Do you teach or learn about the Second Bank of the United States in your course? Would you like a concise explanation of how the Bank worked? Then consider reading my latest with the Economic Historian. Enjoy!
You might think of this post as a companion to the one that came out with the publication of my article. Richard Kilbourne is someone who has written about the Second Bank of the United States and the economy in the antebellum era, so it is only natural that I would come across his work. Over the years I’ve given much of his work a close read. I have many critiques.
This post is divided into four major themes: 1) Kilbourne's writing style; 2) his libertarian framework; 3) how other academics seemed to have missed or ignored this; 4) how personal interactions confirm many of my critiques of his work and approach.
THEME #1 His Writing is Convoluted. The first reaction that jumps out at me when I read Kilbourne’s writing is that it is a convoluted, unnecessarily complex sequence of words exploding with jargon. His sentences overflow with words like drawee, paraphernal property, and notarial paraph, such that readers will be constantly burdened by going back to the glossary for every other word. You wouldn’t want to read his work unless you were intimately familiar with commercial law and had an extensive background in finance and economics. Even then, I'd be hard pressed to recommend his work with so many other options out there.
I’ve read lots of authors that describe the antebellum era credit system. I cite them in my PMHB article and there are too many to mention here. George Green, Peter Temin, Walter Buckingham Smith, Howard Bodenhorn, J. Van Fenstermaker, are just a few of them. Not all of them are crystal clear, but none are as problematic as Kilbourne. It makes me wonder about the editing process of his book manuscript and whether he put any thought into his audience. We’re not talking about a one-off or two. We’re talking about a rather consistent occurrence. Here are a few examples:
THEME #2: His Libertarianism. If I were to try to decipher one of his core claims, cutting through the weeds of all of his convoluted writing, I would say that he blames the Second Bank, above all, for creating the conditions that led to financial panic in 1837. Here is a take that warrants consideration. He’s not the first to make this claim—Jacksonians made this case in real time—but he has looked at legal records, plantation records, and some of the Second Bank’s records in Louisiana that are rare. So maybe he’s using new sources to validate an older claim.
I have several issues with his argument. One, as will soon become clear, the extreme libertarianism behind his argument is obvious in the introduction and conclusion, and since he makes his ideological framework so apparent, without nuance or subtlety, it is safe to assume that he was ideologically predisposed to be hostile from the get-go to a central bank like the BUS. What also puts the burden of proof on Kilbourne is that there are few if any scholars that I’m aware of who blame the Second Bank exclusively for causing the panic of 1837. If anything, it’s the opposite: most scholars blame international specie movements or Jackson’s policies (killing the Bank, issuing the Specie Circular, and signing the Distribution Act). Most historians say it was the Second Bank's absence, not the bank itself, that allowed the plantation banks to create a bubble in land, cotton, and slavery that eventually burst. See any number of authors from Jane Knodell to Calvin Schermerhorn to Baptist.
The following is a list of just a few of the problematic statements I have found in Kilbourne's book that might have been excised or rewritten. I should add that the endnotes in his book are very lengthy.
* Though the manuscript dates back to the 1990s, Kilbourne published his book with Pickering & Chatto in 2006. Talking about the economy at the time, Kilbourne wrote, “the mammoth role government plays in underwriting our fiat monetary regime.” p. 1
* the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) “pressed its paper” on all parts of the country p. 4;
* the BUS pressed its circulation, p. 40
* the BUS was the Leviathan of Chestnut St.
* the BUS didn’t lower exchange rates or rationalize them, or smooth them out, as most other authors have written, including myself and Jane Knodell. In Kilbourne’s words, the Bank manipulated exchange rates.
All of these sentences suggested to me that Kilbourne was not only sympathetic to Andrew Jackson’s position in the Bank War, but that he was employing a libertarian framework in doing so. With such a discourse one wonders how far removed Kilbourne is from the likes of Thomas Woods, Thomas DiLorenzo, Murray Rothbard, and the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. I did a five-part blog series on libertarianism that begins here.
In the past few years I’ve seen a couple of historians encounter a lot of scrutiny and criticism: Michael Bellesisles and Edward Baptist. Part of the reason that their books drew so much criticism is that many, many historians and scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and ideological frameworks closely examined their works, line by line. The criticism they received makes me wonder, if Kilbourne’s book was subjected to the same close scrutiny, would it, too, be widely panned?
* Kilbourne writes that the job of a central banker demands arrogance (p. 104)
* In the conclusion of his book Kilbourne writes a rather bizarre commentary on the dangers of central banking and “printing money” and “currency debasement.” (p. 152) It is abundantly clear to me that Kilbourne is promulgating the rich man’s ideology of libertarianism. As @JWMason once said after returning from a conference, rich people may hate inflation more than socialism.
* Here’s another quote: “[Jackson] was right to be suspicious of the [BUS], not so much because of what it had done, but because of the potential it posed for great mischief in the making and unmaking of the nation’s economy.” (p. 152). This is close to the wording of James K. Polk and others who said that the Bank had the power to make or break small towns. As I discuss in my book, there were a decent number of reasons to be skeptical of the Bank, but the reasons I mention are not the ones Kilbourne is talking about. He’s saying don’t look at what the Bank has actually done, but what it might do.
* Central bank monopolies on the issue of fiat money, according to Kilbourne, have consistently produced currency debasements (p. 152). He adds that central banks are incompatible with democratic government. This is all rhetoric at this point and only tangentially related to the evidence he presented in the book. Kilbourne would seem to fit right in with Ludwig Von Mises, Hayek, and the Mont Pelerin Society. As I consider these utterances from Kilbourne I am shocked by how many folks who are far more brilliant than I continue to cite Kilbourne in their footnotes. The only logical conclusion is that they didn’t read Kilbourne closely or this type of ideological nonsense doesn’t bother them. Which one is worse?
To speak of “currency debasement” as if it's an actual thing is shocking. Typically we hear this language from those who want to return to the gold standard. It hasn’t been a thing since Nixon left the gold standard, long before I was even born. We’re not debasing gold coins with impurities any more. There is no currency to debase if it’s all Federal Reserve notes. I put this presentation together on the gold standard.
When a survey asked 40 of the nation’s leading economists whether they would advocate a return to the gold standard, zero of them said yes. Try getting unanimity among academics with any question. I’ll never forget Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler’s response: “Why gold? Why not 1982 Bordeaux wine?” A terrific response in my view.
As an illustration of the problem with Kilbourne's position, let's remember that the goldbugs and hard-liners in 1933 predicted that going off the gold standard would spell the “end of western civilization.” Pro-business conservatives and those aligned with modern libertarians focused on the currency while ignoring 20-25% unemployment. See the work of Liaquat Ahamed, Barry Eichengreen, Eric Rauchway, or episode 253 of Planet Money.
Kilbourne is not done. In his conclusion, he writes that central banks have only stuck around because of the modern totalitarian state (p. 152). What on Earth is he talking about? If the U.S. is totalitarian, how would one characterize China and Russia? It also raises the question of what type of political economy Kilbourne thinks is ideal? Does he want to return to the complex mess of the antebellum era when there were hundreds of banks, many of them securitized by slave mortgages, each emitting different currencies of varying quality that declined in value the farther one traveled? I thought conservatives and libertarians are supposed to care about efficiencies—certainly they must have known that so many different types of paper money did not make for an efficient system!
It’s not so much that I’m unprepared to accept the arguments of any libertarian. Tyler Cowen is way smarter than I am. And it is possible, as Howard Bodenhorn and Richard Timberlake show, to be a libertarian who writes in a measured tone without being overt about one’s politics. As I often like to say about my own book, you should not be able to pick up on my politics based on the way I wrote it.
Anonymous reviewers at university presses are often asked to assess whether the work they're evaluating is objective. Pickering & Chatto is not officially a university press but it does (or did) publish scholarly work. This does not mean that we have no arguments in our works or that there is no room for disagreement; only that we try to state our arguments with some professional distance. As I look at Kilbourne’s screeds, I don’t see objectivity. I see statements that are fundamentally unserious and fringe. There are so many outlandish statements that I begin to wonder if I should trust the way he looked at the collection of the Bank’s records at LSU?
Both Kilbourne and I deal with a letter from October 2, 1838, from the Biddle Letterbooks. He completely ignores the quote that screams loud and clear about the virgin lands and the Native Americans. It was so loud and clear to me that I made it the title of my article.
What explains him ignoring this? Would it be an unnecessary digression? Hardly. His book is full of digressions. Could it be that because of his libertarianism Kilbourne is likely to understate the importance of Indian Removal and slavery? I think this is much more plausible.
A few years ago Kilbourne emailed me and said the historians of capitalism were giving him credit for starting the whole thing. Whoever gave Kilbourne that impression wasn't in my view considering all of the implications of Kilbournes' work. I think this person is misjudging the quality and importance of Kilbourne's work.
The history of capitalism genre may be hard to pin down precisely but many of its practitioners sought to bring actors to the fore who had previously been neglected from traditional stories of economic development; the folks on the margins. This approach is clear from the Capitalism by Gaslight edited volume. A lot of the authors in the NHOC genre are influenced by cultural history, but I don't see any cultural history in Kilbourne’s book.
Read Kilbourne closely: he’s not bringing those neglected actors to the fore at all. Despite the fact that the world “slave” is the first word of the title of his book, the author rarely discusses slaves. They certainly don’t appear as active historical characters with their own agency. Crucially, Kilbourne understates the role of slavery when it comes to explaining the workings of the southern economy and how slave-grown cotton and slave mortgages helped form the basis of southern plantation banks. He doesn’t even identify the Union Bank of Mississippi or the Union Bank of Florida as plantation banks, and thus, omits critical information. Kilbourne’s preference is to write about a lot of dry stuff involving exchange rates and commercial law. I point this out in my article.
THEME #3. Other Academics Have Overstated the Value of Kilbourne's Work. Going through the process of peer review was frustrating for me when it came to Kilbourne because it was apparent that the reviewers seemed to like his work. It was if they were telling me that after heaving read his work with painstaking deliberation on three separate occasions that I was still missing some giant insight when in fact, the more likely explanation is that I was forced beyond my will to engage a highly flawed work. More than one would reviewer would write things like, “What you write isn’t new. Kilbourne has covered this already.” Besides the fact that newness shouldn’t be the sole metric by which we judge historical writing (things can be new but irrelevant after all), I was aghast that anyone could hold up Kilbourne's book as a first-rate commentary on the subject. And just because he has written on this topic, it’s not like the conversation stops, especially if I have a different interpretation or cover different evidence. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) work that way. How else do you explain paradigms that have vigorous discussions like republicanism, the market revolution, or history of capitalism?
One day I opened up Journal of the Early Republic. I saw an essay by an esteemed scholar in the field who was writing on banking history. I saw a citation to Kilbourne, a bunch of people I had never heard of (some of whom have subsequently left academia), and nothing of my own work. I thought that was strange since we both knew each other for sure. He was the chair of a panel I put together at a nationwide academic conference. Gosh, he must not respect my work at all, I thought. I emailed him. I pointed out all of the issues I have with Kilbourne’s work. He chose not to say anything. When I pointed out that no one cited my work, his response was that if I wanted others to take my work seriously, I should present at the Program for Early American Economy and Society (PEAES) in Philadelphia. I shook my head. As a contingent faculty member I don’t have the budget for this. It costs around $1,000 to present at a conference. And did Kilbourne present at PEAES? I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it.
When I pointed out to a different scholar that Kilbourne’s writing is highly problematic, the response was, yeah, it’s a bit difficult, but he’s done original research. And herein lies a major problem with the priorities of academia. You can be an awful writer and have fringe views well outside the mainstream (as I’ll point out later), but you will get cited and recognized by the major Ivy League folks merely because of this vague and subjective assessment of “originality.” That just doesn’t cut it for me. Plenty of people have done original research but don’t get the credit that Kilbourne has. And they can sure as hell write more effectively. I will say again that something “original” or “new” does not equal important or relevant.
All of this brings up the purpose of citing someone else’s work. Citation styles differ widely among authors and there seems to be an effort among some publishing houses to trim down discursive notes. Beyond the requisite avoidance of plagiarism and giving proper credit where credit is due, a citation to me is an alert to the reader, “here is where I borrowed this idea,” or “here is someone who has influenced my thinking,” or “here is someone who has done significant work on this topic and if you want to know more, you should read this person’s work.” For someone who reads my own work, I can’t faithfully and in good conscience cite Kilbourne’s work without noting the flaws. Reading Kilbourne will only leave you more confused. Another younger scholar whose name I won't reveal agrees with my assessment of the confusing nature of Kilbourne's writing.
A cursory search of Google Scholar shows that most of the citations to Kilbourne I’ve noticed in journals like JER and JAH may come down to two scholars: Robert Wright and John Joseph Wallis. I'm not entirely surprised that Wright cites Kilbourne so often. Wright edited Kilbourne’s book with Pickering & Chatto and in my experience emailing with Wright, he likes to recommend other libertarian authors like Thomas Dorflinger and seems skeptical of more mainstream authors that I won't name. Wright is a noted libertarian who said once that if Alexander Hamilton was alive today, he would be a libertarian. That seems odd--what would that make Jefferson?
From Wright and Wallis, the undue attention given to Kilbourne somehow crossed over into the history of capitalism genre, a subfield whose politics are VERY different from those of libertarians. So Walter Johnson, Ed Baptist, Sharon Ann Murphy, and Stephen Mihm now all find themselves citing Kilbourne all the while ignoring or not being aware of all of the problematic statements I’m showing in this post. A sort of snowball effect and path dependency took over. Once a few noted scholars started citing Kilbourne, then anyone else who was working on the economic development of the antebellum period, especially in the Old Southwest, felt obligated to follow suit. I think it’s very possible that there’s some major groupthink going on: those publishing in this subfield saw that so and so cited Kilbourne so they thought that they, too, must cite him. But should they really feel this way after reading this post? I do feel badly for some of the other authors that have written for Pickering & Chatto, including Peter Austin, Joe Torré, and Songho Ha. They write more clearly than Kilbourne does and their insights are equally “original,” but haven’t been cited nearly as often.
A major economist on Twitter called Kilbourne’s book “amazing.” Again, I’m shaking my head incredulously. This economist was a jerk to me one time on Twitter. With his tens of thousands of followers, his intellect obviously dwarfs mine, so I'm not holding my breath that he will reconsider, let alone own up to it publicly. Folks like this typically feel a need to save face. If this book is so amazing, how come only 1 person has left a non-substantive comment on the 1995 book with 0 reviews of the Pickering & Chatto book as of this writing? To the guy who said that Kilbourne’s research was impressive, I must beg to differ. I’m not that impressed with it. It is okay, I suppose. I guess he does Louisiana history well. But he’s also from Louisiana. I'm wondering if it would be entirely unfair to characterize Kilbourne as a local historian who just happened, through good fortune or social connections, to catch the eye of the Big Northeastern scholars who wrote big books within the history of capitalism genre.
THEME #4: Confirmation of My Prior Critiques. My personal interactions with Kilbourne over email, over the phone, and in person, reinforce the flaws I noted in his writing. While some might argue that any personal interactions do not matter beyond what he has stated in print, I would argue that I am providing a more complete picture of the man.
I first heard about Kilbourne’s book when I was living in Sacramento. It was 2006 and I was earning a master’s degree at Cal State Sacramento, working with Brian Schoen and Charles Postel. I remember coming across his book in the Sac State library, but it was clear that reading his book would be a long slog. To all of the folks who read Kilbourne’s book a few years later and seem to have it eaten it up with a silver spoon, I can attest that I was reading Kilbourne before reading Kilbourne was cool.
I remember calling him up on the phone. He was a pleasant guy to talk to. But when I asked for explanations about how the economy worked, he repeated, almost word for word, what was already in his book. And this wasn’t helpful. At all, really. Because what I wanted was a non-technical translation of the jargon-laden language in his book. When I met him in person in 2010 during my cross-country road trip to conduct research for my dissertation, I encountered the same struggles. I wondered whether the impasse resulted from the fact that I lacked the mental prowess to understand complex topics or whether he was just a poor communicator. I can’t rule out the former but I’m inclined toward the latter.
His communication style was indicative of someone who had never taught in the classroom, because if you ever learn one thing teaching, it is that you need to find multiple ways to explain things to people who may not have any background whatsoever on a topic. He said over email he didn’t think much about Naomi Lamoreaux’s work. He said he had read John Majewski’s work and wasn’t impressed. I’m still kind of shocked he said that to me since John was my advisor at the time and both him and Lamoreaux are deeply respected members of the profession. And nor could I find any evidence that Kilbourne had published any articles besides the three books he wrote. Keyword searches of Kilbourne’s name through JSTOR, Project Muse, and ProQuest came up empty.
So what do we make of the fact that Kilbourne did not pursue the traditional path of an academic historian? In and of itself it is not disqualifying. There are plenty of so-called “independent scholars” who do fantastic work and since academia is practically in shambles with tenure-track jobs only awarded to a very privileged few, my prediction is that we’ll continue to see more and more independent scholars of estimable repute. Megan Kate Nelson is one of them.
Still, as we’ll see, that Kilbourne was not an academic historian by training was just one of the pieces of the puzzle that began to fall into place the more I learned about him. As I finished my master’s program and entered a PhD program as the nation experienced the most profound and devastating financial crisis since the 1930s, I continued to correspond with Kilbourne. More and more clues came in that Kilbourne was not someone whose views I should take seriously.
When I spoke to him on the phone he was apoplectic that AIG received a bailout. He kept sending me opeds by the notorious and often wrong short-seller Bill Fleckenstein at Prudent Bear. Every time I spoke to him on the phone it was extremely difficult to get a word in edgewise. Our conversations were mostly him talking, or ranting. There were plenty of awkward things he said to me.
When I went to Washington D.C. for research I encountered some Ron Paul supporters (Paul was then running for president). Kilbourne said he was pleased that I spoke to some folks who wore t-shirts with the phrase “the Ron Paul Revolution.” We talked about the end to the Bush presidency and both of us agreed that Bush 43 was an unmitigated disaster. When you read enough libertarian discourse, you come across phrases like "taxation is theft" and "inflation is theft" and the classic for the Ron Paul supporters, "debt equals slavery." I now recall that the word "theft" appeared in several of Kilbourne's emails to me and surmise that he was referring to either taxation or inflation.
The more I thought about it, the reasons for our criticism differed. Kilbourne seemed to be most outraged by Bush running up the national debt. This is something that should always be emphasized since Republicans claim that they are the fiscally responsible ones, but it is also something that looks more and more untenable in light of the data that has come in about the negative effects of austerity, the graduate student who found crucial errors in the work of Reinhart and Rogoff, and the advent of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Whereas Kilbourne was exercised about the debt, I was livid about torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and the lies that went into the needless Iraq War.
Even more disturbing than Kilbourne’s odd fixation on the currency was his choice for the nation’s worst president: Abraham Lincoln. Let’s pause on that for a second…not Andrew Johnson, not James Buchanan, but Lincoln. Really? Was this just fun and games on his part? Was he trying to trigger all of us? How could he seriously have this position when the overwhelming majority of academic, scholarly historians consistently rank Lincoln in the top 3 of all time? Is this a regional quirk among some white men of a certain generation?
During my visit with him in 2010, Kilbourne told me that his ancestors had lived in Louisiana for a very long time. In the antebellum era they were Whigs who owned slaves. It was at this point that I began to connect the dots. On more than one occasion he kept lamenting how terrible it was for Lincoln to wage the war on the South and I’m wondering, did he expect sympathy from me?
The hatred of Lincoln was not some principled stand that would withstand academic scrutiny. Rather, the Lincoln hatred stemmed from Lincoln waging a war that enslavers provoked that subsequently erased the ill-gotten wealth of these very same enslavers. This explains why libertarianism is still popular in many parts of the white South. Libertarians may claim to stand for “liberty” (by which they usually mean absolutist property rights for wealthy white men), but let’s remember how often calls for “limited government” and “states’ rights” were thin disguises for racial animus. Libertarianism is common in the white South because that “evil,” and “tyrannical” federal government was responsible for defeating the South militarily in the Civil War, imposing Reconstruction, and later, upending Jim Crow by enacting civil rights in the 1960s.
When I connected all of these dots, I realized that I could not trust Kilbourne’s views anymore. It stunned me that he would be so often cited in the history of capitalism literature. I'm still stunned that I was being asked to seriously engage his ideas.
On so many important questions he ended up just being plain wrong. He kept saying in 2008 and 2009 that credit facilities were continuing to contract. This was false because interest rates were descending to historic lows. There were constant denunciations in his emails of “the FUD” (the U.S. Federal Reserve), “Barnacle Ben” (Bernanke), ShittyBank, Skank of America, the imminent collapse of the U.S. Dollar, which was now “trash.” Kilbourne kept going on and on about inflation and I remember Todd Holmes and Steve Attewell saying that the problem in 2009 was not inflation, but deflation, just as it was in the 1930s. Kilbourne maintained that actually, there was inflation in the 1930s by some measures. Guess what? Kilbourne was wrong. Holmes and Attewell were right. This is something we can actually measure.
With all of these errant predictions I was beginning to think that Kilbourne shared the views of bond vigilantes, inflation hawks, Arthur Laffer, David Stockman, Rick Santelli, Peter Navarro, Stephen Moore, and Larry Kudlow. This “never cry wolf” attitude of the imminent, impending collapse of the dollar was something to be laughed out of the room. The viability of any model must be based at least partially on its predictive accuracy. If the model you cling to is constantly predicting the collapse of the U.S. dollar and the crashing of the stock market, both of which not only fail to happen but go in precisely the opposite direction, then you need to fundamentally rethink your model.
Civil War scholars as far as I can tell do not cite the work of Thomas Woods or Thomas DiLorenzo. To cite these authors without reservation would be similar to Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and other reputable climate scientists citing Bill Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz, and Fred Singer. Or Art Robinson. I must confess that I don't see Kilbourne as that different from these latter folks.
Every time I asked him about a state bank in the antebellum era it was automatically “trash.” It didn’t matter what bank it was—it was always trash. Could it really be true that all of the currencies emitted by all of the banks were trash? It raises the question of what political economy and reserve ratio would Kilbourne prefer? Was he an admirer of Thomas Hart Benton, William Gouge, and Andrew Jackson? I know he says in his book that Jackson was ultimately right for destroying the Bank. Would Kilbourne want a 1:1 reserve ratio that would have been incompatible with an industrializing economy?
If you’ve read this far, you might agree with me that none of the individual traits I have pointed out in Kilbourne, when analyzed is isolation, are disqualifying. Being a Lincoln hater is odd but it’s not disqualifying. Having a terrible writing style is a nuisance, but it’s not disqualifying. However, eventually all of these characteristics begin to have a cumulative effect. It is the totality. They paint a complete picture of a man who is a crank.
For all of the people who cited Kilbourne in their books and articles, I am wondering, given what I described, is this someone you really want to elevate to being part of a serious conversation? Is there not an ongoing effort to cite more women and people of color? I can assure you after having spent many years with this material that are plenty of people out there who work on this stuff that can explain the mechanics of the banking system in language that is far more clear and straightforward than Kilbourne's. Even better, these authors are not tainted by hard-core libertarianism.
To be honest, I struggled with whether to write this. Would people view this as an unduly harsh attack against a man who had been nice and welcoming to me? Would they see this as a hit piece? One of the defenses that libertarians often serve up in defense of their extreme views is to accuse their critics of ad hominem attacks. My response would be:
1) This is not my intent. Kilbourne was very nice to me personally and I appreciate that. I thanked him in the acknowledgments of my book. He let me stay at his place in Louisiana and bought me lunch in San Francisco.
2) Even if it is technically an ad hominem attack, then go back to what I’ve said in themes #1 and #2. Even if you were to cast aside his other problematic statements, which I don’t think you can do, there is already enough in his writing that comes across as foolish and discreditable.
3) This is a complex and multifaceted debate. You can’t just say “ad hominem attack” or “poisoning the well” or “fallacy of national aggregates” and assume that this automatically refutes everything I've said. Real debates don’t work that way.
So although I struggled with whether to write this, I ended up concluding that my criticisms were fair. If you think that what I've written is mean-spirited and unnecessary, let's remember that Kilbourne has written on a topic that is very similar to mine. That means I'm in a decent position to offer critiques and assess whether his work is truly deserving of praise. Since I've spent a great deal of time here with criticism, let me briefly take a moment to compliment the authors whose writing I appreciate and admire. There are too many to mention but a few of them are: Seth Cotlar, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Eric Foner, Heather Cox Richardson, Joshua Rothman, Sara Georgini, Daniel Walker Howe, the late Mark Reisner, Matthew Karp, Alex Sayf Cummings, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Jarret Ruminski.
I do firmly believe that a lot of my contemporaries who have cited Kilbourne (and therefore elevated him) have either missed or ignored a whole bunch of public and private statements that are irresponsible, unserious, and errant. We should speak up when work that is held up to be something impressive is in fact not impressive, and conversely, to highlight the hidden gems out there. As scholars we have a right to contest, and even vigorously contest, the approaches and statements offered by our peers and contemporaries.
In a few weeks my article on Nicholas Biddle, cotton, and slavery will be coming out with the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. For this post I’d like to highlight a few of the processes and ideas I've wrestled with in publishing this article. This post is organized into four larger themes: 1) The research that underlies this article; 2) why I wrote this article; 3) Some points about evidence and interpretation; 4) the revision process.
Theme #1: The Research. This article is the product of many years of research, writing and revision. This is not abnormal for publishing in a peer reviewed journal but for those of you who are unfamiliar with academic publishing, you might wonder, why did it take so long?
Well, in publishing my book, moving several times, trying to find consistent work teaching, and eventually, building up my teaching load to ten classes per year so that I could support myself financially, there was little time left for scholarship. It may be helpful to understand that I am a contingent faculty member not on the tenure track who typically teaches 500 students per year. Those in the ranks of contingent faculty--among them, adjuncts, VAPs, and lecturers like myself--constitute the majority of college professors in the U.S. At the CSU system lecturers are not expected to publish. For better or worse, research and scholarship are almost solely the domain of tenured or tenure-track professors. The teaching-oriented focus of the CSU system is a product of institutional precedents established many decades ago. According to the California Master Plan of 1960, the UCs were originally conceptualized as doctoral-granting, research I institutions. The CSUs were meant to be more teaching-oriented institutions that would accept more students. They were meant to be the “people’s university." So with my busy teaching schedule it was only sheer determination that helped me complete this heavily-revised piece.
I can say confidently that there is lots of research here. If you don't have the time to read this article closely, I hope you can at least see what I mean by looking at the footnotes. Again, non-academics might be surprised to hear that it can sometimes take months or even years to do the research that supports just one paragraph in an article or book.
I’ve mentioned before that Robert Remini, Edward Kaplan, and others who have written about the Bank War grabbed the low-hanging fruit, recapitulating the same quotes, and sometimes not even doing the research on their own. This is why it frustrates me that the dude monitoring the Wikipedia page for the Bank War does not seem to distinguish between a derivative work and a scholarly monograph. Even worse, there are scholarly historians who continually cite Kaplan, not recognizing that Kaplan did exactly zero research on his own, again, preferring only to cite other historians who had already done the hard work of working with the original primary sources. You won’t find that here.
To write this article I had to figure out how the banking system worked in the antebellum era. This is a challenge in its own right that can take several years. What makes it more frustrating at times is that the authors who should be taking the time to walk you through the process can often leave you more confused (I'm thinking of one guy in particular). It takes time to figure out the intricacies of the banking system, conceptualize it in your own mind, and explain it to others in ways that are not convoluted or abstruse. Because who needs that when so many other things nowadays compete for our attention?
Theme #2: Why Did I Write This Piece? The formal justification for writing my article can be found in the article itself, but if you'd like a more conversational framing, let me put it this way: there are flaws in the history of capitalism literature and the traditional Bank War historiography. Part of my rationale for writing this article is to reconcile these two literatures.
It is difficult to generalize about a diffuse, amorphous literature that includes a diverse set of authors who may or may not choose to define themselves as historians of capitalism. But from my reading of the seminal works, there seems to be an emphasis on bringing to the fore segments of the population who have traditionally been ignored or were marginalized under the "progress" of capitalism. This impulse tends to be grounded in some cultural theorizing and in my view overshadows efforts to explain the mechanics of the economy in clear terms, though these explanations are by no means absent.
While I very much appreciate the work of those who have contributed to the history of capitalism literature, I am convinced more than ever that what we need is a CLEAR explanation of how the economy worked; as a primer. This is especially true for early graduate students who should not have to sift through one unsatisfying explanation after another, as I did, before they find the right one. I hope that this prioritization comes across in my writing. I find Richard Kilbourne's writing style particularly frustrating in this regard (I will be writing about in a separate post). To demonstrate that this yearning for a clear explanation is not just my own selfish kick but is in fact shared by many others in the profession, see Sharon Ann Murphy's post.
Some additional points...The scholarship on Biddle tends to focus on his political involvement in the Bank War. When the economic principles of Biddle's actions are raised, the discussion tends to focus on his actions during the Bank War, either minimizing or ignoring Biddle's career as a banker between 1836 and 1841. Biddle does appear in the history of capitalism literature, but only briefly, and the discussion is not as comprehensive and nuanced as it could be, relying on a few famous examples.
By connecting the BUS with the domestic slave trade and Indian Removal, I am reinforcing recent efforts to provide a more inclusive and enriching narrative of economic development. The 1619 project, in spite of its flaws, contained a valid and noble prescription in calling on historians to not just talk about slavery in one textbook chapter or lecture, but to integrate slavery into almost every lesson. So instead of teaching Biddle's historical significance as part of a dry economic development or some political showdown of elites, we can include how his actions affected slaves and Native Americans. I am neither a specialist in slavery nor in the history of capitalism per se, but I look at this article as my own contribution to these important discussions.
As an aside, I am NOT arguing that slavery or cotton caused the industrial revolution, or that slavery or cotton are necessary ingredients for an industrial transformation to take place. Rather, as part of a long article with many claims, I am acknowledging what seems to be a more modest observation that slavery, cotton, land sales, the chartering of banks, and tragic relocation by force of Native Americans were part of the story of economic development in the UK and US.
This article is not a repeat of my book. Sure, there is some information presented here that is also in my book, though the sentences are reworded. The reason for this overlap is that you have to assume that some readers will read this article without having first read my book. And readers who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of the Bank and bills of exchange will need a bit of a primer. But the point here is that there is a lot of material in this article, particularly in the second half of the article, that did not appear in my book. My book delved into the banking system by necessity but its main thrust was political patronage, newspaper editors, and political institutions. In contrast, the focus here is much more on Biddle's investments in land, cotton, and slavery.
There have also been some articles and books published on related topics that have come out since my book appeared, and in an effort to remain current, their findings are noted in this article. Claudio Saunt published an article in the Journal of American History. Jeff Foret published in Journal of the Early Republic, and Andrew Browning's book, released in April 2019, added to my knowledge about the Bank's involvement in the Panic of 1819.
Theme #3: Notable Findings. Few historians write about the Second Bank's connections to slavery and when they do, the documentary evidence and/or commentary is not that spectacular in my view (Kilbourne is one of the few authors that do write on this topic and as I'll discuss later, I have lots of problems with his approach). How could I contribute to this topic? My article contains several pieces of indirect evidence pointing to the Bank's financing of the slave economy, and at the end of the day, my decision to publish the piece reflects my belief that when the scarcity of direct documentary evidence poses a problem for historians, even indirect evidence is better than no evidence at all.
Here is a simplified version of how I arrived at some of my conclusions.
* You come across one primary source that lists a loan from the BUS to a state bank. A dollar amount is listed but there is no explanation.
* You then read an author who identifies this state bank as a plantation bank
* Upon reading another author you gain an understanding of what a plantation bank does and how it works: that mortgages on land and slaves allow them to function, and that profits from slave-grown crops help borrowers repay lenders.
* This allows you to conclude that if the BUS was extending financial assistance to a plantation bank in the South, it was therefore supporting the institution of slavery.
Reading Andrew Browning's book on the Panic of 1819 helped me conceptualize a trend that very likely occurred with the southern plantation banks. In the antebellum era it was common for a bank's senior offices to lend to themselves and their friends, even when it violated norms and regulations. This would have been especially true for plantation banks because lenders and borrowers were often the very same people, or at least, the same types of people. For example, a group of planters would submit mortgages on land and slaves that would almost exist as if it were a pot of money stored inside the bank (I'm being somewhat metaphoric here). Planters could then take out loans from this pot of money to buy more land, cotton, and slaves. In other words, the bank was capitalized by planters in order to lend to planters. So if Biddle was propping up plantation banks like the Union Bank of Florida or the Union Bank of Mississippi, then he was enabling planters to extend the political economy of slavery.
Here's another example:
* You learn from Walter Johnson and Joshua Rothman that in boom times a cyclical pattern emerged involving land, cotton, and slaves, the three commodities upon which much of the South's growth was based. The pattern went something like this: enslavers bought slaves to pick cotton on new lands they had just purchased, sold the cotton, and used the profits from cotton and land sales to buy more land and more slaves.
* The Second Bank of the United States helped facilitate this process in at least two ways. 1. The Bank was the fiscal auxiliary of the Treasury Department. Its branches stored, collected, and distributed the public's money. When public land sales were finalized, the proceeds eventually found their ways into BUS branches located in the South and West. In fact, when the Bank's board in Philadelphia received petitions from various parts of the country--petitions asking for a branch to be established in a particular locale--the Bank had to consider not just its own profits, but whether the locale was in close proximity to areas where land sales were taking off. The BUS was also issuing a circulating medium through bank notes that enslavers could use to buy land, cotton, and slaves. 2. Through its bill purchases and interregional branch network, the Bank was helping cotton planters. We have to remember that bills of exchange were based on the value of cotton shipments.
* Putting all of this together, we see that the Bank was facilitating land sales and cotton sales. Given the ways in which land, cotton, and slavery were connected, you couldn't facilitate the sales of land and cotton without also facilitating the forced separation of families. The three were inextricably linked.
There is evidence that slave traders participating in the infamous domestic slave trade could sometimes use the Bank's notes and credit facilities to carry out the interregional transporting of slaves. See my post in the Junto about how Henry Clay asked one of his agents to apply to Richard Smith, the cashier of the Washington branch of the BUS, to transport one of his slaves, Lotty, from the nation's capital to Kentucky.
Theme #4: The Review Process: A lot of historians looked at this piece prior to publication. Two anonymous reviewers had slightly different takes. The first one looked at this article manuscript earlier on in the process and was not convinced that I had presented enough evidence to persuasively show that Biddle intended to invest in slavery. This person noted that the Bank's benefit to slaveholders may have occurred but that this was both unsurprising and inadvertent. After all, a lot of institutions supported slavery, including the nation's two main political parties. Given the state of my manuscript at the time, I will recognize that this reviewer had a valid point (I'll ignore some of the other nitpicky comments). Typically anonymous reviewers are experts on your topic and/or tenured professors who have more time and institutional support for research.
I reworked my manuscript to address this reviewer's criticisms. I rewrote some of the conclusions to be less tendentious and more modest; essentially, I was now arguing that Biddle did extend the political economy of slavery but that this effect was mostly inadvertent. Interestingly, a second anonymous reviewer wrote that it was hard to believe that Biddle's aid to slave owners was inadvertent. This reviewer suggested that I spend more time with the Biddle Papers on microfilm. If you've ever gone through peer review, it is not at all uncommon for the reviewers to have different take-aways, different verdicts, and even to disagree with one another about which direction an article manuscript should go.
I am especially grateful for the second reviewer, who obviously knew that by examining the Biddle Papers more closely, I could strengthen my argument and say what I really wanted to say all along. It's safe to conclude that the second reviewer was more familiar with the Biddle Papers than the first reviewer. I ordered the Biddle Papers on microfilm and had them sent to my library. I remember going to the microfilm readers and a library employee remarking that I was the only person in ages who had used those machines. A relatively unknown letter in Biddle's Papers help me make a connection between the Bank War and Indian Removal--see my article for the details. I found evidence to make a stronger connection between Biddle and slavery. In the concluding pages of my article I posit that Biddle's personal and business contacts with slave owners was so frequent and spread out over large geographical areas that it is very difficult to believe that his support of the political economy of slavery was inadvertent.
There is an interesting philosophical conversation to be had when it comes to how historians assess the actions of the characters we study. I am talking here about the difference between intent and consequences. Should we give Biddle the benefit of the doubt and only consider his intent? I see no reason to be unduly charitable to Biddle, or any other historical actor for that matter. As an analogy, you might consider how we talk about racism today. If someone utters a racist statement or enacts a racist policy, but does not intend to be racist, do we let them off the hook? The answer to this question may have been different only a few decades ago, but it seems that in the third decade of the twenty-first century, we have to consider consequences alongside intent and in some cases, to prioritize the consequences. Someone implementing a Voter ID law or a three-strikes rule when it comes to prisons may not have racism in their hearts, but if the policies adversely affect people of color disproportionately compared to whites, we can safely conclude that the policies are, in fact, racist.
Can we apply this thinking to Biddle? I believe we can. I am not aware of any letter in which Biddle states in unambiguous terms, "I am loaning to this bank so that slaves can continue to be oppressed and exploited." But would we really expect something like this in a country whose founding documents refer to slaves as "other persons"? No, a lot of the support for slavery was either assumed, swept under the rug, or couched in terms of "property" and "limited government." Biddle may not have intended to strengthen slavery but his actions, when understood with all of their context, certainly had the effect of perpetuating the slave system.
This was a long process. There was no instant gratification--indeed, there was lots of struggle--so seeing the article come out in print is all the more satisfying. I am proud of what I have put together. I hope you find it illuminating and useful.
Many thanks to Ben Kitchings for hosting me on The History Voyager Podcast. This was a fun and wide-ranging interview.
A few years ago I wrote a five-part blog series on the topic of grade inflation. Today I am revisiting that topic in shortened form.
Sometimes I receive emails from my students that say, “Why did I get a ‘B’ on this?” or “Why did you take two points off my submission?” It’s easy to read between the lines to figure out that these are more polite ways of saying, “Why didn’t I get my ‘A’?”
Having taught college-level history courses since 2007, I have come across a disappointingly high number of students who express an undue emphasis on grades, as if their grades, and their grades alone, will determine not just their own happiness, but their ability graduate and obtain a successful, satisfying career in life. This mentality is tough for many professors to accept. Most of us teach because we care intrinsically about the joy and importance of our subject; handing out grades is probably the least enjoyable aspect of our job.
I do not consider myself a hard grader. I’m probably average in the grand scheme of things. There are plenty of students who can and do get A’s in my classes. But that’s kind of besides the point. It would be helpful, I think, if students looked at their college experience as an opportunity to work with and encounter a lot of different professors with different teaching styles, demands, and expectations, much like the so-called “real world” for which college is supposed to prepare them.
The Essay Assignment. If it is the essay assignment you are most concerned about, remember that I left bubble comments through Turnitin.com that are particular to your individual paper and also offered some general thoughts for the entire class. I was abundantly clear in my expectations for this assignment, having shared the numerous handouts that explain the factors I would use to determine your grade, including a grading criteria handout, helpful hints for writing, a handout on plagiarism, and how to construct an effective introduction.
When you wrote your essay, did you try to minimize distractions? I emphasize that multi-tasking inhibits our ability to learn and retain information. I’ve blogged about this before and even discussed the numerous articles that reference scientific studies on the subject. Did you take it to heart when I said that writing is a process and that it is best not to write an entire assignment in one sitting? The best work comes from constant revision. Did you print out your essay and read it aloud rather than examining it solely on the computer screen? Did you have a friend or classmate look at your work to make sure it made sense to them? Did you check your essay one final time before submitting it?
Plan Ahead and Prepare. The best students are often the ones who plan ahead. What that means is that you should get started early on your essay, other assignments, or preparing for exams. It means not starting the night before a deadline.
How much work are you putting into my class? Whenever I encounter a student who has struggled in my class, I usually ask about two things: 1) note-taking and 2) the number of hours per week outside of class that you dedicate to studying for my course. The expectation is that for every one unit of coursework, you will need to spend 2-3 hours of work per week outside of class reading, studying, and completing assignments. This means a 3-unit class requires about 9 hours of week outside of class. Some students may need more time. Are you putting in this many hours? If you’re not, then I don’t think you can expect to automatically earn high grades.
I did not always get A’s in college and in hindsight, I regret complaining to a few of my professors about grades. I am eternally grateful for the education I experienced at UC Davis. I was lucky to have amazing TAs and professors. In a few instances I was unhappy with a grade I earned. I complained. It is from the perspective of hindsight and more importantly, from the experience I have gained from being a teacher at the college level, that I regret those decisions. I look back and realize that I was not deeply committed to all of my classes. I had other priorities: a social life, playing guitar in two rock bands, and an on-campus job. My experience, I hope, will be valuable to you in at least two ways. One, despite encountering disappointment in the form of B-level grades, I did not give up. I tried my best and ended up earning a doctorate, presented my research at academic conferences, and published my arguments in peer reviewed journals. I now have a book with a reputable university press. This didn’t happen overnight. Hopefully you can learn from my own experience that a slow and steady pace, exercised with patience and long-term thinking, can yield positive results. Two, I realized that I really just wasn’t a great writer as an undergrad. Every semester I am pleased to encounter the writing of lots of students whose skills are superior to the ones I held at the same age. It was only by reading students’ writing as a teacher that I could dial down my own inflated ego.
Sometimes whether you get the job or win the award has nothing to do with how hard you worked or how much talent you have. I look back at all of the time I spent stressing about grades as an undergraduate or graduate student, and fret that it was such a waste of time and energy! Because in the grand scheme of things, grades had very little or nothing to do with whether or not I got accepted to graduate school; whether or not I received a fellowship; whether or not I received a tenure-track job, an increasing rarity in today’s job market. Much larger structures were always at play; structures that were far greater in magnitude than any individual’s ability to control. Let’s say a history department wants more gender or Latin American historians and less political and economic historians. Do you think that all that groveling and extra effort to turn a B+ into an A- would really matter when it came to whether a department hired me or not? No, state budget cuts, economic forces, changes in the discipline—all these things would arguably matter much more. This is one thing I’ve been trying to tell my students…larger structures often matter much more than individual choice. Your decision to work extra hard may be irrelevant when five reactionary, religious men in robes with a narrow, pre-1929 mindset of the Constitution decide to rule, with no other intellectual fortitude than their own whims, that labor unions are somehow inconsistent with Congress’s ability to regulate interstate commerce.
The Grade you earned is NOT a reflection of your character, worth, or intellect.
Nor does a grade always correlate with effort. Sometimes when students express surprise or unhappiness with a grade that they have earned, they will say that they worked very hard on the assignment. While I certainly appreciate that many of my students are admirably juggling multiple responsibilities with classes, work, family responsibilities, and the occasional emergency, working hard is the bare minimum and something we expect from everyone. A college degree should definitely mean something. It should signify a certain intellectual achievement and communicate to others that you have attained a basic mastery of a subject (your major) and at the same time have covered a broad and well-rounded literature spanning many subjects. An article in Vitae published a very direct if harsh response from Angela Jackson-Brown, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University: “It always amazes me when students feel like their English paper grades should be based on effort. I sometimes wonder: Do you ask the math teacher if she will give you points for trying even though parts of your mathematical equation are incorrect? If you took an astronomy course, would you want partial credit because even though you identified a star as a planet, you at least recognized that they are both in the sky?”
Mastery of the Material. There are lots of theories of how best to distribute grades, but one overriding concern is whether a student has truly mastered the material. Whether you master the material may not always correlate with effort. Some students, having harnessed their own inner talents or gone to prestigious schools with teachers who instilled sound habits of mind, need very little effort to master the material. Others may work numerous hours and just get by with a “C.”
A-level work should be exceptional. Students who submit good work that is not exceptional should not expect an “A.”
Another theory of grading holds that grades are a method to compare student performance. It may be tough to hear, but if you’re a student who is unhappy with a grade, a very likely reason is that many of your classmates put up a better performance.
Grade Inflation is a Documented Phenomenon. Many argue that it harms students and professors. Grade inflation is the gradual rise in average grades earned over time without a commensurate rise in performance. We see grade inflation when most students in a class earn an A, A-, B+, or the occasional B. So just as price inflation often corresponds to a devaluation of the currency, grade inflation corresponds to a devaluation of student performance. A’s are handed out just like the dollars that grow on trees.
According to Rosovsky and Hartley, between 1960 and 1997, average collegiate grades increased nationally from a 3.07 GPA to a 3.34. Gradeinflation.com has datasets that show these statistics. If trends continue, virtually every college student will get an “A” by the mid-21st century and the average GPA will approach 3.8, which is higher than my own undergraduate GPA. One study of the CSU and UC systems, where I have spent over fifteen years as a student and faculty member, showed grades inflating at about forty percent of the 32 schools surveyed (9 branches of the University of California and 23 CSU branches). A small percentage of these schools were actually deflating grades while at a larger number of schools, grades had stayed about the same. The study, which analyzed grades between 2009 and 2013, reported an average GPA at UC campuses of 3.03 while the average GPA at the CSUs was 2.93.
A rise in grades would be acceptable if it reflected a rise in student performance. But if anything, the data suggest that performance has been declining. American millenials, when judged against their peers in other countries, have performed quite badly in literacy, technical skills, and math skills. This is true even for those with advanced graduate degrees.
A growing chorus of professors argue that grade inflation is harming both students and faculty. It harms students because it packs a wide range of student performance and achievement into a narrow range of grade distribution. Let’s say 80% of students in a class receive a B+, A-, or A. This would be an example of what is known as grade compression (sometimes scholars distinguish between grade inflation and grade compression but I would prefer to view them as part of the same phenomenon).
As grade compression occurs, we are less able to parse out and differentiate the truly exceptional work from work that is only slightly above average. This devalues hard work. It rewards the underachievers and punishes high-performing students. If a professor gives an A- to a person who slacked off most of the term but managed to put together a strong effort on only exam without truly internalizing the material, and yet at the same time gives an “A” to the person who has performed extraordinarily well, the exceptional student is not rewarded in a manner commensurate with his/her effort.
An additional harm to students wrought by grade inflation comes in the form of leading students into fields for which they are ill suited. By giving out higher grades, colleges give an implicit endorsement to employers that a given student would make a strong candidate for a position. The student who shows up late, talks and texts in class, and doesn’t do any of the reading—but yet pulls off a B+ because the professor is a pushover—may be in for a rude awakening upon entering the workforce. There is a school of thought—call it traditional, old fashioned, or disciplinarian if you wish—contending that professors are ultimately not doing students any favors to prepare them for the job market by being too lenient.
A lower grade is supposed to motivate you to do better. As one student at Princeton University commented in an article by William Abbott, “if I get the same grade for my very best work that I get for work that is not my very best, I’m less motivated to try to stretch as far as I can.” The incentive for improvement is one of the justifications for why we have grades in the first place, despite their problems. If you get an “A” with minimal effort, you haven’t really pushed yourself. Say you get a “B” in a class but then work incredibly hard to improve your writing skills and then in the next class you get an “A” by the same professor. Wouldn’t it have been worth it? Wouldn’t you feel proud of yourself for the real, measurable improvement in your skills? But you wouldn’t have gone through this improvement unless you had a professor who gave you a “B” or a “C.”
The late UCSB economist, Philip Babcock, in a 2010 essay, wrote that average study time would be about 50% lower in class in which the average grade expected was an “A” compared to the same course taught by the same instructor in which the average grade expected was a “C.” To rephrase, if professors gave lower grades throughout the term, students would make the natural adjustment of studying harder. And to the extent that more study leads to more learning—at least up until a certain saturation point—we see, therefore, that passing out lower grades will actually lead to more learning. And that’s what we want, right? For what else is the job of a university, and the professors who work there, than to provide an environment in which the student learns the most?!
I know you want it to come to you easily. Believe me, I was there because like yourself, I, too, was an undergrad who wanted to get A’s and move on with my life. But sometimes the most satisfying experiences in life come to you after many hours and even years of hard work. It may be frustrating and you want to give up, but I’m confident that you can rise to the occasion!
It’s the LEARNING that matters, NOT the grades! Grades are arguably the least important factor to consider when you evaluate a class. Among the factors you should consider are: did the professor challenge me intellectually? Did the professor give me a new way to look at something that I had not considered before? Have I acquired new skills and/or reinforced old ones? Have I gotten a general sense of the major themes that have played out in American history?
You might enjoy your college experience more if you focus more on the process, and less on the outcome. The outcome of a class is the grade that goes on your transcript and the units that accumulate toward earning a college degree. The process is the intellectual journey of numerous hours you spend cultivating sound study habits, studying for exams, attending class, taking notes, writing an essay, etc. Focusing only on an outcome puts a lot of pressure on yourself! Now, I am not saying that you should forget about grades or ignore them. But what I am asking you to do is to bring your emphasis on outcomes more in harmony with the process.
Here’s an analogy from a completely different phase of my life. When I started out as a junior tennis player in my teens, I would put a lot of pressure on myself. I would get nervous and blow matches I should have won. We call this “choking.” My coach, Wes Hollon, diagnosed this flaw fairly easily and he told me that my problem was that I was too focused on winning and losing (the outcome). Instead, he wanted me to focus on mastering plays, whether it was hitting forehands crosscourt, taking less risks on my first serve, or whatever. These plays, in effect, were the process, not the outcome. His philosophy was that if you focus on the process, the outcome will fall naturally into place. And you know what? He was right! I started winning more matches! Now apply this to your studies: focus on developing your academic skills as part of a lifelong journey; don’t sap up all of your energy by focusing too much on outcomes.
I've got an article out in Zocalo Public Square today. In this piece I talk about the ambiguity involved in deriving lessons from past economic crises to make a larger point about the messiness of constructing historical analogies. Enjoy!
Earlier today I heard the very exciting news that an article manuscript of mine, tentatively titled "Profit, Nationalism, and 'Virgin Land': Nicholas Biddle and the Expansion of Cotton and Slavery," will be published by the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography some time in early 2021. I am really looking forward to seeing this come out in print!
Check out a brief presentation I made during a Virtual Town Hall with fellow historian Liam O'Mara. In this talk I go over:
* general models for recessions
* the causes and consequences of the Great Depression
* the Great Recession
* what policies may help us today
I've published a review of Andrew Browning's book on the Panic of 1819 for The Economic Historian.
Here is the Twitter unroll, which allows you to see the accompanying Twitter thread I wrote (including cool images of bank notes). You can view this even if you don't have a Twitter account. Enjoy!
Here is my latest book review, published in American Nineteenth Century History, Volume 20, no. 2 (216-217). If you're unable to read the review from the link here are a few of my thoughts from the review. This volume was edited by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon as part of a series for the United States Capitol Historical Society. All of the essays were interesting but in particular I'd like to highlight Lesley Gordon's chapter on the Fire Zouaves, a New York army regiment comprised of Irish working-class men. Gordon's chapter shows us how congressional committees could criticize the president, question military strategy, and find politically expedient targets to channel northern fury over the debacle at the first battle of Bull Run. Similarly, Fergus Bordewich's probing analysis of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War underscores the importance of civilian oversight of the military in a democracy. Together these chapters raise important questions while encouraging historians to consider whether they should devote more attention to congressional action when narrating the Civil War.
Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. I neither speak for my employers, nor do I require my students to agree with the thoughts expressed here. Opinions are my own.
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