Current Issue Article Abstracts

January 2021,  Vol. 145, No. 1

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Two Barbary Captives: Allegiance Through Self-Interest and International Networks, 1785–1796
Brett Goodin

The correspondence and diaries of two American merchant sailors, James Cathcart and Captain Richard O'Brien, who were held captive in Algiers from 1785 to 1795–96, bridge and complicate the two literatures of commercial-diplomatic and informal networks. During this period, the nascent American government and over one hundred of its citizens were held hostage by the North African "Barbary States" of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis. Using the letters and diaries of the two most prolific captives, Cathcart and O'Brien, this article shows that the captives successfully penetrated diplomatic networks and the minds of sympathetic diplomats such as David Humphreys, who exploited the captives' plight to help his own longstanding campaign of fostering national identity. The captives similarly deployed the pragmatic skills and style of correspondence they learned as merchant sailors to self-interestedly weave their cause for liberty into the emerging national narrative. These interventions echoed the sentiments and rhetoric of participants in Shays's Rebellion (Massachusetts, 1786–87) and the Whiskey Rebellion (western Pennsylvania, 1791–94). Yet perhaps because of the very different (and, in fact, conflicting) goals of American captives in Algiers and rebels in rural Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, the ever-increasing scholarship on American captives in Barbary has overlooked how these nonelite citizens' campaigns were intertwined. Their shared political rhetoric and notions of national identity were developed and deployed thousands of miles apart, likely thanks to their shared backgrounds in self-interested participation in the revolution and the captives' ready access to newspapers and personal correspondence that kept them informed of domestic crises on the American frontier. Literary analysis of American captives in Barbary is typically juxtaposed with Indian captivity narratives, which is especially applicable to fictional Barbary narratives, and a much smaller number of published nonfictional accounts. The comparison does not hold for the more abundant short-form correspondence, which represents a more significant and untapped opportunity for scholarly analysis of the epistolary styles of the two most prominent American captives in Algiers, who echoed and engaged with the rhetoric and ideas of rebels on the young nation's terrestrial frontier as they were being held captive on the maritime frontier. This article argues that, through the captives' political rhetoric and canny exploitation of their positions in informal transnational networks, we can gain new insights into how nonelite citizens, whether in rural Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, or Algiers, drew on a shared language of liberty and expectations of popular participation in policy development to simultaneously influence the terms of national identity and reinvent themselves.

"A Very Large Extent of Virgin Land": Nicholas Biddle, Cotton, and the Expansion of Slavery, 1823–1841
Stephen W. Campbell

This article explores the ways in which Philadelphia banker Nicholas Biddle financed the political economy of cotton and slavery. Most historians have focused on Biddle's political interactions with President Andrew Jackson during the Bank War, either ignoring or minimizing the banker's southern investments in the late 1830s. By examining the complexities of the antebellum era credit system, we can see how Biddle and his business partners provided financing for, functioned within, and extracted profits from a region that depended to a significant extent on the commodification of land, cotton, and slaves. Biddle invested in the South because he saw the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom in lands once occupied by Native Americans and that would soon be worked by enslaved African Americans as consistent with his own nationalistic assumptions and as crucial to the recovery from the Panic of 1837, the bank's profits, and the restoration of American credit abroad.

"Practically Intoxicated": Thomas Edison and the Bechtelsville Ore-Milling Experiment
Daniel Weeks

Thomas A. Edison's foray into iron-ore milling is not as well-known as is his development of the phonograph and electric light. But it was not a minor episode in his inventive life. He spent more than ten years attempting to devise a system that would make ore containing less than 30 percent iron profitable on the US market. Historians have long wondered why he persisted for so long in an effort that ultimately failed. This article argues that the answer, at least in part, can be traced to a little-known ore-milling operation in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania, which proved a turning point for Edison as he moved away from electric lighting systems and embraced industrial mining on a large scale in 1889. In iron-ore milling, as in electric lighting earlier, Edison saw himself as the inventor-hero who would save the iron industry in the Northeast.


The Quakers, 1656–1723: The Evolution of an Alternative Community by Richard C. Allen and Rosemary Moore (review)
Cameron Seglias

Standard-Bearers of Equality: America's First Abolition Movement by Paul J. Polgar (review)
Cory James Young

Preserving the White Man's Republic: Jacksonian Democracy, Race, and the Transformation of American Conservatism by Joshua A. Lynn (review)
Lewis Eliot

Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas by Virginia Bayer et al. (review)
Douglas Schaller