"Fated to Perish by Consumption": The Political Economy of Arthur Mervyn

By Ostrowski, Carl | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

"Fated to Perish by Consumption": The Political Economy of Arthur Mervyn

Ostrowski, Carl, Studies in American Fiction

   Was this the penalty of disobedience?--this the stroke of a
   vindictive and invisible hand?

   --Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland

The study of political economy was a new field of inquiry in the late eighteenth century. First appearing in English in Sir James Steuart's An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), the phrase "political economy" was taken up by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, where he defined it as "a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator" with two objects: "first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services." (1) Charles Brockden Brown encountered the discipline when, as a member of the New York Friendly Club, he read Wealth of Nations, a book that also would have been standard reading in the law curriculum he studied in the 1790s. (2) That he had the subject of political economy in mind when composing Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 is evident in the preface, where Brown noted that the "evils of pestilence ... have already supplied new and copious materials for reflection to the physician and the political economist." (3)

Beyond his academic knowledge of political economy, Brown observed business practices and their economic consequences first-hand as he watched his brothers undertake successful mercantile careers in the commercial milieu of Philadelphia. In Arthur Mervyn, Brown captures this environment in all of its complexity. James Justus memorably characterized the economic facet of the novel by noting its concern with

   commissions, bills of exchange, claims and deeds, banknotes, notes
   and bonds, sued mortgages and mortgages entered up, forgeries
   and robberies, patrimonies and inheritances, generous loans and
   imprudent debts, premiums of insurance, equitable rates of interest
   and hazardous securities, obdurate creditors and debtors' prisons,
   executors' powers, competences and subsistencies, rewards,
   and warrants of attorney. (4)

Justus's comprehensive list nicely sums up the microeconomic aspect of the novel, but does not get at the macroeconomic level of inquiry implied by the phrase "political economy" as Brown used it in his preface. The question is whether Brown applied the larger lessons of the study of political economy to the commercial environment that Arthur Mervyn so effectively analyzes. Besides showing Arthur himself engaged in the project of acquiring revenue sufficient for his own subsistence, does Brown also investigate how Arthur's individual pursuit of wealth affects the prosperity and political health of the nation?

A strong case can be made that he does. In this essay, by reading the novel in light of the political and economic context of the 1790s, I intend to make several related points about Arthur Mervyn. (5) A number of incidents in the novel can be read as Brown's comment on the social costs of speculation, a financial practice that generated controversy and scandal in America during the 1790s. The economic liberalism pursued by speculators and embodied by the title character would have been judged wanting by Brown's original audience when viewed in light of the still influential ideology of classical republicanism and the restraints and duties it imposed on the civic-minded individual. And the yellow fever epidemic famously described in the novel might be seen as a judgment on economic liberalism, a vindictive invisible hand that punished the people of Philadelphia for their habits of conspicuous consumption.

Set in 1793, the events of Arthur Mervyn are not far removed from a crisis that took place in the government bond market in 1791-92. To pay for expenses incurred during the Revolutionary War, the national government had issued bonds to farmers, merchants, and veterans, who received them in lieu of payment for their goods or services.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

"Fated to Perish by Consumption": The Political Economy of Arthur Mervyn


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?