Hamilton, Business History, and Teaching General Surveys, with Susan V. Spellman

Susan Spellman

Susan Spellman

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton statute

Manuel Miranda

Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

In this installment I wanted to discuss ways in which Business History is being used in History Departments which led to a very interesting exchange with Susan Spellman, Associate Professor at Miami University (Ohio), who has written extensively on US business and consumerism. Susan provided wonderful insight in using Business History as a thematic framework to link general survey courses on U.S. history, neatly leveraging the surprising resurgence in the popularity of Alexander Hamilton!

What courses dominate your teaching load?

Much of my teaching encompasses both halves of the U.S. history survey, which typically divides at the Civil War/Reconstruction eras, as these are bread-and-butter courses for Miami University’s regional campuses. While I also offer upper-division courses on U.S. consumerism, American business history, and the Progressive Era, these comprise a much smaller component of my regular teaching. Organizing the survey classes around a business history approach, however, has been particularly useful for engaging students with a wide range of preparation and understanding of American history, most of whom are taking the classes solely to fulfill a requirement. It likewise enables students pursuing a number of different majors to find common ground, as issues of business and the economy intersect nearly every discipline from criminal justice to nursing.



Where does Business History fit in to teaching the general survey courses?

In particular, business history has served as a useful framework for teaching much of the first half of the U.S. history survey. Since business history cuts across economic, political, social, and cultural lines, I am able to connect past events to contemporary topics. I imagine that many who teach the survey have taken advantage of the renewed interest in Alexander Hamilton. I have the added benefit of teaching in a town named for him, complete with a large statue downtown familiar to all my students. When I first started teaching, however, it was very difficult to get students invested in learning about the development of the nation’s financial system, as few undergraduates cared or thought much about the creation of a national bank or its corresponding constitutional debates. The musical’s popularity, however, has provided a bit of “street cred” for the issues (admittedly, I’ve yet to use the music in the classroom), and students have shown a far greater interest in the subject and the ways in which they intersect with current matters such as foreign investments, government-sponsored enterprise, and the significance of the two-party system.

Additionally, I find business history valuable for framing our understanding of nineteenth-century America as a period when industrial development and its corresponding economic, political, and social developments touched nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives. I introduce students to the transition from cottage industries to the development of mass production, and ask them to consider what factors influenced that shift and how it affected workers and work cycles. Our discussion of the market revolution and related communications and transportation revolutions focus on the ability of Americans to push further westward yet remain connected to families and friends along with manufactured goods, fresh foods, and regular mail delivery thanks to canals, railroads, steamboats, and the telegraph. Finally, I encourage students to consider how the emergence of a working class founded in the factories at Lowell and other mill towns contributed to abolitionists’ debates over free labor versus slave labor, which opens the door to discussing the significance of contracts, “wage slavery,” and notions of who was and who was not “free” in nineteenth-century America.

Do you use any particular methods and sources to engage your students when bringing these topics into the classroom?

I’ve been successful in creating lectures punctuated with creative PowerPoints that bring together images (paintings/photographs/postcards), film clips, and period music. Since students generally respond when you connect larger movements to the places in which they live, I draw on the wonderfully annotated Cincinnati Panorama of 1848 to talk about the impact of the market revolution on the city, its industries, waterways, technologies, and people. Songs such as “I’m in the Market for You” (1929), illuminates for students how deeply Wall Street permeated 1920s culture. In My Merry Oldsmobile (1931), an extended advertisement in cartoon form distributed by the Olds Motor Company, illustrates both the rise of auto culture and the ways in which it was shaping the “new woman’s” independence and mobility. Students often chuckle at the subtle innuendos and reflect on the portrayal of women as strong and sexual individuals during this period. I like to offer students a range of ways to connect to the material, especially given the variety of ways people learn. This includes introducing a number of primary documents that bring period voices into the discussion and allows students to practice their critical reading and thinking skills. For example, Fredrick Norcom’s 1836 letter describing the rise of the “Cotton Kingdom” challenges students to consider the South’s rapidly expanding agricultural economy and its impact on slave and land values, and forces them to think about Native American removal as a component of economic “progress.” In this way, my students start to wrestle with the contradictions and “messiness” of the past by evaluating and questioning period actors’ observations and experiences.

Finally, I have used role-playing games to good effect, particularly in my upper-division classes. In my American business history course, for example, students play the “Monster Bank Game,” created by Jim Buss (OAH Magazine of History, May 2005), to simulate the chaos experienced by everyday Americans during the market revolution. Students portray bankers, land agents, and settlers attempting to engage in and comprehend the Early Republic’s unregulated money and market systems. They later apply their experiences with this exercise and connect the chaos that accompanied early banking to the need for regulated markets and oversight during the Great Depression and New Deal eras. In this way, my students begin to see that economic actors are not captive to institutions, but are instead reflective agents responding to historical circumstances. 


Susan’s use of Business History as a thematic framework for a general survey course seemed a very fruitful way to utilize the capacity of the discipline to speak to a range of intellectual themes. The popularity of Hamilton may be a serendipitous occurrence, but it strikes me that there are many contemporary political and social issues resonant with the discipline to engage students with. Brexit, Trump, and the history of tariffs and free trade have become staple themes in my own teaching (although my hopes for a catchy Brexit musical may go unrealized), provoking wide debate on economic, political and social issues all inherent to Business History. This has encouraged me to think about ways to exploit the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline more fully. Finally, I was fascinated by the role playing exercise, which sounds a brilliant way to improve interaction. I would be very interested to hear about other similar interactive methods and their use in the classroom.

Edited by

Michael Aldous
Published 2017-04-18