Follow the Money: Capital and Finance in American Life

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This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

The objective of this class is to bring clarity to the sometimes elusive nature of the financial system, and show its development in historical perspective. In doing so, it demonstrates that advent of an economy organized around capital was neither the inevitable product of market forces nor a preordained product of industrial development.

This approach demonstrates that the financial system is not a natural formation, but a contingent development that came into being under a specific historical set of cultural customs, social relationships, and institutional arrangements. Students will come away from this class able to recognize the dynamic interplay between government, political ideologies, businesses practices, and cultural productions that have placed finance at the center of the American economy.

How did the financial system become an integral part of American social and economic life? In 2008, the collapse of the subprime mortgage market caused an economic downturn that affected all Americans, no matter how far removed to the New York markets that traded risky securities. Phrases like "too big to fail" imply that the financial system is an unmitigated good, or at the very least, an essential part of economic life. Yet, arguments over the appropriate relationship between finance, society, and politics are hardly new. In this class, we will explore how the financial system grew to become an integral part of the American economy, and how diverse groups of people have responded to the increased reach of finance into American society from the Revolution to the present.

Finance has been a key component in American economic growth. New England investors financed the textile mills of the industrial revolution, while tangled webs of credit and debt channeled British money to the American South, where underwrote slave plantations and trade. Innovative banking practices and a vibrant stock market funneled capital into western railroads, mines, industries. The post-war period has seen a turn towards financialization, in which profit has increasingly come from financial instruments and services instead of the production of physical goods.

The abstruse character of financial instruments like stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, and insurance policies made Americans deeply uneasy about the power of a system they could barely understand, much less control. At the same time, Americans used an increasingly wide array of financial instruments to take on risk in the pursuit of profit and to mitigate the most perilous aspects of life in a market economy. In doing so, Americans have found themselves increasingly interconnected by networks of capital that cut across geographic, socioeconomic, and racial lines.

Through careful readings of a diverse set of primary sources - including congressional investigations, political treatises, newspapers, letters, and visual materials - we will investigate how the rich and poor, free and unfree, and men and women all lived with and worked to shape finance. We will also turn to secondary works of history, sociology, and economics in order to understand how finance is fundamentally shaped by, and not separate from, its material and ideological environment.

Students will gain specific content knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth-century markets and market culture, and the skills needed to prepare them for future coursework in history and the humanities. Additionally, students will gain a greater understanding of the practice of history that will prepare them for AP and college- level humanities classes. This class will teach students to approach primary historical sources by considering authorship, context, and politics of specific source documents. Finally, this class will prepare students to read academic writing found in college-level courses, such as journal articles and book sections, which require specific reading strategies.

Prerequisites: This course has no formal prerequisites but is intended for students interested in pursuing future studies in history, economics, and finance. Qualified students will have strong English reading and speaking skills, and a basic knowledge of American history.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEEC0937
  • Length: 1 week

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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