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.
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:
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.
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.
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.