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Historians and Economists

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This is a short list of book reviews that I think support an argument that I have been making for a while now about the relationship between economic and historical research.  Oakes, James. "Capitalism and slavery and the civil war." International Labor and Working-Class History 89 (2016): 195 -220. Coclanis, Peter A. "Slavery, Capitalism, and the Problem of Misprision." Journal of American Studies 52, no. 3 (2018). Logan, Trevon D. "The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896. By Richard White. New York, NY: Oxford, 2017. Pp. xx, 94. .00, hardcover." The Journal of Economic History 79, no. 1 (2019): 305-308. Hansen, B.A., 2019. Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age.

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This is a short list of book reviews that I think support an argument that I have been making for a while now about the relationship between economic and historical research. 


Oakes, James. "Capitalism and slavery and the civil war." International Labor and Working-Class History 89 (2016): 195 -220.


Coclanis, Peter A. "Slavery, Capitalism, and the Problem of Misprision." Journal of American Studies 52, no. 3 (2018).


Logan, Trevon D. "The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896. By Richard White. New York, NY: Oxford, 2017. Pp. xx, 94. $35.00, hardcover." The Journal of Economic History 79, no. 1 (2019): 305-308.


Hansen, B.A., 2019. Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age. By Noam Maggor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. ix, 284. $39.95, hardcover. The Journal of Economic History79(1), pp.304-305.


Pseudoerasmus recently brought the Oakes review to may attention and spoke very highly of it. I agree that it is an outstanding review. I also think that together with several recent reviews it supports my argument that critiques of historians of capitalism by economic historians are not based on any fundamental methodological difference between economics and history. Instead, economic historians have largely been criticizing historians of capitalism for their failure to follow traditional standards of historical scholarship in their treatment of both primary and secondary sources. The first two are reviews of works by historians of capitalism by historians, who raise many of the same concerns that economists have. The second two are positive reviews by economists of recent work by historians associated with the history of capitalism.


Oakes reviews


Walter Johnson , River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton KingdomCambridge : Harvard University Press , 2013. 561 pp. $35.00.


Edward E. Baptist , The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism . New York : Basic Books , 2014. 528 pp. $35.00.


Sven Beckert , Empire of Cotton: A Global HistoryNew York : Alfred A. Knopf , 2014. 640 pp. $35.00.


Calvin Schermerhorn , The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860New Haven : Yale University Press , 2015. 352 pp. $65.00.


Coclanis reviews


Sven Beckert and Seth Rothman (eds.), Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Here is Oakes take on Baptist’s claims about the economic impact of slavery.


Baptist's most extravagant and least persuasive claim is that all of the prosperity of the American economy derived from slavery. There's barely a sentence in his book that could justify such a claim, however, and for a very obvious reason: Any study aimed at calculating the impact of slavery for northern economic development would not be a book about slavery at all. It would have to be a book about the North. At the very least, The Half Has Never Been Told would require a second half that examines the process of economic development in the free states and demonstrates precisely when and how that process depended on southern slavery. That will not be easy, at least not based on the extraordinary scholarship of the last generation or two.


Consider the outcome of the debate among scholars that raged through the 1980s over the transformation of the northern countryside. There is now broad agreement that farmers in the northern colonies always produced surpluses for sale although they were careful to limit their market involvement in ways that protected their economic independence. That began to change in the 1790s, when New England farmers found themselves trapped by the competitive demands of a rapidly commercializing agriculture in ways that forced them to steadily increase their productivity. The process spread westward, and the northern countryside was thoroughly transformed by 1845, when wheat farmers began to mechanize production at an astonishing pace.17Northern agricultural productivity skyrocketed even as the rural economy extruded "surplus" population into cities and factories at a rate that outpaced number of immigrants--who were by then streaming into the North by the millions. Those landless workers were attracted by a new form of free labor that had simultaneously developed in the North in the decades following the American Revolution. Apprentice contracts became wage contracts, indentured servitude disappeared, and slavery was abolished. By the 1820s "a day's pay for a day's work" became the norm--and with it a uniquely mobile population of free laborers was created. Within the space of a single lifetime forms of long-term labor subordination that had existed for centuries, even millennia, were dramatically overthrown. "Thus it was not slavery," Gavin Wright has concluded, "but the post-Revolutionary abolitions and the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territory that launched the American economy on its modern trajectory."18Put these two developments together--the transformation of the northern countryside and the rapidly expanding population of highly mobile wage laborers--and the stage was set for the dynamic interaction of the city and the country that so many scholars have seen as the preeminent characteristic of northern economic development.19

None of this appears in Baptist's account. Instead, he disinters an older story that told of industrialization "spiraling outward" from the textile mills of Massachusetts and Rhode Island--a story long ago abandoned by most economic historians. Before we revert to this traditional account, however, Baptist will have to explain where historians like Diane Lindstrom went wrong when they adduced evidence that the southern trade was relatively unimportant to the economic development of the Philadelphia. He would have to explain away the evidence that "metropolitan industrialization" overshadowed New York City's ties to slavery, that economic development bound the city much more closely to the wheat and dairy farmers in the Hudson, Mohawk, and Ohio River valleys--as most scholars now believe. He would have to explain away the extraordinary maps in William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis demonstrating the way railroads spread out from Chicago bringing wheat farmers throughout the Midwest into the city's powerful economic orbit--an orbit that reached back to the east coast and all the way to Europe but that barely touched the slave states. In these accounts the history of the northern economy after 1776 is one of growing independence from slavery, a fact of no small significance for the origins of the Civil War.


 In addition to explaining where generations of scholarship on northern economic development have gone wrong, Baptist would have to tell us where he's getting his numbers. He points out that in 1836 cotton production represented about five percent of the gross domestic product. This is a widely accepted statistic, having been calculated in several different ways by a number of different scholars. But its significance is not self-evident. Is five percent a lot or a little? Instead of addressing that question, however, Baptist quickly moves on to the second- and third-order effects of cotton in the larger economy, and here a number of problems arise. To begin with, second-order effects are notoriously difficult to calculate, and by the time you get to third-order effects, you might as well be floating in the clouds. At the very least, such calculations require extensive justification and analytical precision--none of which Baptist provides. In fact, he provides no sources whatsoever for any of his calculations. From his brief description he seems to be adding the proceeds of wealth transfers--such as the sale of slaves--to the figures for output. Finally, having posited suspiciously large second- and third-order effects, he then adds those effects to the original GDP statistic, and suddenly, without explanation, five percent becomes fifty percent. Obviously if you applied the same technique to every other northern enterprise--the granaries of the Midwest, the printing shops of Manhattan, the iron foundries of Pennsylvania, the small manufacturers of Philadelphia, the meatpackers of Cincinnati, the dairy farmers of the Hudson Valley, the wheat farmers along the Erie Canal--you would end up with five thousand percent of the GDP. If Baptist's numbers were even remotely accurate, the abolition of slavery during the Civil War would have been accompanied by a catastrophic collapse of the northern economy.


Baptist takes his title from Lorenzo Ivy, one of the many elderly ex-slaves interviewed by the WPA in the 1930s. Ivy and his mother were originally owned by a "mean" master who broke up families left and right. Ivy told the interviewer that the only good thing his heartless owner ever did, and did unintentionally, was to sell the boy and his mother to his father's owner. This endless buying and selling of slaves--the coffles of chained human beings who passed by Ivy's Virginia home year after year--is the "half" of slavery's history that Baptist claims has never been told. But Baptist himself doesn't tell the other half of the ex-slave's own story. Ivy described his new master as a good man who kept the slave family together, recognized the boy's talent as a shoemaker, sent him off to Lynchburg to learn the trade, and let Ivy hire himself out. Ivy's mistress taught the boy to read. When the Civil War ended, Ivy was sufficiently literate and skilled to set up his own shoemaking shop and attend Hampton Institute. He was at Hampton when his former master died, and Ivy was upset that he was unable to attend the funeral to pay his respects.20”


This is from near the end of Coclanis’ review

“One assumes that the editors and most of the authors of Slavery’s Capitalism are coming from one or another critical political-economy position, but which one is difficult, if not impossible, to tell.

This would not be the case had the editors and authors engaged more directly with work written before they started scribbling, a point also made by Scott R. Nelson in an important assessment of the NHAC movement. And here I do not just mean theoretical work on the history of capitalism – the huge internal literatures in the Marxist and marxisant traditions, most notably – but the equally large empirical literatures by historians and economists writing about capitalism and slavery within the context of the United States. Since the mid-1950s, “new” economic historians have been wrestling with questions concerned with slavery and capitalism, and the relationship between slavery and capitalism became central to the entire “new” economic history project beginning in the late 1960s and remained so until the early 1990ss. But this seems like ancient history – so yesterday – to many devotees of the NHAC. And American historians, likewise, were wrestling with similar issues at the same time. Not only Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese either, but also their students, as well as dozens of other scholars, who came at such issues from a variety of points of view. Here, we can start with names such as Hal Woodman, Jim Oakes, Allan Kulikoff, Lorena Walsh, John McCusker, Russ Menard, Drew McCoy, Laurence Shore, Barbara Fields, Joseph Reidy, Steven Hahn, Rachel Klein, Joyce Chaplin, Lacy Ford, Robin Blackburn, Shearer Davis Bowman, etc. For my part, I wrote an entire book in 1989 wherein I dealt directly with the relationship between slavery and capitalism, and, in so doing, dealt explicitly with matters regarding the definition of capitalism, among other concerns. Now Beckert for one knows all of this. He has previously acknowledged some of the scholars mentioned above – those operating in what he sees as the political-economy tradition – as “distinguished antecedents.” But in Slavery’s Capitalism such acknowledgment is nowhere to be found, lost perhaps in the frisson of excitement that the NHAC initiative has evoked.


All of which brings me to my final points, involving misrepresentation and scholarly comity. As the paragraphs above suggest, neither Slavery’s Capitalism specifically nor the NHAC more generally accurately captures and conveys economists’ and historians’ engagement with the questions treated in Slavery’s Capitalism and the issues of concern to new historians of American capitalism.”


These are essentially the same claims that economists have made about Baptist’s misuse of both the previous literature and primary sources. Oakes also provides the most critical review of Johnson that I have come across. He is, however, not entirely critical of their work. He finds more to value in Baptist than I do. And although he is very critical, his motivation is not just to tear down (I have to admit that when it comes to Baptist, I personally want to not leave a single brick standing). Oakes and Coclanis, on the other seems to want to push the new historians of capitalism in productive directions. Most importantly they want them to integrate their work with earlier work on capitalism, slavery, and its origins. By the way, here is my review of Slavery's Capitalism


Economists Logan and Hansen, in contrast, provide favorable reviews of more recent work by people associated with the history of capitalism. I’m not sure that Richard White is as strongly associated with the New History of Capitalism as people like Beckert, Baptist, Johnson or Levy, but he could make a reasonable claim to having been at it longer. One of the common features of both books are that, in contrast, some of the work criticized by Coclanis and Oakes, both White and Maggor attempt to integrate the work of people, including economists, who have worked in their field. I had previously noted this in regard to one element of White’s book, the evidence on material well-being in the late nineteenth century. Although I disagreed with his conclusion, my argument was based primarily on very recent research. Some of which probably wasn’t even available at the time he was writing. I believe that White was probably using the estimates that were most widely accepted by economic historians at the time he was writing.


The books by White and Maggor are not economic history as economists typically do it now, but each has something interesting to say. Economists and historians do not have to use the same methods or even ask the same questions. What is essential is that where there is overlap we need to honestly acknowledge and address each other’s work. If a historian is interested investment in the west during the nineteenth century, they should at least note what economists have had to say about interregional capital flows, as Maggor does. Conversely, if an economist is interested in the development of state and local institutions intended to promote or regulate these investments, they should read what Maggor says.


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