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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · March 15, 2016

The “offal” difficulties of writing readable economic history

WMQ 7 min read

WMQ author (January 2016) Emma Hart looks at the difficulty of writing economic history. (She also kicks it off with a pretty good pun. How often does “offal” get to feature in jokes of any kind?)

After two decades in the business, I realize that my historical interests are not the most popular preoccupations, even among specialists. I’m fascinated by the sinews that bound early modern Americans together in an economy and especially by the places in which they enacted transactions.  Such issues, however, often prompt a yawn from faculty and student alike. Yet, I am going to keep at it as I am convinced that pre-Revolutionary economic historians need to make themselves heard in the so-called “History of American Capitalism” discussion that has exploded on to the intellectual scene, and even into the pages of the New York Times, in recent years. Participating in Cornell University’s inaugural conference on this topic in the fall of 2014, and being in a minority of pre-Revolutionary historians, I felt the absence of colonialists in the debate even more keenly. Overall, I got the message that the History of American Capitalism, whatever it may be, starts when the Constitution was made. This is not only problematic from a scholarly point of view but is also an issue beyond the academy. Books that start their story after the Revolutionary divide, such as Ed Baptist’s, are getting attention outside the ivory tower, widely reinforcing the age-old idea that the colonial era was just an introduction to the important business of building America after 1790.

With this article, which is part of a larger project on market places and their political economies in the British Atlantic world from 1660 to 1780, I wanted to communicate why the pre-1783 era matters to the longer story of the formation of an American economy. I also wanted to make my narrative one that was readable and accessible to those who don’t “do” numbers. In short, I hoped to explore people’s interactions in the market place (wherever that might be) in a way that illustrates how the quality of those interactions added up to particular expectations about how everyday trade should work—an early American economic culture. I ended up making livestock the center of my story, not because I am an environmental historian or because I’m writing a history of people and animals (there are great scholars who have already done these things), but because it struck me while I was in the archives scrabbling around for evidence of people engaging in trade that buying and selling cows was an activity that many colonists, of varying backgrounds, did at some point in their lives. Trading in animals was for them what going to the meat counter at the supermarket is to non-vegetarians today—part of our mundane retail lives and thus revealing by its very ordinariness. Also, the cow trade enabled me to put the early American market place in a broader perspective. It wasn’t just colonists who were selling cows, it was something that Europeans did too. By comparing the two trades, I could more easily identify the difference that it made when settlers had to recreate a familiar commerce in what, for them, was a new landscape and a new environment.

The process of writing this article—and responding to the rigorous critiques of the readers—has thus been central in helping me to get closer to the answer to the “so what?” question in the book-length project about market spaces. In my case, I need to prove exactly what the point of writing a history of the early American market place is and make it impossible to ignore the pre-1783 era in the longer History of American Capitalism. I also want to make my argument in a readable and engaging manner. Looking back at the article now, I still think I’m some distance away from achieving what I see as the optimal combination of historical analysis with compelling characters and a strong narrative. This is tricky for all historians, but while some genres of history lend themselves to such an enterprise economic history is, I have always thought, one of the harder ones to pull off. Yet, there are many wonderful scholars who have done it and stand exalted in my own personal pantheon of history heroes. In an ongoing effort to emulate them I’m going to carry on trying, hopefully gathering a few converts along the way. After all, it IS the economy, stupid.


This was a fun read (love the "offal" pun!)—and I for one will look forward to your book on the subject. It's the seemingly mundane that tells the full story in history, in my opinion. But then, my work (book production) has been focused on an obscure linen maker and farmer on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s, a fellow who I maintain is a true Founding Father in the same sense as your cow traders founded American Capitalism.
Beth Rowland  •  March 16, 2016

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