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Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth

Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America

In 1796, famed engineer and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe toured the coal fields outside Richmond, Virginia, declaring enthusiastically, "Such a mine of Wealth exists, I believe, nowhere else!" With its abundant and accessible deposits, growing industries, and network of rivers and ports, Virginia stood poised to serve as the center of the young nation's coal trade. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Virginia's leadership in the American coal industry had completely unraveled while Pennsylvania, at first slow to exploit its vast reserves of anthracite and bituminous coal, had become the country's leading producer.

Sean Patrick Adams compares the political economies of coal in Virginia and Pennsylvania from the late eighteenth century through the Civil War, examining the divergent paths these two states took in developing their ample coal reserves during a critical period of American industrialization. In both cases, Adams finds, state economic policies played a major role. Virginia's failure to exploit the rich coal fields in the western part of the state can be traced to the legislature's overriding concern to protect and promote the interests of the agrarian, slaveholding elite of eastern Virginia. Pennsylvania's more factious legislature enthusiastically embraced a policy of economic growth that resulted in the construction of an extensive transportation network, a statewide geological survey, and support for private investment in its coal fields.

Using coal as a barometer of economic change, Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth addresses longstanding questions about North-South economic divergence and the role of state government in American industrial development, providing new insights for both political and economic historians of nineteenth-century America.

About the Author

Sean Patrick Adams is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida.


For anyone interested in state policies, paths of economic development, and antebellum political economy, this study is necessary reading.

- Choice

Adams's innovative study has opened up a new arena for investigation and, judging from the richness of his analysis, one with great potential.

- Edward J. Davies, II - Journal of American History

Adams makes good use of the available primary and secondary sources in support of his thesis.

- Willard Carl Klunder - Historian

Historians of many fields will want to take note.

- Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Explaining the troubled present is not Adam's objective, but his book provides a powerful tool for doing just that.

- Warren R. Hofstra - Common-Place

As with any successful study, this one answers some questions and provokes others... One hopes that rather than this being the last word on the subject, it serves as a call for further investigation.

- Andrew M. Schocket - Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

An engaging and persuasive work that addresses in a highly accessible manner the intricacies of state-level politics and economic decision-making.

- James Campbell - Journal of American Studies

Thoroughly researched, attractively written, and nicely produced, with clear maps and useful data graphs.

- Howell John Harris - History

An impressive exemplar of comparative history. Adams is a gifted writer with an excellent eye for detail.

- John Majewski - Enterprise and Society

Profoundly powerful insights into the importance of political and economic institutions.

- Robert E. Wright - Journal of Interdisciplinary History

This is economic history as it should be written... Adams has created an important and highly readable interpretation of Virginia and Pennsylvania's economic history in the early and mid-1800s, and I commend him.

- Paul Salstrom - West Virginia History

Rooted in impressive scholarship in the archives, and with a sound knowledge and understanding of the secondary sources, it merits a wide readership.

- Neville Kirk - Economic History Review


Just when it looks as if good historical political economy might perish from the earth, along comes Sean Patrick Adams with a study of politics, coal, slavery, and industrialization that is so readable, so compelling, and so richly contextualized that even the most resistant cultural historians should find it immensely rewarding. This is the definitive account of how and why the coal trade developed as it did in Virginia and Pennsylvania. This is history—political, economic, and cultural history—at its finest.

- John Lauritz Larson, Purdue University
Johns Hopkins University Press
Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia
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