In 1872 the University of Pennsylvania obtained the core of what was regarded as one of the world’s “outstanding collections” of pamphlets on political economy. Several years later that collection received an infusion from the most important American economist of the mid-nineteenth century. Then, for reasons that are unclear, the collection disappeared. Or, rather, it effectively disappeared because it was never catalogued individually. To this day hundreds of bound volumes containing thousands of pamphlets remain secured in the closed stacks of Penn’s Special Collections Center
The original bequest, some 7,000 items, had been the private library of a Philadelphia ironmaster named Stephen Colwell. Little remembered today, Colwell was a major player in several arenas during his own time. Beside his business interests, he wrote widely on economic, political, and religious issues. After the Civil War, he served as a Special Commissioner of the Revenue, a position from which he helped coordinate the tariff interests of America’s nascent industrial juggernaut. Though in many ways a conservative, Colwell frequently proposed bold and original reforms. His concern for a society increasingly defined by wage labor led him to call for the government to ensure that workers earned enough to “consume freely and largely” . By basing economic growth on high wages and consumer demand, he anticipated the liberal policy regime we now know as Fordism, which reigned through most of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
For all of Colwell’s prescience, he was by far the less important of the pamphlet collection’s two contributors. The other was Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879), a major figure in American bookselling, a pioneer of large-scale anthracite coal production, a leading ideologue of the early Republican Party, and without doubt the major theorist of the American School of political economy. Some time after Carey’s death in 1879, Penn received about 3,000 pamphlets from his personal library. Mostly on ‘American political thought,’ these pamphlets are now bound into more than 200 volumes (Penn Call# 330.8 P753) . This was surely only a small portion of Carey’s holdings. The majority must have gone to his nephew, Henry Carey Baird, himself an important publisher, economic theorist, and political figure.
Among Carey’s most intriguing propositions was what Paul Conkin has called the “manure theory.” This odd-sounding idea was an ingenious refutation of the population and rent theories devised by Britain’s classical political economists. According to Thomas Malthus, the bedrock fact of social life was that population grew much faster than food production, leading to all manner of horrendous “checks” for killing off excess people. David Ricardo added to this an alarming distributional analysis. As population grew, people would resort to evermore marginal lands, so that eventually all of society’s available capital would be swallowed up by the rents accruing to owners of the most fertile tracts .
Carey didn’t like these ideas (neither did Colwell). They were rather gloomy, to put it mildly, and they implied that American civilization would eventually descend into an endless class war between the superrich and the barely surviving. To disprove these unchristian notions, Carey scoured world history for human settlement patterns and agricultural methods. In 1855, for instance, he tracked down a Belgian book about land reclamation . These studies led Carey to turn Malthus and Ricardo on their heads. People settled first on the worst soils, Carey argued, because they lacked the know-how and technologies to cultivate better ones. But as society progressed, they gained “increased power over land,” that is, the capacity to grow more food more efficiently. “The earth is a great machine,” he declared, “given to man to be fashioned to his purposes” . The key to this organic machine was fertilizer, commonly known as manure at the time. Hence, the “manure theory.”
Carey’s work has recently attracted the attention of environmental, intellectual and economic historians. Colwell, for his part, features in a recent study of religion and capitalist ethics . This interest by a broad range of historians should come as no surprise, because Carey and Colwell touched on numerous facet of social life. It would be wonderful, then, to know something about how they formed their ideas. This is one reason their combined library could prove valuable to scholars. Volume 185, for instance, contains extensive marginalia, probably by Colwell, around Nassau Senior’s “Three Lectures on the Cost of Obtaining Money,” from 1830. Another value of the collection is in tracking the global influence of Careyite ideas. A 42-volume set of Carey’s complete works (Penn Call# 330 C18) –the only such set I know of–features numerous translations into various languages, including Hungarian (see illustration to the right). There are also several monographs by Italian, French and even Japanese authors.
But the collection’s importance is not really dependent on Carey and Colwell. It is in fact a spectacular record of intense historical debates on all manner of social questions. Its most unique portions, so far as I can tell from an initial survey, comprise several volumes of American pamphlets on such wide-ranging subjects as education, prison reform, temperance, and science–issues that are still very much with us. A series of tracts relating to Pennsylvania’s 1838 constitutional convention includes a bald-faced instance of opposition to black voting rights. A polemic against dueling by the murderously named Henry Slicer tackles a ritual which, thankfully, attracts few people today.
The bulk of the collection may consist of British pamphlets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This presents both a problem and an opportunity. For the collection to be truly useful, it must be catalogued and digitized. Otherwise, there will be no way of knowing what’s in it or of easily accessing it. A good number of the pamphlets duplicate the massive Goldsmiths-Kress Collection (though many do not). Goldsmiths-Kress is available online but only to those institutions who can afford its cost. So in fact, it can be rather difficult to get to for many scholars. Penn’s commitment to open access digitization projects, however, might allow for creating a fantastic new scholarly resource and placing it where it could actually be used. Wouldn’t it be great, after all, to finally be able to learn from the pamphleteer Roger Radical, “Why are we poor?”
Open access potentially means much more than just access, it means impact. Text digitized with optical character recognition (OCR) software can be made Google searchable, which is hugely important. A new report by Ithaka S+R, a non-profit digital research and consultanting service, finds that Google is increasingly “the first port of call” for historians. And Tom Scheinfeldt of the Roy Rozenweig Center for History and New Media argues in a recent blog post that this is part of a broader trend. Researchers are now looking to interact with online document collections outside of their dedicated websites. They want to locate items via Google, pull them into Zotero or other reference management programs, download whole datasets into Excel, or even access the underlying database directly via an API. This sort of thing is difficult with a pay-wall in the way.
As the history of the Carey-Colwell Library demonstrates, merely having a set of documents is not enough to make it into a useful scholarly resource. After more than a century is it finally possible to realize the research potential of this hidden collection?
The Library Chronicle of the Friends of the University of Pennsylvania Library 18 (1951-1952): 74; typescript blurb on the “The Colwell Collection,” from the files kept by John Pollock, Library Specialist, Penn Rare Books and Manuscripts.
Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population and David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, both available online at http://www.econlib.org.
Michael Perelman, “Henry Carey’s Political-Ecological Economics: An Introduction,” Organization & Environment 12 (Sep 1999): 280–292; Jeffrey P. Sklansky, The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Stephen Meardon, “Reciprocity and Henry C. Carey’s Traverses on ‘the Road to Perfect Freedom of Trade,’” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 33 (2011): 307–333; Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 2008).