A handful of robber baron capitalists often dominate the story of Big Tobacco.
R.J. Reynolds, say. Or James B. Duke, president of the American Tobacco Company and benefactor of Duke University.
“These are the kind of very charismatic, entrepreneurial, cut-throat figures that people associate with the rise of the industry,” said Pat O’Connor, a doctoral student in history at the University of Montana.
“In doing that, they ignore this really important role the government has played in a consumer product that is the deadliest in the world.”
In his research, O’Connor puts Big Tobacco under a different lens in a project that’s part of a broader contemporary re-evaluation by historians of the American state and of capitalism. O’Connor received his master’s degree from UM and was awarded the 2014 to 2017 George and Jane Dennison Doctoral Fellowship.
Last week, with another year of writing and research ahead, the Ph.D. candidate said the conclusions and questions coming out of his work are partly products of a treasure trove of resources at UM, from expert faculty and library staff to valuable research tools.
At UM, funding for digital databases has been threatened, but O’Connor said digitized newspapers from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been key to his studies: “And we do have access to those things here, which is really great. But if we didn’t, we would not have a graduate program.”
In 2007, O’Connor earned an undergraduate degree in history magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth, and he worked as a middle school teacher before coming to Montana.
“My partner and I wanted to move out West, and graduate school was sort of one of our excuses for doing that,” O’Connor said.
He looked at a lot of programs, and he found associate professor Kye Volk in the Department of History at UM. In 2014, Volk published a book called “Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy,” and his expertise in the history of American democracy in the 19th century aligned with O’Connor’s interests.
But the student came to UM without a defined focus area, and he said Volk worked with him to help him refine his research question. The focus of his master’s project was public health policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he wrote in particular about anti-spitting laws in response to chewing tobacco.
“My (doctorate) project emerged out of questions that I was asking of the chewing tobacco story, right?” O’Connor said.
Where was it coming from? Who profited? And who profited from the switch to cigarettes?
Over the years, Big Tobacco targeted different consumers, but the growth of tobacco continued unabated, O’Connor said. Yet industry alone wasn’t responsible for the eventual tobacco health crisis, and in his dissertation, he aims to understand the roles other institutions played in order to better understand how parties share its responsibility.
Oftentimes, Americans exaggerate the distinctions between business and government, he said. But giants in food and energy and pharmaceuticals that shape people’s lives are in many ways extensions of the state, O’Connor said, and one of the exciting directions in the history field is a quest to more critically analyze the origins of those economic behemoths.
“They’re constructed by public policy. They’re totally dependent on public policy. And that’s not a mistake of those policies. That’s very much an intention,” O’Connor said.
Take McDonald’s, for instance. Every single one in the country is built on a state or federally constructed highway, he said, and every dish served is subsidized either directly by payments to American growers or indirectly through beneficial trade policies with farmers in, say, Brazil.
“In other words, McDonald’s is only possible because of extremely intensive federal policies that construct infrastructure, that support agriculture,” O’Connor said.
The finding requires a more careful consideration of the role government plays in people’s lives, he said, “to basically revise the entire story we’ve always been told.”
Volk, director of graduate studies in history, said O’Connor’s research reflects an “emerging scholarly synergy” in the department that has graduate students joining “a much broader renaissance” in the histories of the American state and American capitalism. He shared a piece he wrote about that trend for the department’s newsletter.
“When you consider the turbulent political and economic climate of the past decade, it’s no surprise that graduate students are framing research projects that interrogate the history of political and economic power,” Volk said in the piece.
Catalysts that sparked that new direction include the end of the Cold War, the war on terror, and the financial collapse, O’Connor said: “Those three things in particular have historians asking a lot of new questions about the state and about capitalism, questions that generations of scholars either didn’t ask or they asked in very narrow ways. And that’s the big direction in the field right now.”
His work is relevant for anyone who wants to understand the way powerful institutions work, anyone who wants to “open up the hood and take a look at how policy works,” and of course, anyone interested in the history of tobacco.
“There’s a lot of relevance for Montanans because the role of the state and the role of agribusiness in this state’s history is so significant, and my work definitely speaks to both of those things,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor has conducted research in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Massachusetts, and he said the work is possible with support from funders including the Dennison family; the H. Duane Hampton Fund; and the Associated Students of the University of Montana.
In an email, he credited a couple of Mansfield Library staff in particular with research support: “The two interlibrary loan techs who have been indispensable to my work (and that of every other historian on campus) are Pam Marek and Darrah Rogers.”