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 two were produced three decades apart with the former having the advantage of more advanced research technology enabled by the Internet Age. To his credit, Levy does not present Jackson as taking some sort of heroic stand against capitalism, and nor does he call the Bank War the “acid test” of American democracy. Indeed, Levy is correct when he notes that both Clay and Jackson favored creditors, not debtors, during the Panic of 1819.
I’ve also been reading Olmstead's and Rhode’s response to 3 of the most prominent NHOC authors, and John Clegg’s article on what he calls "Credit Market Discipline." They are both persuasive in explaining why there was a four-fold increase in cotton production per slave per day that took place between 1800 and 1860.
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. Intraregional trade trumped interregional and international trade. I’m reminded here of Bonnie Martin’s essay in Beckert's and Rockman’s edited volume and Diane Lindstrom showing similar themes in the Pennsylvania context.
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. 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. The irony was that the assault on federal guidance of economic development and public support for a nationalized economic program 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. Levy’s analysis throughout the chapter was sensible and grounded in abundant research. As for whether the contents of this chapter reinforced the major theses Levy outlined in the introduction—capitalism as a process of multiple requirements that often defy rational expectations and which demonstrate a constant conflict between short-term hoarding and long-term investment—my own sense was that these theses were implied in his discussions of the economic panics, rather than vigorously asserted.
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. 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 to myself, I suppose this could be true, but it depended on region 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. I was reminded of some of the key questions animating the debates over the so-called “market revolution” in the 1990s. Were Americans in 1815 still practicing a mostly subsistence livelihood as Jefferson envisaged? To what degree did the agricultural majority welcome capitalism and when did capitalism arrive? Can we test these questions empirically, and should we do so when attitudes are also important to consider? On one side of this debate were folks like James Henretta, Michael Merrill, Christopher Clark, Charles Sellers, and the early writings of Wilentz and Watson. Informed by the work of E.P. Thompson, many of these authors pointed to the persistence of a subsistence economy, resistance to capitalism, and a “moral economy.” 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.
Allan Kulikoff’s 1989 article in the William and Mary Quarterly provides a brief of summary of these debates. In grad school I vividly remember Charles Postel being highly critical of the Sellers school of thought—it turns out, with good reason—when it came to a later period in the 19th century, with Steven Hahn’s book on southern populism serving as a foil and more representative of the moral economy school. The Stokes and Conway edited volume, and a symposium on Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution, published in JER, showcased numerous critiques from Sellers’s contemporaries. It is wise that Levy avoided any overt embrace of Sellers’s approach.
p. 94: “[T]he result of Jackson’s two presidential administrations was a dramatic political realignment.” This is a plausible interpretation and would fall in line with the work of James Roger Sharp and others who have seen Jackson’s two administrations clarifying where the two parties stood on questions of finance. But Jackson left office in 1837. Eminent political historian Donald Ratcliffe, who knows quite a bit on how different ethnic and religious groups voted, believes this realignment was evident in the 1824 election.
p. 107. Jackson won a plurality of the vote in the presidential election of 1824. Again, this is the standard, textbook interpretation we’ve all known for years. Ratcliffe has given us a persuasive case for challenging this conventional wisdom.
p. 112 “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]…” Yes, Taney was involved to a small degree, but the veto message was mostly the product of Amos Kendall. See p. 78 of my book and pp. 379—409 of Volume 10 of the Andrew Jackson Papers.
Are there things that I think Levy gets wrong? A few.
* p. 111: “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.” In my view this is a misrepresentation of what figures or forces spearheaded 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. Again, this is conventional wisdom, passed down over the generations, that is repeated in virtually every book about the Bank War, but which relies on thin evidence. 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.
* Eliminate the citation to Kilbourne. His work should not be part of any serious discussion.
* A small factual error. Levy says in 1839, the 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.
For more on Biddle’s speculation in cotton and the Panic of 1837, see this article and this article.
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. 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. I have both of these in my possession 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. Meanwhile, there are two quotes in Smith’s range of pages that would seem to contradict Wilentz’s claim.
The Biddle quotes referencing Robespierre and Marat are quoted a lot (and I mean a lot!) in the Bank War literature, almost to the point of being a cliché. On p. 113, Levy writes, in reference to Biddle’s post-veto media campaign, “Soon enough Biddle had to stop the presses: the bank veto was wildly popular.” Biddle may have briefly stopped the presses but as I show in my book he continued to lend to sympathetic newspaper editors, especially James Watson Webb, well into Jackson’s second term. Was Jackson’s veto wildly popular? We have only indirect methods of assessing this claim, but I am convinced that the claim is very doubtful at best, and if anything, it may very well be the opposite. See p. 91 of my book and Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, 106. Jackson may have even lost votes between his two election victories in 1828 and 1832 precisely because of the Bank veto. 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.
To what extent are these issues, oversights, and errors serious? In the final analysis I am not prepared to say that they are serious or that Levy was careless overall, though I do believe one could make the case that the chapter should have been improved a bit more prior to publication. 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.
We should keep in mind Levy’s overall goal 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. 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. I am intrigued by one of his theses about the history of capitalism 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.
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. Of the three competing tomes on market expansion in the antebellum era by Sellers, Wilentz, and Howe, I have always preferred Howe’s the most. I won’t pile on Wilentz unnecessarily here and hopefully it’s evident that I’m uninterested in spats, much preferring scholarly exchange, but it’s worth pointing out that I tried to fact-check another Wilentz claim from this book maybe 10-12 years ago using the same methods showcased here on looking for the original source. It was on George Poindexter if I recall and as with today's example, I could not confirm Wilentz’s claim in the original sources.
Wilentz was fortunate enough to have ascended to a position that few other historians will reach—to write a comprehensive, synthetic tome that will become the basis of many a historian’s overview of the early republic and antebellum eras. More than likely Wilentz, like Beckert and Levy, assembled large teams of researchers with significant sources of funding to aid in the completion of their projects—a financial reality virtually unheard of for the majority of history professors in the United States that are contingent faculty. 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. 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. 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.
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! More importantly, 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 that seek to delegitimize professors 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. For reasons I have described elsewhere I do not believe in a completely objective history, philosophically speaking, but at the same time, history can’t just all be opinion. Getting the facts straight is the foundation of a good story. 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. Trumpists who foolishly and arrogantly dismiss climate scientists, judges, journalists, and 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. 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. 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.