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REVIEW: H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Southern-Industry@h-net.msu.edu (August 2006) Sean Patrick Adams. _Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America_. Studies in Early American Economy and Society Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xiv + 305 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliographic essay, index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-7968-X. Reviewed for H-Southern-Industry by Aaron W. Marrs, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian The Politics of Coal On page four of _Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth_, a map illustrates the bituminous coal fields that extended across antebellum Pennsylvania and Virginia. Although nature recognized no state boundary, these fields suffered different fates on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. In this well-written and insightful book, Sean Adams examines the contrasting fortunes of Pennsylvania and Virginia's coal industries by asking "how could two states with similar resource endowments embark upon radically different paths" (p. 4). In searching for an answer to this question, Adams wants to move beyond a simplistic distinction--Virginia had slavery and Pennsylvania did not. Instead, Adams argues that historians need to pay closer attention to the active role that state-level political institutions played in determining the levels of economic growth enjoyed by states. In Pennsylvania, state politics may have been inefficient or even corrupt, but the end result was sustained industrial growth. In Virginia, by contrast, politics were constrained by an "institutional framework constructed to ... preserve a stolid planter elite" (p. 7). As a result, industrialists in Virginia were unable to get their agenda past planters who wanted to protect agriculture. I must admit that the first time I read this, I was not entirely certain that there was a meaningful distinction between blaming "slavery" and blaming a "framework" dedicated to protecting slavery for the South's lack of industrialization. Over the next five chapters, however, Adams carefully outlines the diverging experiences of Pennsylvania and Virginia. The end result is a complex portrait of two states that demonstrates how slavery's impact on southern life extended far beyond the plantation. Adams opens by examining the early condition of the American coal industry, which centered its hopes on Virginia. After the War of 1812, foreign coal was unable to compete in the American market, thanks in part to tariffs, and coal deposits in Virginia "contributed significantly to [the early republic's] ideas of self-sufficiency and future growth" (p. 25). But efforts to establish a strong coal economy were unsuccessful due to the nature of political power in the Old Dominion. Agricultural interests in the tidewater region dominated the legislature, and thus the state offered little financial support for colliers seeking to expand industry. As a result, Virginia was unable to capitalize on growing demand after the War of 1812, and Pennsylvania stepped into the breach. Pennsylvania's story constitutes the next chapter of Adams's work. Pennsylvania had several advantages: active boosters who busied themselves performing studies and writing pamphlets to promote Pennsylvania coal, institutional supporters such as the Franklin Institute, and--most critically for Adams--a political structure that accommodated demands for industrial expansion. Whereas Virginia's political scene was structured to preserve planter power, in Pennsylvania the "state government facilitated a constant struggle to balance power between East and West, city and country, farmer and manufacturer, and a host of other conflicts" (p. 61). Here, the power structure was accustomed to accommodating multiple voices. As a result, coal interests had more of a chance to be heard. In the ensuing three chapters, Adams analyzes state power in areas relevant to the coal trade. He first discusses transportation. Colliers in western Virginia were desperate for improved transportation to get their coal to market, but the "state-run James River Company continued to favor the eastern half of its improvements" (p. 93). In contrast, Pennsylvania balanced the interests of the eastern and western portions of the state and poured money into the Pennsylvania State Works, which effectively supported the need by western coal miners for transportation. Adams then considers geological surveys undertaken in the two states. Both state legislatures expected the surveys to produce data that would promote their economic interests. Thus, in Pennsylvania the surveyors were under pressure from coal boosters to adequately represent their interests; in Virginia the surveyors were expected to focus on geological resources that related to agriculture, such as marl. The Virginia survey was never published; the Pennsylvania survey was published, although not until 1858. For Adams, Virginia's failure to produce a survey, as well as the fact that surveyors were constrained by being forced to focus on agriculture, represents another inability of Virginia to adequately advance its industrial interests. Finally, Adams examines the process of corporate chartering in the two states. Pennsylvania successfully used corporate chartering to increase coal development in the antebellum era. In contrast, Virginia left chartering decisions in the hands of circuit court judges, which did little to assist the coal industry in the state. There is much to admire here. Adams writes extremely well and has done impressive research. To his immense credit, he does not paint a one-dimensional portrait of southern failure and northern success. He acknowledges that for all the utility of the Pennsylvania State Works, it was also a massive financial burden. The process of determining the areas to be served by the works led to corruption and substantial waste, as did the administration of the completed works. Pennsylvania may have done a better job of making use of its natural resources, but it was hardly a smooth and unproblematic path to dominance. Having said that, I can register only three small complaints. First, while Adams does a good job of detailing the comparative place of Virginia and Pennsylvania coal in the nation's coal needs, he is less clear about the place of coal in the nation's overall energy needs. Some additional contextualization would have been helpful for readers unfamiliar with the energy picture in the early republic. Adams alludes, in a footnote, that American industry's full shift to mineral fuel occurred after the Civil War. Other sources of power--wind, water, and animal--were used throughout the antebellum era. While it may seem a minor point, knowing more about the overall energy picture would help clarify an important distinction: was Virginia's underdevelopment comparative to Pennsylvania truly the result of shortsightedness, or did Virginia's decision not to pursue coal simply represent a better allocation of state resources given the abundant availability of other types of fuel? Without stronger information on the overall energy picture, it is difficult to say. Adams relates that "small-scale manufacturers" were shifting from wood to coal in the early republic and also writes of anthracite's role as a "significant alternative to wood or bituminous coal in cities of the eastern seaboard," but such statements come across as more anecdotal than comprehensive (pp. 22, 71). Second, Adams has set out to compare political economy and has done this with great skill. There were times, however, that I wished comparisons could have been a bit fuller in other areas. One such area is labor. Adams trots out the familiar charge against slave labor in an industrial setting: that slave labor was inadequate for industrial work because slaveowners were too inclined to pull them out of industry for use in agriculture. Fair enough. Indeed, because of the dangers of coal mining, it is hardly surprising that masters were leery about allowing their slaves to work in mines. Labor shortages, Adams writes, "exacerbated the disorganized nature of the early Richmond basin coal industry" (p. 33). But Adams's discussion of labor in Pennsylvania does not express the same concern, although surely mining in Pennsylvania was no more pleasant or less dangerous than it was in Virginia. Did the free white laborers in Pennsylvania have the same concerns for their own lives that southern masters had for the lives of their slaves? Did Pennsylvania mines also have to compete with other sources of employment to secure laborers? Admittedly, the book does not claim to be an all-encompassing comparative history of coal, but the effect of Adams's treatment of labor is to make Virginia's capacity for industry appear weaker and Pennsylvania's appear stronger. However, such labor problems may simply be inherent in the nature of coal production. Whether or not such a conclusion is warranted would be better served by a more complete comparison. Finally, Adams concludes the book in what was, to me, a surprising way. Having so ably made the case that historians need to pay closer attention to state-level policies to understand economic development, Adams does not offer any broader conclusions about what lessons historians might draw when examining states besides the two under consideration in his monograph. Instead, the epilogue tracks the diverging political economies of Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania after the Civil War, and the utility of the lessons of the antebellum era to West Virginia. There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach. But given the thrust of the earlier chapters in the book--and particularly Adams's stated effort to move beyond slavery as the main bogeyman that stifled the South's industrial development--some effort to tie his findings to other states of the future Confederacy would have been most welcome. But these are minor quibbles. Adams has produced a book rich in detail. Moreover, it is amply illustrated with maps; and, while there is no bibliography, there is a useful bibliographic essay. This book is a success at both the level of its argument and as a demonstration of the utility of comparative history. This is an exciting time to be studying the economy of the antebellum South; Adams's monograph is one of several recent works that either develops a comparative framework for understanding the antebellum economy or takes an in-depth look at the political economy of a southern state. Other historians can fruitfully take up the issues that Adams has raised and use his work as a foundation for their own explorations of the diverse political economies of antebellum America. Notes . Other areas of the economy were slower to adopt coal. Railroads, for example, made "serious experiments" with coal in the mid-1850s, but otherwise relied on wood--and burned massive amounts of it--during the antebellum era. See John H. White Jr., "Wood to Burn," in _Material Culture of the Wooden Age_, ed. Brooke Hindle (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1981), p. 203. . See, for example, John Majewski, _A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War_ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Chad Morgan, _Planter's Progress: Modernizing Confederate Georgia_ (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005); Tom Downey, _Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manufacturers in the Southern Interior, 1790-1860_ (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006); and the relevant essays in Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie, _Global Perspectives on Industrial Transformation in the American South_ (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005). Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 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