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The history of capitalism has emerged as one of the most exciting fields in American scholarship as of late; just ask the New York Times. There are summer camps that offer a “crash course” in the subject at Cornell University, a new book series at Columbia University Press, and centers for its study at universities from Harvard to the University of Georgia. Even Teen Vogue is getting into the field. But what is it? At its root level, economists might tell us, capitalism is a form of economic development that is based on private ownership of society’s productive assets, the prevalence of markets in allocating scarce resources, and the profit motive as the driving force behind action.
This definition looks straightforward, but as societies as diverse as Ancient Rome, Medieval Venice, the Dutch Republic of the 1600s, and Gilded Age America have all seen, putting these simple elements to work in a way that encourages growth across the population is a major challenge. To remove capitalism from its historical context is nearly impossible. How can we understand the Dutch “tulip mania” of the 17th century without knowing how that mercantile system accumulated trading wealth on an unprecedented scale? Or view the transition from whaling to petroleum extraction in the 19th century United States without understanding environmental impacts, the changing demographics of cities, and the technology of distilling and distributing kerosene? These brief examples are only a glimpse into what makes the history of capitalism such a rich field of inquiry—it is at once universal in its dynamics at the same time that it is intensely local in its application.
Here at the University of Florida, we’ve created the Inquire Capitalism program through the sponsorship of the Hyatt and Cici Brown Chair in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in order to provide resources for students, researchers, and the general public in order to promote scholarship in the field. You can access these various programs in the menus below. And whether you’re a frequent or a first-time visitor, feel free to drop us a line at: