History of American Capitalism
Gears in motion

Professor Colleen Dunlavy
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
History 247—Spring 2013—UW-Madison
Ofc hrs: Tues. and Thurs., 5:30-6:30 p.m., 5109 Humanities
cdunlavy@wisc.edu, tel. 608.263.1854, http://history.wisc.edu/dunlavy
© 2013 - Colleen A. Dunlavy. Last updated: 21-Jan-2013 18:44

How did American capitalism reach its current state?  This is one of today’s most pressing questions, and it’s arguably the most exciting time in a century to grapple with it. 

This course offers useful ways of thinking about (i.e., analyzing, understanding) American capitalism through a survey of its historical development since the mid-eighteen century.  Although history cannot be used to predict the future, a lesson that many have yet to learn, understanding the historical processes by which we arrived at our current state helps in making sense of the changes going on around us.

  Go to Schedule of Lectures, Readings, and Assignments - Spring 2013  

This survey is structured around three broad and persistent themes in the history of American capitalism:

  • changes in the nature of American capitalism from the mid-18th century to the near-present;
  • the ever-changing, though always essential, role of government, broadly construed, which both shaped and was shaped by American capitalism; and
  • changes in American capitalism as a social world defined by social rules (law and norms) and distinctive social relations.

These themes and related concepts are explained in more detail in the handout distributed in lecture on January 22.

The lectures, assigned readings, and writing assignments will:

  • give you a basic knowledge of the changes that have taken place in American capitalism over the last two and one-half centuries;
  • encourage you to develop your ability to think critically (see description and graphic); and
  • hone your intellectual ability to think like a historian (examples).
    • This means paying careful attention to events, to change over time, and to the particular sequence of events (chronology).  It also means learning to grapple with complexity—with differing rates of change, with multi-causality, and with necessarily incomplete information.
    • For more on historians' distinctive ways of thinking, see William H. Sewell, Jr., Logics of History:  Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2005).
If you do well in this course, here's a line for your resumé: “adept at analyzing complex, dynamic events on the basis of incomplete information and at communicating that analysis coherently and succinctly.”

Lectures meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:00 to 5:15 p.m. in 1651 Mosse Humanities Bldg.

For the detailed schedule of this semester's lectures, readings, and paper assignments, click here. Make sure, as you do the readings and writing assignments, that you have our Themes and Concepts (handout) firmly in mind.

Classroom etiquette: If you cannot avoid arriving late for lectures (or leaving early), please let me know and sit near the door. Laptops are welcome in my lecture hall, but if you do anything other than use it to take notes—especially anything that would distract your fellow students—sit in the rear of the lecture hall (or, better yet, don't bother to come to lecture!). If you must arrive late for discussion section, be sure to talk with your TA in advance. Cell phones: please turn off during lecture and sections; no texting, please. Note that no electronic devices whatsoever will be permitted at the final exam.

Readings: A Pocket Guide to Writing in History by Mary Lynn Rampolla (6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010) is a required text, available for purchase at local bookstores, online, or on reserve at College Library.  Other readings will be available on Learn@UW. The readings are a mixture of primary sources (i.e., documents produced in the years we are studying) and secondary sources (written by historians in later years, usually based on primary sources).

Discussion sections are an integral part of this course. Attendance is mandatory. Come prepared to participate actively and intelligently in the discussions, based on a close readings of the assignments and reflection on the lectures. Your teaching assistant will provide additional details in the first section meeting.

Teaching Assistant: Kate Wersan

  • Email: wersan@wisc.edu
  • Office: 4272 Mosse Humanities
  • Mailbox: #xxxx Mosse Humanities
  • Office hours: Tues., 2:45-3:45 p.m., and Wed., 8:45-9:45 pm; or by appointment.

Section times/places

  • Sec. 301: Wed., 9:55-10:45 a.m., 2625 Humanities
  • Sec. 302: Wed., 11:00-11:50 a.m., 4041 Vilas
  • Sec. 303: Thurs., 1:20-2:10 p.m., 2221 Humanities
  • Sec. 304: Thurs., 2:25-3:15 p.m., 2631 Humanities

The writing assignments are designed to help you develop a variety of essential skills—reading and listening carefully, evaluating and synthesizing what you have heard/read, and expressing your knowledge coherently and persuasively in writing. Be sure to make use of resources such as The Pocket Guide to Writing in History and the UW's Writing Center.

Take-home papers


Handed out Due %


Feb. 5

Feb. 12



Mar. 5

Mar. 12



Apr. 9

Apr. 16


We will have three take-home paper assignments this semester, ranging in length from 3 pages (#1) to 4 pages (#2) to 5 pages (#3). In each paper, you will be asked to respond to a question based solely on the lectures and assigned readings.

To get you off on the right track, I will hold a writing workshop in the lecture after the first paper assignment is handed out (i.e., on Thurs., Feb. 7).

Final exam

This will be a closed-book, blue-book exam consisting of one or more essay questions. Further details will be forthcoming in lecture.

We'll have a review session on Tuesday, May 14, 4-5:00 p.m., and the final exam will be held, as scheduled, on Fri., May 17, 12:25-2:25 p.m. (location of both TBA). If you have a "legal" conflict (three exams within 24 hours), or if you are a McBurney student, please see Prof. D.

Your grade for the semester will be based on:



Discussion sections


Take-home essays

50% (10+15+25)

Final exam


If you have questions about the grade that you receive on one of the take-home essays, please discuss the matter, first, with your teaching assistant. If you still have questions, come to my office hours or see me after lecture to arrange an appointment.

Important note: Your assignments will be graded on the (un)usual UW scale of A, AB, etc., but with pluses or minuses to give you more nuanced feedback. Bear in mind, however, that a plus or minus does not change the basic grade category that we have to use at the end of the semester. Both a high AB (AB+) and a low AB (AB-), for example, will be reported as an AB.

What is "plagiarism"? Here's a definition from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.).

To plagiarize is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own;  . . . [to] present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." 

In taking this course, you have commited yourself to submitting essays that present your own, original words and ideas and to acknowledging clearly when you are relying on the words or ideas of others.

Plagiarism has become an increasingly serious offense as Western society has become increasingly property-oriented. The very notion of "stealing" ideas or words implies private-property rights in them -- a concept made explicit in the term intellectual property rights, a matter of great controversy in the internet/media world today.  The minimum penalty for plagiarism in this class is an "F" for the semester, and all cases will be reported to the Dean of Students for possible further action.

If you have any questions about what constitutes plagiarism, an excellent source of information is PlagiarismDotOrg (or you may download a pdf copy of Turnitin's manual on plagiarism). Also, be sure to read ch. 6 in A Pocket Guide to Writing in History.

I am committed to creating and maintaining a bias-free learning environment that allows each of you to do your best work.

Please note carefully the following excerpt from UW policies:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, in accordance with the laws of the State of Wisconsin, seeks to protect its students from discrimination. S. 36.12 of the Wisconsin Statutes reads in part: No student may be denied admission to, participation in or the benefits of, or [be] discriminated against in any service, program, course, or facility of the (UW) system or its institutions or centers because of a the student's race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, disability, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status, or parental status.


If you have any questions or concerns about this policy, please don't hesitate to bring them to me or to the Dean of Students in the Division of Student Life. For more information on the university's policies, contact UW-Madison's Office for Equity and Diversity, 179A Bascom Hall, 500 Lincoln Drive, Madison, WI 53706; (608) 263-2378.

Here's a brief collection of my tips on how to do well in this course. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to come and talk with me or with your teaching assistant.

  • Attend lectures and sections
  • Take notes
  • Cultivate intellectual engagement
  • Writing = thinking

How faithfully you attend lecture is your choice.  Obviously, the more often you attend, the more you will get out of this course—or, more concretely, the better prepared you will be for the discussion sections, the writing assignments, and final exam.  In that sense, lecture attendance inevitably affects your grade a great deal.

Take special note of this: after each lecture, I will post my Powerpoint on our Learn@UW website, with an audio recording of the lecture incorporated into the Powerpoint (barring technical difficulties!). Treat these as a review tool or as a substitute for attending lecture ONLY IF an emergency arises. Resist the impulse to substitute viewing them online for real-world attendance at lectures—the odds are excellent that you won't keep up!

Attendance in discussion sections, as noted, is mandatory. Together with thoughtful, informed contributions to section discussions, it is an indispensable element of "participation," on which your section grade depends. More importantly in the long run, however, sections are your opportunity to try out your ideas, to clarify aspects of the history of capitalism, and to work on essential skills (e.g., close analysis of the readings, clear and succinct communication of your analysis).

Take notes, take notes, take notes. I cannot emphasize this enough (I'm an "old literacy" advocate on this point).  If you take notes, you will have something to review in writing your papers and in preparing for the final exam. Taking notes will also help you to think about what you encounter in the lectures, readings, and discussions. In lectures, use the bullet points in my Powerpoints to structure your basic outline—then fill in details as you listen. If need be, you can always review your lecture notes against the lecture Powerpoints on our Learn@UW website.

If you need advice about how to take good notes, don't be embarassed. This is your opportunity to learn. Come and talk with me or your teaching assistant about it. Or check out online resources such as Dartmouth's page on "Notetaking, Listening, Participation."

In a lecture course, especially a large one, it is all too easy to adopt a posture of passivity—sitting back and waiting to "receive" information. But developing analytical skills and historical understanding requires engagement: cultivate an active posture in lectures and sections. Don't be lulled by my use of Powerpoint: use the outline it offers and take your own notes to fill in the details. Engage actively and critically with your readings. Bring the questions that your active engagement stimulates to lectures, sections, or office hours. Engagement is a choice.

Writing and analysis are intimately linked.  For most of us, historical understanding—that is, understanding complex processes of change over time—comes from the attempt to write about a topic in a coherent way.  The essay questions are deliberately real-world questions, which is to say that they are broad and do not lend themselves to simple yes-no answers. So don't be frustrated if the written assignments prove challenging—you're doing much more than merely writing! You're learning how to make sense out of a mass of information, which is an essential skill, not matter what career path you choose.