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The Emergence of Capitalism in Early America

Author(s):Calvo, Christopher W.
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.Net (January 2021)

Christopher W. Calvo, The Emergence of Capitalism in Early America. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2020. x + 296 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8130-663-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.


Christopher Calvo, who teaches teaches history at Florida International University, focuses on antebellum written thought about emerging capitalism (“intellectual capitalism”). Economists often dismiss these writings as inconsequential, and historians push them into ill-fitting pigeon holes. The first chapter, as introduction, states his desire to “liberate antebellum political economy” (p. 13) from misleading characterizations, and to reclaim it from obscurity. He covers a very large and diverse body of writings, some of the commentary on it, and political developments that formed the context for the writings. Calvo’s focus is broad: rather than parsing someone’s complex economic argument, he describes a writer’s major themes. His thesis is that many thinkers were original, were well aware of the British economists, freely modified British doctrines to fit American realities, or, often rejected those doctrines.

Chapter two considers writers who favored some key ideas of Adam Smith. Northeastern, mainly academic, thinkers, such as Francis Wayland and John McVickar, promoted Smith’s free-trade ideas. But they endorsed free trade, less for its material benefits, and more for what they saw as its moral benefits. Southern thinkers flipped the emphasis: supporting free trade less for moral benefits, and more for its material benefits. Ultimately, some in the South pushed their argument to implausible extremes (see p. 44 and following). But in both regions, thinkers “expressed a complacent optimism about the economic behavior of private individuals, found security in a benevolent natural order, and deprecated political institutions” p. (50).

Chapter 3 turns to the generally negative reception of Malthus and Ricardo in antebellum America. Americans resisted the abstract, deterministic outlook of Malthus and Ricardo. A wide-spread response was that American exceptionalism (of one or another sort) would prevent Malthus’s population crunch. European political systems, not inexorable laws of nature, caused poverty. More generally, many Americans rejected universal economic laws, as typified by British economists, in favor of a more empirical economic methodology. I was impressed by how many Americans advanced data collecting; and how many had versions of productivity growth (beyond Smith’s division of labor) as the American way out of Malthus’s trap (p. 97). Calvo sums up (p. 101-2): The Americans “did not take seriously the perils British economics ascribed to economic growth. … These dangers were neutralized by the exceptionalism of American circumstances.”

In Chapter 4, Calvo argues that antebellum protests against capitalism were hardly revolutionary expressions. Capitalism itself was the revolution; and anti-capitalist writers were actually conservatives, who felt the loss of an older, passing culture. Southern writers argued that chattel slavery was more humane than industrial “wage slavery.” And northern labor radicals favored a return to a craft society, when “social production was organized around the community’s needs, much as they imagined it had been during the premodern age” (p. 128).

The fifth chapter argues that “protectionism represents the quintessential features of a distinctly American brand of intellectual capitalism” (p. 140). It wove together various American values, including “American exceptionalism, free-labor entrepreneurialism, national industrial expansionism, Anglophobia” (p. 140), as it set out a hybrid capitalism boosted by tariffs. These Americans critiqued British free-trade doctrines as being designed to thwart American growth. They also critiqued the British economists for their deductive methodology, and strongly endorsed empirical and pragmatic thought: “protectionists incorporated into their works a bounty of economic data” (p. 152).

Still in this chapter, Calvo also addresses much of the political history surrounding the long-running tariff debates. Among the figures to which he gives significant attention are Alexander Hamilton, Matthew Carey and Daniel Raymond. A thread throughout is an American optimism missing in classical thought: “the industrial future held an economics of growth, not scarcity and stagnation” (p. 169). And tariffs were a means to grasp it. Chapter 6 singles out Henry Carey who “was recognized as the most important thinker of the protectionist movement in his time” (p. 180). In my judgment, Carey’s most important idea was his notion of productivity growth, which released the benefits of industrialization for all sectors the economy (see p. 183 and following). The description of Carey suggests Carey may have anticipated ideas similar to Henry George of a later era, including the agglomeration economies of modern urban economics. Productivity ideas were widespread: even the northeast moralistic writer Francis Wayland got beyond morals and broached productivity growth.

Chapter 7 singles out financial capitalism. Calvo notes the large number of Americans who “viewed banks as abnormal business enterprises” (p. 196 –quoting James Huston). Some did not even view finance as intrinsically connected to capitalism. Yet others were willing to tolerate, or welcome, some kinds of banking under some conditions. But even “friends of finance wrote positively on the role of state intervention” for a healthy financial system (p. 196). In Hamilton’s footsteps, later Whigs could see the necessity of finance; but they favored state regulations. The literature is large, of varying quality, and with myriad nuances.

The final chapter is a conclusion; “during the antebellum period the discipline [of economics] was pursued … with great intensity and was inclusive of an extensive, rich and dynamic range of ideological and theoretical positions” (p. 241).

Calvo has performed a great service, and one must be impressed by his mastery of a massive body of writings. Antebellum economic thought is a large unsettled area, and Calvo imposes some order by suggesting useful classifications. He also introduces the political, economic, and other historical contexts of this outpouring.

Nevertheless, perhaps unjustly, the literature failed to wield much influence on the development of subsequent economics. However, it seems clear that it expressed central tendencies of American views that are still evident today. For example: tariffs and the question whether free trade has been a net benefit to America are current topics. Concepts such as structural racism, rather than abstract economic principles, are today advanced to understand income inequality. (The “historical school” seems very alive in economics outside the academic area.)The role of deregulated banking in creating America’s economic woes of the Great Recession, and legislated remedies, continue to be a lively topic. Calvo’s work reveals that these concerns have deeps roots in American history. For that reason alone, this work is significant.

I have written about Daniel Raymond, one of Calvo’s subjects. It seems to me Raymond’s ideas could not easily be encompassed by describing him as a protectionist. Raymond also had a notion of business cycles and of what now would be called fiscal stimulus. On the other hand, Raymond was arguably as much a throwback to earlier times as the northeastern, academic writers; for his writing also exhibited a large dose of post-Puritan moralism. He just took it in a far less conservative direction. Calvo misses the chance to elaborate the progressive potential of religious morality (he need only have looked ahead some decades to the Social Gospel movement, for example). That said, however, Calvo had to set boundaries to his work. He has produced an impressive work.


Donald E. Frey (Wake Forest University, retired) is the author of America’s Economic Moralists (SUNY Press, 2009)

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century