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Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century (Reprints of Economic Classics Series)

Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century - Percy Wells Bidwell Bidwell based this book on the 1810 Census and related documents. So, he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier. He begins with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He is careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Farming was their primary, and fall-back, occupation. (256-7)Bidwell attributes the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of division of labor to the lack of a market. Quoting the Wealth of Nations, he says “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.’” (267, n. 1) The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies. (294) The problem was, getting products to the coast. “The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further.” (309) Since transportation limited access to markets, one would expect farmers to be less interested in “improvement” and production for market than their counterparts in England and Europe. This was the case, in the opinions of both foreign visitors and critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale. Bidwell says “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were good reasons for the state of farming. (345) “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insists. (346) “Land was cheap and labor dear,” he says, “Washington’s explanation.” (349) Bidwell agrees that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), but he insists that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.” “The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” he observes, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded.” (353) “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insists, “were futile as long as a market was lacking...Between the years 1810 and 1860 such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns.”