A Commercial Republic:
America's Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism

As recently as 2008, when Presidents Bush and Obama acted to bail out the nation's crashing banks and failing auto companies, the perennial objection erupted anew: government has no business in...business. To the contrary, Mike O'Connor argues in this book: Those who cite history to decry government economic intervention are invoking a tradition that simply does not exist. In a cogent and timely take on this ongoing and increasingly contentious debate, O'Connor uses deftly drawn historical analyses of major political and economic developments to puncture the abiding myth that business once operated apart from government. From its founding to the present day, our commercial republic has always mixed--and battled over the proper balance of--politics and economics.  

Contesting the claim that the modern-day libertarian conception of U.S. political economy represents the "natural" American economic philosophy, O'Connor demonstrates that this perspective has served historically as only one among many. Beginning with the early national debate over the economic plans proposed by Alexander Hamilton, continuing through the legal construction of the corporation in the Gilded Age and then the New Deal commitment to full employment, and concluding with contemporary concerns over lowering taxes, this book demonstrates how the debate over government intervention in the economy has illuminated the possibilities and limits of American democratic capitalism.


A Commercial Republic is a kind of extended essay engaging a problem in a series of thematic chapters that are both learned (for the specialist) and thoroughly accessible (for the general reader). This is a feat not often attempted by scholars, and it is one too often discouraged (if not discounted) by academic scorekeepers. In the present case, Mike O’Connor has succeeded on both fronts, producing a crisp, clear survey of a large and burdened subject that is a pleasure to read and surely as informative as anything like it in the neighborhood bookshop...This book does something our literature desperately needs: it offers up an invitation to explore what otherwise must seem a daunting and impenetrable shelf of specialized tomes. Kudos to the author for daring to do it.
— John Lauritz Larson, The Historian
Mike O’Connor’s study of America’s history of political argument over the government’s role in the economy is both welcome and well executed...Every chapter, and almost every page, is keenly interesting to the student of American politics...As O’Connor points out..both proponents and opponents of [government economic] intervention have a venerable American tradition to which they can appeal...It is therefore likely that the debate over government’s role in the economy will continue, and students of that debate would do well to read O’Connor’s A Commercial Republic.
— Carson Holloway, American Political Thought
An ambitious work of intellectual history...O’Connor does an excellent job of laying out the specific contexts for the various ideas he so carefully explores....His analysis stretches far and wide.
— Rosanne Currarino, American Historical Review
Mike O’Connor takes readers on a meticulously researched, elegantly written, and endlessly fascinating tour of America’s great economic brawls. Along the way he explodes one of the nation’s most stubborn myths. Forget the visions of a laissez-faire golden age. From the founding to the present day, the Americans have intertwined politics and economics—the United States has always been a commercial republic. This formidable book has much to teach scholars, citizens, and anyone who enjoys a well-told history.
— James Morone, author of The Devils We Know: Us and Them in America's Political Culture

From the Facebook feed of Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America (Chicago).

From the Facebook feed of Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America (Chicago).

With a thorough and learned examination of government policies and the American economy from Hamilton and Jefferson to the 1980s, O’Connor has written a major study for scholars, pundits and those interested in public affairs.
— Joyce Appleby, author of
The Relentless Revolution:
A History of Capitalism

O’Connor’s engaging survey of leading debates about political economy throughout American history helps to explain why many of us are oblivious to the role that the federal government necessarily plays in our market economy...[He] has succeeded admirably in showing how previous generations have engaged with the policy controversies that continue to define the character of political economy in America.
— Peter Onuf,
Journal of Interdisciplinary History