Current Issue Article Abstracts
Winter 2016 Vol. 36.4
• • • • • • • •
Economic history has never suffered from having a narrow definition of its topics or methodologies, and as the articles in this special issue of JER so ably demonstrate, economic historians have become ever more adventurous in incorporating new research questions, reading sources imaginatively, defining how people of past generations thought and acted in economic ways, and generally expanding the parameters of where the economy can be perceived and analyzed. The articles in this special issue, representing only a portion of the outpouring of new scholarship in economic history, assess aspects of what the field has achieved and point us toward unfinished business.
The History of Capitalism, with its focus on ocean-spanning networks, commodity flows, and the financialization of exchange, largely takes for granted a male/female gender binary. As a result, women play little part in its core narratives and gender appears as a cultural gloss on economic transformations. But, as the institution of the auction demonstrates, women and gender were essential to capitalism’s emergence. Understanding how households, gendered divisions of labor, and female bodies acquired and incubated value opens up a far more dynamic picture of economic change. Households varied dramatically in size and stability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which supported different distributions of power between the men and women within them. What constituted “men’s work” and “women’s work” was always in flux and not necessarily linked to particular bodies, although capitalist institutions used laws governing inheritance and slavery to link monetary value to specific ideas about gender. Simultaneously, cultural stereotypes such as the frivolous female consumer, the poor widow, or the fecund slave woman spread through popular culture. As a result, nineteenth-century capitalism and the ideas about masculinity and femininity familiar to us today created one another.The Mission Complex: Economic Development, “Civilization,” and Empire in the Early Republic
This essay examines late-antebellum portrayals of Irish servant women in popular culture and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s (PAS) wartime correspondence with northern employers eager to obtain access to southern freedpeople. In these sources, white northerners filtered their characterizations of women’s bodies and behaviors through ideologies of gender and race to create submissive and transgressive social types representing ideal and less-than-ideal workers. These declarations about workers, yoked to the northern argument that emancipation was both an act of benevolence and a period of necessary instruction for black southerners in the habits and practices of wage labor, propelled northern benevolent associations, armies, and the state to forge a transportation network that they hoped would ensure the flow of workers northward. This network proved short-lived, ultimately foundering on a lack of funding and employers’ and employees’ mutual disappointment with each other. And yet, because of their wartime cultural work, employers could pivot to a position of even greater strength over white and black workers in the political economy of wage labor.
Historical research into economic topics is booming: The history of capitalism is on the march, Atlantic and Pacific histories have invigorated research on trade and merchants, and environmental history is increasingly economic. But this new popularity has generally not been accompanied by increased collaboration or even interaction with colleagues working in departments. The sources of this standoff are many, but prominent among them is the role of numbers. What should we count? And what should we do with the multitude of numbers and tables that punctuate early American documents? We have much to gain from more extensive use of quantitative sources. However, historians should return to quantification with caution: Not as novice cliometricians, but as the beneficiaries of cultural and social history. New research has already begun to stake out a kind of quantitative middle ground, combining close and distant reading and approaching numerical sources both as sources of data and as narrative structures with politics.
Reading eighteenth-century Atlantic media with an eye to the material conditions of production, circulation, and consumption provides new ways of understanding how the circulation of goods—in this case, texts and textiles—fosters new forms of expression as well as new kinds of subjects. Textiles were central to the rise of eighteenth-century print culture and public prints have more to tell us than the words inked on the page: printed on rag paper and stitched together with a variety of different threads, texts bear the mark of men and women laboring in flax fields and as spinners, weavers, seamstresses, and laundresses and as rag pickers and papermakers. In this sense, literature and commerce—discourse and economy—collide to produce new forms of expression that, in turn, foster consuming publics of both words and goods. By approaching the texts and objects that facilitate commercial exchange with an eye to their poetic or formalistic qualities, we can see how the formal elements of the writing reflect and comment on manufacturing processes and commercial exchanges. That is, we can see how words might have a material presence, as well as how goods might participate in the discursive production of culture.
Scholarship connecting the Americas to each other, as well as to Africa and Europe on the Atlantic’s eastern shores, has appeared in print since the early twentieth century, but the codification of “Atlantic history” as a discrete academic endeavor gained momentum in the late 1980s. This article traces the development of Atlantic history in the last three decades, with a special emphasis on the last ten years, or since the supposed “decline” in scholarly support for the field. Atlantic scholars have justifiably been criticized, even from some of its foremost former practitioners, for too narrowly defining the scope of their research—chronologically and geographically, and as well as racially and ethnically. Far from declining, however, a survey of work published in three journals indicates that the subfield continues to offer a useful scholarly framework, one that has been reinvigorated by new inter-disciplinary and poly-linguistic approaches that seek to mediate earlier lacuna while still emphasizing the vibrant synergies that connected the countries and colonies that ring the Atlantic Ocean.
Edward P. Pompeian
This article evaluates the global approach to the early United States and reconsiders the significance of Atlantic history for historians of the Early American Republic. It focuses on the multivalent way that commerce forged cross-cultural relations between the United States and other world regions through commodity chains and trade network, many of which originated long before the independence of the United States. This survey suggests that those who seek to understand the Early Republic in a global context would be best served by a long-nineteenth-century-perspective that looks backward to the eighteenth century rather than forward to the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It calls for historians of the Early American Republic to apply trans-local analysis to reorient the field in new directions and to realize the promise of the global approach. To properly understand the country’s early economy, society, and culture in a global or transnational context, historians of the early United States must adopt multi-lingual and multi-archival research methodologies that account for all sides of cross-cultural exchange. By resisting circular analytical and methodological pathways that start the global approach with the nation-state and end with the nation-state, they might better understand the significance and effects of global entanglements for the Early Republic and other peoples and places outside the United States too. Thereby, they might avoid the global U-turn.
Dael A. Norwood
The field of early American political economy has quietly grown in the last decade, as historians have used a flexible framework to analyze how a wide variety of economic practices and ideas related to formal and informal political formations. Using capacious definitions of “political economy,” historians have followed in the footsteps of their sources, early American political economists, who, unsure of the range of the mechanisms and forces they were trying to describe, were wary of too narrowly delimiting their field of investigation. In contrast to other methodological approaches to early American economic practice, historians investigating political economy have largely been keen to “keep early America weird,” recognizing the unfamiliar and the dissonant in the past while generating important new perspectives on topics of perennial interest, such as the links between slavery and economic growth, and opening new inquiries into state-formation, market-creation, and the import of the early republic’s global connections. This essay highlights some of the common themes and questions driving recent work, delineates how histories of political economy both fit within and diverge from new histories of capitalism, and offers suggestions for further study.
The recent resurgence of interest in economic and business history -- popularly known as the new “history of capitalism” -- has prompted many American historians to revisit subjects long neglected in their particular subfields. Much of this new work has focused on a particular dimension of capitalism: finance. For historians of the early American republic, the history of finance has been especially neglected. This article examines why these subjects have generally escaped attention, and offers a theoretical framework for understanding finance during this period. Finally, it offers a detailed roadmap to new avenues for research into a range of promising, if little-studied, topics.
Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. By Mary Sarah Bilder. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 358. Cloth, $35.00.)