In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British colonists found the New World full of resources. With land readily available but workers in short supply, settlers developed coercive forms of labor—indentured servitude and chattel slavery—in order to produce staple export crops like rice, wheat, and tobacco. This brutal labor regime became common throughout most of the colonies. An important exception was New England, where settlers and their descendants did most work themselves.
In Town Born, Barry Levy shows that New England's distinctive and far more egalitarian order was due neither to the colonists' peasant traditionalism nor to the region's inhospitable environment. Instead, New England's labor system and relative equality were every bit a consequence of its innovative system of governance, which placed nearly all land under the control of several hundred self-governing town meetings. As Levy shows, these town meetings were not simply sites of empty democratic rituals but were used to organize, force, and reconcile laborers, families, and entrepreneurs into profitable export economies. The town meetings protected the value of local labor by persistently excluding outsiders and privileging the town born.
The town-centered political economy of New England created a large region in which labor earned respect, relative equity ruled, workers exercised political power despite doing the most arduous tasks, and the burdens of work were absorbed by citizens themselves. In a closely observed and well-researched narrative, Town Born reveals how this social order helped create the foundation for American society.
PART I. FOUNDATIONS
1. Political Economy
PART II. DEVELOPMENT
4. Political Fabric
5. Of Wharves and Men
6. Rural Shipbuilding
PART III. TOWN PEOPLE
9. Prodigals or Milquetoasts?
Selected Primary Sources
"Town Born is an important book that all early American historians need to read soon."—Social History
"Town Born celebrates the democratic, egalitarian, mercantilist politics of township government in colonial New England. . . . It is bold, original, often insightful, and vigorously argued."—New England Quarterly
"This is New England town history with a twist. No future study of early New England economics, politics, or society will be able to ignore it."—Reviews in American History
"Levy is a master of the quotidian. In many ways and with many details, he explains how things worked on the ground, and this is a gift for which we all should be thankful."—American Historical Review
"Deeply learned, vigorously argued, and politically engaged, Levy's robust reinterpretation of colonial New England's town-centered 'democracy' challenges reigning views of family, community, economy, and politics. The highly disciplined family labor of this region—in which children's work was vital—elevated the status and power of resident working people because, Levy argues, Puritan reformers refused to allow an indentured or enslaved labor force of 'outsiders' to shape their society. Uniquely insular, and committed to justice as well as harsh punishment, New Englanders created a remarkably distinct and influential Americana culture."—Richard D. Brown, University of Connecticut