Theses Doctoral

Free Trade and Family Values: Kinship Networks and the Culture of Early American Capitalism

Van, Rachel Tamar

This study examines the international flow of ideas and goods in eighteenth and nineteenth century New England port towns through the experience of a Boston-based commercial network. It traces the evolution of the commercial network established by the intertwined Perkins, Forbes, and Sturgis families of Boston from its foundations in the Atlantic fur trade in the 1740s to the crises of succession in the early 1840s. The allied Perkins firms and families established one of the most successful American trading networks of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and as such it provides fertile ground for investigating mercantile strategies in early America. An analysis of the Perkins family's commercial network yields three core insights.

First, the Perkinses illuminate the ways in which American mercantile strategies shaped global capitalism. The strategies and practices of American merchants and mariners contributed to a growing international critique of mercantilist principles and chartered trading monopolies. While the Perkinses did not consider themselves "free traders," British observers did. Their penchant for smuggling and seeking out niches of trade created by competing mercantilist trading companies meant that to critics of British mercantilist policies, American merchants had an unfair advantage that only the liberalization of trade policy could rectify. Following the Perkinses allows for a reconsideration of the Anglo-American relationship in the East Indies, especially China. For example, the special relationships the Perkinses established with the Wu family of Canton as well as the London-based Baring Brothers & Co. proved critical to their success in business. Yet these relationships developed out of the Perkinses' geopolitical position as Americans.

Further, the project shows that family life, gendered ideals, and particular visions of the life cycle were central to how Americans came to terms with expanding trade and evolving markets. In the late eighteenth century, Americans began to exalt family as a sentimental unit whose central aims were personal fulfillment and the raising of future citizens. But this new ideology of family masked the institution's continued political and economic utility. Family has never been the promised "haven from the heartless world" of market perils; in fact, well into the nineteenth century it was the opposite: family was a core market institution used for protection from risk and speculation. Even as the Perkinses embraced the speculative potential of commerce and investment, familial and gendered ideals shaped how they understood profit, risk, and even what it meant to be a merchant. Finally, in recent years, scholars have integrated New England into the Atlantic World; I demonstrate the importance of New Englanders in shaping American involvement in Asia and the Pacific as well. The Pacific continues to be a central space of American empire and influence, from former colonies to trust territories. Its history merits a more robust place in American historical consciousness.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Kessler-Harris, Alice
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 1, 2011