Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Author's Corner with Brian Phillips Murphy

Brian Murphy is Associate Professor of Early American History at Baruch College. This interview is based on his new book, Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic?

BM: The very first question that started this book was me wondering how and why Aaron Burr turned an incorporated water company in New York City into a partisan bank. The answer, I learned, had a lot to do with the nature of corporations in early America and the power that state lawmakers gave to corporate shareholders and directors every time they created a new bank, bridge, ferry, or turnpike. We know that corporations were and still are controversial in the United States, and of course it’s because they’re powerful. A corporate charter isn’t only a useful tool for raising money, after all; it’s also a way to throw around political clout and influence public policy. These are institutions with formal legal standing and structure that comes from the public, but they’re run by people who have private interests and motives of their own. So I’m interested in political entrepreneurship and how an ambitious set of New Yorkers – including Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Robert Livingston, Robert Fulton, DeWitt Clinton – pursued politics and organized political parties from within the businesses at the heart of the era’s financial and transportation revolutions. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Building the Empire State?

BM: Corporations and similar state privileges were suspect tools in early America, nevertheless a cadre of elite political entrepreneurs pushed hard for their inclusion in the new republic’s political economy. Capitalism and profit motives therefore weren’t an unwelcome guest at the American founding; they were at the heart of how post-Revolutionary politics and civic life were structured.

JF: Why do we need to read Building the Empire State?

BM: I think if you’re paying attention to American – or even global – politics in 2015 you probably already know that laws and policies aren’t usually made during floor debates in legislative chambers. Instead, they’re made off-stage, and the people in the room cutting the deals might not be folks you’ve heard of or whose names have appeared on ballots. The same was true in the early republic. So in spite of the debates our profession has had about whether liberalism or republicanism were the controlling ideological frameworks for how people thought about politics, when you look at what people were actually doing in crafting the applied political economy for the period you see that they’re pretty comfortable with blending private and public interests and motives. They’re comfortable with the idea that you might parlay your influence and connections to get into the banking or ferryboat business to get rich and acquire even more political influence.

I think we have this expectation – maybe a hope – that early American politics was handled by people worried about having clean hands. It wasn’t. In creating a financial and transportation infrastructure, New Yorkers understood that there were risks involved in chartering incorporated banks and granting ferryboat monopolies. That’s why they eventually insulated the Erie Canal from elite influence by funding it with public bonds – the first project of its kind to use to raise money that way. They had a very clear understanding that people used public-private institutions to advance their private interests using public power, and they did their best to contain that dynamic. I tried to lay this out for scholars and their students in pretty vivid detail so they can see how this process played out in New York over the course of the six decades that followed the Revolution.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BM: I was the first person in my family to go to college out of high school, and I started out in college as a pre-med. I even considered being a math major for about five minutes before hitting a wall in partial differential equations. I didn’t know any historians and didn’t really know that ‘historian’ was a job one could have. But I had always loved history and was at a small liberal arts college, Haverford, with a fantastic department. I wrote a senior thesis about the Pearl slave escape of 1848 and started giving thought to graduate school. Roger Lane warned me that it would be tough to find a job, but I was willing to accept that risk since I knew that there were other questions I needed to ask. I also knew I’d be a terrible grad student straight out of college! So I decided to try to find work in journalism first. I was a fact-checker at Teen People of all places, but it got me in the door at Time Inc. I landed a reporter job at Money magazine, then a staff writer job at George. I worked briefly in New Jersey politics and then had an interesting job covering state politics for a website called All this time I was reading, reading, reading. Then something clicked. I had interviewed the head of big state agency and was thinking about how it came to be that state authorities operate below the radar while wielding a fantastic amount of power. Usually Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” is the go-to on this topic, but I happened to be reading Gore Vidal’s “Burr” that night and came to a little part about Aaron Burr converting a water utility into a bank. I applied to work with Peter Onuf at the University of Virginia and started in the fall of 2002. That story about Aaron Burr became my MA thesis, an article in the William and Mary Quarterly, and chapter 3 of this book. And now I’ve gotten to write about that agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, all over again with the reporting I’ve done on Chris Christie at Talking Points Memo and on television at MSNBC. I’ve had an interesting career so far! 

JF: What is your next project?

BM: I’ve got two things cooking. The first is a book on corruption. I’m interested in how colonial ideas about British imperial corruption change during and after the Revolution once the colonies become self-governing and have to define for themselves what kinds of misbehavior they will no longer tolerate. I’m also interested in how people think about corruption once an office is something that you ‘hold’ rather than ‘have’ and how creating a national capital in the wilderness of the District of Columbia was intended to insulate national politics from the temptations of metropolitan vice.

The second project has less to do with early America but comes directly out of the teaching that I do at Baruch College, where I was hired to teach economic history. I’m running a seminar this fall that looks at what happened to American manufacturing in the latter half of the 20th century, and our case studies are the small and mid-size factories that Fred Rogers visited on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I’m thinking about how I can tell this story in print and in a documentary.

JF: Looking forward to both! Thanks Brian.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner