Modernizing Capitalism in the Antebellum American South
Recently, scholars of the Early American Republic have generated a great deal of excitement by re-conceptualizing the era’s political economy as the “history of capitalism,” an approach that has fruitfully dissected the day-to-day workings of commodification and financialization in early America. A similarly emerging trend in studying the political economy of the Antebellum South has focused on whether the material achievements of historical actors were modern; that is, did the historical actors value using the most up-to-date technologies and methods available to others of their time? Both new scholarships avoid precise definition of what constitutes capitalism or modernity, but instead tend to give priority to how things worked, and why new economic strategies made a difference in history. Likewise, both paradigms avoid questions of whether a society was fully capitalist or fully modern, accepting instead that both processes are uneven, and that behaviors in question can be exhibited fully formed in one locale while simultaneously incomplete elsewhere. Thus the papers in this session propose to descend from the heights of theoretical speculation to explore ground level financial arrangements in the Old South. Stephen Campbell investigates how the Bank of the United States, the country’s hotly debated central bank, by providing financial support for land sales and cotton exports in the South, in effect, also subsidized the proliferation of slavery. Michael Gagnon seeks to understand why Georgia’s legislature eased restrictions on incorporation at a time when corporations often failed to remain under the control of those who first organized them, and when the mere idea of incorporating often aroused popular ire against both the businessmen and the politicians who aided them. Scott Lien will disentangle the story of how the Real Estate Bank of Arkansas became a trust, and how the state’s prolonged battle with that trust discouraged Arkansans from engaging in the further development of capital markets at a crucial turning point in American financial modernization. Together, the papers of this session will help explore the extent to which historians today can weave together overlapping theoretical approaches to uncover how leaders in this slave society understood and responded to the array of problems and possibilities they confronted in the years just before the Civil War.