Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, 2000

Subjects: Agriculture, Immigration, Capitalism, Native Americans.

Allan Kulikoff's book holds forth upon the subject of American's much-heralded independent yeoman farmer - why he chose to leave the Old World, what he found when he came to the vast, untamed and Indian-populated American "wilderness," and how he structured his economic, social, and family life in this brave new world. Beginning his tale with the economic and demographic changes - enclosure, urbanization, dispossession, smaller land holdings, increased tenancy — that transformed England from a feudal to a capitalist society in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Kulikoff uses pro and anti-colonial ballads to explore what prompted landless European citizens to head West in the first place. (The answer, more often than not, was to own land and to achieve enough economic independence to marry and raise a family, something denied most of the lower classes in the Old World and all but the first sons in even relatively well-to-do families. Pursuits of Happiness, indeed.)

From there, Kulikoff explores how these seventeenth century emigrants first reacted to the vicissitudes of America's alien landscape and its denizens, how for a number of reasons - among them language barriers and different social understandings of land use, husbandry, contracts, and gift-giving — the relationships between Native Americans and European immigrants quickly deteriorated, how through a combination of violent conflict and lousy treaties the Native Americans were eventually pushed West, and how the new colonists then anglicized their new home by renaming the landscape and "integrating their new habits into English regional customs, practices, and institutions."

With the Native Americans pushed west, Kulikoff describes how colonists distributed their new land and how they encouraged further colonization (using headrights both as an incentive to further immigration and a buffer between settled and Indian lands.) He then examines the next wave of (Eighteenth century) colonists and what brought them to the New World, making a convincing argument that for various reasons only a select few groups - Ulster Irish, Scottish Highlanders, more-literate Germans - chose to head to America instead of moving to the burgeoning cities of Europe or heading east.

Kulikoff then sets out to describe American colonial social and economic development. To paraphrase Kulikoff's economic argument in these later chapters, While England had no land and lots of labor, America had lots of land and very little labor, and this fundamental distinction explains much of the divergent paths in economic and social development taken by the two worlds. For example, a manorial system of tenancy never really took off in the American colonies (although apparently it fared relatively well in the Hudson River area) because it was just too easy for colonists to obtain their own land. Moreover, every time rising population pressures began to impact on the size of colonial farms and threaten to create a English-style capitalist system, poorer settlers, new immigrants and second (third, fourth, etc.) sons would push west, buy or squat on new land, and "reset the cycle of Indian warfare and removal, frontier migration, and farm making" that Kulikoff lays out. Thus, rather than the Old World capitalist model of landlord and tenant, owner and dispossessed, America mostly follows an agrarian model of independent, yeoman farmers working their own land.

Did I say independent? Well, almost. The most interesting part of the book for me was the social interdependences Kulikoff lays out as a result of this agrarian colonial model. On a continent where land comes cheap and laborers are at a premium, colonial farmers are forced to create informal trading and borrowing networks for anything from credit to butter, produce to labor, carpentry to cloth. And the overall labor shortage creates a model of farm family life in which each member - father, mother, children (not to mention servants and slaves) - has distinct and indispensable chores (and thus crucial social roles, since all members of the family were often inherent to achieving competency.) Moreover, Kulikoff notes that while farmers set out to provide for their own subsistence first, they soon found they could make a good deal of money selling their products in international markets, a fact that spurred the growth of village centers and the aforementioned farm-migration cycle.

Also posted at http://www.kevincmurphy.com/kulikoff.html.

Unfortunately for many, as Kulikoff notes in his epilogue, the Revolution severely interrupts the functioning of this delicate cycle and sends much of colonial America spiraling into poverty. For the ever-present labor shortage in the Colonies is even further exacerbated by the most able workers - young men, poor men, slaves - rushing off to join one of the many armies or militias. Moreover, the awful, awful violence of the war, the constant plundering and requisitioning of food and materials by combatants, the closing of international markets, and the proliferation of almost useless paper currency all work to further disrupt Kulikoff's cycle. (Which begs the question, wouldn't the Seven Years' War and King Phillips' War have had similar destabilizing effects?)

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License