The Impact of Capitalism on Society in Early America
Many different people have defined capitalism over the years. It has been defined as a political entity, economic entity and as a social entity. Max Weber and Karl Marx argue different theories concerning the emergence of capitalism. While it is unsure whether the economic system emerged first or the cultural values and ideology that allowed for the formation of capitalism emerged first, one thing is for certain, capitalism is tied to cultural values and ideology. This essay will explore the social changes that capitalism caused in early America by discussing: violence; crowds, mobs, and committees; food riots and price controls; the American Revolution; and the Constitution. . The adverse effect on society that capitalism caused was violence. Capitalism caused an ideology to emerge in early America that cannot be described with any one word. Capitalism caused people to become dependent upon an economic system that cherished two things: money and the power that wealth provided. When that economic system and its prize were threatened, the reaction was often one of violence. The Salem witchcraft trials are an example of such violence.
When the people of Salem realized that their neighbors, who lived closer to the water, were becoming wealthier and therefore, more powerful than they were, violence erupted in the form of accusations. These accusations were that certain people in Salem were practicing witchcraft on other members of the community. Several people were executed based on accusations that some historians now say were based on the economic prosperity of certain members of the Salem community and the economic disparity of other members. The members of this community, who had once been friendly neighbors, became bitter enemies that executed one another due to the influences of capitalism.
Other examples of violence fueled by capitalism include the destruction of the home of Mr. Hutchinson in Boston during the Stamp Act Rebellion. Bostonians did not want to pay the stamp tax imposed by British law. The taxes were being used to fund the English military. Colonists had become engrossed in supporting their own lifestyles in America and did not want to pay for the king’s war. Therefore, anyone who happened to be pro-British, as Hutchinson was, became open to hostilities and attacks. Hutchinson was also a wealthy, powerful government official. This made him a prime target. The coordinated effort of the Stamp Act Rebellion in Boston also marked the formation of a new social entity: crowds and committees.
Foner discusses the use of crowds as forms of protest to the condition in which people were living. Such conditions included heavy taxes and poverty. The formations of crowds were a direct results of capitalism. One of the best examples of the impact of crowds is the Hutchinson case. The wealthy men of Boston came together to form a committee called the Sons of Liberty. They were very much against the heavy taxes being levied in the colonies to pay for the king’s war. These men wanted to keep their wealth, not hand it over to the king and his men. To surrender this money meant surrendering power as well, since money had already become the real source of power. These men were well aware of the influences of wealth and power.
The Sons of Liberty was formed to battle the taxes that the monarchy imposed They then formed the crowd of artisans led by Ebenezer. Ebenezer was the “tough guy” used to force Oliver, the tax collector, to stop collecting taxes and renounce the king’s taxes publicly. While the crowd that destroyed the Hutchinson home was acting without the Sons of Liberty approval, the crowd was a direct result of the formation of the Sons of Liberty. This committee was formed to maintain the upper classes wealth and power . The value placed on wealth and power was a direct result of the emergence of capitalism as the foundation of the colonies cultural values and ideology.
Foner also discusses the relationship between capitalism and the mobs and food riots that took place in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The end of “just” pricing- the end of constant prices and the beginning of inflation and prices that responded to supply and demand, especially impacted the urban poor. They responded with food riots and mob activity to obtain grain, meat and bread. Both the poor and artisans felt that the operations of the free market worked against their economic interest. They denied that the “farmer, baker, merchant and shopkeeper had absolute right of property in the necessities of life”. The absolute right of property granted to merchants allowed prices to rise due to supply and demand. This is a basic right under the beliefs of capitalism. This hike in prices resulted in hunger and food riots.
On occasion, the local government resorted to “taxation populaire”- the seizure of food supplies. Once confiscated, the foodstuffs were then sold at traditional prices. Price controls became a huge issue for the people of these times. The need for profit and power caused the wealthy to take advantage of and abuse the poor and artisans. The entrepreneurial spirit had caused the end to the guilds of the Old World and there existed no cohesion between the artisan groups. As a result, the “moral economy” that had existed before, existed no more. As a result, people cried out for price controls to save the waning economic conditions.
While riots did not occur in all the colonies, the feelings of mistrust and suspicion toward merchants prevailed. The concept of laissez-faire had become very popular in the cultivated and merchant classes and many of the old economic traditions were pushed aside. There began to exist a rift between classes. While the upper-classes were profiting from the capitalist system, the other members were suffering. When the cry for independence went out in the colonies, the lower classes were the first to be effected. They were no longer allowed to trade with the English and could not increase the prices on the few English items they still had.
The Revolution was a direct social (and political) result of the economic system in place. Capitalism forced the colonist to grasp the entrepreneurial ideology and values. When the English attempted to tap into profits via taxes, the colonist became angry. Paine’s Common Sense, built upon that anger and gave a name to the social and political movement that was spreading: republicanism. The colonist realized that if the English controlled the wealth of the colonies, they also controlled the power. The result was a revolt. The Revolution allowed the Americans to break free from the economic grasp of the English. Problems began to develop in early America as a result of all the economic and social problems that come from an expanding marketplace and commerce. The new America needed a new constitution.
The Constitution of the United States reflects the social changes cause by the emergence of capitalism in America. The newly developed America had established the Articles of Confederation but these articles created a weak national government and a strong local government. The Articles reflected the need of local societies to remain independent from an overpowering national government that could control their profits and power. The abolishment of 80% of debt by the local government, for example, was felt to be legal theft by certain members of society. The Constitution was formed to appease the same members of white society, since they were against the passage of such laws as the abolishment of debt. The Constitution was a reflection also of the attempt of Americans to protect themselves from any further outside control, through the establishment of foreign policy. Taking control of the American economy through domestic and international laws kept the Americans in control of their profits. The Constitution gave America power, the biggest prize of capitalism.
The article on Benjamin Franklin Is an example of the prevalence of capitalism in the individual lives of early Americans. Benjamin’s goals in life were wealth and focusing on his own self-improvement. These were both a result of the influence of capitalist values and ideology. First, Benjamin’s goals went on hold because he had to concentrate on the capitalist aspect of his life. He had to run his business affairs since without his business he would be without profit. Without profit, Benjamin would have been without power and thus useless in our capitalist society. Secondly, Benjamin was self-absorbed, concerned only with improving himself, not his community. This also reveals the dominance of capitalism in every aspect of early American life. The focus upon the individual instead of the good of the community is characteristic of a capitalist attitude. The good of the individual is the most important priority and all else is insignificant.
The impact of capitalism on cultural values and ideology can further be seen by examining race and gender issues. The destruction and enslavement of Native Americans and African was a direst result of the need for profit and power, the root of capitalism. The Native Americans had land, needed for profit and expansion, and the slaves were needed to work that land. These values and ideology also spill over into gender issues. Native American men and women had equal power in their cultures. This was directly linked to the non-capitalist society in which they originally resided. There is further evidence to support this in the end of matriarchy and the beginning of patriarchy in Native American societies with the introduction of capitalism. White men and women already resided in a capitalist society and their power was unequal. The values and ideology that come with capitalism put the power in the hands of a few, in this case white men, and relegate all else to a lesser status to protect that power.
The values and ideology that are present in a capitalist society make wealth and power the most desired goals. These values in early America caused violence among neighbors, formed new social entities such as crowds and committees, and gave rise to the Revolution and the Constitution. The social effects of capitalism in early America is immeasurable but obviously had far reaching. The fact that our nation is built upon such values and ideology can explain much about the condition in which we all live today. Wealth and power have become the most important end result all the way from the people who live in the ghetto to the man who runs this country, President Clinton.
Word Count: 1748