The Inland Economy
Merchant begins by making the argument that the farmers of the inland economy were primarily subsistence farmers and did not really engage in the market economy. For example, “between 1700, when the inland towns were being settled, and 1790, when ecological crisis and European markets stimulated agricultural intensification, an economy oriented to subsistence and family preservation flourished in inland-upland New England” (Merchant 156). When farmers needed goods that they did not have they would often barter with neighbors and the country storekeeper. If physical currency was ever needed, farmers would do tasks such as, “drive cattle to the market… another might burn wood from cleared fields to produce an easily transportable bottle of potash” (Merchant 157). American farmers did not think of the land as a commodity to be exploited because many of them believed in the organic worldview. Everything was connected, “from fixed stars and planets and moon down to earth, animals, plants, and even the lowliest stone” (Merchant 158). American subsistence farmers were devoted to the almanac which helped drive their agricultural actions. However, land was not unlimited. Sons and daughters who were unable to own a suitable piece of land had to turn to “spinning and weaving, shoemaking, and broommaking or to wage labor” in order to survive (Merchant 159). Breakthroughs in transportation such as the steamboat, railroad, and the turnpike allowed farmers to play a substantial role in the market economy. Now surplus crops could be grown and sold to distant markets for a profit. The growth of the transportation industry led to population growth and increase in the size of the market economy. It also unfortunately, led to deforestation and pollution like never seen before. Although there was some resistance by subsistence farmers to adapt to the market economy, eventually the market triumphed and the view of the people changed. Nature was simply meant to be a resourced used in order to procure a profit. The drive for profits caused, “cut-over forests, smoky air, polluted streams, and endangered wildlife” (Merchant 162). One assumption that Merchant makes has to do with the subsistence farmer. Merchant makes the argument that farmers in eighteenth century England largely relied on subsistence because of their organic worldview. However, it is very hard to prove that is what they actually believed. An alternate explanation, may be that farmers relied on subsistence simply because there was no infrastructure in place that allowed them to have interactions with distant markets.
Steinberg makes the argument that, “early New Englanders were amazingly successful at reshaping the natural world to meet their own economic needs, at incorporating nature into their own distinct culture” (Merchant 169). This statement is contrary to the view expressed by Merchant that early New Englanders only took from the land what they needed. Steinberg notes that while dividing land was easy, dividing water was much trickier due to its flowing nature. Things changed in the nineteenth century when, “the advent of large, integrated textile factories with substantial demands for energy transformed the way New England’s waters were used” (Merchant 170). In order to maximize the productive potential of textile mills, water needed to be distributed in a way that was beneficial to the mills at the expense of the environment. The men in New England who owned these textile mills: Tracy Jackson, Francis Cabot Lowell, and Nathan Appleton all sought to use nature in a way that benefited them. Steinberg makes an assumption about early New England colonists when he says that, “European settlers brought along a culture that viewed a land, and what was on it, as a source of profit” (Merchant 169). However, he does not go into detail about how the early settlers action’ reflected their desire to use the land for profit. He instead just wants us to take him at his word.
Merchant, Carolyn. American Environmental History: an Introduction. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.