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

The Triumph of Capitalism actually wasn’t on my reading list. As I had just put a down payment on a house and feeling really strapped on cash, I realized my reading habits had become unsustainable. I had become used to the convenience of buying the eBook whenever I wanted to read a book, and that can become quite hefty after a sustained amount of time. So I downloaded Libby and scrolled through the history section of my local library to see what kinds of books were available. I’m sure there are some books available on my reading list, but there is also something fun in reading a book you hadn’t anticipated.

And American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865 – 1900 didn’t disappoint! It covers American history between 1870 and 1900 from an economic perspective. I feel that this era of history goes unappreciated– although many of the events and themes brought back a lot of memories from my high school history class. The names of the presidents are ones that aren’t particularly memorable (does anyone remember Rutherford B. Hayes? You may remember Garfield and McKinley because they were both assassinated. Oh, and Cleveland is the only president to have a non-consecutive term in office. Other than that, what do you remember?) Just to name a few of the events covered that may ring a bell:

  • Battle of the Little Bighorn aka Custer’s Last Stand (1876) among other conflicts with Native Americans in which the federal government liquidated their sovereignty
  • The Pullman Strike (1894) in which federal troops were dispatched against railroad workers
  • The meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah (1869).
  • The annexation of Hawaii (1898) after American sugar companies stages a coup and ousted Queen Lili’uokalani
  • The Spanish American war (1989) in which America pictured themselves as aiding the little guy against imperialist oppressors and ironcically became an empire itself
  • The incorporation of standard oil (1870) and its subsequent breakup by the Supreme Court (1911)
  • The election of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877) being decided by a congressional committee after the Electoral College count was too close to call, resulting in the rollback of reconstruction and the Republican party slowly giving up on the rights of African Americans.

There was A LOT going on, and, like history always is, it is messy. The author, H. W. Brands frames American history as a push and pull between democracy and capitalism:

Democracy depends on equality, capitalism on inequality. Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards…

Tension between capitalism and democracy has characterized American life for two centuries, with one and then the other claiming temporary ascendance.

What is the verdict for the 1870s? Brand’s conclusion is the capitalism was the clear winner:

The capitalists controlled the government: the legislative branch, which protected their profits with tariffs and their assets with a gold standard; the executive branch, which dispatched troops to crush capitalists’ working-class opponents; and the judicial branch, which defined dissent as conspiracy and monopoly as accepted practice.

I find myself largely agreeing with this author’s interpretation of history. And I would say my interpretation has changed, even before reading this book. I remember in 10th grade reading about labor unions, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the campaign of the socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs. Even if the textbook didn’t say so, I knew that socialism == bad. Now I don’t have much sympathy with capitalists and billionaires (see Bezos launching himself into space). While Brands tries to remain objective, his inclusion and placement of facts seems to indicate he doesn’t either. Spoiler: the last line of the book is a conversation with John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil and Henry Ford:

As the automaker left an interview with the oil man, Rockefeller said “Goodbye, I’ll see you in heaven.” “You will if you get in,” Ford muttered.

I found myself saddened through this chapter in history, particularly when the aspect of race came up. We look back to the Civil War as a moment of America living up to its ideals of a government by the people, for the people, and of the people. But we tend to not remember how very quickly we gave up on those ideals. What happened to the party of Lincoln that freed the slaves? Brand traces it to the death of the Lodge Bill, which would have put elections under the direct supervision of the federal government– in response to the South starting to eat away at the rights of African Americans, including voting rights. Brands summarizes:

Senate Democrats took heart and filibustered the bill for thirty-three days during the lame-duck session, till the Republicans conceded defeat and the measure died. Meaningful federal interest in civil rights died with it, not to be resurrected till the second half of the twentieth century. The capitalist wing of the Republicans solidified its grip on the party of Lincoln; the democratic wing declined still further. Race as an issue all but disappeared from national politics.

1870-1900 is an interesting time period to review given the current state of American affairs. We similarly have capitalist giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google that have enormous influence. The nineteenth century closed with a decided turn toward democracy, as Brand tells it, with the progressive Theodore Roosevelt in office. Will we have a similar turn?

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