Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power, 1607-2001by John Steele Gordon
Throughout time, from ancient Rome to modern Britain, the great empires built and maintained their domination through force of arms and political power. But not the United States. America has dominated the world in a new, peaceful, and pervasive way -- through the continued creation of staggering wealth. In this authoritative, engrossing history, John Steele Gordon… See more details below
Throughout time, from ancient Rome to modern Britain, the great empires built and maintained their domination through force of arms and political power. But not the United States. America has dominated the world in a new, peaceful, and pervasive way -- through the continued creation of staggering wealth. In this authoritative, engrossing history, John Steele Gordon captures as never before the true source of our nation's global influence: wealth and the capacity to create more of it.
This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
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Empire of WealthThe Epic History of American Economic Power
By John Gordon
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 John Gordon
All right reserved.
The Land, The People, and the Law
Abraham Lincoln thought that a nation -- however much the whole might exceed the sum of its parts -- consists of nothing more than its people, its land, and its laws.
For the nations of the Old World, the three parts are inextricably bound up together in the long individual histories of those nations. But the United States, like all nations founded by European settlers in the great expansion of Western culture that began in the late fifteenth century, has no ancient history. At the beginning of American history, there was only the land.
The land that would become the United States presented a world that was at once hauntingly familiar and quite unlike the one in which the first European explorers and settlers had grown up. Western Europe was a world of dense population, concentrated in cities, towns, and villages; intense cultivation of arable areas; limited wildlife; and limited and carefully husbanded forests.
America was located in the same temperate zone and featured often familiar trees, plants, and animals, along with some exotic new ones, such as raccoons, skunks, maize, and rattlesnakes. But beyond the rocky shore of what is now the state of Maine and the vast sandy beach that stretches nearly unbroken from New Hampshire to Mexico and far beyond, lay a wilderness, upon which the hand of its human inhabitants had lain very lightly indeed.
This wilderness was a forest larger than all of western Europe, broken only by the occasional beaver meadow, bog, swamp, rock outcropping, mountain bald, and the slash-and-burn fields of Indians. It stretched from the water's edge to well past the Mississippi. From there it extended fingerlike along river and creek bottoms into the great plains that covered the center of the continent.
This huge forest was, of course, not uniform. In the North, great stands of white pine -- the preferred wood for the spars and masts of sailing ships -- alternated with hardwood forests, where maples, sycamores, and ash predominated in the lowlands, oaks and hickories on the drier and higher slopes. Farther south were stretches of different species of pine along the Atlantic seaboard, and these reached inward to where they met hardwood forests at higher elevations.
The eastern shore of North America is a welcoming one. A broad coastal plain made for easy settlement. Peninsulas such as Cape Cod and Delmarva; islands such as Long Island; and the barrier beaches farther south provided shelter for the early sailing ships. A series of rivers -- the Merrimac, the Charles, the Thames, the Connecticut, the Housatonic, the Hudson, the Raritan, the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York, the James, the Peedee, the Ashley, the Cooper, the Savannah -- provided access to the deep interior for the small and relatively shallow-drafted vessels of the day. As early as 1609, Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the employ of the Dutch, sailed his full-rigged ship Half Moon 150 miles up the river later named for him, reaching as far as present-day Albany. An overland trip so far inland would have required a month or more. Hudson, although moving cautiously in unfamiliar and narrow waters, covered the distance in a week.
And because these rivers had been formed when the sea level was lower than it is today, the subsequent rise drowned the rivers' mouths and provided harbors that rank among the finest on the North Atlantic. Many of the country's first cities -- Boston, Newport, New London, New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston -- sprang up where these harbors are located.
The climate of North America that the first settlers encountered was, like the land, both familiar and exotic. It is temperate rather than arctic or tropical, and with abundant rain. But, being on the eastern edge of a great continent, the climate is continental in nature, whereas western Europe's is maritime, and greatly tempered by the warmth of the Gulf Stream. American winters are much colder than western Europe's while the summers are hotter. The high and low temperature records for London, located north of the fifty-first parallel of latitude, are 99 degrees and 2 degrees and only rarely approach either extreme. The records for New York, just north of the forty-first, are 106 degrees and 15 degrees, and the extremes are approached with disconcerting frequency. By European standards, New England winters and southern summers were long and brutal.
This vast area was not uninhabited. Dubbed "Indians" (les indiens in French, los indios in Spanish) through the ignorance of the first European explorers, who thought themselves on the fringes of Asia, the aboriginal inhabitants of North America lived throughout the continent. But by European standards, their population was very low relative to the size of the land. Exact figures are impossible to come by and even estimates vary widely, but the Indian population of eastern North America was probably somewhere between one and two million people at the time of Colombus. The number declined, sometimes rapidly, as increased European contact prior to settlement introduced diseases to which the Indians had no immunity.
And the Indians were anything but culturally homogeneous, even by diverse European standards. There were approximately 250 languages being spoken in North America at the beginning of the European exploration (and about 2,000 in the Western Hemisphere as a whole). Even within languages, the people of North America were divided into many small, often mutually hostile tribes. Low-level warfare was chronic among these groups.
Only the Indians of the Mississippi Valley, socially organized as chiefdoms, depended primarily on agriculture for sustenance. The Indians who lived on the eastern seaboard, mostly organized as tribes, were primarily hunter-gatherers. Less than 1 percent of the arable land of eastern North America was used for growing food crops. Using slash-and-burn methods, the Indians would grow corn, squash, and beans on a patch of land for a few years and then move to new fields as the fertility of the old ones declined.
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Meet the Author
John Steele Gordon is a columnist for American Heritage and the author of A Thread Across the Ocean, The Great Game, Hamilton's Blessing, and The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in North Salem, New York.
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