Review: Inequality in Early America
Carla Gardina Pestana and Sharon V. Salinger, eds.
Hanover, N.H. and London: Dartmouth College/University Press of New England, 1999, 329 pp.
Published in Social History, 2001
This volume of high-quality essays originated at a conference held at the Huntington Library (San Marino, California) in January 1997 to honor Gary B. Nash, who, almost uniquely among early Americanists, has made major and original contributions to the histories of Native America, African America, and European America, and to the broader study of race, class, and gender. Conference organizers and volume editors Carla Gardina Pestana and Sharon V. Salinger chose to explore the unusual range, depth, and connections of Nash's work through the unifying concept "inequality." They provide in their fine introduction a genealogy of inequality in early American studies, and they highlight Nash's signal contribution to it. They also offer an especially valuable account of Nash's work in the American culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when he was a leading figure in a fierce national debate about history standards in the schools. In the concluding essay Richard S. Dunn offers a personal reflection on his longstanding friendship with Nash, suggesting that the progressive politics behind the man's history originated on a multi-racial American naval vessel.
Nash's contributions to early American history are justly honored by the essays, which are so rich as to warrant individual summary. The first of the book's three sections is called "Sustaining Inequality." In "'Either Married or to Bee Married': Women's Legal Inequality in Early America," Mary Beth Norton argues that even in the fluid and flexible seventeenth century, Anglo-American wives and single women were dominated by men in legal and social settings. Femes covert and femes solo had more in common than scholars have realized. Thomas N. Ingersoll explores ruling-class demonology in his vividly entitled "'Riches and Honour Were Rejected by Them as Loathsome Vomit': The Fear of Levelling in New England." Charges of levelling were used to combat "the hydra of absolute equality," indeed "any challenge to the fundamental order" (46). In "Partial Revival: The Limits of the Great Awakening in Boston, Massachusetts, 1740-1742," J. Richard Olivas documents the retreat of Boston ministers from spiritual equality and universalism. He shows that only one in ten of the awakened achieved full communion or church membership during the most radical phase of revival. Sylvia R. Frey treats the same issue in her essay "Inequality in the Here and the Hereafter: Religion and the Construction of Race and Gender in the Postrevolutionary South." Evangelical Protestants lowered racial and social barriers before the revolution, but helped to raise and institutionalize them afterward.
Four essays make up a section entitled "Resistance." In "'I Loved the Place of My Dwelling': Puritan Missionaries and Native Americans in Seventeenth-Century Southern New England," Neil Salisbury argues that after disease and warfare devastated aboriginal New England, "some Indians found in Christianity a basis for reordering their lives materially, politically, and spiritually," and for strengthening resistance to cultural genocide (113). Billy G. Smith's excellent study, "Black Women Who Stole Themselves in Eighteenth-Century America," shows that women runaways (eleven percent of the recorded total) were active agents of their own emancipation, helping to bring slavery to an early end in the northern states. He also shows that women ran away less frequently than men not because of family ties but rather because the gender division of labor limited women's opportunities to escape and to find work after escape. Sterling Stuckey continues his exploration of the secret history of the African aesthetic in the New World in "African Spirituality and Cultural Practice in Colonial New York, 1700-1770," demonstrating the existence, vitality, and influence of African religious systems in dance, song, and memory. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes in "Sheep in the Parlor, Wheels on the Common: Pastoralism and Poverty in Eighteenth-Century Boston," that "beneath the seeming differences, elite women, rural women, and poor widows and their children shared certain common assumptions about the relationship between work and marriage," about industry, private property, and the gender system of the region (183-184).
The last section is "Conceptualizing Inequality." In "A Class Society? The Nature of Inequality in Early America," Ronald Schultz suggests that class was one of "multiple, decentered sources of power" (race, gender, ethnicity) and not yet "the central organizing principle of society" that it would become after 1880 (209). In "Slave Labor Camps in Early America: Overcoming Denial and Discovering the Gulag," Peter H. Wood emits a cri de couer - urging historians of early America to abandon the euphemism "plantation" and use instead the more honest concept "slave labor camp." Philip D. Morgan's "Rethinking American Slavery" is one of the best historiographical essays on slavery to have appeared in many years. Its summaries of recent scholarship show the centrality of slavery to the American experience as they detail the most promising areas for future study. Gary B. Nash himself adds a study of "The Concept of Inevitability in the History of European-Indian Relations." He concludes that as historians moved from religious to secular interpretations they have "constructed a subtext in which the history of interracial conflict and the dispossession of Indian lands seem inexorable, unalterable, and foreordained" (267).
These wide-ranging essays by distinguished scholars make Inequality in Early America an unqualified success. Yet it must also be noted, with Peter H. Wood, that "inequality" itself can be another euphemism, one that "continues to understate and disguise shocking conditions that even now most Americans do not seem fully able to acknowledge" (225). It is simply too anodyne to apprehend and encompass an early American social reality of expropriation, terror, slaughter, oppression, and exploitation. This of course comes as no surprise to Gary B. Nash or to the scholars who gathered to honor and extend his work, for these are the very people who have made it possible for us to understand the dreadful, long-concealed history of early America in new and truthful ways.
University of Pittsburgh