Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 1. THREAD. My thoughts on Jonathan Levy’s Ages of American Capitalism, with links and images!

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 2. I’m teaching Levy’s most recent book for one of my courses this semester. I was eager to read Chapter 4, “Capitalism and Democracy,” as it covers topics that are exciting and familiar to me.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 3. It was because of my passion for this subject that upon reading a few of Levy’s claims, I embarked on a short, in-house journey of investigation and fact-checking. I am fortunate to possess many of the books that Levy draws upon, which allow me to track down original sources.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 4. There is much that Levy does well in this dense, well sourced, and ambitious project. The maps, charts, and graphs in this chapter, and in others, are helpful.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 5. Levy covers a wide range of topics in textbook fashion: the Erie canal, Bank War, transportation revolution, the Tariff of Abominations, anti-monopolism, two financial panics, etc.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 6. Even better than a textbook is Levy’s extensive list of citations that incorporate a lot of the latest research, particularly from economic and business historians. His explanations are solid and even strong.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 7. There is a level of seriousness, depth, and accomplishment in Levy’s work that cannot be found in Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution, beyond the fact that the former had the advantage of researching and writing during the Internet Age.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 8. To his credit, Levy does not present Jackson as taking a heroic stand against capitalism, and nor does he call the Bank War the “acid test” of American democracy. Levy correctly notes that both Clay and Jackson favored creditors, not debtors, during the Panic of 1819.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 9. Levy reminds us that in this age of Smithian growth characterized by division of labor, specialization, and the expansion of markets across space, few Americans had any concept of “the market” or “the economy.”

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 10. @lepler and Andrew Browning have made similar points in their work.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 11. I’ve also been reading Olmstead’s and Rhode’s responses to three of the most prominent New History of Capitalism (NHOC) authors, and John Clegg’s article on what he calls “credit market discipline.”

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 12. The two pieces are helpful in explaining why there was a fourfold increase in cotton production per slave per day that took place between 1800 and 1860.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 13. For all the attention given by some earlier historians of capitalism to British merchant banking houses financing the expansion of southern slavery, small slaveholders lending to one another on local terms were driving much of the economic growth at the time.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 14. Intraregional trade trumped interregional and international trade. I’m thinking here of Bonnie Martin’s essay in Beckert’s and Rockman’s edited volume and Diane Lindstrom showing similar themes in the Pennsylvania context.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 15. If there is an argument that weaves together so many varied and interlocking events of the antebellum era, it may be found in Levy’s contention that “The Democracy sought to circumscribe federal power in order to sphere public from private….

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 16. ….It aimed to emancipate the private commercial sphere from government monopoly privilege and open it to all white heads of household on equal terms” (114). White male democracy was expanding in the United States amidst two major credit bubbles.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 17. Ironically, the assault on federal guidance of economic development in the name of “equal rights” for the common white man opened the door for more concentration of wealth among corporate elites (97). John Larson made a similar argument at the end of Internal Improvement.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 18. Earlier generations of scholars have wrestled with many of the themes discussed in this chapter. Wood, Appleby, and their contemporaries saw in public admonitions over corruption and liberty some of the core features of classical republicanism and classical liberalism.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 19. When Levy wrote that “In economic life, prominent continuities existed much as during the long Revolution. In production, the organic economy endured. The Empire of Liberty’s greatest subsovereign, the household, remained the central economic institution” (94), I thought…

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 20. …I suppose that this could be true but it depended on space and time. “A large number of households, most of which supported Jackson,” he writes, “remained nearly off the commercial grid” (115). Here I was frustrated because I did not see any citations.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 21. I recalled some of the key questions animating debates over the “market revolution” in the 1990s. Were Americans in 1815 practicing a mostly subsistence livelihood? To what degree did the agricultural majority welcome capitalism and when did capitalism arrive?

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 22. Can we test these questions empirically, and should we test them empirically when beliefs, attitudes, and ideology are also important to consider?

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 23. On one side of this debate were J. Henretta, M. Merrill, C. Clark, Sellers, and the early writings of Wilentz and Watson. Informed by E.P. Thompson, many of these authors pointed to the persistence of a subsistence economy, resistance to capitalism, and a “moral economy.”

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 24. Arrayed against them were many economic historians from a more neoclassical tradition, including the likes of Winifred Barr Rothenberg, Joyce Appleby, John Majewski, and Robert Wright. They tended to see capitalism and entrepreneurialism thriving early on.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 25. Allan Kulikoff’s 1989 article in WMQ included a summary of these debates

The edited volume of Stokes and Conway and a symposium in JER brought forth numerous critiques of Sellers’s approach, which Levy wisely avoided.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 26. I do have some critiques. More attention to some of the works in political history might lead Levy to rephrase or reconsider certain claims. Here are some examples:

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 27. “[T]he result of Jackson’s [two terms] was a dramatic political realignment” (94). This is a plausible interpretation aligned with the work of James Roger Sharp, who did not see a clear divide between the two parties on banking until the late-1830s.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 28. But eminent political historian Donald Ratcliffe, who knows quite a bit on how different ethnic and religious groups voted, believes this realignment was evident much earlier, in the 1824 election.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 29. Levy: Jackson won a plurality of the vote in the election of 1824 (107). Again, this is the standard, textbook account we’ve all learned. Ratcliffe has given us a persuasive case for challenging this conventional wisdom.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 30. Levy: “Amos Kendall, a Treasury official, along with Roger B. Taney, the attorney general, assisted [Andrew Jackson] in writing the [veto famous Bank veto message of 1832]…”

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 31. Yes, Taney was involved to a small degree, but the veto message was mostly the product of Amos Kendall, whose drafts and handwriting are in original AJ Papers at the LOC. See p. 78 of my book and pp. 379—409 of Volume 10 of the Andrew Jackson Papers, published in 2016.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 32. There are a few things I think Levy has gotten wrong. Levy: “Four years early, however, in the run-up to the presidential election of 1832, Clay, sensing a political advantage and working in concert with Biddle, decided that Congress would recharter the bank” (111).

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 33. This misrepresents what figures or forces drove the controversial decision to apply early for a new Bank charter. I also believe that it is a variation on the classic argument that Henry Clay wanted to be president and so he forced a reluctant Biddle into supporting recharter

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 34. Again, this is conventional wisdom, passed down over the generations, that is repeated in virtually every book about the Bank War, but which ultimately relies on thin evidence.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 35. I argue that it was Thomas Cadwalader and the Bank’s board of directors who were most influential in pushing an early re-charter effort.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 36. Eliminate the citation to Kilbourne. His work should not be part of any serious discussion.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 37. A small factual error. Levy says in 1839, the Second Bank failed, due in part to Biddle’s cotton speculations (122). I think Levy meant to say that Biddle retired in 1839. The Bank collapsed in 1841.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 38. For more on Biddle’s cotton speculations and the Panic of 1837, see these two articles:

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 39. A couple of seemingly trivial factual and interpretative points in which Levy relays to the reader some of the conclusions of Sean Wilentz open up an important opportunity to discuss the process of producing historical scholarship.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 40. “The Second BUS enjoyed extraordinary power over U.S. economic life,” Levy writes (111). I’ve gone back and forth over the years over whether the powers wielded by the Bank were truly extraordinary.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 41. The FED today has a far greater power to shape the economy than the 2BUS. But were the 2BUS’s powers extraordinary for the time? That was the Jacksonian perspective and Levy must surely be aware that Wilentz was more sympathetic to this view than DW Howe.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 42. Crucially, one of the statistics that Levy and Wilentz use to bolster the claim of extraordinary powers is wrong. “In 1830,” according to Levy, “BUS banknote issues accounted for some 40 percent of the U.S. circulating medium” (111).

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 43. This stat literally jumped out of the page at me because it was so different from everything else I had read and concluded based on examining BUS balance sheets to write my book and articles. Therefore, I wanted to track down the original source.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 44. Levy cited Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, 365. Wilentz, in turn, cited Ralph C.H. Catterall, The Second Bank of the United States, 10-21 and Walter Buckingham Smith, Economic Aspects of the Second Bank of the United States, 147—220.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 45. I have both books and neither supported Wilentz’s statistic. The range of pages that Wilentz cites in Catterall’s book discuss the different proposals for the Bank’s charter in 1816, which have nothing to do with the Bank’s finances in 1830.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 46. Meanwhile, there was nothing remotely close to the 40% statistic in the range of pages Wilentz gives for Smith’s book. If anything, there were sentences to undermine Wilentz’s claim.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 47. Smith writes, “The year 1830 opened inauspiciously,” and “[t]hroughout 1830 there were occasional complaints that times were ‘dull’” (150). Two pages later, Smith writes, “[t]he year 1830 was a dull year for business and the Bank and branches had surplus reserves” (152).

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 48. And even if those two older but respectable books had given some empirical backing to Wilentz’s claim, the claim would still be undermined and ultimately overturned, I think, by other statistics I’ll now show.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 49. House Report 460 from 1832 shows a net circulation from the Bank in January of 1830 at $12.924 million, a stat that was subsequently published in Historical Statistics of the United States (HSUS).

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 50. If the Wilentz stat was true, the total note circulation of ALL BANKS IN THE COUNTRY would have to be between $32-33 million, and that just seems way too small to be true based on other balance sheets I’ve seen, and in a country of 13 million people in a $1 billion economy.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 51. Indeed, the HSUS shows that 273 state banks reported $38.4 million in notes circulated, which was a low estimate since there were 381 state banks in the country.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 52. Thus far, I’ve only been considering notes emitted by the 2BUS and state banks, but this leaves aside the notes issued by mercantile firms, non-incorporated banks, and municipal governments, all of which would have added to the nation’s circulating medium. @joshrgreenberg

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 53. Wilentz was also wrong on p. 365 about the Bank’s capital of $35 million being about twice the size of the federal government’s budget. If we’re still talking about 1830, the stat is closer to 1.2 times as much, not 2x as much. Thankfully Levy did not repeat that claim.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 54. In reference to Biddle’s post-veto media campaign, Levy writes, “Soon enough Biddle had to stop the presses: the bank veto was wildly popular” (113). Was Jackson’s veto wildly popular?

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 55. We can only assess this claim imperfectly but I’m convinced it is doubtful at best, and even contradicted by some evidence. See p. 91 of my book and Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, 106. Jackson may have lost votes between 1828 and 1832 because of the veto.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 56. I would graciously invite Dr. Levy to read The Bank War and the Partisan Press, where among other insights one will discover new and more detailed estimates on the amount of money that Biddle spent in his lobbying campaign.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 57. To what extent are these issues, oversights, and errors serious? In the final analysis I won’t say that they are serious or that Levy was careless, though I do believe one could make the case that the chapter should have been improved a bit more prior to publication.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 58. One can find errors in every work and I do not suspect that this book will generate major disciplinary infighting or public spats in the ways that books by Ed Baptist, Michael Bellesisles, and Nancy MacLean did.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 59. We should keep in mind Levy’s larger purpose of writing an entire history of American capitalism from its origins to the present, a feat that few of us would be able to pull off. I did find myself nodding along while reading and am impressed by the breadth of the book.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 60. We cannot expect Levy to have an encyclopedic knowledge of each and every topic he covers over a 400-year period. I must necessarily withhold some judgment because I have not finished the book, and I look forward to hearing how twentieth-century scholars react.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 61. I am intrigued by his thesis about the HoC being a perpetual conflict between short-term hoarding and long-term investment, and appreciated his point that the free mobility of capital does not always accord with a rational design that benefits the greatest number of people.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 62. In some ways the factual claim that generated the most effort on my part in this mini-project may reflect more poorly on Wilentz’s account in the Bank War than Levy’s, especially because Wilentz’s account shaped Levy’s.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 63. Of the three competing tomes by Sellers, Wilentz, and Howe that discuss economic development in the antebellum era, I have always preferred Howe’s. I’m not trying to pile on Wilentz and I’m uninterested in fights…

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 64. ...but I tried to fact-check another Wilentz claim from this book maybe 10-12 yrs ago using the same methods showcased here on looking for the original source. It was on George Poindexter if I recall and like today, I could not confirm Wilentz’s claim in the original sources.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 65. Wilentz was fortunate enough to have ascended to a position that few other historians will reach—to write a comprehensive, synthetic tome that became the basis of many a historian’s overview of the early republic and antebellum eras.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 66. Historians in this position (ala Wilentz, Beckert, Levy) often assemble large teams of researchers w/sig sources of funding to aid in the completion of their projects—a reality impossible to comprehend for the majority of U.S. college profs who are contingent faculty.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 67. The primary and secondary sources I’ve used to rebut Wilentz’s claims were clearly available to him before publication. Presses remind their authors to fact-check claims before publication so as to avoid these types of situations.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 68. So much of history lies in interpretation and storytelling, which can always be debated, but an empirical claim like 40% must definitely be confirmed before publication.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 69. However trivial these points may seem to some, they are proof that best-selling books by big-name, highly acclaimed authors at elite universities can and do have mistakes and points of contestation.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 70. Why have I gone to such lengths here? For one, I’ve dedicated a small lifetime to many of these topics and I love this material!

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 71. Perhaps more urgently, we in the history profession are suffering through an especially vulnerable and anxious time, noted by the incessant, coordinated, and well-financed assaults from anti-intellectual, right-wing activists.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 72. These activists seek to delegitimize professors and teachers by banning discussion of “divisive” topics that do not promote the goals of making white Christian nationalists feel good about themselves. They would have us believe we’re all Stalinist indoctrinators.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 73. For reasons I have described elsewhere, I do not subscribe to the view that a fully objective history, philosophically and epistemologically, is even possible or desirable.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 74. But at the same time, history can’t just all be opinion. Getting the facts straight is the foundation of a good story.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 75. One way (but by no means the only way) to push back on this assault is to demonstrate clearly the importance of fact-checking and peer review. We need to show all of the time, effort, and expertise that go into publishing. We need to show that there is true value in rigor.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 76. Trumpists who foolishly and arrogantly dismiss professors as “elites” who don’t understand “real” Americans may be surprised to discover that the peer review process, while imperfect, is supposed to test and verify claims before disseminating knowledge.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 77. We have a collective responsibility to make sure the best information gets out there. I’m doing this to honor the spirit of improvement, to exchange and engage ideas, and to promote a respectful scholarly community.

Steve Campbell (@Historian_Steve): 78. For all of the time and effort that Levy must have spent in putting together this book, I am certain that he wants feedback, so if you know him, please pass this along. END.