Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Republic of Risk: Canals and Commercial Infrastructure Planning in the United States, 1783–1808
by Davidson, David Anthony, Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2012, 182; 3508282
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation analyzes the process by which capitalism emerged in the United States during the twenty-five years following the American Revolution. It asks how individuals associated with early canal ventures, many of which ran out of funds before opening, managed the massive risks these projects entailed. Canals required technical skill, corporate organization, financing, and labor on a scale previously unseen in the American colonies. A series of negotiations took place in which planners, engineers, landholders, and laborers ascribed systems of value to projects whose likelihood of success was all but impossible to gauge, given their lack of precedent. These negotiations occurred on the local level, often in face-to-face encounters, but their content pointed the way toward an economy in which impersonal and abstract market forces would dictate everyday decisions.

Such negotiations also highlighted the tension between common good and private interest during the period. In the aftermath of revolution, many Americans exploited the opportunity to convert the rhetoric of freedom into profit through business, but found their contemporaries reluctant to sacrifice the security of land in exchange for money or a stake in canal companies. The Revolution's legacy thus nurtured skepticism about public improvements at the same time as it encouraged their embrace. In the end, all parties made use of whatever resources they had at their disposal to predict their own likelihood of gain in a shifting and uncertain economic environment. Luck, tolerance of failure, and charisma governed a great many outcomes related to canal projects, for these resources proved dearest in addressing a phenomenon that arrived too soon for a society still tethered to early modern folkways. Through a close examination of the manuscript correspondence surrounding the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts and several Pennsylvania canals, the analysis concludes that the transition from a regional and primarily commercial economy to a monetized market system was messy, inchoate, and non-linear, more so than the literature of early United States history would suggest.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Breen, Timothy H.
Commitee: Barton, Josef J., Binford, Henry C.
School: Northwestern University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 73/09(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: American history, Economic history
Keywords: Canal, Canals, Commerce, Commercial, Infrastructure, United States
Publication Number: 3508282
ISBN: 9781267339461
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