Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Cotton Kings

Brian E. Baker and Barbara Hahn’s new book The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn of the Century New York and New Orleans shows that it is possible to put capitalism in the title and still write a good history book. I am not going to write a full review, but I will say that I like the book. I’m not sure they are considered part of the new history of capitalism; if they are, the field has taken a turn in a positive direction. Their objective is not to make any sweeping generalizations about capitalism but to examine how it actually functioned in a particular instance. Their focus is first and foremost on understanding what happened. How did people at the cotton exchanges manipulate prices and why did it matter?

In The Cotton Kings people do things. People create the rules that govern markets, they manipulate the rules of those markets, and they form networks and use courts and legislatures to pursue their goals. Sometimes they create rules that bring great benefits to a small number of people; at other times they create rules that spread the benefits more broadly.

They also did two interesting things in terms of the telling of the story. Historians generally struggle with the tension between telling a story so that historians in their field will appreciate it and telling a story so that others will appreciate it. Stories about business, especially those that involve finance, can be particularly difficult to tell. We can’t all have Selena Gomez get people to pay attention to explanations of financial instruments. Baker and Hahn use two devices to try to ease this tension. The first is that terms regarding markets are highlighted throughout the text and defined in a glossary at the end of the book. The approach provides the necessary information without long interruptions in the story. The second device is to place an essay on sources at the end of the book. The term essay on sources may be a bit misleading; it is not about the primary sources. The essay on sources is actually a historiography. It places the book in the literature for other historians. Typically, this discussion would be at the beginning, telling historians why the book is important. Baker and Hahn try to sell the story on its own merits as an interesting and important chapter in American history. I would have actually liked more discussion of the primary sources and how they were used, but that may just be my preference. I find historians stories about how they write history almost as interesting as the history itself.

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