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Joseph Kaminski

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October 20, 2017

Individuality and Communalism in Colonial Economics


The features of capitalism have evolved throughout both history and society, and it has been immensely affected by the pressures from both individuals and institutions. Although capitalism has played a rather crucial role in the shaping of American economic and geopolitical thought, modern historiography has questioned the foundations of our colonial economics. Until recently, American historians perpetuated the concept of “lifetime capitalists” in the colonial era – those early Europeans who came to the colonies looking for economic opportunities.

Though this act of uprooting and moving to a brand new and mostly undiscovered world may be witnessed as the largest economic “risk” a red-blooded American capitalist could make, the landscape that they found themselves at perhaps set the ‘capitalistic’ motives of the early colonialists back by generations. These European men and women were forced to live and adapt very similar to how the Native Americans lived. From Denevan’s The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492, we see that the “semi-dispersed, densely populated […] single-family and communal”[1] style of living was common and encouraged. As we can see, the earliest settlements were set up in a ‘similar’ fashion because this style of living worked best. This way of living was how people would survive in the New World, and the Europeans were forced to adapt in ways that they, as capitalists, would not have.

Henretta’s Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America argues against the age-old capitalistic talking point by claiming that the evidence coming from colonial history doesn’t support the “entrepreneurship” of the mindset at the time. He assesses Joseph Fuller, an investor who could very well be labeled as a “capitalist” who came to Connecticut in 1739. A so-called “proprietor” and “rich squatter”, Fuller had the “energy, ambition, and activities” of an entrepreneurial capitalist.[2] However, as Henretta continues, it becomes clear that Kent’s actions can be rooted back to the needs to have such an ambitious career – not necessarily the desire to have one. It wasn’t a capitalistic urge to grow and expand, but the absolute need to keep a family living and breathing. This ties back into the Native American lifestyle, as presented in The Pristine Myth, which left a remarkable footprint on the environment without capitalistic gains.[3]

As the first settlements began to prop themselves up across the eastern coastline, we as historians can witness the initial adaption that these men and women were forced to grow accustom to. Family became increasingly important, with work being organized across the initial extended family and then onwards into the community. As stated in Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America, there was no clear separation between the societal ‘family unit’ and the community’s economic growth.[4] Thus, the question can be brought back into play: is the beginning of a capitalist economy – one rooted within individual gain and social stratification – starting to take grasp on the early American colonies, or are we witnessing a ‘moral economy’ focused on communal survival and institutionalism?

There is no better way to understand how the family unit worked and survived in the colonial era than a primary source that pertains the said era. Thomas Minor’s diary, which exists as a recording of his monthly work life, seems to merge the two concepts. Minor unknowingly depicted a society strung together and connected through family, religion, and other institutional values, all of which seem to refer to the communalism of colonial lifestyle. He describes his more communal-based work throughout the year of 1660, from “threshing wheat” for a supposed neighbor to working with others to build a ‘little house’.[5] The fact that the community offered services to each other on a moral level suggests that the rural colonial residents of 1660 understood that working together was of upmost importance. As the new social history of understanding colonial economics ensures, the communitarian culture of religion and work ethics sets up an ‘all or none’ style of community.

Minor’s diary also gives us a preview to the beginning of colonial capitalism, albeit it may be in a low-scale format. In the eighth month of 1660, Minor briefly mentions the passing of his wife’s sister and the moon being eclipsed. Today, these two events are considered rather important on a weekly schedule; however, back then society would be more focused on what would keep them surviving and, eventually, thriving. The death of a relative was far too common to get worried over, and the eclipse wasn’t quite the social gathering that it is today. It would be a dent in productivity that people residing within the community desperately needed and harm what little profit the family could make. For the remainder of his diary entry for that month, he describes capitalistic ways of working in the form of selling mares.

One could claim that these men were capitalistic in nature, rushing into a so-called ‘pristine world’ that would offer expanding economic opportunities; and although these people may have harmed the delicate ‘First Eden’ of the New World[6], their original desires was set back by quite a distance. Thus, both secondary and primary sources can be used to support communalism and, in miniscule cases, a low-grade capitalistic effort that wouldn’t blossom until a century after Minor.

[1] Denevan, William M. "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992): 376.

"Much of the rural precontact settlement was semi-dispersed [...] probably reflecting poor food transport efficiency. Houses were both single-family and communal [...]."

[2] Henretta, James A. "Families and Farms: Mentalite in Pre-Industrial America." The William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1978): 21-23.

"Fuller had to embark on an active career if he wished to keep his children [...] from a life of landless poverty […]”

[3] Denevan, William M. "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992): 379.

[4] Henretta, James A. "Families and Farms: Mentalite in Pre-Industrial America." The William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1978): 21.

"Family relationships could not be divorced from economic considerations [...]”

[5] Minor, Thomas. Thomas Minor's Diary: A Farmer's Year, 1660. Pages 1-2. PDF.

[6] Denevan, William M. "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992): 370.

" pre-Columbian America was still the First Eden, a pristine natural kingdom."

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