restricted access The Political Economy of Opinion: Public Credit and Concepts of Public Opinion in the Age of Federalism

This essay examines the origins of the concept of public opinion in early national political discourse. It argues that the science of political economy and institutions of public finance made the idea of public opinion “thinkable” in important and distinctive ways. Focusing on controversies over revolutionary war debts and Alexander Hamilton’s system of public finance, I show how “public opinion” passed into the American political lexicon through the medium of economic discourse. In debates over the assumption and funding of public debts, and the chartering of the Bank of the United States, previously vague and unarticulated assumptions about the nature and role of public opinion quickly evolved into explicit and politicized theories of public opinion. In many respects, the partisan conflict of the early 1790s can be understood as a struggle between different “political economies of opinion”: divergent understandings of the relation between value and public opinion, and the management (or manipulation) of both by