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?
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.
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.
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.