Nation & World

Rothschild explores economics’ human side

6 min read

Forthcoming volume looks at ‘inner life of empires’

Blackmail and attempted murder are not typically studied as part of economic history. However, a credit crisis among 18th century French silk and brandy merchants led to just such dramatic incidents, the accounts of which piqued the interest of Emma Rothschild, a historian of economic life, empires, and Atlantic connections.

Rothschild, Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), has recently come to Cambridge, Mass., from Cambridge, England, where she has worked to facilitate interaction among historians, economists, and scholars from other disciplines, while maintaining rigorous historical methods within her own research.

Rothschild is the director of the newly formed Joint Center for History and Economics (JCHE). In Cambridge, England, she co-founded the Centre for History and Economics at King’s College in 1991, which encouraged conversation among scholars from varying disciplines at a time when the world was changing in profound ways. The JCHE will similarly encourage such scholarly inquiry at Harvard.

When she learned of the events surrounding a credit crisis among silk and brandy merchants that occurred in a small French town in 1769, Rothschild was intrigued. The merchants, when threatened with bankruptcy, struck back by accusing their lenders of usury. The incident had hitherto been studied as a footnote in the history of lending, but Rothschild was gripped by the story, which involved not only accounts of lending and interest, but also blackmail and attempted murder. It helped shift Rothschild’s area of interest within the study of the history of economic life.

“[This] was a story of people’s lives that could be described in other terms than, ‘Was the market rate of interest the same as the natural rate of interest?’ or ‘What were the consequences for the French economy?’ It had to do with their sentiments about the economy, and I thought that was very interesting,” says Rothschild. “Everyone has economic experiences, and the way that we think about them changes.”

While she is now living full time in Cambridge, Mass., Rothschild was already quite familiar with the area. She first came to Cambridge in 1967 to study economics with a strong interest in economic history, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Later, from 1978 to 1988, she taught at MIT. She has been a part-time visiting professor at Harvard since 2004.

Her marriage was also trans-Atlantic. She married Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, in 1991, and for a number of years the two commuted between the two Cambridges. The couple is now happy to be closer to Sen’s children, who live in the area.

Rothschild’s most recent book is “Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment” (Harvard University Press, 2001). In her forthcoming book, “The Inner Life of Empires,” she traces the history of an 18th century Scottish family of seven brothers and four sisters called the Johnstones. The book is an expansion of a series of lectures that she gave in Princeton in 2006, as Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

The Johnstone siblings were involved with the armed forces, politics, and the law, and they traveled widely — to Africa, North America, India, and the West Indies. Some were in the slave trade, to which others in the family were vehemently opposed. As they engaged in these activities, the family wrote letters, detailing their lives and their feelings about the changing world around them. They were also parties in a variety of legal disputes. Rothschild has been increasingly interested in the lives of the sisters, but as is often the case, information about women in the 18th century has been difficult to discover.

“By centering on a particular family, I am trying to question the distinctions between the economic side of their life, the political side, and the legal side, because for them, they didn’t divide up events, and say, ‘This is an economic problem, and this is a legal problem.’ It becomes easier to think oneself into a world where these distinctions weren’t as clear,” says Rothschild.

The letters explored the moral implications of some of the family’s actions at a time when Britain was becoming an empire. In their own words, the brothers and their friends also made comparisons to other imperial regimes, including the Roman, Dutch, Mogul, and Portuguese empires.

“The brothers and sisters wrote to each other over the course of half a century, and expressed deep differences of opinion. It intrigued me to think about how they observed the changes that were taking place in their worlds. The title refers as much to their interest in empires as my own,” says Rothschild.

Rothschild explains that the study of the history of economic life differs from the study of the history of economics. The former looks at the ways individuals have been affected by economic events, such as changes in property rights or debts and credit, while the latter concerns itself with the intellectual history of the discipline. Her own research has involved both areas.

The JCHE is one of the first centers of its kind to take on such topics across both scholarly boundaries and geographical divides. Both faculty and graduate students often travel back and forth between the two institutions, and graduate students have been involved with the JCHE on both sides of the ocean.

The centers have tackled many large-scale questions through a series of projects addressing economic and social security, environmental history, transnational exchanges of ideas, and the history of globalization. One such project, about which Rothschild is particularly excited, is “The Digitization of History,” which explores the role of new technology in increasing access to historical sources and archives, and changing the way that historians are accessing visual, printed, and manuscript sources.

Initiatives such as the Google books program have put a vast quantity of material online, she explains. The British National Archives have made available — and searchable — wills dating back to the 14th century, and shipping records of the port of Bordeaux, France, have been digitized and made available at no cost.

The JCHE project also explores the technical challenges involved with digital preservation, and the increasing divide between the access to digital materials for wealthy, English-speaking institutions and those of developing countries.

“This is changing the ways that we do history and think about doing history, in respects that we don’t understand yet,” Rothschild says. “It raises quite new questions, because one could find out details of lives of people in the past that couldn’t have been put together in the same way before.”