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Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America

Author(s):Adams, Sean Patrick
Reviewer(s):Bodenhorn, Howard

Published by EH.NET (May 2005)

Sean Patrick Adams, Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xiv + 303 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 8-8018-7968-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard Bodenhorn, Department of Economics, Lafayette College.

In 1800, Virginia’s prospects as an industrial leader looked bright. The Richmond Basin was home to a rich vein of bituminous coal. The coal was close to the surface and close to two major rivers (the James and the Appomattox), making it easily mined and moved. Virginia colliers shipped their coal up and down the eastern seaboard, and enjoyed a first-mover advantage so critical to the success of young industries. Pennsylvania’s eastern coal deposits, on the other hand, were hard-to-burn anthracite that Philadelphians rejected as “stone.” In 1803, Philadelphians used nearly thirty tons of Lehigh Valley anthracite on their sidewalks in lieu of gravel. At the beginning of the century, then, Virginia was positioned to serve as the country’s supplier of coal.

But during the nineteenth century something happened that reversed these two commonwealth’s fortunes. By 1860, Virginia’s former preeminence in coal production had vanished. Once the country’s leading coal producer, in 1860 its colliers accounted for just 2.4 percent of the national total. In 1860, Pennsylvania’s collieries shipped more than 15 million tons, or 78 percent of the nation’s coal output. Moreover, Pennsylvania’s dominance in coal translated into a vibrant, industrializing economy even while Virginia’s stagnated. As Adams notes, the “smoggy cityscapes of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia testified to the value of cheap coal to urban growth and manufacturing” (p. 3).

Adams notes two traditional explanations for this reversal of fortune: slavery and technological change. At this point, the first hardly requires elaboration. The traditional tale is that slavery short-circuited entrepreneurial energies among slaveowners. Few economic historians still subscribe to this hypothesis, but it persists. The second common explanation is technology. Pennsylvania anthracite was initially rejected because Virginia bituminous was easier to burn. Indeed, putting anthracite in a bituminous stove simply snuffed out the fire. But once the technology for anthracite use was understood, rational economic actors clearly preferred anthracite, which burned longer, hotter, and brighter. But neither of these explanations is sufficient. The reversal of fortune was not about the economics of slavery. It was not about the technology. Instead, it was a story about politics and political economy of agriculture versus industry.

Adams’ book, like John Majewski’s A House Dividing and John Wallis’ ongoing state constitutions project, stands at the forefront of modern comparative political economy and deserves the attention of economists and historians alike. Adams’ narrative draws on a wide range of archival and documentary sources, including travelogues, legislative journals and documents, geologic surveys, published speeches and political memoirs, city directories and newspapers, as well as contemporary mining and science journals. It is hard to imagine that any substantive nineteenth-century coal-related document in either the Library of Virginia or the Pennsylvania State Library did not pass under Adams’ thorough gaze.

Adams gathers a massive amount of evidence and then marshals it effectively. Chapter 1, titled “Politics and Geology” presents his basic thesis: Virginia’s eastern landholding elite maintained disproportionate political power and wielded it to the benefit of agriculture. Even when infrastructure was authorized and funded, it failed to serve a wider developmental purpose. The James and Kanawha Canal, for example, was built on the wrong side of the James River to provide cost-effective service to the Chesterfield coal basin. Coal was shipped to market on rudimentary roads and the coal was bounced and broken and lost value.

In the second chapter, Adams shows that Pennsylvania’s active support of economic development stood in marked contrast to Virginia’s. Whereas Virginia’s system preserved the power of eastern landholders, Pennsylvania’s legislature was more open to the struggle between the established east and the developing west and the Pennsylvania legislature was more prepared to accommodate the emerging west.

The third chapter traces the implications of these sectional attitudes as rich coal seams were uncovered in the western sections of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Rich seams of bituminous coal in Virginia’s Kanawha Valley held the potential to serve as the source of backward and forward industrial linkages, but every effort on behalf of western infrastructure development was thwarted by eastern landowners opposed to raising taxes in the east to finance western development. Although it ultimately proved more financial boondoggle than boon, Pennsylvania’s Main Line Canal and its feeder system provided the infrastructure needed to develop the commonwealth’s western coal fields.

Although the first three chapters feel somewhat repetitive, they effectively set the stage for what I consider to be two compelling chapters. In the 1820s and 1830s both commonwealths sponsored massive geologic surveys to locate and report on each state’s natural resources. A greater understanding of the subsoil resources and their whereabouts could not help but attract capitalists eager to profit from these “hidden treasures” (p. 128). In Pennsylvania the survey’s purpose was to find coal, iron ore, and salt. In Virginia, eastern landowners supported the survey to the extent that the surveyors could locate natural fertilizers. As it became clear that the surveyors were as interested in locating and reporting on resources other than fertilizers, political support evaporated. The chapter makes clear that even pure science had to bow to political realities, making these antebellum geologic surveys partly political, partly economic, and only partly scientific.

Chapter Five discusses corporate chartering policy in Virginia and Pennsylvania. As might be expected, the legislative granting of corporate charters generated a great deal of populist hand-wringing about equality of opportunity. Interestingly, Virginia adopted the more liberal policy earlier through its establishment of a general incorporation statute, but it had little positive effect on its coal mining industry. Pennsylvania finally adopted a general incorporation statute in 1854, but its terms were so restrictive that miners still sought specially tailored legislative charters containing more generous terms and conditions.

The final chapter and the epilogue consider three separate paths (Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia). The war brought corporate reorganization and consolidation to Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, even while newly independent West Virginia’s bituminous region lagged behind. In the end, coal did not serve as an engine of growth. It is not clear that it even provided most of the fuel to the engine. Capital flowed into the coal regions in the postbellum era, but coal did not provide large tax revenues to these states, nor did its extraction directly promote the development of ancillary industries. Moreover, the rise of large mining companies and large labor unions created political, social, and economic problems not envisioned even in the 1860s.

I have no serious reservations about Adams’ book and only a few minor quibbles. I had hoped for more explicit economic analysis, but I am not going to condemn an author for not writing the book I would have written. Judged on its own terms, it stands as a piece of solid historical research and should be read by all historians and historical economists interested in the intersection of antebellum economics and politics.

Adams’ book nicely complements John Majewski’s A House Dividing. Before reading Adams, I reread Majewski, which helped me put Adams in a larger context, but one could read Adams without having read Majewski and come away with a fairly good understanding of the political economy of development in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Adams and Majewski have set a high bar for further studies in comparative political economy, and it is my hope that others rise to the challenge. The Economic History Association underwrote three path-breaking studies of early nineteenth-century political economy, each of which considered one state more or less in isolation (Hartz 1948, Heath 1954, Handlin and Handlin 1969). If one study represents an anomaly, a second might represent a trend. If so, we are now into the second generation of historical political economy with Adams’ comparative study. More comparative studies are needed, of course, especially for states other than Pennsylvania and Virginia. Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio all embarked on massive developmental projects in the first half of the nineteenth century and there are certainly some new lessons to be learned from them.


Oscar Handlin and Mary Flug Handlin, Commonwealth: A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1969.

Louis Hartz, Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776-1860. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1948.

Milton Heath, Constructive Liberalism: The Role of the State in Economic Development in Georgia to 1860. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

John Majewski, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

John Wallis. “Constitutions, Corporations, and Corruption: American States and Constitutional Change,” Journal of Economic History (forthcoming).

Howard Bodenhorn is the author of several articles on the political economy of antebellum banking including, “Bank Chartering and Political Corruption in Antebellum New York: Free Banking as Reform.” In Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America’s History, edited by Edward L. Glaeser and Claudia Goldin, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century