Category Archives: Essays in History

2016 Election: Further Thoughts

As a follow-up to his Election Day post, our Chair Professor David Myers sent us these thoughts written the day after:

Night musings on the day of election:

Waiting idly in the Houston International Airport for the evening flight to LaGuardia on Wednesday, I thought back to a lunch I had long ago as a very young person in New Haven. In the summer of 1980, one of my classmates was the daughter of the recently retired Speaker of the House, Carl Albert. He invited me to lunch and the candidacy of Ronal Reagan came up. The famous and crafty Democratic politician looked straight into my eyes and said, with complete conviction, “I can tell you one thing for certain—Ronald Reagan will never be elected president of the United States.” That lunch has haunted me now for a year, and with good reason: despite all the improbabilities, Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States.

Sifting through the evidence about what happened this year and why will take some time, but a few facts about American democracy become clear. Looking around me, I realize the Houston International Airport is named after a President Bush (George Herbert Walker Bush), and we have to acknowledge (reluctantly) a remarkable feat for Donald Trump. In the course of 11 months, he has decisively dismantled both political dynasties that have dominated American politics for some thirty years. To win the Republican nomination, he bested Jeb Bush (or Jeb! as he sought to play down the family name) and left one dynasty in tatters. Now he has done the same to the Clintons, and there is nothing left. These two families have held the presidency for twenty of the last twenty eight years (71%) and were hoping for twenty eight out of thirty six (78%). Whatever we might think about Trump, to have the American presidency tossed back and forth between elite families is not how we envision democracy. I wonder how much of the same fatigue and resentment that undid Jeb also played against Hillary Clinton.

Also, until 2000 (Bush vs. Gore), in only three instances in all of American history had a candidate won the presidency without winning the popular vote—the last time in 1888. Now it has happened twice in four elections, and both times the winner was the Republican candidate. Digging still deeper uncovers another surprising (and disturbing) fact: Since 1988 (Bush vs. Dukakis), a Republican presidential candidate has only won the popular vote once (Bush vs. Kerry, 2004). That is one out of seven election cycles. How different would the country look today if the popular vote actually determined the outcome?

Finally, going back to fateful 1980, one of the themes that year was the contrast between Reagan’s sunny optimism and Jimmy Carter’s pessimism (born of Reinhold Niebuhr’s sense of the “politician’s sad duty to establish justice in a sinful world”). In 1992, Bill Clinton believed “in a place called Hope” (Arkansas, which I actually visited). In 2008, Barack Obama won because of the “audacity of hope” in a year of despair (“Yes, we CAN!). We can use many words to describe the appeal of Donald Trump to 59,000,000 voters, but one thing is sure: “hope” isn’t one of them.

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Fordham History and the 2016 Presidential Election

A Reflection on the 2016 Presidential Election from W. David Myers, Chair of History at Fordham University.


So it is Election Day, 8 November—Fordham and the history department are closed, and the department chair is in El Paso, Texas, to watch the scene and celebrate his mother’s 98th birthday—more on that later. For now, while everyone votes, watches, and waits, it is a good moment to note that members of the Fordham history department have been and are involved in this election, both practically and intellectually. Nick Paul and family went to Pennsylvania in October to register voters. Recently, Kirsten Swinth gave a scintillating lecture and program on the history of sexual harassment in America—not just the fact of harassment, which sadly seems not about to end, but the reaction to it and attempts to define, control, and eliminate it. The tale that emerged from Kirsten’s discussion was a century-old set of disparate campaigns with different angles and motives leading to today’s intense efforts. It’s a messy history, but what Kirsten’s presentation demonstrated is that the fight isn’t new, and sexual harassment isn’t a distraction from more important issues this election year—it IS an important contemporary political matter, one that this ugliest of campaigns has brought to the forefront.
Others have been just as active—Saul Cornell’s tireless efforts politically and academically on the Second Amendment have taken him from Cambridge, England, to Palo Alto California. For me, though, one of the most enlightening moments from my colleagues was Sal Acosta’s discussion last February of voter restriction efforts in states with a long history of discrimination against African Americans—this time targeting a rising Latino population and using the same language of fear and criminality that disfranchised the black population. As I watch from El Paso, surrounded by my Latino friends and relatives, I note that those same states in the southeast and southwest are witnessing a surge in voting from a determined Latino population infected with the “audacity of hope,” as President Obama has described it. Sal Acosta has proven to be an astute observer and analyst of American politics.
And then there is a personal note–Catherine, my mother, about to celebrate her 98th birthday. While presenting her with a rosary chosen by my students on the Camino de Santiago last June, I was struck by a number—1918. That was the year of her birth during a devastating worldwide influenza epidemic and at the very end of World War I. Focus on the year–in 1918, women could not vote, nor could they fight for their country. In 1918, patriotic African Americans could not fight alongside their white comrades in the U.S. Army. In 1918, African Americans could not play in the major leagues. And in 1918, the Chicago Cubs had already been without a World Series victory for a decade . . .
So as I celebrate my courageous mother with my equally courageous (and Hillary-deranged sisters, I must add!), I realize that in the last decade, she has proudly voted for and seen an African American man become the President of the United States. She has seen gay marriage legalized and thus been able to greet and welcome her granddaughter’s spouse. Last Tuesday she voted for a woman to become the President of the United States. And on Wednesday, the Cubs took the series—with an African American leadoff hitter.
In all of these events, the “arc of history” didn’t necessarily bend gradually toward justice in some inevitable way. None of this seemed likely just a decade ago, at least not for the near term. But human beings seized the opportunities presented to them by accident, or disaster, or just dumb luck. The audacity of hope is the element that disrupts our theoretical and scientific thinking and we frequently overlook it. But our best moments as people, and as a people, must surely depend on it. That is one lesson for history and historians today.

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The Brief History of Spring Break

For some American college students spring break is a time to relax and travel. Florida remains the top destination for spring break, and during the 2014 ‘spring break season’ Florida had 26. 3 million out of state visitors.  The term ‘spring break’ has become synonymous in popular culture with partying and travel; this is partly because every year since 1986 MTV has aired a spring break special, with coverage of parties and concerts. But how did this tradition start?

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Fordham Undergraduates Attend Undergraduate Conference in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Moravian College

On Saturday, December 5th, Professor Alex Novikoff took four Fordham Students to  the 10th Annual Undergraduate Conference in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Moravian College. The four students, all History majors, each presented a paper. Erin Collier presented, “The Role of Menstruation and Impurity in the Characterization of Jews as ‘The Other’ in Medieval Soceity,” Arthur Mezzo presented, “God and Kind: Biographies of Medieval Frankish Kings,” Rita Orazi presented, “The Emperor as Classical Hero in Ana Komnene’s Alexiad,” and Kyle Stelzer presented, “The Tibyan: One Ruler’s Account of Christian-Muslim Relations in Eleventh Century Iberia.”
 Nice work, Fordham historians!

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The History of “Capital”: Steven Stoll on the Origins of the Term

John of Genoa

In anticipation of our Thursday event “Tracking the Global History of Capitalism” with Sven Beckert, we asked Professor Steven Stoll to tell us about the history of the term “capital”. Where does the word come from, and what does it say about the history of capitalism?

Professor Stoll writes:

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is about how cotton became the key commodity in the making of nineteenth-century global capitalism. It’s the story of land and slavery, financiers and merchants, and competition between the American South and India for dominance in production. But Beckert hesitates to define capital or capitalism. Here is a quick take and a few thoughts about the word itself and the world it creates.

Capital is money in motion. It’s not a bag of seed or a college education or an idea for a new business or your terrific potential as an artist or the car you drive to work. It’s not even the same thing as wealth. If capital is any of these things, then it’s existed for as long as Homo sapiens and has no historical specificity. It is surplus value in the act of generating surplus value–profit that creates profit. Marx expressed it as M→C (LP + MP)→P→C’→M+∆M, in which Money is advanced to buy Commodities, consisting of Labor-Power, the Means of Production (which would include land or factories and raw material). Labor is the most important purchase because it is the only factor that creates more value than it costs. If a capitalist pays someone $10 for a day’s work he can use their labor-power to manufacture $100 in widgets. Labor combined with the means of production results in second-order Commodities. These must be sold for the original Money advanced, plus an increment (the surplus-value). Money does not become capital until or unless it is advanced. To paraphrase Forest Gump, capital is as capital does.[i]

The word first appeared between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for the top or head of something (from caput, or head), like the Corinthian capital of a marble column. It referred to the greatest height or degree, like a capital crime, a capital enemy, capital wounds, and a seat of government (all between 1400 and 1600). At the same time capital developed toward an important sum of money. Fernand Braudel found this sense of the word in Italian as far back as 1211. St. Bernardino of Siena wrote in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century of “that prolific cause of wealth we commonly call capital.” But sums of money had not yet become perpetuating funds.

Other English words carried similar meanings. Cattle and chattel came into English between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, not as words for barnyard creatures but for property, goods, and even money itself. Horses, oxen, and bovines became cattle (around 1400) because they were significant property. The word did not refer to animals as animals in the fifteenth century and did not refer specifically to bovines until the sixteenth century. Stock, another word for accumulated value, stood for something that sprouted and spawned endlessly like a stem or tree trunk until about 1380 when it shows up as a word for domesticated animals. It did not describe a growing herd of livestock until the sixteenth century. But once it did, around that time, stock took a turn. It began to take on meanings similar to capital. It 1526 it referred to money that could be invested, and by 1714 the word was in common use as the subscribed capital of a merchant house.

Capital pulled away from these other words. By the time Smith published The Wealth of Nations political economists in Britain and France had already given capital the meaning it carries today. Smith used the term “capital stock,” suggesting money that reproduced a percentage of itself in a given time. According to Braudel a Russian consul made the essential distinction, reporting that France under Napoleon Bonaparte fought “with her capital,” while the countries that France invaded fought “with their income.” For centuries few institutional pathways existed for employing income in order to earn income. Capital appeared along with these pathways, as people needed a word to differentiate this new entity from merchant wealth and the dividends represented by lambs and calves.[ii]

Historians ask all sorts of questions about capital. One of them is who is inside and who outside its creation. If the owner of one of a sandwich shop on 9th Avenue in New York City reinvests some of her profit by buying bread and tomatoes or by making improvements to the kitchen does that make her a capitalist? What if she has a retirement account with a brokerage firm? Is she a capitalist for making a living in a society organized by capital? To think so blurs categories. It equates the owner of a bodega to the owners of Standard Oil. Firms that generate vast capital have certain characteristics. They tend to operate across national boundaries. They diversify their investments, so that they do not commit themselves to any one commodity. They have deep ties to governments and the global political economy that includes international banking. And they are always looking for new places to get hold of resources and hire labor. There are certainly small capitalist firms, and a business like Wal-Mart began as a country store in an Arkansas town. Capitalism comes from the larger social order, but it then seeks to dominate it. That does not describe the owner of the sandwich shop.

On second thought, maybe we are all capitalists in certain sense. Whether we generate capital or not, command it or not, manage it or not, capital has brought almost all of our occupations into existence. Occupations shape identities, situating people within institutions that lend internal coherence to the social system, regardless of its contradictions. And that social system is tightly bound up with the United States, so much so that many patriotic Americans make little or any distinction between the freedoms detailed in the Bill of Rights and “free enterprise,” even though entrepreneurship has existed for as long as people bought and sold things and even though capitalism in the eighteenth century is nothing like what it is today. “The worst error of all,” Braudel reminds us, “is to suppose that capitalism is simply an ‘economic system’, whereas in fact it lives off the social order, standing almost on a footing with the state, whether as adversary or accomplice.”

So complete has capital become throughout the social order that it appears to have emerged from the natural order, and the behavior it instills seems to many people to be an expression of universal human motives and aspirations. As three historians observe, “One of the distinguishing features of a free-enterprise economy is that its coercion is veiled … Far from being natural, the cues for market participation are given through complicated social codes. Indeed, the illusion that compliance in the dominant economic system is voluntary is itself an amazing cultural artifact.”[iii]  It might be true that the gentry did the same thing in 1650 that they did in 1250. They extracted value from people and environments. But they did it differently than anyone had before, through a discipline imposed by rents and wages, through social codes and cues that appeared to be independent of people. They aren’t. Perhaps the most radical idea we can have about capital, the single most subversive thing we can think about it, is that it begins as nothing more than a relationship between people. Like the meanings of words, relationships change.

[i] “I should say that this is the circuit of capital. It is not a formula for capitalism, which is an entire social system that is based on the recreation or reproduction of capital. Once people began to produce capital they became committed to it, created institutions to further it, connected their identities to it, or could no longer what life was like before it. Capital found its way into so many facets of life and became the basis of giant amalgams of people and production, not to mention nation-states, that any substantial change now seems like it would amount to the end of the world.” – Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 247.

[ii] Fernand Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, tr. Sian Reynolds (New York, 1982), 232-234; Oxford English Dictionary; Smith, Wealth of Nations, 353-355.

[iii] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York, 1994), 120-1.

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