The British took cattle to the market faire; Americans took cattle to the butcher’s stall. According to a new study, that simple difference tells us a lot about the deep nature of “American exceptionalism.”
A recurring controversy among historians concerns the origin of Americans’ exceptional adherence, both in practice and in ideology, to the “free market.” Has this distinctive commitment been there from the earliest years of settlement or was it a much-later development of the nineteenth century? One side argues that from virtually the start New World conditions enabled and encouraged European-Americans to act and think in terms of independent, unregulated, self-interested entrepreneurs. The other side argues that the colonists originally behaved much as people in their European home countries did: Being community-oriented, they adhered to local norms and to local authorities that limited economic activities, for example, dictating prices for necessities. Then, after the American Revolution, commercial interests, empowered politically and riding a new laissez-faire ideology, swept away that earlier “moral economy” and created the distinctive, decide-it-yourself, American capitalism we know today. (For discussion of this debate, see pp. 101ff of Made in America. Earlier, related posts are here and here.) The contemporary political implication of this debate, by the way, is the question of how deep and therefore perhaps hard to change this aspect of American exceptionalism may be.
Emily Holt, a historian in Scotland, writing in the William & Mary Quarterly compares the cattle business in colonial Philadelphia and South Carolina to that in Glasgow and London. Her story leans in the direction of early exceptionalism, albeit with complexities.
All Together or One-on-One
British cattle-raisers typically took their cows to local, regularly-scheduled markets for selling to butchers. Such city markets had been established for generations under feudal authority. Various regulations about weights and measures and who sells to whom and when and how and for how much governed the process. And taxes were levied. The butchers’ guilds also guided much of the business. Alternatively, British cattlemen took herds to occasional fairs run under similar guidelines.
The early cattle trade in the colonies developed differently. Cattle-raisers made individual contracts with butchers or householders. Some took their cattle into town, to their own largely unregulated abattoirs, where they slaughtered the stock and sold pieces off. (Holt also describes cattle-buying at auctions held when owners died or were otherwise unable to stay in business.) All this activity proceeded with little official or community oversight. “[I]t is especially notable,” she writes, “how private contracts and deals struck at the farm gate eliminated the majority of marketing in a shared market space,” the familiar way commerce was done in Britain.
To be sure, American cities like Charleston established marketplaces in the 1700s with some of the features of the British ones such as regulating weights and measures, but such markets had to find their footing in an already established cattle trade. Similarly, colonial tanners and butchers basically sustained their independence from community control.
During the revolutionary years, shortages and crises led town officials to impose some regulations, licensing, and taxes on cattle-raising, butchery, and tanning trades similar to traditional British controls. But these were understood as temporary. After the Revolution, American legislation “codified and endorsed” a system that had once “been a novel innovation in the sale of livestock”; it protected private actors in a widespread “free” market.
As to why the colonial cattle industry developed so differently from that of Europe, Holt’s basic answer is that the widespread availability of open terrain around American towns made it feasible for colonists to own broad expanses of grazing land, as well as to own their own slaughtering and sales locations in town. These were far more difficult to establish in the crowded, already-developed, and feudally-owned lands around British cities. In this (and many other ways), the vast, bountiful, largely unsettled and unexploited landscape of North America was a key source of American exceptionalism. Another key source, Holt points out, was the cheap labor American cattlemen could rely on to tend, move, and butcher their herds–the cheap labor of slaves. Slavery, too, generated American exceptionalism.