- Irons in the Fire: The Business History of the Tayloe Family and Virginia’s Gentry, 1700–1860
Read through any recent business blog and you’re sure to find the word “entrepreneur” used at least once. Or, thumb through the course offerings of any business school and you’ll find at least one class on some aspect of entrepreneurship. You’ll even find that several business schools have entire programs dedicated to understanding and passing on the skills of the entrepreneur. It’s clear that the concept of entrepreneurship has come into its own. Much of this recent interest in entrepreneurship, of course, comes from the hi-tech industry where new businesses are created on an almost daily basis and huge fortunes have often been made virtually overnight. But, how does this concept apply to the past? Does a concept, initially created in the 1950s to explain the workings of modern capitalist economies, help us understand economic and business activities in the early modern era?
For Laura Croghan Kamoie, the answer is a resounding yes. In Irons in the Fire: The Business History of the Tayloe Family and Virginia’s Gentry, 1700–1860, Kamoie argues that entrepreneurship was not only alive in the eighteenth and early nineteenthcenturies, but that it was central to the business lives of the Virginia and Maryland planter elite. Irons in the Fire follows the Tayloe family fortunes from the early eighteenth century—when John Tayloe founded the dynasty—to 1828, when his grandson John Tayloe III passed the family enterprises [End Page 864] on to his six sons. In the course of these three critical generations, the Tayloes built one of the Chesapeake’s most substantial fortunes not simply by planting, but by engaging in as wide a collection of business enterprises as one could imagine.
As the subtitle suggests, this is a business history and we learn very little about the Tayloes as people. But, as a business history, Irons in the Fire provides us with one of the most detailed accounts of the business practices of southern planters before the Civil War. From the very beginning, John Tayloe had many irons in the fire. He inherited a large plantation and numerous slaves from his father and spent the remainder of his life buying land and slaves to expand his planter base while assembling an impressive collection of nonagri-cultural enterprises that ranged from iron mines and iron works to shipbuilding.
When John Tayloe died in 1741, he left an enormous estate and a business legacy that was the envy of northern Virginia. John Tayloe II took up the mantle of the Tayloe fortune and dedicated his life to building on his father’s substantial legacy. Adjusting to the volatility and downward slide of tobacco prices, John II systematically converted his tobacco acreage to wheat, all the while buying more land and slaves throughout Virginia and Maryland. By the 1760s, John II had multiplied the value of his father’s estate and owned more than five hundred slaves and more than 20,000 of acres of agricultural land spread across the northern Chesapeake. Like his mega-planter neighbors Landon Carter and George Washington, Tayloe diversified his agricultural base, built mills, invested in iron mines, and built blacksmith and clothing shops. The labor for these many enterprises came from Tayloe’s slaves and Kamoie rightfully gives them a central role in the Tayloe story. When he died in 1779, his son, John Tayloe III, continued the family tradition, adding horse-breeding and slave-trading to the family’s business arsenal.
The Tayloe story makes it clear that Virginia planters were entrepreneurs. But, were they entrepreneurs in the sense that we use the word today? Here, I have my doubts. The nonagricultural economy of eighteenth-century Virginia was an enclave economy and much of the Tayloes’ diversification, like that of their planter neighbors, was more a matter of meeting immediate local needs than engaging...