Esse Est Percipi: The Strange Case of Early American Economic History

Article excerpt

TO START A REVIEW ESSAY IN EARLY MODERN ECONOMIC HISTORY WITH A phrase associated with Bishop George Berkeley, one of that era's foremost immaterialists, is both ironic and depressing. But this phrase, esse est percipi--to be is to be perceived--captures well the present predicament economic historians of that period face. (1) Although some excellent work is still being done in the field of economic history, it is little appreciated, indeed, little read. (2) With a nod to the bishop, we might even ask: If an economic historian writes an article in the Journal of Economic History or in Explorations in Economic History, and no one reads it, did he or she really write it? Esse est percipi.

To be sure, there have been some positive developments in recent years, slivers of optimism, causes for hope. The ever-increasing availability of primary sources online and the development of new and/or improved data sets such as the wonderful Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and the enlarged section titled "Colonial Statistics" in the recently released millennial edition of the Historical Statistics of the United States make it easier to study the early American economy. (3) The publication of impressive scholarly syntheses such as the colonial volume in The Cambridge Economic History of the United States and the relevant volumes in The Oxford History of the British Empire, among others, is well worth noting, too. (4) The rise of Atlantic history has generated more interest among scholars in flows of one type or another, including at times flows of labor, capital, and commodities. Cathy Matson's energetic leadership of the Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES) at the Library Company of Philadelphia has raised the profile of economic history a bit and thereby paid some dividends, so to speak. The interests of social, environmental, cultural, and even intellectual historians sometimes bleed, and occasionally even hemorrhage, into the economic realm, which raises the possibility of new alliances. Still, economic historians, particularly those of a quantitative ilk, are for the most part off in the corner counting by themselves.

Why is this the case? There are a number of reasons for the isolation, if not out-and-out quarantine, of economic history and economic historians from the scholarly mainstream in recent decades. The so-called cultural turn in historical circles in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in large-scale flight from what some call QUASSH--quantitative social science history--if not from the material world altogether. (5) For their part, economic historians, increasingly trained in departments of economics, looked to more "rigorous" scholarly audiences and venues, both because of their conversance and comfort with theory and formal methods and because traditional historical approaches and explanations--and perhaps historians as well--seemed to them (the Few, the Proud, the Numerate) so squishy, soft, and gelatinous. Moreover, some economic historians have eschewed clear, jargon-free prose accessible to those not mathematically inclined.

If economists doing economic history--or historical economics, as the most ardent regrettably tried to rename the field--were a bit bumptious and presumptuous about their more humanistic peers, traditional historians often set themselves up for such treatment. Since the 1980s, traditional historians have beat a fast retreat from what seventeenth-century political arithmetician Sir William Petty referred to as "number, weight, or measure," and most graduate admissions committees have looked at quants in the applicant pool as quaint, their 780 quantitative scores on the Graduate Record Examinations akin to artifacts in Little Nell Trent's grandfather's curiosity shop, or at best as atavisms associated with the deviant behaviorism "plaguing" the profession in the 1970s. (6) "Numbers just don't do it for me," a graduate student once told me, explaining why he skipped over any and all tables, figures, and graphs that appeared in any historical text he was assigned. …