Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic

Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic

Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic

Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic


Building the Empire State examines the origins of American capitalism by tracing how and why business corporations were first introduced into the economy of the early republic. Brian Phillips Murphy follows the collaborations between political leaders and a group of unelected political entrepreneurs, including Robert R. Livingston and Alexander Hamilton, who persuaded legislative powers to grant monopolies corporate status in order to finance and manage civic institutions. Murphy shows how American capitalism grew out of the convergence of political and economic interests, wherein political culture was shaped by business strategies and institutions as much as the reverse.

Focusing on the state of New York, a onetime mercantile colony that became home to the first American banks, utilities, canals, and transportation infrastructure projects, Building the Empire State surveys the changing institutional ecology during the first five decades following the American Revolution. Through sustained attention to the Manhattan Company, the steamboat monopoly, the Erie Canal, and the New York & Erie Railroad, Murphy traces the ways entrepreneurs marshaled political and financial capital to sway legislators to support their private plans and interests. By playing a central role in the creation and regulation of institutions that facilitated private commercial transactions, New York State's political officials created formal and informal precedents for the political economy throughout the northeastern United States and toward the expanding westward frontier. The political, economic, and legal consequences organizing the marketplace in this way continue to be felt in the vast influence and privileged position held by corporations in the present day.


One late spring day in Manhattan in 1784, Robert Robert Livingston Jr. did something he and his peers did nearly every day of their adult lives: he sat down, pulled out a sheaf of paper, and began scribbling.

For the past seven years, the 37- year- old aristocrat had been New York State’s chancellor, one of its top judicial officials. The position had been created under a new state constitution New York adopted in 1777 after the separation from Great Britain. Livingston coauthored that document and all but inherited the newly created post; his late father, Robert R. “Judge” Livingston Sr. had also been a prominent jurist and politician in colonial New York.

Politics was one of the Livingston family’s businesses, and Robert Junior had long been busy at the center of the politics of Revolution. In 1775 he became a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he was one- fifth of the Committee of Five tasked with drawing up a Declaration of Independence. He returned to New York to frame that state’s 1777 constitution, was named the state’s chancellor by a provisional governing body, and left again in 1781 to serve as his country’s first secretary of foreign affairs, its senior- most diplomatic official.

But now all of that was in the past.

As the national capital ambled from Philadelphia to Princeton to Annapolis, the center of its politics drifted further and further from Livingston’s reach and from New York itself, where the Livingston name— one that had dominated colonial politics for a century— seemed to be at a nadir. In the New York legislature, some of the Revolution’s leaders, whom the chancellor had labeled “warm & hotheaded Whigs,” seemed determined to permanently keep men like him from wielding anything like his former power. Having come under fire for being an absentee state officeholder, Livingston resigned his foreign affairs post in 1783 and returned home to mend ties in New York.

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