Property and Kinship: Inheritance in Early Connecticut, 1750-1820

Property and Kinship: Inheritance in Early Connecticut, 1750-1820

by Toby L. Ditz

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Toby Ditz explores the relationship among inheritance, kinship, and the commercialization of agriculture. Comparing four upland communities with a Connecticut River Valley town, she finds that inheritance practices in the late colonial era heavily favored some male heirs and created shared rights in property. These customs continued into the early nineteenth


Toby Ditz explores the relationship among inheritance, kinship, and the commercialization of agriculture. Comparing four upland communities with a Connecticut River Valley town, she finds that inheritance practices in the late colonial era heavily favored some male heirs and created shared rights in property. These customs continued into the early nineteenth century in the upland, but in the commercialized river-valley town practices became more egalitarian and individualized.

Originally published in 1986.

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Property and Kinship

Inheritance in Early Connecticut, 1750-1820

By Toby L. Ditz


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04735-5



When historians group together the New England and mid-Atlantic colonies, they are, explicitly or implicitly, using the criterion of agricultural enterprise type to demarcate a region dominated by family-farming from southern plantation areas, from manorial and tenancy systems, and from large-scale capitalist agriculture systems that would later appear in parts of the West. The distinction between family-farm systems and others rests on the distribution of property rights and allied economic decision-making powers between producers and others — rentiers, lords, masters, employers. The key feature of family-farm economies is the unification of legal powers to make economic decisions in the hands of those who actually work the land. Owner-producers dominated the agriculture of the American North. The legal rights of heads of households to make production decisions were largely constrained only by village ordinances, and their rights to returns from such production were limited only by local and colonial taxes.

The distinction according to agricultural enterprise type is schematic, but it does capture two important points. First, it emphasizes that the household is the basic economic unit in family-farm regions. In manorial or tenancy systems the basic decision-making unit is actually a vertical relation between the family of the lord or rentier and the family of the peasant dependent. In slave economies and those depending on hired labor, of course, producers have few, if any, significant rights in productive property. Second, by emphasizing property rights, the distinction according to enterprise type underscores the importance of inheritance. In regions dominated by owner-producers, inheritance transfers are a primary mechanism for allocating economic decision-making powers.

Rural Economic Development and Family Farms

Northern farm productivity increased only slightly in the last half of the eighteenth century, with the absolute increase in farm output barely keeping pace with a rapidly growing and geographically expanding population. As a consequence, per capita wealth increased only modestly. But the sluggish rate of economic growth did not substantially impede ongoing and notable change in the structure of northern markets. Differentiated zones of agricultural production appeared and consolidated as maturing trade networks between the colonies and both Europe and the West Indies, and between the North and the South, reinforced demand for northern agricultural goods. The more fertile mid-Atlantic colonies became the leading producers of exported grains, while in New England dairy and livestock became chief exports. Further, by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, zones of intensive market gardening appeared near cities.

The proportion of total agricultural output destined for extra-local markets probably increased only slightly. Even in those areas identified as most commercialized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the surplus available for interregional and export markets constituted at best forty percent of annual farm production; the rest was consumed locally. And twenty percent was the more typical figure. The increase in available surplus that did occur was sustained in part by the adoption of more intensive agricultural techniques, especially in the perishable foodstuffs zones and, by the early nineteenth century, in the more "commercialized" grain-producing areas. But northern farm families continued to practice diversified farming everywhere, and most observers attribute the low proportional increase in the surpluses for extra-local markets largely to this failure to specialize.

The first quarter of the nineteenth century was also the formative period for the development of rural industry in New England. Putting-out systems, centralized textile mills, and small manufacturing companies that produced for interregional and export markets had become important features of New England's economy by the 1820s. Typically employing laborers who retained a foothold on land, these new forms of enterprise spread rapidly enough in some sectors to overshadow the domestic and artisanal production that had served local markets.

Although there is general agreement about the formation of these broad zones, historians dispute whether or not they indicate thorough commercialization of agriculture because they disagree about the economic orientations and behavior of farmers themselves. These disagreements about the economic outlook of rural dwellers are, in turn, closely related to the issue of American exceptionalism. I first raised this issue with specific reference to family life, but American exceptionalism also impedes efforts to conceptualize northern agrarian social order as a whole.

Perhaps the most sustained statement of the American exceptionalism thesis is that of Seymour Martin Lipset. Even the title of his book, The First New Nation, makes a strong case. He writes,

Two themes, equality and achievement, emerged from the interplay between the Puritan tradition and the Revolutionary ethos in the early formation of America's institutions. ... the thesis is advanced that the dynamic interaction of these two predominant values has been a constant element in determining American institutions and behavior.

Not only did these values, and the tension between them, define a distinctive "American character," they persist as "constant" core elements of our culture or "national identity." Indeed, in his account, these values, forged in the family-farm regions of the American North, endure as underlying causes of contemporary European-American differences in political institutions and "status systems," despite trans-Atlantic similarities in occupational structure, degree of urbanization, and level of technological development.

Lipset refers to many features of the early American context that contributed to the crystallization of this distinctive value pattern, but he does not clearly indicate which of these were the most important. He does, however, use the summary phase "the absence of a feudal past" associated with the Hartz thesis. For Louis Hartz, the initial conditions of settlement and the seventeenth-century natural rights doctrines brought by the first settlers produced a social formation that had no history. There had been no legally distinct upper class; there was, therefore, no gulf between elite and nonelite styles of life or intellectual culture, and there was no legacy of conflict between aristocratic interests and the growth of a centralized political administration. Material abundance, distance from England's cosmopolitan culture, and the subsequent war of independence only reinforced the result: ideology and values were, and continue to be, formed within the tradition of "Lockean liberalism."

Historians who echo the American exceptionalism thesis usually stress the relative abundance and widespread ownership of land, a social structure relatively open in its opportunities for vertical mobility, and a decentralized and sometimes lax imperial administration as factors crucial to the formation of the mentality of American farmers. All of them share with Lipset and Hartz the view that these factors gave rise to patterns of behavior and orientations that were individualistic and profit-seeking, as well as egalitarian.

In his widely quoted statement about the rural population of eighteenth-century southeastern Pennsylvania, James Lemon takes an extreme position:

A basic stress in these essays is on the "liberal" middle-class orientation of many of the settlers. ... "Liberal" I use in the classic sense, meaning placing individual freedom and material gain over that of public interest ..., the people planned for themselves much more than they did for their communities. ... Undoubtedly their view was fostered by a sense that the environment was "open."

Lemon has recently adopted a more moderate tone, warning others, for example, not to overemphasize the weakness of community organization in the mid-Atlantic colonies. But his larger point still remains that freeholding communities in both New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies sheltered accumulative, acquisitive behavior. Other social historians draw similar conclusions. Charles Grant identifies a "drive for profits" in his study of eighteenth-century Kent, while Richard Bushman's interpretation of the Great Awakening in Connecticut is predicated on the emergence of patterns of economic behavior that were individualist and oriented to accumulation.

In this view, the development of an integrated market system provides the framework of opportunities for realizing such preexisting orientations. Richard Hofstadter once argued that if farmers practiced subsistence agriculture, they did so only reluctantly and because of transitory conditions (the hardships attendant upon initial settlement) or conditions beyond their control (the immaturity of markets or exceptionally poor factor endowments). Using such logic, others have since interpreted, for example, the proliferation of artisanal activity during the colonial period as evidence of an entrepreneurial and profit-seeking mentality frustrated by lack of outlets for farm produce. As such outlets did develop, eager farmers made the most of them. Indeed, the demarcation of "zones" of specialized production for export indicates that commercially oriented northern farmers were experimenting with the allocation of their productive resources along lines of competitive advantage.

But others deny that freehold tenure, abundant unsettled land, or a nonseigneurial social structure gave rise to market-oriented economic calculations or liberal and individualist values. Widespread ownership of viable farms sustained instead a social formation resistant to market rationality. The heart of the rural economy was household production founded on a secure landed base and a highly integrated local system of exchange. A small flow of outside goods supplemented the village economy, but local production met most basic living needs. The agricultural surplus that constituted the bulk of the goods handled by export merchants was simply that left over after most local needs had been satisfied. It may be that farmers were sharp in their dealings with one another and sensitive to the selling price of the surplus they brought to storekeepers who acted as intermediaries in the flow of goods between merchants and farmers (or the price it brought when they themselves did travel to market). But they did not seek or calculate profit, if by this is meant a search for the largest returns in relation to input and a willingness to change inputs in order to maximize net profit.

In this view the tenacity of diversified farming is unsurprising. Increased market opportunities failed to induce greater specialization, not because farmers were technologically ignorant or blindly attached to customary practices, but because diversified production helped to sustain a valued way of life based on largely self-sufficient villages. Similarly, the growth of artisanal activity, gristmills, and sawmills signifies the consolidation of a local rural economy in which needs were met within the confines of a town-centered system of production and exchange. Finally, investment in extra-local land was less a "speculative" drive than a form of saving for the future inheritances of children.

For these historians, the absence of a landed elite has very different implications than it has for those within the tradition of Turner and Hartz. As Robert Mutch argues, although rural villages had comparatively egalitarian class structures, family-farm regions as a whole had a special class structure. Merchants engaged in intercolonial and export trade played a prominent, even dominant role in provincial politics and economic life. Such merchants were certainly an elite. But, unlike landed elites, merchants did not possess direct authority over rural producers. They were not a "ruling class." Located mainly in primary and secondary port centers, they did not dominate the countryside. They did not live there or have a significant hold on land there, and they handled rural surplus through intermediaries — the ubiquitous peddlers and storekeepers. The absence of an elite that could mediate between town and country encouraged a heterogeneous American character; it reinforced the segmentation of provincial and local culture and institutions.

This view of provincial and rural social relations complements the work of those who stress the cohesion or highly articulated institutional structure of colonial New England towns, and present a picture of a finely graded system of internal stratification in which families were ranked not only by wealth but by moral standing and the extensiveness of their local kin network. Local leaders were selected from "good families" and were older men with a history of prior service in lesser offices. The hierarchy of local standing was finely graded, but social relations were also cooperative and democratic, in part because of the underlying parity among families established by their ownership of viable farms. Some historians even argue that these were essentially one-class or classless settings despite their complex status systems. They locate the main axis of domination and subordination within households — male control over the labor of wives and children and possibly over young servants or apprentices — rather than between households.

James Henretta's position is a representative summary. According to him the rural communities of the American North were

... distinguished by age and wealth stratification and [usually] by ethnic or religious homogeneity, while on the family level there was ... a household mode of production, limited economic possibilities and aspirations....

The lineal family — not the conjugal unit and certainly not the unattached individual — thus stood at the center of economic and social existence in northern agricultural society.

Local social relations and orientations, the argument continues, inhibited the impact of market forces on farm communities. The existence of the frontier merely stabilized the structure and culture of these communities by preventing them from being engulfed by population pressure on locally scarce resources. According to this viewpoint, although a minority may always have been entrepreneurs, the spread of an entrepreneurial and individualist orientation toward management of farm production becomes problematic — a phenomenon in need of explanation, as is the process by which the majority of rural Americans became integrated into an increasingly complex market system.

In short, polar images of agrarian life in the American North prevail. A good deal of the difficulty may lie in our tendency to mistake the part for the whole and to overstate the homogeneity of rural life. For exceptionalists this is inherent in the initial thesis. Material abundance and an egalitarian social structure promoted a culture in which market development could take place evenly and gradually, suffusing and percolating throughout the countryside. Everyone was a would-be entrepreneur or petty capitalist. But many who reject this view also homogenize the rural landscape. For some, the flattening effect appears to result from a tacit acceptance of Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft logic: if we were not all entrepreneurs, we must have been peasants. For others, the starting point seems to be that, except in the anomalous case, market penetration of initially self-sufficient family-farm areas cannot occur without resistance. The subsistence-plus way of life did not come under severe pressure, and resistance did not emerge, until the Federal, even the Jacksonian, era.

One suggested resolution is that the anti-exceptionalist interpretation holds good for New England and New England alone. On this argument, a distinctive culture, structure of political administration, and natural environment combined to make New England a backward enclave in an otherwise swiftly commercializing Anglo-American world. Compared with the mid-Atlantic colonies, the township system was more elaborate and more easily became the focus of its inhabitants' loyalties. Townships retained effective jurisdiction over their farmers, who did not scatter quite so widely as their mid-Atlantic counterparts. County government, which tended to be the effective unit of political administration elsewhere, was weak in New England, and, throughout most of the colonial era, congregation and town dovetailed more closely than in the mid-Atlantic colonies. This distinctive township system together with lingering Puritan communal ideals and greater ethnic homogeneity is said to have discouraged market development in a region that was ill-equipped by nature to produce agricultural exports. New Englanders may have become Yankees in the end, but commercial orientations and activities spread more slowly and against greater odds than elsewhere.

This position rightly stresses the unevenness of economic development in the colonial and early national periods. But the interpretive debates about market orientations and behavior cannot be resolved so neatly. Although the political and cultural differences between the colonies were substantial, they can easily be exaggerated. New England towns were not closed, corporate communities in 1750, and it may well be, as Lemon has recently pointed out, that we have overemphasized the looseness of community structure in the mid-Atlantic colonies. Moreover, uneven development was a feature of both New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies. Early market growth reinforced subregional differences in the organization of rural communities. The variation went beyond the neat formula of intensive development in the older areas, extensive growth on the frontiers: the extent of commercialization varied within the older, longer-settled areas themselves.


Excerpted from Property and Kinship by Toby L. Ditz. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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