Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

by John Steele Gordon


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060505127
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/25/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 101,738
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.11(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Empire of Wealth

The Epic History of American Economic Power
By John Gordon

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 John Gordon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060505125

Chapter One

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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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Pursuit of Happinessxiii
Part IA Vast and Roaring Wilderness
Chapter 1The Land, the People, and the Law3
Chapter 2In the Name of God and Profit21
Chapter 3The Atlantic Empire37
Part IIA Country that Could Make Itself as it Pleased
Transition: The American Revolution59
Chapter 4The Hamiltonian Creation68
Chapter 5A Terrible Synergy82
Chapter 6Labor Improbus Omnia Vincit98
Chapter 7The Jeffersonian Destruction113
Chapter 8New Jersey Must Be Free!132
Chapter 9Chaining the Lightning of Heaven153
Chapter 10Whales, Wood, Ice, and Gold167
Part IIIThe Emerging Colossus
Transition: The Civil War191
Chapter 11Capitalism Red in Tooth and Claw205
Chapter 12Doing Business with Glass Pockets223
Chapter 13Was There Ever Such a Business!240
Chapter 14A Cross of Gold264
Part IVThe American Century Begins
Transition: The First World War285
Chapter 15Getting Prices Down to the Buying Power295
Chapter 16Fear Itself317
Chapter 17Converting Retreat into Advance332
Part VA New Economic Revolution
Transition: The Second World War349
Chapter 18The Great Postwar Boom363
Chapter 19The Crisis of the New Deal Order382
Chapter 20A New Economy, a New World, a New War402

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An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
ALincolnNut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a reader, I sometimes wonder if a book seems immeasurably better or worse due to my expectations based solely on the author's name and the title. If so, my enthusiasm for An Empire of Wealth may be partially due to my initial opinion that it was a form of proverbial spinach, with necessary knowledge about an important, but boring, subject. Instead, I found a book that was hard to put down, a fun-filled romp through almost 400 years of economic developments that have unquestionably shaped American history.John Steele Gordon, author of several books, and frequent contributor to American Heritage magazine, breaks the epic history into five timeframes: pre-Revolutionary War, Revolutionary War to 1860, Civil War to 1914, World War I to 1938, and World War II to the present. The intriguing parallel of this division is that wartime offers the dramatic economic realignment from one period to the next. This is an often unintended consequence of war and often unexplored (except in the case of World War II as the bridge between the Great Depression and the post-war expansion).As befits someone who frequently contributes to a Forbes-owned publication, Gordon is clearly an economic conservative who believes that American economic history suggest a specific, limited role for government to play. This leads to repetitions about the dire consequences of tax increases that are unintentionally humorous, but also to a serious presentation of the historical roots of economic conservatism. A Keynesian would probably suggest a different overall narrative, particularly about optimal government involvement in the economy, but would agree with Gordon's choice of key turning points and with the signal importance of innovation in propelling the economy for the last 400 years.Among the pleasures of this book, aside from the wealth of stories from everything about steamboat regulatory development to the mechanics of computer technology, is that it clearly contextualizes important things that make news but are understood by few people. Among the recurring themes, the explanation of monetary policy, particularly about gold and silver standards, is clear and helpful, as is the gradual shaping of the stock market into the behemoth it became in the mid-20th century.Extremely well-written and informative, this is a valuable book for any American history buff. It is also useful to better understand economic reporting on the evening news and in the morning paper. Moreover, it is an absolute treat to read from cover to cover.
thejazzmonger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Powerful, informative, great learning aid. Yet a fairly easy and entertaining read. The book covers hundreds of years of economic, political and social history but stays lively and engaging through the use of personal stories.I learned much and the book changed some of my ideas about history and business.
neurodrew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up at the used book store. It is very readable, a bit boosterish about the US, but very interesting in its concentration on banking and financial history, and the growth of US financial and manufacturing power. I enjoyed the numerical explanations of the Erie canal, and of the achievements of the ¿robber barons¿ of the 19th century, less of an evil than always supposed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly entertaining and easy to read.
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