American Economic History
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A partner and I studied and presented the historic and economic impacts of the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park in rural Virginia. This was the site of General Robert E. Lee’s official surrender of his Confederate army to Grant’s Union army, which began a succession of surrenders that ended the Civil War.
The most interesting part about this project for me was looking at how incentives affected how the major player in the town, Col. Samuel McDearmon, spent his money and influence. When his city, Clovis Hill, was announced as seat of the new Appomattox County, McDearmon basically bought up the town and made preparations for what he fully expected was a bright future due to a potential train station. When that train station passed the town by, McDearmon’s incentives changed, and he followed the opportunities where they presented themselves (i.e. where the train station was actually placed, three miles west).
In economics, and human behavior in general, incentives matter. They are the major players in our decision-making processes, and they can help us make sense of quandries such as why certain crimes persist, why shortsighted policies do not achieve their intended effects, and even why economies boom and bust. Obviously, Col. McDearmon’s incentives were not originally aligned with the incentives of the executives of the Southside Railroad Company, but as new incentives became clear, McDearmon changed his plans. And so the economic world continues to turn.
The JPG above is the result of the first assignment in this class. The goal was to pick a colony from each of the three regions (North, Middle, and South), and show when the colony was established, by whom, from where they came, why they came, and what they produced. I chose Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Pennsylvania and North Carolina were more interesting to create than Massachusetts because of the variety of colonists in the territories, and because part of why North Carolina was settled was as a political reward from the once-deposed but newly asserted King Charles II. Who says all politics is local?
A Revolutionary Assignment
Yes, yet another bubble chart, this time considering the thought processes of both the Brits and the Yanks leading up to the Revolutionary War. To some extent, we could say in hindsight that the colonists were a bit delusional (you know, the “of grandeur” type), but the British were also a bit aloof and too confident. In the end, passion beat confidence. As a psychology graduate, this look inside the heads of both sides of the conflict was both valuable and interesting. In the midst of war, each side tends to dehumanize the other, which makes seeing the conflict from the enemy’s viewpoint almost impossible. The colonists had the advantage in that they were very familiar with British thinking about their own superiority. If the British had more seriously considered American thinking and advantages, perhaps history would have taken a different course.
Photo: NICK LOWNDES
It is pretty common to see old British mercantilism as the enemy of capitalism, and in most ways it was, but it is also interesting to consider how much mercantile practices in America birthed and nurtured the capitalist system that developed in America after the Revolutionary War. Perhaps capitalism never would have developed and spread as it did without mercantilism being so heavy-handed. See my blog post about it here.
A partner and I used GoAnimate.com to create an animated video discussing how the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Napoleonic wars created conditions in which Americans had to learn how to be more self-reliant. It’s a pretty simple video with a distinct lack of depth, but the point wasn’t really to be thorough so much as use the technology to present the basic information. The subject gave me a new appreciation for the long-time American obsession (at least in theory) of self-reliance. It is sort of in our DNA as a culture. We began under the rule and economic structure of someone else, but then, through the decisions of both ourselves and others, were forced to make our own way in the world. I would say we have done a bang-up job of it (as the British would say), for the most part, but perhaps we rely too much on self-reliance. Such obsession has caused many of us to be too much in favor of protectionism at the national level while also likely leading some of us to be too isolated personally.