Thursday, January 6, 2011

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

From the Pritzker Military Library: From the beginning, the nation’s commander-in-chief and its capitalists have been uneasy partners in the American enterprise. But for a few decades, it was nothing short of love. Andrew Jackson earned popular acclaim and enraged business magnates by crushing the Bank of the United States and quashing federal spending on roads and canals. But H.W. Brands argues that the Civil War radically changed the relationship between government and business. When J.P. Morgan received a draft notice, he hired a substitute to serve in his place, and spent the war doing a swift trade in commodities like rifles; nearly all of the fortunes that dominated the next four decades, from Carnegie to Vanderbilt, would either begin or soar during the Civil War. In American Colossus, H.W. Brands chronicles an age when the railroads led the nation west and began the Indian Wars; meanwhile, even further west, capitalists would save the military the trouble of toppling the native government of an obscure set of islands called Hawaii. By the Spanish-American War in 1898, business and military interests were so inextricably entwined that ambassador and merchant alike could agree: it had, indeed, been a “splendid little war”.

From Publisher's Weekly: In this timely study, University of Texas historian H.W. Brands (Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) describes the rise of the great corporate capitalists after the Civil War. J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie constituted an trinity of power-obsessed individuals who instinctively understood that wealth was the ultimate political weapon. They defined the cold-blooded authority of big business. Fascinating detours away from the tale of corporate empires examine the Reconstruction process in the South, the Indian Wars of the West, the opening of the Great Plains, immigration in the East, and the rise of organized labor and the agrarian reformers. Effectively, excerpts from the first-person accounts of Booker T. Washington, Black Elk, Jacob Riis, and others convey the drama of the time. Perhaps the only significant omission in this fast-paced, engrossing narrative is a tendency to dwell on political doctrines that sought to repudiate or restrain capitalism while only briefly discussing the dogma of Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism, which favored the monopolists.

From Wikipedia: Henry William Brands is an American historian and author of 22 books, co-author of 2 and editor of 4, he is also a Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated from Stanford University in 1975 with a B.A. in history and from Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon. He resides in Austin, Texas. In June 2009 he and eleven other distinguished historians had dinner at the White House with President Barack Obama.

Financial Times - John Gapper - 17 Dec 2010: The life stories of the first JP Morgan, John D Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt have been written by authors such as Ron Chernow. But HW Brands weaves them into a broader account of the astonishing social changes that rippled through the nation in these decades – shaking up the lives of everyone from the southern slaves to Lower East Side immigrants. [...] Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas who has written Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, does not shy away from such suffering. He chronicles the tensions between capitalism and democracy created by extreme divergences of fortune and the lobbying power of big business – tensions that are no less strong today. [...] Yet Brands concludes that “the capitalist revolution was in many ways the best thing ever to befall the ordinary people of America”. The population grew from 40m in 1876 to 76m in 1900, one-third of the rise coming from immigration. Infant mortality fell by one-third and life expectancy grew by one-seventh. Output tripled and average per capita income doubled as the proportion of the workforce on farms halved.

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