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The Triumph of Capitalism


ISSUE:  Fall 2010

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865–1900, by H. W. Brands. Doubleday, $35

The cover of the book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism', which features photo of American capitalists Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, 
and Pierpont Morgan

Because we are still recovering from the most spectacular breakdown of corporate capitalism since the Great Depression, any study of that system’s rise to economic preeminence in America is inherently timely. What transformed our country from a land of yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans into the home of multinational corporations, capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of workers? Was the American system of free enterprise foreordained? If not, what alternatives once existed, and who championed them? Historians can follow many paths in search of answers to these questions. Alfred Chandler, in his classic business history The Visible Hand, focuses upon innovations in corporate structure and strategies. Sven Beckert, in The Monied Metropolis, and Thomas Kessner, in Capital City, reconstruct the bustling world of late-nineteenth-century New York, engine room of the capitalist transformation. Now H. W. Brands, a prolific chronicler of the American past, turns to the era of astonishing economic and social change these historians have examined. He brings to the task his gifts as a biographer (of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and as a popular historian (of the California Gold Rush and the Cold War). But while his briskly paced, accessible book features the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Pierpont Morgan, American Colossus is not a fine-grained history of the business revolution they wrought or its effects on American workers. It is instead a broad survey of the period that uses “the triumph of capitalism” as a loose interpretive framework.

Brands is a reliable, even-handed guide. He strings together scores of engaging set pieces that draw liberally from firsthand accounts of society’s upheavals. These include not only famous chroniclers like Henry Adams and Booker T. Washington, but also more obscure figures like Gertrude Thomas, a southerner whose family had to give up its slaves not long after General Sherman marched through Georgia, and Mary Antin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to Boston two decades later. Many of Brands’s tales, ranging from the expansion of the nation’s railroad network and the strikes of 1877 to the populist revolts of the 1890s and Morgan’s two “bailouts” of a faltering US financial system, stick close to his central focus: how in “accomplishing its revolution, capitalism threatened to eclipse American democracy.” (Politicians certainly helped, as demonstrated by portraits of President William McKinley, New York’s Boss Tweed, and numerous congressmen bribed by proponents of the Central Pacific railroad.) Other vignettes, while required of a textbook survey of the era, seem less fundamental here, especially a chapter on the legal battles of the Jim Crow South and lengthy descriptions of actual battles fought between Indian tribes and an ever-expanding white populace. But while some threads are only partly woven into his narrative, Brands has a gift for explanation, and he describes even tricky economic subjects like bimetallism and protectionist tariffs lucidly.

Students of this period of American history may be frustrated, for the book is neither a sharply defined reinterpretation nor a thorough synthesis of up-to-date scholarship. Such readers may profit more from Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation or Heather Cox Richardson’s West from Appomattox. But as an introduction to the giddy corporate expansion and alarming financial panics of the age, as well as the demographic shifts and social tumult that accompanied them, American Colossus succeeds with panache.

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