Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 318-319
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A House Dividing:
Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War
A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War. By John Majewski (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 240pp. $49.95
Majewski's comparison of internal improvements in Pennsylvania and Virginia addresses a long-standing question, Why did economic development in the northern United States outpace that of the southern United States in the first half of the nineteenth century? In Pennsylvania, Majewski argues, the massing of people in cities generated markets that sustained a systematic network of railroads and canals. Beginning in the 1830s, urban capitalists provided crucial political and financial support for railroad construction. In Virginia, however, slavery inhibited the development of major cities, and, thus, stunted the progress of canal and railroad construction. The basic argument will be familiar to readers of Eugene Genovese's Political Economy of Slavery (New York, 1965), but Majewski's well-designed study offers fresh evidence and new insights. He weaves together documentary and statistical analysis and only rarely succumbs to economists' jargon.
Majewski compares local patterns of internal improvement in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, and Albemarle County, Virginia. The counties are similar enough to make meaningful comparisons, and Majewski's meticulous techniques for determining the patterns of investment and identities of investors prove useful. Before the 1830s, local elites in each county worked in similar ways to sustain projects for internal improvement. They mobilized networks of kinship, friendship, and political patronage to get roads and canals built. Though the direct returns [End Page 318] from "developmental corporations" were never great, local elites invested in them with an eye on the indirect benefits of progress: higher land values, easier access to markets, and prosperity (8).
With the advent of the railroad in the 1830s, the two counties' patterns of internal improvement began to diverge. Albemarle County's principal railroad, the Virginia Central Railroad (vcrr), resembled the developmental corporations that preceded it. Financed by local residents and the state legislature, the vcrr paid minimal dividends to its investors but boosted Charlottesville's fortunes and improved land values along the line. In contrast, the Cumberland Valley railroad (cvrr) won little support from the Pennsylvania's legislature. Instead, Philadelphia capitalists, including the controversial Bank of the United States, invested heavily in the road. In the 1850s, the cvrr rewarded investors with handsome returns on its preferred stock, while strengthening the diverse agricultural economy of Cumberland County.
Despite widespread fears of excessive corporate power, Jacksonians in Pennsylvania and Virginia generally favored commercial expansion. In Pennsylvania, urban capitalists in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh allied with municipal governments to finance an integrated railroad system centered on a trunk line running from east to west. Virginians also expanded their railroads (especially in the 1850s) but without one or two dominant cities that could anchor the system, they spent their energies in fruitless intrastate competition that produced a "haphazard" web of railroads (128). And why didn't Virginia have urban centers comparable to Philadelphia? In his last chapter, Majewski argues that "slavery, plantations, and staple crops all conspired to limit urban development" in Virginia (142).
Majewski's argument rests on the indirect structural effects of slavery for economic development in Virginia. A reader may wonder if the Virginians' commitment to slave labor also had more direct effects on the state's ability to build canals and railroads. Did the overseers of the Virginia Central Railroad face any peculiar difficulties in procuring workers in a slave-labor society? If they employed slaves, did the supervisory requirements of managing slave labor impose any additional obstacles to the work? For all his attention to the dynamics of economic development in slave-labor and free-labor societies, Majewski pays little attention to the free and enslaved workers who actually built the canals and railroads in Pennsylvania and Virginia.