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The American Economic History Reader: Documents and Readings

Author(s):Malsberger, John W.
Marshall, James N.
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.

Published by EH.NET (December 2008)

John W. Malsberger and James N. Marshall, editors, The American Economic History Reader: Documents and Readings. New York: Routledge, 2008. xiv + 556 pp. $55 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-415-96267-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York College at Oswego.

Malsberger and Marshall, a historian and an economist at Muhlenberg College, have produced a different kind of course book. While supplemental readers of primary documents or recent scholarship are nothing new, this book combines the two and weaves them together with impeccably concise yet informative introductory essays on each topic. Although this book seems designed to be used in conjunction with a standard American economic history textbook, it could conceivably work well as a stand-alone text, especially for more advanced students who do not require a lot of background.

The book appears to have been organized for a one-semester course in American economic history from the colonial period to the present. Altogether, the book consists of 65 primary documents and 33 essays, grouped into 13 chapters, i.e., about one for each full week of the semester. Notably, just over half of the chapters cover post-1900 topics. The chapter topics are as follows: mercantilism and the colonial economy; the economy of the new nation; railroads; slavery; labor in industrializing America; the rise of big business; the New Era of the 1920s; the Great Contraction; the New Deal, World War II, and Keynes; the postwar Keynesian consensus; the collapse of that consensus in 1969-1980; Reaganomics; Clintonomics. (The book also contains Robert Whaples?s 1995 article ?Where Is There Consensus Among American Economic Historians?? as an appendix.) The average chapter is about forty pages long, so depending on one?s students? capacity for assigned reading, the instructor might be better off using the book as a stand-alone text or omitting some of the topics.

Indeed, considering the editorial choices that go into any economic history course, I am guessing the editors would expect and encourage other instructors to omit a topic or two and perhaps supplement the reader with favorite topics and readings of their own. For example, one might want to cover the economics of the Civil War and the Populist movement. Or one might want to spend more time on productivity growth, which receives scant mention here. (Neither the post-World War II productivity boom nor the post-1973 slowdown gets much more than a passing acknowledgment, and productivity does not appear in the book?s index.) The same goes for the great migrations of African-Americans and women into the nonagricultural work force in the twentieth century, and the great waves of immigration in American history. But the editors can hardly be criticized for omitting some vital topics, in view of the space limitations of a one-volume reader and the idiosyncratic nature of these choices.

The primary documents are generally well chosen. They include some familiar ones (such as the U.S. Constitution, Alexander Hamilton?s ?Report on Manufactures? and ?Plan for Supporting Public Credit,? and Ida Tarbell?s Standard Oil history); contemporary articles, including many by famous economists (such as Adam Smith on the colonies, John Maynard Keynes on the Great Depression, and Milton Friedman and Walter Heller on much of the twentieth century); statements by U.S. presidents (from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush); and some obscure gems (such as two reward listings for runaway apprentices in the 1830s, which are oddly similar to reward listings for runaway slaves). Many of these documents have been excerpted for easier reading, and the editors further aid the reader with a half-page introduction to each chapter?s set of documents, providing needed context and explanation. With such a large number of primary documents, virtually all scholars will encounter at least a few that they have not read before.

The book?s greatest strength is probably the historiography it provides, especially as it moves from contemporary accounts in each chapter?s Documents section to classic and more current economic history research in the Essay section. For example, the chapter on the colonial economy includes Smith?s ?Of Colonies? as a Document and then, as Essays, Robert Paul Thomas?s 1965 article on the Navigation Acts and Larry Sawers?s 1992 article on the same. The chapter on railroads, instead of focusing on Robert Fogel and his critics, goes back further, beginning its Essays section with Leland Jenks?s 1944 article ?Railroads as an Economic Force in American Development,? Fogel?s original straw man. The chapter on the Great Contraction includes Irving Fisher?s classic 1933 debt-deflation article as a Document, then moves on in the Essays section to Milton Friedman?s monetarist account and then Christina Romer?s more eclectic account. As with the Documents, the Essays sections all begin with concise half-page introductions that provide a perfect road map for the reader.

The book is not so strong on cosmetics. There are a number of proofreading errors, especially in names (among the misspelled names are Jonathan Hughes and E. Cary Brown). One of the excerpted documents on the Great Contraction includes a passing reference to the untimely death of Governor Strong of the New York Fed, but it appears to have no antecedent in this book, leaving the inexpert reader to wonder who Strong was and what his policies were. Also, considering the large number of primary documents, a bit more attentiveness to dates and timelines would help. Case in point: Thomas Whately?s ?The Regulations Lately Made,? originally published in 1765 as a defense of the Stamp Act. The only date listed for it here is 1775, which may be correct as regards the particular reprint used but which could easily lead students astray if they assume it was written during the Revolution and that England was publicly talking about reviving that long-since-repealed act.

Another cosmetic problem is the less-than-user-friendly layout, a likely result of having to cram almost a hundred documents and essays, plus the editors? introductory essays, into a single volume. Even the paperback edition is heavy, and each page looks like a chore: tall, wide, small-font text, no pictures or graphs. Perhaps the publisher would be willing to try lighter, less dense, and cheaper split editions (say, one for pre-1900 and one for post-1900) in the future?

A cautionary note: Expect the vast majority of college students to struggle with the older primary documents, which reflect a different, more rococo style of writing. A humanities professor (whose students might have been expected to have some exposure to older writings) once tested his students? comprehension of the long opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence and found that it eluded the majority of them.[1] An economics professor (the reviewer) repeated this experiment and found an even larger majority that missed the gist of the sentence. Teachers should anticipate spending a good bit of time walking their students through these primary documents.

With these caveats in mind, the book is a godsend to American economic historians and their students. For the right group of students and the right course, it offers a great way to organize the material. Even for professors who would not assign the book, it is an excellent desk reference and a helpful source of background and color for one?s lectures. As a tool for beginning literature reviews, the book is an outstanding reference. Its strength in historiography makes it a must for virtually any academic library.

Reference: 1. David Mulroy, The War Against Grammar. Portsmouth, NH: CrossCurrents, 2003.

Ranjit S. Dighe is associate professor of economics at the State University of New York College at Oswego. His research interests include wages and Keynesian economics in the Great Depression, monetary populism, and the political economy of Prohibition. He is the author of ?The U.S. Business Press and Prohibition,? Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 22(2): 6-20 (Spring 2008).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII