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Teaching Economics in American History (TEAH) 

Session Topics

Read a brief description of each of our TEAH session topics, covering selected episodes in American history based on excerpts from the award-winning text Economic Episodes in American History, now in its second edition. Seminars may include, but are not limited to, presentations on the following:

Economic Episodes in American History
  • How the Economic Way of Thinking Can Improve the Teaching of History.

A rich understanding of history requires careful integration of concepts and ideas from economics.

Puzzling behavior from history becomes clear when costs and choices are fully understood. A few key economic principles provide large gains in historical understanding.

  • Why Would Free People Sell Themselves into Bondage? 

John Harrower became an indentured servant to come to America. Like thousands of others, he gave up years of freedom and made large sacrifices. By the end of their indentures, these former servants were free people in a land of opportunity. 

  • Why Did the Colonists Succeed Economically without Finding Gold and Silver?  

In New World colonization, the British got a late start and found no gold or silver.  Yet Britain’s North American colonies succeeded in becoming the largest and most prosperous economy on the planet. Institutions help explain why.   

  • Why Did the Colonists Fight When They Were Safe, Prosperous and Free? 

In 1776 the colonies of British North America had a high standard of living.  Politically they were the freest people on the planet. Still, they found themselves drawn into war against one of the mightiest military powers of the time.

  • Economics of the Constitution

The founders of the newly independent United States had an opportunity that is rare in history: to “reset” their government. The U.S. Constitution, usually thought of as a political document, is inherently an economic document as well. It provided a framework for the world’s most prosperous economy.         

  • The Homestead Act of 1862: Was Free Land a good Deal?

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened 270 million acres of publicly owned western lands for settlement.  Eventually, 10 percent of U.S. land was given away under the Homestead Act.  Economic analysis reveals, however, that ‘free land’ came with its own costs.          

  • Hard Money or a Cross of Gold?  Problems Down on the Farm 

Having the right quantity of money in circulation is vital to an economy’s success.  In the late 1800s, some advocated big injections of money based on silver. The alternative was reliance on gold, considered so harsh that William Jennings Bryan called the policy a “cross of gold.”  What were the costs and benefits of remaining on the gold standard.  What factors eventually induced inflation?

  • Industrialization, Robber Barons and Monopolies

Leaders of industrialization such as Rockefeller and Vanderbilt are often portrayed as ruthless monopolists—robber barons, to use a familiar term.  Closely analyzed, the robber barons’ effects are a good deal more complex and surprisingly favorable to consumer interests. The late 19th century saw the development of large business consolidations in industries such as oil, whiskey, and steel.  Only one of these—Standard Oil— was broken up by antitrust actions. The fate of the others helps explain the dynamics of a competitive market economy.

  • Panics and the Beginning of the Fed 

To rich and poor alike, the financial panics of the 1800s were life-changing.  Even those with minimal ties to the financial system could be ruined. The Federal Reserve System was established in an effort to correct the problems responsible for these panics.

  • Why Did a Mild Recession in 1929 Become the Great Depression of the 1930s?

No recent downturn has been anything like the Great Depression in the degree of hardship it caused. It began as a mild recession in 1929. Economic analysis shows how circumstances and policy mistakes combined to make it the most severe economic downturn in our history.

  • Who Desegregated Major League Baseball? Jackie Robinson or Adam Smith?

For years, the owners of major league baseball clubs refused to hire African American players.   Things changed on April 15, 1947, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for Brooklyn. Economic analysis shows how new incentives promoted social change.

  • Is Free Trade Out of Date?

Since the end of World War II, the United States has championed increasing international trade. Critics are many, and they have become more vocal in recent years. Economic analysis of recent history illuminates the key tradeoffs.

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