Getting the American Model Right: State Constitutional Revision and the Achievement of General Laws in the Mid-Nineteenth Century U.S.

May 9, 2019, 6:00-8:00pm
10th Gerald Feldman Memorial Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Naomi R. Lamoreaux (Yale University and National Bureau of Economic Research)

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U.S. institutions are often held up as a model to the rest of the world, so it is important to get the model right. The aim of this talk, which draws on work I have been doing with John Wallis, is to focus attention on the development of a particular concept of equality: the idea that laws should be general in their application and should treat everyone (or everyone within broad categories) the same. This concept of equality was not an achievement of the American Revolution, nor of the period of constitution writing that followed it. To the contrary, most legislation in the first half of the nineteenth century, at both the state and the national level, consisted of private and local bills that granted special privileges to particular individuals, groups, and communities. The idea that laws should be general was the product of a crisis in public finance in the 1840s that led eight states (and one territory) to default on their debts and a number of other states to teeter on the brink of default. As the defaulting states rewrote their constitutions to prevent such catastrophes from recurring, they moved to reign in their legislatures by, among other things, prohibiting the enactment of special and local laws. These restrictions spread to most states (though not to the national government) over the next several decades, and as they did, they transformed the workings both of government and the economy. They also raised new concerns about the meaning of equality. What did it mean for laws to be general? Might not general laws themselves be a new source of inequality?

Naomi R. Lamoreaux is Stanley B. Resor Professor of Economics and History at Yale University and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. During the 2018-19 academic year she is also Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge. Lamoreaux received her Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins in 1979 and has taught at Brown and the University of California, Los Angeles before coming to Yale in 2010. She has written The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1904 and Insider Lending: Banks, Personal Connections, and Economic Development in Industrial New England, edited eight other books, and published numerous articles on business, economic, and financial history. She also co-edited the Journal of Economic History. Lamoreaux has been elected president of the Business History Conference and the Economic History Association and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Cliometrics Society. She has been awarded the Alice Hanson Jones book prize, the Henrietta Larson, PEAES, and Arthur Cole article prizes, the Harold Williamson Prize for an outstanding business historian in mid-career, the Cliometrics award for exceptional support to that field, and the Business History Conference’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Her current research interests include patenting and the market for technology in the late nineteenth and twentieth century U.S., business organizational forms and contractual freedom in the U.S. and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the public/private distinction in U.S. history, and constitutional change in the U.S. state government in the nineteenth century.