If the recent Omohundro Institute conference on the topic is any indication, the answer appears to be: it depends on whom you ask.
The unfailingly elegant and insightful J.H. Elliott offered a sweeping survey of the period in his opening keynote address, in which he explored the growing understanding of the economy’s centrality to politics (and thus the origins of the term “political economy”) from the sixteenth-century writings of Giovanni Botero through the Age of Revolution. However, the papers that followed did not always heed Elliott’s call to consider the precise historical meanings of our broadest and most commonly invoked analytic and conceptual vocabularies. (Nor did they echo his emphasis on the global orientation of early modern imperial thought: the conference remained decidedly Western European—and particularly Anglo—in focus.)
In fact, the diversity of approaches and interests presented at the conference served primarily to underscore the capaciousness of the term “political arithmetic” and to highlight its shifting and wide-ranging significance from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Rich papers from intellectual historians on the influence of Samuel Hartlib and William Petty, to social and cultural historians of Caribbean islands and the slave trade shed light on the multitude of people and places contributing to and transformed by the evolving “political arithmetic” of the era.
But what about the meaning embedded in the term “political arithmetic” itself? It was commentator Phil Withington who perhaps offered the clearest articulation of the questions at the heart of the conference: how do we parse the phrases “political arithmetic” and “political economy” into meaningful parts? To what extent was the political arithmetic of the era a product of the encounter between Renaissance and Reformation culture? What was the impact of political arithmetic not only on enslaved humans, but also on those responsible for rendering the trade profitable? Are there “national” traits of political arithmetic? What about the influence of non-national sites of counting, such as trading companies and laities? What role did early modern warfare and urban growth play in the rise of numeracy across Europe? Although a variety of distinct papers on topics ranging from biblical scholarship to accounting practices, and from art to the slave trade, considered the impact of increased numeracy in distinct arenas, the conference in large part approached the era’s political arithmetic with a close lens.
The need to bring this type of precision to the broad terms employed in discussions of the era was raised by a number of comments over the course of the conference. Marcy Norton urged us to consider the complex composition of imperial political economies, rather than to address each sphere separately. What role did the environment play in the rise of industries that would transform the Atlantic world? How did domestic improvement projects relate to overseas imperial goals? How can we talk meaningfully about the relationship between labor and state power over multiple centuries, when the state itself is constantly changing?
Peter Thompson gently critiqued the “rather free-floating definitions of subjecthood” in circulation at the conference, and he urged us to consider the complex relationship between individuals and the emerging state with his reminder that citizenship was more tightly regulated by state apparatus than subjecthood. Holly Brewer echoed this point when she brought up the relationship between religious affiliation and subjecthood, and the importance of considering peoples’ access to the channels of power that allowed them to participate in debates over their relationship to the state.
In his comments, Steven Pincus echoed the call for specificity in thinking about the nature and construction of power on micro and macro levels. Two of his clearest points were his injunction to consider the role played by institutions in the construction of state power and his reminder that increased numeracy lent itself to abstraction as well as precision. His own interest in exploring the surprising connections in the political economy of eighteenth-century England were evident in his key note address, which addressed the sudden decline in anti-slavery legislation between 1710-1730 and Jonathan Swift’s denunciation of “modern” colonies at the end of Gulliver’s Travels.
In general, I would say, this conference suffered somewhat from the blind-men-and-the-elephant syndrome: there was a great deal of insight into the political arithmetic of component parts of the early modern Atlantic World, but far less discussion of how these component parts fit together.
Molly Warsh is an NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, VA, and assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on the British and Spanish empires, trade, and the Atlantic world during the early modern period.