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Theory, Policy, and Nation in the American School of Political Economy

Ron Ariel, SMU

This paper seeks to illuminate, or at least to raise the problem of, economic nationalism. This is a topic ripe for reconsideration in the present moment but one that has received little attention from historians of economic thought and only minor consideration from nationalism scholars. The substance of the paper focuses on the work of three main representatives of the "American School of Political Economy" during the Civil War era (circa 1845-1877): Henry C. Carey, E. Peshine Smith, and Stephen Colwell. Carey forms the hinge of two theoretical alter egos. Peshine Smith pushed to the limit Carey's tendency to theorize universal social laws, in the vein of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, which he intended to underpin social and economic policy. Colwell, on the other hand, was skeptical of such universal laws due to the inherent complexity of social relations and instead emphasized detailed empirical knowledge and policy expertise. These theoretical perspectives were potentially at odds, even incompatible. Yet all three men marched virtually in lock step on policy matters through three of the most tumultuous decades in American political history. As Carey put it in a eulogy to Colwell, "differences in modes of thought" yielded no "essential difference" when it came to "the end in issue." In particular, each favored a protectionist trade policy and an expansionary currency system intended to insulate, though not entirely to detach, the domestic from the global economy for the purposes of industrial development. In doing so, each made essential contributions to the remaking of American political economy in the post-Civil War era along the lines of an avowedly economic nationalist agenda. What accounts for this tight political unity in the face of such theoretical heterogeneity? By addressing this question, I hope to shed some light on how we understand economic nationalism in this era and, perhaps, more broadly.

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Keywords: Henry Carey, Stephen Colwell, economic nationalism

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