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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 183-197



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In Retrospect:
Mccusker and Menard's Economy of British America

Peter A. Coclanis


John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: Institute of Early American History and Culture at the University of North Carolina Press, 1985. xxiv + 485 pp. Tables, figures, illustrations, maps, appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index. Reprinted with supplementary bibliography in 1991. $32.50.

It seems as though I've been engaging John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard's work throughout my life. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly throughout my professional life anyway. While a grad student in American economic history in the '70s and early '80s, they were "da bomb," as ESPN journalist (and UNC-Chapel Hill alum and 2001 commencement speaker) Stuart Scott might say. To push the sports imagery a bit, they seemed like scholarly analogues of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, the famous footballers at Army in the mid '40s, whose nicknames—Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside—could be applied to McCusker and Menard too. During the '70s and early '80s, McCusker, Mr. Outside, was making huge contributions to our knowledge about shipping and trade to and from British America in the early modern period, while Menard, Mr. Inside, was part of the remarkable cohort of scholars recovering and reconstructing the demographic, economic, and social history of the Chesapeake colonies over the course of the same period.

To get back on task: after taking my degree and getting started in the profession, my first published book review was of McCusker and Menard's The Economy of British America. In 1990 I wrote an essay for the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, wherein I attempted to challenge and rework a few of their conclusions about American wealth levels on the eve of the Revolution. McCusker once commented on a paper I presented at an OAH meeting, and I've been on sessions at various conferences and meetings with both McCusker and Menard. When Cathy Matson recently asked me to participate in a retrospective and prospective session focused around The Economy of British America at a conferenceorganized by the Library Company of Philadelphia, it seemed, with all due respect to Yogi Berra, like déjàvu all over again. Or to appropriate a phrase from evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, maybe something like "time's arrow, time's cycle." 1 [End Page 183]

Like every other economic historian working on British America, then, I have often had McCusker and Menard on my mind over the years. M & M. When I told my older son, Angelo, who is fifteen, that I was writing a paper on M & M (Eminem), he thought it was "way cool" that his middle-aged father had suddenly gone hip on him. M & M. As a kid, M & M meant Mantle and Maris, the M & M Boys; during my 20s, 30s, and 40s, M & M meant McCusker and Menard, powerful scholarly sluggers both. M & M. I am a fan of Samuel Beckett, and in working on this paper, I recalled that the narrator in Beckett's novel How It is [Comment c'est] spoke of his "thirst for labials," by which Beckett meant labial consonants, consonants formed with the lips, consonants like, well, m. In the, shall we say, "advanced" view of Beckett critic Alan Astro: "As an object of thirst the m functions not simply as a unit of linguistic meaning but as a substance reminiscent of mother's milk." M. Labial consonants. McCusker & Menard. The Economy of BritishAmerica. Mother's milk. Somehow these are all connected. Somehow. 2

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I was tremendously impressed in the mid-80s when I first read The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. In rereading the book over the years, most recently, a few weeks ago, I am, if anything, even more impressed with McCusker and Menard's monumental—there are those labial consonants again—accomplishment. So why the title of my paper at the conference? Why the use of a device...

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