The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860

By Wilma A. Dunaway | Go to book overview

10
ECONOMIC CRISIS AND DEEPENING PERIPHERALIZATION

The Historical Process

By 1840, Southern Appalachia's indigenous peoples had been displaced, and the entire land area had been incorporated into the expanding capitalist frontiers of the United States. However, one constant element in the capitalist world system is "the shifting location of economic activity and consequently of particular geographic zones in the world-system. . . . Alterations in the relative economic strength of localities, regions, and states can be viewed as a sort of upward or downward 'mobility,' . . . a movement measured in relation to other states within the framework of the interstate system." Consequently, Southern Appalachia was, by 1850, losing ground in relation to more recently incorporated zones within the interstate system. After 1840, the terms of trade became more and more disadvantageous for Appalachian exports. Even though world prices for regional export commodities declined after 1840, the volume of imports steadily increased. Overuse and exhaustion of the land contributed to agricultural stagnation and worse living conditions for the region's landless laborers. Even though the region's population increased, its production of food crops declined.1

The region's economic dependence on richer zones was cemented, as local elites acted like a comprador bourgeoisie to syndicate absentee investment capital for local enterprises. Consequently, the region's resources and nonagricultural enterprises were heavily controlled by absentees, and its commerce was virtually in the hands of foreigners located in distant trade centers. Despite intensified political rivalries with the richer nonmountainous sections of their home states, most Appalachian elites aligned themselves with the plantermerchant aristocracies of their home states. As a result, Appalachians steadily fell behind other Americans in wealth accumulation, in literacy, and in the development of transportation infrastructure.

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