Jon Handel headshot

John Handel

Postdoctoral Fellow

I am a historian of Modern European economic history, where I primarily focus on the history of Britain and its empire and the history of financial capitalism during the nineteenth century. Most of my research (and teaching) starts by asking a deceptively simple question: how does this work? Rather than approaching financial history through the usual sets of abstractions, like analyzing global capital flows or changes in asset prices, my work is concerned with the men, women, and things who built, managed, and maintained the operational infrastructures of the financial system.  

These questions are central to both of my current research projects. My dissertation, The Infrastructures of Finance, examined the creation of the first formal network of financial markets during the nineteenth century by focusing on the infrastructures that enabled financial exchange to happen in the first place. Spanning the material infrastructures of telegraph wires and ticker tapes, the informational infrastructures of quantified price lists, and the human infrastructures of clerks, porters, and messenger boys, I argue that the act of exchange was always at the mercy of the infrastructures that underpinned it, and that these infrastructures are the locus of financial capitalism’s power over the world around it. My second project, The European Financialization of American Slavery, tracks how British financiers began investing in slave economies abroad as pressure mounted for Britain to abolish slavery within its empire.  I am currently preparing an article on how British financiers assessed the risks and rewards of investing in slavery during an age of abolition, and how they justified these investments to themselves, politicians, and investors elsewhere. As I develop this into a book project, I am examining a variety of different ways that the European financialization of American slavery transformed politics and economics in the mid-nineteenth century Atlantic world. 

I am incredibly excited to be teaching in the Engagements program at UVA. The core focus of my teaching is to empower students who might otherwise be uncomfortable or intimidated by studying the abstraction of modern economics to question, research, and understand finance on their own terms. My course “Financial Lives” encourages students to think about how finance is embedded within and constantly shapes our everyday lives in capacious and unexpected ways.