[1 December 2010]
The Union victory in the American Civil War rescued the nation from a division that would have imperiled its very existence. In the subsequent decades, however, another schism would emerge, a war that, while not fought by massive armies, would prove just as threatening to the integrity of the United States. This so-called Gilded Age was a time of great prosperity, but also one of great inequality, pitting America’s democratic ideals against its capitalist dreams and radically altering the character and self-image of the maturing country.
In American Colossus, author H.W. Brands is even-handed in his account of this fascinating and turbulent era, showing how the rise of capitalism paid great dividends for the United States, with improvements in the standard of living for ordinary Americans and profound advances in business and technology that would make the US an economic powerhouse. He doesn’t let the reader forget, however, that these successes were built upon the broken backs of exploited laborers and terrorized black sharecroppers, and on the corpses of Native Americans swept away by manifest destiny.
“Tension between capitalism and democracy,” writes Brands, “has characterized American life for two centuries, with one and then the other claiming temporary ascendance.” Though both ostensibly aim to encourage progress and expand freedom, the two creeds are not as complimentary as it may seem. Where democracy desires egalitarianism, capitalism requires inequality to fuel its economic engines. The Gilded Age saw the hoarding of extreme wealth by a small fraction of the populace, titans of industry who had no compunction about utilizing the power their success afforded them.
American Colossus charts a dramatic arc, following the “triumph of capitalism” in the Gilded Age from its auspicious beginnings to its ignominious end. It’s a largely descriptive book; Brands does not spend a lot of time analyzing the events he portrays, but provides a wide variety of first-hand perspectives, and enough context, that readers will be able to discern the thrust and intent of his narrative. It’s the tale of America’s first boom and bust, the inauguration of irrational exuberance and the archetype for the economic strife that challenges the US even today.
Brands’ stories demonstrate the powerfully transformative effect that men like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller had on the United States. Their capital laid the rail that knit the nation together after the Civil War, conjured cities like Chicago and Atlanta out of thin air, and tamed the wilds of the Great Plains and mountain west. The book is loaded with anecdotes and capsule biographies that help illuminate Gilded Age culture from all angles. The story is told from the top down and the bottom up; some of the most affecting chapters detail the journeys of immigrants from Europe and Asia who saw the opportunities available in the United States and desperately wished to be a part of the boom.
As capitalism grew intoxicated by its success, it sought to protect its interests and expand its markets by whatever means necessary. It drove the hunger for empire and sparked the Spanish-American War. It drove Native Americans to the brink of extinction so their land could be excavated and cultivated for profit. It chained freed blacks to the horror of Jim Crow and profited from their labor while they fell deeper and deeper into inescapable debt. It asserted itself violently against working families who sought better wages and conditions through unionization in the massacres at Homestead and Ludlow. The ambitious capitalist, seen as a force of good in the years following the war, became a disreputable figure. “I won’t call employers despots; I won’t call them tyrants,” said a steelworker in 1877, “but the term capitalists is sort of synonymous and will do as well.”
As the book draws to a close, the 20th century opens and Brands quickly shows how a succession of presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt, horrified by the excesses of late 19th century capitalism, worked to tip the scales back in democracy’s favor. They dismantled the trusts, increased regulations on business and finance, and sought to hit the breaks on the runaway train of unbridled capitalism before it hurtled off a cliff. It’s hard not to see the effects of this tug-of-war in the financial disasters of the 21st century and the resulting political debate. It’s still unclear whether the contemporary United States will seek to repair itself by once again embracing the power of democracy or plunge headlong into the ruthlessness of the free market. In such a climate, the story told in American Colossus becomes frightfully relevant.
American Colossus highlights the dangers of capitalism, but does not condemn it. Brands shows capitalism to be a valuable tool, but one that must be employed with extreme caution. It has the power to transform and enrich, but also to destroy and impoverish. It is a precision tool that should be wielded in a hand steadied by democracy.