In 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. The five panels progressed from broad to narrow, first considering major geographic features such as oceans and coastlines, then specific local contexts, then particular individuals and case studies. Presenters submitted pre-circulated papers that were posted to the conference website. They summarized, elaborated upon, or contextualized their research during their oral presentations.
For me, as a presenter and participant, one of the conference’s most stimulating features was the way in which individual papers spoke to one another within and across panels. For this recap, I’ll discuss just one framework for linking the papers. Broadly speaking, presenters answered the question “What were the ligaments that bound colonial economies?” by emphasizing places, institutions, or people—or some combination of the three.
First, the places. Sheryllynne Haggerty, Nancy Hagedorn, and Emma Hart each suggested the importance of particular places in fostering economic connections. Haggerty’s paper analyzed both broad cultural understandings of the Atlantic Ocean and references to the Atlantic in one Maryland merchant’s letters. Eighteenth-century merchants, Haggerty argued, understood the Atlantic as a “world river,” a channel for transporting goods between one location and another as quickly as possible. Hagedorn used her preliminary GIS findings to suggest that the Philadelphia waterfront was a distinct region that functioned as a “frontier,” while Emma Hart compared marketplaces in Britain and North America.
Other presenters stressed the importance of developing economic institutions. Benjamin Hicklin and Steven Pitt offered complimentary perspectives on credit networks. Hicklin stressed that long credit chains connected British and American merchants who needed credit and payment on different timelines. Pitt demonstrated that these credit chains extended to colonial American port cities such as Boston, where colonial merchants used British credit to employ the tradesmen and labourers who outfitted ships. Hannah Farber turned to the Early Republic, where, using the case study of the close relationship between banks and early marine insurance companies, she suggested that connections between institutions are a key form of economic “ligaments.”
Finally, many papers suggested that individuals forged economic connections by enforcing obligations, providing services, or moving goods. Randi Flaherty, Rob Gamble, and Nancy Christie shifted the audience’s attention away from the affluent merchants who often dominate studies of the eighteenth-century economy. Flaherty contended that ship captains functioned as “middle men” who played key roles in outfitting and overseeing merchant vessels. Gamble and Christie’s papers respectively pointed to the roles of itinerant tradesmen in the provisioning trades and to lower-class Canadian men’s and women’s involvement in cultures of consumption, including as thieves. Other papers stressed women’s extensive involvement in the eighteenth-century economy. I analyzed wives who engaged in credit transactions as their husbands’ agents; Susan Brandt examined female healers involvement in the medical marketplace; Christine Walker stressed free and unfree women’s market activity in eighteenth-century Jamaica.
Of course, the effort to label economic connections as merely place-based or institutional or personal is overly reductive, as several papers reminded us. Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor’s paper, for instance, argued that the auction, an omnipresent eighteenth-century economic institution, and the diverse cast of characters who engaged in it, collectively engaged in the work of assessing price and value. Kate Egner and Simon Finger, meanwhile, highlighted the interplay between individuals and places. For Enger, the shop of eighteenth-century tailor William Carlin, combined with the labor of Carlin himself, fostered an egalitarian culture of consumption in eighteenth-century Alexandria. Finger, meanwhile, highlighted both the importance of rivers as a connective space between sea and shore and the essential contributions of the skilled pilots who helped ships to traverse these dangerous waters.
“Ligaments” was a clear success: each panel was presented to a packed house and ended with many audience members still waiting to ask questions. At the conclusion of the conference, Cathy Matson raised one of these many unanswered questions. Did the presentations, she asked, collectively overemphasize connection and cooperation, downplaying the importance of instability and rupture? How would our understanding of the early modern economy change if we stressed conflict, collapse, and exploitation?
Did you attend “Ligaments: The Everyday Connections of Colonial Economies” or peruse the papers online? What did you take away from the conference, and what questions remain unanswered? Please continue the conversation by sharing your reflections here.