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Reassessing Henry Carey (1793–1879): the problems of writing political economy in nineteenth-century America

Reassessing Henry Carey (1793–1879): the problems of writing political economy in nineteenth-century America

Dawson, Andrew (2000) Reassessing Henry Carey (1793–1879): the problems of writing political economy in nineteenth-century America. Journal of American Studies, 34 (3). pp. 465-485. ISSN 0021-8758 (Print), 1469-5154 (Online)

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In April 1859 a group of well-to-do manufacturers and Republican politicians coaxed a reclusive Henry Carey, Philadelphia's pre-eminent economist, from his study to a public dinner in his honour. One hundred and twenty five names were at the foot of an invitation to dine at the opulent La Pierre Hotel in recognition of Carey's “service in behalf of American industrial interests.” The banqueting hall glittered with brilliantly illuminated chandeliers trimmed with floral arrangements; at one end a banner proclaimed “Protection to American Labor,” although, curiously, none of the guests looked as though they actually laboured; strung across the other end of the hall another banner blazoned “Harmony of Interests,” but only one interest sat at table. These two slogans encapsulate Carey's world view. He had a vision of an ideal America in which small manufacturing towns would spread across the land. To him “association ” allowed farmers to exchange products with neighbouring mechanics and to develop America beyond the stage of primary producer. Towns would grow into cities, generate a social and cultural life, and cities would trade with other cities. By such a process all underdeveloped nations would achieve economic maturity. Through the free association of co-operating individuals, town and country and capital and labour achieved harmony. The only way to overcome the baneful effect of British imperialism was through the protective tariff. To Carey's way of thinking, free trade was the antithesis of association because it created “centralization,” a system in which a core industrial capitalism traded manufactures for raw materials with a faraway and less developed periphery. Trading at such a distance allowed a merchant class to intervene and siphon off the hard-won efforts of labour. Free trade led to wild, speculative fluctuations in economic activity, periodic overproduction as consumers were not matched by producers, and long-term underdevelopment of the agricultural regions of the American South and West which lay outside the orbit of north-eastern manufacturers. Carey's ripened theoretical position was consequent upon the enormous changes experienced by American society during the decades of the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Like all utopias, the future was intimately linked to the hopes and fears of the present. To the growing but still subaltern class of manufacturers that rubbed shoulders at La Pierre's dinner tables, he offered a comforting vision of American small-town life as an antidote to the reality of British social polarization and class conflict.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: Henry Carey, United States, nineteenth century, political economy, free trade, protectionism
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General)
Pre-2014 Departments: School of Humanities & Social Sciences > Department of Communications & Creative Arts
School of Humanities & Social Sciences > History Research Group
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Last Modified: 14 Oct 2016 09:12

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