COMMERCE AND CULTURE: Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750 by Christine Heyrman

COMMERCE AND CULTURE: Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750

Email this review


Lots and lots about Gloucester and Marblehead, Massachusetts, from the late 17th century to the middle of the 18th (and only those two villages, despite what the subtitle implies)--the challenging but doubtful point being that better business made better neighbors. Most historians nowadays think that commercial growth and the spread of market relations in these years destroyed the pre-modern subsistence communities of early New England by infecting them with the competitive, possessive individualism characteristic of modern society. Not so, says Heyrman (History, UCal, Irvine). Economic change in Gloucester and Marblehead, she admits, did shake things up a good bit. Gloucester grew larger and more complex; people found new ways of making a living; private ownership and free enterprise displaced old-fashioned collectivism and restrictionism; indebtedness increased; inequalities of wealth and power became greater. Marblehead suffered through ""increasingly harsh and unequal economic arrangements and a disrupted social life,"" ""labor exploitation,"" ""violence and strife,"" and the spreading conviction that people ""owed nothing to each other that could not be proved in court."" But not to worry: after painstaking (and frequently brilliant) researches into such matters as the link between Quakerism and witchcraft, the social origins of an anti-innoculation riot, the sexual mores of fishing villages, and other local secrets, Heyrman sees no reason to think that commerce made people any worse. Just the reverse, in fact: in Gloucester it led to ""conservative"" affirmations of the old order, confirmed ""the persistence and resilience of consensual and corporatist patterns of thought and behavior,"" and preserved the continuity of ""oligarchic and deferential"" political life. Even in Marblehead, a more difficult case, much of the trouble can be traced to arrogant outsiders and a ""flawed social organization"": the place had always teetered on the brink of communal anarchy, and commercial development actually made things better. Well, perhaps. Readers predisposed to approve the rise of market economies and market-relations will not doubt a word of it. Despite the richness of Heyrman's evidence, however, she concedes so much to the opposing point of view that neither side can really claim victory.

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 1984
Publisher: Norton