Review: Daniel Mandell, The Lost Tradition of Economic Equality in America: 1600 to 1870. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (2020)

Historian Daniel Mandell’s fourth and most recent book is an important contribution to studies about the relationship between property, wealth, and history. Published in 2020, this book has not received the attention it deserves. The author has unearthed substantial new material, which along with roughly fifty pages of copious notes and citations, following a concentrated  250-page narrative, make it worthy of more attention than it has received.

Mandell  begins his book by defining the historical dialogue about wealth and property as occurring  between two positions: “on the one side, the belief that all property should be held in common, and on the other the assumption that every household should have enough property to avoid dependence and that government should prevent extremes of terrible poverty or excessive wealth” (p 5). The author notes in passing (p. 94) that General Henry Knox reported to George Washington that his troops believed that all land should be held in common. 

The time span with which the author is concerned, 1600 to 1870, allows him to follow the development of American democracy from a period when wealth was mostly in the form of  land, and before the emerging Industrial Revolution produced wealth in other forms. Classical economic theory developed and matured based on the expansion of American as well as European geography and territorial possessions. Locke’s Two Treatises contributed early to these views, but they later became suppositional at best. We learn to what extent ownership of land, called property in that era, influenced  evolving democratic forms in societal structures as well as in legislation and its legal applications.

Early British social and economic movements, such as the Levelers and the Diggers, had egalitarian views, but there were many others who, in opposition, pressed their case for the protection of hierarchies. Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris were foremost among the latter. Terms like one’s “betters” and “gentlemen” had very special meanings. They referenced especially the land speculators, merchants, and bankers, all in a position to manipulate currencies and especially specie. Although the tracts of Malthus and Ricardo were available in the US shortly after their publication in England, the surfeit of pamphlets and newspapers exerted an even more widespread influence.  Socio-political tensions pulled both directions. One must recall this was in an era when there were few standard measures of quantity, and fixed prices for merchandise were a matter of much debate. All of which led to further confusion in valuing commodities, whether land, goods, services, or  money.

It becomes abundantly clear from Mandell’s historical account that the public discourse of the period was much richer than is commonly recognized, particularly with regard to ideas that threatened traditions. To take two instances only, Tom Paine’s ideas as expressed in Agrarian Justice were implicit if not explicit in the printed media of the time. There was also frequent reference to the Biblical notion of the Jubilee as a suitable solution to growing wealth inequities. Virginia was one of the first colonies to see to the abolition of primogeniture and entail. Professor Mandell is to be commended for providing references to and citations for these and other related ideas. 

The subjects discussed by this book include: bounty land given to war veterans, how  land sales opened up the West, the significance of growing childhood education, property qualifications for voting, state property taxes, the rise of political party significance, the issue of slavery, and the relevance of the French revolution. The nuances of the history of this period are nowhere better examined than in the chapter on education. Mandell concludes that “the country would thread the difficult channel between the Scylla of aristocratic wealth and authority and the Charybdis of anarchy and disdain for property.” 

For those interested in tracing the rich discourse around political economy throughout the 19th century, and especially in the thought of Henry George, Mandell’s book provides a generous account of the popular literature leading up to that era. Greater disparities in wealth appeared as industrial enterprises offered new financial opportunities. These were further amplified by the growing opportunities for education, the hunger for knowledge and the pursuit of solutions to popular questions. It is often asked what literature inspired Henry George, given that his library is lost. Mandell’s rich account of the earlier decades suggest much of what George might have read. 

The relationship between property and wealth is always present in Mandell’s discussion, and is specifically explored in chapter five. Mandell notes the importance of Thomas Skidmore’s book The Right of Man to Property. Because land ownership is always a central  subject, its relationship to definitions of wealth is discussed through an examination of several tracts of the period, as well as through literature from England, France. and Germany which  also suggested solutions to economic problems of wealth and property.

The economy grew richer and more varied as the 19th century progressed. There were the first panics in 1819 and 1837, the first major environmental crises, and, of course, the first major immigration wave from Europe. All this led to greater diversity in the modes of agriculture and manufacture as well as to proposals for dealing with disease and poverty. The growing diversity of the new nation was reflected in greater discussion about the place of government and the integration of state populations. Public and private responses were varied, and led in some instances to civil strife. Mandell usually gives only a cursory treatment of these various events, but the rich accompanying documentation gives readers pathways for a deeper exploration of these topics.

In his Epilogue to a narrative that encompasses two centuries of history, Mandell observes how support for tempered wealth abated with the failure of Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South, the veneration of “Captains of Industry” (in Herbert Spencer’s doctrine of Social Darwinism) and as well as in the popular Horatio Alger stories, and through the growth of industrial monopolies. Thus, this book is especially timely because the number of recent books documenting the current inequality of income and wealth need to be complemented by this book’s reminder that this nation’s history included an earlier period when wealth was not so accepted or venerated. It is timely too for also noting that property, meaning mainly land, was the primary basis of wealth.

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