Not Just Profit: How Religion And Morality Helped Colonial America Become Capitalist
Mark Valeri knows more about the economic thinking of the century before the founders than anyone alive. Instead of spending time reading books by other historians, he spent a decade on-and-off reading his way through the diaries, sermons, sermon notes, and ledger books of the New England Puritans who were gradually transformed into the New England Yankees, heroes of commercial enterprise.
What he found upset two prevailing myths of history. One is that Calvin and Calvinists were, from the beginning, great friends of laissez faire capitalism. They were not. The other myth is that religion was beside the point; rising ‘modernity’ (whatever that is) simply overwhelmed religion, which in time surrendered. That also is false. Puritan Christianity did not capitulate to modernity, but helped to create it. Valeri’s book, Heavenly Merchandize, has probably changed my mind more than any book I’ve read this year. It fills in the gaps in Ned Phelp’s excellent Mass Flourishing and is a nice companion to Dierdre McCloskey’s more European-focused Bourgeois Dignity. Valeri’s book is a genuine contribution to the history of economic thought.
I sat down across a Skype connection with professor Valeri recently for a wide-ranging and deep discussion, not just on the topic of colonial economic thought, but on Christianity and economics in general. Selected transcripts of the interview will be published, starting this week. You can listen to audio of the whole conversation by clicking here.
Jerry Bowyer: “Hi, I’m Jerry Bowyer, and I want to thank you for listening to this interview today. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time. I recently finished reading a book that changed my mind in substantial ways about the progress of free-market capitalism in early America; that cleared out many cobwebs that I had, and set aside many erroneous notions that had grown amongst those cobwebs. The book is Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in America. The author of the book is Professor Mark Valeri. He’s the E.T. Thompson Professor of Church History at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Professor Valeri, thank you for joining us today.”
Mark Valeri: “You’re welcome. I’m glad to be here.”
Jerry: “Heavenly Merchandize is an extremely well-researched book. Maybe my problem is I tend to read historians that go for the big picture, so they’re frequently citing secondary, tertiary sources, but this looks to me like you have spent many hundreds of hours in the real detail of early-American history: sermons, tracts, diaries, ledger books… How much effort went into unearthing all this new material?”
Mark: “Several research trips to Boston, and New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts; about 10 years of research – I was writing other things in the midst of it but it was a long process, wonderfully financed by sabbatical leaves and educational institutions that helped me with that. But it was a long process because it’s a complicated set of issues, and I wanted to get beneath the easily-accessible printed material and get to the way real merchants actually behaved on a day-to-day basis. How they kept books, what they wrote about in their diaries, their letters, what they were thinking about, the churches with which they were involved, and what their pastors were saying. So it was a long, involved process.”
Jerry: “If somebody puts this much effort into a research project and writes a book of this detail and this depth, it’s almost certainly the case that they believe that the world up until now has gotten something wrong. You don’t do this in order to confirm existing prejudices and the received wisdom, you do this in order to overturn erroneous ideas. If you were to sort of boil down to one or two or three the ideas that we had wrong – that maybe the historical profession had wrong or economists like I had wrong or just that Americans in general had wrong – about the nature of the growth of innovated, entrepreneurial, free-market capitalism in early America, what would those be? What did we get wrong that you set out to fix?”
Mark: “Two views I found not being able to explain the material: the first view — adopted often by economists or by historians who assume that economic matters always trump and, indeed, eclipse religious, moral, [and] other intellectual convictions – is that the market always stood against religion, and that the story of early America is the triumph of pure market forces, pure profit motives, changing economic activities merely as an adjustment to opportunities without any sense that these merchants were engaging in moral, cultural, creative activities at the same time. So I was unconvinced by economic historians who told the story of the emergence of the market in early America as the eclipse of religion in favor of material interests alone.”
Jerry: “Alright, let’s take that first one and disaggregate it a little bit further, if you don’t mind. What I’m hearing are two things: one, the view that the market overcame religion, you found did not square with the primary source material. Correct?”
Jerry: “And you found the related view, almost a kind of ideological view that self-interest and material conditions trump ideas and spirituality and culture, so that the market didn’t just overcome religion in the realm of ideas, [but] it sort of did it by the brute force of material conditions, so religion had no chance because ideas don’t have any chance when it comes to self-interest. I mean, I’m hearing both of those themes. Am I hearing correctly?”
Mark: “Yes, absolutely. And I would say that I did not find or do not think that material interests had no part – of course they did – but it was a conversation in which material interests were framed by moral and religious worldviews. There is no such thing as a, if you will, naked profit motive. It is always put into a cultural context. Or if there is, that itself is a moral and intellectual choice.”
Jerry: “That’s interesting. You can’t just say, “My self-interest made me do it,” because in order to do that you have to make a philosophical shift towards utilitarianism or pragmatism. You’re still responsible. You’re still responsible for your actions even if your ideology is an ideology that denies responsibility.”
Mark: “Exactly. Well-put. Yes.”
Jerry: “Very interesting. So, this is really a challenge not just to historiography about early American economic history; it’s a challenge to a tendency in some historical schools– maybe it begins with Marx, maybe it even goes back further than Marx, to Hume – that basically sees self-interest and not spirit/idea culture in conversation, as you put it, with self-interest as a driver of history. You’re finding at least one clear, historical rebuttal to the idea of economic determinism.”
To be continued…
Article originally published on Forbes.com.