A Review on: "An Empire of Wealth"

by Mahshid Mayar - Date: 2007-01-07 - Word Count: 979 Share This!

Part III of the book "An Empire of Wealth", the emerging colossus, is being reviewed in this analysis. This part encompasses ideas on how the post-Civil War America, not only became a nation, but also emerged as a capitalist system of prosperity. Chapters eleven, through fourteen of the book are designed primarily to enumerate the factors and counter-factors which led to rises and falls of an economy of imperial nature.

The Civil War, although leading to bloodshed and enfeeblement of social structures, taught Americans, both in the industrial North and the agricultural South, how to raise revenues without a central banking system. During this period, everything (even income) was taxed, greenbacks were issued without any support, bonds were printed to make the people contribute directly to the government, and even the local banks stepped in by expansively lending money to the governments. Although incomparable, neither the North nor the South had any other way to survive the harsh war. This was also the time when a large number of people identified themselves as middle class. But it was only after the Civil War ended that the Americans conceived of America as a nation.

Since then, it is arguable, the American economy has been witness to many great changes; the federal laws on banking system, the emergence of greenbacks, a transition from agriculture to industry, the fluctuation gold-value, the dominance of steel, oil and railroad industries over the American booming economy, and finally the rise of corporations are characteristics which enabled the once importer America to become a major exporter, pioneering the Old World, and overshadowing the British Empire.

However, it cannot be denied that the original millionaire and billionaires of the post-Civil War era were all speculators, who lived on the reserves of gold they had in Wall Street. Although prosperous and highly revered, they were characterized, in the words of Gordon himself, by "ruthlessness, gross dishonesty, and self-aggrandizement". Hidden bribery and an ever-expanding corrupt capitalism dotted the post-War era. The grand-minded money-bags had made it possible for Americans to feel a sense of pride in their national industries; for example, according to Gordon, "Even at the time, the transcontinental railroad was perceived as one of the great epics of that age of engineering miracles in which they lived." He quotes the Western poet Joaquin Miller as saying that "there is more poetry in the rush of a single railroad across the continent than in all the gory story of the burning of Troy."

However, the main problem beyond bribery and fraud was that technology was out of control of the law. Moreover, powerful individuals like J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were of the idea that "government was part of the problem, not the solution." They believed that the America's future was in hands of self-made individuals like themselves. And this further aggravated the problem.

At the beginning of chapter twelve we read: "While the national economy was exploding in size in the post-Civil War era, monetary and banking regulation did not keep pace." Banks were small and weak, and the "gold standard" had notably imperiled the value of greenbacks.

Capital-intensive corporations did nothing to ameliorate the situation with a huge sum of money in their hands. Thus, strikes began to hit the American economic body. The charity works of the American titans of the Gilded Age (as Gordon calls them "public monuments") to the poor could not meet the needs of those living in the slums. And the increasingly urbanized America, especially in the Northeast, saw the gap between the interests of the skilled and unskilled workers widening. In between, the trade unions also were unable to improve the situation of the working class, and some of them even frightened the people. This was the situation till the end of the 19th century, but it took long after that for the American labor to be protected by the government.

But what did America produce and export to the Old World? Gordon enumerates many: petroleum, copper, locomotive, engines, rails, electrical machinery, wire, pipes, etc. It can be said that the key to its success was the ability to manufacture, and thus to avoid exporting raw material to the Old World.

The last feature of such economy is depression. Gordon makes it clear that the 1893 depression in America "brought unparalleled economic suffering to the American population." So many were unemployed, slums were enlarging, speculation got justification, and gold made its way through to the upper-class pockets. Government tried to make improvements and indeed was successful in some of its programs too; for example Sherman's Anti-trust Act, assumed as dead for long, came to be applied by Roosevelt against Morgan's corporation.

All in all, the first years of the 20th century witnessed economic boom, and social advancement. America had emerged as the world's greatest exporter of agricultural products, and the American "per capita income was far ahead of the next richest nation, Great Britain." The Panama Canal was built; the air was conquered by airplanes, and the land by automobiles. Gordon points to the fact that 90% of American population was literate and more than 2200 newspapers were printed all over the country. However, the W W I came and ended the 19th century optimism of Americans, and the 20th century really began.

However, the main result of the Civil War, i.e. abolition is never discussed in this book. No reference is made to the situation of the Blacks in the depression, during the Gilded Age, or at the beginning of the 20th century. The writer tends to focus exclusively on the way White Americans lived, prospered, and thought of such prosperity. Even, when discussing the situation of the slums, Gordon keeps silent; while the titans of the Gilded Age were 'self-made whites'; the slum-duelers of the whole era were 'white-made serfs' who had no right, never appeared in the history, and never were heard anywhere.

Related Tags: north vs. south, post-civil war america, federal economic laws, booming economy, corporate america


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