"A SPECULATING SPIRIT" Trade, Speculation, and Gambling in Early American Fiction

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Karen A. Weyler, Associate Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/

Abstract: The excerpt quoted above, from a poem printed in pamphlet form in 1791, captures both the hope and the disappointment wrought by changing economic conditions in the newly formed United States after the Revolution. "Speculation" and its companion vices avarice and greed dismayed republicans throughout the United States as the self sacrificing civic virtue of the war years gave way to more profit-oriented forms of individualism.1 Novels written in America arose at precisely the time when this postcolonial economy was in great flux, and they point to the possibilities and dangers inherent in a capitalist economy that placed grave demands upon trust between widely separated and differing individuals. Novelists, poets, political writers, and belletrists, regardless of their political orientation, expressed considerable anxiety about how this changing economy would affect the moral virtue of American citizens. The luxuries resulting from this changing economy became a locus for these fears, and luxury came to refer not only to specific items procured in international trade, but also to an urbanized, sophisticated lifestyle.2 Although novelists were concerned about abuses of luxury, they were perhaps more concerned about the problematic issue of accumulating capital. While most early American novels exalt industry and the potential for economic advancement that the American economy offered, these novels simultaneously point to contemporary economic anxieties, primarily the fear that people would attempt to make money without industry through such means as gambling, speculating, and counterfeiting. I argue in this essay that reading novels alongside political pamphlets, economic tracts, and belles lettres reveals that American fiction was an active and significant link in the nexus of public discourse during the 1790s and the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Deeply engaged with economic issues facing Americans of the rising middle-class, fiction contributed to public economic discourse by exploring ways to reconcile desire for personal economic advancement with larger civic interests; at the same time, fiction contributed to the gendering of the American economic system by presenting trade as a virtuous means of making money and by simultaneously constructing economic desire as a specifically masculine prerogative.

Additional Information

Early American Literature 31.3 (1996): 207-42.
Language: English
Date: 1993
Gambling, American literature, 18th century, Novels, Trade, Commerce, Wealth

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