Transitions in the Colonial Hudson Valley: Capitalist, Bulk Goods, and Braudelian

Jonathan Leitner


A long debate about the American “transition to capitalism” was apparently settled via a rough consensus on the gradual prevalence of rural capitalism in the north; and that even small, subsistence-oriented farm households engaged in some market exchange, while market-oriented farm households engaged in some subsistence activities. Yet certain Marxist scholars argue that even prevalent market exchange did not necessarily signify a capitalist economy.  Similarly, certain world-systems scholars see the debates as somewhat pointless, inasmuch as capitalism is a systemic characteristic that exists regardless of any individual identification. These latter notions derive in part from Braudel’s tripartite structure of early modern economic life, which sees self-sufficiency and basic daily survival existing alongside market economies and everyday forms of exchange, with the capitalist world-economy in turn overarching, yet not necessarily affecting, the other two levels.  This paper posits that colonial America’s “transition” to capitalism was effectively the gradual, often contested, and geographically uneven addition of Braudel’s second layer of economic life – the market economy – onto the first layer of self-sufficiency and basic material life; with this process arguably driven by the third layer of the larger capitalist economy, as other recent studies of the colonial Hudson Valley have focused on, albeit while ignoring the region’s diverse and uneven economic geography  It explores the notion of geographically-uneven Braudelian economic structures and transitions within the late 17th and 18th century colonial Hudson Valley, a region of four rather distinct subregions demonstrating that even within relatively small geographical spaces, at least at certain times, one can find different means of Braudelian economic life, and by extension, varying articulations with the world-economy and possible paths to eventual core emergence.

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