Graduate Student Seminar Series: The Historical Origins of Federal Mining Policy and Why It Matters Today
Student presenter: Emma Teitelman, History
This talk will examine the emergence of a nationally integrated capitalist system in the United States after the Civil War. Emma looks specifically to the nation’s peripheries – the South and the Far West – to study how extractive production, such as lumbering and mining, helped the U.S. government establish political supremacy across the national territory, precluding alternative political formations from taking shape. She argues that in order to stabilize these politically turbulent regions, federal officials encouraged an emergent class of northeastern capitalists to invest in the peripheries’ raw materials. Through their investments, this increasingly coherent class transformed the economic geography of the United States, building infrastructures and employing recently dispossessed peoples as waged workers. The legacies of that late-nineteenth-century conjuncture endure not only in today’s regional and class disparities, but also in the very laws written to encourage development. To this day, for example, the General Mining Act of 1872 continues to govern hard-rock mining on federal lands, despite persistent reform efforts of environmentalists and fiscal conservatives alike. Contemporary politicians and lobbyists who defend the 1872 mining law present time-tested arguments – and false choices – about the working class’s dependence on the mining industry, and the industry’s dependence on outside capital. This research provides important historical context to explain why these advocates succeed in defending such an archaic and controversial policy, and shows how reformers have failed to address the deeper structural conditions that keep change at bay.