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In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview > Lesson 4

Lesson 4
The Pynchons And The People Of Early Springfield
by Stephen Innes

Elites have not fared well at the hands of today's generation of colonial historians. Our egalitarian heritage and post-Viet Nam anti-authoritarianism bring an almost reflexive aversion to those whose wealth, power, and distinction set them far above the lives and sensi- bilities of ordinary folk. Indeed, the central preoccupation of the "new social historians"--certainly the most influential and path breaking scholarly group of this generation--has been to recapture the experiences and aspirations of those at the bottom of the social order. The spate of demographic studies, examinations of slavery and work, and the efflorescence of women's history have brought us closer to understanding the lives of the "common sort" than most imagined attainable. Moreover, some of the most distinguished scholarship of the past decade has concerned itself with those who were the greatest outsiders of all in colonial America--the Indians. As a result of the efforts of the new social historians, it is now possible to speak with relative confidence about freed blacks in seventeenth-century Virginia, housewives in colonial Maryland, illiterate farm laborers in Pennsylvania, and cod fishermen in Puritan Massachusetts. But, in their zeal to understand the ordinary citizens of early America--those who cleared the fields, tended the tobacco, ran the households, and manned the fishing boats, these historians have either denied the existence of social elites or have attacked them as exploitative capitalists. Those denying the emergence of genuine elites in colonial New England speak of a "one-class" society, without a distinct social elite.1 Those scholars who do acknowledge the existence of such elites as the Chesapeake slaveholding gentry or the great merchants of the northern ports often paint portraits hued with corruption, venality, and systematic mistreatment

*Many of the themes contained in this paper are expanded more fully in Dr. Inne's book, Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeeth- Century Springfield (Princeton University Press, 1983).

of the dependent classes. Paradoxically, the new social history has-- in this regard--become the mirror image of the old political, institu- tional history: those outside of the scholar's focus (or sympathy) are reduced to impersonal, predictable stereotypes. But we can understand neither the top nor the bottom of society without reference to the other side. As the early history of Springfield reveals, colonial elites and the ordinary folk needed and depended on each other, and we cannot comprehend the world they made without accounting for their reciprocity.

Springfield began as a commercial enterprise and remained such throughout the seventeenth century. Founded in 1636 by William Pynchon as a fur-trading post, the town quickly became the major merchandising center in the upper Connecticut valley. The fur trade enriched the Pynchon family and brought large number of artisans, teamsters, and laborers to the community. Within a generation of settlement, the relationship between the Pynchons and the laboring classes had produced a society that can best be described as a company town.2

It was a company town always dominated by the Pynchon family. William Pynchon oversaw the embryonic community much like an English manorial lord. The largest landholder, principal merchant, and the employer of almost every citizen, he also held all important civil and judicial power. When he returned to England in 1652 following a theological dispute with the General Court, William's privileges and status devolved upon his twenty-six year old son John. The younger Pynchon quickly became the most powerful figure in western Massachusetts. He retained his father's fur monopoly, expanded the family's landholdings, served as the financier for most of the region's settlements, and continued to be the valley's largest employer. In Springfield itself, some forty men worked on approximately full-time basis for Pynchon, and about half the town's population at any one time was financially dependent in some fashion--rental of land or animals, employment, or debt-- on the resources and good graces of Pynchon. As a result of his viselike economic grip on the community, the processes of getting work or getting land routinely began with a trek to the Pynchon general store.3

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[illustration caption: Portrait, William Pynchon, unknown artist, dated 1657. William Pynchon was born in Springfield, Essex County, England about 1590 and emigrated to New England with John Winthrop in 1630. In 1636, he moved to establish a fur trading post at what is now Springfield. He quickly became one of the most powerful men in the Connecticut Valley and the settlement at Springfield pros- pered. After his interest in theology led to acrimony with a number of New England ministers and magistrates, Pynchon returned to England in 1652, leav- ing his affairs in the hands of his capable son John and his sons-in-law. John Pynchon expanded the family's fortunes considerably and became the dominant force in the valley through the rest of the seventeenth century.

Photography Courtesy of the Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts]

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John Pynchon's dominance is revealed most strikingly by Springfield's tax list for 1685. Of a total of approximately 9,000 acres held by some 120 persons, Pynchon owned 1,800 (20 percent). The acreage of the next largest landowner, Japhet Chapin, was 365. Pynchon held more land than the collective acreage of the fifty-two smallest owners, or 43 percent of the total number of male free- holders. The bottom ten percent possessed less than one percent of all acreage; the bottom twenty percent, 4.2 percent; and the bottom thirty percent, 8.6 percent of the land granted. With Pynchon's holdings subtracted from the whole, the mean acreage was sixty. Forty-nine men held estates smaller than 50 acres, and sixteen owned fewer than 25 acres. Still more important, these landholdings, in addition to being small, were often infertile or remote. Like his father before him, John Pynchon monopolized the holdings in the rich alluvial third division adjacent to the Agawam (Westfield) River. Here land valuations averaged up to sixty shillings per acre, in con- trast to median valuations of twenty shillings per acre elsewhere.4

The distribution of wealth revealed by the 1685 tax list is paralleled to a striking degree estate inventories. From 1650 to 1705 the town (or Hampshire County) probated the estates of seventy Springfield inhabitants. With adjustments made for encumbrances, the total value of probated estates was L22,843. Of this amount, John Pynchon's estate totaled L8,446 (37 percent). Largely because of his extensive property, the top five percent of the decedents held L11,721, or 51 percent of the inventoried wealth. At the other extreme of the social spectrum, things were radically different. The bottom twenty percent held estates valued at a total of L243 (one percent), and the bottom fifty percent owned L1,951 (8.5 percent). The poorest sixty-two men (89 percent of the decedents) held a total of L8,547 (37.4 percent). It took the combined holdings of almost ninety percent of the deceased townsmen, therefore, to equal the property owned by John Pynchon. Only three men other than the magistrate held estates valued in excess of L800. Ensign Benjamin Cooley owned holdings worth L1,241 when he died in 1684. Pynchon's brother-in-law, Elizur Holyoke, died eight years later leaving his heirs property worth L1,187. At his death in 1690, quartermaster George Colton owned assets valued at L847. At the opposite end, thirty men (43 percent) died with estates worth less than L100; fifteen of these were valued below L50. Six men died owning assets amounting to less than L25, four of whom died as town charges. Only 24 percent of the decedents, seventeen men, left estates within the supposedly normative L200 to L400 range.5

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For that half of Springfield's population with fewer than sixty acres, and much of this infertile or remote, the choice was to get a lease from John Pynchon or to get out. Most chose the former. During any one year between 1650 and 1703, over one-third of the town's adult males were renting some or all of their land, housing, or livestock from Pynchon. The same was true for those who needed work. Over half of the town's population at any given time was working a month or longer each year for John Pynchon, and for approximately forty seventeenth-century inhabitants he was their primary source of income. Men worked for Pynchon either by choice or necessity. Those who worked by choice were the skilled artisans-- blacksmiths, coopers, tailors, and the like--who found in Pynchon a man eager for their services and well able to pay for them. Those who worked by necessity were the landless laborers or marginal tenant farmers, individuals who were forced to supplement their meager incomes by toiling in Pynchon's fields for sixteen to twenty pence per day.6

Not surprisingly, John Pynchon also held virtually every significant leadership position. He was simultaneously magistrate, judge of the county court, permanent moderator of the town meeting, and captain of the militia. Equally important, the townsmen habitually relied on Pynchon's initiative and financial wherewithal, rather than common taxation, for funding community projects. When it came time to build a new gristmill or sawmill, or to purchase a flock of sheep for the community's wool, he supplied the necessary capital and in return received ownership rights as well as toll privileges.

John Pynchon's economic hegemony, enhanced by his monopoly of political and judicial offices, created a proliferating set of depen- dency relationships which undermined traditional Puritan concepts or the organic, classless society. Dependence, of course, does not necessarily connote exploitation. Some men used their association with the Pynchons to improve their standard of living. Joseph Parsons, beginning as a fur agent for the Pynchons, ended his life with an estate valued at L2,088, the second largest inventory probated in seventeenth-century Hampshire County.7 Others were not so fortunate. They used the resources Pynchon had to offer--work, developmental leases, credit--in an effort to get ahead. The price of taking this gamble was dependency on Pynchon, the price of losing it was often financial ruin. The tanner Griffith Jones lost his house and lands through indebtedness to the Pynchons, as did the blacksmith

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John Stewart, the cooper John Mathews, the agricultural laborer and tenant Jonathan Taylor, and the merchant-tailor Samuel Marshfield. Their stories were more typical than was Parson's.

These dependent men came to Pynchon on their own volition and with their eyes open. He had the land, the tools, the draft animals, and the jobs that they needed. This was particularly true of the large numbers of single and semi-impoverished men who had made their way to Springfield with little more than the clothes on their back. Pynchon offered them a chance to get established, to secure a leasehold, employment, and a line of credit for buying the first piece of land. Word doubtless got around that Pynchon had these things to offer, and many men whose indigence would have invited a warning-out from the convenanted communities hoped for better prospects in Springfield. In this expectation, they were rarely disappointed because Pynchon needed them as much as they needed him.

The dependency bond between Pynchon and these men was a dual one. Just as the word "bond" has a double-meaning--a connection and, as in "bondage," restraint--so too was this, as all relation- ships, subject to influence and constraints. The authority figure, in this case John Pynchon, is never an autonomous figure. Neither the authority figure nor his dependent in Springfield was a free actor. Both in fact were dependent. Each exercised some measure of initiative. Tenants, as well as landlords, had bargaining powers. Both understood that authority always has its limits that are particular to place, person, and time. What, Pynchon might have asked, is a landlord without his tenants, a boss without underlings, a creditor without debtors? Tenants might have no choice but to rent, but they could go elsewhere. The same was true of those looking for work or credit. As Richard Hofstadter observes, "raw, idle land could be made profitable only when settlers were brought in to work, rent, or buy it." Hofstadter cites Sir Josiah Child's assertion that "Lands, though excellent, without hands proportionable will not enrich any kingdom."8 It was Pynchon's recognition of this mutual dependence that gave the system its motive force. As his account books reveal, he actively sought out men and attempted to establish patron-client relationships.

These individual patron-client ties may be defined as an "informal contractual relationship between persons of unequal status and

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power, which imposes reciprocal obligations of a different kind on each of the parties.9 As patron, John Pynchon exchanged the fruits of his status, power, influence, and authority for the loyalty and political support of the client. Men sought out Pynchon because he was the only one who could help supply their economic needs. He rented them land, provided employment, or lent money. Most important, he showed selective flexibility in hiring, firing, and foreclosing. Clients could count on keeping their jobs, lands, or housing when others could not. In response, the clients accepted certain restrictions on their behavior. Those tenants whose rent was in arrears, men chronically indebted to Pynchon, or wage laborers dependent on him for long-term or seasonal employment were not likely to oppose his wishes in the town meeting, on the muster green, or anywhere else.

The Pynchon account books show vividly the myriad forms of the patron's favoritism. Pynchon often ignored contractual deadlines if the client found himself unable to meet them. Mortgages were not foreclosed, lands and housing were not seized, debts were not called on the day or even the month or year of maturity. Laborers, too, were hired when Pynchon had no genuine need or desire to take them on. Likewise, he seldom pursued his legal rights as a creditor, landlord, or employer in cases relating to his clients. The strength of the particular patron-client bond determined whether Pynchon would modify, renegotiate, or postpone collection of debts. For the same reasons, some renters were able to secure significantly better terms than others. Some, for example, were entitled to one-half of all offspring born to cattle rented from Pynchon. Lesser clients or non-clients were contractually obliged to raise all calves to the age of two years and then forfeit them to Pynchon.

Pynchon's negotiations with Williams Brooks in early 1667 illustrate the bargaining process between patron and client. Brooks had approached his landlord to request a second year's grace on his mortgage. As Pynchon related in his account book: "William Brooks desyred me not to advantage against him of his agreement but to let him enjoy his [land] one yeare longer, he desyred but a yeares tyme more though this tyme was out above a yeare since, and I might now challenge the land for newly owned." But after this assertion of his legal rights, rights that both men recognized would be enforced in Pynchon's courtroom, the landlord relented. He vouchsafed that "yet I would settle to his desires in it and grant

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him one yeare's tyme longer to pay the debt per contract, and if he payd it not by this tyme 12 months then the land to be mine."10 This kind of ameliorating behaviour paid dividends to both parties. Brooks gained still another year in which to raise the necessary funds; Pynchon secured the loyalty of the client.

The trade-offs for this kind of favor, of course, were rarely stated explicitly. Contractually, Brooks offered Pynchon nothing in return for the foreclosure's extension. But, as both the court records and account books reveal, Pynchon subsequent claims on Brooks's loyalty could not be easily denied. When the magistrate needed

[illustration caption: Chest with drawer, oak with pine top, possibly made for Rebecca Allis of Hatfield, ca. 1700. Of the variety of craftsmen who worked in wood in the Connecticut Valley, joiners were among the most skilled. They were called upon for a variety of tasks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and built fur- niture as well as houses. Their training and specialized tools were essential for survival in newly settled areas. For these reasons, among others, John Pynchon valued joiners highly and often listed their service in his account books.

Photograph Courtesy of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association]

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support in the town meeting, help at harvest time, or intelligence regarding illegal gaming activities in the community, he could usually count on William Brooks. Equally important, neither patron nor client found this kind of relationship unusual or demeaning. Brooks knew that he was joined by roughly half the town's men in dependency on Pynchon. All Springfield inhabitants recognized that those who hoped to establish a secure economic foothold usually found John Pynchon more forthcoming in meeting their material needs than was the town meeting.

It was not a zero-sum game. John Pynchon's presence meant that everyone was potentially better off. He supplied credit, employment, investment opportunities, and capital improvements such as mills that in his absence would not be available. Indeed, if one were so disposed, it would be possible to cast Pynchon's developmental activities in a near-heroic light. It was his assets, courage, and vision that released, amplified, and reinforced the energies of the hardworking, often skilled but propertyless New World settlers. That their efforts--and his own ventures--enriched Pynchon ever more, there can be no doubt. His L8,000 estate at death alone attests to that. But, like entrepreneurs in any age, Pynchon had the most to lose as well as the most to gain. In a time before the protection of investments offered by insurance, Pynchon's capital holdings were exceedingly vulnerable, particularly after the mid-1670s when the threat of Indian attack loomed continuously. It was his gristmill and sawmill, not the town's, that the Indians destroyed during an October 1675 attack. He was sorely tempted to retreat to the com- fort and safety of Boston in that troublesome winter, perhaps for good. But, as he told the governor in a letter, such an action would have meant that "ale will fale here."11 Even during peaceful times, the entrepreneur stood to suffer financially if he failed to directly oversee his enterprises in order to ensure that all was being run efficiently. Rejecting a plea that he travel to Albany in the summer of 1666 to negotiate with the Indians, Pynchon told Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Jr. that "myself having work men about a Mill [I] cannot well be absent without a great loss at this tyme."12

It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that a person's attitude toward John Pynchon was colored by his financial condition, and views probably ranged from willing fealty to grudging obeisance. Those men who enjoyed a modicum of success--or more--were presumably grateful for the opportunities offered by their affiliation

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with Pynchon. To these men, he was a benefactor. To the others, however, men done in by their circumstances or their character, Pynchon's influence must have seemed blighting and oppressive. One can readily imagine the corrosive effects on personal happiness, family harmony, and neighborly relationships posed by economic dependency. We can envision, although not document, the anxious (sometimes desperate) conversations between husband and wife once the children were safely bedded down for the evening. Likewise, we can imaginatively recreate the sense of despair over impending foreclosures that would negate the toil of a decade or more. The potential damage to neighborhood reciprocity and obligations toward co-religionists in the church seem equally obvious.

To some men, accordingly, Pynchon doubtless appeared grasping and possibly tyrannical. His monopoly of just about everything of major value in the community must have been a source of periodic frustration for many, perhaps most, of the town's inhabitants. Entrepreneurs are not always popular and American history is littered with business tycoons defamed in their day. But, judged by the tenor of his time, Pynchon does not come off badly. While not a particularly warm man, and occasionally given to rigidity and bouts of extreme self-pity, he overall emerges as a decent, determined, and forthright individual. His account books show no evidence of duplicity of double-dealing, and he surely had ample opportunity for both. Likewise, in his treatment of debtors and tenants he appears to have been no worse than even-handed. For non-clients he could be draconian in enforcing contractual obligations, but he did not go beyond the law for his own advantage. And for clients, he modified contracts on their, not his behalf.

The Pynchon general store, like any paternalistic enterprise, functioned as a safety valve as well as a safety net. By deferring foreclosures, forgiving debts, ignoring unpaid rents, or hiring workers in the offseason, Pynchon blunted the force of any potential class discontent. There were, after all, no tenant rebellions in Springfield, in contrast to the Hudson valley, which was riven with agrarian unrest throughout the eighteenth century. Moreover, Springfield did not experience an atypically high level of out-migration during the seventeenth century. If the opportunities and conditions were discernibly better elsewhere, more would have left.

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That more did not do so is a phenomenon worthy of note. Springfielders, even those experiencing genuine destitution, did not live lives of unrelieved desperation. They apparently believed that the future would bring better things. That for many this hope was chimerical we know, but they would not be the last Americans to consider the hardships of the present as but the necessary prologue to eventual success. The hope that the wheel of fortune will ultimately turn in one's favor is the most powerful damper on class discontent. Only the abridgment of hope brings the rumblings of rebellion.

The role of merchant-entrepreneurs such as John Pynchon in the settlement and development of early America, therefore, deserves more intensive study. As widespread use of clientage in Springfield reveals, we cannot understand the lives and experiences of humble colonists without reference to those elites who controlled access to credit, land, and employment. Even at this juncture, however, three general observations are in order.

First, it seems clear that there was something exceptional about this New World gentry. They were able to control land, command commercial enterprises (unlike the English gentry studied by Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper), and to implement a new form of informal but effective social control without any of the official marks of the old aristocracy. The principal reason for their success, it seems, was their role in capitalizing and directing the development of New World settlement. In contrast to Old World gentry who, as Joyce Appleby observes, "spent rather than invested their income," the landed rich in early Massachusetts constantly rechanneled their profits into new enterprises.13 While the function of English landlords was essentially preservative--to protect the integrity of an estate ultimately to be bequeathed to the eldest son--New World landlords were risk-taking entrepreneurs who supplied the capital and leadership needed to turn a wilderness into a settlement. Their acquisitive values found expression in a legal system geared toward growth, not stasis. As Springfield's strict enforcement of contractual obligations between employer and employee promoted predictability and efficiency in the labor market, so too developmental leases guaranteed improvement of the landlord's acreage.

This entrepreneurial role was played by some two dozen men in seventeenth-century New England, of whom John Pynchon is but one example. Examinations of the Willard family in the Merrimack

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Valley, the Winthrops of Boston and elsewhere, and the Otises in Barnstable all underscore the importance of merchant-entrepreneurs in financing and orchestrating settlement throughout early New England. Without these men, colonial America would have remained resource rich but capital poor. Through trade, investments, credit, work, developmental leases, manufacturing enterprises, and the like, the merchant-entrepreneur opened up new regions for settlement and served as a magnet for additional migrants thereafter. The modest initial endowments of many of the first settlers and their willingness to work made it sensible to accept what the merchant-entrepreneur had to offer--even at the price of personal dependency.

Second, it is important to emphasize that what bound the merchant-entrepreneur and his dependent together--even in Puritan New England--was acquisitiveness. The men and women who came to Springfield--as their patterns of work, land acquisition, and social behavior reveal--came to the New World to get ahead. That they were acquisitive is not to deny that they were religious. Springfielders would have had little trouble accepting Samuel Johnson's aphorism that "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in making money." As Max Weber and many others have pointed out, godly people often expect to be successful. Working hard and long to gain a patrimony for their children was not sinful for Springfield's early settlers. It was only when material goals became all-consuming that they became desstructive.

This acquisitiveness helps explain the weakness of communalism in highly commercialized towns like Springfield. Because theirs was an acquisitive--not merely materialistic--society, it tolerated diversity and heterogeneity. Rather than warning out a skilled artisan who was also a lecher and a drunk, the villagers profited by his skills and tried to minimize his excesses. The result, as court records reveal was a society that was both disruptive and litigious. Holistic, homogeneous communities are intolerant because they judge a person by his totality. Status, birth, wealth, education, or kinship, as well as diligence, self-discipline, temperance, honesty, and the like are assessed in determining one's acceptability. Behavior in one sphere of activity affects all others. The fact that a cooper was a philanderer made him ineligible to pack one's furs. But Springfield was not a holistic community, only an economic community based on skill and willingness to work. The key here, of course, is that Springfield's

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was a wage labor, not a manorial, economy. As Robert L Heilbroner notes, the "wage labor system in which workers are hired for a given length time and then released from their 'servant' status effectively created an 'economy' distinct from a 'society.'"14 Separate spheres of activity were judged independently of one another. The hiring criterion was degree of skill, not personal probity. John Pynchon was impersonal in hiring in that he based evaluations of people on utilitarian and not holistic criteria. Unlike Old World patronage, this was one-dimensional. It was an economic-political axis, not a social, cultural, and spiritual one. Pynchon hired and fired on the basis of skillfulness and diligence, and a man's behavior out of the workplace was his own concern, not Pynchon's. Social conflict in Springfield, therefore, was the reverse side of Pynchon's one-dimensional patronage.

Finally, the Springfield experience, in the larger frame, shows that migration of the New World brought a critical step toward the separation of spheres of authority that Weber characterizes as the legal/rational society. It is a world of individuals, not a community. The town's development corresponds with what J.M. Cameron has described as "the moment of transition from the old view of man as finding his fulfillment in this social role tot he new view of man, 'as an individual prior to and apart from all roles'--the transition, as Sir Henry Maine put it, 'from status to contract.'" And this transition came first in the New, not the Old World, as "it is only with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe that we arrive at the notion of man as having moral substance apart from and prior to all social roles, as , for example, in the work of James Mill."15 Such individualistic relationships, as Springfield vividly reveals, invite a society that was both litigious and market-oriented.

Patron-client ties, therefore, helped form the bridge from the world of the manor to the world of the market, from master-servant bonds to those of employer-employee. Merchant-entrepreneurs like John Pynchon were not patriarchs responsible for all members of the community, but patrons answerable only to those selected individ- uals who had something to offer to--and gain from--an association with him. Because these were face-to-face relationships, they hark- ened back to manorial practices, but because at heart they were contractual and impersonal they prefigured--if they did not announce--the triumph of the market economy.

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1. Kenneth Lockbridge, A New England Town, The First Hundred Years: Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736 (New York, 1970) p. 76; Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1970), p. 219.

2. Stephen Innes, Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth-Century Springfield (Princeton, N.J., 1983), pp. 3-16.

3. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

4. Ibid., pp. 46-47.

5. Ibid., p. 47.

6. Ibid., Dependency Tables.

7. Hampshire County Probate Court Records, Hampden County Court- house, Springfield, vol. 1 (1660-1690), pp. 235-236.

8. Richard Hofstadter, America at 1750: A Social Portrait (New York, 1971), p. 10.

9. Sydel F. Silverman, "Patronage and Community-Nation Relationships in Central Italy," Ethnology, IV (1965), p. 176

10. John Pynchon's Account Books, 1652-1702, in Connecticut Valley His- torical Museum, Springfield, vol. II, p. 215.

11. Massachusetts Archives, Boston State House, vol. LXVIII, p. 6.

12. John Pynchon to John Winthrop, Jr., July 17, 1666, in Winthrop Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

13. Joyce Appleby, "Ideology and Theory: The Tension between Political and Economic Liberalism in Seventeenth-Century England," American Historical Review, LXXXI (1976), p. 500.

14. Robert L. Heilbroner, "The Demand for the Supply Side," The New York Review of Books, (June 11, 1981), p. 38.

15. J.M. Cameron, "Can We Live the Good Life?" The New York Review of Books (November 5, 1981), pp. 45-46.

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