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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

“American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900”, by H.W. Brands

624 pages, Doubleday, ISBN-13: 978-0385523332

Many people who have thought about the United States have seen a tension between its commitments to democracy and capitalism. The former is, they think, based upon equality; the latter is based upon an ethic of freedom which allows individuals to go in their own directions which, in economic life, quickly can lead to inequality. In his book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, H.W. Brands examines the uneasy and shifting relationship between democracy and capitalism during America’s Gilded Age that followed the Civil War. Brands is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and has written prolifically and popularly about a wide range of subjects in American history, from Andrew Jackson to both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. The book is written in a popular, narrative style with little technical discussion or statistics, yet is well-informed, thorough, and balanced. It gave me an overview and refresher on its era in a good broad-based account.

In some respects, the book works less well. With its accessibility it tends to be thin on economic issues; as a result, the discussions of the attempt of financiers to corner the gold market early in the Grant Administration, the panics of 1873 and 1893, and the controversy over free silver all lack detail and are rather hard to follow. Although he mentions it at the beginning and end of the book, Brands is not as clear as he might be about the effect of the lack of central bank in the United States between Andrew Jackson’s destruction of the Second Bank of the United States and Woodrow Wilson’s creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913; this lack was the source of much of the instability he describes. In addition, I thought Brands could have been more explicit about the philosophy of the role of government which dominated most of both major parties during the Gilded Age. During this time, most politicians did not think that the government had a role in social welfare; thus, Brands describes Grover Cleveland’s veto of a bill which would have made a small appropriation to Texas farmers to ease the pain of a crop failure: “Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people”, Cleveland said (pg. 433). This was the prevailing position, Republican and Democrat, during the Gilded Age. Brands might have made this clearer.

Brands tells the story of the United States during the last third of the 19th Century. The capitalist revolution accounts for a good part, but by no means for this entire story. Of the five large parts of his book, the first three treat of economic and social histories more than political history; thus, Brands describes the growth of speculations, combinations, cutthroat business, corruption, and rampant corporate expansion by discussion the activities and fortunes of J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, among others. He discusses the growth of cities, the building of the transcontinental railroad, Reconstruction and its failure, the development of the West and the attendant defeat of the Indians. Brands writing is at its best when he has a story to tell that gets him away from economics, as when he discusses the cowboys and the cattle runs following the Civil War or John Wesley Powell’s treacherous voyage of discovery on the Colorado River, or the Chicago fire of 1871.

The final two parts of the book get more involved with the politics of the day both with corrupt local governments, such as the Tweed Ring, and with the national government. By no later than the end of Grant’s presidency the two parties had moved close together on most economic issues. Questions about the tariff divided them, but most disputes were over questions of honesty, efficiency, and personality. Brands shows the rise of Unionism during this period, with a chilling portrayal of a labor standoff between Carnegie and his deputy, Henry Clay Frick and the Unionists at Carnegie’s plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Brands gives good accounts of the rise of American imperialism in the Spanish-American War and in the annexation of Hawaii. He emphasizes the economic panics which threatened the nation in 1873 and 1893. During the latter panic, President Grover Cleveland was forced to make an early “bailout” arrangement with J.P. Morgan (this would not be the last time that Morgan would assume such a role; he did so again in 1907). Brands offers an account of the triumph of segregation in the South, of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision which legitimized “separate but equal” and of the rise of Booker T. Washington as the spokesman for African Americans of his day.

Brands offers a fair summation of his era which concludes that capitalism was “in many ways the best thing ever to befall the ordinary people of America” (pg. 542), but at a frightening and ultimately too high social cost: “A screw had come loose and the wheels fallen out of balance”, as he quotes with approval an editor of a farm journal of the day (pg. 545). Brands suggests that beginning with the new 20th Century and the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the balance of American life began a much-needed shift from capitalism and freedom back towards the direction of democracy and equality. This is a good, basic book about the Gilded Age with will be valuable for readers interested in the American experience.

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