Interview with John Larson

Matthew Lettiero

John Larson

Into my senior year of college, even as a history major, I had very little idea what historians actually did. I understood, of course, that they taught my classes, that they read through old documents in archives, and that they wrote books and articles. What confused me was how they decided what to write about, what to focus on, and whether they actively researched the topics they wrote on. Were they writing whatever they felt, or were their arguments chosen carefully? I even wondered how historians could focus so specifically on a time and place in history, and whether that focus ever changed. Studying history does not, in fact, teach you what it means to be a historian.

This oversight is likely the reason my professor, Dr. Michael Douma, chose to assign to us, the students of an upper-level class on the history of markets in America, the task of interviewing a historian. There were a few guidelines, including that the historian must have studied American history and that their research must have something to do with markets or even economics more broadly, but we could more or less choose whatever historian interested us. More importantly, we were to read all of their major works, including books and articles, and plan our interview accordingly. It was also expected that we would discuss more generally what it means to be a historian and an economic historian, what inspired them to become one, and what their goals are for the future.

What interested me, personally, was the nineteenth century. Railroads, railroad tycoons, and the development of the West were what I hoped to read about. In my search to find a historian who had covered the history of internal improvements in America, I found Dr. John Larson, a historian from Purdue who had written four books related to the subject, and was not only responsive to my request for an interview but extremely friendly and willing to talk. I came to find out that his works, which on the surface seem entirely separate, actually form a coherent argument that culminates in his most recent book, Laid Waste!, something I tried to emphasize in the interview.

By reading the entirety of Dr. Larson’s works, I discovered a pattern and theme. In the interview, I learned how a historian might choose topics, change focus, and shape their career. We discussed how different types of arguments necessitate different levels of research and sources, and how Dr. Larson’s arguments are not limited purely to the historical period they cover but can touch on something more universal, in this case the trend of the exploitation of people and natural resources in America. By interviewing Dr. Larson, I learned a great deal about what it means to be a historian. Specifically, I learned that being a historian means following your passions, studying the subjects that interest you. More important than what you choose to study is that you connect it to the present by extrapolating a lesson or contributing to modern scholarship on the subject. Most importantly, being a historian means letting history teach you. The theme of exploitation that emerges in Dr. Larson’s work and culminates in his most recent book was not an argument or hypothesis Dr. Larson set out to prove correct, but a theme he uncovered through decades of scholarship.

This interview took place on November 22, 2019.

Matthew Lettiero: One of the reasons I chose to read your work and interview you is because I prefer studying earlier American history to later, and I think the nineteenth century is particularly interesting because that’s when the United States became the United States we know today. Why did you decide to study the nineteenth century and specifically internal improvements and the market revolution?

John Larson: That’s a perfectly fair question, and the first part of the answer is exactly the same one you just gave. The nineteenth century is when the United States becomes the United States. I started out as an undergrad working on the Gilded Age and industrialization, and I’ve been pedaling backwards ever since. When I wound up at Brown University in the company of Gordon Wood I realized that the Revolution was really central to all of American history, so I reached back to 1750 or so, and I’ve been working the 1750 to 1900 period ever since. There are several things in particular that really interest me: the experiment in republicanism, the experiment in self-government, the tendency toward democratization, and the emergence of a capitalist economy. Those, I think, are the drivers of American history.

Lettiero: I totally agree, and that leads perfectly into my next question. In all your four books, which cover different topics and areas, one thing that is intrinsically related to every argument you make is economics in the nineteenth century. The history of banking, labor, macroeconomic trends, and the evolution of economic theory all appear multiple times. How would you say economics and history are related, and how do you balance the two in your work? Do you consider yourself an economic historian?

Larson: As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of economic historians. There are those who are economists and who use history as a resource base, as a database to test economic ideas, and there are historians who are interested in what economic activity had to do with anything else in different time periods in the past. I am very clearly one of the latter. I was not trained as an economist, and my interest in economic history is not to test out theories and see whether they work or not. I’m very much interested in finding out how an economy functions in a time and place. One of the things that creates real tension in the field of economic history is that my approach does not yield predictive or useful conclusions. It cannot tell you what the Federal Reserve should do next. What it does is to demonstrate how economies work in real time, not in some imaginary kind of thought experiment.

One of the things that I’ve always found that this method does is that it unmasks the lack of a good fit between classical liberal economics and the real world. People in the real world don’t operate as rational actors; they operate within a nexus of cultural assumptions that often produce bizarre and irrational behaviors. Jackson’s bank war, for example, is a wonderful case where almost nothing that went on in the Jacksonian bank war had much to do with banking. It had to do about all kinds of other things. One of the reasons historians of banking have such trouble with the bank war is because it’s not really about banking. The other problem I’ve had with certain kinds of economic historians is that they are very prone to go back to an earlier period of time and say, “Well, these people just didn’t understand how the economy worked.” Actually, their economy worked the way they understood it. Our economy might be different. Their economy was their economy. We’re not in a position, today, to decide that they didn’t have it right.

Lettiero: I really like that answer because, as an econ major and a history major, I definitely notice how economics doesn’t always apply to the real world as perfectly as economists would make it seem. When I study history I think it actually helps me understand economics in a more practical way.

Larson: There was a time in the ’50’s and ’60s when the so-called institutionalists brought history and economics together somewhat successfully. What they mostly did was kind of a narrative exposition of how economies appeared to function at different time periods. Then, with the introduction of analytical modeling and big data and computerization and new economic historians, once again we wound up diverging from trying to understand the economy in place and time, and instead trying to understand the economy as a social scientist whose purpose is to direct and advise the future.

Lettiero: That’s really interesting. I think that that answer really explains the tension between history and economics. Kind of a rough transition here, but my next question is about the market revolution, where there was a similar kind of tension between new liberal economics and aristocracy. A theme in your work, especially in The Market Revolution, is the new era of economics ushered alongside the revolutionary war in which people believed in equality, opportunity, and that acting “rationally,” in their self-interest alone, was not only valid but would, through the market, create growth and build the economy. Where do the monied gentry fit into this, and how would you describe their relationship to this revolution? Why were they allowed to remain as paternalistic aristocrats after the revolution and set the agenda for the country? [The “monied gentry” is a term Dr. Larson uses to describe the wealthy, landed men, including the founding fathers, who shaped the early years of the republic.]

Larson: Well, you can lay that narrative about what happens with the monied gentry alongside another narrative about democratization. You can really see this in the third part of Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. The idea was that the founding fathers imagined a world in which the elite and hierarchy would persist, and deference would survive, and that the newly liberated people would follow the guidance of their betters. But that really fell apart pretty fast. At first the monied gentry held control of financial policy and institutions like corporations, for example, because you could only get a corporate charter in 1800 if you had money and political connections to get the legislature to pass a law. Then you get to the 1830s with the rise of railroad corporations, you get general incorporation laws, and any Tom, Dick, and Larry can play the game. That sort of blows out the role of the monied gentry, and opens everything up to normal people. Then, I think people embrace the market as, supposedly, and this is Adam Smith’s contribution, the referee for this. Crooks get theirs, because competitive forces weed them out. It’s not altogether clear that it worked as well as Smith had hoped.

Lettiero: In Bonds of Enterprise, your book about John Murray Forbes, you make a point that he spans two generations of businessmen: the gentleman mercantilist of before the market revolution, abiding by certain formalities and acting similarly paternalistically towards his country, and later in his career in the American West, adjusting to the new era of economics and becoming an increasingly rational capitalist. It seems to me that men like him took the place of the monied gentry in the mid to late nineteenth century in a kind of transitional way, still working for the public good while operating in a new and different economic and political context. Do you agree that men like him replaced the monied gentry in a way?

Larson: In a transitional sense, yes. You can find a number of men like him if you go to Chandler’s The Visible Hand. The first chapters that deal with the antebellum economy give examples of the kind of entrepreneurship that is still rooted in community, class, social obligation, and the idea of a commonwealth. Oscar Handlin’s books on internal improvements in Massachusetts, too, include examples. These early entrepreneurs were not quite gentry in the sense of Washington or Madison, but they nevertheless felt an obligation to square their entrepreneurial ambitions with the needs of the community. That, I think, holds sway. I stumbled across the idea with Forbes, but I began to believe that Forbes was a reasonably good example of that kind of transitional entrepreneurship that lasted up to and through the Civil War. And it’s not until the 1870s and ’80 s that bare-knuckles, cutthroat competition makes it so difficult for the so-called “principled entrepreneur” to do anything but respond to market forces. People like Forbes were trying to use railroads both to make money and also to create jobs for his family and to develop western frontier country. And by the time you get to Jay Gould in the 1870s, Forbes thinks he is the biggest crook on the face of the Earth. The reason is that Gould is simply doing whatever market forces promise him will make money. The reason Forbes thought he was the antichrist was because he had no principles. Gould could easily have turned around and said, “your principles aren’t that clear either.”

Lettiero: I think what’s also interesting is that Forbes’s fears were also the midwesterners’ fears. They were so scared of letting private capitalists and investors control any part of the development of the West because they worried about the intentions and commitment to the public good of these private investors, even though Forbes’s contemporaries seems to have had good intentions. They set out from the beginning to provide a public good, to do what the states failed to. There was also resistance to technological change; for example, as you mention in Bonds of Enterprise, people violently raided trains. Why do you think there was so much resistance to the development of the West and to technological change when it was an objective public good? How does this resistance square with the ideological shift toward liberal economics that should have encouraged private investment?

Larson: There’s a couple of ways to come at that question. One of them has to do with the lingering memory of privilege and prerogative in a mercantilist economy in which when somebody is allowed to develop a resource like a coal mine or turnpike or bridge or ferry as a political favor, and that favor bestowed on the recipient a unique advantage other people couldn’t have. In eighteenth-century English culture that was not surprising because it was a culture full of privilege and prerogative, but when you embrace the theme of liberty and equality, people begin to believe that you can’t give anyone a privilege that everyone doesn’t have access to. The resentment of special privilege is one important factor, and you can see this very clearly in the evolution of the corporation itself, which moved from special laws to general laws, and eventually to simple administrative procedures where you don’t have to know anybody or get any kind of special permission. This was done in large part to immunize the legislature from the hostility of voters who objected to them giving privileges to one party and not another. If you look at banking in the first three decades or so of the nineteenth century, everyone wanted a bank charter because it was a great way to make money. Occasionally, bankers also wanted to facilitate the economy, but banking was one of the most lucrative kinds of pyramid scheme you could come up with in that generation. Everybody loved banking for the profits it could generate, and this fed into Jackson’s hostility to the bank. He recognized that if you tap into the people’s resentment of special privileges, and you point to Nick Biddle as the example of this, you’ll have the support to be able to destroy an institution that was probably doing more good to coordinate the antebellum economy than almost anything else out there.

The other thing people were very concerned about was integration on a large scale. People in 1800 lived in a very small world. The Atlantic traders who had been running back and forth across the ocean for a few generations lived in a large world, but there were a small number of them. Most people lived in small communities, and most economic exchanges took place within 50 miles or so of wherever you were. The idea, and this is very consistent with Smithian liberalism, that competition works in local markets is a very attractive idea. It does tend to work in local markets, and Smith would argue that if a baker decides to charge too much for bread, another person will open a bakery and drive down the price of a loaf. That’s all well and good until you get to something like Pillsbury Mills in St. Paul, and you realize that no one can set up a flour mill to compete with a million-dollar industrial installation like that. And so the access to competition has essentially vanished.

The railroads were at the heart of this integration. Because the railroad brought distant markets into contact with local markets, they also brought distant competition into contact with local dynamics.  And a lot of people reacted by saying “Don’t mess with my local economy and my right to make a living.” If you go back to the Forbes book, there are some cases in there, and there is quite a lot of literature on this, of river towns that rail competition destroyed by eliminating the benefit of being on the Mississippi river. The reason for towns like Davenport, Iowa, or Burlington, or Dubuque to be major players disappeared when a railroad came across a bridge and went all the way to Chicago without stopping. Suddenly those towns are going, “Wait a minute, who said you could make us irrelevant? God put us here in the first place, the river was here first.” There was a major bridge lawsuit that had to do with bridging the Mississippi in the 1850s for exactly that reason.

Between integration on the one hand, and hostility to the granting of special favors on the other, these are the roots of that backlash that continues right on into the Gilded Age period. By the Gilded Age, the impact of integration is becoming pretty obvious. The centralization of finance, the centralization of the business cycle, the occurrence of panics like ’73 and ’93, which appear to come out of nowhere but clearly operate in a systematic fashion, brings lots of people in the Midwest and West to say “who made these people king of the world? How come they get to decide that our economy is in the doldrums now?” That didn’t make sense to them.

Lettiero: Absolutely, you actually answered a lot of follow up questions I had in that answer. Something I noticed in your earlier works was that, while there was resistance, there was also a lot of pride in America in this industrialization and improvement. In your more recent work, especially Laid Waste, you focus on the drawbacks of exploiting resources and people that came with industrialization. Do you think that the revolution that brought Smithian, liberal economics of self-interest to the forefront caused industrialization and by extension the tradition of exploitation in America? Or was it just the vast amount of resources available and greed and racism that made exploitation inevitable?

Larson: That’s certainly the heart of the Laid Waste argument. What I was playing with in this last book is trying to put together an argument that involves the intersection of several long, evolutionary kinds of experiences, the first of which is driven by the discovery of the New World, the voices of discovery, and the introduction of what were relatively closed systems in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the stockpile of resources in the New World and which made, among other things, racialized slavery enormously profitable and expanded the practice enormously in order to take advantage of those resources. Slavery was crucial in that because it was the only way that people in Europe could command the fruits of this enterprise rather than having to negotiate for it. You couldn’t get anybody to grow sugar in Barbados unless you enslaved them, brought them there, and forced them to do it, because otherwise people in Barbados might just grow fruits and enjoy the beautiful scenery. You had to force the productivity that the developers were looking for.

Several factors come together here. One is the discovery of the abundance, one is the emergence of an ideologically positive sense of self interest and the right of exploitation, and this relates to ethnic and racial privilege as well. Certainly the Western European innovators in the eighteenth century had very little trouble seeing their ambition as more virtuous than the rights of anybody else, particularly Native Americans and Africans, and this is where they construct the concept we now call progress, that it’s okay to use up people and places in service of this gain which is good for us, that is to say Britain, France, Spain, and later the United States. And then the next piece is the Enlightenment and the notion that human ambition can be guided by reason and is no longer bound by scripture. The ideal role of humans is no longer one of stewardship, or worship and reverence, and that opens the door to a very positive approach to innovation, exploitation, analysis, and scientific outlook on unpacking our role as humans. Everyone’s out discovering what’s out there, and once they figured out what was out there, they set out trying to figure out what it’s good for and how we can use it and sell it to other people.

The last factor that rolls into this is the revolutionary dispensation that comes when the Americans decide that they have been somehow selected as the repository for the future, for the course of progress and the march of empire from East to West, all the rhetoric they indulged in [during] the eighteenth and nineteenh century, which energized not just elites but, thanks to democratization, the entire population. So basically the same gift of privilege that the London merchants essentially seized for themselves in 1700, by 1800 the Americans handed that same gift of privilege to the whole population and said, “Have at it! Here’s a continent and do with it what you can.” I don’t believe that this was done with a reckless sense of “how can we screw people and ruin the environment,” but rather I think it was done by this accumulation of positive understandings and breakthroughs and new revelations about innovation, enterprise, privilege, and that sort of thing. People gradually talked themselves into thinking this was not only okay but it was the purpose of life and what we were supposed to be doing.

That is the culture of exploitation. It becomes a blinding set of investments which, once the downside becomes apparent, is very difficult to embrace. As a result, by the late nineteenth century, people kept turning to more industry, more innovation, and more technological change as a solution. If the air in Pittsburgh is not breathable, first of all we’ll move to the hills like Carnegie did, and gradually we’ll figure out what to do about smoke and cut down on burning soft coal, for example. When the rivers become hopelessly polluted, then we start inventing ways to process and clean water so we can still drink water. We spent the twentieth century heavily investing in ways to minimize or neutralize the downside of the culture of exploitation over the past century. What this doesn’t do is cause us to turn around and say “Is this modernization and commitment to progress sustainable in the long run?” That’s the burden of my last book, to argue that we need to revisit that. Capitalism wants endless growth, and the planet is not getting bigger. At some point we will run out of resources. It’s not to say that technology won’t help us out of this jam, but changing our understanding of the need for more and the entitlement to have whatever you can grab is central to moving forward in the next couple centuries.

Lettiero: I think you made a really strong case for that in the book . . . . Actually, neoliberal economics has been coming up in a lot of my classes lately, in anthropology, economics, and history, and specifically whether or not it’s broken as a concept. I’m wondering if you think the culture of exploitation you just described is manifested in neoliberalism and whether this culture of exploitation is inherent to American culture. Is that why the United States is having so much trouble turning away from it?

Larson: That’s a tough question, but I do think, and you just mentioned it, there’s a gradual but steady descent from the neoliberal orthodoxy. More economists are talking about other ways of evaluating economic enterprise and exchange. We’re not throwing GDP out the window, of course, but at some point in the future we might need to. What I am convinced of is that we need a very different model for cost-benefit analysis because the microeconomic model we’ve used for so long gives absolutely no thought to downstream cost. In my class I use the example that for years we had five-cent deposits on pop bottles in order to keep them out of the landfill and have them recycled and reused. We have no such deposit on things like steel mills. When a steel company decides they’re going to make their steel in Asia instead, and they walk away and leave a town with a multimillion dollar plant that no one has the money to take down, let alone re-employ the people who live there. How hard would it be in a market economy to have companies who build factories set aside money in a sinking fund so that when they decide to leave that place we have the money to clean up the mess? We do that with some kinds of mining, and it seems to me we could do that with more kinds of enterprise. In doing so, we would monetize the downstream cost, social overhead cost, and environmental costs. We ought to be able to figure out what a reasonable amount is to set aside for this sort of thing. It’s like a pension fund, in a sense. We could do this with all kinds of capital but we have chosen not to. Another simple example is that right now, when you buy new tires, everybody has to pay about three dollars apiece to have them disposed of. Once they were piling up in ravines and forests and landfills, but now we have them recycled using that tax. We could do that sort of thing, but usually businesses, and Wall Street, don’t like the idea of planning for the dismantling of an enterprise. It’s not one of the variables they consider.

Lettiero: That’s a really relevant topic in economics, where we talk a lot about things like a carbon tax, and of course in politics with elections coming up . . . . I thought it was extremely interesting to read about the “culture of exploitation” because I never even thought of it as a culture of exploitation. I took it for granted that that’s what happens in capitalism.

Larson: If you go back a little bit to the ’60’s and ’70 s there’s some literature you probably haven’t been pointed to very much. But there was a brief period of time when modernization theory was very popular. The idea was that the world will be a better place when everyone modernizes the same way we did. It was based on statistical models and the shortsighted assumption that the universe of possibilities is unlimited. One example is that they were going to build a great big dam on the Mekong River in Vietnam and create enough hydroelectricity that they could electrify villages in Vietnam, and when everyone there had a TV to watch they’d stop being interested in Communism. We look at this now and think “Oh boy, that’s pretty reductionist and silly,” but there was a brief moment of absolute confidence that we were right and found the answer to everything. There’s one point, I mention it in Laid Waste!, in Rostow’s book The Stages of Economic Growth, in which he celebrates that one of the first things to happen in order for a country to modernize is that you have to disable the class of people who have been the custodians of culture, to disable the elites who maintain a culture’s integrity, or else they won’t embrace liberal capitalism. So you basically need to create a vacuum, in doing so take out the culture itself. That has a lot to do with why the Third World never quite bought in to this idea. It meant giving up other values.

Lettiero: That kind of circles back to the idea that economics doesn’t always practically apply as well as we might hope, and people don’t act the way we expect them to or in a rational way. If you have a few more minutes, could I ask a little more about your methodology? I was really wondering how you decide what kinds of sources to use, especially considering there’s a lot of overlap in time periods between your books, and because for something like Laid Waste! there must have been hundreds and thousands to choose from. I was also wondering if you ever use non-historical sources or economic papers in your research?

Larson: I’ll take a crack at the first one first.  What kinds of sources are appropriate depends on what the plan of the book is. If you look at my four monographs, the first one being my dissertation, it’s fairly close to the ground and a small story used to illustrate an idea, the idea being the railroad creates an interactive community involving the investors, the territory through which it runs, and the customers that rely on it. It creates a metaphorical state or community in which these people are dependent on each other but only in limited ways having to do with their economic role and while they’re also embedded in other communities like families, towns, counties, and states. So one of the things that creates conflict there is that your identity as an Iowan, for example, is challenged by your identity as a customer of the Burlington Railroad, which puts you in communication with people you wouldn’t otherwise be in communication with, like Boston or New York investors. I was playing around with the idea that this infrastructure creates these [meta]communities that force people to interact in ways they weren’t expecting to, weren’t happy about, but couldn’t exempt themselves from.

When I moved on to internal improvements I took this idea and ramped it up on a national scale, and my goal was to try and figure out why on earth anything as obviously beneficial as roads and canals would be opposed on a national scale when the problem, the challenge of distance and communication, was obviously national and so compelling. That became an inherently legislative issue so that took me directly to legislative documents. Most of that book is built out of the Annals of Congress and the documentary “[. . . .] The Legislative Process,” backed up by private correspondence of major actors. It just happens, it’s our good fortune that in the period between 1790 and 1850 most of the major political actors have left records that have been published in letterpress editions that are very nice to use. I could read all of John C. Calhoun’s mail, Henry Clay’s mail, Daniel Webster’s mail, George Washington’s mail, so the resource base was enormously rich. What I didn’t do, and probably could have if I had more time, was to get into the feedback and public discourse found in newspapers or scattered papers where they exist of regional or local entrepreneurs. I didn’t get as much of that side as I did in the Forbes book because it was a much smaller neighborhood to work with. On a national scale I couldn’t do that very well.

In The Market Revolution, we’re one more order of magnitude up. The Forbes book is 10 feet off the ground, Internal Improvements is 1,000 feet off the ground, and Market Revolution is 4,000 feet off the ground, much higher and looking in a much more generalized way. That forced me to spend a lot more time borrowing from the very good research that lots of other people had done on all the constituent parts of that market revolution. One of the reasons people found that book useful is that it brings together in one place the findings of people dealing with technology, industrialization, marketing, and all the pieces that add up to the market revolution. Most of that work I didn’t do myself, I got from reading articles and books for the last thirty-something years and putting all the pieces together in a single explication, and intentionally doing so in a short enough, quick enough way that it could be a primer for someone who wanted to know what this was all about and didn’t have time to read 150 books and articles to wrap their mind around it. Hopefully it also invites people who find it interesting to go back and dig into that literature. I’m sitting here looking at books, and the number of books on the nineteenth-century economy is just beyond limit now. Nobody will ever master them. At some point we have to start synthesizing and summarizing and almost creating finding aids, if you will, to get back to this stuff.

In my fourth book, Laid Waste!, we’re at 30,000 feet, way above the ground, and in that one, my design really set the agenda. I decided early on that I would write nine chapters oriented around one-word concepts, like abundance, achievement, liberty, and then I simply scanned the horizon in terms of what would usefully bear on that issue in that topic in that time period. It’s very subjective, very selective, and I make no claim that it’s coherent or complete or comprehensive. It really is impressionistic and as such I won’t be surprised if I get handed a lot of criticism. You could probably put together a counter book that looks a lot like it but comes to a perfectly opposite conclusion. I don’t pretend that this is the only conclusion. What I’m trying to argue is that this is certainly one plausible way of interpreting how these pieces fit together. If it is plausible, if it turns out to be true, it would be a good idea to do something about that. If it’s not true, I’ll go home quietly and forget about it.

Lettiero: I found it convincing and I thought it was a good read. I noticed a lot of the comments you made about the sources you selected for Laid Waste! in the introduction and epilogue and so I was curious about how you put it together. Thank you so much for talking to me today.


Laid Waste!: The Culture of Exploitation in Early America (Philadelphia, 2020)

The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good (Cambridge, 2010).

Whither the Early Republic: A Forum on the Future of a Field (Philadelphia, 2005), co-edited with Michael A. Morrison.

Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States (Chapel Hill, 2001)

Bonds of Enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America’s Railway Age (Cambridge, 1984)

29 June 2020

About the Author

Matthew Lettiero graduated from Georgetown University in 2020 with a degree in history and economics.

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