Guest Post: Stephen Campbell, “Reimagining the Second Bank of the United States in Early American History”

Stephen W. Campbell earned a doctorate in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2013. A lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Campbell is the author of articles that have appeared in American Nineteenth Century History, Ohio Valley History, Perspectives on History, and History News Network. He has recently completed a book manuscript entitled Banking on the Press: Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America, 1828-1834.

Cadwalder Family Papers, Box 98, Folder 24, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. [Click for full-size]

Unexpected “ah-hah!” moments make long hours of historical research worthwhile. A few months ago I was perusing a letter from an edited volume of Henry Clay’s correspondence when my eyes began to drift over to an adjoining page. A letter, dated August 17, 1830, showed the great senator and orator instructing his Washington agent, Philip Fendall, to send one of his slaves, Lotty, back to Kentucky. Clay wanted Lotty “to have the means to bring herself home…but if she wants money for that purpose I will thank you to apply to Mr. R[ichard] Smith to advance her the necessary sum.” Nothing in the footnotes or index shed light on this enigmatic Smith (an exceedingly common name both then and now), but I had come across this name several times before. This was almost certainly the cashier of the Washington branch of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS), the nation’s de facto central bank. A few weeks later, Clay again penned Fendall: “There are persons frequently bringing slaves from the district [of Columbia] to this State, some of whom might perhaps undertake to conduct [Lotty] to Maysville, Louisville, Lexington, or some other point from which I could receive her.”[1] Continue reading

Slavery’s Capitalism Forum: Introduction

Slavery's CapitalismSlavery’s Capitalism has been a long time coming. The conference from which this book arose was held at Harvard and Brown Universities in spring 2011—years before the New York Times lionised a “new history of capitalism,” co-editor Sven Beckert won the Bancroft Prize for his Empire of Cotton, or fellow co-editor Seth Rockman surveyed the field in the Journal of the Early Republic. The conversations and ideas aired at that conference have been part of public scholarly discussion for the last five years, including many posts here at the Junto. Now we have the book itself, and we want to congratulate the editors and authors for their perseverance! Continue reading

Commodification, Specialization, Mechanization

This post is the second in a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal. Yesterday’s post focused on Beckert’s comments, today’s looks at Rosenthal’s.

IMG_3913The new historians of capitalism have sometimes been criticised for refusing to offer a definition of their object of study. At the OAH panel, Caitlin Rosenthal (an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley) responded to that criticism directly. The refusal to start out with a strict definition has been, on one level, an asset to recent scholarship—freeing it from earlier dogmatic approaches. But the downside, Rosenthal said, is that it leads to misunderstandings among historians, and between historians and economists. Her tentative definition, then: “Capitalism exists where capital (and through capital, power) is consolidated in such a way that labor can be highly commodified.” Capital is at the centre, but so is labour; and what connects them is the process of commodification. Continue reading

Primitive Accumulation as Creative Destruction?

This post is the first part of a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal (Ed Baptist was sadly unable to be there). My first post will focus on Beckert’s comments, my second on Rosenthal’s.

As a protagonist in the debate over slavery and capitalism, Sven Beckert’s principal aim seems to be to show just how crucial violence was to the emergence and success of capitalism. This violence is not something standard, mainstream, or traditional accounts—the kind we see in economics textbooks or breezy historical surveys—are willing to acknowledge. Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom. In this narrative, the nineteenth-century Civil War took on the role of a violent clearing of the decks, eliminating slavery as a remnant of the past, and opening the way for capitalist modernization. Continue reading

Economic Growth and the Historicity of Capitalism

NewYork1One of the central characteristics of the new history of capitalism has been its tendency to defer the question of just what “capitalism” is. The project’s enquiry starts with the question, not with a predetermined answer. But in order to know where to look, historians have to start with some idea about what makes a place and a time capitalist. As Tim Shenk points out in a recent article in The New Republic, the clue around which they converge is economic growth. Continue reading