The Best Poor Man's Country invites readers to consider the significance of Pennsylvania to Europe in the colonial days, as a beacon of freedom and an open field for entrepreneurial spirits to hoe a row for themselves without the encumbering religious community or nucleic structure of New England society. The colony's settlers hailed from England, Germany's protestant southwest, Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France. James T. Lemon emphasizes the liberal and individualistic outlook of the people, starting his first chapter with a consideration of the declining feudal system and the mentality of those recently unbelted from its constraints. "Most migrants were dissenters from Rome," suggests the author, who is preoccupied with the political outlook of an incipient petty bourgeoisie that puts its roots down in Penn's Woods. Lemon writes against earlier scholarship that suggests national identity shaped settlement more than practical interest, insisting that, whatever their ethnic origin, people followed the dictates of rational self-interest (i.e. liberalism) in tackling the land. This ideology (or set of "goals," as he prefers) also led to a sort of conservatism emphasizing hard work, material gain, and privacy. In other words, the political culture of ambitious middle-of-the-road Western European dissenter protestants in a relatively open society begat a form of settlement — scattered, somewhat isolated, punctuated by the occasional trading center — that in turn developed the political culture of the Pennsylvania to come.
Lemon looks at the initial sites of settlement, spatial mobility, urban hierarchy, rural economic structure and land-use regionalization. He especially seeks to explain why the colony's settlers opted for a pattern of dispered farms rather than agricultural villages and tightknit townships. "Unlike early 17th century Massachusetts, the chief level of local government in Pennsylvania was the county." The author finds little correlation between different nationalities and the kind of land they chose to inhabit, as the availability of water, market access, and farms of desirable size determined many people's decision of where to settle, regardless of ethnicity.
The area along the Delaware had a thin population of Indians and few Europeans in 1680, but by 1800 there were more than 300,000 European-Americans there. Lemon points out that they had dramatically altered the landscape, with scattered farms, market towns and mines, but they had changed little in the way of technology or underlying values. Pennsylvanians clung to the notion of individual, material success, and even those who abandoned the land carried the same ideology with them as they went west.
Lemon divides his study into four periods: establishment, 1681-1700; stagnation, 1700-1730; expansion, 1730-1760; and consolidation, disruption, and reestablishment, 1760-1800. In the first stage, most settlers did not come from the richest or the poorest strata of western European society. Rather, they were the "middling" sort - Quakers, German sectarians and Anglicans who came to build an open society based on individual effort and material success. William Penn had advocated fee-simple tenure, which most agreed with, and a design of townships centered around meeting-houses, which many did not like. Enclosure of land and consolidation of fields dominated, against the model of New England town-based, communitarian settlement. Although towns were surveyed, most settlement lacked any clear center and the county became the basic unit of governance. People did like the idea of having a few major urban centers as markets for crops and other goods, so they supported the development of Philadelphia; the city's founding also coincided with the opening of markets in the West Indies, to which the area mostly exported wheat and beef.
Between 1700 and 1730, the formerly rapid pace of growth slackened. Fewer migrants came during this time, principally Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Mennonites. Many more Germans, of the Lutheran and Reformed persuasion, came after 1725. There was much mixed settlement by these newcomers, although some gravitated toward areas already settled by people similar to themselves. People showed no interest in founding new towns, as most turned to Philadelphia to fulfill the necessary urban functions. The time between 1730-1760 saw renewed growth, and by 1752 the three counties Lemon initially studied had been divided into eight, with Lancaster, York, Reading, and Carlisle emerging as small but significant urban nodes. They were sufficiently distant from both Philadelphia and each other to have relevance to their surrounding communities, a la central place theory. Depression and war sometimes stood in the way of trade, but agricultural exports increased by 50 percent between the 1730s and the 60s and imports increased even more so. Lemon credits the planning acumen of the Penns in strategically placing country towns and the skill of merchants in organizing trade for bolstering economic activity, since farming techniques remained "virtually antediluvian."
Social stratification had been relatively unknown in the "establishment" period, but in the first sixty years of the eighteenth century differentiation of wealth did steadily develop. According to Lemon, the relative success of the sectarians derived from their hard work, mutual help, and inclination to try new techniques, rather than any occupation of superior soil. Wealth still did not vary by nationality in 1760. In the final period, closing out the eighteenth century, Lemon found less growth and prosperity, chiefly due to the disruptions of war and revolution. Experimentation began that would yield major gains in farm productivity after 1800. The final three or four decades were quite different than the boisterous economic growth of 1748-1760, as imports/exports peaked and doubts about Atlantic trade (as seen in the Nonimportation agreements of 1769) stifled commerce. Farmers, who still focused largely on subsistence, were able to weather the changes.