This interdisciplinary study of American economic thought explains a central aspect of American life from the Revolution to 1900. Until the 1880s, the goal of politics was to preserve what Americans believed was at the heart of their political system, a distribution of wealth that observers incorrectly assumed was remarkably even. Why did nineteenth-century Americans content themselves with political fights when their real concerns were with the economy? Because, Huston explains, “Americans in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth [believed] that economic results were determined by the political system” (xiii). This simple, but heretofore elusive, point brings a whole new perspective to our understanding of the nineteenth century.
Reminding his readers that republicanism depended on “a nearly equal distribution of wealth among the voting citizenry” (xii), Huston maintains that the Revolutionary generation developed a four-part theory of wealth distribution that reflected the peculiar circumstances of Revolutionary America. Its foundation was the belief that wealth would [End Page 538] be distributed equitably when all citizens embraced the labor theory of property/value, which dictated that an individual had an absolute right to value created by his own labor. Threatening an equitable distribution were both the political policies of aristocrats, who appropriated the fruits of others’ labor, and the laws of primogeniture and entail, which transferred estates to future generations. Finally, Americans believed that population growth would eventually result in economic inequality as a shortage of land forced the nation to turn to manufacturing, with its inevitable extremes of rich and poor. This four-part understanding of the nation’s political economy meant that Americans found the roots of economic inequality not in economic systems, but in politics.
Huston argues that this view of wealth distribution remained “nearly unaltered” from 1765, when its four themes were established, to 1880, when the commercial agrarian economy on which they were based disappeared (7). During this “essential era,” Americans explored variations and different possibilities within those themes but held tight to their four basic premises. Discussing economic treatises and political speeches with remarkable clarity and a refreshing touch of humor, Huston explains the connection between political economy and political policies—a connection assumed by nineteenth-century Americans but obscure today. He examines the construction and transatlantic discussion of the Revolutionary thesis of wealth distribution, follows the explication of that thesis through antebellum politics, reveals the weakness of dissenters from the thesis, and explores the effect of the theory on white approaches to slaves and freed people. Believing that political machinations upset a natural economic system, Americans relied on “utter laissez-faire” to achieve an even distribution of wealth.
Huston argues that the death knell for this critical “Age of the Revolution” was not the industrialization and rising market economy of the Jacksonian Era; it was the late nineteenth-century change in the nation’s economic structure. The Revolutionaries’ ideas about wealth distribution depended on a commercial agrarian economy with an expanding land base. When the world of dominant big business overtook the patchwork landscape of many small-scale proprietorships—a change that Huston’s statistics indicate to have occurred in the decade from 1880 to 1890—Americans could no longer ignore vast inequalities in wealth. The labor theory of value/property fell before marginal utility theory that emphasized the relativity of value; the threat of aristocracy paled before the threat of corporations. Coming to terms with this fundamental economic change, Americans discarded laissez-faire and called for intervention in the economy to promote an equitable distribution of wealth.
Inevitably, there are openings to quibble with this book. Its exclusion of popular material leaves it vulnerable to suggestions of an elite bias; its traditional concentration on economic ideas will shock some social historians; its reformulation of republican theory will raise some hackles; its insistence that laissez-faire dominated America until the turn [End Page 539] of the century will surprise students of state governments; its afterword elucidating Huston’s own theory of distribution could lead to a charge that...