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  • Commerce
  • Nora Slonimsky

Commerce, Political economy, Trade, Geography, Maps, Technology, Book trade, Yazoo, Cartography, Information, Communication, Speculation, Hamilton, Morse, Copyright

East of the Yazoo River, past the Walnut Hills and limestone deposits, through shoals and bluffs, lay an “advantageous situation for agriculture and commerce,” in the words of Jedidiah Morse.1 This area of present-day Alabama and Mississippi, known in the late eighteenth century as the Georgia western territory, was an intensely contested region in which Indigenous, state, federal, and European powers competed for control, both of the land and of its economic potential. In the 1790s, as the region became enveloped by a debacle of government corruption and land speculation, popularly known as the Yazoo scandal, Morse concluded that the region was a “fit object of public attention.”2 To satisfy that public attention required a special type of printed object, namely, the geography.

As a genre of material text, geographies were more than textbooks documenting the physical features of the Earth. Serving as a bridge among agriculture, manufacturing, and other facets of the newly independent American political economy, geographies discussed trade and were traded, analyzed commerce and cultivated it. Through their depiction and analysis of physical terrain and territorial spaces, the genre explicitly connected how the making and exchange of goods relied on a political and scientific knowledge of nature. The content of geographic texts frequently reinforced this relation, but their material construction also functioned as a powerful tool in the development of local, regional, national, and transnational commerce. Morse’s Description of the Soil, Productions, Commercial, Agricultural and [End Page 628] Local Advantages of the Georgia Western Territory was made to persuade the reader of the value of land from a commercial perspective, as well as to function as an article and product of the book trade.3 The latter is true of many genres in the early national period, but geographies were designed specifically to bridge profit and political agendas. Beyond being themselves objects of trade, geographic texts surveyed areas of the expanding American landscape that served a variety of capitalist interests. A Description, like others within the genre, was not a neutral document of physical terrain but had a tacit economic argument. But because the Yazoo scandal described in A Description was a crisis as much of federal sovereignty as for speculative financial practices, the political and economic arguments presented were thoroughly intertwined.

Commerce was understood in very similar terms to trade in the late eighteenth century. As defined by Noah Webster in 1828, commerce referred to “an interchange or mutual change of goods, wares, productions, or property of any kind, between nations or individuals, either by barter, or by purchase and sale; trade; traffick.”4 Commerce broadly involved the exchange of multiple types of material goods, from textiles to commodities, and as a specific form of commerce, the book trade was a site in which political and economic agendas were transmuted to material texts.5 As John Feather has [End Page 629] argued in “The Commerce of Letters,” “the book trade cannot be studied in isolation.”6 It has to be studied in relationship to other forms of exchange, from labor and human capital to commercial regulation and diplomatic trade negotiations.

Commerce is a keyword relevant to multiple disciplines in scholarship; thus, the interdisciplinary study of early American material texts highlights the intersection of three specific sets of commerce scholars: those who study commerce as wide-reaching practice in the eighteenth century, those who study book history and the book trade, and those who focus on cartography. In The Ties That Buy, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor demonstrated that by “the late eighteenth century, commerce had become a common idiom for understanding all kinds of human interactions.”7 The “language and concepts associated with money, purchasing, and trade”—examples of the multiple mechanisms of commerce in this period—“were serviceable tools for authors of all stripes.”8 For authors of the geographic stripe, the vocabulary of commerce was crucial for understanding the interaction between land and [End Page 630] national formation. As a hybrid of cartographic images and accompanying analysis, geographies were inherently political and economic texts that also drew on history...


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