Eleanor H. McConnell
American Studies, University of Iowa
Through the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library, I was able to visit Princeton Special Collections in August 2005. My project, "A Scarce Plenty: Economics, Citizenship, and Opportunity in Revolutionary New Jersey, 1760-1820," concerns the cultural, economic, and legal conditions that shaped how Americans participated in public life and conceptualized private gain. By examining these conditions, I want to question teleological assumptions about the nature of American economic development. I focus specifically on the construction of economic opportunity in late colonial and early national New Jersey. I center my inquiry in early New Jersey because its diversity-religious, ethnic, geographical, and economic-provides an especially useful milieu for studying the varied economic experiences of ordinary people with disparate racial, class, and gender identities. I examine the structure of opportunity in the tumultuous revolutionary years by connecting the transformation of ideas about status, property, interest, and utility to a specific economic, social and political setting. New Jersey offers an extremely valuable exemplar for mapping these developments: it is a hinterland without a western frontier; a commercial production zone that is not predominately urban, but which serves several urban centers; a sociological and cultural mixture that is certainly not "Southern," but is also not typically "Northern." I am not primarily interested in enhancing the perceived historical uniqueness of the state, but rather in uncovering a specific set of experiences and ideas about opportunity and citizenship that are not readily apparent in the usual nationalist histories of the period. Through my research at Princeton and other New Jersey repositories, I have found that my hunches about New Jersey source materials are borne out. The various economic cultures and behaviors in the region reveal tensions between dreams of abundance and anxieties about scarcity that are central to understanding
the complicated history of American economic expansion.
At Princeton Special Collections, I discovered many important and exciting resources. I found several collections that detail the experience of political and economic elites in early national New Jersey, which provided great insight into how those with power negotiated the distribution of it. Among the most useful were the Samuel Southard Papers, the Winans Collection of New Jersey Documents, the Stockton Family Papers, the Barricklo Collection, the Guild Family Papers, the William Paterson Papers, the Jonathan Rhea Papers, and the Woodruff Family Papers. The varieties of personal correspondence I found were especially fruitful, revealing the often overlooked economic aspects of these kinds of materials. I also found fascinating legal collections, most importantly the William Churchill Houston Collection and the Thomas Potts Johnson Collection. I was particularly excited about accessing these records, because I found material about specific cases that is not available in the official court documents. Princeton's numerous resources concerning the intellectual and economic climate of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World also helped me contextualize the thoughts and actions of New Jerseyans who were part of this imperial circuit.
I would like to thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library for their generous support-without it, I would never have been able to access the excellent resources in Special Collections. Researching at Princeton enriched and broadened my thinking, and made my project more comprehensive and integrated. Speaking at a Brown Bag Talk was a very helpful experience. I really appreciated all of the thoughtful responses and questions that suggested new ways to think about my work. I would especially like to thank Meg Rich and the rest of the knowledgeable staff at RBSC. Their friendliness and expertise made my visit very enjoyable.
15 November 2005