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



Economics of Slavery, Secession, and Union:

Harro Maas, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Amsterdam
Olmsted, De Bow, and the Weight of Evidence

This paper will contrast two modes of observation on the American Slave South: Frederic Law Olmsted's travelogues, republished in 1861 as The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States, and J.D.B. De Bow's Industrial Resources and Statistics of the Southwest (1853).  Olmsted is best known for his designs of Central Park in New York City and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, but his observations on the American Slave South, commenting on its economy, were eagerly read in the North in the run-up to the Civil War.  De Bow's statistical work functioned similarly in the South.  De Bow, born in Charleston in 1820, was an American business journalist and statistician who superintended the American census of 1850.  He is best known for his ardent defense of the secessionist case, the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade, and a protectionist stance on tariffs.  He used statistics as a means to promote the case of the South.  In 1846 he started publishing De Bow's Review on a monthly basis, compiling the work in his three-volume Industrial Resources and Statistics of the Southwest (1853).  He was appointed to a chair in political economy at the new University of Louisiana.  Nowadays it is commonly held that Olmsted's observations were highly partisan.  My question is how we can see partisanship at work in De Bow's uses of statistics.  In contrasting De Bow's use of statistical evidence with Olmsted's travelogues my final purpose is to question the weight of evidence on the American Slave South.

David M. Levy, Professor of Economics, George Mason University;
and Sandra J. Peart, Dean and Professor of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond
British Political Economists and Novels of American Slavery

Characters in 19th century novels of slavery sometimes speak the words of political economists and their critics.  Harriet Beecher Stowe told Richard Whately that the views of one of her slave-owning characters were inspired by her reading of Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley.  Thus, when Whately reviewed Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and discussed the views expressed by the characters, he was responding to the views of two of Britain's leading critics of political economy.  Another of Stowe's inspirations was Harriet Martineau, a renowned commentator on political economy whose visit to the American south yielded her two-volume work, Society in America (1837).  Martineau's documentation of the widespread sexual use of slaves is reflected in the omnipresent threat in Uncle Tom's plot.  With improved technology for searching the 19th century periodical literature, we can better understand the importance of the novelization of economic debates.

Phillip Magness, Academic Program Director, Institute for Humane Studies
The Political Economy of Colonization from Mathew Carey to Abraham Lincoln

In the antebellum United States the policy of colonization, or the attempt to effect the gradual elimination of slavery by coupling it with black resettlement abroad, was a staple subject of moderate antislavery political discussion.  While the historiography of this movement primarily explores its racial connotations, now rightly rejected for their retrograde outlook, colonization also carried far-reaching economic, commercial, and imperial implications, at least in the minds of its advocates.  This paper will explore the intellectual connections between the colonization movement and the broader "American System" of political economy as developed by Mathew Carey.  In the decades before the war Carey's distinct breed of colonization was consciously incorporated by Henry Clay into the American Whig Party's economic doctrine.  Clay in turn provided a formative influence upon Abraham Lincoln's own adoption of a colonizationist position and its coupling with his economic platform, both of which featured prominently in the policies of his presidency.

Money, Banking, and Crises:

James A. Morrison, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College
This Means (Bank) War! Nicholas Biddle, Andrew Jackson, and the Death of the Second Bank of the United States

The infamous Bank War of the 1830s redefined antebellum American political economy.  Andrew Jackson's decision not to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States killed the young country's best hope of developing a robust central bank.  His reinterpretation of the Constitution disclaimed federal banking oversight, devolving regulation onto the states.  And the proliferation of "wildcat" banks changed the complexion—and stability—of the American financial system.  But these consequences could have been averted.  Throughout the War, Jackson pointed the way toward compromise: what he framed as a politically reformed bank that still had most (or all) of the important economic features of the nascent central bank.  Why was Jackson rebuffed?  Previous explanations focus on bank president Nicholas Biddle's political miscalculations.  This paper will reexamine Biddle's economic ideas.  It will investigate the ways in which the ideological chasm could—and could not—have been bridged.

Brian Schoen, Associate Professor of History, Ohio University
The Panic of 1860: The Slave Power, Financial Distress, and the Coming of the Civil War

Even before Lincoln's election, the anticipated political turmoil could be traced through the decline in stocks on the New York Exchange.  Shortly after it, with stock prices and volume trading continuing to decline and the U.S. Treasury heading towards an "exhausted condition," the New York Herald ominously predicted that "if something is not done to quiet the South we shall have a panic" that would make those of 1837 and 1857 look "as mere eddies in the stream."  But how would the South be quieted?  Was peaceable separation the best course?  Would coercion be necessary?  Who was most responsible for the financial panic that had ensued and could the Buchanan administration or Republicans in waiting calm the economic and political storm?  Nationally known political economists like Henry Carey, Samuel Powell, Stephen Colwell, and Thomas Kettell expressed strong opinions on these matters hoping to influence the decisions of policymakers on all sides of the question.  This paper will examine the specific ways in which they attempted to guide public opinion over how to respond to the economic and political crisis at hand during the secessionist winter.

Economics of Land, Science, and Education:

Joseph J. Persky, Professor of Economics, University of Illinois at Chicago
American Political Economy and the Common School Movement: 1820-1850

Classical political economy in Great Britain was broadly supportive of education, but limited its vision of government's role to modest subsidies for charitable schools.  From Smith through J.S. Mill, classical economists insisted that households, where capable, should finance their children's education.  The early classical economists in the United States stuck to much the same policy position.  American classical economists, such as Cooper and Wayland, in addition to supporting free-trade held for a minimum role for the public sector.  While they emphasized the importance of education to the new nation, these early economists argued that the public sector should limit its involvement in education to subsidies for the impoverished.  But a more aggressive democratic claim was being advanced in the American common school movement and its supporters among protectionists.  The early economic tracts of Jennison, Phillips, Colton and Carey envisioned a larger role for government and in particular advocated support for publicly financed common schools.  Perhaps most notable, the leading light of the common school movement, Horace Mann, built a defense for public financing based on a radical theory of property, derived from Puritan economic doctrine.  Mann's broad theory of economic stewardship had little impact on American political economy.  But his practical advocacy of public taxation for public schools very much carried the day.  This position resonated first in the United States as states revoked rate bills in favor of general property taxation, and subsequently back in England as the franchise was extended and as democracy took greater hold.

Ariel Ron, Visiting Research Associate, McNeil Center for Early American Studies
"Scientific Agriculture" and Economic Development in the American School of Political Economy

During the antebellum era, a widespread movement for the "scientific" reform of American agriculture, largely unrecognized by historians, developed in the rural North.  Responding to the challenge of declining soil fertility, worsening pest infestations, and structural shifts in commodity markets, the agricultural reform movement promoted a vision of modern farming driven by science and technology.  Agricultural reformers especially stressed the importance of natural science education and worked to expand the range of technical training at the common school, academy, and college levels, leading at last to the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862.  This paper will explore how the discourse and policy program of agricultural reform, especially its stress on technological mastery of nature, made its way into broader discussions on economic development.  In an era of overwhelming rural majorities, "scientific agriculture" proved fundamental to American conceptions of political economy, a circumstance very much evident in the works of such leading public economic commentators as Henry C. Carey, Horace Greeley, George Perkins Marsh, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Trade Doctrines and Tariff Controversies:

Stephen Meardon, Assistant Professor of Economics, Bowdoin College
Henry C. Carey's "Zone Theory" and American Sectional Conflict

In the spring of 1860, Henry C. Carey, the Philadelphia political economist and apostle of protectionism, offered a revision of his doctrine in hope of saving the union.  For several years, in such writings as The Slave Trade, Domestic and Foreign (1853) and The North and the South (1854), he had argued that reimposition of high protective tariffs promised material prosperity for the free population and gradual emancipation of the slaves.  With secession looming he enlarged the argument.  In a series of letters to the Memphis Daily Enquirer, he explained how the original error of liberal trade beginning in 1833 had interacted with climate and migration to produce economic crises and sectional conflict.  Political economy not only pointed to the right course, it showed why the course was blocked from view.  Prosperity, gradual emancipation, and preservation of the union all depended on the inhabitants of the central "Mineral Zone," from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, first seeing the blockage and then uniting to correct the combined policy errors of the northern "Trading Zone" and the southern "Planting Zone."  Carey's neglected "zone theory" shows the direction and ambitions of an important strain of American political economy in the immediate antebellum period.  It also merits attention as an early example of economic theories of geography and institutions akin to those claiming attention today.

William S. Belko, Associate Professor of History, University of West Florida
"A Tax on the Many, to Enrich a Few": Jacksonian Democracy vs. the Protective Tariff

The Age of Jackson (1815-1850) produced momentous and permanent changes in the United States — politically, constitutionally, socially, economically, demographically, and territorially.  But no transformation altered the American landscape more than the implanting of Jacksonian Democracy.  Dramatic alterations to the American electorate during this era gave rise to white universal manhood suffrage, the rise of the common man, and the maxim that, in Andrew Jackson's words, "the majority shall prevail."  The defining trait of this powerful phenomenon was detestation of the "monied aristocracy," of exclusive privilege, of monopoly.  Scholarship on the trait usually focuses on its reflection in President Jackson's 1832 Bank Veto, which he justified as putting an end to the "prostitution of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many."  But the same justification, and even the same vitriolic language, was also seen in the more extensive debates over the protective tariff.  The tariff debates contributed as much to the development of Jacksonian democracy as the Bank War.  From the Tariff of 1816 to the Tariff of 1846, the last tariff act prior to the Civil War, the anti-tariff, free-trade men employed language akin to that of Jackson's Bank Veto to denounce the protective system, while friends of protection searched for words and ideas to counter the charge.  Jacksonian Democracy thereby produced a distinctly American brand of political economy, one different from British and European writings on the subject, and incited the growth of another in reaction to it.  These were the competing brands of American political economy that, in the decade after the Age of Jackson, were appropriated to debate the causes and solutions for the conflict that finally erupted in Civil War.  This paper studies their roots.

Marc-William Palen, Lecturer in British Imperial History, University of Exeter
Free Trade, Abolitionism, and Moral Economy in Antebellum America

In 2000, economic historian James L. Huston explored the state of the field surrounding abolitionism, political economists, and capitalism.  Since then, a slew of work has focused on the willingness of English free traders to work with the slaveholding South for reciprocal tariffs, that by the mid-1840s the middle-class leaders of England's Anti-Corn-Law League had "subverted anti-slavery's moral authority."  By overlooking the transatlantic spread of Cobdenism—the Victorian belief that free trade would bring world peace—to the United States, these interpretations do not adequately explain why, then, the first American Cobdenites were a regular who's who of radical abolitionists, as were those in England.  Focusing particularly on the literature of the past decade, my paper will examine this long historiographical controversy surrounding capitalism's moral economy by uncovering the transatlantic intersection of Victorian free trade ideology and abolitionism in antebellum America.


  • Patrick Rael, Associate Professor of History, Bowdoin College

  • Jeff Selinger, Assistant Professor of Government, Bowdoin College

Sponsored by the Office of the Dean for Academic Affairs, Economics Department, Africana Studies, Government Department, and History Department.