American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900

Overview

In a grand-scale narrative history, the bestselling author of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize now captures the decades when capitalism was at its most unbridled and a few breathtakingly wealthy businessmen utterly transformed America from an agrarian economy to a world power.

The years between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century saw the wholesale transformation of America from a land of small farmers and small businessmen...
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Overview

In a grand-scale narrative history, the bestselling author of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize now captures the decades when capitalism was at its most unbridled and a few breathtakingly wealthy businessmen utterly transformed America from an agrarian economy to a world power.

The years between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century saw the wholesale transformation of America from a land of small farmers and small businessmen into an industrial giant. Driven by unfathomably wealthy and powerful businessmen like J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, armies of workers, both male and female, were harnessed to a new vision of massive industry. A society rooted in the soil became one based in cities, and legions of immigrants were drawn to American shores. What’s more, in accomplishing its revolution, capitalism threatened to eclipse American democracy. “What do I care about the law?” bellowed Cornelius Vanderbilt. “Hain’t I got the power?” He did, and with it he and the other capitalists reshaped every aspect of American life. In American Colossus, H.W. Brands portrays the emergence, in a remarkably short time, of a recognizably modern America.

The capitalist revolution left not a single area or aspect of American life untouched. It roared across the South, wrenching that region from its feudal past and integrating the southern economy into the national one. It burst over the West, dictating the destruction of Native American economies and peoples, driving the exploitation of natural resources, and making the frontier of settlement a business frontier as well. It crashed across the urban landscape of the East and North, turning cities into engines of wealth and poverty, opulence and squalor. It swamped the politics of an earlier era, capturing one major party and half of the other, inspiring the creation of a third party and determining the issues over which all three waged some of the bitterest battles in American history.

Brands’s spellbinding narrative beautifully depicts the oil gushers of western Pennsylvania, the rise, in Chicago, of the first skyscraper, the exploration of the Colorado River, the cattle drives of the West, and the early passionate sparks of union life. By 1900 the America he portrays is wealthier than ever, yet prosperity is precarious, inequality rampant, and democracy stretched thin. American Colossus is an unforgettable portrait of the years when the contest between capitalism and democracy was at its sharpest, and capitalism triumphed.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for American Colossus

"Mr. Brands, a terrific writer who commands his material, handles this sprawling, complicated story with authority and panache. A book that might have been a worthy but boring tome turns out to be as close as serious history gets to a page turner....American Colossus is a first-rate overview of one of the most important periods in American history, one without which the American Century could not have happened."
—John Steele Gordon, The New York Times

"A superb new history….This is a big, brash narrative running from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox to the trust busting of Theodore Roosevelt….I read swaths of this book twice, just to savor Brands’ storytelling and mastery of detail."
—James Pressley, Bloomberg News

"Mr. Brands paints a vivid portrait of both this understudied age and those industrialists still introduced by high school teachers as ‘robber barons’: Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan….As Mr. Brands relates the tycoons’ stories, he drops some anecdotes wonderfully relevant today."
The Wall Street Journal

"An excellent book….H. W. Brands is a smart, lively writer… [who] demonstrates, as the best historians do, that past is prologue."
Dallas Morning News

Praise for The Age of Gold
“A fine, robust telling of one of the greatest adventure stories in history.”
—David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of John Adams

“A barn burner . . . Masterfully sketched historical figures, subtly developed themes, and especially well-braided stories . . . Eureka!”
San Francisco Chronicle

Praise for Traitor to His Class
(Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

“This is a rare book indeed, shedding new light and brilliant insight upon an elusive subject we thought we knew well . . . Traitor to His Class will quickly emerge as the finest one-volume biography of FDR.”
—David Oshinsky, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History

“H. W. Brands has accomplished a remarkable feat in this terrific work…. He has brought to vivid life the central figures in his story . . . while at the same time providing a fresh understanding of the rich historical context for their thoughts and actions at every step along the way.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and author of Team of Rivals

“This may well be the best general biography of Franklin Roosevelt we will see for many years to come.”
Christian Science Monitor

Praise for The First American
(Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

“H. W. Brands has given us the authoritative Franklin biography for our time.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Founding Brothers

“A biography with a rich cast of secondary characters and a large and handsome stock of historical scenery…This is a Franklin to savor.”
Wall Street Journal

Praise for Lone Star Nation

“Sweeping and specific . . . [Brands] writes the story with clarity and vigor . . . .Clearly adds to our knowledge of an era when men rode to the sound of guns and honor was a comprehensible concept.”
Washington Post Book World

“Brands [is] on the path to becoming the preeminent popular historian of his generation.”
Chicago Tribune

Praise for Andrew Jackson
“A great story . . . Serves up everything you might expect in a ripping yarn: murderous duels, savage Indian raids, equally savage counterattacks.”
Washington Post Book World

“Old Hickory rides again in Brands’ elegantly written and carefully researched biography . . . A must-read!”
—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge, winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

Kirkus Reviews

A loosely themed survey of 35 years of American history.

Eminent historian Brands (History/Univ. of Texas;American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, 2010, etc.) elucidates the tension between the U.S. brand of democracy and itsversion of capitalism through anecdotes starring politicians, diplomats, judges, union leaders and corporate tycoons, with an emphasis on the tycoons. He singles out Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as deserving special attention because of their dominance over vital industries and their unprecedented personal wealth. The narrative is organized somewhat chronologically from the end of the Civil War to the early years of the 20th century, emphasizing corporate growth, geographical expansion, increasing urbanism, government intervention and various forms of inequality. Within each section, Brands does not always provide smooth transitions. For example, he jumps from the U.S. government's purchase of Alaska to the rise of Social Darwinism among American intellectuals without overtly signifying why one follows the other. Further, the author relies too heavily on previous histories and biographies, including some of his own. The recurring theme of the tension between capitalism and democracy is most stark in Brands' coverage of U.S. expansion beyond natural boundaries. For example, the capture of the Philippines by American troops could have set the stage for colonial endeavors on every continent. It did not, however, because colonialism nagged at the consciences of many Americans, who believed that democracy should be about a population's self-determination, not about imposing foreign domination on behalf of capitalists lining their bank accounts. After the capture of the Philippines, never again would the United States seek to own another nation.

An educational, briskly written pseudo-textbook aimed at readers outsideuniversity classrooms.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307737465
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/12/2010
  • Format: CD
  • Pages: 19
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

H. W. Brands is the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, and for Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His Web site is www.hwbrands.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: The Capitalist Revolution

John Pierpont Morgan enjoyed an excellent Civil War. He didn't fight, although he was prime military material, being in his midtwenties and blessed with solid health. Instead he hired a substitute in the manner of many rich, tepid Unionists. Morgan's father was a transatlantic banker with one foot in New York and the other in London; to train his son for the business he had sent him to school in Switzerland and college in Germany. The young man's aptitude for numbers prompted one of his professors at Gottingen to suggest a post on the mathematics faculty, but he replied that he heard the family business calling, and he returned to America to become a commodities trader. In an early transaction he bought a boatload of coffee without authorization; before his astonished superiors could fire him, he unloaded the cargo for a fat profit. They appreciated the income but distrusted the audacity and so declined to make him a partner, whereupon, in 1861, he planted his own flag on Wall Street.

His timing couldn't have been better, nor his scruples more suited to the opportunities the war afforded. Hearing of a man who had purchased five thousand old carbines from an armory in New York for $3.50 each, Morgan proceeded to finance a second purchaser, who paid $11.50 per gun, rifled the barrels to improve the weapons' range and accuracy, and sold them back to the government for $22.00 apiece. The government got something for the six-fold premium it paid to repurchase its guns, but not nearly as much as Morgan did.

Morgan speculated in all manner of commodities during the war. Though he didn't shun honest risk, neither did he unnecessarily court it. He cultivated confidential informants who could tell him, a critical moment before such news became common knowledge, of the latest developments on the battlefield. His rewards were remarkable, especially for one so young. The tax return he filed in the spring of Appomattox revealed an annual income of more than $50,000, at a time when an unskilled worker counted himself lucky to get $200.

Morgan wasn't alone in profiting from the nation's distress. Andrew Carnegie had clerked on the Pennsylvania Railroad during the decade before the war; by the time the war ended he was crowing, "I'm rich! I'm rich," from his speculations in railroads, iron, and oil. John D. Rockefeller focused on oil and did even better than Carnegie, creating the company that would show America and the world what an industrial monopoly looked like and how it behaved. Jay Cooke sold more than a billion dollars of bonds for the Union and took several hundred thousand in commission for himself. Cornelius Vanderbilt lengthened his lead as the richest man in America by diversifying from steamboats into railroads. Jay Gould learned the ways of Wall Street and the weaknesses of the federal government as he prepared for a breathtaking assault on the nation's gold supply. Daniel Drew, Gould's occasional partner, summarized the mood of the entrepreneurial classes: "Along with ordinary happenings, we fellows in Wall Street had the fortunes of war to speculate about, and that always makes great doings on a stock exchange. It's good fishing in troubled waters."

When Abraham Lincoln honored the heroes of Gettysburg after the battle that largely decided the war, he carried his listeners back to the dawn of American freedom, to the moment when Thomas Jefferson drafted and the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson's assertion that all men were created equal provided the basis for...

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Capitalist Revolution 3

Part 1 The Rise of the Moguls

Chapter 1 Speculation as Martial Art 15

Chapter 2 One Nation Under Rails 64

Chapter 3 The First Triumvirate 105

Chapter 4 Toil and Trouble 157

Part 2 Frontiers of Enterprise

Chapter 5 The Conquest of the South 203

Chapter 6 Lakota's Last Stand 252

Chapter 7 Profits on the Hoof 303

Chapter 8 To Make the Desert Bloom 343

Part 3 Gotham and Gomorrah

Chapter 9 The Teeming Shore 389

Chapter 10 Cities of the Plain 435

Chapter 11 Below the El 484

Part 4 The Finest Government Money Can Buy

Chapter 12 School for Scandal 517

Chapter 13 The Spirit of '76 554

Chapter 14 Lives of the Parties 583

Chapter 15 Capital Improvements 610

Part 5 The Decade of the Century

Chapter 16 Meet: Jim Crow 645

Chapter 17 Affairs of the Heartland 706

Chapter 18 The Wages of Capitalism 765

Chapter 19 Tariff Bill and Dollar Mark 804

Chapter 20 Imperial Dreams 834

Chapter 21 The Apotheosis of Pierpont Morgan 885

Epilogue :The Democratic Counterrevolution 908

Acknowledgments 935

Notes 937

Index 1003

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