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What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy7

Seth Rockman
Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 34, Number 3, Fall 2014, pp.
439-466 (Article)
Pubshed by Unversty of Pennsyvana Press
DOI: 10.1353/jer.2014.0043
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Access provided by Emory University Libraries (2 Sep 2014 17:25 GMT)
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Review Essay
What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?
SETH ROCKMAN
Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-
Century America. Edited by Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. viii 358. Cloth,
$97.00; paper $32.00.)
Capitalism may be in crisis as an economic system, but it is thriving as a
subject within the historical profession. The history of capitalism now
organizes a book series at Columbia University Press, a seminar program
at the Newberry Library, a MOOC at Cornell University, a graduate
eld at University of Georgia, and a tenure line at Brown University.
Undergraduate courses on American capitalism are lling lecture halls
at Princeton, Florida, and Loyola University Chicago, while the New
School for Social Research has launched its new Heilbroner Center for
Capitalism Studies. The topic has provided thematic unity to recent
annual meetings of the Social Science History Association and the Orga-
nization of American Historians. In the American Historical Associa-
tions state-of-the-eld volume American History Now, the history of
capitalism stands alongside established subelds like womens history
and cultural history. A front-page article last year in the New York Times
carried the headline, In History Class, Capitalism Sees Its Stock Soar.
1
Seth Rockman is associate professor of history at Brown University. He thanks
Julia Ott, Lukas Rieppel, Sandy Zipp, and JER editor David Waldstreicher for
helpful advice with this essay.
1. Jennifer Schuessler, In History Class, Capitalism Sees Its Stock Soar, New
York Times, Apr. 7, 2013, A1; Sven Beckert, History of American Capitalism,
in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia, 2011),
31435. In addition to the Beckert overview, other recent assessments of the eld
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440 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
This is news? one could hear many early republic historians ask
with incredulity. The study of capitalism has long been a central concern
of our eld. Forty years ago, the new labor history began recovering
the experiences of the rst generation of American wage laborers in com-
munities like Paterson, Rockdale, and Lowell. Very soon, artisans of
every trade had a historian to recount their declining economic power in
the face of capitalisms rise. Graduate students in the 1980s cut their
teeth on farmers account books and rural mentalites, and few qualifying
exam lists lacked a section on the transition to capitalism debate. The
generation coming of age in the 1990s had the market revolution
looming over its head, and in the wake of a Journal of the Early Republic
special issue on capitalism in 1996, social historians continued to argue
with Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby over the compatibility of capital-
ism and democracy. Over the last decade, SHEAR conferences have
featured sessions on capitalism as a force of liberation or destruction, as
a top-down or bottom-up phenomenon, and as ideology or a structure.
As often as not, experienced commentators have alerted younger
presenters to the classic works of Samuel Rezneck, Oscar and Mary
Handlin, or George Rogers Taylor, extending the elds historiographi-
cal genealogy ever deeper into the past. If academic generations dene
themselves against their immediate predecessors, how many revisionist
include Jeffrey Sklansky, The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social
Histories of Capitalism, Modern Intellectual History 9 (Apr. 2012), 23348;
Sklansky, Labor, Money, and the Financial Turn in the History of Capitalism,
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 11 (Spring 2014), 2346;
Kenneth Lipartito, Connecting the Cultural and the Material in Business His-
tory, Enterprise & Society 14 (Dec. 2013), 686704; Louis Hyman, Why Write
the History of Capitalism? Symposium Magazine, July 8, 2013, http://www
.symposium-magazine.com/why-write-the-history-of-capitalism-louis-hyman; Noam
Maggor et al., Teaching the History of Capitalism, http://studyofcapitalism
.harvard.edu/node/132. In addition to providing themes for national meetings, the
history of capitalism has organized a number of recent conferences: Calculating
Capitalism, Columbia University, Apr. 2526, 2014; Histories of American
Capitalism, Cornell University, Nov. 68, 2014; Capitalizing on Finance: New
Directions in the History of Capitalism, Huntington Library, Apr. 1213, 2013;
Capitalism in America: A New History, University of Georgia, Feb. 18, 2012;
The New History of American Capitalism, Harvard University, Nov. 1819,
2011; Power and the History of Capitalism, New School of Social Research,
Apr. 1516, 2011; Slaverys Capitalism: A New History of American Economic
Development, Brown University and Harvard University, Apr. 79, 2011.
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 441
historians have humbly discovered that their scholarly grandparents had
in fact been exploring the same questions half a lifetime earlier? This
new history of capitalism might be a testament to good branding
(appropriately) rather than original insight, less a new eld than a fad.
Scholars identifying themselves with the new history of capitalism
and I count myself in these ranksmake no pretense of having discov-
ered a new eld. Many historians working under this rubric are quick
to credit their undergraduate teachers and graduate advisors: Eliza-
beth Blackmar, Barbara Fields, and Eric Foner at Columbia, or Jean-
Christophe Agnew and Michael Denning at Yale, to name only two
clusters of inuential faculty who have been talking about capitalism for
decades. For those interested in parlor games, younger historians of capi-
talism can reach Agnew or Blackmar in about half the steps required to
get to Kevin Bacon. Columbia- and Yale-trained students have been at
the forefront of institutionalizing the history of capitalism elsewhere;
none with more success than Sven Beckert, whose Program on the Study
of Capitalism at Harvard has placed recent graduates into faculty posi-
tions at University of North CarolinaChapel Hill, UCBerkeley, Cornell
University, and University of Pennsylvania. Yet, not all roads lead back
to Cambridge, let alone New Haven and Morningside Heights, with the
elds institutional genealogy looking less like a family tree than an over-
grown forest of departments, centers, and programs. Consider the range
of afliations of doctoral students receiving funding from the Library
Company of Philadelphias Program in Early American Economy and
Society or appearing on now-ubiquitous history-of-capitalism conference
panels. Complicating matters further, many of the dissertations (recent
and underway) in the eld are directed by faculty members who do not
identify themselves primarily as historians of capitalism; take, for exam-
ple, William Cronon and Thomas Sugrue, two graduate mentors better
identied with the respective subelds of environmental and urban his-
tory. But even doctoral advisors coming to history of capitalism through
the more predicable routes of labor and business historyNelson
Lichtenstein and Colleen Dunlavy, for instancewould offer idiosyn-
cratic accounts of the elds origins. Sven Beckert might highlight the
importance of Europeanists like Eric Hobsbawm, William H. Sewell, Jr.,
and E. P. Thompson in shaping a eld that nonetheless maintains a
distinctive Americanist lineage. One imagines Richard John making a
compelling case for Alfred Chandler as history of capitalisms progenitor,
while the New Labor history of Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery
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442 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
would feature prominently for Jefferson Cowie, Rosemary Feurer, and
Scott Reynolds Nelson. William J. Novak, Robin Einhorn, and Brian
Balogh might credit American Political Development (a move in 1980s
and 1990s political science and sociology toward the history of in-
stitutions) with redirecting historians gaze toward the states role in the
economy. A dozen other historiographies might appear in competing
accounts of the elds genealogy. Sufce it to say, the contours of the
eld stretch beyond just a handful of programs and advisors.
What makes the history of capitalism newsworthy is less institutional
than intellectual, as the eld has opened new vistas on the past by pursu-
ing its questions differently from an earlier scholarship. First, the current
scholarship has minimal investment in a xed or theoretical denition of
capitalism. Few works in the eld begin with an explicit statement of
what the author means by capitalism. If the goal is to gure out what
capitalism is and how it has operated historically, scholars seem willing
to let capitalism oat as a placeholder while they look for ground-level
evidence of a system in operation. The empirical work of discovery takes
precedence over the application of theoretical categories: A question like
What might mens grooming products or Congressional tariff debates
tell us about capitalism? organizes the inquiry, not What does capital-
ism tell us about razors and rate schedules? Recent work shows little
interest in demarcating certain economic activities or actors as pre-
capitalist or proto-capitalist relative to a predetermined standard of actual
capitalism. By extension, transitions are not an overarching preoccu-
pation of the recent scholarship, with less attention given to the timing
of a market revolution, shifts between modes of production, or the
contrast between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. As the turmoil of the
current global economy has revealed a system wildly inconsistent with
theorized accounts of pure capitalismit isnt like the state has become
less relevant to the economy today than it was in 1750 or that free mar-
kets have ended human trafckinghistorians have shown greater com-
fort with the ambiguities of early America capitalism. Once-essential
boundaries, as between mercantilism and capitalism, diminish in impor-
tance as scholars recognize the states geopolitical interest in organizing
markets and generating revenue up through the present day. Likewise,
the space between moral economy and market economy appears less
obvious as historians assert that culture (implicit in traditionalism of the
former) also governs the latter despite its presumed prot-maximizing
rationality. The new scholarship embraces the varieties of capitalism,
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 443
to use the title of an inuential volume in political science on the mutabil-
ity of capitalism across chronologies and geographies.
2
Secondly, recent scholarship alters the periodization of U.S. history,
with particular consequence for early republic specialists who have long
claimed capitalisms story, or at least its rise, as their own. After all, ours
is the era of the Erie Canal, de-skilled artisans, and trans-Atlantic radi-
cals, plus three major panics and a bank war!
3
Stealing some of our thunder, the history of capitalism tends to situate
the early United States in the sweep of an early modern global history
dened by commercial integration, the scalmilitary state, and the valo-
rization of instrumental knowledge. For example, commodity studies like
Jennifer Andersons Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America
and Sven Beckerts Empire of Cotton: A Global History dexterously
bridge the eras of colonization and industrialization. Other scholars have
similarly deepened the elds chronological range: Recent syntheses by
Joyce Appleby and Christopher Tomlins span more than three centu-
ries.
4
The more specialized scholarship on U.S. capitalism rarely connes
itself to the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Jonathan Levys Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism
and Risk in America begins with the 1841 Creole slave revolt and ends
in the Progressive Era. Scott Reynolds Nelsons A Nation of Deadbeats:
2. Peter Hall and David Soskice, eds., Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional
Foundations of Comparative Advantage (New York, 2001). For commentary, see
Varieties of Capitalism Roundtable, Business History Review 84 (Winter
2010), 63774; Richard Deeg and Gregory Jackson, Towards a More Dynamic
Theory of Capitalist Variety, SocioEconomic Review 5 (Jan. 2007), 14979.
3. For the best recent overview, see John L. Larson, The Market Revolution in
America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good (New York,
2010). Some of the early republics claims on capitalism were articulated in Alfred
F. Young, ed., Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of
American Radicalism (DeKalb, IL, 1993); and especially Michael Merrill, Putting
Capitalism in its Place: A Review of Recent Literature, William and Mary
Quarterly 52 (Apr. 1995), 31526.
4. Jennifer Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cam-
bridge, MA, 2012); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York,
2014); Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New
York, 2010); Christopher Tomlins, Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Iden-
tity in Colonizing English America, 15801865 (New York, 2010).
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444 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
An Uncommon History of Americas Financial Disasters starts with
William Duer in debtors prison in 1792 and concludes during the New
Deal. Paul Luciers excellent book on scientic entrepreneurs and the
energy industry runs from 1820 to 1890, Caroline Fisks award-winning
history of intellectual property travels from 1800 to 1930, and two recent
dissertations on accounting (17501880) and actuarial science (1830
1930) boast chronologies that defy the neat bookends of the early repub-
lic. Indeed, neither the American Revolution nor the Civil War plays a
determinative role in these narratives, marking a departure from an ear-
lier historiography depicting capitalism as the consequence of the former
and the cause of the latter.
5
Third, consistent with its disavowal of theoretical denitions and
recalibrated chronologies that span the Civil War, the new scholarship
recognizes slavery as integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism. Of
course, slavery has long been central to debates over British capitalism,
beginning with the 1944 publication of Eric Williamss Capitalism and
Slavery. Although the United States also had an industrial revolution
reliant upon slave-grown cotton, the American historiography had gener-
ally considered slavery as a bounded regional economy, marking the
South as a laggard, rather than a leader, in national economic develop-
ment.
6
A wave of new scholarship, however, has positioned southern slave-
holders as architects of a capitalist system predicated on commodity
5. Jonathan Levy, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and
Risk in America (Cambridge, MA, 2012); Scott Reynolds Nelson, A Nation of
Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of Americas Financial Disasters (New York,
2012); Paul Lucier, Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in
America, 18201890 (Baltimore, 2008); Catherine L. Fisk, Working Knowledge:
Employee Innovation and the Rise of Corporate Intellectual Property, 18001930
(Chapel Hill, NC, 2009); Caitlin C. Rosenthal, From Memory to Mastery:
Accounting for Control in America, 17501880, PhD diss., Harvard University,
2012; Daniel B. Bouk, The Science of Difference: Developing Tools of Dis-
crimination in the American Life Insurance Industry, 18301930, PhD diss.,
Princeton University, 2009.
6. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC, 1944); Joseph E.
Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in Interna-
tional Trade and Economic Development (New York, 2002). On the absence of
slavery in American economic history, see Seth Rockman, The Unfree Origins
of American Capitalism, in The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspec-
tives and New Directions, ed. Cathy Matson (University Park, PA, 2006), 33561.
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 445
production, entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and lengthy
chains of trans-Atlantic nance. The framework of Second Slavery
highlighting slaverys nineteenth-century regeneration in Brazil, Cuba,
and the U.S. under modern regimes of industrial managementhas
proven especially productive. By dislodging wage labor as the sine qua
non of capitalism, historians of capitalism are able to consider labor
exploitation in a wider range of contexts, and especially to appreciate the
interdependence of plantation agriculture and factory production. Slav-
ery also functioned as property regime in which, to quote one scholar,
slaves were worked nancially as well as physically to store and trans-
fer wealth, to access credit, and to stabilize an under-regulated system of
paper money. Relative to other subelds of U.S. history, the history of
capitalism may be the place where slavery assumes the most central posi-
tion within the larger national narrative.
7
Fourth, the new scholarship on capitalism integrates a variety of sub-
elds and methodologies under one capacious heading. If nothing else,
the study of capitalism has woven together business history, labor his-
tory, economic history, political economy, and the history of economic
7. Bonnie Martin, Slaverys Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property,
Journal of Southern History 76 (Nov. 2010), 81766, quote on 866. Exemplary
recent work includes Caitlin C. Rosenthal, From Memory to Mastery: Account-
ing for Control in America, 17501880, Enterprise & Society 14 (Dec. 2013),
73248; Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capital-
ism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (Athens, GA, 2012); Michael OMalley,
Face Value: The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America (Chicago,
2012), esp. 4482; Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire
in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA, 2013), esp. 25254. One theoretical
touchstone is Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and
the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC, 2005). For Second Slavery, see Dale
W. Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and World Economy
(Lanham, MD, 2004); Anthony E. Kaye, The Second Slavery: Modernity in the
NineteenthCentury South and the Atlantic World, Journal of Southern History
75 (Aug. 2009), 62750; Daniel Rood, Plantation Technocrats: A Social History
of Knowledge in the Slaveholding Atlantic World, 18301860, PhD diss., Uni-
versity of CaliforniaIrvine, 2010; David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch, The
Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (New
York, 2012), 1963. For an overview of this historiography, see Seth Rockman,
Slavery and Capitalism, Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (Mar. 2012), 5, and
online supplement at http://journalofthecivilwarera.com/forum-the-future-of-civil-
war-era-studies/the-future-of-civil-war-era-studies-slavery-and-capitalism/.
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446 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
thought, and in doing so, has sought to revitalize subelds that (to put it
politely) had fallen out of favor in the profession. Many un-cool topics
tariffs, infrastructure, marine insuranceare now hot. But the redemp-
tion of these subjects is neither a rear-guard action, nor a repudiation of
the last thirty years of social and cultural history. To the contrary, the
history of capitalism has shown such strength precisely for its embrace
of critical theory and the experiences of workers, consumers, and entre-
preneurs removed from the seats of power. For the early republic, just
consider well-received books like Scott Sandages Born Losers: A History
of Failure in America, Stephen Mihms Nation of Counterfeiters: Capi-
talists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, Jane Kamenskys
The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and Americas
First Banking Collapse, and Brian Luskeys On the Make: Clerks and the
Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America. Rosanne Currarino
has recently identied the early republic as the most fertile site of a new
history of cultural economy, by which she means the re-appropriation
of the economic past by scholars willing to interrogate the economic
as a cultural and linguistic construction. Evaluating cultural history more
generally, James W. Cook foregrounds the history of capitalism for its
innovative melding of signs and structures. As if to convey the blend-
ing of disparate methodologies, Cornells Louis Hyman has offered
Foucault and regressions as the ultimate aspiration of the eld.
8
Finally, the history of capitalism fundamentally functions as critique,
but not in ways that align with a single intellectual tradition or school of
political thought. Scholars working in the eld are dubious of the neo-
classical orthodoxies that prevail in Economics departments, especially
presumptions of utility-maximizing humans and self-regulating markets
inexorably moving towards equilibrium. Many of the fundamentals of
8. Rosanne Currarino, Toward a History of Cultural Economy, Journal of
the Civil War Era 2 (Dec. 2012), 56485; James W. Cook, The Kids Are Alright:
On the Turning of Cultural History, American Historical Review 117 (June
2012), 74671; Hyman as quoted in New York Times, Apr. 7, 2013. On cultural
history as a methodology for the economic past, start with the Journal of Cultural
Economy, especially its Fictions of Finance special issue, 6 (2013). See also Per
H. Hansen, Business History: A Cultural and Narrative Approach, Business
History Review 86 (Winter 2012), 693717; and two canonical articles: Timothy
Mitchell, Fixing the Economy, Cultural Studies 12 (Jan. 1998), 82101; and
Susan Buck-Morss, Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display, Critical
Inquiry 21 (Winter 1995), 43467.
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 447
Marxism appear equally teleological, especially a stadial theory of history
that predetermines capitalisms rise and fall. To be sure, a focus on the
commodity and the presumption of a relationship between market,
state, and society betray the elds debt to Marx, but recent scholarship
has shied away from Marxist terminology; half-jokingly, one might call
the eld Marxish since its commitment to that tradition often begins and
ends with the project of demystifying capitalism. At the most basic level,
the elds intervention is to de-naturalize capitalism, to provide the his-
tory of a system that the dominant culture depicts as timeless and irresist-
ible, even in the midst of crisis. Whether they take their cues from David
Harvey, Cedric J. Robinson, or scholars writing under the standard of
subaltern studies, from the photography of Allan Sekula, or from a spell
of post-collegiate employment in management consulting, historians of
capitalism refuse to give markets a trans-historical agency. The mar-
ket is a euphemism for actual economic actors (people) and institutions
(law and culture) that shape how economic power is exerted and experi-
enced. Indeed, state power is never far from the surface, with attention
particularly focused on the role of law in setting the rules under which
economic activity takes place; for that reason, history of capitalism and
political economy often appear as synonymous in calls-for-papers and
job listings.
The history of capitalism might be thought of as comparable to Sci-
ence Studies (or STS), an enterprise that similarly seeks to de-naturalize
processes that appear inevitable under the heading of progress. Both
undertakings interrogate their very subjectsscience, capitalismas con-
tested terrain on which claims to authority and social power are made
and exercised. Presuming nothing to be inevitable, historians of capital-
ism and STS scholars embed what they study in a matrix of social rela-
tions, cultural practices, and institutional arrangements operating under
specic, yet always contingent, historical circumstances. The recent
nancial crisis promoted cross-fertilization between the elds, as scholars
in the sociology, philosophy, and history of science like Donald Mac-
Kenzie and Philip Mirowski have interrogated economics, capitalisms
legitimating discourse, as a form of knowledge production complicit in
creating the phenomena it purports to describe.
9
9. Donald MacKenzie, An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape
Markets (Cambridge, MA, 2006); MacKenzie, Material Markets: How Economic
Agents Are Constructed (New York, 2009); MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia
Siu, eds., Do Economists Shape Markets? On the Performativity of Economics
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448 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
Akin to historians of science who consider patronage, laboratory
space, and the prevailing political climate as essential to new discoveries
in chemistry or physics, historians of capitalism have also been drawn to
questions of infrastructureless in the literal sense of the roads and wires
facilitating commerce and more in the sense of the submerged architec-
turematerial, legal, and ideologicalthat makes a highway system or
telecommunication network plausible in the rst place. Like the popular
David Macaulay books that rip the skin off a skyscraper or the walls
off a castle, the current scholarship presumes that behind something as
simple as a dollar bill or a phone bill theres an entire universe waiting
to be revealed. With an eye toward technology in the broadest sense of
the word, the elds governing questions are more likely How does it
work? than What does it mean?
Other commentators might stress a different set of scholarly moves at
the heart of the new history of capitalism. It is certainly in dialogue with
efforts to revitalize business history and labor history, projects clearly
articulated by the editors of leading journals in both elds. Walter A.
Friedman and Geoffrey Jones re-launched Business History Review in
2010 with a call for ambitious, multidisciplinary work in dialogue with
interlocutors other than the ghost of Alfred Chandler. On the pages of
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Leon Fink con-
nected the robustness of the eld to a newfound willingness to engage
the surrounding political economy of state and business enterprise. It
will not sufce to pin workers struggles on the abstraction of capital-C
Capital, nor on a set of caricatured plutocrats resembling Mr. Burns from
The Simpsons; the best work in the eld understands factory owners,
shop-oor supervisors, and anti-labor politicians as multifaceted actors
operating from complex motives.
10
(Princeton, NJ, 2007); Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste:
How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (New York, 2013); Mirowski,
More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Natures Economics
(New York, 1991). See also Mary S. Morgan, The World in the Model: How Econo-
mists Work and Think (New York, 2012); Trevor Pinch and Richard Swedberg,
eds., Living in a Material World: Economic Sociology Meets Science and Technology
Studies (Cambridge, MA, 2008); Margaret Schabas, The Natural Origins of Eco-
nomics (Chicago, 2005).
10. Walter A. Friedman and Geoffrey Jones, Business History: Time for
Debate, Business History Review 85 (Spring 2011), 18. For a similar exhorta-
tion, see the Forum on Method and Concept in Business History, Enterprise &
Society 14 (Sept. 2013), 435510, especially Christine Meisner Rosen, What Is
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 449
The history of capitalism is also clearly in conversation with the New
Institutional Economics. Both stress the socially constructed constraints
that organize production, distribution, and consumption; but while
economists like Paul A. David or Douglass C. North would credit formal
and informal institutions with reducing transactional uncertainty, histori-
ans of capitalism would implicate law and culture in the unequal pros-
pects and liabilities that disparate actors carry into the marketplace.
11
Finally, capitalisms history is an urgent concern for some legal schol-
ars and political scientists, especially those working under the auspices
of International Political Economy (IPE). Disputing economists claims
that markets summon money into being as an arbitrary marker of value
to facilitate exchange, scholars like Christine Desan argue that currency
is a product of public governance and an expression of political authority
that shapes what is understood as the market in a given society and
how it functions.
12
A decade ago, readers of the Journal of the Early Republic previewed
some features of the history of capitalism in a special issue entitled,
Whither the Early Republic? There, James L. Huston anticipated that
governance and attention to the actual functioning of the marketplace
would increasingly organize scholarship under the capacious label of
political economy.
13
Business History? 47585. For labor history, see Leon Fink, The Great Escape:
How a Field Survived Hard Times, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of
the Americas 8 (Spring 2011), 10915 (quote on 112).
11. Douglass C. North, Institutions, Journal of Economic Perspectives 5
(Winter 1991), 97112; Paul A. David, Why Are Institutions the Carriers of
History?: Path Dependence and the Evolution of Conventions, Organizations,
and Institutions, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics 5 (1994), 20520.
12. Christine Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capi-
talism (New York, forthcoming); Desan, The Market as a Matter of Money:
Denaturalizing Economic Currency in American Constitutional History, Law
and Social Inquiry 30 (Winter 2005), 160; Desan and many others are featured
in Money Matters: The Law, Economics, and Politics of Currency, special issue
of Theoretical Inquiries in Law 11 (Jan. 2010). Historically oriented works in
International Political Economy include Barry Eichengreen, Globalizing Capital:
A History of the International Monetary System (Princeton, NJ, 2008); Mark Blyth,
Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth
Century (New York, 2002).
13. James L. Huston, Economic Landscapes Yet to be Discovered: The Early
Republic and Historians Unsubtle Adoption of Political Economy, Journal of
the Early Republic 24 (Summer 2004), 21931 (quote on 221). For an excellent
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450 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
In the same volume, David Waldstreicher, Amy Dru Stanley,
Stephanie Smallwood, and Walter Johnson planted slavery and its atten-
dant ideology of white supremacy squarely at the heart of early republic
capitalism. But more importantly, their essays developed one of the
watchwords of the new history of capitalism: commodication. As Small-
wood explained, We know a great deal about commodities and their
fetishization, but commodicationthe process by which things are made
into commoditiesremains less rigorously interrogated. Accordingly,
the history of capitalism must dismantle the black box that obscures the
substantial work involved in transforming aspects of the material world
into exchangeable units. Very quickly, commodication directs attention
to the social production of knowledge. Standards for measuring, grading,
and pricing, for example, can never be presupposed, but emerge in con-
tests over authority and expertise, whether regarding the legitimacy of
any quantitative metric or the legitimacy of the technology deployed in
rendering it or representing it. At bottom, commodication is a discur-
sive process in which language and the means of its transmissionthink
of an early modern prices current, the legalistic formality of a contract,
or a written IOU from the governmentdo the epistemological work of
creating goods that can be bought, sold, and consumed. These insights
inform much of the new scholarship and help explain the particular
interest in the account book as a bedrock technology of capitalism and
in money as a semiotic system.
14
testament to political economy, see Richard R. John, guest editor, Ruling Pas-
sions: Political Economy in NineteenthCentury America, Journal of Policy
History 18, no. 1 (2006), 120. See also Nancy Beadie, Education and the Cre-
ation of Capital in the Early American Republic (New York, 2010); Lindsay
Schakenbach, From Discontented Bostonians to Patriotic Industrialists: The
Boston Associates and the Transcontinental Treaty, 17901825, New England
Quarterly 84 (Sept. 2011), 377401; Gautham Rao, The Creation of the Ameri-
can State: Customhouses, Law, and Commerce in the Age of Revolution, PhD
diss., University of Chicago, 2008; Ariel Ron, Developing the Country: Scien-
tic Agriculture and the Roots of the Republican Party, PhD diss., University of
CaliforniaBerkeley, 2012; David H. Schley, Making the Capitalist City: The
B&O Railroad and Urban Space in Baltimore, 18271877, PhD diss., Johns
Hopkins University, 2013; Stephen Chambers, The American State of Cuba:
The Business of Cuba and U.S. Foreign Policy, 17971825, PhD diss., Brown
University, 2013.
14. David Waldstreicher, The Vexed Story of Human Commodication Told
By Benjamin Franklin and Venture Smith, Journal of the Early Republic 24
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 451
Standing alongside commodication in the scholarship is another
processual noun: nancialization. By recovering the vast amount of cul-
tural, legal, and technological work involved in making securities mar-
kets, scholars have rethought the histories of investment, savings, and
risk. Although the term nancialization is often associated with the dom-
inance of the nancial services industry in the late twentieth century,
historians see a transformational moment in Englands early modern
Financial Revolution when sovereign debt proliferated and personal
and commercial credit migrated from ledger books into circulating
nancial instruments that could be assigned, exchanged, repackaged into
investment opportunities for third parties, and ultimately disassociated
from such material referents as a bushel of grain or plot of land; one
scholar has posited credit fetishism as a useful label for this process of
abstraction. The allure of future revenue streams predicated on past acts
of money-lending required new temporal horizons, a new mathematics
for calculating depreciation and probability, and new understandings of
mortality mediated through insurance policies and trusts. The chains
of credit between large investment houses, state-chartered banks, and
(Summer 2004), 26878; Amy Dru Stanley, Wages, Sin, and Slavery: Some
Thoughts on Free Will and Commodity Relations, ibid., 27988; Stephanie
Smallwood, Commodied Freedom: Interrogating the Limits of AntiSlavery
Ideology in the Early Republic, ibid., 28998 (quote on 291); Walter Johnson,
The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question, ibid.,
299308. The word commoditization also appears in the literature, as in Igor
Kopytoff, The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,
in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun
Appadurai (New York, 1986), 6494. On account books, ledgers, and the broader
turn to quantication, see Anthony G. Hopwood and Peter Miller, eds., Account-
ing as Social and Institutional Practice (New York, 1994); Peter Miller, Calculat-
ing Economic Life, Journal of Cultural Economy 1 (2008), 5164; Stephanie
Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Dias-
pora (Cambridge, MA, 2008), 3364; Caitlin Rosenthal, Storybook-Keepers:
Narratives and Numbers in Nineteenth-Century America, Commonplace: The
Interactive Journal of Early American Life 12 (Apr. 2012), http://common-pla-
ce.org/vol-12/no-03/rosenthal/; Jacob Soll, The Reckoning: Financial Accountabil-
ity and the Rise and Fall of Nations (New York, 2014). On money, see Marieke
de Goede, Virtue, Fortune, and Faith: A Genealogy of Finance (Minneapolis, MN,
2005), xxv; Deborah Valenze, The Social Life of Money in the English Past (New
York, 2006); Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in
Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 2008).
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452 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
entrepreneurial borrowers rendered property ownership into a social
ction, one whose imsiness was all too often revealed whenever the
chain broke. This was especially vivid in the nancing of slavery, to
which scholars attribute such macroeconomic crises as the South Sea
Bubble and the Panic of 1837, as well as the personal tragedies of count-
less enslaved families left at the mercy of the auctioneers gavel whenever
a planter went bankrupt. By following the moneywhether to a farmers
mortgage owned by the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company
or to an annuity generating income for a London widow based on a
minute fractional share of a West Indian plantationhistorians of capital-
ism resist investment as a natural economic concept oating above
social relations, cultural production, and political economy. The concept
of nancialization, like that of commodication, attests to the elds abid-
ing interest in de-naturalizing the entire range of goods and services that
might otherwise be presupposed as inherent to the economy. As proc-
esses suggesting the agency of human beings rather than the autonomous
operations of market forces, both terms impel scholars to excavate the
relations of power that underlay what can be bought and sold (and by
whom and on what terms) at a given moment in history.
15
It would be hard to nd a better introduction to the history of capital-
ism than Capitalism Takes Command, edited by Michael Zakim and
15. For the early modern period, see Carl Wennerlind, Casualties of Credit:
The English Financial Revolution, 16201720 (Cambridge MA, 2011), 230 (for
credit fetishism); William Deringer, Calculated Values: The Politics and Episte-
mology of Economic Numbers in Britain, 16881738, PhD diss., Princeton Uni-
versity, 2012; Eli Cook, The Pricing of Everyday Life, Raritan 32 (Winter
2013), 10921. For the nineteenth century, see Tamara Plakins Thornton, A
Great Machine or a Beast of Prey: A Boston Corporation and Its Rural Debtors
in an Age of Capitalist Transformation, Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Winter
2007), 56797; Jessica M. Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and
the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis (New York, 2013); Nicholas
Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation, and British
Society at the End of Slavery (New York, 2010). For the twentieth century, the
term is often associated with Greta R. Krippner, The Financialization of the
American Economy, Socio-Economic Review 3 (May 2005), 173208; Louis
Hyman, Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (Princeton, NJ, 2011);
Gerald Davis, Managed by the Markets: How Finance Re-Shaped America (New
York, 2009). More generally, Aaron Carico and Dara Orenstein, The Fictions of
Finance, Radical History Review 118 (Winter 2014), 313; David Graeber, Debt:
The First 5,000 Years (New York, 2011).
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 453
Gary J. Kornblith. The volume reects the elds multigenerational char-
acter, situating foundational scholars of early republic social history
alongside the mid-career standard-bearers of cultural history, intellectual
history, and political economy. An explicit homage to Siegfried Gie-
dions Mechanization Takes Command and with gestures toward Karl
Polanyis The Great Transformation, the book considers the long nine-
teenth century, attentive to the massive disjunctures of the Civil War
and Reconstruction but not bound by them or indeed, by any other
major milestones in American political history. These essays are consis-
tent with a number of general trends in the eld: resistance to a xed
denition of capitalism, relative indifference to the worlds that were
lost perspectives of an earlier transition literature, attentiveness to
slavery, ambitious blending of methods and subelds, and a preoccupa-
tion with unmasking the hidden operations of commodication and
nancialization. The editors position the volume as a collective attempt
to bring the economy back into American social and cultural history
(7), but the books greater effect is showcasing the value of social and
cultural history for understanding the economic past, especially in
arguing that there was nothing natural, preordained, or predictable
(7) about capitalisms American incarnation. By title, Capitalism Takes
Command indicates that something specic happened over the course of
the nineteenth century, elegantly formulated as capitals transformation
into an ism (1). The logic and law of business spilled over from the
realm of economic exchange to organize society and its politics, everyday
practices, and culturally dominant understandings of self. To explain
how, the editors suggest a new set of questions to guide historical
inquiry: not Who built America? but rather Who sold America?
or perhaps more to the point, Who nanced those sales? (12). The
subsequent essays show the fruitfulness of such an approach, but also
expose the vulnerabilities of a volume lacking any contribution invested
in that once-classic hallmark of the history of capitalism: proletarianiza-
tion.
To be sure, steering clear of factory-based wage labor can also be seen
as one of the books most productive gambits. An earlier scholarship
had timed capitalisms arrival to the moment when industry supplanted
agriculture as the centerpiece of the economy. Capitalism presumptively
came late to the United States as frontier farms lured would-be yeoman
families westward; the land served as an impediment to, if not a bulwark
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454 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
against, capitalism. The essays in Capitalism Take Command argue oth-
erwise, making western landsso readily rendered into securities
capitalisms strength rather than its weakness. This is a move associated
with the New Western History of the 1980s and 1990s, an inuence on
the history of capitalism too rarely acknowledged. Christopher Clark
makes the expropriation of Indian lands foundational to American capi-
talism, as conquered territories became private property that sustained a
credit economy in purchase mortgages for farms and advances on the
crops that would soon follow. Clark does not use the fashionable settler
colonialism to collapse imperialism, capitalism, and white supremacy
into one totalizing force of dispossession; instead he considers an Ameri-
can version of primitive accumulation (36) in which common white
families gained access to private property at the expense of Native people
but soon found that land ownership left them more, not less, vulnerable
to market forces they could not control. Indeed, these settler families
organized politically against the more visible beneciaries of their toil:
eastern nanciers, commodity speculators, and railroad barons. Clark
nds multiple nineteenth-century capitalisms, including an admittedly
ambivalent agrarian one that continued to rely upon family labor and
local networks of exchange. He conveys his own ambivalence about
placing farming families under the rubric of capitalism, even as he
foregrounds the agricultural sector as the driver of nineteenth-century
economic development.
American farms did not merely produce unrivaled amounts of grain
and cotton: They also generated a host of securities that launched the
American nancial services industry. Elizabeth Blackmar begins this
story with the commonplace observation that when someone died,
property changed hands (93). The patriarchal system of inheritance
that had long disciplined sons during a mans life and sustained his
widow upon his death gave way to a new kind of estate administration,
one relying on the intermediation of large corporations to provision sur-
vivors and future generations with revenue from pooled investments.
Probate courts encouraged estate executors to liquidate real and chattel
property and to invest the resulting funds; put differently, sell the farm,
park the money in a trust company, and then collect ones patrimony in
a regularized share of the trusts returns from loaning money at interest
to scores of other families trying to buy a farm. Enterprises like New
York Life Insurance and Trust Company (chartered 1830) endeavored
to protect and grow family wealth, but controversies arose over their turn
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 455
away from mortgages toward more speculative investments like railroad
stocks: Was this a dereliction of duciary responsibility? Or was the
greater dereliction in failing to seize upon lucrative investment op-
portunities? Although courts and legislatures in the 1850s and 1860s
steered investment back toward land, new real-estate trusts funneled fam-
ily wealth into late-nineteenth-century urban development. Downtown
ofce buildings and other commercial properties now generated a stream
of rents for the beneciaries of the deceased, but also for the trusts
own directors, managers, and in some cases, shareholders. Longstanding
practices designed to protect widows and orphans ultimately blurred
family property and corporate property (117), as patriarchal security
and investment securities became irrevocably intertwined.
Jonathan Levy adds a further wrinkle to this story of nancial system-
ization, namely the life insurance policies that purported to protect the
landed independence of farming families. To establish a farm on the
Great Plains in the 1870s and 1880s required substantial capital, and so
settlers took loans to meet the high start-up costs. But because a mort-
gaged farm was not a secure asset to bequeath to ones wife and children,
many men availed themselves of life insurance to provide for dependents
in the case of death or injury. This was more than a hedge, but a
reconceptualization of value in the era of liberal self-ownership: a mort-
gaged farmers human capital was his most valuable asset (5354), not
the land on which he practiced subsistence agriculture. A man might
have difculty owning a farm, but he owned his own life and could sell
it as risk to an insurance rm. Heres where it gets interesting: Where
did those insurance companies park all the premiums that owed east-
ward from western farmers? In debenture bonds that clustered western
farm mortgages into a single investment product backed by real property
(the farms) and insulated against the default of any one particular farmer.
As the mortgage and insurance markets systematized and intersected,
explains Levy, western farmers became both agents and objects of a
newly abstract power (41). The New England Mortgage Security Com-
pany and other rms responsible for these new nancial instruments
held western farmers to a rigid payment schedule, one that generated
substantial stress for working families and a resigned sense that farming
was no different from any other business in its urgent focus on generating
income to meet bills. Levy does not glorify the independence of the
antebellum yeomanry, but over the subsequent decades [l]anded wealth
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456 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
became a dematerialized abstraction and western farmers became cogs
within an increasingly complex nancial system (41).
Convoluted networks of nance had a longer history in the slavehold-
ing South. In 1828, Baring Brothers began marketing the bonds of a
state-chartered Louisiana bank to European investors. Thanks to favor-
able legislation, the banks bonds were guaranteed by Louisianas tax-
payers. Using the money it raised abroad through these bond sales, the
Louisiana bank made loans to local slaveholders, who used the very
slaves they were purchasing with the loans as collateral. In this way,
Louisianas slaves, coerced into producing cotton under a regime of
intensifying violence and readily converted into cash on the auction
block, sustained a trans-Atlantic chain of credit. This process was
repeated numerous times in neighboring states and involved a number
of prominent European banking houses. Foreign capitalnot to mention,
foreign demand for cottonhelped launch an economic boom, but at
immeasurable human costs to enslaved men and women, who endured a
second middle passage to the southwestern frontier, then an intensied
labor regime in the cotton elds, and nally the forced sales accompany-
ing the bust that arrived in 1837. The nancialization of American slav-
ery, argues Edward E. Baptist, . . . turned people into numbers, the
values of their bodies and labor into paper, chopped them, recombined
them by legislative at, carried them in suitcases across the ocean, and
sold them to people on other continentssome of whom undoubtedly
believed that they believed in emancipation (9091). In an essay explic-
itly engaging the 2008 nancial crisis, Baptist recreates an earlier
moment when the collusion of state and nancial elites (7273) low-
ered regulatory checks on the securities market and normalized rampant
speculation. Baptist places slavery at the center of the Panic of 1837, and
reminds readers that the ctions of nance had real consequences of
unimaginable horror in the lives of American slaves. Connecting the
social history of the plantation to trans-Atlantic high nance, Baptists
polemical and unsparing essay is the must-read of the volume.
The volumes other essay on slavery is Amy Dru Stanleys exploration
of slave breeding and free love, two slurs in antebellum political
speech that posited North and South as fundamentally different even as
the national economy of cotton bound them closer together. Sectional
partisans used these loaded terms to articulate the boundaries of the
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 457
market, resisting its intrusion on sacred intimate relations. Forced repro-
duction was a recurring theme in abolitionist exposes of slaverys immo-
rality, contributing to emerging northern understandings of freedom as
predicated on individual choice and self-ownership. Love featured
prominently in this discourse, especially once slaveholders seized on it
to construct their discourse of paternalism and an accompanying critique
of northern society as unnatural in its privileging of consent over obliga-
tion. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, therefore, love became a
potent measure of the opposition between slavery and freedom,
observes Stanley. While proslavery doctrine exalted bondage as love,
abolitionism validated the right of self-owning persons to love freely
(136). Likewise, enslaved men and women constructed their own
notions of freedom around love and the ability to choose marriage part-
ners for themselves. Although the essay disavows the empirical question
of slave breeding as a plantation practice, it conclusively invests slave-
holders in slaves reproduction. Especially in disputes over inheritance,
contract, and debt, masters and would-be masters told of aspiring to
grow slaves, not just crops (137), so long as the word breeding was
never uttered aloud. Such disassociation did crucial work in creating
what might be called the Souths capitalist culture. Abolitionists xation
on breeding set the terms of the Norths engagement with the market,
making it possible to dene freedom as a matter of the heart and not
merely the pocketbook. Yet this too was self-delusion, as northerners
lacked the capacity to see their commercial economy (especially their
textile mills) as remotely connected to the Souths growing population of
slaves.
The cultural history of capitalism revels in such ironies, with Tamara
Plakins Thorntons essay on the aesthetics of commercial infrastructure
a case in point. Thornton follows American tourists to the docks of
London and Liverpool where they encountered massive warehousing
complexes of such scale that only the language of the sublime could
describe them. This was a peculiar aesthetic response, for the sublime
belonged to the natural world and conveyed a kind of pleasurable terror
appropriate to witnessing an erupting volcano from a safe distance. But
a shipping depot? As spectacles of rationalized economic activity
(172), the British docks exuded a transcendent power to summon and
organize the wealth of the world on a scale beyond the comprehension
of any single individual. The docks stood as an aesthetic marker of
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458 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
emerging capitalist values: security, regularity, precision, impersonality
(196), and the kinds of Americans who might travel there and record
their observations were precisely those who might nd pleasure in the
view. In other words, Thornton locates one of capitalisms legitimating
discourses, wherein [s]ailors, laborers, pilferers, and smugglers, storms
and tides, conict and riskall fade before the sublime vision of a perfect
mechanism (198). These erasures situate capitalism outside the realm
of politics, using the association with natures vast power to suggest that
resistance is futile. Although Thornton does not pursue the contempo-
rary analogy, her essay could very well be about twenty-rst-century
container ships: massive, seemingly unmanned, storing vast outpourings
of human labor in bland steel boxes, organizing global supply chains
with a relentless efciency, and also strangely beautiful.
16
If capitalism found legitimacy in a visual aesthetic, those critiquing it
took inspiration from a literary one: melodrama. Jeffrey Sklansky, who
recently published one of the elds most useful historiographical essays
in Modern Intellectual History, here reconstructs the political world of
William Leggett, the 1830s New York City democrat and erce opponent
of state-chartered banks. Before becoming an editor and essayist, Leggett
had begun his career as an actor, which provided him a repertoire of
settings, characters, plots, themes, and standards that enabled him to
nd transcendent signicance in the politics of corporations and cur-
rency (201). Melodrama rose to popularity by virtue of its moral cer-
tainties, and from a young age Leggett saw the world in clear terms of
right versus wrong, good versus evil. Entering journalism in 1829, Leg-
gett became a spokesman for New Yorks workingmen and received (but
declined) the Locofoco nomination for mayor in 1836. The transforma-
tion of the urban economy proved incredibly disruptive for the citys
artisans, but what alarmed Leggett was not the wage system, but rather
the rise of paper money and the marble-columned banks from whence
it owed (200). For Leggett, market relations could serve as a force of
16. The Forgotten Space, directed by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch (2010;
Amsterdam), DVD; Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping,
the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food
on Your Plate (New York, 2013). The parallels between nineteenth-century global
commerce and the current Wal-Mart economy are explored in Nelson Lich-
tenstein, The Return of Merchant Capitalism, International Labor and
Working-Class History 81 (Spring 2012), 827.
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 459
liberation, unless corrupted by private corporations wielding state char-
ters and issuing currency that lacked a basis in reality. Melodramas pref-
erence for transparency lent itself perfectly to attacking paper money as
a kind of misrepresentation, while also dividing the world into honest
laborers and the corrupt bankers who sought to defraud them. Leggett
and other 1830s commentators situated the money question in popu-
lar politics, not some esoteric realm of nancial expertise. Even before
the dire conditions of the Panic of 1837, men like Leggett attributed
economic instability to political misrule, thereby summoning a reassuring
belief that proper representation could reconcile older republican prin-
ciples with new market practices, agrarian democracy with industrial
capitalism (220). Melodrama may have relied on stark dichotomies, but
Sklansky reminds historians that Jacksonian-era political thought could
not be reduced to simple pro-market and anti-market positions.
17
The prototypical gure of capitalisms ambiguous reception was the
urban clerk, a striver with questionable prospects who Michael Zakim
calls a model citizen of market society (224). In a captivating essay,
Zakim places the clerk at the center of an organizational revolution predi-
cated on paperwork. Capitalisms paper technologies of invoices, inven-
tories, and permits turned the ofce into arguably the most important
production site in the industrializing economy (229), for it was here (in
a Foucaultian turn) that clerks invented the the market through their
means of administering it. Zakim is particularly interested in the pro-
duction of capitalist knowledge and the material forms of its organiza-
tion and dissemination, topics that have brought the history of capitalism
into conversation with new scholarship in history of the book and sci-
ence studies. A host of commercial colleges had emerged by the 1860s
to teach young men to handle a ledger, and this capitalist pedagogy
made penmanship into both an industrial technology and a highly
mobile form of property readily purchased on the open market at com-
petitive prices (242). A quick and clear hand was touted as a clerks
best prospect for upward mobility, but in the end, the clerk would never
be more than a hand, a replaceable worker mass producing for an econ-
omy dependent on an exploding amount of information (247). Still, his
particular form of work was indispensible not merely to the rise of the
bureaucratic ofce associated with Max Webers capitalist modernity nor
17. See note 1, above.
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460 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
to our present-day fascination with the knowledge economy, but to a
redenition of industry to mean the making of prots rather than the
making of things (224). For Zakim, capitalism did not cause, but was
the product of a massive epistemological shift, albeit one relying less
upon treatises of political economy and more upon the 1840s equivalent
of Excel for Dummies.
18
The administrative restructuring of rms into multidivisional units to
seize upon the proliferation of commercial information characterized
Gilded Age capitalism, but as Sean Patrick Adams argues, the transfor-
mational moment was a generation earlier during the Civil War era.
Northern states issued corporate charters at an unprecedented pace dur-
ing the war, and while general incorporation laws had become common
over the previous decades, new provisions allowed rms greater auton-
omy to raise capital and particularly to operate in other states. For exam-
ple, Massachusetts chartered seventy mining corporations in 1863 and
1864 to seek coal, copper, and gold in faraway Pennsylvania, Michigan,
and California. States offered corporations greater leeway in the name of
wartime exigencies, but soon came to depend on corporate taxes to meet
wartime expenses. New taxes on corporate income (and not merely xed
property) comprised a growing percentage of state revenue, thus tying
the scal health of states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to the well-
being of their corporations. No rms were more important to this politi-
cal economy than the railroads, which prospered during the war under
18. Miles Ogborn, Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English
East India Company (Chicago, 2007); Adrian Johns, Ink, in Materials and
Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory, ed. Ursula
Klein and E. C. Spary (Chicago, 2009), 10124; Jacob Soll, From Note-Taking
to Data Banks: Personal and Institutional Information Management in Early Mod-
ern Europe, Intellectual History Review 20, no. 3 (2010), 35575; Josh Lauer,
From Rumor to Written Record: Credit Reporting and the Invention of Financial
Identity in Nineteenth-Century America, Technology & Culture 49 (Apr. 2008),
30124; John J. McCusker, The Demise of Distance: The Business Press and
the Origins of the Information Revolution in the Early Modern Atlantic World,
American Historical Review 110 (Apr. 2005), 295321; Ben Kafka, Paperwork:
The State of the Discipline, Book History 12 (2009), 34053; Kafka, The Demon
of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (New York, 2012); Markus Krajew-
ski, Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs, 15481929 (Cambridge, MA,
2011); Christoph Hoffman and Barbara Wittman, Introduction: Knowledge in
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 461
the combined support of government contracts and reduced regulation.
The triumph of corporate interests was, in Adamss estimation, a domi-
nation born of wartime circumstances (276). This future was augured
in West Virginia, a compelling place to see wartime policymakers create a
business-friendly regime from scratch. In its concessions to corporations,
West Virginias constitutional framers typied the broader northern
tendency to construct an institutional framework that would attract
investment from across the nation, maintain strong ties with important
railroads, and abdicate signicant regulatory prerogative in the interests
of keeping their states capital friendly (274). The Civil War was hardly
bad for business (as economic historians had once argued), but effected
an emancipation of an altogether different kind in the Northern states
(251).
There is one outlier in Capitalism Takes Command, an essay that
underscores the different sensibilities of traditional economic historians.
Robert E. Wright gives the corporation an earlier prominence in Ameri-
can capitalism by tracing the growing sums of money that antebellum
rms raised through the sale of securities. Here, high levels of investment
make sense because corporations make sense: They allow for economies
of scale, vertical integration, research and development, reduced produc-
tion costs; and they channel capital to where it could do the most good.
Many Americans, explains Wright, . . . realized that corporations
were engines of economic growth and an arena where the upstart United
States led the world (162). True, the 1830s witnessed the vilication of
the corporation in political discourse, but if enough people had truly
thought corporations evil, the quantity of money invested in them would
have gone down rather than up. Wright fashions an early republic own-
ership society in which American clamored for more corporations in
order to create more investment opportunities. Ownership was
unequalthe rich could of course afford to own more shares and bigger
policies than the poor couldbut it was open to all on equal terms
(161). Like the present-day high school janitor who ranks among the
investor class by virtue of his municipal pension, the early republic
domestic servant whose employer deposited her weekly wages in a
the Making: Drawing and Writing as Research Techniques, Science in Context
26 (June 2013), 20313.
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462 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
mutual savings bank (lest she spend them inappropriately) could already
take pleasure in her indirect corporate stock and bond ownership
(161).
19
The only losers that Wright can identify in this new world of nance
are investors themselves, who sometimes saw potential income from their
investments sapped by agency costs associated with inefcient corpo-
rate governance. Wright has no use for the cultural work necessary to
create a popular culture of investment, taking it instead as a human pro-
clivity simply awaiting an available outlet. Panics and corporate mal-
feasance have no part in the story, for if widows losing their life savings
at the hands of corrupt bank directors mattered in some larger way, then
aggregate rates of investment would have fallenand again, they didnt.
Unique among contributors to the volume, Wright seeks neither to de-
naturalize capitalism, nor to unmask its relations of power.
20
So indifferent is Wright to capitalisms human costs as documented
over generations of social history that the reader becomes nostalgic for
social historys master narrative of struggle and resistance. And thats
when the reader confronts the relative absence of privation in the volume
as a whole. Except for the collateralized slaves of Baptists essay, capital-
ism seems to generate anxiety but not real hardship, a sense of resigna-
tion but not a politics of outrage. This is a capitalism born without blood
19. For a comparable example of the gulf between traditional economic history
and the considerations of power and culture that characterize the history of capi-
talism, see Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis, Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native
Americans and the European Fur Trade (Philadelphia, 2010).
20. On the obstacles to making investment culturally legitimate and politically
viable, see Alex Preda, The Rise of the Popular Investor: Financial Knowledge
and Investing in England and France, 18401880, Sociological Quarterly 42
(Spring 2001), 20532; Bryna Goodman, Things Unheard of East or West:
Colonialism, Nationalism, and Cultural Contamination in Early Chinese
Exchanges, in TwentiethCentury Colonialism and China: Localities, the Every-
day and the World, ed. Bryna Goodman and David S. G. Goodman (New York,
2012), 5777; Peter Knight, Reading the Ticker Tape in the Late Nineteenth-
Century American Market, Journal of Cultural Economy 6 (2013), 4562; Julia
C. Ott, When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors Democracy
(Cambridge MA, 2011); Robert E. Shalhope, The Baltimore Bank Riot: Political
Upheaval in Antebellum Maryland (Urbana, IL, 2009); Courtney Fullilove, The
Price of Bread: The New York City Flour Riot and the Paradox of Capitalist Food
Systems, Radical History Review 118 (Winter 2014), 1541.
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 463
dripping from its gaping maw, a capitalism that oats above the messi-
ness of class conict. In a thoughtful afterword, Jean-Christophe Agnew
identies the tradeoffs involved in building capitalisms history on the
ordinary material practices that habituated Americans to the new sys-
temic rules of capitalism as a market forms of life, and that did so in way
of which most Americans at the time were only dimly and bemusedly
aware (279). The sense of contingency at the heart of the history of
capitalism project can disappear from view if capitalism is effectively a
non-event. And without state violence, the anomie of factory labor, and
the hunger pains of grinding poverty, a capitalism built upon the imper-
ceptible processes of commodication and nancialization is a capitalism
that appears the product of inexorable and irresistible forces; in other
words, it becomes re-mystied, not de-mystied.
21
One remedy, as Agnew notes, would be to introduce more individual
capitalists into the story, specic actors to combat the anonymity that
prevails in the volume. Recent work in the eld has brought an anthro-
pological eye to nineteenth-century elites, situating their nancial strate-
gies in a range of domestic arrangements, intellectual engagements, and
cultural blindspots. Works like Richard Whites Railroaded: The Trans-
continentals and the Making of America are hardly attering portraits of
capitalist heroes, but even the most prudent men of nance like Nathan-
iel Bowditch and Lewis Tappan led lives reecting the central conicts
of nineteenth-century America. Early republic scholars might be sur-
prised to learn that Cornelius Vanderbilts career was far more interesting
in the rst half of the nineteenth century than in the era of the Robber
Barons; born in 1794, the young Vanderbilt was the foremost pilot in
the tri-state area during the War of 1812 and by the 1840s had built
what still functions as the Northeast Corridors transportation network.
John Jacob Astor and the fur trade have received more popular than
scholarly attention, but following eastern capital westward to places like
Astoria would have the further advantage of engaging Native Americans
as participants in the history of capitalism.
22
21. These criticisms are also articulated in Carico and Orenstein, Fictions of
Finance.
22. Barbara M. Tucker and Kenneth H. Tucker, Jr., The Limits of Homo
Economicus: An Appraisal of Early American Entrepreneurship, Journal of the
Early Republic 24 (Summer 2004), 20818; Andrew M. Schocket, Thinking
about Elites in the Early Republic, Journal of the Early Republic 25 (Winter
2005), 54755; Thornton, A Great Machine or a Beast of Prey ; Lauer,
PAGE 463 ................. 18599$ $CH5 07-22-14 10:26:58 PS
464 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
Another remedy, of course, is to pay more attention to labor, whether
in its workbench materiality, its trans-Pacic organization (an important
topic in the global history of unfree labor), or its unwaged performance
in the service of social reproduction. The concept of the Industrial Revo-
lution has largely disappeared from the history of capitalism, but there
remains much to discover by grounding a history of innovation in shop-
oor discoveries and contests over work processes and intellectual
property. As the history of energy regimes is now attracting scholarly
attention, historians might focus on the labor relations structuring the
extraction of petroleum, whale oil, camphene, coal, and guano. The
question of what capitalism did for (or, to) women is a longstanding
subject of inquiry, but scholars continue to nd new insights from wom-
ens participation in the formal and informal sectors of the urban econ-
omy. Indeed, working peoples strategies in the informal sector may
reveal a competing history of nance and speculation. Because the early
republic labor market was so functionally dependent on categories of
social difference, work provides the clearest vantage on capitalisms
investments in patriarchy and white supremacy.
23
From Rumor to Written Record; T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life
of Cornelius Vanderbilt (New York, 2009); James R. Fichter, So Great a Proft:
How the East Indies Trade Transformed AngloAmerican Capitalism (Cambridge,
MA, 2010); Rachel Tamar Van, Free Trade and Family Values: Kinship Networks
and the Culture of Early American Capitalism, PhD diss., Columbia University,
2011; Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Mod-
ern America (New York, 2011); Eric Jay Dolin, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The
Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (New York, 2010); David Igler, The
Great Ocean: Pacic Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (New York,
2013). On the larger relationship of Native Americans to the history of capitalism,
see Alexandra Harmon, Colleen ONeill, and Paul C. Rosier, Interwoven Eco-
nomic Histories: American Indians in a Capitalist America, Journal of American
History 98 (Dec. 2011), 698722. See also Nancy Shoemaker, Mr. Tashtego:
Native American Whalemen in Antebellum New England, Journal of the Early
Republic 33 (Spring 2013), 10932.
23. On workbench mentality, see David Jaffee, A New Nation of Goods: The
Material Culture of Early America (Philadelphia, 2010); Jeff Horn, Leonard N.
Rosenband, and Merritt Roe Smith, eds., Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolu-
tion (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 1718; Fisk, Working Knowledge. On energy
regimes and extraction, see Edward Melillo, The First Green Revolution: Debt
Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 18401930, American
Historical Review 117 (Oct. 2012), 102860; Christopher F. Jones, Routes of
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Rockman, HISTORY OF CAPITALISM 465
Going forward, early republic scholars might nd a productive con-
versation at the intersection of the history of capitalism and the history of
science. Already, there is a developing scholarship on the role of organic
chemistry in commercial farming, the rise of scientic consulting, the
relationship of materials engineering to building standards, and the legal
protection of intellectual property, to name only a few promising avenues
in recent research. The history of capitalism should nd inspiration here,
both as history of science expands to subsume all forms of knowledge
production (including that about the economy) and as the history of
capitalism continues to recognize processes like commodication as epis-
temological. At a moment when more things are for sale than ever
beforethe right to pollute or bandwidth or biocapital, for exam-
pleit seems urgent to develop a longer history of how technologies,
discoveries, and the natural world enter the marketplace. The early
republics ranks of entrepreneurial tinkers, its enthusiasm for useful
knowledge, and its technological utopianism may provide an instructive
origins story for our contemporary cultures valorization of the so-called
STEM elds and their ability to generate jobs and revenue.
24
Power: Energy and Modern America (Cambridge, MA, 2014); Sean Patrick Adams,
Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore,
2014); Jeremy Zallen, American Lucifers: Makers and Masters of the Means of
Light, 17501900, PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014. On Asian labor in
nineteenth-century industries, see Dael A. Norwood, Trading in Liberty: The
Politics of the American China Trade, c.17841862, PhD diss., Princeton Uni-
versity, 2012; Manu Mathew Vimalassery, Skew Tracks: Racial Capitalism and
the Transcontinental Railroad, PhD diss., New York University, 2011. On infor-
mal economies, see Gloria L. Main, Women on the Edge: Life at Street Level
in the Early Republic, Journal of the Early Republic 32 (Fall 2012), 33147
(introduction to a special issue featuring ve articles on women, poverty, and
informal economies); Wendy A. Woloson, In Hock: Pawning in America from
Independence through the Great Depression (Chicago, 2009); Joshua Greenberg,
Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New
York, 18001840 (New York, 2008); Ellen Hartigan-OConnor, The Ties That
Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia, 2009).
24. Emily Pawley, Accounting with the Fields: Chemistry and Value in Nutri-
ment in American Agricultural Improvement, 18351860, Science as Culture 19
(Dec. 2010), 46182; Paul Lucier, The Professional and the Scientist in Nine-
teenthCentury America, Isis 100 (Dec. 2009), 699732; Ann Johnson, Mate-
rial Experiments: Environment and Engineering Institutions in the Early American
Republic, Osiris 24 (2009), 5374; Dan Bouk, The Science of Difference:
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466 JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2014)
The history of capitalism is unquestionably expansive, and it is dif-
cult to say what exactly it excludes. As a Russianist colleague quipped
upon reading a job advertisement for a historian of American capitalism,
This is a tautology, tantamount to a search for an historian of Soviet
socialism! The history of capitalism need not structure a new synthesis
for the entirety of the American past, nor should scholars in other sub-
elds fear its imperial reach. Early republic specialists can remain con-
dent in that eras importance to capitalisms history, even as the newer
scholarship suggests that the chronological frame needs to extend earlier
than the American Revolution and beyond the Civil War. As a provoca-
tion to come at familiar and seemingly timeless phenomena with fresh
eyes, the history of capitalism will not reduce every historical query to a
single one-word answer. Capitalism will not sufce as an explanation
for the Lowell mill girls, speculation in ginseng, savings accounts, or
Unitarianism, but any of these things may help explain capitalism. And
thats the point: Capitalism is proving productive to think with; perhaps
it need not do more. If nothing else, it provides historians the opportu-
nity to reclaim the economic past, a huge swatch of human experience
far too important to leave to the economists.
Developing Tools for Discrimination in the American Life Insurance Industry,
18301930, Enterprise & Society 12 (Dec. 2011), 71731; Alain Pottage, Law
Machines: Scale Models, Forensic Materiality and the Making of Modern Patent
Law, Social Studies of Science 41 (Oct. 2011), 62143; Kara W. Swanson,
Authoring an Invention: Patent Production in the Nineteenth-Century United
States in Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in
Legal and Cultural Perspective, ed. Mario Biagioli, Peter Jaszi, and Martha Wood-
mansee (Chicago, 2011), 4154; Daniel J. Kelves, New Blood, New Fruits: Pro-
tections for Breeders and Originators, 17891930, in ibid., 25367; Rebecca
J. H. Woods, The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British
Empire, 18001900, PhD diss., MIT, 2013; Courtney Fullilove, The Archive
of Useful Knowledge, PhD diss., Columbia University, 2009; Rood, Plantation
Technocrats; David Roth Singerman, Fraud, Suspicion, and Control in the
Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Sugar Trade (paper presented at Beyond Sweetness:
New Histories of Sugar in the Atlantic World conference, John Carter Brown
Library, Providence, RI, Oct. 25, 2013); Jamie L. Pietruska, Propheteering: A
Cultural History of Prediction in the Gilded Age, PhD diss., MIT, 2009; Lukas
Benjamin Rieppel, Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science, PhD diss., Har-
vard University, 2012.
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