A 250-page history of a Massachusetts farm town in the early 1800s might not beg for immediate reading, but that would be a shame in the case of Mary Babson Fuhrer’s “A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformations of a New England Town, 1815-1848.” The Yankee Calvinist people of the town of Boylston happen to be very interesting.
There’s Mary White, a devout Congregationalist farm wife turned anti-slavery suffragist and her Federalist husband, who did not share her political views. And then there’s the couple’s son Aaron Jr., the eldest of 10, who shunned a rural life, became a fierce antibank crusader and who buried barrels filled with copper pennies throughout his yard.
The author shares an interest in economics with her husband, Jeffrey C. Fuhrer, an executive vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, noting in the acknowledgments that he “supported my musings” and “read and reflected on every chapter.” And the book was a family affair, she wrote, adding that her three children transcribed diaries and entered data.
The book is a deep dive into the economic history of the town of Boylston in the three decades leading up to the Civil War. That’s tiny, landlocked Boylston, a generally quiet farming community that to this day remains a generally unremarkable patch of exurbia about 40 miles northwest of Boston. Yet the town yields all sorts of historical and economic insights. Fuhrer finds a closely knit farming community in the early 1800s that changes as a result of advances in technology that give her own and the town’s children new options for work, usually in the city. And the price of transformation in post-Puritan New England was often controversy and conflict.
“These were years, as townsfolk later remembered ruefully, when ‘the most malignant passions of our depraved natures raged,’ ” Fuhrer notes in the introduction.
Fuhrer tells those stories without fictionalizing them, basing much of her work on the diary of Mary White. White, who by 1848 had lived to see the communal agrarian life guided by the seasons (marked in the spring by peeping frogs) grow increasingly divided by wealth and privilege; a town that had long had a single church now had Congregationalist and Universalist Protestant factions, temperance advocates and opponents.
It seemed like a contentious and sometimes ugly new world.
The questions the book raises about political partisanship, the role of religion, the departure of children from the nest, and job security make Fuhrer’s book relevant today. Ours is an era of great technological advancement that propels us forward in similarly unknown directions. And the Whites also lived through a time of growing inequality between the rich and everyone else, as notions of communal farm life took a back seat to individualism and the rise of a market economy.
Fuhrer writes that the struggles in Boylston show how people in the post-Revolutionary War era struggled to answer questions such as what an individual’s obligation to community is. Should privilege and power have limits? An essential question is how can “individual ambitions and social responsibilities be reconciled?” she wrote. Nearly 200 years later, society is still struggling with many of the same questions.
Mary White, the matriarch Calvinist, channeled her religious fervor into efforts to end slavery. In the summer of 1837, activist antislavery women in Massachusetts received a scolding from the Congregational clergy.
Undeterred, she continued to petition Congress and even traded personal correspondence with US Representative Levi Lincoln in her efforts to win support for the cause. Aaron White Sr. never signed the petition, jointly or individually, Fuhrer writes, noting that their divergent views must have caused friction at the dinner table.
“The goal of liberty was self-mastery; to be mastered by another was slavery,” Fuhrer writes. “But not all bonds were iron chains.”