Aristocratic Capital: Democratic Ideology and Capitalist Practice from Charles Brockden Brown to Herman Melville
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Recent scholarship in both United States history and American literary studies has attempted to chart a fundamental shift in American politics and economics related to the ascendance of capitalism and its permeation of nearly every facet of American life between the Early Republic and the antebellum period. The majority of these studies emphasize a fundamental break from older social relations to the ones that characterize democratic capitalism, ostensibly superseding Old World ideals and institutions such as aristocratic political power and economies founded on benevolence and deference. This dissertation interrogates these assumptions through readings of the American literary canon as works of political economy to demonstrate that this break was never so complete as nineteenth-century political economists and contemporary historians and literary critics have tended to suppose. Reading works from Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly to George Lippard’s New York, I argue that authors actively imagined the persistence of aristocracy and its ideals, both politically and economically, in and through United States capitalist development, something supposedly antithetical to capitalism’s political economy. All together, we find that these novels characterize the freewheeling world of market capitalism and industrialization not as a novel experience, but rather as a continuation of Old World and pre-revolutionary political and economic practice. In so doing, they offer a more sophisticated account of American, and to an extent Atlantic World, capitalism than their contemporaries writing specifically on political economy and prompt us to rethink the transition to capitalism.