Greason, Gorman, and Ziobro Explain All of American Economic History

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In some ways, The American Economy sounds like an impossible project—how can a 200-page textbook span the breadth of American economic history? However, authors Walter Greason, William Gorman, and Melissa Ziobro draw on decades of classroom experience to distill economic history to a common conceit—how wealth creation has impacted the life of working-class Americans across space and time. There are three sections to The American Economy: Agriculture, Industry and Services. Each of these sections reflects a distinct time within American history. This structure allows shifts in the overall economic structure to drive a temporal narrative which extends beyond modes of capital reproduction or sites of capital investment. The primary and secondary sources outlined in The American Economy represent economic reproduction as a form of social reproduction. Power dynamics among members of American society are reflected in modes of economic reproduction; political movements are made legible by exploring conflicts between labor and capital. This theoretic frame shrinks the totality of American economic history to a size digestible for both students and teachers. The strength of this project is the synecdoche of its scale: each source creates opportunities to discuss so much more.

The first section, “Agriculture,” strikes a balance between unfree labor and finance capital as economic drivers in the antebellum period. Drew Faust and Calvin Schermerhorn provide secondary sources on the intersection of plantation slavery and the development of American capitalism. This perspective is contrasted with primary sources on early American banking. Benjamin Franklin makes a notable appearance in “The Way to Wealth.” This source helps reveals the contrast between the discourse of free labor and the practice of chattel slavery in the antebellum period. Students can draw their own conclusions as to how colonists reconciled lofty values like thrift, industry, and meritocracy with the glaring intensification of unfree labor regimes. An excerpt from Carl Nightingale covers racial segregation across the globe during the nineteenth century to frame why the egalitarian morality Franklin advised gave way to the rapacious exploitation of plantation labor. These sources show how racial animus operated with labor exploitation to help develop the economic stratification which currently typifies America.

While earlier labor regimes, such as indentured servitude, may have provided clarity on how agriculture develops in the United States, the authors instead include primary sources on the Lowell mills to sharpen the contrast between agricultural labor and early industrial labor. While Eli Whitney and Andrew Carnegie also make an appearance in this section, the most compelling source is an article on the history of the United States debt by Matt Phillips. While his exploration goes beyond the scope of this first section, he argues that the origins of the federal state stem from debt consolidation. Phillips claims that the United States started with the debt-to-GDP ratio at roughly 30% in 1790; however, due to taxes and tariffs, this debt had been virtually paid off prior to the Civil War. In some ways, this argument is the central pivot of the entire section: the central impetus of the federal government had been to raise revenue to make debt payments so, in time of war, that authority could be used to acquire additional debt to defeat whatever enemy—internal or external—the federal state saw fit to destroy.

The cyclical rise and fall of the national debt coincides with the martial ambitions of the federal state; in turn, the second section, “Industry,” centers upon federal efforts to regulate robber barons and suppress labor radicalism. The key primary source in this section, the first annual address President Theodore Roosevelt made before congress, reflects how political leaders came to understand that industry altered power relations between business interests and average citizens. An Atlantic Monthly article on the monopolistic business practices of John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil reveals how corporate exploitation engendered bi-partisan political pushback by the early twentieth century. Federal regulation of corporate interests accelerated during World War I as industrial wartime production led to more than 40 months of sustained economic growth. However, these regulatory advances heightened the impact of state propaganda on working populations—effectively halting labor organizers by deepening relations between private corporations and the federal government. The American Economy also shows how federal regulation under Republican governance help lead to the Great Depression—an event that decimated local rural economies and ensured the prominence of industry over agriculture in America.

The final section, “Services,” is also the shortest. The sources in this section focus on how the Unites States transitions from a net creditor to net borrower in the global economy. However, since the previous sections illuminate how labor organizers are structurally disadvantaged in determining the trajectory of economic development, the collective degradation of labor in the shift to a service economy is explained through globalization and automation more than vindictive political policy. Still, the catastrophic impact of trade agreements like NAFTA are visually mapped out, so federal policies are not left blameless. Instead, the role of international finance in creating economic catastrophe—from the Great Depression to the Great Recession—remains the primary focus of source material. While short, this final section demonstrates what drives the American economy—investment.

The American Economy provides a succinct overview of economic development throughout American history. First, the source material creates opportunities for students to explore how economic development impacts subaltern populations. This perspective engages undergraduate students—the target audience for this book. Additionally, while there is balance between primary and secondary sources, the condensed scope of the text makes written discussion responses feasible for online or hybrid courses (full disclosure: I published a similar text with one of the authors of The American Economy and use it in my courses for this purpose). Additionally, The American Economy can replace more expensive texts on the class syllabi. In conclusion, The American Economy benefits scholars and students seeking sources at the intersection of social and economic development.

Anthony Pratcher II is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Race and Ethnicity at Brown
University. He has a joint appointment at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017 and was awarded a B.A. in History from Howard University in 2010. He teaches broadly on topics within American History and has been published by Southern California Quarterly and Technology and Culture. Currently, he is revising his first manuscript, Desert Dystopia: Settler Colonialism, Sunbelt Capitalism, and the Spatial Formation of Phoenix, Arizona, which explores the development of metropolitan Phoenix in the twentieth century.