A Merchant's Republic: The National Board of Trade and Commercial Capitalism in the U.S., 1840-1912
thesisposted on 2015-07-21, 00:00 authored by Cory A. Davis
This dissertation is a study of American capitalist development from the early 19th century through the early 20th century as understood through the actions of business organizations (local and national boards of trade and chambers of commerce) in attempting to influence and change public policy and cultural perceptions of business and its role in American society. The primary actors in this narrative are the merchant capitalists who, beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, began creating local commercial organizations in order to control local trade and expand the economic possibilities of their particular urban center and region. These organizations laid the groundwork for cooperation and competition between groups of merchants as they sought to shape the regional and national dynamics of economic growth. Composed of the leading merchants, small manufacturers, and financiers of the major commercial centers of the country, these groups quickly became the most important representatives of the “business community” in their respective cities. The sectional crisis gave the nationalist impetus for merchants to form the National Board of Trade (NBOT), a national associations of these local groups created in 1868, and the organization that is the foundation of this study. Over the course of the late 19th century the merchants of the NBOT debated, lobbied, and ultimately shaped the conversation over a number of the primary problems of political economy in the U.S., including regulation of transportation and communication, trade policy, and monetary reform. This work parses out the ways in which these organized merchants tried to shape economic change in terms of a republican political economy based on the ideal of an economic commonwealth that was in many ways crumbling, often due to economic changes brought about by merchants themselves. The actions of the NBOT exemplified how organized business interests attempted to maintain their control over economic life, based on antebellum economic ideals, in the context of the creation of a modern industrial nation. This study reframes the expansion of the political and economic institutions of 19th century capitalism through a more focused understanding of how organized businessmen structured questions of political economy and legitimized their role as social and political stewards of a national economy.