In recent months, our newspapers, cable shows, blogs and even You Tube have been filled with articles and commentary on the American economy. From optimistic reassurances that American capitalism and its institutions are basically sound to jeremiads warning that our national character and our national economic system are in dire states of decay, we are bombarded with information [and misinformation] about such fundamental elements of our economy as the role of banking, the stock market, corporations, and the public policies and political philosophies that affect production, consumption and investment. But, as historians and history teachers, we search for a broader perspective on the complex economic issues of our day. We ask questions such as: How has American capitalism evolved? When were banks introduced into our economy and what functions have they served in the past? How did the stock market come into existence and why is it so important today? Who were the pioneers of American industry and finance, and how should we evaluate their successes and failures, the problems they created and those they sought to solve? How has government policy affected economic growth or crisis in the past?
In this issue of History Now, five noted scholars grapple with and provide answers to these questions. The result is a primer on the American economy, describing clearly and accessibly the origins and development of our most critical institutions, the role key individuals played in shaping them, and the changes that have taken place in them over the centuries. We are confident these essays will help you shape effective lessons in the classroom – even if they do not provide surefire ways to make your fortune!
Our overview essay, “Getting Ready to Lead a World Economy: Enterprise in Nineteenth Century America,” is written by Joyce Appleby. In it she traces the rise of liberal capitalism and the spirit of enterprise that catapulted the United States into a leadership role in the modern world. Next, Richard Sylla unlocks the mysteries of the banking system in his essay “The U.S. Banking System: Origins, Development and Regulation,” explaining the functions banks perform and how their role in our economy has expanded and undergone regulation over past centuries. In “The Rise of an American Institution: The Stock Market”, Brian Murphy traces the evolution of a convenient ad hoc trading arrangement into one of the most influential institutions in American society. T.J. Stiles then confronts the longstanding argument over the larger than life entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century in his essay “Robber Barons or Captains of Industry?” And, finally, Professor Roger E. A. Farmer sheds light on the intersection of government and the economy in his essay “Economic Policy Through the Lens of History.”
As always, History Now offers several additional features. The interactive feature in this issue – “Scandal! Financial Crime, Chicanery and Corruption that Rocked America”—has been produced in partnership with the Museum of American Finance. Our archivist, Dr. Mary-Jo Kline, has provided a rich collection of websites, articles and books for you to draw upon if you want to pursue any of the topics in the five essays. High school master teachers and award winners Bruce Lesh and Phil Nicolosi point out several of the major themes in the essays that might serve to focus your classroom lessons on the American economy, and three talented teachers provide you with sample lesson plans, complete with links to Web resources.
In closing, all of us at History Now wish you an enjoyable and productive summer.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.