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The American Way: A Geographical History of Crisis and Recovery

Author(s):Earle, Carville
Reviewer(s):Kim, Sukkoo

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Carville Earle, The American Way: A Geographical History of Crisis and Recovery. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. xv + 449 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8476-8712-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sukkoo Kim, Department of Economics, Washington University in St. Louis.

Carville Earle is the Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the historical geography of the United States from the colonial period to the twentieth century.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in geography. In urban and regional economics and its sister field, international trade, the past decade has witnessed an impressive outpouring of new research, both theoretical and empirical. These new developments are surveyed in the forthcoming Handbook of Urban and Regional Economics edited by Vernon Henderson and Jacques Thisse. In economic history, geography has always played a prominent role. However, the subject of historical geography has remained relatively unexplored by economists and economic historians. For the most part, historical geography continues to be dominated by the works of historians and geographers. For Carville Earle, his American Way, together with Donald Meinig’s volumes on The Shaping of America and John Agnew’s The United States in the World Economy, constitutes a renaissance in historical geography.

The American Way is a bold and sweeping work that attempts to provide an intellectual coherence to the patterns of historical geography from the colonial period to modern times. According to Earle, the fundamental pattern of U.S. historical geography is cyclical and alternates between two opposing patterns every half century or so. In the colonial era, periods of spatial expansion, demographic concentration, regional diversification and volatility alternated with the reverse. However, in the post-revolutionary period, the cyclical pattern was recombined to form a new pattern. In this period, the cyclical pattern alternated between spatial expansion, demographic concentration, regional specialization and stability and vice versa. For Earle, the cycles in historical geography are caused by cycles in political ideologies. The cycles of political ideologies originated with the Glorious Revolution in England and were transferred to colonial America. However, in the post-revolutionary period, the English ideologies were recombined in a distinctively American way.

The book is organized in three parts: theoretical foundations (chapters 1-6), colonial foundations (chapters 7-10), and national geographies (chapters 11-12).

In Part I, Earle outlines his theoretical framework for explaining U.S. historical geography. Chapter 1 presents an overview of part I. In chapter 2, Earle argues that every cycle in American history is characterized by a series of phases — of Crisis, Creativity, Conflict, Diffusion, Dissent and Decline. While each cyclical period contains idiosyncratic elements, Earle believes that every cycle is characterized by these phases. Every period begins with a Crisis period of high unemployment, falling prices and profit, rising anxiety, and social malaise. Borrowing from Joseph Schumpeter, out of this destruction comes a period of Creativity where entrepreneurs innovate, individuals revitalize their faith, and politicians debate policy reform. The next phase, the Conflict phase, is brought upon by international war, which is followed by the buoyant phase of diffusion. In this period, the economy experiences sustained recovery, rising prices and profits and prosperity. The diffusion phase is interrupted by a period of Dissent, Decline to be followed once again by a Crisis.

In chapters 3 and 4, we learn that the cycles of history are characterized by alternating political regimes between republicanism and liberalism during the colonial period and republicanism and democracy after the American Revolution. Moreover, these political cycles are associated with geographical reconstructions. In the colonial era, periods of republicanism were associated with spatial expansion, demographic concentration, regional diversification and volatility whereas periods of liberalism were associated with the opposite. However, after the revolution, the liberal and republican ideologies gave rise to a new configuration of policy regimes and geography. The periods of republican ideology are associated with spatial expansion, demographic concentration, regional specialization and regional stability, whereas under the alternative periods of democratic ideology, geography is associated with the opposite pattern. In addition, ideology influences geography through consumer and producer revolutions. Chapter 5 argues that the three consumer revolutions in semidurables, household mechanization, and the electrification of home appliances were caused by republican ideology whereas the three producer revolutions, associated with the factory system, Fordist mass production, and post-flexible production, were caused by the democratic ideology. The spatial enlargement of the United States was also driven by ideology. In chapter 6, Earle argues that the boundary of U.S. political jurisdiction increased during periods of republican ideology; however, during periods of democratic ideology, the regime consolidated its political power within the new territorial domain. In this chapter, Earle also addresses issues raised by the enlargement of territory such as the viability of civil society, the changing anatomy of state policies and geopolitics and the geohistorical dynamics of state development.

Part II presents a narrative history of the colonial period based on Earle’s cyclical theory of history and geography. In chapter 7, Earle points out that due to a variety of reasons such as geopolitics, royal finance and climatic theory, the Anglo-American venture in the New World was decentralized. Chapter 8 argues that the first colonial period between 1640s and 1680s is one of republicanism which originated with Oliver Cromwell in England and was transferred to Virginia. In this period, Virginia was characterized by equality of opportunity and expansion; however, New England remained somewhat of an outlier. As the republican ideology declined, it was replaced by a period of liberalism between the 1680s and the 1730s. In chapter 9, Earle argues that the foundations of liberalism were laid by John Locke. However, Earle argues that liberalism’s theory of liberty, freedom, and government restraint served the interests of English elites, free trade, social stability and political corruption. Liberalism served production. It promoted specialization, slavery and inequality. Lockean liberalism served English Whigs and American elites but their power began to wane in the early eighteenth century. In Chapter 10, the colonial period ends with a return to republicanism. The decline of liberalism begins with the decline of Sir Robert Walpole; neo-republicanism begins with new faith in parliamentary activism. For Earle, the second republican period represents the Golden Age of the colonial economy. Unlike the earlier period of liberalism, republicanism favored consumers and egalitarianism. Mass consumption, stimulative consumer policies, and revolutions in wholesaling and retailing led to the convergence of regional economies.

Part III, the shortest section, examines the national geography which emerged after the American Revolution. Chapter 11 presents a short discussion on the U.S. Constitution. Chapter 12 covers the entire period between the 1870s and 2000. The American Revolution transformed English ideology. In the post-revolutionary period between the 1780s and 1828, the federalists espoused a new republican ideology which combined the spatial expansion and demographic concentration tendencies of the English republican ideology with the regional specialization and stability of English liberalism. Beginning in 1828 to 1877, Andrew Jackson reversed these patterns with a democratic regime. From then on, the two ideologies alternated. The remainder of the chapter presents a variety of data such as settlement expansion, population concentration, spatial concentration/dispersion, regional shares of income, and city systems.

The American Way is a difficult book to digest for an economic historian. In many ways, it defies easy summarization. Despite the core theoretical framework outlined above, most historical episodes are subject to idiosyncratic events that require large sections of historical narrative. While the historical narrative is useful and informative, it often reads as a digression from the main theoretical framework. The American Way defies easy summarization because the book is extremely ambitious. It is a monumental task to explain the historical geography of the U.S. in one monograph. Ultimately, I am not convinced that American historical geography is subject to half-century cyclical cycles which alternate over time. I am also skeptical as to the causal link between political cycles and geographical cycles. However, The American Way is a provocative work that commands our attention. Even if one disagrees with Earle’s cyclical theory of political ideology and geography, The American Way implores us to take the political institutions on geography more seriously.

Sukkoo Kim is Associate Professor of Economics at Washington University in St. Louis and Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled Space and Time: Historical Geography of the United States.

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII