Scholars from institutions across the U.S. and abroad came to Bowdoin to discuss 19th-century political economists, and the relevance of their ideas to modern times, in a symposium on Oct. 19-20. Titled “American Political Economy from the Age of Jackson to the Civil War,” the interdisciplinary event was organized by Assistant Professor of Economics Stephen Meardon.
Associate Dean for Faculty Jennifer Scanlon introduced the symposium as a “a space for chewing ideas, presenting tentative arguments and research, and learning from each other,” saying that the intimate environment of such events is “an integral component of intellectual life here at Bowdoin.”
“We want to get historians of economics involved in dialogue with American historians,” said Meardon, to examine the economic legacy of a neglected set of American thinkers: members of government, commerce, publishing, and higher education who in the pre-Civil War period engaged in lively debate about the then-new science of political economy. “We also want to know how the political economy of that moment leads to economics in the present day.” Meardon spoke about his own research on Philadelphia political economist Henry C. Carey, “who believed that the interrelationship of individuals and social structures revealed both the cause of sectional antagonism and its cure,” a concept that Meardon suggests could resonate with economists today.
A dozen visiting scholars from institutions across the United States – as well as the the University of Amsterdam and the London School of Economics – presented original papers written for the symposium, in areas ranging from the economics of slavery and secession to the economics of land, science, and education to money, banking, trade doctrines, and tariff controversies. Audience members peppered the speakers with questions following each lecture, and between talks participants had the opportunity to continue exchanging ideas in the Hubbard atrium. The weekend’s closing lecture was delivered by Steven Medema, professor of economics at University of Colorado in Denver, who emphasized the value of learning from questions raised by the political economic thinkers of that time period – even in the absence of clearcut answers.
The two-day symposium was funded by the Office of the Dean for Academic Affairs and by the departments of history, government and legal studies, economics, and Africana studies. It was the fourth in a series of four symposia led by Bowdoin faculty this fall, assembling experts from near and far to exchange ideas about topics spanning a wide range of disciplines including sociology, science, art and history.
Photography by Dennis Griggs/Tannery Hill Studios