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Kadane on Protestant Capitalist

Posted on Friday, January 25, 2013

Joseph Ryder, an 18th-century clothier, faithfully kept a diary from 1733 until his death in 1768, more than two million words later. The handwritten dairy has been sitting in the archives at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, since the early 20th century, but was recently rediscovered and interpreted by Hobart and William Smith Associate Professor of History Matthew Kadane. His new book, "The Watchful Clothier: The Life of an Eighteenth-Century Protestant Capitalist," will be published by Yale University Press later this month.

Kadane's friend, historian Margaret Jacob, came across the diary by chance in 2000. "She recognized that I would be interested, given that I have long been trying to make sense of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism. I was intrigued right away and went to live in Manchester so I could study it." 

Interpreting the dairy, written in the Puritan tradition, was not easy. "Ryder's point in writing wasn't to capture any and all details, as might be the intention of a secular diarist. The point was rather to make a record only of those details and experiences that held some kind of spiritual significance," Kadane says. "He never talked about his life unless some memory or experience carried spiritual content, and so making sense of the full range of his existence was a struggle."

"The Watchful Clothier" provides an illuminating, real-life perspective on the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism at a time when Britain was rapidly changing from a traditional to a modern society. The book also delivers fascinating insights on the early modern family, the birth of industrialization, the history of Puritanism, the origins of Unitarianism, melancholy, and the making of the British middle class.

"Unfortunately for people like Ryder, the line between success and excess was persistently hard to draw; and he spent his diary-writing years agonizing about the fate of his soul and struggling to stay positioned in the middle class, a sacred space, as he saw it, between the extremes of poverty and abundance," says Kadane. "Therefore, I don't think the classic English Protestant capitalist was simply a duty bound workaholic, maximizing his time and profits with the dual goal of creating economic surplus and securing a place in Heaven.  What I have found is that others who were committed as evenly to God as to Mammon lived with a psychologically destabilizing degree of double-mindedness."

More broadly, while Puritan culture gave an important boost to the emergence of modern capitalism in Britain, it also led to tension with the new economy, says Kadane. "That tension, by the end of the 1700s, contributed to a radical transformation of the religious tradition to which the new economy owed much of its character and origins. The relationship between capitalism and Protestantism in this era in Britain can ultimately be characterized as a sort of positive feedback loop that also produced lots of casualties, and not just the obvious ones." 

Kadane came to Hobart and William Smith in 2005 as an assistant professor of history and is now chair of the department. Prior to joining the Colleges, Kadane was a lecturer at Harvard University. He received a B.A. in philosophy from Southern Methodist University and earned a M.A. in historical studies from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He received both an A.M and Ph.D. in history from Brown University.

He was awarded the Derek Bok Distinction in Teaching Award at Harvard University in 2001 and 2002 and the John Lax Fellowship at Brown University in 2004. Since 2006, he has also been a regional visiting fellow at the Institute for European Studies at Cornell University.

Kadane has published a number of book chapters and articles in journals such as The American Historical Review and Republics of Letters. He is currently working on a project centering on the doctrine of Original Sin, as well as another micro-study of a diarist whose story overlaps with empire, the law courts and slavery. 

 


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