You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus

Robert Sweeny, Why Did We Choose to Industrialize: Montreal, 1819–1849. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. 456 pp.

  • Dan Horner

…more information

  • Dan Horner
    Ryerson University

Cover of Environmental Nuisances and Political Contestation in Canadian Cities, Volume 44, Number 1-2, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, pp. 5-87, Urban History Review

Article body

-> See the list of figures

At first glance, Why Did We Choose to Industrialize is a book about Montreal and Lower Canada’s transformation from an ancien regime society to an industrial, liberal and capitalist society. Robert Sweeny examines the relationship between town and country, the processes of social change and the tension between advocates of a moral economy of a liberal economy. On the merits of this alone, Why Did We Choose to Industrialize makes an important contribution to the historiography of urbanization in Early Canada and, more broadly speaking, of the transition to capitalism. There is, however, a second and equally important layer to this work. Why Did We Choose to Industrialize is a compelling testament to meticulous archival research and active history. It is a book about an historian’s career, about a craft and a vocation. Sweeny writes eloquently about moments over the course of his career when a close reading of a body of archival documents- often notarial records- awarded him a fresh perspective on the processes of social and economic change in Montreal and, to a lesser degree, Newfoundland. He leads us from his earliest works as a founding member of the Montreal Business History Project- a collective undertaking by a group of politically engaged social historians working in the late 1970s- to the periodic re-thinking of his approach to the historian’s craft spurred on by the cultural turn, the emergence of gender history, post-colonial theory and technological developments in the field of digital mapping.

This act of piecing together an interpretation of the past through archival documents is one that Sweeny urges historians to engage in with a critical eye. Throughout Why Did We Choose to Industrialize, he outlines a variety of moments when re-thinking historical sources- grappling with how they were produced and what their authors aimed to do by producing them- led him towards new perspectives on the processes of historical change. Sweeny credits this approach to archival work with allowing him the opportunity to complicate some of the conventional assumptions around the narrative of the transition in colonial cities. Amidst a historiography shaped by sweeping assumptions about the transition, Sweeny demonstrates how notarial records provided fresh insights into the relationships between banks, artisans and merchants that demonstrated the weaknesses in the Staples Thesis. Years spent working on digital mapping, meanwhile, prompted Sweeny to challenge the notion that industrialization and the transition to capitalism created an urban landscape marked by social segregation. The complexity of the trail of archival sources uncovered by Sweeny suggests that there is much work left for historians to undertake examining how these processes unfolded at the local level, rather than just accepting broad generalizations at face value.

Sweeny pushes the reader to take into consideration the epistemology of the documents they rely upon, and how they reflect an unjust society. Particularly noteworthy here is his critical assessment of censuses, street maps and city directories of Montreal published in the 1820s and 1830s. While these documents, Sweeny argues, might tell us a great deal about the city’s composition at a transformative moment, they were inextricably shaped by the assumptions and aspirations of their creators. In the face of rapid social change and relationships that were being renegotiated on the fly, the producers of these sources were finding ways to accentuate the order and modernity of their surroundings. Taken at face value, these documents can sometimes push historians towards assumptions that Montreal’s transition to a capitalist society shaped by liberal assumptions about property occurred much more tidily than it did. There is a richer vein, Sweeny argues, that can be tapped by digging deeper into the archival record. An essential part of this, he argues, comes with taking into account the importance of human agency. The importance of choices and strategies is crucial to Sweeny’s interpretation of social change, and is reflected in the book’s title, which reframes industrialization as the product of complex decisions, rather than of an invisible hand. The restructuring of society that occurred in the first two thirds of the nineteenth century and produced a less equal society with regards to class and gender was not inevitable. The usurping of a longstanding moral economy by liberal concepts of property ownership was profoundly transformative, and its impact reached into every aspect of public life and people’s lived experiences. Historians, Sweeny insists, must demonstrate how contentious and audacious the transition was.

Common assumptions about social change during this period are shaped, he argues, by the reality that historians tend to pay much closer attention to the economic activity of the colonial elite, rather than the complex economic activities of daily life in a bustling city. This gave credence to the notion that the exportation of staples like wood and grain, dominated by a masculine merchant elite with close connections to the political establishment, shaped the colonial economy. A closer look at notarial records, however, reveals the persistence of a local craft economy. Furthermore, evidence that the majority of stalls in the city’s public markets were owned and operated by women demonstrates that the daily workings of the Montreal economy were far less marked by gender segregation than many historians have assumed. Again, this is an occasion where Sweeny pushes historians to seek nuance through a careful reading of archival records.

Elsewhere, Sweeny argues convincingly that the conventional approach to studying urbanization and the economic and cultural transitions of the nineteenth century has led many historians to lose sight of the crucial place that changing gender relations played in this process. In keeping with recent works by Bettina Bradbury and Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton, that grappling with the gendered nature of the strategies that men and women used to negotiate their place in a changing world is essential to understanding the transition. For Sweeny, this was part of a larger realization that the structuralism adopted by many politically engaged scholars in the 1960s and 1970s did not leave adequate room to take into account human agency. Sweeny uses sources like tax rolls and census records to trace the process of suburbanization, and notes the ways in which it was rooted in geographic and economic restructuring of work and family life that was the product of personal decisions and strategies. These complex processes paved the way for a more explicitly patriarchal and unequal society.

Why Did We Choose to Industrialize is not a conventional academic monograph. It is a fascinating and at times contentious record of an historian’s career, of the unexpected places that the archives, successive historiographical debates, and the geographic trajectories of academic life can take us. Sweeny traces his shifting perspective on theory and methodology to definitive moments- days spent in archives or panels attended at academic conferences across Canada and Europe. In doing so, he reminds readers of the challenges and rewards that come with remaining engaged with our colleagues, of continuing to pursue fresh insights into the places, processes and periods that we study, and of staying attuned to the connections between the events we study in the past and the contemporary world we inhabit.