Public Interest, Private Profit: Business, Government, and the Civic Good

AHA Session 22
Business History Conference 1
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Wilson Room C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Richard R. John, Columbia University
Richard R. John, Columbia University

Session Abstract

Business institutions in the United States have long debated among themselves how to play a role in the public life of the nation, and Americans for their part have long disagreed on what role was appropriate for those institutions. In core areas of the economy, including transportation, finance, and communications, Americans sought to create a balance between profit-seeking private ventures and regulated public actors. The debates over such institutions as the railroads, banks, and the post office, have forced Americans to examine carefully their assumptions about how businesses should act in public, the effects of various methods of seeking profit on the community at large, and when the public interest supersedes the profit motive of business enterprises.

The panel will address the interactions and tensions between businesses and communities at several levels of civic life: local, regional, and national. David H. Schley will address perhaps the most important business institution of the nineteenth century—the railroad—and its relationship to the American city. Schley’s paper uses a case study of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to examine the ways in which the “corporate” came to be defined against the “urban” in the 1850s. For Sharon A. Murphy, banks provide key insights into how state governments viewed the businesses of the Early Republic. Challenging a decades-long historiography, Murphy will examine in detail how Americans viewed banks, which at once were institutions chartered by the states to serve the public good and simultaneously the target of vitriolic attacks. No institution, however, came under more attack than one of the earliest and longest lasting national institutions: the Post Office. Joseph M. Adelman highlights a critical moment in the postal system’s history: the 1971 creation of the United States Postal Service, which made the post an independent government agency rather than a federal department. The transition made the postal service into a government-run business asked to turn a profit but encumbered by Congressional oversight.

In combination, these papers examine the sometimes complementary but occasionally tense demands of businesses with a dual mission of public service and profit. In so doing, they seek to open a conversation about how Americans over the past two centuries have navigated the competing interests of business, and politics in the public sphere.

See more of: AHA Sessions