A shopkeeper's millennium: Society and revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (American century series)

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9780809086542: A shopkeeper's millennium: Society and revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (American century series)

The religious revival that flourished in the early nineteenth century and changed American life found its most spectacular expression in Rochester, New York. The revival, in Rochester and elsewhere, made the United States the most militantly Protestant nation on earth and had an enormous influence on many Northern antebellum reform movements, including abolition and temperance. But although many historians have discussed its profound and wide-ranging effects, we know very little about its causes. A Shopkeeper's Millennium not only explores the interconnections between these vitally important economic, social, political, and religious changes but presents an evocative picture of a rapidly growing frontier city.

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About the Author:

Paul E. Johnson is Professor of History at the University of Utah, where he teaches American social history, specializing in history of popular religion.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Shopkeeper's Millennium
1 Economy CHARLES FINNEY came to Rochester via the Erie Canal in the autumn of 1830. The route from Albany took him through the Mohawk Valley, then onto the broad plain that forms the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The last fifty miles passed through recently settled land, and on both sides of the canal Finney saw farmhouses and bustling villages surrounded by endless yellow wheatfields. East of the Genesee River, the fields stopped abruptly and Rochester began. Finney's boat crossed a line of new stores and houses, passed high over the river on a stone aqueduct, and delivered him to the center of the nation's newest city. It was a city with the look and feel of a country town.1 Near the boat landing Finney picked his way through horses and wagons that visiting farmers had left at the central intersection. Glancing east, he saw and heard country people hawking produce from stalls on the bridge over the Genesee, while underneath them the famed Rochester mills ground mountains of local wheat into flour. A half block west, farmers auctioned wagons and livestock from the steps of a pretentious new courthouse. Across from the courthouse, sidewalks were clogged with farm families and with displays of shoes and clothing, nails, butter churns, farm tools, hats, and other simple manufactured goods. Had Finney looked upstairs or into the back rooms of some of the stores, he would have found that most Rochesterians were engaged in making those goods. The streets were filled not only with farmers and merchants butwith what Finney may have felt was an uncomfortable number of urban workingmen. Turning south on Fitzhugh Street, the evangelist passed between stately Episcopal and Presbyterian churches and left the downtown crowds behind. Before him stretched a quiet, tree-lined block of Greek Revival mansions. At the end of the block he found the door of a merchant and land speculator named Josiah Bissell. Bissell had invited the preacher to Rochester, and it was his neighbors who would attend Finney's meetings. They were the kinds of provincial entrepreneurs with whom Finney did his best work, men like those who governed the Connecticut and New York villages in which he had grown up. For the wealthiest men in Rochester were merchants, millers, and manufacturers engaged directly in an agricultural economy. TOWN AND COUNTRY Cities like Rochester were new in the 1820s. A generation earlier, every urban place in America had been a seaport, standing with its back to the countryside. Merchants in Boston and New York had more contact with their counterparts in London and the West Indies than with farmers a few miles away. Town and country were separate worlds. But after 1815 improvements in inland transportation extended the market and turned farmers into businessmen; inland cities shot up overnight to process and ship farm products, and sometimes to turn them into finished goods for sale back to the farmers. It was in the 1820s that cities and large towns began continuously to grow faster than the countryside. And it was in that decade that Rochester became the fastest-growing community in the United States.2 Standing at the junction of the Erie Canal and the Genesee River, Rochester was the most spectacular of the new cities created by the commercialization of agriculture. The Genesee country was among the prizes of the American Revolution. Title fell to the state of Massachusetts, then to successive groups of speculators, and finally to farmers.3 In the 1790s New Englanders crossed the mountains and began colonizing the Great Lakes Plain; the Genesee Valley was among their first stops. Early in the new century the wilderness gave way to tilled fields and pastures and neat Yankee villages. Links with the east were primitive, and the first settlers produced little more than what they and their neighbors used. The principal crop was Indian corn, and farmers and their animals ate that themselves. There was, of course, a small surplus. A trickle of livestock and logs made its way down the Susquehanna River and into Pennsylvania. Even smaller amounts made the tortuous and expensive trip overland to Albany.4 But most went downriver to Rochester. For many years the nearness of an unfriendly Canadian border and the fevers that threatened settlers near the lake kept farmers out of the lower Genesee. But the perfect mill site at the falls (the river drops two hundred feet within what is now downtown Rochester) had attracted attention from the beginning. In 1812 optimistic promoters laid out the village of Rochesterville. The town milled Genesee produce and sent it over the lake and up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, a touchy and unpredictable market subject to regulation by a foreign government that had farmers of its own.5 At the same time, primitive transportation kept the Genesee country largely dependent on its own resources. Scores of merchants and artisans set up shop in Rochester to sell goods imported from outside the region, and to turn livestock into salt meat and shoes and harnesses, wheat into flour and whiskey, and logs into lumber and furniture--all for sale back to the countryside. When workmen digging the Erie Canal reached Rochester in 1821, they found a busy village of 1,500 growing in symbiosis with the farming community of the Genesee Valley. Canal workers finished the through route to New York Cityin 1823. Overnight, the Genesee Valley became one of the great grain-growing regions of the world, and Rochester was America's first inland boom town. Assured cheap and easy access to the New York market, settlers plowed pastures and cornfields and planted wheat up to their doorways. Tilled acreage south of Rochester doubled between 1822 and 1835. Closer to the canal and to the mills at Rochester, it tripled. The region's only city stood at the center of its richest agricultural county.6 Rochester processed Genesee wheat and sent it on to New York City, and the growth of both town and country was measurable in barrels of flour. The town exported 26,000 barrels in 1818, a good pre-canal year. Ten years later the figure stood at 200,000, and by the close of the 1830s Rochester produced a half-million barrels of flour annually.7 In the same years the village grew from a few hundred to 20,000 persons. Rochester was first and last a mill town. Four- and five-story stone flour mills lined the river at the city's center and dominated the skyline as well as the economy. Of the town's 117 manufacturing establishments in 1827, 10 were flour mills. These accounted for 55 percent of Rochester's investment in manufactures, and a full 71 percent of its manufacturing output. 8 Built on plans developed in the 1790s by Oliver Evans, the mills were lessons in what could be done with water power and money. Boats pulled up alongside them and workmen shoveled grain into buckets on a vertical conveyor. Wheat went up the side, onto the top floors, and through machinery that cleaned it and ground it into flour, spread it on the floor to cool, picked it up, and dropped it into barrels. A visitor left one of these establishments gasping that it was "as full of machinery as the case of a watch."9 The mills hired few men directly, and they made great fortunes for even fewer. But they were the linchpin in the Rochester economy. Commercialization enabled farmers to trade their surplus for manufactured goods, and the mills drew them into Rochester, paid them cash for their wheat, andsent them onto the streets looking for things to buy. Much of what they bought was imported. Westbound traffic on the canal carried finished goods as well as emigrants, and Rochester merchants stocked their shelves with finished goods from New York City and around the world. Its position at midpoint on the canal also made Rochester the wholesaler to country merchants, adding another strand to the ties that bound town and country. But imported goods were expensive. For everyday necessities the farmers continued to rely upon craftsmen in Rochester, and their insatiable demand turned the village into a manufacturing city. More than half the adult men in Rochester were skilled artisans, most of them engaged in turning local raw materials into finished goods for sale back to the countryside. The sixty-five workshops of 1823 concentrated on the necessities and little luxuries of rural life: guns and nails, shoes, hats, woolen cloth, wagons, furniture, farm tools--even jewelry and mirrors.10 These last testify to a growing prosperity and urbanity in the countryside. By the late 1820s merchants' stocks of imported silks and fine wines had grown, and the Rochester market supported three bookstores. Artisans now made carriages as well as wagons, and builders moved out to duplicate Rochester's Greek Revival mansions on the greens of Palmyra and Geneseo and other valley towns. In 1835 a Rochester manufactory began filling the parlors of those homes with that seldom-played symbol of the Anglo-American bourgeoisie, the piano--testimony to the "increasing wealth and improving taste of the people of the surrounding country, as well as of the city."11 Most Rochester entrepreneurs made their money in direct dealings with farmers, and engagement in a rural economy and conformity to its norms sustained a peculiarly countrified urban business community. Of the ninety-two merchants, millers, and manufacturers who made up Rochester's richest tenth of taxpayers in 1827, thirty-two can be traced to theirplaces of birth. A full 84 percent of these were natives of inland New England and thus shared the cultural inheritance of their customers in the hinterland. They shared more than that, for most had moved into western New York early in their lives and had done business in the villages surrounding Rochester. Of the twenty-nine whose residences prior to arriving in Rochester are known, 59 percent came from towns that were within fifty miles of the city. Many of them kept substantial investments in the villages. Others relied on rural relatives and friends for capital and business information. And they retained mentalities that, along with their money and their strategic locations, made them legitimate spokesmen for the more prosperous elements of Genesee Valley society. City ministers frequently exchanged pulpits with their colleagues in the hinterland. Rural-based agricultural societies and committees for the distribution of Bibles and temperance tracts welcomed the participation of Rochester entrepreneurs and often accepted their leadership, and it was no accident that four of the five state committeemen of the overwhelmingly rural Antimasonic Party were Rochester businessmen.12 For while Rochester grew into a city, it kept the economic functions and the business elite of a country market town. Of course, not every store and workshop catered to the country trade. For a time in the 1820s the canal made Rochester the chief provisions market for migrants on their way farther west, and canal travelers continued to spend money in Rochester even after such newer towns as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit had taken up the bulk of their trade. In addition, the Rochester working class was large enough to support scores of groceries and small retail stores. It was here--and apparently only here--that men who had little in common with the farmers could prosper. Every known Irish Catholic businessman, for instance, avoided the country trade. Their leader, Henry O'Reilley, owned a Democratic newspaper which, if voting returns are any indication, found few readersin the countryside. Peter Lynch operated a combined grocery and boardinghouse on one of Rochester's poorest streets. And his countrymen James Buchan and Patrick Kearney, the richest Irishmen in town, provided workingmen and "gentlemen traveling" with cheap ready-made clothing.13 Men who entered the country trade without meeting its cultural and behavioral standards learned painful lessons. When marginal retailers failed during the panic of 1837, one of the more substantial merchants listed the reasons why. The Scotch Dry Goods Store was run by foreigners who published misleading advertising and hired dishonest and impudent clerks. Hamilton Leonard kept bad company and spent too much time at the theater. And E. W. Collins, who cheated his customers repeatedly,"ought to be among savages and not among the citizens of Rochester."14 A few of these outsiders operated substantial businesses, but none made great fortunes. For Rochester's real money was in the country trade. The nature of that trade and of the men recruited into it produced urban entrepreneurs who retained the social practices and the moral vision of village storekeepers. FAMILY CAPITALISM The merchants, millers, and master craftsmen who flocked to Charles Finney's meetings worked successfully within the limits imposed by the Rochester market. The first of those limits was set by the farmers. The people of the Genesee country were natives of inland New England: clannish, self-righteous, and suspicious of outsiders.15 Wealth in Rochester went only to men who could win and hold their goodwill. The second limit derived from economic scale: the more lucrative operations demanded more capital than aspiring businessmen had at hand. Rochester entrepreneurs shared the risks and rewards of enterprise with others--usually relatives and long-termassociates. Individual fortunes were meshed with social networks that linked wealthy families with each other and with similar families in the hinterland, and entrepreneurial behavior was typified by caution and cooperation, and not by ungoverned individual ambition. The result was a remarkably orderly and closed community of entrepreneurs. We begin with land speculators. Rochester grew from a wilderness to a city overnight, and the first fortunes went to men who bought and sold the wilderness. As settlement accelerated in 1815, central Rochester was held in four parcels: the Hundred-Acre Tract and the Frankfort Tract west of the river, and the Andrews-Atwater Tract and Enos Stone's farm on the east side. The Hundred-Acre Tract was bought in 1803 by three gentlemen from Maryland: Charles Carroll, William Fitzhugh, and Nathaniel Rochester. The Fitzhughs moved north and established themselves as one of the leading families on the upper Genesee. They kept their large holdings in Rochester and (in partnership with Nathaniel Rochester's son-in-law Jonothan Child) invested in boom-town construction projects. The Episcopal parish register records a few of their marriages and births in the 1820s. But William Fitzhugh and his family stayed up the valley, leaving the administration of their Rochester holdings to partners and to his son-in-law Frederick Backus, a Rochester physician. The Carrolls joined them on the upper Genesee, and sent one son downriver to manage their investments.16 But it was Nathaniel Rochester who moved into the Genesee first, and who gave his name to the village at the falls.17 At the head of his family, a caravan of wagons and carriages, and an indeterminate number of slaves, he rode up the Susquehanna and into the Genesee country in 1810. He settled at Dansville, where he operated a 400-acre farm and looked after investments scattered all over the region. Prospects for settlement at the falls brightened with the end of war in 1815, and Rochester sold his farm and bought another in Bloomfield.From there he made frequent seventeen-mile visits to his holdings at the falls. In 1818 he moved to Rochester. With the center of activities now at Rochester, members of his extensive family began filtering into town. The colonel's son-in-law Jonothan Child followed him in from Bloomfield. From Bath came his son William, already one of the leading Bucktail Republican politicians in the state. The connection grew with the arrival of R...

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