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Brian Luskey

Director of Graduate Studies, Associate Professor

Teaching Fields

  • U.S. History, Revolution to Reconstruction
  • Cultural history
  • History of Capitalism

Degrees

  • Ph.D. Emory University, 2004
  • M.A. Emory University, 2000
  • A.B., Davidson College, 1997

Research Interests

Dr. Luskey studies the history of capitalism in the nineteenth-century United States and welcomes applications from graduate students interested in working in this field. His work focuses on Americans “in the middle,” a phrase meant to evoke both fluid notions of social position and identity as well as the emergence of a variety of brokers and middlemen who rose to prominence in the economy during this period. His subjects—clerks, employment agents called “intelligence office” keepers, soldiers, housewives, and slave traders among them—negotiated the commercializing and industrializing economy’s promise and peril, defined who they were through the process of market making and engagement, and sparked debates about the cultural meanings of their economic practices and about capitalist transformation as a whole.

His next book, tentatively entitled Shadows Present: A Tale of Slavery, Forgery, and the Early American Nation, examines the life and crimes of a swindler named Monroe Edwards. In the 1830s and 1840s, as Americans and Europeans simultaneously sought riches beyond their wildest dreams and coped with the devastating effects of financial panic, Edwards became a celebrated villain—one newspaperman called him a “magnificent rogue”—whom contemporaries used to make sense of capitalist transformation across the Atlantic World. A dashing rake who seduced women in venues associated with the burgeoning “sporting” culture on the frontier and in cities, Edwards also bought enslaved Africans in Cuba and transported them to Texas for sale. He forged correspondence, contracts, and bank checks in attempts to exploit a transnational economy and society based upon personal appearance, credit, and character. Edwards navigated the economic and ideological currents of the Atlantic slave trade with aplomb, interposing himself in diplomatic negotiations and calling into question republics’ and empires’ declarations of sovereignty. He defrauded slave-trading partners and northern and British abolitionists who realized too late that he was not to be trusted. His frauds inflamed sectional and trans-Atlantic tensions.

Finally arrested for his misdeeds, Edwards was tried and convicted with much fanfare in a New York City court and in the court of public opinion, in which numerous biographers attempted to profit from telling (and embellishing) his compelling life story. George Wilkes used Edwards’s career to legitimate the nation’s white supremacist manifest destiny in the West, while Herman Melville used him to tell a cautionary tale of the rapacious competitiveness and malfeasance at the heart of nineteenth-century capitalism. This book will build upon a burgeoning historiography on the nineteenth-century Atlantic World by exploring the ways far-flung credit connections linked illegal slave trading with the world’s most important banks, republics’ and empires’ claims to sovereignty remained uncertain in an age of financial panic, and forgeries were committed by politicians, diplomats, and confidence men alike as they sought to exchange their stories for power, capital, and celebrity.

Courses Offered

  • HIST 152: Survey of American History to 1865   
  • HIST 257: Antebellum America, 1783-1861
  • HIST 358/558: P.T. Barnum's New York City
  • HIST 453: Civil War and Reconstruction
  • HIST 454: Slavery and the Coming of the U. S. Civil War
  • HIST 484: Abraham Lincoln's America
  • HIST 757: Graduate Readings in U. S. History, 1776-1876
  • HIST 758: Graduate Research Seminar in U. S. History, 1776-1876 

Graduate Students

Ph.D. Students
  • Chad Holmes
  • Rachael Nicholas
  • Brandon Roos
  • Matthew Titolo 
  • Montana Williamson

Publications

Books
Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). https://uncpress.org/book/9781469654324/men-is-cheap/

Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America, co-edited with Wendy A. Woloson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15371.html

On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America, (New York University Press, 2010). https://nyupress.org/9780814753101/on-the-make/

Journal Articles, Book Chapters, and Essays

“Economic Value and Social Values in the Civil War,” in Cambridge History of the American Civil War, ed. Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Cambridge University Press, 2019) 3: 91-108.

“Muster: Inspecting Material Cultures of the Civil War,” Civil War History 63, no. 2 (June 2017): 102-110 (introduction co-authored and issue co-edited with Jason Phillips).

“Houses Divided: The Cultural Economy of Emancipation in the Civil War North,” Journal of the Early Republic 36 (Winter 2016): 637-657.

“Chasing Capital in Hard Times: Monroe Edwards, Slavery, and Sovereignty in the Panicked Atlantic,” Early American Studies 14 (Winter 2016): 82-113.

“Men Is Cheap,”  Disunion  (Blog of the New York Times), February 4, 2015.

“Special Marts: Intelligence Offices, Labor Commodification, and Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century America,”  Journal of the Civil War Era 3 (September 2013): 360-391.

“The Ambiguities of Class in Antebellum America,” in Sean P. Adams, ed.,  A Companion to the Era of Andrew Jackson (Blackwell Publishing, 2013): 194-212

“Dishonest Clerks and the Culture of Capitalism: What’s Old Is New Again,” Ask the Author Roundtable, Common-place  (July 2010).

“Jumping Counters in White Collars: Manliness, Respectability, and Work in the Antebellum City,” Journal of the Early Republic 26 (Summer 2006): 173-219.

“What Is My Prospects?: The Contours of Mercantile Apprenticeship, Ambition, and Advancement in the Early American Economy,”  Business History Review 78 (Winter 2004): 665-702. (Winner of the 2004 Newcomen-Harvard Special Award in Business History).

“Riot and Respectability: The Shifting Terrain of Class Language and Status in Baltimore during the Great Strike of 1877,”  American Nineteenth Century History 4 (Fall 2003): 61-96.