Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860/buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860/buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia

Article excerpt

Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860. By Stewart Davenport. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. x, 269. Cloth, $45.00.)

Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia. By Ann Smart Martin. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xvi, 260. Cloth, $55.00.)

Reviewed by Bret E. Carroll

Figuring prominently in recent scholarship, the "market revolution" and "consumer revolution" have operated as overarching models for historians seeking to make sense of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American life. These closely interwoven concepts have assumed paradigmatic status, or at least something approaching it, by addressing broad swaths of human experience and promising to bridge longstanding gaps separating political, economic, and social history from one another as well as from the cultural and religious history that assumed new vitality in the 1990s. But scholars have also raised legitimate questions about the definition of these terms, and their timing, sources, social and geographic reach, and explanatory power. Stewart Davenport's Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon and Ann Smart Martin's Buying into the World of Goods stake out new, though widely differing, directions in studies of American consumerism and the market, providing us an opportunity to take stock of these models' current state and future prospects.

Davenport approaches these models from the perspective of traditional intellectual history, exploring "issues of self and society in modernity" (12) and asking "what did Christians in America think about capitalism when capitalism was first something to be thought about?" (1). He identifies three categories of response, each grounded in a different ethical philosophy and represented by a different group of antebellum figures. The first group, a cluster of academics he calls "clerical economists," embraced the optimistic political economy of Adam Smith, seeing in its mechanisms the God of natural theology and in its unhindered operations the promise of American prosperity and social order. They elided the potential ethical pitfalls - made patent in the pessimistic assessments of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus - by emphasizing the scientific authority of political economy, applying utilitarian standards of human happiness at the national and international levels, excluding the United States from grim Ricardian and Malthusian principles, avoiding questions of individual morality by arguing that Smithian precepts grounded love of neighbor in self-interest, and defining desire and its gratification as natural and therefore good. This approach, Davenport contends, was motivated less by the alignment of the clerical economists with the interests of the merchant elite against radical Jacksonians than by their need to defend republican morality and God's relevance against the amoral and secular implications of modern political economy. The second group, the "contrarians," grounded their ethics in deontology and took the opposite tack; they disputed political economy's claims to scientific status, contended that capitalism encourages selfishness and sinful indulgence of impulses, and critiqued on moral grounds the poverty and exploitation that capitalism generated. "Pastoral moralists," operating from the perspective of virtue ethics, took a middle route, viewing market capitalism positively but attempting to set boundaries between legitimate self-interest and sinful selfishness, between legitimate gratification and sinful excess. Davenport stakes out his own moral turf, crediting the contrarians and pastoral moralists with giving the moral drawbacks of market capitalism "the care and seriousness they deserved" (84), while charging the clerical economists with "leaving significant ethical questions unanswered" (85) and taking a "naively optimistic and shortsighted" (96) approach to problems of poverty and inequality. …

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