As a historian of early American political economy, Lindsay Schakenbach Regele was into Alexander Hamilton before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash Hamilton: An American Musical made America’s first Secretary of the Treasury cool. And just like Miranda, Regele, an assistant professor in Miami University’s Department of History, sees parallels between the challenges America faced in its earliest days and those it faces in the modern day.
“We’ve always debated how much role the government does and should have in commerce,” Regele says. “How much should we promote our own manufacturing? How much should we rely upon manufacturing from other places? What is our role in the world in an economic sense? Are we producers? Are we purchasers? Are we both?”
In establishing an American government, Hamilton, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other early leaders, had to answer all of these questions to enact the first Federal policies. That’s the subject of a book Schakenbach Regele is currently working on. Specifically, the book – tentatively titled, Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776-1848 – examines the development of America’s arms and textile industries through the lens of the geopolitical concerns of the period.
“Once the United States made the bold step to declare itself independent of Britain, it suddenly ran smack into the Old World problems of how to create a state, and how to supply that state, and how to enable that state to wage war against others,” Schakenbach Regele says.
As part of the research for her book, Schakenbach Regele completed a fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) during the spring semester of the 2015-2016 academic year. Established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 and located in America’s first capital, LCP holds an extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, and other material important to scholars like Schakenbach Regele. It is also geographically close to other holdings of important documents from the period, including those at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, DE, all of which Schakenbach Regele visited during her tenure at LCP.
Far from being settled, many of the issues the founders grappled with have popped up again and again throughout American history. By way of example, Schakenbach Regele points to two of today’s hot-button issues: national security and immigration.
“We don’t think about ‘national security’ in 1780, but that was a very real thing,” she says. “Even once the war was won against Britain, the government was obsessed by conflicts with Native Americans and domestic insurrections, never mind potential threats from European nations.”
Schakenbach Regele says the concern was so great that even Thomas Jefferson, who was a vigorous proponent of an agrarian economy and opposed state-directed manufacture of the type advocated by Alexander Hamilton, allowed an exception for government policies encouraging the production of firearms.
When it came to immigration, early Federal policy was influenced by a desire to catch up to the Europeans. Schakenbach Regele describes America immediately post-Revolution as a “technological backwater” in desperate need of skilled artisans and people who were familiar with certain manufacturing techniques. She says some of the founders saw a solution in policies that encouraged immigration.
Whatever other consequences there were, early commerce policies successfully raised the profile of American manufacturing, thereby achieving a major goal held by Hamilton, among others. Schakenbach Regele offers the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London as evidence.
“It was this big showcase of manufacturers from different countries,” she says, “and all of a sudden, the United States is starting to be admired for the pistols it has on display and is winning prizes for its fancy, machine-produced cloth.”
These days, Americans are more concerned with threats from religious extremists than from European nations and the debates about immigration policy tend to be more focused on limiting immigration, rather than encouraging it. Still, Schakenbach Regele says there are lessons to be learned from history.
“I’m not saying that the past necessarily repeats itself. But there is context and nuance in the past that can help us make decisions moving forward.”
By “distilling information from all these different sources and trying to make a coherent, cohesive narrative out of little fragments and competing opinions,” Schakenbach Regele says, historians help illuminate the path forward. That’s something almost everyone agrees our society needs.
Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director and Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.