Location: Bowdoin / Economics / Symposia / American Political Economy, From the Age of Jackson to the Civil War


American Political Economy From the Age of Jackson to the Civil War


A one-and-a-half day symposium at Bowdoin College:
Saturday and Sunday, October 19-20, 2013
Samuel P. Newman

The third of a century before the American Civil War, from the presidential election of 1828 to the attack on Fort Sumter, was a time of extraordinary ferment of economic ideas.  Learned men in government, commerce, publishing, and higher education contributed to the budding science of political economy, confident that its teachings held solutions to the controversies of the age.  They debated the height and structure of tariffs, the rules governing circulation of bank notes, the causes and cures of financial crises, the proper conditions of territorial expansion, and the means and timing of emancipating slave labor. They took Old-World writings by Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus, and David Ricardo as points of departure, and argued how they should be applied, adjusted, or discarded. 

How do their arguments figure in the longer tradition of American political economy?  Were works by the likes of Jacob Cardozo of South Carolina, Thomas Roderick Dew of Virginia, Mathew and Henry C. Carey of Pennsylvania, Calvin Colton of New York, Francis Wayland of Rhode Island, Amasa Walker of Massachusetts, and Samuel P. Newman of Brunswick, Maine, derivative of British and European thought, and ephemeral?  Or were they substantial and enduring?

principlesThe historiography of the Civil War allows a prominent place for ideology among the causes of the conflict, and historians of antebellum America have studied the contributions of political economists to competing ideologies of "free labor" and "states' rights." But historians of economics have been doubtful of the lasting relevance of U.S. economic thinkers of the era.  Their doubts reflect the verdict of Harvard economist Charles Dunbar as early as 1876.  American economic thought of the era was characterized mainly by its "general sterility," said Dunbar, precisely because of its political saliency.  American economists addressed the problems of their moment at the cost of dispensing with any important scientific treatment of their subject.  In such a view these economists' enduring relevance would appear unlikely.

Recent developments in the historiography of economics, and in economics itself, warrant a skeptical reexamination of the "sterility" view.  Historians of economics have become less concerned with studying the texts of analytical precursors of current thinkers and more with studying past economists' treatment of general problems of longstanding interest.  The antebellum U.S. economists' debate about the comparative roles of the federal and state careygovernments, and thereby the greater questions of union or disunion, peace or war, is due another look.  In economics, the growing interest in "institutional" themes, focusing attention on the joint determination of individuals' market behavior and the collective rules that condition or constrain it, has sparked interest in historical antecedents.  They may well be found in antebellum economists like Henry C. Carey, who believed that the interrelationship of individuals and social structures revealed both the cause of sectional antagonism and its cure.  Could the ideas of Carey and his kind resonate for economists in the present?

This one-and-a-half day symposium is a forum for reexamination of American political economy from the Age of Jackson to the Civil War during the war's sesquicentennial.  It brings together historians of economics, scholars of American political development, and historians of antebellum America and the Civil-War era to debate the originality and continuing relevance of a neglected set of American economic thinkers.

-- Stephen Meardon, Assistant Professor of Economics