Friday, October 21, 2005

A Cycle of Adams Letters: Economics in History

I’ve been reading A Cycle of Adams Letters. It is a selection of letters and letter excerpts between Charles Francis Adams, Sr. and his son Henry, who are on diplomatic post in London during the American Civil War, and Charles Francis Adams, Jr., a union cavalry officer back in the states. The senior Adams is the son of President John Quincy and grandson of President John Adams.

For history or economics teachers, the work is interesting in two respects. First, the letters give a sense of “here and now” to the era studied. Second, and more importantly for this blog entry, there are some interesting insights into the economics of the conflict.

The impact of the cotton embargo on the English economy is discussed, and the resulting swings in the value of Confederate bonds floated in European financial markets as the war tides change are a great way to show how events in one economic system can impact others, often with significant results.

Also of interest was the “economic reasoning” exhibited by Charles, Jr. when he talks about the choices he faces as a unit commander in May of 1863. He refers to how horses are used up, rather than rested, and then new horses commandeered, all for the objective of keeping the maximum force in the field, in contact with the enemy. This is an interesting exercise in decision-making, given the context and the objective. And the context and objective help to clarify the concept.

I would note there are some concerns I have about classroom use. Many of the observations, particularly of Charles, Jr., about former slaves and black regiments are peppered with language that is offensive today.

I welcome your comments.

Posted by TSchilling at 4:17 PM

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