposed of birds suspected of being diseased, was compensated by the USDA for the birds they destroyed. Birds that died of the disease were not covered by the reimbursement program, which provided growers with a lot of incentive to cooperate with the government's biosecurity protocols.

The outbreaks were blamed by the poultry industry on migratory waterfowl, and the
USDA issued instructions on maintaining biosecurity in commercial poultry operations. The precautions they recommended included eliminating wetlands and seasonal ponds used by migrating flocks of ducks and geese, and eliminating food sources for wild birds. Neither the industry nor the government commented on how the H5N2 and H5N8 influenza viruses, known to have originated in Asian commercial poultry, migrated to the Americas and infected migrating ducks. The industry and government biosecurity experts also failed to explain how so many flocks of commercial chickens, raised in cages indoors, managed to come in contact with the droppings of wild waterfowl. The media cooperated, reprinting the press releases issued by industry sources and the USDA without asking any questions.

usda-flu

The poultry industry did notice that 90 percent of the flu outbreaks were in commercial flocks and only 10 percent in "backyard" flocks. But when the media mentioned this statistic, it was usually to emphasize the potential economic impact to growers forced to destroy million-bird flocks. No one asked why most backyard birds didn't get the flu, just as no one had asked why wild birds, claimed to be the vector spreading the infection, weren't sick.

Turkey producers were especially hard hit. The Hormel corporation, whose Jennie-O brand is the world leader in turkey products, warned that prices would rise steeply and their corporate profits would suffer. Biosecurity experts in the turkey industry claimed commercial flocks had caught the virus from wild turkeys. In Minnesota, the nation's leading turkey-producing state, newspapers carried stories of the nightmare virus and helpless farmers. Once again, wild turkeys, which regularly survive outdoors through Minnesota's harsh winters, didn't seem to be suffering. And no one could explain how barn-raised birds had caught the virus from their elusive woodland cousins.

poultry-350x219

When scientists at the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced there was no evidence linking wild birds to the flu outbreaks, the industry issued angry statements to the press,  discrediting the scientists and reiterating their wild-bird theories. In late April, Minnesota's Governor declared a state of emergency and visited a poultry company in southern Minnesota. A few miles from where the Governor commiserated with area residents, a commercial hatchery ships 45 million day-old turkey poults to Minnesota growers every year. But no one has examined any of the centralized supply chains of the commercial poultry industry as possible vectors for disease. Minnesota's leading newspaper, covering the Governor's visit, quoted a local woman worrying about the scary, mysterious disease threatening the region's economy. "What is the source?" she asked. "Are they ever going to find the source?"

Industrial Farms and Objectivity

Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture Deborah Fitzgerald, 2003

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series.  Lots of good stuff in this series. This one is about how an overarching idea may have guided change in American agriculture. Timely, because I've been writing my chapter on "Farmers and Agribusiness" the last couple of days.

Deborah Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4).  This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” would take over farm life. the title, “Every Farm a Factory,” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

Even if it's difficult to quantify, I suspect this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both agricultural markets and inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its next harvest. Of course, the idea of the family farm is also complicated. Much more of a thing at the beginning of the twentieth century and an ideal (or political slogan) by the end.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values increased...farm size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf. Postel on Populists, but also Paul Conkin 2008 for a rebuttal). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines
needed to be built so big and so expensive that it only sense to run one on a field that occupied a full section of land. And it was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local coops and associations, or harvest contractors. But I'll grant that it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this logic, and especially to International Harvester marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity. It's worth remembering that IH itself was a trust created by J.P. Morgan which was hauled into court in an antitrust action in 1927.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something objective, rather than on opinions. The binary nature of the questions that often lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these yes/no choices exist in a wider range of unexamined possibility that the question simply ignores.  Even prices (the ultimate hard data) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator for some people. It might also explain why many actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers throughout the Progressive Era.

I’ve really got to revisit Taylor’s
Principles of Scientific Management soon.  Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 A.M. Todd, my Michigan Peppermint King, appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave!  I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.

Two Views of Gotham

gotham-unbound-9781476741284_lg

New York is one of the most written-about American cities. There are histories of specific periods in the city's past, of particular parts of the city, and of particular groups that have lived, worked, or passed through New York. Recently, Environmental Historian Ted Steinberg published what he calls an Ecological History of Greater New York, called Gotham Unbound. Like Steinberg's earlier book, Nature Incorporated, Gotham Unbound examines the way relationship with the Manhattan landscape interacted with changing ideas about the natural world. The specific focus of this story is the development of the underwater land surrounding the original island of Manhattan.

Others have described the leveling of Manhattan and erasure of the hills, streams, forests, and ponds settlers found. Steinberg focuses on the filling and development of tidal salt-marshes and shallows close to shore. Between the early nineteenth century and today, he says, "an area of marshland four times the size of the island of Manhattan was destroyed. Nearly three Manhattan Islands' worth of open water, moreover was filled." Not only would the city itself be unrecognizable to its early explorers and settlers, says Steinberg; so would the Bay and waterways surrounding it.

Steinberg reminds us of characteristics of greater New York that are difficult to remember because they disappeared so long ago. When Europeans arrived, he says, they found a complex ecosystem that provided an incredibly abundant variety of foods. And unlike London, which had to protect itself from a twenty-foot tide, the tidal range around Manhattan was less than five feet. This made building docks and reclaiming land much easier for New Yorkers, which helped make New York Harbor a center of Atlantic Trade.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Steinberg says, a grid was imposed on the island and extended into the shallow water offshore, and offshore lots went on sale. Gradually, features of the terrain became less important, and the lots marked on the grid (whether above or below the tide-line) became understood as sources of potential profit rather than as parts of a natural environment. Like the rivers of Steinberg's earlier book, the marshes around Manhattan became economic instruments rather than parts of a world with its own rules, needs, or rights.

It's fascinating to imagine a Manhattan covered by old-growth oaks and hemlocks rather than skyscrapers, and to learn of vanished bits of landscape and how they were erased. At the end of the book, Steinberg tells the story of Hurricane Sandy and speculates about the future of New York in an age of rising seas. Like his descriptions of the undeveloped island, these passages provide a lot of fuel for the imagination.

gotham1898

In contrast to Steinberg's ecological approach, another recent history titled Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 covers the growth of the city from a variety of angles. The book is over 1,300 pages long, so its authors had ample space to look at politics, social and cultural history, and to tell the stories of all types of colorful New Yorkers. While the 1999 volume might reasonably have been subtitled "More than you'll ever want to know about New York," the story is very engaging and includes something for everyone, including Environmental Historians. For example, Gotham's coverage of mid-nineteenth century New York's pig problem is thorough and very interesting to read.

Gotham and Gotham Unbound are good examples of two different styles of history. Gotham represents the twenty-year collaboration of its authors, and is billed as "the first volume in the definitive history of New York City." Gotham Unbound represents the continuing work of a scholar pursuing a very specific theme. One is a broad synthesis of everything, a survey (albeit possibly the most thorough and detailed survey ever). The other is a deep look at a single issue that isn't well understood, a monograph. The survey, as you might expect, includes a bibliography that uses eight-point type and four columns per page, and still covers forty-two pages. The monograph cites primary sources, highlights the author's original research, and incorporates scientific findings and data from Historical GIS. The monograph makes a new contribution to the interpretation of New York's past. The survey makes a wealth of information about New York accessible and interesting to regular readers.

But in an interesting and slightly counterintuitive twist, the monograph was published by Simon and Schuster, a popular press, and the survey by the Oxford University Press. Which just goes to show, I guess, that in addition to not judging by covers, you can no longer judge a book by its publisher.

Impressions of a First-time Peddler

This Ranney letter wasn't strictly written by a Ranney. But extended family was very important. Eldad F. Goodwin, Henry’s brother-in-law, writes from a peddling trip. In addition to being family, Henry is Eldad’s supplier and creditor, hence the double greeting of “Brother Henry” and “Dear Sir.” Eldad writes about visiting a Dr. Bemis to try to collect on a promissory note for his father, Henry’s father-in-law, Anson Goodwin (Anson made surgical splints, so the physician’s involvement may have been due to prior business). Bemis had apparently bought the note from a third party to whom Goodwin had endorsed it.

Eldad is apparently new to peddling, but he thinks business is good and he has sold out of several items he’d like Henry to resupply.  Eldad was peddling on foot, probably carrying a tin trunk and one or more baskets.  He mentions he is going to meet “Cross” (a brother of his wife, Julia) in Spencer in a few days. Peddlers often traveled together, but they split up to sell their wares, so despite being new to the business, Eldad would have spent most of his time on his own.

Peddling is an interesting topic, and Henry Ranney was deeply involved, so I’ll have more to say about it soon.

1853-12-21efgtohsr
My Transcription:

Hubbardston Dec 21 1853

Brother Henry Dear Sir

Agreeably to my promise, I drop a few lines to let you know of the whereabouts of the pedlar.  We staid over Sunday at Barre, eight miles from here, and I have been these three days in getting here.  I should think from what little I tried it that the peddling business was very good, but can tell better when I get my hand in.
You can tell Father that I called on Dr. Bemis and had quite a confab with him about the lost note.  He told me precisely the same story about it that he wrote to Father.  I watched him close and could get nothing new.  He showed me the note, which is genuine as it has Father’s name on the back in his own handwriting.  We went together to the P.Master and I looked his papers over.  No such letter was on his books.  And I do not think that he ever saw the note.  He appears to be honest and I think he is.  

Bemis says the note was not due when he paid it, says he told the man he would give him Thirty Three Dollars for it (35) and the man made no objection to taking that.  He borrowed a part of the money from Howard and paid it.  Says he told Howard that this was the first time in his life that he ever shaved his own note &c.  I have his statement on paper, will show when I get home.  He has the reputation of being a horse jockey here.  I fear that father will have to lose that note.  But something may turn up yet.

I have sold all out of a number of little things and pretty near of several others.  If you have that N. York order, wish you to send it to Henry H. and get such things as you are not supplied with immediately as I shall want a small bill of goods before many days.  Get something to please the children, of course.  
Cross thinks he shall go home the last of next week and I may come too as we shall be within a days drive of home, but can’t say certain.  At any rate get the goods ready and I will take if I can make a live of it.  

Have you any Hot Drops, Tape, Worsted, Braid, Harmonicas, Corking, Pins, Velvet Ribband, Ounce Pins, Coats, Spools Thread Large Size, Bayliss Needles N. 7 & 8?  My health has been good.  So has the weather, but am some afraid of a snow storm.  

I expect to meet Cross at Spencer next Saturday.  If you have anything to communicate please direct there and I shall be sure to get it, as I will leave word to have it forwarded in case we leave before a letter could get there.  

Respects to all, In Haste Yours
E. F. Goodwin

Shall write to my wife tomorrow or next day.

Question: Chronology or Themes? Answer: Yes!

One of the most constructive critiques I got when I submitted my textbook proposal to Oxford USA was that I really hadn't made a firm commitment to writing either a chronological history or a thematic textbook. The editor who told me that was spot on. I hadn't. Still haven't, as a matter of fact. Which is one of the reasons I didn't send him a new proposal. The other is, I want it to be available this fall, not next fall.

My class begins with a very chronological presentation of prehistory, pre-Columbian America, the Columbian exchange, Colonial North America, the early industrial revolution, etc. Toward the middle I start talking about things that overlap in time, such as improvements in transportation technology and the development of first natural and then artificial fertilizers like green manure, guano, nitrate, and ammonia, which happened pretty much simultaneously over the nineteenth century. By the end I'm talking about specific themes like mines, water, energy, limits to growth, and finally individual action. It doesn't seem to bother my students, but I can see how it might be confusing for some readers. So how would I solve this problem of drifting from chronology to themes in a textbook?

combined_statistical_areas_of_the_united_states_and_puerto_rico_2013
This is another image I'm giving almost its own full page.

I don't want to abandon the chronology. One of my objections to the books that pass for textbooks in this field is that most of them aren't really about American Environmental History, despite their titles. They're more often about the history of environmentalism, the historiography of Environmental History, or special topics in Environmental History. But you don't necessarily come away from reading them with a comprehensive view of the broad sweep of American History from a perspective that includes the environment. You don't finish the book and understand what happened in American History in a new way.

I think as academics we often forget that for most people, one of the biggest questions answered by learning a little history is "What happened?" We know that stuff back, front, and sideways. We want to complicate rather than simplify the chain of causes and effects. We introduce contingency, and then, still not satisfied, we talk about subjectivity and culture. And yeah, of course those are all valid and important issues. The past is complex beyond human understanding.

And yet. For most people, the questions are, "What happened?" and "So what?"

My undergraduate class is a Junior/Senior level elective, but I teach it online through my university's Division of Continuing Education. That means most of my students are older than average. They're also rarely History majors, and very often they're in the final phase of completing their degree, taking the General Education credits they missed along the way. So maybe this influences my course design. I'd certainly spend more time on the historiography if I was lecturing to a room full of History majors or beginning grad students.

But I think the audience I'm writing lectures for affords me a special opportunity. Because, aside from needing the Gen Ed credits to finish their degrees, these are regular people from all walks of life. My classes are filled with regular people, with regular people's concerns and interests. So I tell them what happened. I don't assume they know too much history, beyond what we all got in civics and social studies classes. I tell them things they didn't know, and I try to make the class relevant not only to the course objectives but to their lives. My favorite types of evaluation responses are the ones that say things like;

"One of the few classes I'm really sad is ending, the subject matter is fascinating and Dan is a great guide to it. His approach should be required of all students attending UMass as it teaches an appreciation for a newer and better way of living." (2014)
and
"It is just a perfect course that I think should be mandatory if we want to save our planet and live responsibly." (2015)

I guess that makes me at best an activist and at worst a presentist. So be it. I don't make stuff up. I actually try to present the complexity of the history I'm telling, along with the idea that people often had limited power to choose and limited information on which to base their choices. But that doesn't mean we don't get to evaluate their choices and use them to inform ours.

So, to make a long story shorter, back to the original question. Chronology or themes? My answer is, both. So I've divided the textbook into two parts. The first part covers the chronology, from prehistory to the early twentieth century (specifically, the Dust Bowl). Part two covers farms and agribusiness, mines, energy, water, city life, country life, environmentalism, the question of limits to growth, and then concludes with an epilogue about individual action. People will be able to choose between them -- although my students will still have to do both. Hopefully everybody will want to read both (yeah, there will be a combined version at a bargain price), and the division will just make the books easier to lug around and easier for readers to get their heads around.

A different view of the world

I was playing with the public-domain Gall-Peters projection in Photoshop, and came up with this. I haven't decided if I'm going to use it in textbook, but it'll be a good conversation-starter in class.

wcdark

"My Wife is Quite a Rugged Woman"

Lewis writes to Henry in the fall of 1853, for the first time after a serious illness. He has recovered, and can almost walk normally, but he is a changed man. Lewis says he is “Able to do a good fair days works.  But not the nerve I carried in former years.” He has reduced his farm to forty acres, which he can manage comfortably, and his wife has taken over much of the farmwork. Lewis says she "is quite a rugged woman and very ambitious and helps me a great deal from choice."

As usual, Lewis reports on the health and doings of the brothers. Lucius is now clearly the most driven farmer of the family, and younger brother Anson is working with him rather than out on his own for wages. Harrison and Lyman are in Arkansas, and Lemuel is out of touch. Henry has semi-retired from his mercantile business and become an innkeeper and gentleman farmer, and Lewis pokes a little fun at him, asking whether he has done any heavy work himself or does he just watch others do it.

Their mother Achsah has decided to spend her winter in Phelps and Ashfield, Lewis reports. Henry’s wife Marie is ill (she dies in 1855), so Achsah will be coming to Ashfield to help look after the children. Lewis says he encouraged her to go, and that Lucius agrees it is a good idea, but would never say, “for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.”

The season was dry and the harvest light, Lewis says. But he planted five acres of Peppermint, and he has seen in the papers that the oil is selling for $4.25 per pound. Lewis asks Henry for a price because he would prefer to deal with family, but he makes sure Henry knows he is aware of the oil’s value in New York.

1853-9-11lgrtohsr
Hillsdale Sept 11th 1853
Dear Brother

It having been a long time since writing you, I have concluded to lay everything else aside and write you.  Yet I had rather work a day than write a letter.  I am unused to letter writing of late (of which you are probably aware of) and it seems quite a job.  I read a letter a week or two ago of yours at Lucius’s, stating that Marie’s health was very poor.  I think I am prepared to sympathize with you in your afflictions, yet we had no children to look after or care for.  But we cannot expect our days all sunshine.

Our relations’ healths are all quite good at present here.  Lucius is a driving away as usual at farming.  Anson is with him.  Harrison and Lyman are yet in Arkansas, expect doing well.  Lemuel we know but little about.  Lyman wrote that he received a letter from him in July.  He did not mention how he was doing or when he was coming back.  But advised his Friends not to take the overland route to California. 

My health is quite good this summer.  Leg become about straight so as not to be observed in my common walk.  Therefore you will calculate that I have not got the Blues as had when I wrote you last.  My health in the main is quite good.  Able to do good fair days works.  But not the nerve I carried in former years.  I do not work very hard nor do not intend to.  I now have only 40 acres of land, 28 improved, which I can work myself with a boy in the summer season very comfortably.  My wife is quite a rugged woman and very ambitious and helps me a great deal from choice. 

Mother I believe has concluded to spend the coming winter at Phelps and Ashfield.  I have mentioned it to her several times the past summer that there was nothing to hinder her from visiting her friends East again.  But her head is full of cares and so much to do & Lucius has a very kind woman and would like to have her go if she could enjoy herself better.  But Lucius would not recommend her to go for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.  But Frank has invited her and you in your last wanted her, therefore she has concluded to go, probably in October. 

We have had a very dry season.  Wheat and corn came in fair.  But most other crops were light.  Wheat is worth 8/6 per.  But I had only 85 bushes.  Sowed only five acres last year.  What is Pept Oil worth?  I planted five acres last spring.  It has been too dry for it, shall probably get about 30 or 35 lbs.  I see it quoted at about four twenty-five in N.Y. Papers.   
How does farming go?  Have you split any rails yet or made stone wall?  Or do you as an old saying is, keep tally while others do it?  Ralph I suppose is company for you if nothing more.  It hardly seems possible that he is a boy eight or nine years old.  We are not remarkably fond of very small children at our house.  But one of that age we should think worth fussing with. 

Sept 12th

I must close as I am going to town and have not time to write any more.  Please write soon.  I am much obliged for papers I am receiving from you and intend favoring you with the expense sometime. 

My respects to you and yours.  
L.G. Ranney

I can send Hillsdale papers to you occasionally if of any account.  Densmore’s people we have not heard from in several months.  Probably well or we should have heard.

Speculation, Boosterism, and Frontier Settlement

The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837 Malcolm J. Rohrbough, 1968

This mostly administrative history of western expansion is a necessary if not joyful read; but Malcolm Rohrbough offers some interesting hints at culture, mostly unintentionally and between the lines. “The distribution of the public domain had a profound effect on the economic life of the nation,” Rohrbough says. Not only for the “great agricultural empire” of the early twentieth century, but because “In the first fifty years of the Republic’s history, citizens spent much time devising ways to get something for nothing from the public domain” (238). As time passed, “The politicians who increasingly administered the public domain did not do so out of a feeling of service but to make a profit” (229). Rohrbough shows that appointees as early as Albert Gallatin were heavy speculators. “Land speculation,” he says, “was part of the American scene from the first settlements.” So, it seems, was the tendency to mix the public and private domains for personal enrichment.

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A recurring issue in distributing public lands was how to deal with “pioneer families [who] defied the Indians [and] challenged the authority of entrepreneurs,” speculators, and bureaucrats (3). Pre-emption deals had to be made throughout the period of western expansion, to accommodate but also to rein in those who squatted on frontier lands.  But the land and money expended on this was a drop in the bucket, compared with the fortunes and political power that accrued to the well-connected. “Congress...sold one million acres to the Ohio Company of Associates in the same week that it passed the Northwest Ordinance.” And “John Cleves Symmes (a territorial judge and William Henry Harrison’s father-in-law) concluded an arrangement with the Treasury Board for one million acres.” (11, 18-9)

Public officials dominate Rohrbough’s story, even when he describes the distribution of small parcels to actual settlers.  “As a Congressman, Gallatin...constantly supported the sale of small tracts to individual settlers,” he says (24). Perhaps, given the size of the western frontier, distributing some small parcels did not seem at odds with Gallatin's speculations, or those of his social set. “William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, made a series of extensive purchases from the Indians” in the first decade of the 1800s, Rohrbough continues (30). The terms of these purchases are not disclosed, but it’s not surprising that the Indians next appear in the story as “two thousand infuriated Hell Hounds” (quoting a settler, 49). Chances are, even if the settlers didn't know what had infuriated the Indians, people like Harrison and Gallatin had a clue.

The War of 1812 “had broken the grip of the Indian on the western lands,” Rohrbough says.  And the urge to move west wasn't restricted to people in the original 13 states. “Altho you say the Ohio feever is abated in Vermont--the Missouri & Illinois Feever Rages greatly in Ohio, Kentucky, & Tennessee and carried off thousands” (quoting a letter from a son to his father back east, 74). Indeed, “Old America seems to be breaking up, and moving westward,” wrote a contemporary traveler. “We are seldom out of sight, as we travel on this grand track, towards the Ohio, of family groups, behind and before us, some with a view to a particular spot; close to a brother perhaps, or a friend, who has gone before, and reported well of the country” (103). In 1819, the eastern half of Michigan was contained in a Land District whose office was at Detroit. By 1834, a new District had been formed for the western half, centered on Bronson (Kalamazoo), est. 1831. The towns of White Pigeon and Bronson were “strategically placed on the Chicago Road.” June 1835 land sales in Bronson totaled $138,000; in October, White Pigeon’s sales exceeded $194,500 (193). Much of this purchasing was speculative and based on shaky credit, as shown by the experience of Allegan, Michigan, “One of the paper cities that vanished beneath the waves of the panic of 1837” (194).

Around 1816, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford complained that many “Banks have been incorporated, not because there was capital seeking investment; not because the places where they were established had commerce and manufactures...but because men without active capital wanted the means of obtaining loans, which their standing in the community would not command from banks or individuals having real capital and established credit.” This is an interesting chicken-egg statement. To some extent, it could be interpreted as a desire to limit economic access to the “haves.” But it also seems reasonable that when “bank capital increased from $65,000,000 to more than $125,000,000” between 1813 and 1819, some bad credit decisions were probably made (111). The Second Bank of the United States’ “loss of regulatory power...following Jackson’s veto of the bill for recharter and the removal of deposits led to the rise of innumerable state banks which expanded loans at a dizzy rate” (178). As a result, “In the thirty months from the fall of 1834 to the spring of 1837, the American people generated the largest land office business in the history of the Republic. From the timberlands of Maine to the Cotton Kingdom of Mississippi, in city lots of Chicago, and in the wilderness of central Michigan, the dimensions of the land boom touched people of all stations and locations” (187). This is certainly true of the people I've been studying. The Ranneys made a side trip to Michigan and invested in land there just as they were moving from Ashfield Massachusetts to Phelps New York!

1837sr15618
April, 1837 land purchase by Samuel Ranney

“The desire for lands,” Rohrbough says, “was not dampened by Andrew Jackson’s declaration that after September 1 only specie would be received in payment for public lands. The Bank of Michigan in Detroit quickly ordered specie from the East, acquired $500,000 in hard money from New York in October alone, and supplied land office money to continue the Michigan boom” (197). Perhaps the Panic of 1837 and the subsequent ongoing scarcity of cash in places like upstate NY can be attributed partly to the fact that hard money continued to flow toward the frontier. But in spite of the continued Michigan boom, Rohrbough concludes that “The specie circular...and the panic of 1837 marked the decline of the land office business as a dominant force in American life...The depression marked the passing of a period in which the land business dominated the thoughts and dreams of the nation. A new world was emerging. It was a world in which people would be drawn to cities rather than the land, in which the rise of the factory system would sharply distinguish a laboring class, in which great industrial complexes would attract the investment capital of the nation” (238).

This conclusion seems to raise more questions than it answers. Looking back at this period, Rohrbough describes what happened next, but he seems to miss an opportunity to explore why. Of course the factories created their own success; but did changes in access to land or the administration of the land office, dampen the speculators’ enthusiasm? Why did such a high percentage of immigrants stay in Eastern cities of move to Western cities rather than farms? Was there a difference between the German immigrants of the later 1830s and people who had preceded them? Did a reduced interest in the west by speculators diminish the flow of real settlers? Were there no longer enough reports of “fabled tracts of rich land, fertile beyond all imagination,” just over the next hill? (4) More needs to be said about this change. Rohrbough made a good start -- now a social and cultural history of the people who came west, and the communities they formed, needs to take the next step.

Political History, Ideals, and Rhetoric

Agrarians & Aristocrats: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837-1846 John Ashworth, 1983

Lately, I've been reviewing quite a bit of history that's strictly outside my main field (and this site), because I'm preparing to finally write my dissertation. Although I'm thinking of my project as an Environmental History of the single-commodity-study variety, I want to make some points about rural 19th-century politics and economics. So I've read a bunch of that sort of material, and I've found some ideas I think are relevant for EnvHist.

I'd never be a good Political Historian. Too much of a cynic. I'm really disinclined to believe that party politics springs directly from philosophy like Athena from the head of Zeus. I have no patience for political histories
that never follow the money. I'm always on the lookout for interests that inform ideologies, and for alignments of political theory and practical benefit. In the back of my mind, I'm always thinking, yeah, that's the party platform. But is it a philosophy waiting to be put into action or just rhetorical cover for the same old same old?

But I do recognize that in politics, people tend to identify with broad, epic ideas. So it interests me when John Ashworth says “Essentially Democratic leveling theory implied an agrarian, pre-capitalist society. The meritocratic outlook of the Whigs, on the other hand, implied a welcoming response to the quickening pace of commercial change...” (1). Whether Democrats actually practiced leveling, it says something that it resonated with some of their supporters. And that those same (presumably northern, rural) Democrats perceived the Whigs as not sharing that vision.

Ashworth says about the Bank of the United States controversy that the Jacksonians “charged that the bank represented privilege: it took from the poor in order to give to the rich” (3). The basis of this idea in anything but scapegoating is hard to see. I've never understood why Jackson and his people believed that eliminating the central bank would resolve this? And cynic that I am, I always suspect, when an argument doesn't add up, that there might be something more behind it. Often I'm wrong, and arguments just don't make sense. But sometimes...

Ashworth traces this “cherishment of the people” to Jefferson, which is okay, as far as it goes. But what about the top-down, elite leadership model of Jeffersonian democracy? It’s very similar to Whiggism, and only looks left because the Federalists were so far right (10). Ashworth does note a political change, “where previous republican theory had sought to facilitate the emergence, and guarantee the retention, of a superior governing elite, many Democrats now wished to place in office men whose chief personal characteristic was their similarity to the people whom they represented....John P. Tarbell of Massachusetts...believed that ‘plain farmers are as capable of judging as lawyers’ ” (14). Does this suggest a recognition by Jacksonian politicians and their constituents that the law was becoming less “common” and more of a friend of the rich? (cf.
Horwitz) Why not? This would be a generation that grew up remembering Daniel Shays, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

“Martin Van Buren publicly complained that ‘all communities are apt to look to government for too much’ ” (19). But what is the basis of this? WHO is looking to government at this point? Is this like Reaganite conservatives attacking welfare mothers?

clay44b

“The Democratic view of politics thus emphasized self-interest as the basis of liberty and democracy” (20). This division of elements between the parties -- how did this happen? How could self-interest actually be a trait of the members of one party and not the other? And if it's just a rhetorical device, we're already halfway to my cynical suspicion that rhetoric simply serves agendas. According to Silas Wright, “a well-educated, industrious and independent yeomanry are the safest repository of freedom and free institutions” (22). The Democrats’ approach to Adam Smith was that “provided that government did not intervene, the natural laws of supply and demand would direct mens’ labour into productive and rewarding activities and ‘would tend to equalize the distribution of wealth’ ” (quoting The Democratic Review, Sept 1839, 29). This is awfully hard to distinguish from the Whig position. So once again it seems as if the real job of a political historian like Ashworth ought to be to examine actual events and see how people lined up.

In the states, the argument against internal improvements, according to Ashworth, was that “The minority who secured the unfair advantage of a canal dug or a railroad built,” benefited at the expense of those farther away (43). This sentiment probably stems from the frantic maneuvering that went on in communities to get railroads and stations built through particular land to specific spots, to benefit the landowners. But generalizing this corrupt elbowing for position into a political ideology seems a bit ridiculous. It never occurred to anyone to discuss mitigating the costs, or spreading the benefits? They REALLY believed that building a railroad or canal was a zero sum enterprise? Isn’t it more likely the conflict was over the specific results on the ground of these internal improvements and not the overall theoretical legitimacy of internal improvement?

“At the core of Whig ideology lay a belief...in individuality," says Ashworth. "The Whigs stressed the dissimilarities among men. They perceived in Democratic egalitarianism a fatal desire to...deny the diversity which unavoidably existed” (52). Yeah. When it suited them. When the proposed internal improvements, they argued that society as a whole would benefit. Or in other words, they stressed the similarities among people and their shared interests. Similarly, the Democratic complaint in the last paragraph, that a minority secured unfair advantage, indicates a recognition of the "dissimilarities among men." So again, it may really be about marshalling appropriate sounding rhetoric for the occasion, and the continuity of Democratic or Whig tropes may just be coincidence.

Horace “Greeley believed that the...fundamental difference between the parties lay in their conceptions of the role of government. The Whigs held that ‘government need not and should not be an institution of purely negative, repressive usefulness and value, but that it should exert a beneficent, paternal, fostering usefulness upon the Industry and Prosperity of the People’ ” (quoting
Hints Towards Reforms, 1850, 54). So it's a bit ironic that the Whigs become Republicans, whose entire platform revolves around a very necessary and important, but basically "negative, repressive" function of government, eliminating slavery.

One of my buddies at UMass is working on a Political History dissertation on the period between the end of the Civil War and 1912. Talking with him, I've been struck by the way the whole bundle of Democratic beliefs was brought into complete disrepute for a generation by the Democrats being the Party of Slavery. To whatever extent any element of the constellation of beliefs that became identified with Democrats was valid, it was because some of those ideas about small central government or states' rights had resonated with people who weren't Southern slaveholders and weren't mouthing the words just because they provided cover for their real agenda. But we're not going to be able to tease out those threads of real ideological commitment that might be of genuine interest until we disqualify all the insincere propaganda in the way.

Firsthand View of the Gold Rush

In November, 1852, Henry Ranney in Ashfield receives a transcript from his brothers in Allen, Michigan, of a letter they have received from younger brother Lemuel, who has gone west in search of gold. Lemuel had been planning on trying his luck in Oregon, but too many people were heading that way, so he went to northern California instead. The party he was traveling with lost a horse, and then traded the remaining horses for cattle at Salt Lake City, which means Lemuel probably traveled the final 750 miles on foot. He says the journey overland was “an awful hard trip and one that I would not advise any of my Friends to undertake.”

Lemuel writes a little about the mining prospects and the high cost of living in the camps. He says he imagines they’d like to hear all the details, but “I hope I shall see you all again,” and it would be easier to tell the tale in person. It’s interesting that Lemuel is aware there’s a chance he will not see the family again, and yet this possibility does not cause even an independent, free-spirited person such as Lemuel to be less concerned about the people back home. Write soon, he says, “for I am anxious to know how you are all getting along in that far off country.”

1852-9-25lemueltoabr-copy
My Transcription:

Allen Nov 24th /52 Dear Brother

I here send you a true copy of Lemuel’s letter that we received from him, Dated Sept 25 1852.

Shasta City Sept 25th /52 Dear Brother & Friends

I am happy to inform you that I have once more reached the pale of civilization.  I arrived here about ten days ago perfectly well & hearty.  I wrote you a letter at Fort Larima which you have probably received long ago.  I stated in that or the one before it that it was my intention to go to Oregon and it was at that time.  But there was such a flood of emigration a going that way this season that I thought I would try my luck in this Awful Country.  

I am at work at present on Clear Creek, 12 miles from Shasta City, in the mines and I am getting ninety dollars a month and boarded.  Board is quite an item in this country.  It costs a person about a dollar a day to live here, that is if he buys the raw material and cooks it himself.  They charge $2.00 a day at the Boarding Houses.  Flour here at present is worth 30¢ a pound.  Pork from 85 to 90¢.  Vegetables all sell by the pound here.  Potatoes are 12¢ a pound.  Onions, Cabbages, Beets & Turnips from 15 to 20¢ a pound.  Beans 25¢.

Well I thought at those prices I had better go to work by the month.  A short time anyhow, so as to be sure of my board and make a little raise.  For it looked rather dubious for a new emigrant that knew nothing about mining and no money to go to work on his own hook.  I am in about as good a mining vicinity probably as there is in California.  Some are doing very well here and some not so well, but they generally average from 5 to 8 dollars a day.  There was one lump taken out about 4 miles above where I am to work that was worth about $2,000.00 by an emigrant that came in this year.  

We were considerable longer through than we expected to be.  We lost one horse before we got to Salt Lake City, and traded the others off for cattle there.  There is a great many things I presume that you would like to hear.  That is, how I got a long and what I saw and how I like the country and what I think of the trip anyhow &c &c.  But I hope I shall see you all again and then I can tell you all the particulars much better than I could describe them to you with Pen and Ink.  But I can tell you now in a very few words what I think of the trip overland.  I think it an awful hard trip and one that I would not advise any of my Friends to undertake.  

If this will pass with you for a letter send me one in return as soon as possible, for I am anxious to know how you are all getting along in that far off country.  My respects to Mother and all the rest of you.

Lemuel S. Ranney

Copied by Anson B Ranney (Copied by Hope Packard)
PS Direct your letter to Shasta City, Shasta County Calif

Professionalism, Audience, Subjectivity in the History Game

That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession Peter Novick, 1988

Okay, not Environmental History per se. But something that any academic historian has been asked to read at some point. And something anyone planning to write should read and think about first.

Peter Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of History as an American academic profession. This was very helpful to me when I was working out a historiography for my oral exam fields, and remains interesting because like to understand genealogies. Novick also addresses issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even a quarter-century after the book’s publication.

Novick begins his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” is a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (1). Novick calls objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explores. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions.

Novick describes a myth of objectivity, which he says includes assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and , above all, between history and fiction” (1-2). Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, is “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made’ ” (2). This mythical objectivity is important, he says, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture” (3), but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, is that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a quasi-religious mindset where there are patterns in history because there's a divine plan, even if the god is materialist determinism.

“The e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick says, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past” (5). I don’t see why we can’t agree that there’s a single reality, though, and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need.

Novick quotes Isaiah Berlin, who he says follows Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets” (quoting
Concepts and Categories, 7). But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical dialogue.

“There appears to be a residual great man theory of historiography,” Novick says (9). He later adds to this, that there’s also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations that have been noticed and read by many people. So these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick points out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period.

In his introduction, Novick mentions the choices he had to make in writing, to balance accurate representation of historians‘ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place. He suggests that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,‘ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction” (9). It might also be true that, since many of the historiographical arguments seem to involve the selective misinterpretation of historians‘ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less deep approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate.

Novick seems aware of this issue. He claims that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians, especially on the objectivity issue; and yet he acknowledges that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors” (11-12). The question he raises, of course is, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas, including overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, professional historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their amateur predecessors never needed to do.

So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments, and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?

Novick begins his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association, and with the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace” (21). It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is normally grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867 (25). And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick says, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered” (27). Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written
wie es eigentlich gewesen, is complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote those words, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it” (28). And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him” (29). So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.

Novick makes a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he calls “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas (34). If that's true in academic history,
how much more true must it be in popular writing? As an example, he points out that although Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (from a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett) Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species,” and “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked” (35-6). These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example” (38).

Novick shows that to some extent the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick says, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular and imitated author in early nineteenth-century America” (45). By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator” (40). But of course, they were novelists and those were
literary devices. “Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works (45). The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists” (46). The question is, are we talking about style or substance? Were these changes in writing really announcing significant differences in content?  Substantial changes in interpretation, or just the same type of partisanship content hidden in fashionably changed forms?

The “criteria of a profession,” Novick says, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice.” In other words, a monopoly that can impose barriers to entry (48). But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute such a monopoly, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships” (49). Examples include J.B. McMaster,
History of the People of the United States; Ellis Oberholtzer, History of the United States Since the Civil War; James Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick says, “had offered their wares in a classically free market” (53). Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents” (54). The professionalization of history not only shifted power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization” (63), it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson, 56). “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick says. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor” (57). I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.

Novick also calls attention to how much historiography owes to current events. “Prewar [WWI] confidence in progress generally,” he says, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity” (105). The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’ s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes” (130).

As the story continues, writers outside of professional history continue to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by nonhistorians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks)” (178). In contrast, Schlesinger and Fox’s twelve-volume
History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against AHR editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies” (193). Another group of journalist-historians Novick doesn't mention, who I find very interesting, were "muck-raking" authors like Ferdinand Lundberg, whose America's 60 Families is packed with names and numbers, and makes a point I've never seen in a mainstream history: that every Presidential election but two between the time of Lincoln and the Great Depression, came down to who spent the most money.  The Beards' Rise of American Civilization, 1927, sold over 130,000 copies. (240)

In the Cold War, the story just gets so nasty and spiteful that it’s difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake.  The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-seller-dom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised (372). In the end, I’m not convinced that the Objectivity Question is the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of
That Noble Dream.  The relevance question, which Novick also substantially deals with, seems to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America.

Novick's story shows the incredibly personal nature of twentieth-century professional history, and the small handful of significant personalities. For example, Oscar Handlin, who clearly had a longer-than-average career, appears throughout the book. Handlin appears in many different guises: early on, as a young Jewish historian thankfully allowed to enter the profession; then, in the 1940s, as a consensus critic of the progressives’ “Bulletin 54” (392); and finally as the Pulitzer-winning author of
The Uprooted, announcing that he had “learned to live with relativism.” (607) Novick mentions that critics of The Uprooted (1951) called it “engaged...personal, value-laden.”  Somehow, he fails to mention that it completely abandons even a semblance of objectivity.

Handlin trumpeted
The Uprooted as an epic and acknowledged that in the spirit of epic authors he “did not find it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation” (The Uprooted, 308). This is an interesting statement, coming from one of the stalwarts of what Novick calls objectivism. Handlin’s use of novelistic techniques like interior monologue (Handlin actually puts his words in the heads of Italian immigrant women!) in The Uprooted suggests a position closer to the one characterized for ultra-relativists like Hayden White, than for “hyperobjectivists” like Handlin, who are supposed to find “correspondence of a representation with its object...in the small pieces which together form the record” (quoting Truth in History, 608).

I wonder if Handlin’s narrative choices were based on his ideas about the largely popular audience he addressed in
The Uprooted? Variations in historians’ philosophies and techniques may have been related to their (or their editors') ideas of their audiences in ways Novick didn’t stress. Carl Becker, for example, seems to focus a good deal of thought on “the history that common men carry around in their heads” (Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, 61). But more to the point of That Noble Dream, I think the inconsistent and shifting positions of Handlin and others in Novick’s account suggest a contingency based not only on changing American politics and culture, which Novick addresses, but also the shifting needs of careers and personal reputations. On that score, Novick is less conclusive, but provides some very suggestive pointers.

Illustrations that get almost a full page

Since I'm planning on self-publishing my Environmental History textbook, I'm being very careful to use only illustrations from Creative Commons sources. It's not that hard, since I've already accumulated hundreds of images for each of my chapter topics, to use in my video lectures. But I'm trying to hold myself to a stricter level of sourcing for the book, take down the url of the source, etc.

Most of the images will become basic illustrations, occupying at most four of the "columns" I use as placement guides in the app (InDesign). A few seem so important that I'm giving them eight columns -- letting them extend from margin to margin across the top of a page. One is the diagram of the Grid produced under the National Land Ordinance, from
Wikipedia's "Land Ordinance of 1785" page:

1785_land_ordinance_diagram

I include that one not only because I think it's incredibly important that people understand why the land they see while flying over America looks the way it does, but because until I moved to the country, I never knew what the dimensions of an acre were or how many there were in a square mile. Appalling.

The second image, so far, that I've given a full spread across the page is Henry Gannett's census map of Government Land Grants. I got my copy direct from the out-of-copyright book (it's b&w because all my illustrations have to be, to make the book affordable to publish), but you can see it on
David Rumsey's excellent map website. This one gets the full spread because there's a lot of detail, and because one of the themes of the text has to do with the relationship between the public and private sectors. And again, because people just don't remember this stuff.

govt-land-grants-railways-1880-reduced

Edit: I almost forgot, this one too (although also in b&w):

03169v

Ethanol and the Illusion of Inevitability

Today I'm writing a textbook chapter on transportation. As  I’m writing about internal combustion and energy,  I'm thinking about the illusion of inevitability.

The argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn’t new: it has been going on for nearly a century. Samuel Morey’s 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw ethanol as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering’s statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar “income” than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel “capital.” And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were “in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?”

Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren’t we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it’s true. They can’t go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it’s usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil’s 2005 book,
Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil’s history, there was no solution to the “violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline.” This is simply not true, so why doesn’t an expert like Smil know the facts?

ethyl-gasoline-ads-from-the-1950s-2

Ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the kerosene and petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians, even historians of technology, seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?

Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A seemingly comprehensive history of the petroleum industry can be written, based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like DuPont and Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. Anyone who undertakes a new history of these subjects must read all this material, which leaves little time to dig for other perspectives.

The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, unlike the corporations, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They’re advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.

As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey toward the petroleum-powered world we live in today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them. When we assume the outcome was inevitable, we conclude that if it hadn’t been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that’s the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.

Interesting, but unconvincing

The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition W. J. Rorabaugh, 1979

Interesting, but unconvincing.

Rorabaugh believes that between 1790 and 1830, “the United States underwent such profound social and psychological change that a new national character emerged,” and that excessive drinking during this period was a symptom of this stress (xi). America’s democratic ideals and cult of individual freedom made men (after a few initial remarks, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about gender differences in consumption) desire independence and achievement, but Rorabaugh says they lacked the will or “motivation” to really work for their goals until the Second Great Awakening (yeah, so you can already see what my problem with this is going to be).  Their frustration and guilt led them to alcoholism, and maybe other forms of social action.  Rorabaugh claims there is “little psychological difference between a drunkard’s hallucinations and an Anti-Mason’s hysteria” (173). “America,” Rorabough concludes, “was left as a culture dominated by an ambivalence that could be transcended only through an anti-intellectual faith” (219). Or, as his data shows, by drunkenness.

Rorabaugh introduces clergymen and temperance moralists in the first paragraph of the book; but in a study that purports to deal with hidden psychological causes, he never really addresses
their motivations (5). The data, especially on changing rates of per capita consumption, is sometimes startling.  Americans now drink more than 18 gallons of beer per capita! (9) I wonder who is drinking mine?  Similarly, I wonder about the distribution and change over time of early drinking patterns.  Rorabaugh says that by the 1820s “half the adult males...were drinking two-thirds of all the distilled spirits” (11). At least, I think that’s what he said -- the endnotes are completely impossible to follow.  A reviewer actually attacked the Oxford Press for the illegibility of the references in this book.  The problem is, they exacerbate the overall lack of specificity in the text, by making it impossible to nail down times and places where critical observations were made, or check the sources who made them.  Another reviewer complained of the overgeneralized, almost caricature way that Rorabaugh talked about his subjects. Americans ate too quickly and drank too much because their food was horrible (118). Farm owners were not heavy drinkers, but “is it any wonder that farm hands turned to strong drink?” (128)

In spite of these flaws, Rorabaugh provides some interesting data, and a perspective that shines light on the nineteenth century from an interesting angle.  “Between 1790 and 1810,” he observes, Americans managed “to bring into production almost as many acres as had been planted in the preceding two centuries...In 1790, only one hundred thousand of four million Americans resided in the West; by 1810 one million of seven million did” (126). This is dramatic change, and it seems reasonable to suspect that it created social stresses that may have driven some increased alcohol consumption, although I don't think drinking was probably the most interesting or important result of these stresses.  And then there’s the supply side.  Rorabaugh provides a really good synopsis of early American distilling, especially “across the Appalachians” where corn was abundant, but too bulky to bring to market.  His depiction of the west as a cash-poor land of unprecedented farm surpluses helps explain the growth of western distilling in the decades before canals and railroads (80). “From 1802 through 1815,” he says, “the federal government issued more than 100 patents for distilling devices...more than 5 percent of all patents granted” (73). By 1810, distilling was concentrated in Kentucky, Ohio, western PA, and upstate NY, and these four areas produced more than half of the nation’s grain and fruit spirits (77). Western New York production peaked in 1828, and continued even while flour shipments ramped up.  “By 1840 distilleries in southwest Ohio, upstate New York, and...Pennsylvania distilled more than half of the nation’s grain spirits.” (85)  New York state’s distilleries peaked in 1825 at 1,129, producing an estimated 18 million gallons. By 1840, the industry seems to have consolidated, with 212 distilleries producing 12 million gallons. In 1850, 93 distilleries made 11.7 million gallons, and in 1860, 77 distilleries made 26.2 million gallons (chart, 87).

This data is really useful to me.  Rorabaugh’s analysis is less helpful, but still instructive. Although his chart shows a steadily increasing value of the product of New York distilleries, Rorabaugh’s narrative describes a “whiskey glut” that he says “exemplified the inability of Americans who clung to traditional agrarian values to promote change.” The “surplus grain had the potential to become either food for industrial workers or, if sold in the market, the means of acquiring money that could be used as capital to build factories” (88). But western farmers lacked the author’s 20:20 hindsight. Rorabaugh’s response to their choice to make whiskey rather than become industrialists illustrates a problem faced by contemporary historians looking at the rural past.

Corporations & Environment in Early America

Before I tell the story of commons, mills, and corporations in my Environmental History class, I like to set the scene by talking about one of America's first experiences with corporate scope-creep. Here's how I'm thinking of talking about the Charles River Bridge case in my textbook:

warren_bridge_-_charlestown-boston_-_1
Although it includes additional construction and bridges, this 1842 map of Boston illustrates why the battle between the Warren and Charles River Bridge companies (top of Boston) was so contentious.

Some projects to provide public goods such as colleges or hospitals cost more than individuals can conveniently raise. Early America’s answer was the corporation. Corporations during the colonial period had been quasi-public organizations given a royal charter to do a particular job. The Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company had been royally chartered corporations. They earned profits for their shareholders, but they also had, or at least claimed to have, an important social function that transcended mere business. Without this social dimension, businesses—even very large ones—were normally organized as partnerships or sole proprietorships. State legislatures in early America continued the English tradition and chartered corporations to do particular tasks in the public interest. Colonial governments began this practice very early in our history, when the Massachusetts legislature established Harvard College in 1636 and then chartered the Harvard Corporation, America’s first corporation, in 1650.

Corporate influence on the environment begins with this first American corporation. In 1640, the Massachusetts legislature gave Harvard a license to run a ferry between Boston and Charlestown across the Charles River, to raise money to operate the college. When the State of Massachusetts granted a corporate charter to the Charles River Bridge Company in 1785, to build the first bridge across the river, the charter specified that the company had to pay Harvard £200 per year to compensate the college for the revenue the old ferry operation would lose.

The Charles River Bridge was a privately operated toll bridge. Originally conceived as a public corporation that would provide a social benefit, the bridge company was wildly successful. The corporation had been capitalized at $50,000, meaning that $50,000 had been raised to build the bridge by selling shares to investors. Once built, the bridge collected $824,798 in tolls between 1786 and 1827. Although the original plan had been to eliminate the tolls once the bridge had paid for itself, the shareholders decided to continue profiting from their monopoly.

Enriching shareholders was not what the legislature had in mind when they granted the corporation a charter to build a bridge that would monopolize river crossing. So the legislature chartered the Warren Bridge Company to build a second bridge next to the Charles River Bridge. The new charter specified that the Warren Bridge would only be allowed to collect tolls for six years or until it paid for itself, whichever came first. Then ownership would revert to the Commonwealth and the bridge would be toll-free.

The Charles River Bridge Company sued the Warren Bridge Company, claiming their 1785 charter had granted a perpetual monopoly on traffic across the river. Charles River Bridge revenues disappeared, as travelers chose to pay the lower tolls on the new bridge. The lawsuit failed in Massachusetts courts, and the plaintiffs took their complaint all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In spite of hiring famous orator Daniel Webster to argue their case, the Charles River Bridge Company lost. The court’s decision reflected the judges’ belief that the profits of the corporation and the interests of its shareholders were less important—and legally came second—to the right of the state to charter corporations to meet public needs. Even so, the tremendous profits taken by Charles River Bridge shareholders and their ability to push their lawsuit to the highest court signaled the beginning of a change in the way corporations viewed their role in society and the responsibilities that went with their public charters.

Why US History textbooks need Environmental History

I don't think there's a really good general EnvHist textbook for undergrads, so I'm writing one based on the American Environmental History course I teach at UMass. I'm currently working on polishing this up, so I can use it in my Spring 2016 class. The text is narrative (my objection to the other texts available is they dwell too much on historiography and the story of Environmental History, and not enough on what happened -- which I think makes them more suited to grad seminars than undergrad surveys), but at the end of each chapter, I'm going to add a little supplement that gets a little "meta" and talks about some of the big texts in the field, etc.

The first chapter is about American Prehistory (what happened before Columbus arrived), so at the end I decided to talk about how mainstream history textbooks have dealt with this period. When I surveyed the college textbooks on my shelf, I decided to call this little section "Challenging American History." I guess I could also have called it, "Why American History Needs EnvHist." Here it is:

Now that we’ve looked at America before its discovery by Europeans, let’s consider how this story has been told in the past. As I mentioned earlier, as new information becomes available, history changes, often challenging long-held traditions. In most older American History textbooks, the story begins in 1492. While some of the archaeological information available today was unknown to earlier historians, many were just not particularly interested in Indians or prehistory. Pre-Columbian America was considered remote, unknowable, and irrelevant. Lately, textbook authors have tried to say something about pre-Columbian America. For example, in the 1987 edition of his classic textbook,
American History, Richard N. Current devoted four pages to his description of America before Columbus. Current said Native Americans shared a common Asian ancestry that enabled Europeans to think of them all as a single race, although he acknowledged “natives had no reason to consider themselves part of one race or culture.” Current described the introduction of old world crops like sugar and bananas that “Indian tribes in time learned to cultivate,” but he failed to mention that they had independently developed their own staple crops long before Europeans arrived. Current commented that Indian farming “would often seem crude to Europeans” without explaining that most of the time the Europeans’ disdain for native practices arose from their profound ignorance of the environment and climate of the new world.

But that was the 80s, you’re thinking. Surely things have changed. You’re half right. In his extremely popular 2011 textbook
Experience History, James West Davidson and his team of co-authors give just three paragraphs to the arrival of humans in the Americas. Davidson calls the people who came “nomads,” highlighting the term in one of the textbook’s few uses of bold-face type. “Nomads” is a code-word used in the past to suggest that Indians never had quite the same relationship with the land that whites do, and thus had no claim of “ownership” of their territories. Many Americans throughout history have called the Indians nomads; a college history textbook should explain the term rather than just repeating it.

Describing pre-Columbian agriculture,
Experience History says, “pioneers in Mesoamerica began domesticating squash 10,000 years ago.” But in spite of this, the text claims most Indians were simple hunter-gatherers who “continued to subsist largely on animals, fish, and nuts, all of which were abundant enough to meet their needs and even to expand their numbers.” Davidson characterizes the Adena and Hopewell cultures as “peoples who did not farm,” in spite of the fact they lived in cities of tens of thousands of people. He explains that Indians didn’t learn to farm in the Pacific Northwest because “Agriculture was unnecessary in such a bountiful place.”

Davidson does mention the fact that the modern world’s most important food crop, maize, was developed by Indians – but this is how he explains it:

Modern-day species of corn, for example, probably derive from a Mesoamerican grass known as teosinte. It seems that ancient peoples gathered teosinte to collect its small grains. By selecting the grains that best suited them and bringing them back to their settlements, and by returning the grains to the soil through spillage or waste disposal, they unintentionally began the process of domestic cultivation.
800px-maize-teosinte-copy

The problem with this description, beside the fact that it portrays early farmers as bumbling idiots, is that in spite of being written only a few years ago it isn’t based on the abundant archaeological information available about early American agriculture. There’s no doubt that corn comes from teosinte. That’s clear from the plant’s genome. And Davidson suggests that a multi-generational process that changed teosinte, a self-seeding native grass, into maize, a hybrid that needs humans to plant it, was an accident. This claim is ridiculous and obscures the fact that ancient Americans knew what they were doing and had the long-term cultural capital to do it.

Experience History does its best to trivialize early America’s contribution to modern agriculture. In spite of admitting that “plants domesticated by indigenous Americans account for three-fifths of the world’s crops” today, Davidson manages to make it seem like that’s no big deal, and was almost an accident. Davidson’s discussion of ancient American farming ends with a chart of the “Place and Timing of Pioneering Plant and Animal Domestications.” Southwest Asia tops the list, with the development of wheat, peas, olives, sheep and goats. All these developments are dated to 8500 BCE. Next comes China, with rice, millet, pigs and silkworms, dated 7500 BCE. New Guinea and the African Sahel are next, followed finally by Mesoamerica and the Andes & Amazonia, which produced corn, beans, squash, potatoes, manioc, turkey, llamas, and guinea pigs “by 3500 BCE,” which is nearly six thousand years after archaeologists date the development of maize, potatoes, and cassava. At best, this is an error that a reputable team of historians should never have let slip into their textbook. At worst, it’s a throwback to Eurocentric histories of an earlier era that tried to minimize the tragedy of colonialism by suggesting there was really not much happening in the Americas before Columbus.

Davidson concludes his coverage of pre-Columbian America by observing that “a few centuries before European contact…the continent’s most impressive civilizations collapsed.” Davidson says the “sudden” and “mysterious” disappearance of cultures like the Mayan, Olmec, Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Cahokian was due to “a complex and still poorly understood combination of ecological and social factors.” In other words, through some combination of ecological mismanagement and social ineptitude, Indians “went into eclipse by the twelfth century…[and] had faded by the fourteenth,” making room for whites from Europe. That’s a bit too convenient. It almost seems like Boston theologian Cotton Mather’s famous explanation in
Magnalia Christi Americana of how Providence had cleared the woods “of those pernicious creatures, making room for better growth.”

As you can imagine, I'll be self-publishing this textbook. Look for it on Amazon.

Market and non-market rationality in the rural economy

Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860 Martin Bruegel, 2002

For Martin Bruegel, the market transition happened when “Commercial transactions...moved from a physical setting to an abstract, intangible sphere where prices mattered more than people and relationships.”  (2)  This description seems consistent with the consensus that has emerged from the “transition” debates, with the caveat that since the Hudson River Valley was settled so early, the same dynamics might not necessarily apply to "second-generation" settlements in places like Western New York or Michigan.  It’s Bruegel’s extensive use of individual accounts, to an almost microhistorical level, that sets this book apart. Bruegel says he’s going to describe the “social and economic processes that underlay the movement from an understanding of the world rooted in concrete and particular experiences to general abstractions.” (3-4)  While he rarely has an opportunity to present “before” and “after” views of an individual’s changing orientation, I think he successfully shows evidence of a changing understanding of relationships and social realities in the Hudson River Valley.

The non-market, neighborhood relations that dominated Hudson Valley culture in the late eighteenth century, Bruegel says, was based on the subsistence basis of the agricultural economy.  Risk of starvation was real, and to mitigate that risk, farmers chose the safest route.  “Rather than adapting to the environment’s average productivity,” for example, “their experience taught them to prepare for bad years.” (16)  “Safety nets...created a community.” (21)  Even when they traded, “the apparent utility of the traded good or service neither structured nor exhausted the meaning of the exchange.  Participation was what mattered.”  Because of the precariousness of rural life, Bruegel suggests the emphasis on self-sufficiency of farm households (vs. communities) is misplaced.  “It is impossible to think about them separately,” he says, “because it was precisely the constant exchange of labor and tools that conditioned the family’s subsistence and held the neighborhood together.” (21)

Interestingly, the transition involved a lot of overlap.  Bruegel says the shift toward a commercial orientation was gradual and was marked by  “the coexistence of nonmarket and market rationality in the rural economy” for much of the early nineteenth century.  (62)  “In practice,” he says, “farmers straddled two worlds that historians and ethnologists have often tended to construe as incompatible.” (42) “Commercial exchange,” Bruegel suggests, was both a “part of the farm families‘ strategy to achieve a competence,” and occurred in a market dominated by “personal relations: these bonds actually predicated trade on the Hudson.” (42-3)  “Trust lowered transaction costs,” and this “privileged bond...helped diminish the farmer’s prejudice against the conniving merchant,” or indeed, any outsider. (42, 59)  But even though the majority of extralocal trading was done by only the most prosperous farmers, “in a world of insecurity, where risk reduction guided the behavior of farm families, the establishment of dependable and durable credit and debt connections lay in the interest of both merchant and farmer;” especially those of humbler means.  Their participation in the markets at the Hudson landings created a two tier system, in which the seller could choose either the local or the “New York price.” As a result, “over long periods of time, prices of locally produced goods in the neighborhood trading center remained constant and unresponsive to metropolitan fluctuations.”  (59)

Bruegel's narrative suggests that this two-tiered market coexistence would have persisted, if external social forces had not changed the game.  “Political interventions in favor of deregulated internal commerce,” he says “show that there was nothing natural about the rise of a market society.”  (66)  Echoing Horwitz, Bruegel says “it was the law’s aim to do away with the favored client status that liberal theory construed as collusion,” but that locals at the landing valued as the relationships that tied commerce to community. (67)  But the biggest factor was clearly the growth of New York City, and its markets.  Demand for hay and dairy products rose.  Soil exhaustion and better transportation helped push farmers into hay and livestock.  By 1852 the president of the state Ag. Society was able to claim that “farming is no longer that uncertain, profitless work, which it once was.” (97)  One Kinderhook resident noted “About 1790 this land was sold for $1 an acre: now it brings $75 or $80.” (95)  Farm productivity “growth relied on the intensification of well-known work practices,” introduction of cast-iron plows, and increasing use of wage labor throughout the season.  “The extension of employment length distinguished a new labor force from the neighbors who still helped each other during the crest of harvest work.” (112)

These new workers, Bruegel suggests, lived separately from the farmers, and bought food and supplies at the local market, for cash.  This is interesting, if true -- I've always found farm workers farther west to be young, single men, who lived with the farm family.  Maybe this varied by region.  Bruegel also suggests the shift to dairying improved the status of women.  He cites an 1820 book called
Dialogues on Domestic and Rural Economy and the Fashionable Follies of the World, by Hannah Barnard, which seems to complicate the traditional view of separate gender spheres.  “The agricultural family, in Barnard’s depiction, was a collective in which men and women joined their forces and talents.”  (115)  Bruegel cites several other contemporary local sources to suggest that Harriet Martineau and other European observes were wrong to conclude that American women had no place in the outdoor work of the farm.

Growth of manufacturing, Bruegel says, followed national events: the Embargo and the War of 1812.  It quickly became “more fashionable and cheaper...to dress in fabricks of our rapidly increasing manufactories,” as Sterling Goodenow observed in 1822. (in
A Brief Topographical and Statistical Manual of the State of New York, 150) But in spite of this, “As late as 1837, Kinderhook grocers J. and P. Bain still carried ‘Home-Made Woolen Cloths, also low prices Broad Cloths.' ” (148)  Based on his sources, Bruegel concludes that rural consumption had not become “rural consumerism...by the 1840s.  Rather, the dissemination of everyday articles projects the image of a world whose demands remained moderate...the quest for necessities, not luxuries, propelled the consumer behavior of the majority of rural dwellers,” Bruegel says. (161-2)

Greetings from the Wild West - Send Newspapers!

Lyman Ranney writes his brother Henry again from Van Buren, in August 1850.  He hasn't heard from Henry, so he suspects a letter never made it to him — although, since his previous letter is in the archive, apparently it was Henry’s reply that was lost in the mail.  Lyman seems lonely, and writes again about wanting to study medicine, but not having the funds.

Van Buren was apparently a “wild west” sort of boom-town at this time.  Lyman says “merchants are getting rich here,” but he also says that murderers walk the streets and that people are regularly killed in duels “or just for some grudge they had.”  And since there are many young men looking for work, Lyman’s wages are low.  Lyman hints that if he had some money to invest, he could probably make enough to get back to the north and study medicine.  But he doesn’t come right out and ask for it.

1850-8-8lymantohsr
My transcription:

Van Buren August 8th 1850
Dear Brother

After waiting some time for and answer to a letter I wrote you some time since I have come to the conclusion that you did not receive it, as I have not yet recd an answer.  But be that as it may, I will once more write you.  I have enjoyed remarkably good health since at the South, although we have exceeding hot weather.  I don’t know but that I may leave here between this and next April and try to make some arrangements about studying medicine.  I like merchandising very much yet I think I would rather practice medicine and should have made greater progress that way ere this if I had possessed the means.  Merchandising is a good occupation but it takes a long time to get a start in that business.  
Merchants are getting rich here.  Mr. Bishop four years ago when he came here had not over fifteen hundred dolls and is now worth about 2000$ which is doing well. 

I have not heard from home but once since I have been here yet I have written home several times.  I recd a letter from Lemuel a short time since.  He wrote from Albion Mich.  I expect he strolls about too much to save a great amt of his wages.

I think I have been well paid for coming here, having learned in several ways.  For one in the way of business, keeping books, &c.  I am keeping books here at present, which is done by double entry.  Yet there is but little chance of saving much here as wages are small comparatively.  There being a surplus of “clerks” who work for next to nothing apparently.  It is about all I can do to clothe myself here at present. 

There is quite a chance here for speculation if a man has a little money, say 4 or 500$ to commence with.  I think he can double his money in a year and perhaps more in buying and selling different articles.  Wheat you can buy in the Indian States about ten or fifteen miles above here for from 10$ to 20$ you can sell for from 30$ to 50$ and other things in the same proportion.  

If I could see any prospect in the next year for making a few hundred dollars in any way I would do most anything.  There is a good society here in this place.  Mostly Eastern people.  But with those in the country it is far different.  There is not over 1/10 of them that can write their own name, and are a desperate sort of men most of them.  There is many a man here I have seen who has killed one or more persons in some way, whether in a duel or just for some grudge they had.  And yet these persons are passing about seemingly as unconcerned as though they never had committed any act.  There has been one or two quarrels here in town since I have been here, and one or two killed, but perfectly without effect.

Write as soon as you receive this and let me know what you are doing and what you are a going to do for the next generation to come.  How the children are and Sister Marie and the friends in general? 

Mr. Bishop gets a paper from Elisha Basset occasionally.  I have not sent you as many as I ought, I have had to distribute them to so many different people, but will try to do better for you in future.  Send me some papers occasionally as you have done since I have been here.  Write on receipt of this and let me hear from you all. 

I send my love to sister Marie, the children, and our friends in general and tell them I may visit them in future if nothing takes place other than expected.

Hoping this may find you all well I now close.

From your affectionate brother
Lyman

Good Ideas, not enough People

City and Hinterland: A Case Study of Urban Growth and Regional Development Roberta Balstad (Miller), 1979

Roberta Balstad says studies of population and industrial growth in America have too often ignored the “regional hinterlands” around dramatically growing cities.  She suggests national markets and inter-regional transportation “affected cities and their hinterlands separately as well as the entire city-region as a unit.” (4) Balstad defines the city-region so it’s synonymous with the county, which is convenient in that data is collected and stored at the county level.  While giving the customary nod to von Thünen and central place theorists, she points out that many American cities “did not begin with the isolated subsistence village economy...Nor did growing American settlements and their hinterlands experience well-developed intraregional trade prior to interregional trade,” so the American experience differs from theory both physically and temporally. (3-5) Balstad’s thesis is that “the differentiation of the frontier area into city and hinterland” resulted not from industrialization, but from “transportation innovations,” specifically in this text the Erie Canal and the railroads that followed it. (10)  The interesting twist is, she demonstrates that a rural area that was previously economically diversified was actually driven toward a market-agriculture-only form by the changes she describes.

Balstad tells the story of Onondaga County, settled by migrants from the east in the 1790s along the Seneca Turnpike. Mail service between Utica and Canandaigua began in 1804, an Academy was begun in 1811, and the Dutch and German farmers from the Mohawk Valley were joined by German and Irish immigrants attracted to the wage-work available at the Salina salt springs.  Balstad calls attention to several elements of Onondaga development that challenge traditional expectations.  First, she says “the county did not have a stable agricultural population,” but like other frontier areas, saw “a great deal of mobility within as well as into and out of the county during the early years of settlement.” (19) She says “The persistence rate...was low, even for those who were landowners...of the 203 men of...Camillus who were electors in 1807...only 41 percent were still present as taxpaying landowners in 1825.” (20)  Also, contrary to de Tocqueville (who she takes several  opportunities to disagree with throughout the book), residents “were not necessarily isolated from their families or their past,” but in many cases demonstrated a “pattern of serial migration within kinship and friendship networks” that Balstad believes was widespread during westward expansion. (which I
obviously enjoyed seeing, 20-1)

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Rural villages were located, Balstad says, based on “social and commercial centrality for the surrounding agricultural area.” (22) But the fact that two townships “had 47 and 28 percent of their population in villages [almost immediately]...suggests that this was not a region of subsistence agriculture from which local trading villages would only gradually emerge.” Extractive industries (especially salt, which had been mined and traded by the Indians before the whites ever arrived) were immediately linked to the national economy, and by 1820, the county “had a diversified economy that boasted agriculture, processing and manufacturing industries...[that] did not suddenly surface after the population reached a specific size or density; rather, they were begun by the original settlers and expanded gradually with the growing population.” (23)  “Industrial activities were located in rural areas, independent of residential or commercial centers...[and] there were a number of rural industrial enclaves located on good water power sites several miles from any town or village.” (25-6) With the exception of salt and whiskey ($63,705.60 in 1810; there were fifty distilleries by 1820), most of the products of these sawmills (99 by 1820), tanneries, fulling and grist mills were sold to local people.  The high correlation of sawmills to population growth, Balstad says, indicates “the service areas of locally manufactured and processed goods were narrow.” (28)

The presence of salt springs and gypsum (“first discovered in the United States in 1792 in the township of Camillus” 29) gave Onondaga County an opportunity to participate in the national market.  A gypsum corporation was formed in 1809, and a year later sold 100 tons.  By 1810 the salt industry was producing 2400 bushels daily, which were sold throughout the northeast and Canada, and as far west as Cincinnati and the Michigan territory. (28)  Wood for barrels and fuel for the 444 kettles in continuous operation and food for salt-boilers and other workers were supplied by locals, providing a “multiplier effect” in the county’s economy.  By 1820 (the year the middle section of the Canal opened), the region shipped 458,329 bushels of salt over river-and-portage routes that reached Chesapeake Bay, the Ohio River, and Lake Ontario. (31) The salt trade was so substantial that it was mentioned by boosters of the Canal when they lobbied New York legislators (the State collected a salt duty on every bushel sold). So the coming of the Canal benefited Onondagans more, and more quickly, than others along the route.

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Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Oswego (linking the Erie Canal with Lake Ontario to the north) in 1828 created Syracuse.  Balstad does not mention the politics behind the choice of Syracuse as a meeting-place for the Erie and the Oswego canals, but it suggests how important Onondaga County must have been, in the minds of Albany legislators. Turnpike transportation costs were “30 to 70 cents per ton-mile during the first two decades of the nineteenth century.  In sharp contrast, canal charges were only 1.68 cents per ton-mile between 1830 and 1850.” (46) If the salt business had been profitable before, it was a goldmine after the opening of the two canals.  “In the first five years of the canal’s operation, before the entire canal was completed, salt production increased by an average of 70,492 bushels each year as compared to ...30,004 bushels from 1810 to 1820...Between 1826 and 1830...salt production increased by an average of 105,060 annually.  Shipment by canal facilitated the growth of salt markets as far away as Chicago and Cincinnati [where it was used to process pork] and gave Onondaga salt a competitive advantage in eastern urban markets over imported salt, which had previously dominated.” (64) “By 1830, the population of Syracuse [which swallowed up the old salt-town of Salina] had risen to 2,565 people...the largest settlement in the county.” (50)

The benefit to the salt-producers was offset somewhat by losses to the county’s farmers.  Ohio Valley wheat and wool began to out-compete New York produce in Eastern markets, “and by 1847 more than half the agricultural produce shipped on the Erie Canal came from the western states.” (61)  The decline of Onondaga farming was not absolute, though -- in either sense of the word.  Between 1820 and 1840, the number of farmers in the county increased by 69%, and “the number of acres of improved land nearly doubled by 1835.” (62)  Balstad says rural outmigration was caused by the “crowded and discouraging agricultural prospects of the county together with the inflation in the cost of farmland” and declining crop yields due to soil degradation. Another possible explanation is that farmers aware of the fragile nature of their exhausted soils may have capitalized on the opportunity to sell their lands at unexpected windfall profits, and moved west to bigger, more fertile farms. Similarly, Balstad says the canal “destroyed” the distilleries (which “shrank in number to eleven in 1835 and to six in 1845”) because “transportation costs for grain were so low that distillation became unnecessary” (66).  But does it make sense that existing buyers of whiskey in the east would abruptly stop, just because they could buy cheap grain and make their own?  There seems to be more going on here than the existence of the canals explains.

Balstad says the pattern of primary processing was altered.  People close to the canals produced fewer yards of cloth at home, presumably buying their textiles from the east.  But this would suggest that “carding machines and fulling mills [that] did custom work for farm families” would have moved farther from the canal, not “disappeared from the county.” (68)  And, “by the late 1820s and early 1830s...industry became increasingly concentrated in Syracuse,” indicating a shift in the reasoning of the people running mills and shops, who’d previously sited them “in rural locations and always near good sources of water power.” Why did they decide to move to the city?

These questions are important, because the point Balstad is trying to make is such an interesting one.  “The dispersed rural settlement pattern of the pre-canal period gave way,” she says, “the the now familiar agricultural settlement pattern characterized by large multi-purpose villages surrounded by farm lands inhabited only by the farmers themselves.” (68)  “Townships without sizable villages became more completely dominated by agriculture and between 1820 and 1840 experienced a decline in the proportion of the workforce engaged in manufacturing.”  But why?  What was it about the presence of the canals and Syracuse that all of a sudden made industry want to move to town?  Labor?  Customers?  A chance to make products for a seemingly unlimited national market instead of a known, finite local one?  Balstad said earlier that “industries ...were frequently owned and operated by the same people who ran the local commercial establishments...they built an ashery and a distillery to process their customers’ wood ashes and grain.” (27) These entrepreneurs were often merchants who got paid in produce, and had to convert it for sale in the markets where they got their merchandise.  Surely these weren’t the same people who took up manufacturing in the city? Or, if they were, they weren’t doing it for the same reasons.  Balstad insists, contra Lampard, that it was not “specialization of economic functions” that caused industry to move from country to city, because “urban and village industry in the county differed little from rural industry in terms of its technology or the organization of production.”  Commercial changes in “interregional marketing patterns” caused the change. (69) This means that, in spite of nothing changing in the country, an entirely new form of manufacturing for markets outside the region grew up in the city.

And this is the main question, isn't it?  Was this industrial growth, like the earlier “declension” in farming, really an instance of runaway growth on the one hand and stability or organic growth on the other?  Is the real point that the country wasn’t declining in absolute terms, but only relative to the explosive growth next door?  And if so, then the real story is about what people believed about the situation, at the time.  And this isn’t going to jump out of the data.  By 1840, “second-level villages which were scattered throughout the county...had recovered from the earlier competition of the canal villages and were thriving.”  (70) Why?  Their having “locational advantages in the growing regional transportation network” doesn’t seem like an adequate answer.

Between 1840 and 1850, Balstad says the “total population of the hinterland increased only 5 percent.  Given an estimated crude rate of natural increase for the decade of 21 percent, this...indicates that the rate of out-migration was 17 percent of the 1840 population.” (88) She seems to believe that this net number doesn’t hide any significant in-migration, even though she admits the northern township of Lysander “increased its total population in the 1840s by 35 percent.” In the 1850s, Balstad says hinterland population actually declined by 3%, but in order to arrive at that figure she seems to have reclassified Elbridge (at the western edge of the county on the canal) out of the hinterland, because it grew.  There’s clearly a change going on here, but Balstad’s presentation seems to gerrymander the data into a story of declension and stagnation.  She admits that “Farmers in the townships circling the city also began to plant more acres in garden crops to meet the growing needs of both the city of Syracuse and eastern urban markets,” but she doesn’t show whether revenues and profits from this activity were higher or lower than they had been in the earlier, wheat-growing regime.  In a chart of land values and holdings, Balstad shows the average value of an acre of land on the canals or railroads increased from $46 to $69 between 1850 and 1860, and away from the transportation network, from $34 to $48. (96) In both areas, the average farm size decreased by about ten acres.  This suggests to me that lots of farmers were taking advantage of higher land values by selling off unused (possibly unimproved) acres to generate cash. With such a windfall, many farm families may have been able to send sons off west to buy land, since clearly local acres were no longer going to be cheap.  The effect Balstad describes may be accurate, but instead of tragedy, it may have seemed like good news to Onondaga farmers.

Although Balstad leaves these social historical questions unanswered, the real value of
City and Hinterland is the data she uncovers that allows them to be asked. As Syracuse grows, (250 in 1820, 2,565 in 1830, 28,119 in 1860) foreign immigrants drive the growth until the majority of households are headed by people born outside the US. By 1855, 58% of Syracuse households are headed by foreigners, primarily German and Irish. (108) Many of the men had come to the salt-works before the canals were built, and then stayed on as construction workers.  Since Balstad has stressed the idea of “serial migration” and family solidarity among Anglo residents, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the early immigrants may also have brought over brothers and wives from the old country.  And, because immigrants’ children were tallied as Onondaga-born, a good portion of those in the “native” column are actually second generation immigrants living with their first generation parents. In the data, two thirds of Syracuse’s population came from outside the county.  These would have been the adults; most of the other third would have been children born in Syracuse.  And of that two thirds, roughly one third were Irish, one third German, and one third native (mostly New Yorker). (108-112)  In other words, there were twice as many foreign-born adults as natives in 1855 Syracuse.

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Balstad says migration from the hinterland to the city was limited to “people in the upper levels of the socioeconomic hierarchy in rural and village Onondaga,” and that they took their money with them.  (127) This weakened the county’s hinterland financially, and in the loss of its “best and brightest.”  Farmers, she says, were committed to an agrarian lifestyle, and tended to leave for new western farms rather than the city. (139)  Rural persisters were likely to be the most successful landowners, who had a greater economic incentive to stay. Their ability to consolidate the useful parts of the properties of those who left may have helped them end up with “an average of 20.6 acres more per land-owning persister than per land-owning migrant.” (142) Their ability to change from wheat-growing to market gardening and dairying came at a good time, since soil exhaustion and western competition made the old practices unprofitable. This may have had the effect, as Balstad concludes, of changing “what had been a mixed rural economy into a specialized agricultural economy supported by occasional villages,” but the motivations and processes involved need closer examination. (153) As she says, looking at other “city-regions in other sections of the United States and over other periods of time” would indicate how representative this story is.  And looking into the minds of the people involved, if possible, might tell us whether this was a tragedy or a comedy.

Manufacturing and mercantile account books, centennial and memorial histories, census and tax records, and the letters and memoirs of merchants and industrialists provided a wealth of data, which Balstad used to paint a richly detailed picture of the changes in Onondaga County. But, except for brief moments, the picture lacks people.  I wonder if there were few opportunities to add contemporary reflections from regular people (even newspapers might have helped), or if Balstad thought it was beyond the scope of what she wanted to do in this case study.  And I wonder if anyone else has gone back over this territory, to find the people? Or gone forward, in the way she suggested, but also with an eye to the human story?  Might be something to think about doing...

Keeping tabs on the family in 1850

In another of the Ranney Letters from Ashfield, Lucius writes Henry from Allen Michigan in March 1850.  He mentions that he has not written in a long time, and later remarks that neither has Henry. We can’t be sure how long the brothers have been out of touch, but probably not for as long as the previous letter in the archive, from April 1843, would suggest. Chances are that after a century and a half, some of the letters are missing from this archive. In any case, letters seem to be moving between Ashfield, Phelps, and Michigan, because Lucius has heard from Alonzo Franklin that Henry has heard from Lyman.

One possibility is that whole letters were sent on from Ashfield to another brother, rather than transcribe all the news coming from one brother for the benefit of the next. In any case, we can assume Lucius and Henry have been out of direct contact for at least half a year, because Lucius announces that he was married about six months earlier to a local girl, whom he describes as “19 years old, her health is good, &c.”  Lucius gives Henry an update on all the family doings, including those of their cousins Lucretia and Frederick. Lucius thinks their brothers Lewis and Harrison are not as hardworking as they might be, but he describes younger brother Lemuel as “doing very well I suppose, but still takes the world easy & gains the goodwill of the people & has plenty of fun with the Indians and girls.” Their one sister, Priscilla, has had a daughter (Mary, b. Nov. 1849, d. Aug 1852), and Lucius adds some news about their brother-in-law Randolph Densmore.

A local physician and his students have been caught dissecting a stolen corpse, Lucius tells Henry. This happened a lot in the early 19th century — both the stealing of bodies by medical students and the prosecution of those who were caught. This may be of extra interest to the Ranneys because Dr. Charles Knowlton, their friend and doctor in Ashfield, had served time at hard labor in Massachusetts for the same crime (but that’s another story…)

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My transcription:


Allen March 10th 1850
Dear Friends

I am aware as well as yourselves that it has been a long time since I have written to you. Consequently methinks this will be gratefully received.  We are all well as usual, Mother is not very rugged however this winter. Our friends are also well.

I received a letter from A.F. a day or two since.  He says he recd a letter from you a few days since from which I understand that you have received one from Lyman.  Consequently I shall say little about him.  He has in my opinion made as food a move as perchance he could in going to Arkansas.  He wrote us about the time he did you.  He is quite steady & shrewd & has a good education, & that is you are aware a fortune to a young man.

I suppose that you have heard that I was married but let that be as it may.  I can safely say that I am.  I was married the 17th of Oct last.  My wife’s name was Clarissa A Wilcox.  She is 19 years old, her health is good, &c.  As for Lemuel, he is at Grand Rapids. I suppose he wrote us a letter about two months ago & we have other means of hearing from him. He is at work at his trade, he is doing very well I suppose, but still takes the world easy & gains the goodwill of the people & has plenty of fun with the Indians and girls. We expect him home this spring.  He left here last spring.  He worked in Paw Paw, Van Buren Co. The past summer.  He worked in Albion, Calhoun Co., a while in the fall, then he went to the Rapids where I suppose he now is.

Franklin wrote that his family was well.  I suppose that you know nearly as much about his affairs as I do.  Lewis and Harrison are at work on their places doing tolerably well.  They do not work very hard, perhaps I need not tell you that, but they are generally busy.  They are making some improvements.

Densmore is into all kinds of business & is bound to have a good living while he is sojourner upon Earth.  He & a partner slaughtered four thousand sheep last fall for the pelts & tallow out of which they made five hundred dollars.  This winter he is a butchering some & is working some at his trade &c.  He shifts too much for his own interest, I think.

Anson lives at home yet.  We are a jogging along after the old sort.  We are making sugar some at present.  We have made 100 lbs.  We have 14 acres of wheat on the ground which looks very well as yet.  Wheat is worth 75 cts, corn 25 cts, oats 18 cts, hay $6.00 &c.  We have one pair of horses, one yoke of oxen, 6 cows, 70 sheep, 2 roosters & one duck.  Also many other fine things.

We have had an open winter here.  We have not had any good sleighing, but about 2 weeks of poor sleighing.  A great deal of rain.  Aunt Polly, Frederick and family are out to Grand River.  I suppose Lyman wrote you about Uncle Henry Sears, Nathan’s family, &c.  There is no doubt in my mind but Uncle Henry has feathered his nest out of Uncle Paul’s property in Texas.  Who blames him?  Not I.  But some of you Ashfield boys ought to go and make him a visit.

Harrison likes the country well in the vicinity of Mt. Carmel.  Harrison has the Yellow Fever to a small degree, say a buck load or such a matter.  I have not had it yet & think I shall not bad, as long as I have plenty of Pork & Beans.  But human nature is not easily satisfied.  Clarissa and I was a visiting at Mr. Cross who married Lucretia Ranney this winter, they were well.  Abner Rogers’ family, some of them live near there.  Benjamin Rogers lost his wife last summer or fall.  He married another in six weeks. He has ten children.  They live in Lenawee County, I suppose you know that.

There is quite an excitement raging here in our town at present.  There is been found the bones of a human being, a Female, with the share of flesh on, found in a bag.  It was found in a field in the fence corner, covered with barks, a day or two since.  It was badly mutilated. It is supposed to have been dug up from some of the neighboring burying grounds by a Physician & student & two or three more.  They have been arrested & I suppose sufficient testimony can be found against them to convict them.  They have been dissecting it for two or three weeks. They have been watched. They found that they were like to be pursued & they secreted it in that shape.  The people let them work for the sake of getting sufficient testimony against them.  It will probably go hard with them.  It is no particular honor to the place but I want to show you what is a going on in this heathen land.

I have nothing more in particular to write.  We should be happy to see you here & if not convenient for that we would like to hear from that way soon.  If my memory serves me you have not written for a long time.  I have endeavored to give you the outlines of some of the most important news that is now in my mind, so you must excuse me for this time.  You have discovered of course that my writing is good, but poor ink.

Our folks all send their respects to you all.  Franklin’s little girl, Ellen Isabel, is here this winter & goes to school.  The rail road is a going to leave Hillsdale & continue west some ways I suppose.  They have commenced work on it.

This from your affectionate brother
Lucius Ranney

Priscilla has a daughter five months old, her health is quite good.