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The Price of Progress: Public Services, Taxation, and the American Corporate State, 1877 to 1929

Author(s):Higgens-Evenson, R. Rudy
Reviewer(s):Brownlee, W. Elliot

Published by EH.NET (November 2003)

R. Rudy Higgens-Evenson, The Price of Progress: Public Services, Taxation, and the American Corporate State, 1877 to 1929. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. x + 168 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-7054-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by W. Elliot Brownlee, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

R. Rudy Higgens-Evenson analyzes an important aspect of the history of government between Reconstruction and the New Deal: the delivery and financing of public services by state and local governments. This is well-ploughed terrain, but he surveys it from an unusual perspective: the relationship between public services and the taxation of corporations.

He begins by discussing calls in the 1870s for reform of the property tax, the backbone of state and local finance. He focuses, in particular, on the charges that the property tax did not reach corporate wealth, particularly in the form of stocks and bonds, and proposals for states to replace local taxation of corporations, especially railroads, with special state-level taxes. Pressure to reform increased after 1880, he suggests, as a result of the incremental growth of spending for public schools and insane asylums. In the author’s interpretive model, the driving force in the expansion of state and local government was “activist government” (p. 2).

“Only the deep pockets of the corporations could support the new functions undertaken by state and city governments,” the author claims (p. 9). Pressure to reform public finance by taxing corporations was especially acute in the industrial Northeast. During the 1880s, many states enacted modest, state-level taxes on corporations but provided corporations relief by providing exemptions from local property taxes, which were increasing in cities making new infrastructure investments. Subsequently, state governments raised their corporate taxes to fund new public services and, at the same time, to crack down on “corporate tax-dodging” (p. 48). Corporations, in response, cooperated and tried to guide public policy. The result was the emergence of what he calls the “corporate state.” Higgens-Evenson explains: “Corporation taxes funded new public services in a cooperative arrangement between business and government along the lines laid out by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s” (p. 9).

In contrast, within what the author calls “the Jeffersonian republics of the South, Great Plains, and Far West,” state governments focused more on regulating corporations (primarily the railroads) rather than taxing them. He explains that these states were less industrial and were “guided by political ideas that were more in line with those of Thomas Jefferson.” These states adhered to “local government, property taxation, and minimal state-level services” (p. 10).

Subsequent public investment, particularly on highways, tested the revenue systems of states throughout the nation. Between 1907 and 1929, largely because rising expenditures stressed the property-tax system, the states that Higgens-Evenson describes as the “most progressive” adopted general or corporation income taxes. Almost all states turned as well to gasoline taxes, but the taxes turned out to be most important to the “Jeffersonian republics.” There, the author finds, gasoline taxes allowed some of these states to build roads “without upsetting the older order of property taxation” (p. 91).

Corporation and income taxes, he argues, prompted the creation of the final element in the corporate state. These taxes “brought business officials into government in new roles, formal and informal.” The representatives of corporations promoted the rise of government research bureaus, directed state government reorganizations, and advised on tax administration “The new relationship between business and government, particularly in the states where corporation and income taxes supplied a significant share of revenues, completed their transformation into corporate states” (p. 93).

Much of the story that Higgens-Evenson relates will be familiar to students of the fiscal history of the United States between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Nonetheless, they will find his book interesting and useful. He understands the importance of connecting the history of taxation with the history of public expenditures; he mobilizes some valuable new data on state government expenditures; and he provides important suggestions as to the precise relationship between spending and taxing in some key states.

The author covers a great deal of intellectual ground in this stimulating book. As a consequence of its ambitious scope and relative brevity, he cannot develop some of his key ideas, such as the role of “Hamiltonian” and “Jeffersonian” philosophies. His “brief survey” of the financial systems of the states, he writes, “applies the comparative method to state revenues and expenditures to explore why some states became corporate and some became Jeffersonian” (p. 11). But he never assesses the extent to which ideas either played an autonomous role in the formation of fiscal policy or simply reflected underlying economic structures. A related problem is a rather thin exploration of the sources of “activist government.”

Higgens-Evenson also neglects important topics in the realm of institutional history. For example, he ignores some important administrative problems that shaped the taxation of corporations by states. In his emphasis on the failure of the general property tax to reach “intangible” property like stocks and bonds he neglects what was the biggest problem that state governments had with the tax. This was the control that county governments exercised over property tax assessment. As a consequence of this control, they generally engaged in a competitive under-valuation of assessment that resulted in significant inequities and growing distrust of property taxation. States concluded that they had to develop their own tax base, separate from that of local government. But they then immediately faced other administrative problems. These blocked adoption of either income or sales taxes that were general in scope. It was often for administrative convenience, as well as previous failures to tax corporate wealth, that states turned to, or expanded, taxation of corporate property, franchises, and income.

Also in the institutional realm, the author neglects analysis of corporate goals and strategies. He tends to regard corporations as engaged in the single-minded pursuit of reductions in taxing and spending. Corporations, however, often had strong interest in building public infrastructure and expanding various public services, especially education. Corporations were often willing to accept, and sometimes promoted, higher taxes as an inexpensive alternative to making private investments but reaping little or no return on those investments because of free-riding competitors.

Finally, he might have developed further his suggestions regarding the way in which variations in economic structure (and, in turn, the distribution of political power) across the states and regions produced variations in tax policy. To do so would have required more attention to variations in corporate strategies and structures. For example, an explanation of why Wisconsin and California taxed manufacturing corporations more heavily than did corporation taxes in New York would require paying attention to not only the small size of the manufacturing sector in Wisconsin and California but also the relatively small scale of manufacturing corporations in those two states, and to important disagreements over taxes within the business community (including commercial agriculture).

In sum, Higgens-Evenson’s book is a very welcome addition to scholarship on the history of public finance. Its ambitious reach and interpretive framework may well stimulate much needed research on the political economy of business taxation during the period in which the modern corporation, and perhaps the “corporate state,” emerged.

W. Elliot Brownlee is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara. His latest book is The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), which he co-edited with the late Hugh Davis Graham. Included in the volume is an essay by Brownlee and C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute on Reagan tax policy. Later this year, Cambridge University Press and the Wilson Center Press will publish the second, expanded edition of Brownlee’s Federal Taxation in America: A Short History.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo Leon, 1848-1910

Author(s):Mora-Torres, Juan
Reviewer(s):Baskes, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism,

and Society in Nuevo Leon, 1848-1910. Austin: University of Texas Press,

2001. 384 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-292-75252-0; $23.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-292-75255-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Baskes, Department of History, Ohio Wesleyan

University.

Historians have long noted that Mexico’s extreme regional diversity makes

generalization impossible. Instead historians have stressed the concept of

“many Mexicos,” each with its own peculiar historical development. Juan

Mora-Torres examines one such “Mexico,” the northern region that became the

state of Nuevo Le?n, and particularly Monterrey, its heavily industrialized

capital.

During the colonial period, Nuevo Le?n was a peripheral territory possessing

little in the way of mineral wealth. Consequently, colonial rulers largely

ignored this frontier region, which was settled by poor peasants. These early

colonists lived in landholding communities that were united in their need to

defend themselves against “barbarian tribes.” These colonists were viewed by

rulers in Mexico City as a vital defense against the largely nomadic indigenous

tribes of the frontier. According to Mora-Torres, defense of the frontier

earned the settlers special rights that included exemption from tribute to the

Spanish Crown, and would endow the local population with what the author calls

a “fronterizo identity” that was distinct from that of Central Mexico.

Furthermore, “class and ethnic hierarchies of colonial Mexico were not

reproduced in Nuevo Le?n, a condition that permitted the development of a more

egalitarian society” (p. 16).

Isolated from the seats of power, the fronterizos enjoyed considerable autonomy

and resisted the weak attempts at centralization pursued by Mexico City after

the colony’s independence in 1821. Texan independence followed by the

Mexican-American War, however, had a profound impact on Nuevo Le?n and marked

the transformation of this region from “frontier” to “border.” After 1848 Nuevo

Le?n ceased to be an isolated frontier and became a critical Mexican region

bordering the rapidly developing U.S. economy. “Northern Mexico became a

permanent zone in which the economies and cultures of two nations that were in

many ways worlds apart engaged each other, creating a unique region different

from the interiors of both Mexico and the United States” (p. 9).

End of isolation, however, did not mean that Nuevo Le?n came immediately under

the authority of Mexico City, which still proved unable to exert much influence

in this border region. Instead, the creation of the border provided new

opportunities to Nuevo Le?n’s “increasingly confident merchant class” (p. 36).

In the decades that followed 1848, Monterrey merchants took advantage of their

location to deal in contraband smuggled in from Texas. Merchants on both sides

of the border were all too happy to evade taxes. In fact, Mora-Torres suggests

that a number of the border towns were founded because of the opportunities

afforded by contraband (p. 33). This prosperity also strengthened the local

caudillo (warlord), Santiago Vidaurri, who dominated the Northeast of Mexico

from 1855 to the end of the French occupation. Vidaurri succeeded in curtailing

contraband and reducing violence at the border even while he centralized power

in his own hands. The Nuevo Le?n economy received a real boost with the U.S.

Civil War. Because of the blockade of U.S. southern ports, much of the South’s

cotton exports were diverted to Mexico and exported through Matamoros.

The author details the process by which Mexico’s modernizing dictator, Porfirio

D?az, (1876-1911) finally “eroded the power of Caudillos and forcibly

integrated the periphery into a centralized political system” (p. 6). D?az’s

1885 appointment of Bernardo Reyes as interim Governor of Nuevo Le?n coincided

with the coming of age of Monterrey, “the sultan of the North.” During the

Porfiriato, D?az’s thirty-five-year dictatorship, Monterrey emerged as the

industrial leader of Mexico. Monterrey was blessed with an ideal location, near

to both the United States and important natural resources in bordering states

of Mexico. As Mexico’s capitalist engine of growth, Monterrey attracted

millions of migrants from the nation’s poorer southern states. According to

Mora-Torres, the ability of Mexican laborers to abandon Nuevo Le?n and migrate

to the “other side,” forced northern capitalists to pay higher wages and adopt

more enlightened employment practices than their southern compatriots. “A labor

market emerged in the northern Mexican states, set apart from the rest of

Mexico by free labor” (p. 127). One of the results was greater productivity in

the industrial sector.

In stark contrast to Monterrey’s free labor regime, landowners in rural Nuevo

Le?n continued to depend on coerced labor, most notably debt peonage, as they

were simply unable to afford the high wages. As such, rural labor practices

more closely resembled the notorious conditions on southern haciendas during

the Porfiriato. Interestingly, however, largely absent in Nuevo Le?n was the

seizure of peasants’ lands that so characterized southern Mexico and which

contributed to the agrarian violence after 1910. The arrival of railroads did

not dispossess the peasants of Nuevo Le?n. Population growth within once viable

communities, however, did impoverish them. “Rural society was more or less

egalitarian: the great majority were poor but had land” (p. 106). Not even the

haciendas of Nuevo Leon fared particularly well during this age of export-led

growth. In contrast to the city of Monterrey, the rural economy stagnated.

Historians of Nuevo Le?n have traditionally emphasized the harmony of class

relations in Monterrey’s industrial sector distinguishing it from other regions

of Mexico. They depict the Porfiriato as a time in which Monterrey’s hard

working industrial class earned good wages from fairly enlightened employers.

Mora-Torres rejects this view arguing that Monterrey workers did have

class-consciousness and did challenge their employers on a number of issues,

such as the preferable treatment afforded to foreign workers or attempts to

reduce bonus pay. Despite this argument, Mora-Torres nonetheless portrays

Monterrey industrialists as more paternalistic than their southern counterparts

are traditionally depicted. Whether out of civic pride or economic necessity,

Monterrey businessmen pursued relatively enlightened employment practices.

The final chapter of this book is an interesting examination of Monterrey’s two

largest companies, the Cuauht?moc Brewery and the Compa??a Fundidora de Fierro

y Acero de Monterrey, the first steel mill in Latin America. The histories of

these two industrial giants differ notably. Cuauht?moc Brewery was established

in 1890 with a fairly small initial investment of 125,000 pesos. By the end of

Porfirio D?az’s rule in 1911, the company was worth five to eight million pesos

and had become “a key symbol of Monterrey’s industrial identity” (p. 236). Part

of the Brewery’s success in this highly competitive industry was attributed to

the fact that it vertically integrated glass production and enjoyed good

labor-management relations. While the government provided a favorable business

climate, the Brewery remained independent of the D?az regime. In contrast to

the Brewery’s small initial investment, the Fundidora steel works was founded

in 1900 with a ten million peso investment made jointly by Monterrey and Mexico

City capitalists. The steel industry was identified by D?az and Mexican

nationalists as an example of “progress” and “a symbol of Mexico’s attempts to

liberate itself from foreign domination of the economy” (p. 264). While the

Fundidora employed the most advanced technologies, it was unable to compete

with imported steel due to the high cost of coal and transportation.

Fortunately for investors, “Mexico’s nascent steel industry was too important

for the image-conscious Porfirian politicians to let it collapse” (p. 263-64).

The government kept the company afloat with lucrative concessions to produce

rails for the increasingly nationalized railway. In addition, the government

provided the company with subsidized loans. Unlike the Cuauht?moc Brewery, the

Fundidora became extremely dependent on the central state. While the author

does not emphasize the issue, the case of the steel works provides significant

evidence that runs contrary to the traditional depiction of the D?az

administration’s obsequiousness to foreign capital. Here D?az pursued an

interventionist policy to promote the nation’s perceived economic interests.

Juan Mora-Torres has written a very good book, which brings together a wealth

of detail on northern Mexico’s political and economic history. This work

reminds historians of Mexico that the experiences of its diverse regions

differed greatly. So much of Mexico’s traditional narrative simply does not

apply to the border region of Nuevo L?on, a region that was as deeply

influenced by events in its northern neighbor as those in Mexico City. As such,

this is a book that should interest U.S. historians as well.

Jeremy Baskes is author of Indians, Merchants and Markets: A

Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in

Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 (Stanford University Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Bonds of Enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America’s Railway Age

Author(s):Larson, John Lauritz
Reviewer(s):Churella, Albert J.

Published by EH.Net and H-Business (June 2002)

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John Lauritz Larson, Bonds of Enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America’s Railway Age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001. xxiii + 257 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-87745-764-6.

Reviewed for H-BUSINESS and EH.NET by Albert J. Churella, Social and International Studies Program, Southern Polytechnic State University.

Perhaps no other economic change has so consumed Americans than the emergence of big business in the 19th century. As the invisible hand of the marketplace gave way to the visible hand of management, output rose, prices fell, and the United States became an economic powerhouse. This process also fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between business, businessmen, individual citizens, and their democratic system of governance. Big business concentrated wealth and power, and manipulated the streams of commerce in ways that seemed antithetical to the political rhetoric of Jacksonian Democracy. Technical discussions associated with the management of large, vertically integrated enterprises were thus matched with a passionate debate regarding the equitable relationship between capitalism and democracy. Railroads, the nation’s first big business, were at the center of these debates since they embodied massive concentrations of capital and constituted the lifeblood of many communities. While many scholars have studied parts of the railroad revolution, few have attempted to integrate all of the multifaceted effects of this process.

John Lauritz Larson, an associate professor of history at Purdue University, provides just such an integrated account in Bonds of Enterprise. Larson examines the career of John Murray Forbes (1813-1898), whose life spanned the very different worlds of personal, market capitalism and “visible-hand” big-business management. Like a spider at the center of a web (although Larson would probably eschew such a malevolent analogy) Forbes touched all of the varied aspects of the “railroad question.” As Larson points out, this book is not so much a biography as it is a selective depiction of Forbes’ role in developing the “bonds of enterprise” that linked both cities and competing interest groups to each other. Thomas McCraw used a similar approach in Prophets of Regulation, linking four notable individuals to the regulatory mechanisms that they hoped to create. While Bonds of Enterprise may not garner the same degree of notoriety, it is still a fascinating and important work. While still a young man, John Murray Forbes earned his fortune in the China trade. He relied heavily on the standard pillars of long-distance capitalism in the early 1800s; family connections and trust backed by an impeccable reputation. By the 1840s, Forbes settled into what he believed would be a respectable semi-retirement and he invested heavily in railroad securities.

Perhaps the pivotal moment in Forbes’ career occurred in 1846 when he acquired control of the moribund Michigan Central Railroad, a state-owned project that typified the internal improvement mania that had arisen before the Panic of 1837. Like most such rail and canal projects, the state initially envisioned the Michigan Central to be solely a trunk line designed to encourage general commercial development. Private entrepreneurs would then construct feeders to the mainline, allowing, in a very Jacksonian fashion, all of the common men equal access to the economic potential of the railway.

Forbes increasingly saw the economic function of the railroad in quite a different light. He realized that only a combined branch-and-trunkline railroad could earn a satisfactory profit, and he felt that railroad development should proceed gradually and sequentially, allowing each region of the frontier to develop before proceeding to the next. In the process, the railroad must inevitably change transportation patterns in the region that it served causing some regions-and some individuals-to prosper, and others to fail. Like many 19th century entrepreneurs, Forbes had only the haziest idea of the competitive forces that America’s first big business had unleashed. He was, however, deeply troubled by his role in this process. He had grown up in, and attained wealth by, a system of personal capitalism. He professed a life-long belief in the limitless potential of a virtuous citizen in a democratic society. Yet, like Henry Ford nearly a century later, he helped to bring about massive economic and social transformations that, within his lifetime, helped to shatter the moral principles that he held dear.

Forbes and his associates plunged into the “system-building” phase of railroading during the 1850s. No longer advocating a sequential approach to railroad expansion, Forbes increasingly saw railroads as essential to the economic development of the West. As he pieced together the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy system, Forbes preferred to maintain the fiction of local control as long as possible, relying heavily on home-grown investors and managers. While this method allowed local entrepreneurs to assume many of the risks and enabling the Boston capitalists to expropriate all of the rewards, Larson does not see this as a stain on Forbes’ exemplary business ethics. Nor does he blame Forbes for any of the relatively mild financial machinations associated with the Burlington; these he lays at the feet of James F. Joy and other unscrupulous financiers who abused Forbes’ trust.

As farm prices fell after the Civil War, farmers in Iowa protested rate differentials and other types of “unfair” competition. They believed that a lack of competition had caused these problems, while Forbes and other system-builders increasingly understood that overbuilding and excess competition were to blame. Forbes believed that he was advancing the cause of progress by opening up the West and by increasing the general welfare through his business enterprises. He seemed genuinely astonished that the seemingly ungrateful beneficiaries of his efforts depicted him as a profit-hungry robber baron. Perhaps because Forbes’ “style of business was paternalistic, and his patient efforts to develop the Iowa country had been met with hostility,” (p. 142) he responded with a stubbornness that seemed to veer between puzzlement and outrage. For example, the Burlington deliberately inflamed the passions of westerners by raising long-haul rates to conform to Iowa rate-equalization-legislation. Forbes thought that grandstanding populist politicians like Iowa governor William Larrabee were ignorant of the fundamentals of railroad economics; Larrabee was determined to fight “a war against the arrogance of ‘experts’ who scorned the authority of popular government.” (p. 187) Forbes believed that, in the end, only railroad officials could adequately understand the complexities of rate-making, and could thus capture, or at least reduce, the deleterious effects of state and federal regulation.

Ultimately, Larson’s biographical approach strikes very near his target, but it is not quite a bullseye. The reader is left with a thorough knowledge of Forbes’ career, of the railroads that Forbes controlled, and of the regulatory problems that affected those railroads. Clearly, Forbes brought together many of the disparate threads that connected all of the institutions and all of the historical actors associated with the transformative effects of railroads on American life. But there were also many currents that swirled and eddied far from the gaze of that Boston-based Midwestern railroader. There is no doubt that Forbes was a pioneer; whether or not he was typical is another matter.

Portions of Larson’s analysis seem rather quaint and outdated. Bonds of Enterprise originally appeared in 1984, and has now been reprinted with a short additional introduction and amended bibliography. Still, this book employs scholarship that is nearly two decades old. Scholars such as Gabriel Kolko figure prominently in the original bibliography, even though their findings have been superseded by more balanced research efforts. Larson seems needlessly stereotypical in his descriptions of “the squalid poverty of the Chinese” (p. 11) and “that exquisite pride of Oriental leisure.” (p. 17-18) Nor can we be positive that “Forbes seemed to thrive on tension.” (p. 23) And, it may be giving Forbes too much credit to suggest that, “He generated a model for developing the vast interior of the United States, and he adapted or invented many of those instruments of corporate enterprise with which industrialists and financiers revolutionized American life.” (p. 169)

Larson’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject does not detract from the value of this book, however. On the contrary, Bonds of Enterprise is a beautifully written and superbly organized account of a pivotal time, and a pivotal person, in the history of American business. Historians of the 19th-century railroad industry, of business-government relations, and of entrepreneurship will not discover any startling revelations here. Certainly the work of scholars such as Naomi Lamoreaux and Colleen Dunlavy has done more to advance our knowledge of these issues. What the reader will find is an excellent overview of these issues in a form that is readily accessible to people lacking expertise in these areas, as well as to students in graduate-level, or even advanced undergraduate classes. At a time when the history profession seems inevitably destined for fragmentation, compartmentalization, and the study of minutiae, Larson is to be commended for this synthetic work.

Albert J. Churella is an assistant professor in the Social and International Studies Program at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. He is the author of From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1998).

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860

Author(s):Horwitz, Morton J.
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred B.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

Morton J. Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977. xvii + 356 pp.

Review Essay by Winifred B. Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts University.

When the Rules Changed: A Twenty-five Year Retrospective on The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860

“In short, the transition periods can be described as periods of controlled social and economic revolution. They are revolutions because they involve rapid changes in long-standing economic, social, and often political institutions; they are controlled in that the integrity of the societies is maintained despite prolonged internal conflicts.”(Kuznets, 1968, p. 107)

In 1926, when J. Franklin Jameson published The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, the American Revolution was not generally considered to have been a social movement at all. So much less wrenching than its French or Russian prototype, ours seemed to be a colonial war, not a class war; a war about “Who shall rule?” — not a revolution; for — recalling Carl Becker’s famous phrase — with respect to “Who shall rule at home?” nothing much appeared to have changed. But in the seventy-five years since Jameson, historians have compiled abundant evidence that fundamental change took place after the Revolution in virtually every economic, political and social indicator, from market integration to marital fertility, from agricultural productivity to religious affiliation, from the nature of the polity to financial markets, from literacy rates to life expectancy, and most of all in that elusive thing the French call mentalit?. Those changes constituted a ‘transformation’ beyond mere ‘change.’

‘Change’ is continuous. It is the condition of being in a world where “Whirl is King.”1 But the transformation of American private law that Morton Horwitz describes here “lifted pencil off paper.”2. After the Revolution, the legal reasoning that governed judge-made law in America could cut itself free from that ‘undiscovered country’ from which the English common law traced its origins and drew its enormous authority; from its rigid pleadings; from its “blind veneration for ancient rules, maxims, and precedents” (p. 25); from its neglect of societal consequences. More to the point, it was a discontinuity that paralleled the sudden acceleration of capitalist development and the new “era of shared ideation” that legitimated it.3

Horwitz is not alone in remarking a critical period in the law in and around the 1780s. For Roscoe Pound, the early years of the Republic were “the formative era of American law,” although he seems thoroughly to have rejected the notion, so central to Horwitz, of an ideological discontinuity at that time. “Tenacity of a taught legal tradition,” he wrote, “is much more significant in our legal history than the economic conditions of time and place”(Pound, p. 82).4 But in William E. Nelson’s telling, “The War of Independence ushered in the beginning of a new legal and social order . . . the most important element [of which] was the emergence of new legal doctrines that recognized the materialism of the age” (Nelson, p. 5). And Lawrence Friedman, author of the first general history of American law, describes a “fundamental change in the concept of law” after the Revolution, one in which “the primary function of law was … to be a utilitarian tool [protecting] property in motion or at risk rather than property secure and at rest . . . [in order] to foster growth [and] to release and harness the energy latent in the commonwealth” (Friedman, p. 100).

The Transformation of American Law became an instant classic upon its publication in 1977. Readers not already familiar with it should understand that it is a flagship work of the Critical Legal Studies movement which was born and bred in American law schools in the aftermath of the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. From that anguished, profoundly anti-institutional perspective, the book mounts a brilliant attack on the transformation of the private law of property, negligence, contract, competition, and commerce that was wrought in the state courts — quite to the exclusion, incidentally, of state legislatures. Decision by decision, treatise by treatise, state court judges of the revolutionary generation began the process of making new law and new legal rules in the form and substance of which Horwitz discerns a coherence to which he gives the name ‘instrumentalism.’

Horwitz’s use of the word “instrumental” is an important clue to his thesis. The dictionary definition of ‘instrumental’ is simply “helpful; serving as a means,” in which sense the word could apply equally well — could it not? — to the eighteenth-century English common law which just because it was based on precedent, was biased in favor of the status quo, was indifferent to social consequences and was resistant to change, was ‘instrumental’ insofar as it preserved order in a society that valued order above all things. It is clear, then, that Horwitz uses the word ‘instrumental’ in a heightened sense to mean reshaping private law so that it may serve as “a creative instrument for directing men’s energy toward social change” (p. 1). To effect social change within a common law tradition inherently biased against change required a transformation not only of legal rules but of the role of judge-made law in the society. Courts shed their passivity, to the point of assuming a quasi-legislative role. Early nineteenth century judges understood — Coase to the contrary notwithstanding — that legal rules do matter, that “different sets of legal rules would have differential effects on economic growth, depending both on the distribution of wealth they produced and the level of investment they encouraged” (p. xvii, note).

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Property Law

The property-rights emphasis in the New Institutional Economic History makes knowing what property rights _are_ a matter of importance, what they _were_ a matter of greater importance, and that they are not what they were, and why, of greater importance still. The substance of Horwitz’s argument begins with property law the transformation of which ran parallel to a transformation in the conception of property itself, from an estate to be tranquilly enjoyed (in the eighteenth century), to a resource to be productively employed (in the nineteenth). The rubric of property law included riparian and other water-power rights, tenant rights, and the law of ‘waste.’ Eminent domain, nuisance, negligence, and damages fall under this rubric as well, but rules changes in those areas figured so conspicuously as subsidies to growth sectors in the economy that Horwitz treats them as such in a separate category.

Land use in the eighteenth century was constrained within two legal maxims that seem at first glance to check each other, but in fact were mutually reinforcing. On one hand stood Blackstone’s definition of private property rights as absolute: “the sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world in total exclusion of the rights of any other individual in the universe.” On the other stood the ancient common law principle in which property rights appear to be conditional: sic utere tuo, ut alienum non laedas, ‘so use yours that others be not harmed’. But far from mitigating the despotism of A’s dominion, sic utere extended it, for it conferred on A the power to prevent any use by B of his own land that disturbed A’s quiet enjoyment.

Property law would have to change to accommodate the nineteenth century, and it was with respect to rights in the use of water that judges, “listening to the future,” began the transformation. Two iconic cases, Merritt v. Parker (New Jersey, 1795) and Palmer v. Mulligan (New York, 1805) defined the era. Both are riparian rights cases in which a new user constructed a mill upstream or downstream of a prior user, obstructing, diverting, diminishing the flow of water or back-flooding the land. In 1795 the plaintiff won on the common law principle of aqua currit et debet currere, ‘water runs and ought to run.’ In 1805 the defendant won on efficiency grounds: that “explicit consideration of the relative efficiencies of conflicting property uses should be the paramount test of what constitutes legally justifiable injury” (p. 38). On the cusp of the new century the rules of the game had changed.

Palmer v. Mulligan may have been the tipping point that Horwitz tells us it was, but in fact it was challenged, Horwitz tells us, by other judges and by Joseph Angell in his treatise on watercourses. As late as 1827, in Tyler v. Wilkinson, the much-esteemed Justice Story of Massachusetts attacked the Palmer decision as “unjust.” His rejection of the ‘efficiency’ and ‘balancing’ standards that had been determining in Palmer “spawned a line of decisions opposed to all diversion or obstruction of water regardless of any beneficial consequences, [and] marks the nineteenth-century high point in articulating the traditional conception of property that had already come under attack” (p. 39, emphasis mine). In another watercourse case, Cary v. Daniels (1844), Chief Justice Shaw “stated a legal doctrine strikingly different from Story’s earlier formulation [in Palmer]” (p. 41). Judge Morton came down on the other side of Story on the Charles River Bridge’s claim of prescriptive rights. The reader, then, is tempted to ask which — Palmer or Tyler? Story or Angell or Morton or Story? — correctly caught the spirit of the age? Could Horwitz be accused, here and indeed throughout, of selection bias in the judicial opinions upon which he chose to hang his argument? In the age of waterpower there must have been hundreds of riparian rights cases in state courts all over the country.5 How much and how wide was the difference of opinion among sitting state court judges on each of the pivotal issues that made new law? By what process did one opinion become regnant, diffuse, and become new law? Had Horwitz wanted to construct an operationally testable hypothesis, these are the questions, I should have thought, with which he would have dealt. It is early in this review to make this point, but it should, I think, be made.

If ‘for example’ is not proof, neither is it irrelevant to a proof. If the “professional historians and other nonlegally-trained scholars” for whom The Transformation of American Law was written (p. x) are persuaded by it, it will be in large part because of the sheer weight of the evidence, the enormous amount of corroborating testimony with which Horwitz has illuminated a critical juncture in the history of ideas in America.

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Mill Acts

The reinterpretation of eighteenth-century Mill Acts provided another opportunity for nineteenth-century courts to shed the neutrality with which the common law had clothed them and overtly to take sides in the “sacrifice of ‘old’ property for the benefit of the ‘new'” (p. 63). “Under the Mill Acts, an owner of a mill situated on any non-navigable stream was permitted to raise a dam and permanently flood the land of all his neighbors, without seeking prior permission” (p. 48). Mill Acts had been enacted by provincial legislatures as early as 1713 to privilege colonial gristmills on the ground that they were private enterprises exercising a public function. This gave the floodings something of the character of a taking in eminent domain. A jury set the height of the dam, the time of the flooding, and the compensation. In return for the remedies provided in the Acts, the plaintiffs relinquished their common law right to sue for trespass, for punitive damages, for nuisance, or to seek an injunction. But in 1827, the Massachusetts court extended to textile, paper, and saw mills, unaffected with any public interest, the same privileges and immunities, allowing them “virtually unlimited discretion to destroy the value of lands far in excess of any benefit they might possibly receive,” while at the same time to “escape damages entirely by showing that the irrigation benefits the plaintiff received from having his lands over-flowed more than outweighed any injury he had incurred” (pp. 50-51). A sterner lesson could be drawn from this but for the fact that the Mill Acts, in response to public outrage, were repealed in 1830.

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Eminent Domain

Immediately after the Revolution, the “release of energy” that Willard Hurst would teach us to associate with the buoyant business of settling Wisconsin, could already be felt in the ambitious infrastructure projects being undertaken in the East. At such a time, “the most potent legal weapon” in the quiver of an instrumental jurisprudence is the power of eminent domain. Late in his book, Horwitz says of its potential to take and redistribute wealth that it was “the one truly explosive legal ‘time bomb’ in all antebellum law” (p. 259). That a State should have such a power inheres in the principle of sovereignty itself. Under English law, all who hold land do so at the sufferance of the Sovereign. Under U.S. law, where sovereignty resides in the whole people represented by the states, those states possess “unlimited power”(p. 65) to take private property for public use — even, in the case of railroads, to take private property for private use. The argument has gone even further: even to take private property for private use without compensation, for (argued counsel for the railroads) any limitation of the power of eminent domain is a limitation of sovereignty (p. 65). And, indeed, until the ratification of the fourteenth amendment carried the Bill of Rights to the States, the clause of the Fifth Amendment that reads, “nor shall private property be taken for any public use without just compensation” bound only the Congress. Most state constitutions had no such provision even as late as 1820.

Aware, as they always were, that the ad hoc outcomes of eminent domain cases could set precedents that would impact significantly upon the cost of future development projects across the continent, the courts became involved in eminent domain takings only when disputes arose over compensation. How, for example, should the land be valued? By the current owner’s purchase price? By its current price? By its estimated future price given the trend rate of growth of population and land prices? Or by speculating as to its value after the projected construction has secured its market access? Any one of these, even the most generous, could have a perverse outcome: in one of the many cases involving abutters injured by the diversion of water during construction of the Erie Canal, compensation was denied entirely on the ground that the “general increase in land values and access to markets” that might arise as a consequence of the Canal was sufficient remedy (p. 69).

And how should the consequential destruction of property be compensated? In the Erie Canal cases, the court exempted consequential injuries from liability, and never did make clear the grounds on which it did so. Horwitz suggests five: ? the risk of consequential damage was already discounted in the price originally paid for the land; ? the threat of appropriation by the state was already discounted in the price originally paid for the land; ? the injury was damnum absque injuria, (defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “a loss which does not give rise to an action for damages against the person causing it,” just something to be borne “as part of the price to be paid for the advantages of the social condition”); ? the injury resulted from a breach of contract that could not have been anticipated; ? the injury was entirely predictable, but it is not clear who should bear the cost. In the event, “Landowners whose property values were impaired without compensation in effect were compelled to underwrite a portion of economic development”(p. 70).

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Negligence

The question of who should bear the cost also lies at the center of the negligence doctrine. The issues in negligence law have attracted considerable attention, not only because it is “the largest item of business on the civil side of the nation’s trial courts,” but also because Richard Posner’s well-known analysis of appellate-level determinations in cases of railroad and street railway accidents launched the field of Law and Economics (Posner, p. 29). In that exhaustive study, Posner tested his hypothesis that sitting justices aimed to set damage awards in such a way as to ‘make the market work'; that is, “to bring about an efficient level of accidents and safety” (Posner, p. 34). “The only recognized basis for invoking the legal process to shift an accident loss from the victim to another party is the expectation of improving the efficiency of resource use.” If, as a result of an accident, the magnitude of the loss, L, weighted by the probability or forseeability of it happening, a, is less than the cost, C, of preventing it, then economic welfare requires that the injurer not assume the costs of prevention. The injurer — it was so often the railroad — would do better, both for itself and with respect to maximizing some social welfare function, to assume liability and pay full damages to the victim rather than incur the cost of installing guard-rails, fences, gates and bells at every cross-road, automatic coupling devices, fire extinguishers, etc. to prevent further accidents. The observed behavior of judges confirmed Posner’s proposition. But his data are for the period 1875-1905, leaving room for Horwitz’s discussion of the prior history of negligence to make an important contribution.

He traces the stages in the evolution of the negligence standard from the an eighteenth-century action for nuisance in which the defendant was held strictly liable; to nonfeasance or failure to perform a duty required by law or by contract; to carelessness, as in collisions between non-contracting strangers, where the joint-ness of the act makes causation (and therefore liability) difficult to determine; to contributory negligence where the assumption of the plaintiff’s complicity can defeat his claim against the defendant; to a standard, used in railroad and bridge collapse cases, where there is a defendant at fault but no liability on the rule that “injury brought about by risk-producing activity was itself no ground for imposing legal liability” (p. 97); and finally: to the use of the negligence standard as an instrument of social change. Judges, says Horwitz, were “encouraged to regard themselves as social engineers and legislators, whose decisions to impose liability were influenced by broader considerations of social policy” (p. 88). The rule governing the outcomes in Posner’s sample would, I should think, fit here.

In order to immunize new forms of enterprise against the huge costs of strict liability, the watering-down of negligence doctrine provided a significant subsidy to the dynamic edge of the American economy.6 As in the case of tariffs on British textiles, it is fair to ask, was this subsidy necessary? If it was, it should have been done, says Horwitz, through (progressive) taxation rather than through changing legal rules — a criticism he makes throughout. There are interests of substantive justice as well as of law at stake here, and, as should be clear by now, Horwitz has taken sides. “The increasingly ruthless application of the private law negligence principle . . . became a leading means by which the dynamic and growing forces in American society were able to challenge and eventually overwhelm the weak and relatively powerless segments of the American economy” (p. 99).

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Contract

Contract law may be the area respecting which the nineteenth-century transformation of American law was at once most thoroughgoing and most relevant to the concerns of modern economic history. ‘Thoroughgoing’ in that, as Horwitz tells it (and he tells it with passion and eloquence), after the Revolution contract law was torn root and branch from its origins in equitable conceptions of substantive justice, inherent fairness and objective value, and given over, entire, “to articulate the ‘will theory’ with which American doctrinal writers expressed the ideology of a market economy in the early nineteenth century” (p. 185). ‘Relevant’ in that economic historians have in recent years appropriated from contract law the whole apparatus of modern contract theory — implicit contracts, incomplete contracts, principal-agent interactions, internal labor markets, and the implications of all these for the boundaries of the firm and the transacting that takes place within them. (See for example, Hart (1995), Holmstrom and Robert (1998), and Rosen (1985).)

Evidence of the shift from “the old learning” (that contractual obligation derives “from the inherent justice or fairness of an exchange”) to the new (that contractual obligation shall reside solely in “the convergence of the wills of the contracting parties”) (p. 160) was made manifest as early as 1790 in the first legal action to acknowledge expectation damages. With the emergence of financial markets, “the function of contracts correspondingly shifted from that of simply transferring title to a specific item to that of ensuring an expected return” (p. 161, emphasis mine). Price could no longer be thought of as a stable, objective, customary, absolute measure of value when it was in the very instability of prices that gains were to be made and losses from foregone gains sustained. Henceforth the courts would acknowledge that it is “the consent of the parties alone that fixes the just price of any thing, without reference to the nature of things themselves, or to their intrinsic value” (p. 160).

It is curious to see the extent to which, in this telling, eighteenth-century legal rules are made to rest upon the foundation of intrinsic or objective value. To borrow Calvin’s devastating comment on free will: “What end could it answer to decorate a thing so diminutive with a title so superb?” There could have been little, if any, experience of price stability in the lives of this generation of judges. They had lived through the extreme price volatility of 1720-40, the simultaneous circulation of several paper currencies denominating several sets of prices with only an arbitrary relation to one another, the steady depreciation of each colony’s silver currency on the British pound sterling, and the spectacle of the Continental vanishing daily. ‘Objective value’ must have been less a ‘foundation’ than an “instrumental conception” in the service of a static social order. In light of the dominant place Horwitz gives throughout his book to this shift from objective to subjective value, one might almost say that the emergence of a market economy had a more profound impact upon the law than it had upon the real economy.

The consequential link between subjective value and the will theory of contract is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the emergence of caveat emptor and the triumph of express over implied contracts. Whereas the most important aspect of the eighteenth-century conception of exchange had been an equitable limitation of contractual obligation if the underlying exchange were unfair, under modern will theory contractual obligation was bounded entirely by the ‘meeting of minds’ as expressed in the contract. The existence of informational asymmetries, even if establishing the inherent inequality of the parties, would no longer invalidate a contract as unfair. No provision of the contract — having been “created by it alone” (p. 182) — could be other than that expressly agreed to, even if the terms of that agreement contravened rules of law. And thus, by 1825, “the chasm” (p. 186) between express and implied contracts had emerged. The bench’s treatment of nineteenth-century labor contracts would make that chasm a bitterly contested terrain.

Applying the will theory to labor contracts The whole corpus of contract theory today is based on the recognition that it is impossible to write a complete contract. “It is simply too difficult to anticipate all the many things that may happen … [I]t is clear that revisions and renegotiations will take place. In fact, the contract is best seen as providing a suitable backdrop or starting point for such renegotiations rather than specifying the final outcome … [Both parties] are looking for a contract that will ensure that, whatever happens, each side has some protection, both against opportunistic behaviour by the other party and against bad luck” (Hart, p. 2). To interpret and enforce a contract as ‘entire’ that even under the best of circumstances is incomplete, enlists something beyond legal rules; it enlists the sympathies of the judges. Horwitz’s thesis, of course, is that the sympathies of nineteenth-century judges were, by this time, allied to commerce and industry and quite orthogonal to labor’s interests. The judicial zeitgeist, having “destroyed most substantive grounds for evaluating the justice of exchange” (p. 201), reified in its stead “the momentary intention of the parties” (p. 196).

Based on the doctrine that “an express contract bars an action in quantum meruit,” laborers who quit on a long-term contract were barred from recovering wages for time served. “In no case,” said the court in Stark v. Parker (Massachusetts 1824), “has a contract in the terms of the one under consideration been construed by practical men to give a right to demand the agreed compensation before the performance of the labor, … it would be a flagrant violation of the first principles of justice to hold it otherwise” (Karsten, p. 170). This precedent stood, with only one “solitary challenge” — Britton v. Turner (New Hampshire 1834) — until the 1870s.7 Horwitz strikingly underscores his point by presenting a parallel case: while laborers were denied recovery, building contractors who quit on an express contract were allowed to recover, both in quantum meruit for labor services and in quantum valebant for materials used (Hayward v. Leonard (Massachusetts 1828). “While the judges who adhered to the distinction between labor and building contracts never acknowledged an economic or social policy behind the distinction, it seems to be,” says Horwitz, “an important example of class bias” (p. 188).

Horwitz has been sharply taken to task for his analysis of labor contracts, and the critics have come at him from all sides, disputing both the benign class relations he attributes to the eighteenth century and the exploitative class relations he attributes to the nineteenth century. Peter Karsten (1997) and Robert J. Steinfeld (1991) are among those who have re-examined these issues in recent years. Karsten disputes Horwitz’s allegation of discrimination in the contrast between Stark v. Parker and Hayward v. Leonard. “I identified some sixty-eight ‘contractor’ cases in American courts,” he writes, “and found very little difference between the ways that courts treated ‘contractors’ and other workers. Contractors fared no better, no worse, than laborers in suits to recover in quantum meruit (and quantum valebant)” (Karsten, p. 186).

And as to the implication that the eighteenth-century common law was more equitable, more just, less punitive, and less coercive than judge-made law in the nineteenth, Karsten responds, “One searches in vain for an idyllic past in the history of British labor law” (Karsten, p. 159). Karsten and Steinfeld both sketch the sorry chronicle of over 550 years of oppressive English labor legislation and jurisprudence, from the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) to the Master-Servant law (which lasted, amended, from 1747 to 1875), during which quitting on a contract not only forfeited wages, but was prosecuted as criminal theft of the master’s property in his servant’s labor. The servant was brought before a magistrate and punished with “wage abatement, imprisonment, and whipping” (Karsten, p. 159), “and a fine largely exceeding the amount of his wages” (Steinfeld, p. 151). “As late as 1875 about two thousand agricultural laborers were still being convicted and imprisoned each year for leaving or threatening to leave their employers” (Karsten, p. 160). In his most recent book, I understand that Steinfeld has found 10,000 such prosecutions each year.

In defense of nineteenth-century American labor law, by contrast, “no one even imagined that [laborers] might be compelled to serve out their time. … Direct coercion would not be permitted, but legally sanctioned economic compulsion would. And this,” says Steinfeld, “made perfect sense. It comported with the emerging model of labor that left to the laborer the formal decision whether to stay or to go” (Steinfeld, pp.150-51).

Our interest as economic historians in the judicial enforcement of these contracts is in their labor-market consequences, for it is upon mobile resources and minimal transaction costs that the efficiency of a labor market depends. In his article on negligence theory, Posner had remarked “the affinity between economic market and common law adjudication as methods of allocating resources” (Posner, p. 75). What efficiency argument justifies the employer’s capture of the worker’s wages? The productivity-enhancing consequences of coercive discipline? But in Clark’s (1994) model of factory discipline it was enough that the worker ‘hired’ the coercive boss; he did not have to forfeit all his earnings to pay him. Then, did the employer need to be compensated by the worker for the savings he must now forgo on search costs, implicit contracting, labor hoarding, and lock-in that had motivated the annual contract in the first place? If so, the loss to the worker should vary inversely, rather than directly, with time worked.

The most plausible explanation is, of course, the deterrent effect. But in my own research on contract labor on Massachusetts farms, 1750-1865, where the quit rate was about ten percent of hires, the account books of the employing farmers showed that in no case were earnings withheld (Rothenberg, p. 207). America’s most ‘peculiar institution’ may not have been plantation slavery — after all, almost every agrarian society designs institutions to constrain the mobility of its labor force — but the genuinely free labor on New England farms.

But with this elegiac insertion from my own work I have broken the mood of Horwitz’s book, which at this point is utterly bleak. With the transformation of contract, having “neutralized” substantive justice, objective values, the power of juries, earlier protective or regulatory doctrines, and moral duties, “judges and jurists could no longer ascribe any purpose to legal obligations that were superior to the expressed ‘will’ of the parties. As contract ideology thus emasculated all prior conceptions of substantive justice, [the patently false assumption of] equal bargaining power inevitably became established as the inarticulate major premise of all legal and economic analysis. The circle was complete; the law had come simply to ratify those forms of inequality that the market system produced” (p. 210). The “affinity” between law and economics that Posner had remarked in 1875, Horwitz has found at least a generation earlier.

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The Development of Commercial Law: Negotiability, Marine Insurance, Usury

While the responsibility for the transformation of most areas of private law fell upon (or was appropriated by) the state courts, the development of a body of commercial law — having to do with negotiability, usury, and marine insurance — was the preserve of the federal judiciary. Of these areas, negotiability, which lay at the heart of all commercial relations, presented the most difficult contradictions with the common law for it intruded upon the privity of contract.

Ideally, full negotiability requires that endorsed notes “should circulate as freely as money,” which, if one thinks about what money is, means that a subsequent innocent holder of the note “might depend on payment, regardless of any unknown defects in the obligation arising out of the original transaction between distant parties” (p. 213). To illustrate, following Horwitz: A, debtor to B, can be sued by C to whom B had transferred A’s note, even if no understanding had passed between A and C. And if C had endorsed the note over to D not knowing that A had defaulted, D could sue B, a prior endorser. Most crucial — and this is what distinguishes fully negotiable instruments from assignments — suppose A has already paid the note to B; the courts will protect D, an innocent purchaser of the instrument, from the assumption of any risk arising from B’s attempts to defend himself against D’s suit. It was with respect to this last particular that the state courts, particularly in Massachusetts, balked, until the federal court overruled them in 1809, thereby taking the first step in creating a general commercial law. For Horwitz this step was doubly important: it established full negotiability, and it deposited commercial disputes in the jurisdiction of the federal courts, thereby taking them from the “uncongenial anti-commercial environment often found (sic!) in state courts” (p. 252).

Marine insurance in the eighteenth century had been operated out of taverns, inns, and coffee-houses, by merchants and shipowners for their mutual protection; “it had never been intended for profit” (p. 227). Each voyage was a unique event; each transaction was personal; only extraordinary perils at sea were covered; and the underwriters held themselves strictly liable in all cases, unless it could be proved that the ship was unseaworthy, or an agent was negligent (called ‘barratry’).

Sometime during the remarkably fruitful period 1790-1820 came “the gradual acceptance of what we might call an actuarial conception of social risk … a social consciousness that comes to conceive of a greater and greater portion of activity as appropriately within the realm of chance” (p. 228). With the chartering in the 1790s of incorporated insurance companies with large pools of capital, marine insurance law — like bankruptcy and negligence law — devolved upon an actuarial conception of insurable risks. Losses were no longer unique events, but were predictable according to a probability distribution calculated on the experience of hundreds of voyages. Unseaworthiness and barratry were no longer bars to recovery against the insurance companies; moral responsibility became attenuated, and while the risks of moral hazard increased, insurance companies protected themselves by requiring a variety of warranties and representations any breach of which would defeat recovery. For example, “any deviation from the stipulated route of a marine voyage would void a policy even without a showing that it had increased the risk of loss” (p. 231).

“The ultimate triumph of a market ideology” (p. 241) was the movement to abolish usury laws. It is noteworthy, however, that by the Civil War, seven states still voided usurious contracts, penalizing them with fines and/or forfeiture of principal, and every state except California maintained some regulation over the legal rate of interest (p. 243), but by 1860, “it was no longer possible to recapture an earlier and more coherent system of premarket morality” (p. 245) in the context of which this lingering survivor of the ‘just price’ any longer made sense.

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Conclusion

As economic historians have been made increasingly aware of legal institutions, if not by Ronald Coase then by Douglass North, no one, I think, any longer doubts that they are intimately related to economic development. But can we understand that relationship without positing a direction of causation? For Horwitz, the transformation of American law after the Revolution appears to have been so thoroughgoing, so deliberate, so willed that it is possible to read him as suggesting that the causation might actually have run counter-intuitively: from legal change to economic change, from pro-entrepreneurial judges to instrumental legal rules; from instrumental legal rules to the institutions of corporate capitalism. And now, twenty-five years after The Transformation of American Law, the theoretical work currently being done by Andrei Shleifer, Robert Vishny, Edward Glaeser, Daron Acemoglu, and other New Political Economists can be read as suggesting that such a thing is not only possible, but a direction worth pursuing in the development field. (See for example, Glaeser and Shleifer, forthcoming.)

Horwitz is not a Luddite. His target is not the process of economic development per se. It is that the courts appropriated so much of the process, and by so doing effected the transformation by obiter dicta rather than by legislation; by changing legal rules rather than by accommodating conflicting interests; by debt- and equity-financing rather than by progressive taxation. It is that, as a consequence, “growth was subsidized by victims of the process” (p. xvi).

Much of Horwitz’s argument depends on his belief that something precious was lost in the passing of the eighteenth century. Objective value, just price, equitable standards, fair contracts, symmetrical information, implied contracts, substantive justice, compensated takings, strict liability: the furniture of “the heavenly city of the eighteenth century.” It can all be compressed into one of his sentences, the belief “that unequal bargaining power was an illegitimate form of duress” (p. 184).

As the book moves through the antebellum period and the lineaments of the transformation harden in place, Horwitz’s own deeply moral commitment to humane values becomes increasingly engaged. The rhetoric grows angrier, the sarcasm more difficult to conceal. It makes this wonderful book exciting to read, but more problematic. One hates – I hate — to disagree with him.

Notes:

1. Becker (1932), p. 15, quoting Aristophanes. The full quote is “Whirl is king, having deposed Zeus.” 2. The phrase is from Gerschenkron (1968). 3. The phrase is from Nelson (1975). 4. Pound goes on to say, “Today national law schools, teaching law, not laws, and teaching law in the ‘spirit of the common legal heritage of English-speaking people’, are working effectively to preserve this uniformity, against many forces of disintegration” (p. 83). 5. Riparian rights are property rights to the banks of non-navigable waterways, i.e., of waterways not subject to the ebb and flow of the tides, and to the waters up to the mid-point of the stream. 6. Subsidy? Posner replies, “It is true that if you move from a regime where railroads are strictly liable for injuries inflicted in cross accidents to one where they are liable only if negligent, the costs to the railroads of crossing accidents will be lower, and the output of railroad service probably greater as a consequence. But it does not follow that any subsidy is involved — unless it is proper usage to say that an industry is being subsidized whenever a tax levied upon it is reduced or removed” (Posner, p. 30). 7. Karsten has an extended discussion of Britton v. Turner on pp. 157-82. Apparently it was not at all a “solitary” case; it was “hotly debated” in many state courts, and “before the Civil War had ended, five states had adopted the Britton v. Turner standard” (p. 175). Others had recognized it as more equitable but so radical as to require a legislative rather than judicial initiative.

References:

Becker, Carl L., 1932. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Clark, Gregory, 1994. “Factory Discipline.” Journal of Economic History 54 (1), pp. 128-163.

Friedman, Lawrence M., 1973. A History of American Law. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gerschenkron, Alexander, 1968. Continuity in History and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glaeser, Edward and Andrei Shleifer, forthcoming. “Legal Origins,” Quarterly Journal of Economics .

Hart, Oliver, 1995. Firms, Contracts and Financial Structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holmstrom, Bengt and John Robert, 1998. “The Boundaries of the Firm Revisited.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12 (4), pp. 73-94.

Jameson, J. Franklin Jameson, 1926. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Karsten, Peter, 1997. Heart versus Head: Judge-Made Law in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kuznets, Simon, 1968. “Reflections on Economic Growth,” in Toward a Theory of Economic Growth. New York: W.W. Norton.

Nelson, William E., 1975. The Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change on Massachusetts Society, 1760-1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Posner, Richard A., 1972. “A Theory of Negligence.” Journal of Legal Studies 29, pp. 29-96.

Pound, Roscoe, 1938. The Formative Era of American Law. Gloucester: Peter Smith.

Rosen, Sherwin, 1985. “Implicit Contracts: A Survey.” Journal of Economic Literature 23 (3), pp. 1144-75.

Rothenberg, Winifred, 1992. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Steinfeld, Robert J., 1991. The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Winnie Rothenberg is Associate Professor of Economics at Tufts University. She is the author of From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and of a number of articles in Journal of Economic History, one of which, published in 1981, won the Arthur H. Cole Prize for best article. She has served as Vice President of the Economic History Association and as a member of its Board of Trustees.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South

Author(s):Holley, Donald
Reviewer(s):Heinicke, Craig

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Donald Holley, The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker,

Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville, AR:

University of Arkansas Press, 2000. xvi + 284 pp. $36 (cloth), ISBN:

1-55728-606-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Craig Heinicke, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace

College, Berea, Ohio.

At the end of World War II, the southern United States stood at a turning

point — would the region continue to catch up with the rest of the nation with

respect to wages, education levels and other economic indicators or return to

its separate path of labor-intensive agriculture, paternalism, racial strife,

underemployment, and lagging wages? Without the mechanical cotton picker there

is no doubt that the former would have been delayed; with it by the late 1960s

the South lost much of its regional character. How important can any one

implement or invention be in bringing about social and economic change?

Although Donald Holley (Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at

Monticello) does not show that the mechanical harvester was indispensable for

the South’s transformation (more on this below), he builds a good case that

this machine was more important than any other since the cotton gin in

transforming the region. By the author’s account, the cotton picker

“emancipated” both southern farmers and black workers from among the most

arduous forms of “stoop” labor, and with it from perpetual misery, inadequate

education, low standards of living and the tedium of unchanging expectations.

Donald Holley’s thoroughness in addressing the associated questions that arise

suggests that this book will be a lasting reference for those interested in

this subject.

After setting out the context in the early chapters, Holley documents how the

mechanical cotton picker came to be mass produced and marketed, beginning with

how its promoters struggled with cotton’s exasperating resistance to machine

techniques, the hallmark of American agricultural advance for much of the

twentieth century. Every aspect of the somewhat familiar story of the Rust

brothers’ inventive activity is examined (chapter three), along with the Rusts’

consciousness of the potential social upheaval that mechanization of the

harvest could unleash (chapter five). The fears of other contemporaries are

documented at length; one particularly striking comment was published amid the

Depression’s high unemployment, when the Rusts’ experiments seemed poised for a

final breakthrough: “The machine is said to be quite practical … That being

true, it should be driven right out of the cotton fields and sunk into the

Mississippi River” (p. 77, quoting The Jackson Daily News, August 31,

1936). The fears of the Rusts and others were for the unemployed themselves,

but the hesitancy of some was mixed with white paranoia: “Imagine, if you can,

500,000 Negroes in Mississippi just now lolling around on cabin galleries or

loafing on the streets” (p. 78). Ten years after that editorial, when the

mechanical harvester was on the verge of becoming a commercial reality, more

fears were expressed, but many also foresaw that the picker would solve the

problem of labor scarcity (chapter eight). Holley’s strength is documenting the

extremes as well as the middle ground, revealing that the harvester was neither

savior nor “Frankenstein’s monster.”

Part of the cotton picker story includes an account of how each major

manufacturer (not only International Harvester, but also John Deere,

Allis-Chalmers, and Ben Pearson) made a bid in the “cotton harvester

sweepstakes.” Among the most interesting passages are those that lay out

International Harvester’s marketing studies (chapter six), and two “case

studies” of cotton producers using the new machinery (chapter seven). While

past accounts have implied only the wealthy used the mechanical harvester in

its early stages, one of Holley’s cases involves a small landowner.

How did it come about that after years of tinkering, doubts, and anxiety about

the consequences, the International Harvester committed itself to regular

production of the “spindle” (so-called, due to the rotating “spindles” that

pulled lint from the cotton boll) picker? In late 1942 Fowler McCormick of

International Harvester announced that a viable picker was perfected —

although scheduled production awaited the year 1948. It is plausible that

war-time migration and the resulting labor scarcity would have increased the

anticipated value of the machine. Still, 1942 was relatively early in the

process; we know only in retrospect of the sustained rise in harvesting wages.

If the experience of World War I had been repeated, however, might not southern

landowners have expected a return to pre-war wages in the future? How much

different would the timing have been without the war?

The above questions are worth pondering, and are indeed to some extent

suggested by the text. The issue involves to what extent changes outside the

cotton and southern labor markets influenced the timing of the cotton picker’s

commercial production. What else was going on at the boardrooms and

decision-making units of the major farm implement makers? Knowing this, would

help us understand exactly how much of the move toward marketing this machine

was due to changes peculiar to the South, and how much of the move was

exogenously determined. Cotton was certainly a key commodity and machinery

makers would no doubt have been aware of the breadth of the potential market.

Still, other trends in the implement industry may well have influenced the

timing of the major manufacturers’ entries into this market. Despite leaving us

to ponder these questions, the book provides extensive documentation of

southern developments and makes a solid contribution to our understanding of

how a production “bottleneck,” a machine invented to fill that need, and the

social consequences that followed, shaped other major demographic and social

changes.

Related to the timing of the picker’s production is a well-documented debate

over whether the picker would “push” workers from the field or replace those

who had been “pulled” to better jobs in the cities (chapters eight and nine).

The book extensively surveys the range of contemporary and scholarly views. The

documentation is rich in its breadth of viewpoints; the author, however, also

forwards a statistical assessment of whether the “push” of workers from the

fields was greater than the “pull.” He finds that the latter dominated,

although not by much. The author’s labor supply and demand estimation is

perhaps too uncritical of the existing data series — for instance the “piece

rates” paid to hand pickers omit important expenses for hand labor — and his

county level regressions are somewhat unconvincing on the matter of causality,

while omitting important variables. The exercise, however, does provide another

angle from which to view the relevant questions. The documentary evidence,

thoroughly presented, will form a highly valued reference from which to assess

these important questions.

Government crop programs of the New Deal era are also important (chapter four)

in the overall process. The author takes the unconventional view that the

Agricultural Adjustment Act was less a cause of tenant “displacement” than

economic trends themselves, and argues that the AAA had positive effects in

helping to rid the South of rural overpopulation. It is not that Holley is

unsympathetic to the plight of the displaced. He recognizes, like those writing

a half century ago, that the poverty of South could not be abated with too many

people on the land. He also appreciates the limited alternatives that existed

in a place and time where the aftermath of slavery still held its loathsome

grip.

The book is convincing that the mechanical cotton picker was important beyond

its value to southern farmers, and thus that we can learn much from examining

the forces which brought it about and those which delayed its arrival. The

author goes one step further, arguing that the cotton picker was

“indispensable” for both the success of the Civil Rights Movement (p. 195), and

for the “transition from the pre-World War II South of overpopulation, poverty,

and sharecropping to the postwar, modern South” (p. 185). Reminiscent of the

“axiom of indispensability” in another context, this is an intriguing idea, but

not one that is tested directly. To show that momentous events (themselves

difficult to measure in any conventional sense) would not have taken

place absent a particular invention is indeed a demanding standard. A problem

with the cotton picker as “indispensable,” is that in part it was an

intermediary between other large demographic and economic shifts and their

results for southern markets and society. These include the effects of World

War II, the New Deal, and the internal evolution of southern society and

economy among others. These observations do not necessarily imply the cotton

picker was dispensable, but they certainly provide perspective on the idea. In

this case — as with railroads, economic growth and the question of

indispensability — the substitutes for the picker from the landowner’s

perspective may have been less attractive, but they were substitutes

nonetheless. Among those that could have relieved the southern plantation

sector’s thirst for a large docile labor force were abandonment of the cotton

“mono-culture” or capital movement to the cities and other industries. On the

labor supply side, there was also migration to the cities.

A slightly different point involves the degree to which the mechanical cotton

picker “emancipated” the southern farmer and African-American. For the latter,

the analogy is laced with meaning. We should note that if the harvester

“emancipated” blacks, then there was also a good deal of self “emancipation”

that preceded it. African-Americans chose to leave the South in large numbers

for three decades prior to 1948, before the first commercially marketed cotton

harvester entered the fields. In fact, that is part of the story the author

forwards, and why it was that many contemporaries thought the harvester mainly

“replaced” those who left the fields rather than kicking workers off the land.

By 1950 when the mechanical picker first became a viable alternative for hand

picking, the percentage of black workers in the South employed in agriculture

was 31 percent. Southern African-Americans were doing other things in addition

to picking cotton. The busses of Montgomery and lunch counters of Greensboro

were more than a step away from the fields.

Perhaps the term “emancipation” is used by the author to counter some of the

“bad press” that labor saving machines, including this one, have attracted over

the years; but we must be careful of overstatement on the other side. Still, we

can agree that on balance the cotton picker represented a positive step,

despite the fact that it brought with it ambiguities and pain for those workers

with few alternatives. It is certainly true that the changes in racial and

economic relationships associated with mechanical harvesting took place

rapidly.

It is difficult to get a handle on exactly how much one should attribute social

and economic change to any one any invention, and this case is no exception. A

great value of the book is that Donald Holley draws attention to the mechanical

cotton picker as among the most consequential inventions for the South in over

two centuries of history. It also was among the more important in

twentieth-century American agriculture, even if it was not indispensable for

the major social changes that followed it. In part, the cotton picker was

important because the demographic and social changes with which it was

entangled were so consequential; Holley is aware of this at every step, and in

the end provides the balance and completeness of documentation that should

assure the longevity of his work as a reference.

Craig Heinicke, Associate Professor of Economics at Baldwin-Wallace College,

has authored, “Driven from the Fields or Enticed to the City? The Cotton

Picking Machine and the Great Migration from the Cotton Belt, 1949-1964,” with

Wayne Grove (Syracuse University), Allied Social Sciences Association Annual

Meeting, Cliometric Society Sessions, 2002; and “African-American Migration and

Mechanized Cotton Harvesting, 1950-60,” Explorations in Economic History

1994, 31: 501-520.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines

Author(s):Legarda, Benito J.
Reviewer(s):Giraldez, Arturo

Published by EH.NET (November 2001)

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Benito J. Legarda, After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1999. x + 401 pp. $22.95 (paperback), ISBN: 1-881261-28-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Arturo Giraldez, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, University of the Pacific.

The title of Benito Legarda’s book is somewhat misleading because the time span covered in the work begins well before the nineteenth century. In fact, After the Galleons is an economic history of the Phillippine Islands from the time of the arrival of Miguel Gomez de Legazpi’s expedition in 1565 to the independence from the metropolis in 1898. Legarda studies the Philippines’ evolution from an archipelago inhabited by almost self-sufficient communities to the era when it became an agricultural export economy dependent on external trade to meet domestic needs. But, as the author remarks: “The nineteenth-century Philippine economy did not start from scratch. The preceding Age of Transshipment dated back to pre-Hispanic times, and, during the centuries when it was in effect, a process of administrative unification and geographic consolidation took place that laid the groundwork for the rise of national consciousness” (p. 5).

These sentences outline the plan of the book. Part 1 studies Philippine trade from before the Spaniards’ arrival until 1815. Part 2 focuses on the domestic exports and economic changes in the Islands. Part 3, “Entrepreneurial Aspects,” studies the establishment of merchant houses, their activities and innovations. Legarda follows Joseph A. Schumpeter’s ideas on entrepreneurial activity, paying detailed attention to the agents responsible for the “creative responses” in the economy. Businessmen and firms are introduced in relation to new technologies, activities and financial institutions.

Fifteenth-century Chinese and Muslim (Persian and Arab) merchants frequented the archipelago’s coastal areas, attracting a population that established settlements dependent on sedentary agriculture and craft production. These communities, called “barangays,” traded among themselves and with the rest of Southeast Asia and China. Slaves, beeswax and gold were exchanged for porcelain, iron, lead, tin, silks, etc. The early connection with China was going to have a crucial role in Philippine history. The presence of the Spaniards dramatically changed the position of the Philippines with respect to the Asian continent and placed the Islands as one of the crucial points in the global economy created by the galleon trade. From 1565 to 1815 the ships came and went from Manila to Acapulco — “it was the longest shipping line in history” (p. 32). American silver and predominantly Chinese silks were the commodities exchanged between Mexico and the Philippines. A Ricardian model explains the trade. The bimetallic ratio of silver and gold in 1560 was 13 to 1 in Mexico, 11 to 1 in Europe and in China was 4 to 1. “China was long the suction pump that absorbed silver from the whole world” (p. 31). Obviously there were periods of convergence of bimetallic ratios, but until the end of the nineteenth century China continued to be the main receiver of the world’s silver. Considering the price differential in silver prices: “The opportunities for arbitrage profits were staggering” (p. 31). And indeed, they were. Net profits oscillated between 100 and 300 percent. The Chinese brought the wares for the galleons but they also provided supplies for shipbuilding, materials to the military garrisons and foodstuffs to Manila’s citizenry. Also the junks brought artisans and tradespeople to the Islands. The Chinese have played a crucial role in the Filipino economy since the sixteenth century up to the present.

The eighteenth century witnessed plans and proposals to change the monopolistic framework of the galleon trade. After the British occupation of 1762-64, war frigates sailed between Cadiz in Spain and Manila carrying European merchandise. The Royal Philippine Company founded in Madrid (1785) was “encouraged to try Asian ventures,” (p. 58) and the port of San Blas on the Pacific coast was established in 1766 to trade with the Philippines, challenging Acapulco’s position as the only Mexican port in the galleon route. The regulation of libre comercio in 1778 allowed several Spanish ports besides Seville and Cadiz to trade with the colonies, which provided Mexico with new sources of merchandise.

Revolutionary changes did not happen in the eighteenth century — Philippine commerce was still a transshipping operation — but they sowed the seeds of future developments: foreign merchants arrived in Manila; local merchants could travel to other Asian ports; export trade of native products was stimulated and local textile manufactures were encouraged. “And the combined effect of the tobacco monopoly and the domestic operations of export producers, including the company, was the start of agricultural specialization in the Philippines” (p. 90). The tobacco monopoly was established by Governor Jose Basco y Vargas by decree in 1781, was implemented in 1783 and was the main source of fiscal revenue for Spain in the Philippines. There was also a “tentative use of bills of exchange in transferring funds through Canton” (p. 89).

The decades from 1820 to 1870 were crucial in the economic history of the world and produced significant changes in the economy of the country. An increase in trade and navigation in Asia accompanied the opening of the Suez Canal. Goods like sugar, fibers, coffee, etc. became the main export commodities. The Spanish government granted shipping subsidies. As a result of all of this, in the Philippines there was “a saltatory rise in the level of foreign trade” (p. 179). These events and trends were common to the Southeast Asian transformations from subsistence to export economies. However, the trajectory followed by the Islands was different from the Southeast Asian path. The economies of the region’s colonial powers tried to increase agricultural output pressuring the peasants to produce more goods for export and to develop plantation agriculture. According to Legarda in the period between 1820 and 1870: “Neither pressure on the peasantry nor the development of large-scale plantation agriculture was primarily responsible for transforming the Philippines from a subsistence to an export economy” (p. 186). Such a role was played by foreign businesses — “they formed the main nexus between the Philippine economy and the currents of world trade” (p. 211). The foreign merchants introduced agricultural machinery, advanced money on crops which stimulated the opening of new agricultural areas and consequently exports grew. There was an increasing commodity concentration of exports (sugar, abaca, tobacco and coffee) to the United Kingdom, China, British East Indies, United States and Spain [Tables 1 to 5]. Textiles dominated imports accompanied by a decline of local manufacturing and in 1870 rice became an import commodity. “Both trends had significant social and demographic repercussions” (p. 178) [Tables 6 to 13].

British and Americans were predominant in the foreign trade. The Chinese occupied the position of intermediaries between foreign western merchants and the domestic market. In spite of the dominant presence of foreigners in the Philippine economy “a native middle class was rising” (p. 213).

In order to raise funds the merchant houses issued notes taking deposits in local currencies from people of different economic backgrounds. This capital was given as an advance to finance agricultural operations. “Liquid wealth” reached Filipinos in the countryside, at the same time the merchants’ exercised control over the supply of export commodities (p. 256).

The Philippines’ economic landscape was different from Southeast Asia, i.e. Malaya and Indonesia. Western foreigners, public entities, and the Chinese joined rising domestic entrepreneurs. The Spanish government participated financially in the origination of utility companies (steam navigation, telegraphy); western investors entered some joint ventures with local capital (rice, sugar mills, textile industry, railroads and electricity), and domestic businessmen invested in the tranways and created the brewing industry. “But the crucial dichotomy between economic initiative and political authority stamped the Philippine case as being more in the East Asian tradition than the Southeast Asian mold” (p. 289).

This processes of economic integration in the world market had its drawbacks. Income disparities between regions and occupations became more marked. The domestic textile industry could not compete with foreign imports. During the 1880s, ‘the decade of death,’ the lower income groups became more susceptible to diseases due to an imbalance between commercial and subsistence agriculture and due to the arrival of epidemics (p. 335). The upside of these transformations was improvement in communications (telegraphy, mail, cable, steamship lines, electricity, railroads), in finance (foreign banks arrived to Manila), and in infrastructure. The funds of the Obras Pias, a church institution employed in the past to finance the galleon trade, were used to establish the Banco Espanol-Filipino in 1851 and the Monte de Piedad (a savings bank and a pawn shop) in 1882. In the same year with Obras Pias monies coming from the cargo of the galleon Filipino, a municipal water system was built in Manila (pp. 337-38).

Benito Legarda quotes Victor Clark who wrote: “A period of industrial development and expansion immediately preceded the insurrection that marked the beginning of the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines” (p. 339). The United States’ occupation of the country after the war produced increases in exports, innovations in technology, and much higher standards of living. The Philippines’ economy now would resemble more closely the Southeast Asian model. “The price of twentieth-century progress would be economic dependence” (p. 340).

Historians of the Philippines have produced excellent work. Benito Legarda’s economic history of the archipelago is an important addition to this body of literature. For historians of Asia and of the Spanish Empire After the Galleons is essential, but Legarda’s care in placing the Philippines in the context of with global economic trends makes the book an excellent addition to the field of “World History.” For economic historians and development experts, Legarda has written an important book. With clarity, rigor and avoiding unnecessary jargon, After the Galleons addresses questions and processes that are still affecting our times. Scholars, graduate students and advanced undergraduates in economics, history and other social sciences should read Legarda’s work. It is an indispensable book.

Arturo Giraldez, along with his colleague Dennis O. Flynn, is the editor of The Pacific World: Lands, Peoples and History of the Pacific, 1500-1900 an 18-volume series published by Ashgate/Variorum. With Dennis O. Flynn and James Sobredo, he has edited in 2001 European Entry into the Pacific, the fourth volume of the series.

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business

Author(s):Chandler, Alfred D. Jr.
Reviewer(s):Landes, David S.

Project 2000: Significant Works in Twentieth-Century Economic History

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Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 1977. xvi + 608 pp.

Review Essay by David S. Landes, Departments of Economics and History, Harvard University.

Alfred Chandler: World Master of Institutional Business History

Alfred Chandler is the world master of institutional business history. He began his career as scholar and researcher innocently enough, with a doctoral monograph (1952) on the life and career of Henry Varnum Poor, railway pundit of the nineteenth century. But then he went on to work in the business and personal archives of the du Ponts of Delaware, to whom he was related by family and friendship, and the result was a first-class company and entrepreneurial history, written with the aid and collaboration of Stephen Salsbury: Pierre S. Du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation (New York: Harper & Row, 1971.). As the title indicates, he was already interested in the larger question of the structures and evolution of corporate enterprise.

Then, in the mid 1970s, he brought out the first of a series of major works on this subject, his Visible Hand, which won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes in 1978. The title reference is to deliberate organizational arrangements designed to make big business work. Chandler was not the first to write on this. As his introductory text and references make clear, the topic is one that has interested economists and essayists going back at least to Adam Smith, that incredible seer into past, present, and future. More recent predecessors (over the last century) would include Werner Sombart, James Burnham, Ronald Coase, Douglass North, and Oliver Williamson. But all of these dealt with the problem as part of larger agendas. It was Chandler who, focusing on the theme, rewrote in effect the course of American economic history and laid the basis for comparative international explorations.

The book lays out the task and theme by stating a number of propositions: 1. Modern business enterprise came in when administrative coordination did better than market mechanisms in enhancing productivity and lowering costs. 2. The advantages of coordinating multiple units within a single enterprise could not be realized without a managerial hierarchy. 3. It was the growing volume of economic activities that made administrative coordination more efficient than market coordination. 4. Once a managerial hierarchy does its job, it becomes its own source of permanence, power, and continued growth. 5. Such hierarchies tend to become increasingly technical and professional. 6. Over time, such professional structures become separate from ownership. 7. Professionals prefer long-term stability and growth to short-term gains. 8. Big businesses grew to dominate branches and sectors of the economy, and so doing, altered their structure and that of the economy as a whole.

So much for the United States. Much of the book is a historical review of these processes, beginning with the colonial era and the early decades of independence. In those days, business structures were not so different from what they had been several centuries earlier, in Renaissance Italy or, later, in the Low Countries and England. Chandler offers here an overview exceptional for its coverage through time and space, its attention to the variety of economic activity and commercial specialization. One of the most striking features of this presentation is his attention to the precocity of American development: a colonial, frontier area, low in density, handicapped in matters of inland transport, yet rich in human capital and opportunity. One silent evidence of this modernity: the large number of watch and clock dealers and repairers.

None of this, though, generated the modern corporate business structure, for reasons implicit in Chandler’s propositions. The economy and its business units were not yet big enough. That came with the railroad in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Here for the first time one had large enterprises dispersed in space, requiring heavy investment and maintenance in road, rails, tunnels, and bridges, tight organization of rolling stock, and all kinds of passenger and freight arrangements including timely service, mobilization of capital and handling of money income and outlays — in short a world of its own. Chandler noted here the critical contribution of men trained in the military academies, for armies were even earlier enterprises of vast scale, though more improvisational and transitory in character, and with destructive-predatory rather than constructive objectives. (The only comparable commercial enterprises to the railroads were the canals, but for topographical reasons, these were less important in the United States than in Europe. The one exception was Erie, but even there the waterway was soon lined with railroads. Chandler notes that in the 1840’s, only 400 miles of canal were built, to make the nation’s total canal mileage something under 4,000. In that same decade, over 6,000 rail miles were completed, making the national total 9,000. Time counted, and railroads were faster and more efficient.)

The introduction of such managerial and organizational techniques into industry waited on gains in scale of enterprise. The traditional manufacturing firm, for example, was a personal or familial operation, assisted by outside supply and demand facilities and initiatives — the shop writ large. Past a certain threshold, however, ways had to be found to pull the parts together, to oversee, coordinate, and control. In the United States, it was the chemical and even more the automobile manufactures that led the way. Chandler is particularly well informed here because of his earlier work on Du Pont, with its subsequent ownership of a controlling share of General Motors. GM itself tells a fascinating story of transition from personal to corporate enterprise. It started with William C. Durant, a kind of freebooter who pulled together a number of independent manufacturers – Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Chevrolet et al. — and did his best to stay on top but ran into impossible financial impasses, personal and corporate. It then fell into the hands of the bankers and moneymen: J.P. Morgan and Company and Pierre du Pont (rich from wartime earnings). And with the aid of manager Alfred Sloan, Jr., they set up a command structure that became a model for all manner of industrial enterprises.

Chandler’s analysis would have been even richer had he made an explicit comparison between GM and the Ford Motor Company, because the latter is an exquisite, tortuous example of industrial gigantism under personal autocracy gone astray and awry. Ford was just the opposite of the Chandler prescription: all manner of organizational improvisation in the face of arbitrary whimsy. What the costs to Ford, no one will ever know: this was a company that estimated income and outgo by the height of piles of paper and had only an approximate idea of its debts and credits. When in money trouble, it taxed its dealers.

The move to a rational managerial system was bound to encourage professionalization. One of Chandler’s merits was not only to call attention to new schools and curricula, but also to show how much could be achieved in the strangest places. Here again, his later comparative work filled out the American story along lines already explored by European scholars: the creation and transformation of professional schools to meet the needs of state bureaucracies; the differences in national achievement; the implications for the larger process of economic growth and development. Again, each industry had its own requirements and opportunities, just as each society had its own areas of preference. The British, who had accomplished much on the basis of apprenticeship and bench learning, were slow to adopt formal class and lab instruction. The Continental countries, especially the Germans, French, and Scandinavians, strained to catch up and learned not only to transform the older branches but to advance in new areas of production.

The growing reliance on professionally trained managers entailed an assault on the structures and habits of personal and familial enterprise. This was particularly true of technologically complex branches of production, which found it easier to hire good people than to tame them. Inevitably, the people who ran the show nursed aspirations that contradicted family control, the more so as such experts often were remunerated by share options that gave them a piece of ownership. Growth, moreover, entailed mobilization of funds, whether via bank loans or public sales of ownership shares, and this too often countered family interests.

By the same token, the success and resources of managerial corporations have made them the arch seducers of the business world. This is a new, major aspect of the shift away from family control: how can a family firm say no to such generous offers, often exceeding the prospect of immediate gains? The recent sale of Seagram by the Bronfman interests to the French conglomerate Vivendi is an excellent example of money trumping blood, marriage, and personal aspirations. Another is the purchase by LVMH (Mo?t Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA) of a number of Swiss watch manufacturers by way of establishing itself as a major player in the luxury watch trade. These acquisitions exemplify “what can happen to a small, family-founded business under the umbrella of a global corporate superpower with plenty of financial resources. The chairman and chief executive of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, is known for sparing no expense to gain dominance in luxury brands as diverse as champagne and handbags.” The manger of one of these family brands put it straight: “LVMH is prepared to overinvest in Ebel without short-time return. They know that to build up a luxury brand you need time and money.” (Quoted in the International Herald-Tribune, February 5, 2001, p. 11.)

Chandler’s model, like most powerful syntheses, simplifies reality. The world of enterprise is full of variants, of diverse responses to the tensions and conflicts implicit in entrepreneurial strategy and in the personal circumstances and histories of business endeavor. The family firm has not disappeared and will not. New ones are created all the time. There is even an international fraternity of family firms that go back more than two hundred years, Les Henokiens, named after the biblical patriarch Enoch. And there are enterprises that somehow seem to blend the personal and managerial with such art that one is hard pressed to classify.

But Chandler’s model, in combination with Chandler’s extraordinary energy, has served as the standard, the measure, the incentive to further inquiry. A small library has appeared on this subject, and one has only to read the book Chandler edited with Herman Daems, Managerial Hierarchies: Comparative Perspectives on the Rise of Modern Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), to appreciate the quality and versatility of the collaborators, (Leslie Hannah, Jurgen Kocka, Maurice Levy-Leboyer, Morton Keller, Oliver Williamson), the range of the scholarship, and the opportunities for thought and reconsideration. The Chandlerian model is a monument to present and future scholarship, and the Visible Hand an example and encouragement to scholars everywhere.

David S. Landes is professor emeritus of history and economics at Harvard University and the author of several books including The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969) and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998).

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

Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History

Author(s):Fogel, Robert W.
Reviewer(s):Davis, Lance

Robert W. Fogel, Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964. xv + 296 pp.

Review Essay by Lance Davis, Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology. led@hss.caltech.edu

For those of us who lived through the exciting days of the “cliometric revolution,” the publication of Robert Fogel’s Railroads and American Economic Growth represented a very major milestone – it was as if we now had proof that we had left the bumpy and unpaved dirt road of the first few years and could see ahead a straight and well-paved highway into the future. (See note 1.) The roots of “clio” clearly lay in the 1956 publication of Cary Brown’s “Fiscal Policy in the Thirties: A Reappraisal” and, a few months later, in Alfred Conrad and John Meyer’s initial presentation of “The Economics of Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.” Brown showed that, unlike the findings of the then-current historiography, government economic policy during the 1930’s was not an example of President Roosevelt’s imaginative application of the modern tools of Keynesian fiscal policy; and Conrad and Meyer demonstrated that, despite nearly a century of traditional historiography, ante-bellum slavery was profitable and, at least by implication, that, if the goal was to eliminate slavery before the 1940’s, the Civil War was not an extremely costly and totally unnecessary enterprise. However, these findings – findings that have been well substantiated by later research – while convincing to the small cadre of “converted,” were still not generally accepted by the historical profession. Thus, cliometrics did not really begin to flower until the publication of Robert Fogel’s study of the impact of railroads on American growth in the nineteenth century. Not only did it generate a spate of parallel studies (of Russia, Mexico, Brazil, England, and Scotland, to cite only five), but much more importantly, it provided a methodological foundation for the systematic study of economic history and long-term economic growth.

Despite the attention that had been paid to the construction of the Erie Canal, given the role of the national market in underwriting this country’s rise to become, economically at least, the richest nation in the world, and, given the speed with which rails came to dominate the transport network that provided the basis for that national market, it is not surprising that historians had concluded that railroads were the indispensable and driving force behind American growth in the nineteenth century. To the best of my knowledge, before the first annual Cliometric Conference (a conference held at Purdue University in 1960), few economic historians, neither those traditionally nor those cliometrically inclined doubted this fundamental tenant of American development. (See note 2.) Moreover, although some cliometricians may have been aware of the concept of social savings – a concept that was closely related to the economic literature on cost/benefit analysis – none had attempted to measure the savings attached to any specific legal or technical innovation. (Fogel had touched on a similar concept in The Union Pacific Railroad (1960), but his first published paper dealing specifically with social savings was still almost two years in the future – “A Quantitative Approach to the Study of Railroads in American Economic Growth” (1962).)

With its publication, Railroads proved once and for all that economic history, while still depending on the product of scholars “slugging it out in the archives,” could benefit mightily from the careful application of economic theory and econometrics. On the one hand, although the work immediately generated substantial controversy, and even today one might quibble about a few days or a few months, in the long run, there has been little question about the book’s major conclusion – that the level of per capita income achieved by January 1, 1890 would have been reached by March 31, 1890, if railroads had never been invented. Moreover, Fogel’s work also indicated that there was no other industry that was likely to have been more important than the railroads; and, thus, if not railroads, no other industry could have played the role that historiography attributed to the rails. On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming that, since the publication and subsequent debate over Railroads, almost all economic history has been written by scholars who have either been trained in economics or who have found it necessary to acquire (either formally or informally) those basic economic and econometric skills. What, then, in addition to the central importance of the subject, made this such a path-breaking work? As the title suggests, the book is actually a collection of four interrelated, but really distinct, substantive essays: “The Interregional Distribution of Agricultural Products,” “The Intraregional Distribution of Agricultural Products,” “Railroads and the ‘Take-off’ Thesis: The American Case” and “The Position of Rails in the Market for American Iron, 1840-1860: A Reconstruction.” Any attempt at evaluating the contribution of the book rests on the evaluation of the methods and findings of the four.

If Fogel had limited his work to the last two essays – the two that in many ways were the most central to the then intense discussions of the “Axiom of Indispensability,” the work would have been important; but it would never have had anywhere near the impact that it actually did. In the third essay, “The Takeoff,” Fogel, although not addressing the question of whether or not there was in fact a “takeoff” between 1843 and 1860, in order to operationalize his argument, chooses the first of W.W. Rostow’s criteria for a “leading industry”: in this case, what impact did the railroads have on the “change in the percentage distribution of output among the various industries?” Then, drawing on the best available data – data reported by Robert Gallman in his seminal (1960) study of commodity output – Fogel finds that the impact of the railroads on that percentage distribution was minimal. In the case of iron, railroads, except at the end of the period, accounted for only a minor fraction of the output change (overall, including the later period, it was still only 17 percent); for coal, it was less than 5 percent; for lumber, barely 5 percent; in the case of transport equipment only 25 percent (only half of the change accounted for by vehicles drawn by animals); and for machinery it was less than 1 percent. Thus, for all manufacturing, the railroads accounted for less than 3 percent of the change – hardly a ringing endorsement for what was purported to be a “leading industry.”

In his more detailed examination of the impact of railroads on the development of the iron industry (an attempt to assess the importance of railroads to industrialization because of their alleged “backward linkages”), Fogel found it necessary to produce a new series on pig iron output between 1840 and 1860 and to revise the estimates of the consumption of railroads to account for imports and recycled rails as well as changes in the weight of rails. These new estimates represented a major contribution to our understanding of the industrial history of the period. Fogel’s primary interest, however, was not on the production of the new series, but on estimating the importance of the railroads in the development of the iron industry. His results, again, indicate that railroads did not dominate the development of the iron industry in the two decades before the Civil War. In fact, his conclusions strongly support Douglass North’s conclusion that, from the point of view of backward linkages, it would be as sensible to talk about an iron stove theory of the development of the iron industry as a railroad theory.

In these two essays Fogel demonstrates a command of what had heretofore been the best of traditional economic history, but in neither chapter are there any major methodological breakthroughs – merely a carefully constructed series of new estimates and the demonstration of an ability to bring those estimates to bear on important issues. In the first and second of the four substantive chapters – the estimate of the social savings from the interregional and from the intraregional distribution of agricultural products – Fogel’s methodological innovations do, however, play a central role. First, in both essays, he attempts to explicate and to provide estimates of the appropriate counterfactual – what the world would have been like had there been no railroads. Although historians have long employed counterfactual arguments – sometimes it seems without realizing it – to most historians the idea of an explicit counterfactual was still a very foreign notion in the early 1960s. Second, in both chapters Fogel employs the concept of social savings (the difference in social costs between the real and the counterfactual worlds) to provide a measure of the value of the introduction of the railroad. The concept of social savings is itself an important research tool; but, from a methodological point of view, it is equally important that the measure was defined operationally, so that Fogel’s calculations could be tested against alternative estimates and against possible alternative definitions. As an aside, however, it is interesting to note that, although the two studies are very very important from the view point of methodological innovation, from the point of view of traditional economic history, they are not as strong as the third and fourth substantive essays. In the second substantive essay – the social savings arising from the intraregional distribution of agricultural commodities – Fogel begins by noting that the substitution of rail for water was more rapid in the intraregional than in the interregional distribution of agricultural commodities, and, that, since the distances to be shipped in the intraregional case were only a third as great for rail as for water transport, one would expect that the social savings from the innovation would be greater. To estimate those savings he proposes two measures: alpha (a direct measure of the cost differences with and without the railroads) and beta (an indirect measure based on the difference in the value of the land that would have been economically productive with railroads and the lesser number of acres and, thus, the lesser value of land that would have been economically productive in the absence of those railroads).

Fogel then estimates alpha for a sample of counties in the North Atlantic region and concludes that the direct costs (alpha) would amount to a loss of 2.5% of GNP, and that adjustment for excluded indirect costs (alpha-2) would have increased that figure to 2.8% of GNP. Neither estimate, however, includes the potential savings that would have resulted from the construction of additional canals and better roads. He admits that the North Atlantic region may not provide an adequate representation of the entire country, but he argues that it would be too expensive and difficult to extend this direct measure of savings to the rest of the country.

As an alternative, Fogel suggests that, since water transport was available for about 76% of the land value in the U.S., since, in the absence of railroads, 75% of the loss of land value would be in the four states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, and since all of the lost land could be brought into production with only a small extension of the canal network, a measure based on the difference in the value of arable land provides an equally good measure of social savings. He concludes that the cost of the direct loss of arable land from the absence of railroads (beta) would amount to 1.8% of GNP, and that the total loss – the sum of direct and indirect costs (beta-2) – would amount to 2.1% of GNP. Again, however, beta-2 does include the potential savings that would result from additional canals and better roads. Making further adjustments for the unbuilt canals and better roads, Fogel provides two estimates for the social savings from intraregional trade: alpha-3 equal to 1.2% of GNP and beta-3 equal to 1.0% It was, however, Fogel’s estimates of the social savings generated by railroads in interregional shipping (the first substantive essay), that really touched off the methodological revolution. As in the second essay, the use of explicit counterfactuals and the innovation of the concept (as well as his estimates) of the social savings broke new ground. In this case, however, there were also other very important methodological innovations.

Fogel begins with an operational definition of interregional distribution: “the process of shipping commodities from the primary markets of the Midwest to the secondary markets of the East and South.” While there were good estimates of agricultural production and agricultural exports, there were no data on the method and routes of shipment that were used to move agricultural commodities from producing areas to the points of domestic and foreign consumption; and it is here that Fogel introduces his single most significant innovation. He focuses of four commodities (wheat, corn, beef, and pork) – commodities that together represented 42 percent of agricultural income. He, first, estimates the export surplus at ten primary markets in the west and the consumption in the almost 200 deficit trading areas in the East and South (exports are attributed to the port from which they were shipped). The potential rail and water shipping routes from West to East were easily identified, and the costs of rail and water shipment were well known. To simplify the problem, Fogel focuses on a sample of 30 of the 825 potential routes between pairs of cities in the West and the East. Since the actual choice of routes is unknown, he very imaginatively suggests a linear programming model to estimate the routes – with and without railroads – that would have been selected had the shippers been guided by cost minimization. He then estimates the costs of the inferred shipments, costs estimated both with and without rails. Since there were also additional costs of water transport (lost cargoes, transshipment expenses, extra wagon haulage, time lost because of slower speed and because the canals and rivers froze, and the capital costs of the canals that were not included in the water rates), Fogel adjusts his original cost differentials to account for these additional expenses. His result is an estimate of the social savings in interregional shipment resulting from the innovation of railroads of six-tenths of one percent of GNP, a figure that would have increased to only 1.3%, had he assumed that rail rates were zero.

In this chapter Fogel made four important innovations that were to have a major impact of the nature of research in economic history: (1) the operational definition of social savings; (2) the use of an explicit counterfactual; (3) the use of a formal economic model to estimate what costs would have been had the decisions been made by economic man; and (4) his choice, when it was necessary to make assumptions about the actual world, of assumptions that were biased against his central findings. (See note 3.) Even more than his estimates of interregional social savings, the work in this essay completely changed the way economic historians would do business in the future. There is, however, one blemish in the story. Professor Fogel never actually solved the linear programming problem; his choice of routes was based on what he assumed the solution would have been.

Notes:

1. To give you some feeling about that first decade, one might note that the term “cliometrics” was coined by my then colleague at Purdue, Stanley Reiter – he had been toying around with questions raised by a new discipline that he called “theometrics” (for example, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?); and, in his joking way, he suggested that the work in quantitative history seemed to be drawn from similar academic stream.

2. Bob Fogel and, perhaps, Douglass North and Al Fishlow, were the major exceptions. Fogel, himself, has said that he began his investigation fully believing that it would confirm the importance of the railroads. Fishlow (1965) reached conclusions for the antebellum period very similar to those Fogel reached about the latter part of the nineteenth century. Not long before this, North (1961, p. 164) wrote, “While the value added of rails was approximately $6.5 million in 1860 and roughly equals to the value added of bar iron, it was dwarfed by the value added of the polyglot classification of iron castings, which was $21 million in 1860. Indeed, the value added in stove making alone was equal to that of iron rails.”

3. For example, Fogel made no adjustment for changes in non-rail transport that might have been made had there been no railroads: he holds both origins and destinations fixed despite the fact that there would almost certainly have been some such adjustments in the absence of railroads; and he assumes that, in the absence of railroads, water rates would be constant rather than declining as might have been the case had canal builders exploited potential economies of scale.

References:

E. Cary Brown. 1956. “Fiscal Policy in the Thirties: A Reappraisal,” American Economic Review, 46 (December).

Alfred Conrad and John Meyer. 1958. “The Economics of Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South” Journal of Political Economy, 66 (April). This paper was first presented at the meeting of the Economic History Association in 1956.

Albert Fishlow. 1965. American Railroads and the Transformation of the American Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robert Fogel. 1960. The Union Pacific Railroad: A Case Study of Premature Enterprise. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Robert Fogel. 1962. “A Quantitative Approach to the Study of Railroads in American Economic Growth: A Report of Some Preliminary Findings,” Journal of Economic History, 22 (June).

Robert E. Gallman. 1960. “Commodity Output in the United States,” in Conference on Income and Wealth, Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century, 24, Studies in Income and Wealth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Douglass North. 1961. The Economic Growth of the United States 1790 to 1860 Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry

Author(s):Churella, Albert J.
Reviewer(s):Scranton, Philip

Published by EH.NET (January 1999)

Albert Churella, From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational

Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry.

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. viii + 215 pp.

$45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-691-02776-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Philip Scranton, School of History, Technology, and

Society, Georgia Institute of Technology.

It is a commonplace of twentieth century industrial and railway history

that the steam locomotive (and the firms producing it) fell before the diesel

challenge, which delivered a technologically and economically more efficient

form of motive power, promoted by two of America’s leading corporations,

General

Motors and later General Electric, enterprises which dominate locomotive

provision to this day. The great virtue of Albert Churella’s slender, but

satisfying study is his sustained effort to probe beneath this truism to

expose the complex and contingent interactions which underlay diesel’s triumph

and the business cultures which sustained steam traction’s construction and

utilization. Churella (Ohio State University)

also makes appealing arguments for individual agency and interpersonal

relations within/between giant firms as key elements in framing the transition,

notes the role of legislation and government contracts at critical moments, and

documents innovators’ persistent stumbling as they sought to design and market

standardized diesel locomotives. Thus From Steam to Diesel represents a

welcome achievement in business and technological history, valuably

complementing John Brown’s recent Baldwin Locomotive Works (Johns

Hopkins, 1995), which analyzes the nation’s leading nineteenth century railway

engine builders, closing at just about the point (c. 1910) at which Churella

takes up the story’s threads.

Constructing locomotives long necessitated that enterprise

owners and managers have the steely resolve to take the long view of markets

and as well, a generous flexibility in meeting their clients’ diverse needs for

equipment. Demand for producers’ goods fluctuated wildly, then as now,

seeming perennially to be

either overheated or “dead.” Railways routinely clustered their orders,

creating backlogs and delays, or deferred upgrades and replacements, thus

forcing workforce and financial retrenchments.

Moreover, the roads’ superintendents of motive power held quite definite

notions about the design characteristics of the locomotives necessary for

different terrains, climates, or levels of use intensity. Building engines in

response to these variations made Baldwin, American Locomotive (ALCo,

the outcome of a tur n-of-the-century merger) and Lima (a perennial trailer,

focused on market niches) virtuosos in the custom and small batch fabrication

of complex mechanical goods. In tandem they developed a sectoral culture of

steam propulsion shared by generations of railway managers and employees,

batteries of product-specific workplace skills, and commitments to particular

“ways of seeing” and addressing technical problems and evaluating locomotives’

adequacy. Each of these assets became a liability as dieselization

gained a foothold.

In theory, diesel engines had powerful advantages over steam, not least

their ability to achieve “thermal efficiencies” vastly higher

(yielding lower fuel costs) than the older technology. Diesels needed no water

supplies, had lower repair expenses, generated more startup force per

horsepower and could, through dynamic braking, ease trains’ passage on long

downgrades. In practice, however, into the 1920s, diesels were far too heavy

for railway use, achieving early success chiefly

in “marine applications” (14-17). Moreover, no experimental design could

reliably transmit the engine’s power directly to traction wheels, an obstacle

resolved by using the diesel to drive electric motors of the sort GE and

Westinghouse had created for

streetcars and interurbans. Freed of the need for electrical power line

contacts (and hence of the huge costs for erecting and maintaining these) and

encouraged by legislation banning steam locomotives from New York and

Baltimore, both companies ventured

into diesel-electric production, GE in alliance with ALCo (using diesels from

Ingersoll Rand) and Westinghouse with Baldwin. Yet it was Harold Hamilton’s

new-start, Electro- Motive, that forged ahead. For years, EM,

clearly an early virtual corporation,

“did not manufacture anything” (32).

Rather Hamilton created a design boutique for self-propelled railcars,

commissioning components and subcontracting their assembly. Rather than

incrementally shifting designs to include “learning by using” improvements

,

EM froze its designs, reaped “substantial production efficiencies,” then

consolidated accumulated feedback insights periodically into new models.

When the Big Two sidelined their diesel efforts, EM picked up a roster of their

able engineers and made some 500 railcars by 1930, but the Depression emptied

order books, threatening a collapse.

Here Churella turns to the contingent sequence of interactions which

brought EM into General Motors’ orbit and set it on a rocky path to challenge

steam traction

. In the late 20s, Charles Kettering, GM’s research director, promoted

experiments in using diesels for highway vehicles, quickly finding that

“metallurgy had not yet caught up with diesel engine technology” (38). Once

the economy slumped, Alfred Sloan pressed “Ket” to save on R&D costs by buying

an experienced diesel engine maker. The Winton company, acquired in 1930, had

worked with EM extensively; and Hamilton soon befriended Kettering, turning his

attention to the potential of locomotive diesels and

to aiding EM’s stalled engine-development plans. As an effort to promote GM

diesels by having models designed for Navy contracts power the company’s 1933

Chicago World’s Fair display was flopping badly (“the only part of that engine

that worked well was

the dipstick”), Hamilton and his ally Ralph Budd (head of the Chicago,

Burlington and Quincy) persuaded Sloan and Kettering to install diesels as

drivers for the CB&Q’s new streamlined “train-set” for the Chicago-Denver run.

A second failure would have be en disastrous, but in 1934 the “Zephyr” stunned

everyone, accelerating so rapidly on a test run that its tail lights fell off.

Cheap to operate, fast and reliable, this luxury passenger train created a

national sensation which surely helped Kettering extract a half-million from

Sloan late that year for expanding diesel engine research, then vastly more in

1935 for what became a huge locomotive production plant at LaGrange, IL. In

all this, the key players’

interpersonal networks of trust and confidence

and their uninvolvement with the “steam culture” proved crucial.

If this sounds like the run-up to rapid success, Churella supplies a

cautionary “Not so fast.” Motive power men at most railways derided diesels,

even resisting their use as yard-switchers, where their facility in starting

and stopping could be valuable. EM salesmen thus approached railroad financial

officers with reams of data showing diesels’

cost-savings and began landing orders. Second, the Zephyr-style three or four

car passenger

train-sets were a dead end, as cars could not be added.

Instead, EM had to design independent passenger diesels to supplement the

smaller switchers, then proceed to the big stuff, freight-hauling locomotives.

Third, railroad workers knew nothing about diesel maintenance and repair,

hence, the makers had to develop extensive training programs,

after-sale service linkages, and inventories of replacement parts for rapid

delivery. GM’s deep pockets were crucial here, for absent system investments

Churella

estimates totaling between $17 and $25 million, the diesel campaign may well

have floundered, even in the face of a vast locomotive replacement market

(40,000 engines, perhaps $4 billion over the long term). One further

competitive advantage was that EM,

which became a General Motors division, could mobilize the GM Acceptance

Corporation’s resources to arrange monthly payment plans for railroads, just as

GMAC did for citizens buying Chevrolets. Last, even into recent years, design

failures in new models

of these immensely complex machines (ca. 50-60,000 parts) occurred repeatedly.

Yet it is clear that transferring elements of GM’s auto manufacturing approach

to locomotive building, even if full mass production remained elusive, was a

winning strategy, especially when contrasted with the stumbling efforts of the

steam engine makers.

The three steam locomotive leaders at first

denied the relevance of

diesels to railway needs, then squandered opportunities to adapt their

facilities, engineering practices, and work routines to producing them.

All eventually fashioned diesel locomotives that ranged from dreadful to barely

adequate when put in use by railroads that had long cherished their

steam-powered drivers. Each attempted to use product diversification

strategies (making all sorts of specialized capital goods), but failed to

thrive for reasons that another research project might explore. ALCo, the

least awful diesel builder, remained in the postwar engine market in large part

because railways were

anxious about EMD’s monopoly potential. Once General Electric, which had

supplied ALCo its electrical components,

entered the diesel trade in the 1960s with better models, ALCo quickly faded

from sight. Churella rapidly surveys GE’s challenge to EMD in

closing passages; by 1993 the “newcomer” (which had traction experience from

before 1900) was outselling EMD two engines to one and GM

“contemplated exiting [the] industry.” In response, EMD “allowed its customers

greater control over the design and manufacturing process,” (139)

a step back toward the specialty production format which its standard models

had helped erase in the century’s middle decades. Whether this move indicates

desperation or represents tactical ingenuity lies outside the author’s

boundaries, of course.

In sum, this is an engaging study of the transformation of a specialty

production trade into a standard-product industry, though one which remains

vulnerable to the vicissitudes all capital goods sectors face. Churella’s

tale,

to be sure, does not neatly conform to “organizational synthesis”

templates, which he regards as “giv[ing] too little weight to historical

actors” (151). Rather, he urges readers to consider the interplay between

enterprise structure/strategy considerations and those anchored in shared

industrial cultures, technological and personal networks, and state activities,

which, together with far broader phenomena (depressions, wars),

deploy the challenges enterprises must face and create those shifts and

surprises that inspire both the managerial and the historical imagination.

(I know convention mandates that I offer something critical about this work

- OK, the index is inadequate…) This book is well worth the attention of

economic/business historians and their students.

Phil Scranton is the Kranzberg Professor of the History of Technology at

Georgia Tech in Atlanta. His Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and

American Industrialization, 1865-1925 rolled out of Princeton University Press

in December 1997

. He is presently contemplating the horrors of researching the depression-era

decay of specialty manufacturing and its restructuring (in some trades) during

the Cold War decades.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Economic History Classics

Selections for 2006

During 2006 EH.NET published a series of “Classic Reviews.” Modeled along the lines of our earlier Project 2000 and Project 2001 series, reviewers were asked to “reintroduce” each of the books to the profession, “explaining its significance at the time of publication and why it has endured as a classic.” Each review summarizes the book’s key findings, methods and arguments, as it puts it into the larger context and discusses any weaknesses.

This year’s selections are (alphabetically by author):

Selection Committee

  • Gareth Austin, London School of Economics
  • Ann Carlos, University of Colorado
  • John Murray, University of Toledo
  • Lawrence Officer, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Cormac Ó Gráda, University College Dublin
  • Peter Scott, University of Reading
  • Catherine Schenk, University of Glasgow
  • Pierre van der Eng, Australian National University
  • Jenny Wahl, Carleton College