Cultivating Gentlemen

The Meaning of Country Life Among the Boston Elite, 1785-1860

Tamara Plakins Thornton

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Between the Revolution and the Civil War, many merchants, financiers, manufacturers, lawyers, and politicians of Boston’s elite settles on country estates, took up gentleman farming, and founded agricultural and horticultural societies. It is a curious fact of history that these men, who were directly responsible for changing the Massachusetts economy from a farming to a commercial and industrial one, spent so much time identifying themselves with things rural and agrarian. In this lively and well-illustrated book, Tamara Plakins Thornton documents the rural pursuits and argues that elite Bostonians drew on their rich reservoir of associations to characterize themselves as virtuous members of a legitimate American elite.
Thornton traces this history in the papers of elite Bostonians and their agricultural and horticultural institutions and by looking at the contemporary literature on agricultural reform, stockbreeding, and horticulture. Her investigations provide new and unexpected pictures: George Cabot, the quintessential Federalist merchant and statesman, attending to potatoes on his secluded Brookline farm; Josiah Quincy, a congressman, mayor of Boston, and Harvard president, calculating the yields of carrots on his estate; Nathaniel Ingersoll, an East India merchant, enthusiastically reporting the design of his model piggery to a Boston agricultural periodical. By participating in such activities, these men and others like them sought to justify their privileged status in “egalitarian” America, counter charges of boorishness and materialism, and adjust to the disturbing economic and social changes they themselves had set in motion.
Tamara Plakins Thornton is assistant professor of history at State University of New York at Fredonia.

"The strength of this excellently written book is in the basic picture painted of a body of men engaged variously in attempting to preserve republican ideals and to establish their own position as the young nation’s elite."—Boyd Stanley Schlenther, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies

"Tamara Plakins Thornton’s book is an original, beautifully written study of Boston’s elite. Her ’history of the overarticulate’. . . finds fresh things to say about leading Bostonians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it explores their obsession with country estates, livestock breeding, horticulture, and agricultural societies. . . . Her book is an entertaining, thoughtful, and important work."—Randolph Roth, American Historical Review

"This elegantly written and intelligently conceived presentation of how the elite used its undertakings in agriculture, horticulture, and animal husbandry to justify its actions and motives, legitimate and project its role, and enhance its status and image—to its members, as a class, and for the entire community—is conveyed through the traditional techniques of intellectual and institutional history. Sophisticated perusal of written sources and analysis of organizations . . . are the instruments for insightful interpretation of the outlook of the Boston patriciate."—Frederic Cople Jaher, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Thornton evokes effectively the national preoccupation, in the decades following the establishment of the New Republic, with cyclical theories of history that posited an inevitable evolution from pastoral and agrarian stages through increasingly complex civilizations based on commercial expansion and the pursuit of empire. . . . The evidence Thornton has drawn from contemporary sources and from the work of other historians is brought together with an amplitude and attention to detail that manages never to impede the lively narrative style. . . . A superb contribution to our understanding of the fuguelike play of social and cultural themes that find expression in the built world, tracing over time a sensible pattern of form-giving meanings and values. Cultivating Gentlemen is essential reading for those interested in the evolution and consequences of that celebratory nostalgia for country life and its mythic values that still stirs within the national psyche."—Catherine Howett, Winterthur Portolio

"An exquisite example of the act of reading seemingly peripheral cultural developments for their larger historical meanings. This book is likely to stand as the definitive account of the cultural development itself, the ’rural pursuits’ movement of elite Boston."—Ronald Story, William and Mary Quarterly

"An exquisite example of reading seemingly peripheral cultural developments for their larger historical meanings. This is likely to stand as the definitive account of the cultural development itself, the ’rural pursuits’ movement of elite Bostonians."—Ronald Story, Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"This carefully crafted, gracefully written, and richly illustrated book brings the Boston Brahmins down to earth, quite literally. . . . Readers interested in the changing cultural landscape of New England during this era should find Thornton’s volume quite valuable. Cultivating Gentlemen is fruitful scholarship."—Gary J. Kornblith, Journal of Economic History

"A straightforward narrative of how the great and good of the city of Boston took to, exploited and advocated agriculture and horticulture. . . . It is an interesting story, told with increasing confidence. . . . Useful biographical and bibliographic surveys are appended."—John Dixon Hunt, Times Higher Education Supplement

"A complex interpretation of the activities and attitudes of complex men. . . . This is an unusually readable piece of historical prose, accompanied by ample documentation and numerous illuminating illustrations."—Benjamin W. Labaree, New England Quarterly

"Do not be daunted by the subtitle of this book. This is not a study in semiotics, but the picture of the unusually agreeable life enjoyed by Boston’s rich merchant families in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . . The book is enlivened with case studies of particular people, and further details are given in a charming appendix entitled,’Rural Biographies of Selected Elite Bostonians."—Clive Aslet, Country Life

"[Thornton] perceptively scrutinizes the rustic leanings of community titans like George Cabot and Josiah Quincy."—Judy Bass, Boston Herald

"Thornton describes the involvement of Boston’s commercial, financial, and industrial elite in a variety of agricultural pursuits from the end of the Revolution to the Civil War, and analyzes the changing nature and significance of their rural activities."—Choice

"Cultivating Gentlemen adds to what we already know by examining one part of the lives of the Boston mercantile elite: their amateur interest in improved agriculture and horticulture. . . . The focus is on the people rather than the organizations and addresses the question of what farming and gardening meant to the commercial elite in a nation growing more industrial and democratic year by year. . . . This careful inspection of the social purposes of the MSPA is the conceptual heart of this well-written and illuminating book."—Richard L. Bushman, Journal of the Early Republic

"A splendid book based on exhaustive archival research and distinguished by penetrating analysis, Cultivating Gentlemen will endure as a model of cultural and landscape history."—John R. Stilgoe, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University

ISBN: 9780300042566
Publication Date: September 10, 1989
256 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
23 b/w illus.