The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview
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4
Nature and the Market Economy,
1750–1850

By the eighteenth century in America, two types of economies existed in interaction but also independently of each other—a coastal exporting economy along the eastern seaboard and an inland subsistence-oriented economy, where access to transportation and export markets was limited and costly. During the nineteenth century, a dynamic market-oriented economy arose throughout the United States westward to the Mississippi River that integrated the two sectors. This chapter explores the transition from the coastal exporting and inland subsistenceoriented economies of the eighteenth century to the market economy of the nineteenth century. It investigates the ways writers, poets, philosophers, and artists reacted to the economic development of the country and the ways they perceived nature, wilderness, and civilization.


The Inland Economy and the Environment

The environmental costs of commercial production did not reach most of America until the nineteenth century. Above the fall line and beyond the reach of coastal markets, retreating Indians were supplanted by Euro-American subsistence farmers attracted by cheap land. Their small farms spread over the hills of upland New England, the woodlands of western Pennsylvania, the southern Piedmont, and the valleys of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. In these areas, limited production supplied the rude comforts of subsistence, and transportation costs prohibited openended production for the market. Economic and social relationships were based largely on bartering and cooperation, as opposed to the commercial exchange found along the coast. By the early nineteenth century, this subsistence culture of small farmers comprised the majority of free Americans.

The virtues of this independent and land-owning citizenry were soon being celebrated as an “agrarian ideal” by French immigrant J. Hector St.

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