About Corazon

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Religion and Capitalism in Early America

One of my favorite books during my time in graduate school was, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 by Charles Sellers. In this book, Sellers attempts to discover the roots of American capitalism by analyzing first the roots of the American subsistence and bartering economy, which was both highly localized and an extremely intimate means of tying neighbors together in a communal relationship of trust. However, Sellers argues that this communal system of economics was quickly replaced by the emergence of market capitalism during the early years of the 19th century. He writes:
By 1815 the combined influence of Federalism and entrepreneurial Republicanism had completed an essential stage of the market revolution by committing the commercial states to the political economy of capitalism (40).
As a result, the means by which goods were bought, shipped, sold etc. had been changed, catapulting the new nation into a frenzy of capitalist expansion. States like New York were quick to take advantage of this capitalist explosion. The completion of the Erie Canal for example, illustrates just how much the United States had changed in the ways in which it conducted business since the founding era. Goods were now being shipped across the nation and the Atlantic as farmers, merchants, etc. converted from their traditional bartering system by embracing a capitalist mindset to the production and sale of their goods.

Not everyone, however, was happy with this change. After all, the communal/bartering system of economics, which had literally tied neighbors and towns together in a web of mutual dependence, was being pulled out from under their feet. Scores of impoverished families who had fallen victim to the swift changes brought on by market economics sought refuge and understanding in the wake of their local disaster.

As is often the case during difficult times, these downtrodden masses sought the security and reassurance of religion to alleviate their troubles. And since the American religious landscape was already caught up in a storm of Christian revival -- i.e. the Second "Great Awakening" -- citizens did not have to look far to find a pastor that was ready and willing to hear their plea. As a result, many pastors resorted to castigating the Market Revolution as being the fruits of greed and personal selfishness. Originally spawned by the passionate late 18th century pastors like Johnathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins and others, the "New Divinity" hoped to capture the minds and hearts of its followers by presenting a creed based on "disinterested benevolence," which shunned personal gain in favor of communal security. As Sellers states:
For intensely pressured Yankees, the New Divinity's apocalyptic utopia was an irresistible fantasy of surcease from market pressures. Amid "universal peace, love, and general and cordial friendship." Hopkins (and others) promised "no unrighteous persons" would "invade the rights and property of others." Invoking one of the subsistence culture's favorite Biblical images, he declared that "every one shall securely sit under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." Lawsuits, luxury, and waste would cease. There would be "such benevolence and fervent charity" that "all worldly things will be in great degree common, so as not to be withheld from any who may want them" (207).
For a people caught between the "tug-o-war" of capitalist economics and religious communal Utopianism, this division became extremely personal. As could be expected, those who reaped success from the newfound opportunities of the Market Revolution saw their personal gain as the result of hard work, dedication, and divine intervention. Those on the "losing" end of the equation, however, were quick to accept the new doctrine of communal economics that pointed the finger at emerging Market forces as being, "the Biblically predicted time of rampant discord and worldliness that would immediately precede the Millennium" (207).

Of course this cultural "back-and-forth" between personal economic gain v. the prosperity of the community was nothing new in early America. For decades, Americans had argued that the personal greed often associated with capitalism would lead to the undoing of the whole by eventually concentrating the majority of wealth into the hands of the few. Even Adam Smith, the so-called "father" of capitalism understood just how polarizing the ideals of capitalism could be on the masses when he wrote:
The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor...The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess...It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion
In a letter to Benjamin Vaughn, Benjamin Franklin also pointed out his distrust of the elite having too much money and power in their hands. Using an analogy to prove his point, Franklin writes:

When by virtue of the first Laws Part of the Society accumulated Wealth and grew Powerful, they enacted others more severe, and would protect their Property at the Expense of Humanity. This was abusing their Powers, and commencing a Tyranny. If a Savage before he enter’d into Society had been told, Your Neighbour by this Means may become Owner of 100 Deer, but if your Brother, or your Son, or yourself, having no Deer of your own, and being hungry should kill one of them, an infamous Death must be the Consequence; he would probably have prefer’d his Liberty, and his common Right of killing any Deer, to all the Advantages of Society that might be propos’d to him.

And while the early years of American capitalism were clouded in a fog of religious and popular skepticism, it is clear that today's American capitalism has been "piggy-backed" with the belief that God sanctions capitalism above all others. When and how this transition occurred is, well, another topic for another day.

***Tomorrow's Post: What the emergence of market economics meant to the early Mormon Church.***

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