Friday, January 28, 2011

So, Yeah, Capitalism

For my forthcoming research project on the economic culture of the Chickasaw Indians, I am trying to determine the extent to which that nation had developed a capitalist economy by the time of Removal (the late 1830s). The problem, of course, is that there is no simple, universally-accepted definition of capitalism. Does it refer simply to a market economy? A society that respects private property rights? A wage-labor economy? Widespread entrepreneurial activity? Devotion, avant la lettre, to the ideals of Ayn Rand? All of the above? I cannot say I have given the matter much thought since graduate school. Apparently, the time has come to do so. Therefore, I will shortly embark on a series of blog entries that will endeavor to define "capitalism," by looking at some of the principal social scientists who tried to do the same (Smith, Marx, Weber, Polanyi), along with several historians who have studied its early American variant (Allan Kulikoff, Joyce Appleby, Gordon Wood, and others). My findings will not be as rigorously presented as they would be in an academic article, but I hope my readers will find them edifying, or at least not too much of a death march.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Pretty Safe Job, Actually

In her New York Times article "When Congress Was Armed and Dangerous," Prof. Joanne Freeman of Yale University notes that the violent American political culture of the current (Tea Party) era has a clear antebellum precedent. In the mid-nineteenth century, Freeman writes, it was increasingly common for Congressmen to carry weapons with them in public and in the halls of Congress, and in at least two cases in the 1850s a legislator either drew a gun on a colleague or thrashed a Senator to unconsciousness.

On closer examination, however, the political violence of the 1830s, '40s and '50s appears to have been mostly rhetorical, a display of violent masculinity that probably impressed the voters but didn't actually threaten more than a few Senators and Congressmen. Indeed, it's rather surprising how few of the 10,000-plus men and women who served in the American Congress since 1789 actually died of non-natural causes while in office. reports that 50 or so serving Congressmen and Senators died in vehicle crashes or killed themselves, and only ten were victims of homicide. Of those ten, three died in duels, one (Senator Baker of Oregon) died in the Civil War at Ball's Bluff, one was shot "by an insane son," one was shot by religious cultists and Kool-Aid connoisseurs, and four (two Senators, Long and Kennedy, and two Congressmen) were assassinated. In noting this, I don't mean to imply that Americans are peaceful, just that we prefer to direct violence against people who are weak (like the reporters mentioned in Freeman's essay) or belong to racial minorities (Chinese immigrants, African-American freemen and slaves, Native Americans). Generally, Congressmen and Senators haven't met either of these specifications. While saying so will bring no comfort to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family, it's a pretty safe job.