With his woolly mutton chops and iron will, Cornelius Vanderbilt embodied the paradox of a mighty tycoon flourishing inside a forgiving democracy.
“What do I care about the law?” Vanderbilt is often quoted as roaring. “Hain’t I got the power?”
Though the Commodore never uttered those exact words, the misquotation reflects a genuine conflict, one that H.W. Brands explores with vigor in his superb new history, “American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900.”
This is a big, brash narrative running from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox to the trust busting of Theodore Roosevelt. It’s an adventure story that pits Gilded Age magnates against miners, steelworkers and railway men; explorers such as John Wesley Powell against the wilderness; and gold prospectors against Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader who crushed Custer at Little Bighorn yet whose own people were undone by commercial buffalo hunters armed with Sharps “Big Fifty” rifles.
“Once the hunters mastered their art, the killing proceeded with industrial efficiency,” Brands writes.
Americans have long been torn between democracy’s pledge of equality and capitalism’s promise of wealth. It’s a dichotomy stretching back to 1776, the year of what Brands calls two great manifestos -- Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.”
“Tension between capitalism and democracy has characterized American life for two centuries, with one and then the other claiming temporary ascendance,” he writes.
In the late 19th century, capitalists clearly had the upper hand, as the fattening fortunes of three men in particular show. This was the age of John Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and Brands describes their striving rises in banking, oil refining and steel.
Yet Brands also shows that their exploits, far from being isolated, were just extreme manifestations of a capitalist revolution that burst like a flood across the land after the Civil War ended in 1865. Capitalism dragged the South out of its feudal past, he writes. It shoved the frontier West and turned the cities of the East and North “into engines of wealth and poverty, opulence and squalor,” he writes.
Immense progress was made in those years, from the great cables of the Brooklyn Bridge spanning the East River to Chinamen blasting the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra Nevada. America’s population swelled to 76 million in 1900 from 40 million in 1870, with a third of the growth coming from immigration, Brands writes. Infant mortality fell; life expectancy rose; average per capita income almost doubled.
Yet anyone standing in the path of the steamroller was crushed, be they workers toiling at Carnegie’s Homestead steel plant or poor immigrants crowding into dank tenements.
The range of this book is astonishing. These were the years when wheat growers set up the “bonanza farms” along the Red River in North Dakota -- vast tracts of thousands of acres that became what Brands calls “outdoor factories, as mechanized in their own way as the refineries of John Rockefeller and the steelworks of Andrew Carnegie.”
Cattle became a big business in these years, too. Texans returning from the war realized that the longhorns roaming the range were “almost free for the taking” at a time when beef prices were soaring in the East.
The South also was swept along by the capitalist upheaval, as the emancipation of four million slaves forced planters to find new ways to mobilize labor, Brands writes. Wage labor wasn’t up to the task of rebuilding the plantation economy, partly because the former masters lacked cash. A more durable solution emerged in sharecropping, an unequal partnership between landowners and laborers that turned many former slaves into “virtual serfs,” Brands writes.
‘Hurricane of Smoke’
I read swaths of this book twice, just to savor Brands’s storytelling and mastery of detail. The narrative flows like a mighty river, buoying the reader over the twists and cataracts of those tumultuous decades with anecdotes and biographical sketches. The writing is simple and vivid throughout, as when Brands describes the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 -- “a hurricane of smoke, sparks and cinders,” as one survivor said.
The same capitalism that built Chicago rebuilt it. One real-estate agent, W.D. Kerfoot, rushed to put up a shack in the street alongside the hot remains of his former office and hung out a sign: “Everything gone but wife, children and energy.”
Eventually, of course, a democratic counterrevolution restored the balance in America, first in the form of Theodore Roosevelt and then under Woodrow Wilson. Both presidents would reassert democratic oversight over corporate capitalism. It’s a lesson worth remembering as U.S. elections approach in our own troubled times.
(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at firstname.lastname@example.org.