Economics 411

Economic History of the United States


Location and Time

Lecture: MWF 12:00


Gregory Stutes

Office: 380L MacLean Hall

Telephone: 477-4027


Course Description:

This course surveys the economic history of the United States from the colonial period to the present. We will consider the development of the U.S. economy as a case study in modern economic growth and of the problems that may bring. Among things we will look at: the colonial origins of the U.S. economy, the economics of the American Revolution, the development of the banking system; business cycles and depressions (the Great Depression of 1929-1933 will be considered in depth); the origins, impact, and legacies of slavery; the rise of big business; the origins and effect of increased government regulation; and significant changes in the U.S. economic system since World War II.

You should think of this class as a chance to practice some of the tool skills developed in economics and explore a wide variety of ways to present information.  You will complete a series of projects rather than the typical homework format.


Prerequisites: Officially there are no requirements, but I hope that everyone knows at least high school level economics.  You also do not need to know all the fine points of American History, but if you are a complete novice I suggest that you download a timeline of US history to aid with your studies


An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon


Extra reading assignments will be posted on this page.



Students are responsible for all material covered in class and any announcements made in class.


Grading System


Class Participation:  You are expected to attend class and participate in class discussions.  This is generally not an issue and missing a class and too little participation will not result in a deduction in point.  The instructor, however, reserves the right to deduct points for serious attendance problems.

1.  You must complete 8 of the 10 homework assignments  Each of the 8 is worth 2%

2.  You must complete 8 of 10 peer reviews  Each of the 8 is worth 2%

3.  Teachers' Lesson Plan  Worth 4%

4.  Student Consumer Price Index  Worth 6%

5.  Power Point Presentation--The economic history of a particular community.  Worth 6%

6.  Poster Presentation  Worth 6%

A historical illustration of an economic concept.  How to use economics to evaluate a problem in US history.  This must be more advanced than the "10 principles".

7.  Infographic  Worth 6%

8.  Magazine Article--Historical Origins of a Contemporary Problem or Issue  Worth 6%

Most current issues have historical roots or antecedents. The first task of this type of paper is to trace the history of a contemporary problem. Then the author identifies similar or related episodes in the past and explains how knowledge of these historical parallels can be used to understand current events and to shap intelligent policy. Some examples of possible topics include: (a) The High Cost of Prescription Drugs; (b) Increasing Income Inequality; (c) The Economic Consequence of Deregulation of Electrical Power in California; (d) The Drug Problem; (f) The Federal Budget Debt; (g) Should There Be Mandatory Retirement?; (h) Tariff Policy; (I) Immigration Policy; (j) Traffic Congestion in Urban Centers

9.   Book Review  Worth 8%

10.  Mini Literature Review  Worth 6%

10.  Grant Proposal Draft  Worth 6%

This approach is similar to the research paper but does not actually carry out the analysis or reach conclusions. The author merely defines the question, establishes interest in the question and answer, shows the project is feasible (evidence is available for analysis), and discusses methods of analysis.  Besides not drawing conclusions, the main difference between the proposal and the research project is the level of previous research included within your paper. The grant proposal should provide a significant review of the literature. While providing interest in your subject, you should show how your question fits into the literature. The defense of your methodology should be grounded in economic theory and previous research will help defend your model selection.

11. Grant Proposal Final Draft  Worth 4%

12.  Midterm  Worth 6%




Assignments may be changed: you are responsible for all announcements made in class





Projects & Writing

8/25  Monday Introduction   Chapter 1  
8/27  Wednesday Early History      
8/29  Friday Elvis is Alive and Grwoth      
9/1  Monday LABOR DAY      
9/3  Wednesday Colonial Development   Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe, “If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?” Atlantic Monthly (October 1995), pp. 59-78  
9/5  Friday Money and Banking Before the Civil War      
9/8  Monday Northern Agriculture     Update!!!  Writing #1
9/10  Wednesday Transportation Revolution     Peer Review #1
9/12  Friday Causes and Consequences of the Civil War      
9/15 Monday Slavery      
9/17  Wednesday Slavery     Teacher's Lesson Plan
9/19  Friday Northern Agriculture      
9/22  Monday 1880-90s & Financial Markets      
9/24  Wednesday 1880-90s & Financial Markets   Writing #2
9/26 Friday       Peer Review #2
9/29  Monday 00     Start CPI diary and find a book to review
10/1  Wednesday 00   TIPS FOR A BOOK REVIEW


10/3  Friday       Writing #3
10/6  Monday
    Peer Review #3
10/8  Wednesday 10s      
10/10  Friday       Power Point Presentation
10/13  Monday NO CLASS      
10/15  Wednesday 20s   Midterm  
10/17  Friday 20s     Writing #4
10/20  Monday 30s      
10/22  Wednesday 30s      
10/24  Friday        
10/27  Monday 40s   Infographic
10/29  Wednesday 40s      
10/31  Friday        
11/3  Monday 50s     Magazine Article
11/5  Wednesday 60s      
11/7  Friday        
11/10  Monday 70s     Book Review
10/12  Wednesday 70s      
11/14  Friday     TIPS and SUGGESTIONS for your PROPOSAL Writing #5
11/17  Monday 80s     Peer Review #5
11/19  Wednesday 80s      
11/21  Friday        
11/24  Monday The Economics of The Wizard of OZ     Grant Proposal Draft
11/26  Wednesday THANKSGIVING      
11/28  Friday THANKSGIVING      
12/1  Monday 90s      
12/3  Wednesday 90s     Writing #6
12/5  Friday Great Recession     Peer Review #6
12/8  Monday Future      
12/10  Wednesday Study Day     Grant Proposal Final



HW #1

Based on the assigned reading, and on your knowledge of how GDP is measured write an approximately 500 word essay  answering the following questions:

1)Is GDP per capita a good measure of well being?

2)Are changes in GDP per capita a good indicator of economic progress?

3)What are the drawbacks or limitations of GDP per capita as an index of well-being?

Be sure to explain your reasoning.

Homework #2:

Our understanding of American economic history rests in part on the reconstruction of quantitative measures of various aspects of economic activity.  At first such quantitative estimates may seem highly precise and scientific.  But it is important to keep in mind that they are the product of human efforts to measure aspects of economic behavior.  As a result there may be gaps between the ideal concept that we seek to measure and the information available to track it.  Moreover, no measurement will ever be perfect.  This assignment is intended to provide you with an opportunity to explore these issues in a practical way.  It also seeks to familiarize you with an important source of historical information.

For this assignment I want you to consider the measurement of immigration into the United States as reflected in the volume Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, bicentennial edition, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. You can find this volume in the reference sections of the Economics Lounge and in the Library.

As you will see these volumes are divided into a number of alphabetically labeled sections.  Chapter C deals with migration, you should begin by reading the General Note dealing with international migration, and then read the notes specific to the series labeled c89-119, which detail arrivals in the United States by country of origin.  Finally take a look at the data in these series.

After you have read the notes and looked at the data write an essay of about 500 words addressing the following topics:


HW #3

Economic theory suggests that a country will tend to specialize in those activities in which it has a comparative advantage.  For the United States in the early 19th century, with abundant land and natural resources, it would seem that its comparative advantage lay in agriculture (not manufacturing).  But, by 1850 the United States had a thriving manufacturing sector, and by 1900 it had become the world’s largest producer of manufactured goods.

Based on the assigned reading(end of Chpt5 and Chpt 10, and outside reading on Industrialization ), write an essay, explaining why the US began to industrialize in the early 19th century, why this occurred first in textiles, and why manufacturing tended to be localized in New England.


Homework #4

It has been said that slavery was a contradiction on the verge of destroying itself.  Based on what you have learned from the text and this article (Slavery in the United States), write a short essay summarizing and evaluating the economist's methodology used  to examine that statement.  


Homework #5

The nineteenth century the American Banking system underwent a variety of significant institutional changes.  From 1791 through 1836, the first and second Banks of the United States played an important role, subsequently the spread of “Free Banking” contributed to a rise in bank density.  With the Civil War, the National Banking Act once again re-wrote the rules of the banking system.  These rules persisted until the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.

Based on what you have learned from these chapters and from these articles (Antebellum Banking & Banking: Civil War to WWI) about the history of banking and about economic historians views on this subject write a short essay evaluating the impact of these different legal and institutional environments on the operation of the banking system.  Can you make any judgments about which institutions and rules were most effective?  Does the answer depend on the historical and economic context?


HW #6

To many observers at the time and to subsequent historians it has seemed that the railroad was a crucial factor shaping the course of American economic development in the nineteenth century.  Economic historian Robert Fogel has challenged this argument for the “indispensability” of the railroad.  According to Fogel, railroads made only a modest contribution to economic growth as of 1890.

Based on the assigned reading, write an an essay, explaining and evaluating Fogel’s argument.  That is describe how Fogel reaches his conclusion, and then explain what (if any) potential criticisms might be relevant.

Homework #7

In the second half of the nineteenth century the United States was becoming the World’s leading industrial economy.

Based on the assigned readings, write a 500 word essay identifying the sources of America’s rise to industrial leadership.  Are all of your sources linked to the railroad?  Conclude by commenting on whether a single industry or invention can precipitate accelerated growth. 


Homework #8

The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1933 in the United States, but the American economy took much longer to recover.  Indeed it did not reach full employment until at least the beginning of WW II.  One of the puzzles of this period then, is why recovery took so long.

Based on the assigned readings and the New Deal presentations in class, write an approximately 500 word essay evaluating the successes and failures of the New Deal programs.   



Homework #9

During the 20th century the size and structure of the American economy have changed substantially.  Accompanying these changes have been equally large changes in the role of the Federal government in the economy.  One aspect of these changes has been the adoption since World War II of an explicit goal of reducing (or eliminating) macroeconomic fluctuations.

Write a short essay (no more than about 500 words) assessing the effectiveness of government macroeconomic policy in reducing or eliminating macroeconomic fluctuations.  Among the topics you may wish to address are: (1) what do the data show about the changing nature of macroeconomic fluctuations in the 20th century, and (2) how government policies appear to have affected these fluctuations.

Homework Assignment #10

Our recent reading provides an overview of the changing role of government in the American economy.  But we have also dealt with this topic at other points during the semester, such as when we examined transportation improvements, macroeconomic policy, and immigration, to cite just a few instances.  For this assignment write a short essay (about 500 words) on the topic of how the nature of government intervention in the economy has evolved over time.  Be sure to cite specific historical instances to illustrate your thesis.