Is the History of Capitalism the History of Everything?

wallstreeteastfromnassaustreetSeth Rockman begins and ends his recent essay on the “new history of capitalism” by describing capitalism as an economic system; but one of the features of the movement he describes is that it rightly treats capitalism as much more than that. As Rockman admits, “it is difficult to say what exactly it excludes.”[1] What’s most provocative and powerful about the new history of capitalism is precisely the fact that it recognizes and tries to historicize the pervasiveness of capitalism as a system that touches every aspect of our lives—everyone’s lives. Capitalism isn’t just in the workplace and the marketplace; as Jeffrey Sklansky has suggested, it’s in our very ways of being, seeing, and believing. But if the history of capitalism is an empire with no borders, just what kind of claims can it be making?[2] Continue reading

Another Kind of Blood: Edward Baptist on America’s Slaver Capitalism

edwardbaptist-thehalfREVIEW: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By Edward E. Baptist. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

The Half Has Never Been Told attempts a difficult feat: to analyze slavery’s place in the history of American capitalism, but also describe it as a lived experience. This is a story about commodities, bonds, and blood.

To join the abstract and the concrete, Edward Baptist relies on extended metaphors. His narrative traces the form of a human body: the ten chapters move from “Feet, 1783-1810” through “Tongues, 1819-1824” to “Arms, 1850-1861.” Overall, the narrative book follows an image, adapted from a Ralph Ellison essay, of “slavery’s giant body,” stretched across the territory of the United States, serving as the stage on which the drama of American history is acted.[1]

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Guest Post: The Decline of Barbers? Or, the Risks and Rewards of Quantitative Analysis

Today’s guest post is authored by Sean Trainor, a historian of the early American republic with an interest in the intersection of labor, popular culture, and the body. He is a PhD candidate in History and Women’s Studies and Pennsylvania State University, where his dissertation examines the history of men’s grooming in the urban United States between the turn of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War.

Trainor_Barber ChartA few weeks ago, I finished compiling a database, long in the works, containing the names and addresses of all of the barbers in the cities of Boston, Cincinnati, and New Orleans between 1800 and 1860. Thrilling, I know, but the project has broader implications for historians interested in the intersection of quantitative and cultural history which, if you’ll bear with a brief exposition, I’ll discuss below.

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The Trouble with Global: Early Thoughts from an Early Americanist

mapofthenewworld-debryThis week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.

Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.

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Wood & Holton on the Constitution

Was the purpose of the constitution to protect democracy from being ruined by the people or to protect commerce from being ruined by democracy? This was one of the questions put to Gordon Wood and Woody Holton in a debate held a few weeks ago at the University of South Carolina. A full video of the event has just been released on YouTube, and is embedded below. For anyone familiar with the work of these two historians, the debate will constitute a useful recap of the distinction between their two interpretations of the origins of the federal constitution. And for others, I hope it might be a kind of teaser for their excellent books! Continue reading

Everyday Connections of Colonial Economies: Conference Recap

PEAES ligaments imageIn our writing and teaching, we often refer broadly to “the early American economy,” suggesting that various systems of production, consumption, and exchange formed a collective whole. But what were connections that bound together this early American economy? Fifteen presenters—and a large and engaged audience—considered this question at the Program in Early American Economy and Society’s annual conference at the Library Company of Philadelphia on October 24th and 25th.

The conference title, “Ligaments,” referenced the connections and linkages that gave shape to the early modern economy. As PEAES director Cathy Matson explained in her introduction, the conference assembled some of the many scholars who are currently examining “ordinary, pragmatic economic connections” and using their investigation of these seemingly mundane topics to shed light on “big ideas” and longstanding questions. Continue reading

“Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies”

American colonists’ protest against the 1773 Tea Act involved more than just the Boston Tea Party; and it was provoked by more than just a tax. What sharpened the edge of colonial frustration was the short shrift given to American business interests in the balancing-act of imperial administration—and the triumph, by contrast, of the East India Company. American merchants and smugglers were the big losers in a larger effort to bail out the struggling corporation. As John Dickinson put it in his second “Letter from the Country,” the British policy aimed “not only to enforce the Revenue Act but to establish a monopoly for the East India Company, who have espoused the cause of the ministry; and hope to repair their broken fortunes by the ruin of American freedom and liberty!”[1] Continue reading