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  • Introduction to Connection, Contingency, and Class in the Early Republic's Economy
  • Cathy Matson (bio)

At the 2005 annual conference of the Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES), entitled "Connection, Contingency, and Class," distinguished scholars brought their formidable intellectual energy to a discussion about economic development during the first two generations of the early republic.1 As conference participants quickly realized, our conceptualizations of the American economy from 1815 to 1850 have shifted considerably in recent years. Current work incorporates a more expansive set of concerns than those investigated by previous generations, including the pace and character of the era's economic change, concerns about unemployment and foreign immigration, the meanings of goods in shops and homes, the volume of ships passing through the nation's harbors, the exchange activities of Native Americans and their relations with the aggressive frontier settlers who had become their neighbors, the networks of rural exchange, the configurations of slave economies, and more. Economic historians have also joined the chorus echoing more broadly throughout the historical profession to reframe familiar narratives and reinterpret familiar evidence by asking new questions, especially under the recent pervasive influence of cultural studies.2 [End Page 515]

The historians whose articles appear in this special issue ask us to consider some venerable, but still vital, questions in light of such reframing and reinterpreting: How did household, farm, and craft production change in the early decades of the nineteenth century? How did Americans reconcile elements of an emergent capitalist system with slavery or the marginality of many free laborers? How did people in local communities understand world markets? How did they understand the value or usefulness of the most mundane objects in their everyday lives? Other equally expansive framing questions have led to stimulating new avenues of inquiry. Did Americans' predictions of abundance, anticipations of manufacturing growth, and hopes for commercial expansion run ahead of their potential to realize them? Were detractors who feared the pace of change and the era's reckless speculation expressing legitimate concerns about the increasingly dire economic condition of numerous Americans, or were they retrograde curmudgeons? What balance existed between the impulses to have "more"—more proprietorships, more real estate development and banking, more market connections—and the advantages of restraining and regulating the opportunities and material benefits in a swiftly changing economy? Who succeeded, who failed, and why? What is success, and what is failure?

Modern scholars risk being blinded by the apparent evidence of the early republic's economic changes. It takes considerable effort, for example, to resist the tendency to look for "transitions" in the early republic's economy, or to organize significant clusters of economic change under the rubric of "revolution"—including those of the consumer, political, transportation, market, and industrial varieties, in roughly that chronological sequence. But, increasingly, such transitions and revolutions seem inadequate for managing the cumbersome, often contradictory, bodies of evidence that freight our stories of the past, and so too do concepts such as authority, national identity, and capitalism. The themes of "connection, contingency, and class" offered conference presenters, commentators, and audience participants the opportunity to reach broadly and creatively across this transformative era, thereby revitalizing research agendas about the early republic.

However we label the early republic's patterns of economic development, [End Page 516] the narratives we construct must be rooted in the particular lives of countless Americans who chose to pursue or avoid one or another economic activity for a host of reasons that sit uneasily with the general trajectories of change historians have proposed. During the conference it became clear that scholarly generalizations about the American economy during this era could not be swiftly and decisively refuted by particularities of historical analysis or the specific ways that our historical subjects operated in their households and shops, pursued opportunities or heeded constraints, or perceived their economic circumstances in relation to the people around them.

Take, for example, our efforts to understand post-Revolutionary recovery from the devastating effects of a long war. Over twenty-five years ago, Claudia Goldin challenged the argument, based on evidence for rapidly expanding re-exports of significant commodities and the flourishing economies of northern port cities, that recovery...


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pp. 515-521
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