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Common Sense or Commonwealth? The Fence Law and Institutional Change in the Postbellum South

Kantor, Shawn Everett and Kousser, J. Morgan (1989) Common Sense or Commonwealth? The Fence Law and Institutional Change in the Postbellum South. Social Science Working Paper, 703. California Institute of Technology , Pasadena, CA. (Unpublished)

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What causes individuals to change age-old economic, political, and social institutions? "Radical" historians claim that economic elites use their political power to impose institutions that enable them to extract the "labor surplus" more easily. This sharply conflicts with many economists' belief that economic growth comes about as society adopts a new regime of rules so as to capture potential efficiency gains. Whereas previous economists and historians have not addressed each other's concerns, this paper tests these contending hypotheses using an example common to both literatures - fence laws. As demographic and economic changes permeated the postbellum South, many progressive farmers called on their state legislatures to adopt stock laws which would prohibit grazing animals on unfenced land. Focusing our attention on the same Georgia counties as previous historians have studied, we provide a more comprehensive analysis of the empirical data than has heretofore been given. Previous research on what contemporaries called the fence question has portrayed the conflict as one between the "haves" and the "have nots" - wealthy landowners against yeoman farmers, tenants, and laborers - or between contending "cultures" - believers in a pre-capitalistic "household mode of production" against partisans of national and international capitalistic market relations. Our investigation of the qualitative and quantitative evidence shows that the two-class interpretation is wrongly simple and the cultural gloss is simply wrong. The stock law created potential benefits which crossed class lines and there is little evidence that its opponents rejected the crass cash nexus. The debate, therefore, was not rooted in class conflict, but stemmed from the materialistic goals of individuals concerned about the equitable distribution of costs and benefits of fencing crops and animals.

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Additional Information:The first author acknowledges financial support from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation and the Anna and James McDonnell Memorial Scholarship Fund. Research for this article was also sponsored by the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. We thank Lance E. Davis, Philip T. Hoffman, and especially Jean-Laurent Rosenthal for helpful discussions and comments. Of course, we retain strict property rights to any of the paper's remaining shortcomings. Published as Kantor, Shawn Everett, and J. Morgan Kousser. "Common sense or commonwealth? The fence law and institutional change in the postbellum south." The Journal of Southern History 59, no. 2 (1993): 201-242.
Group:Social Science Working Papers
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Caltech Division of Humanities and Social SciencesUNSPECIFIED
John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Anna and James McDonnell Memorial Scholarship FundUNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:Fences, Agricultural land, Tenants, Election laws, Crops, Pastures, Voting, Electoral districts, Farm economics, Workforce
Series Name:Social Science Working Paper
Issue or Number:703
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20170901-162948024
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Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:81112
Deposited By: Jacquelyn Bussone
Deposited On:05 Sep 2017 23:01
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 18:39

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