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  • Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America
  • Chad Ronnander (bio)
Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America. By Sean Patrick Adams. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 305. Cloth, $45.00.)

Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth is a detailed comparative study of the impact that state-level policies had upon coal production in two of America's coal-richest regions, Virginia and Pennsylvania, from the 1790s through the early 1870s. Some early experts thought that Virginia, where colliers had already begun to tap the ample Richmond bituminous basin, was best situated to become the young nation's leading coal-producing state. But by 1860 Pennsylvanians were raising seventy-eight percent of all U.S. coal, more than thirty times Virginia's production. "No observers of the early nineteenth century," Adams argues, would have predicted this (3).

Adams employs political economy to explain why Pennsylvania's coal producers so thoroughly outdistanced Virginia's. He holds that no geological, hydrographical, or accidental geographical differences between the states mattered nearly as much as the divergent "policy regimes" that the two state legislatures created. "Politics, rather than nature, shaped the evolution of America's mineral fuel economy" (6). That politics can effectively guide economic development is the book's central thesis, and Adams argues that it applies to local as well as state governments.

Adams compares the two states' legislative histories with regard to at least four types of actions that each might plausibly have supported in order to increase their coal trade. These included promoting the consumption of the coal that in-state collieries produced, developing internal improvements necessary to bring the stuff efficiently to market, financing geological surveys and other studies to enhance discovery and exploitation [End Page 657] of coal deposits, and easing the corporate chartering process to maximize the flow of capital toward coal production.

Virginia's antebellum legislature, Adams argues, was less responsive than Pennsylvania's to the demands of colliers. From the 1780s through the Civil War, despite constitutional reforms, eastern Virginians maintained a somewhat greater per-white-man say in their legislature than did western Virginians, as the state's constitution assigned disproportionate power to slave owners and other real estate holders. Thus the legislature favored farmers in general, and slave holders in particular, while other interests took a back seat; bituminous-rich western Virginia suffered.

Virginia's east-west divide, pitting slave-based agriculture against mining, manufacturing, and other interests, is a recurrent theme in Adams's book. Virginia's government, like Pennsylvania's, supported internal improvements, but the resulting network served agriculture better than coal. Virginia, like Pennsylvania, financed a state geological survey that began in the mid-1830s—Virginia's head geologist, William Barton Rogers, was the brother of Pennsylvania's survey leader, Henry Darwin Rogers—but Virginia's survey responded primarily to "the agrarian search for rich deposits of fertilizing minerals, [and so] virtually ignored the mining interest of the state" (140). Virginia's legislature did little to further scientific or technological studies that might have assisted the state's colliers. After 1851, it met only biennially for brief ninety-day sessions, which slowed the corporate chartering process. Smaller firms could apply to the state's circuit courts for general incorporation, but big companies with geographically extensive plans made minimal use of this option.

In Pennsylvania, by contrast, no single interest captured the legislature, so pro-coal legislators could logroll, persuade, and otherwise maneuver (underhandedly, at times) more successfully than their Virginia counterparts. There was plenty of wasted effort in both states, and Pennsylvania colliers did not always get their way, but in the end eastern anthracite producers built a voluminous industry, as western bituminous mine owners did later. The state built useful canals and overland transportation routes, surveyed the state's coal lands and sometimes helped to finance colliers' efforts to promote consumption of their coal. Pennsylvania also created a general corporate chartering system that, despite limitations (bigger firms in both states continued to seek, and receive, special charters), at least allowed certain regions to be developed without excessive legal hassle. [End Page 658]

Adams presents some valuable research...


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