American Colossus

Thestory of AmericanColossus spansthe years 1865 to 1900. This, H. W. Brands says, capturesthe rise of capitalism, the moment when money met power met politics. It was theera that, in some ways, most directly prefigured our own economy, kicking off arise in economic inequality that would end in the Great Depression and remainunmatched until, well, today.


But why? That’s thequestion that AmericanColossus does not effectivelyanswer. Brands, whose biographies of F.D.R. and BenjaminFranklin were both Pulitzer Prize finalists, offers many stories, vignettes,and portraits, but his book is unfortunately short on explanations. Still,there are hints here and there, breadcrumbs on the trail of history.


Technological changeslike the railroad and the telegraph made for a newly national economy.Individual businesses could suddenly serve—and profit from—moreof the country at once. Today, of course, it’s the Internetand telecommunications and global financial markets making for a moreglobalized economy, and so individuals can serve—and,again, profit from—more of the world atonce.


Thesudden ability to getmuch richer led to the sudden emergence of much richer men.This was, famously, the age of J. P. Morgan, of John D.Rockefeller, of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie. And as the politicalsystem had not prepared itself to resist their wealth, they applied theirwealth to the political system to help them amass ever more of it. So manyquestions in this book are settled by some well-timed bribes that you wonder ifany policy disputes were ever discussed on the merits.


Someone, of course, had to dothe work to make all these innovations a reality. German, Irish, and Chineseimmigrants—notto mention the freed slaves—were as exploited asthey were necessary. The Chinese, for instance, proved to be crucial members ofthe railroad crews, as they knew techniques for blasting through hills thatdomestic laborers had never seen before. This did not stop their owners fromtreating them like pack animals rather than people.


Thegeneral cruelty of capital gave rise to an occasionally militant labor movementfighting to protect itself. Over and again, Brands follows workers who linkarms—or,in some cases, take them up—against the tremendouspressure the economy puts on them. There are the Molly Maguires, a secretsociety of Irish workers who carry out a campaign of terror against management,and are finally brought down by the infamous Pinkerton National DetectiveAgency. There are the labor riots that rip across the country. There are thearmed standoffs between workers and the goons hired by their bosses. There’sviolence and bloodshed. The stakes are terribly high: withoutwork, you could starve. With work, the safety regulations were so lax that youcould be killed.


Butfor all the richness of the period, Brands’s approach is hampered bythe sheer number of stories he tells. Any given chapter could have had a book—ormany books—all to itself. Thebusiness titans, of course, and the technological advances. Our tour throughthe end of the slave trade—a particularlyinteresting chapter as the South suddenly has to develop a labor market basedupon wages—and the influx of Irish,German, and Chinese workers.The time we spend laying spikes with railroad workers before driving cattlewith herders. The presidential ambitions of William Tecumseh Sherman andTheodore Roosevelt. Sitting Bull’s rise, and the fall of TammanyHall. Say this for it: the book’sgot scope. And amidst this panorama are some truly stunning views. This is myfavorite of them:

Thehistoric dearth of labor was perhaps the central feature of the Americaneconomy in the seventeenthand eighteenth centuries. This explains much ofwhy Americans resorted to slavery (while Europe, for most domestic purposes,did not). It was also why labor was better rewarded in America (except forthose slaves) than in Europe, which in turn explained the attraction of Americato immigrants.

Coming, as it does, amidstmuch color and many stories, that clear shot of economic analysis tells youwhat a thousand anecdotescould not. Too often, Brands has the thousand anecdotes—butnot the analysis. His book is about what happened, rather than why it happened.It rarely pauses to explain whythe monopolies arose so rapidly, or why the political system wasn’tmore concerned by their power. And given the sheer number of narrative threads,that makes it hard to see how they’re all sewn together.


Tosome, that may in fact be a virtue. AmericanColossusnever bogs down in numbers, offering instead a fast-paced tour through afast-paced period in our history. To me, it was a problem: by the last stop, Ifelt I had marveled at much, but understood little.


Thecurrent scene, however, provides a useful counterpoint. Brands’s book is about thetriumph of capitalism. But like an invading army that wins a bloody war only todiscover it’s now responsible forcoordinating Thursday trash pick-up, American capitalism has been, if nottamed, then at least forced to take some responsibility for itself. That’sa story that takes place after Brands finishes, and one we often take forgranted. The rich have gotten richer again, but the cruelty of the earlier agehas not returned.