Book Review: Christopher Clark’s “The Roots of Rural Capitalism”
Christopher Clark’s The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860 (Amazon) argues for the creation of a capitalistic society in New England during the period between the War for American Independence and the Civil War. Although not unique, Massachusetts displayed distinct characteristics, which would allow it to play a significant role in the economic development of the country throughout the period.
Clark’s divides his book into five chronologically-developed sections. The first is the introduction in which he lays out his groundwork and general premise. The second section, entitled “Involution: 1780 to the 1820s,” shows the intensification of production in Massachusetts and the seeking of new occupations by its residents. “The Bounds of Independence” discusses the catalysts that allowed for the changes that occurred between Parts Two and Four. The fourth part, ”Concentration: 1820s to 1860” examines the concentration of capitalist enterprises that came to exist during the period. The final division offers a conclusion and puts Massachusetts in perspective of New England and the nation as a whole.
Relying on the work accomplished by Rothenberg, and Merrill and Henretta, Clark adapts their theories to his own. He neither entirely agrees nor disagrees with their interpretations but see them only as needing adjustment. Rothenberg contests that the growth of New England markets occurred before substantial improvements in farming methods and transportation, and also that the growth of markets was something new rather than a continuation of already existing practices. Merrill and Henretta contended that throughout much of the nineteenth century, farmers were primarily concerned with subsistence and were not market oriented. Farmers were attempting “to preserve the integrity of their households and to pass this legacy to succeeding generations.”
Clark attempts to derive his interpretation from both economic and social sources. He asserts that rather than being determinant in nature, markets are created through and by social situations. He claims there is a need to explain the existence of and circumstances surrounding the “social interactions in the transmission of goods and services.”
The old view of capitalism and the market economy in America was that Americans, and specifically farmers in this case, had always been farmers. Along with Rothenberg, Clark contests this idea, claiming that “rural capitalism,” which he defines as “a stage in the development of social relations in the countryside,” had only become capitalistic around the time just before the Civil War. Prior to this it was only a primitive market economy. The path leading to the development of capitalism was complex and in no way linear.
Beginning around 1810, increasing farm productivity saw an increase in the number of young males and females looking for non-farm related careers. Also many farmers began to employ laborers for planting, overseeing, and harvesting crops. Concurrently with this, merchants experienced an increase in power and influence, due to a growing dependence on the services they could provide. The role of the middleman was expanding dramatically. The combination of these factors led to what Clark termed “concentration.” Two of the changes with the greatest impact on rural businessmen in the period prior to the Civil War were a shift toward credit, even in their local towns, and conducting long-distance exchange rather than solely local.
Clark later points out that while the conditions in Massachusetts were not entirely unique, they were displayed in “an unusual combination of economic characteristics in the late eighteenth century.” Also he when attempting to put the region into perspective Clark shows that the changes in the rural economy of New England had important ramifications for the economic development of the rest of the country. Clark also asserted that his should not be the last economic study of the region as too much information lay either untapped or could be relevant for similar such studies.
 Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism, 11.
 Ibid, 13.
 Ibid, 14.
 Ibid, 322.