Abstract: Making Markets Moral: Commercial Capitalism and Economic Behavior in Late Nineteenth-Century America

Cory Davis


Modern understandings of the marketplace, driven by increasingly abstract economic modeling, often disregard judging economic behavior in terms of subjective notions of ethics and instead focus on instrumentality and rationality, and treat ends with more attention than means. This was not the case in America in the nineteenth century, a time when newer understandings of business came into conflict with cultural and political value systems that judged economic activity by different standards. This paper focuses on the importance that moral considerations of economic behavior played in the discussions and debates over economic reforms of the commercial class as represented by the National Board of Trade in the late nineteenth century. Using a variety of sources including organizational proceedings and prescriptive texts, my paper argues that the nature of the commercial economy led organized merchants to frame certain economic issues by blending economically liberal and republican approaches to political economy in an attempt to construct policy sensitive to qualitative as well as quantitative growth.