“An Odious Aristocracy:” Energy, Politics, and the Roots of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania
Painter, David S
This dissertation examines how the anthracite coal and petroleum industries in mid-nineteenth century Pennsylvania reshaped political, financial, social, and ecological relationships and established the norms and conditions of industrial capitalism. Fossil fuels from Pennsylvania, a global energy superpower in the nineteenth century, not only fueled the Industrial Revolution in the United States, they also inspired the construction of new systems of exploitation--of minerals, men, and markets--that would form the root system of industrial capitalism. This system emerged from the anthracite and petroleum booms and busts that occurred in Pennsylvania between 1825 and 1875. The mineral wealth within the Commonwealth generated grand visions of economic growth, statewide prosperity, and personal fortunes that transformed the ways in which private citizens, public officials, and industry insiders perceived one another, the state, corporations, and the environment. These fuels and the actions they inspired marked the transition from an organic to a mineral economy and raised new tensions between provincial economic, social, and political interests and national ones.This project also contends that the mid-nineteenth century appears different when energy is used as an analytical lens. Examined from an energy perspective, the American Civil War, for example, appears less of a harbinger of destructive twentieth century conflicts but more influential as a catalyst for modern financial regulation. This study makes the case that fossil fuels--as industries and ideas--have affected the shape and scope of democracy and capitalism for far longer than most scholars conclude. The dynamics of political, economic, and social power related to the control of energy resources and production that were established in mid-nineteenth century Pennsylvania have influenced the character and consequences of the Anthropocene age, the period of geologic time in which human beings have fundamentally changed Earth’s climate through the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. This study of an early energy transition—from the organic to the mineral—is in part an effort to inform our understanding of future ones.
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