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Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age

Author(s):Maggor, Noam
Reviewer(s):Whitten, David O.

Published by EH.Net (April 2017)

Noam Maggor, Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. xii + 284 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-97146-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David O. Whitten, Professor of Economics, Auburn University.

Noam Maggor, Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of History at Cornell University and formerly a Fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, opens Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age with the pre-Civil War history of Boston wealth and its employment in the construction and expansion of the cotton textile industry in the Boston area.  The return on investments in mills and machine shops attracted capital to the point of over-development that left investors with declining stock values and reduced returns that might well have spelled the end of Boston as a capital-rich city.  What Boston financiers did to reinvent themselves has a commanding role in Maggor’s study.

The first thrust into investments outside of Boston’s textile industry was a failure.  Bostonians — with more ambition than understanding of human behavior and Mother Nature — undertook to prove to the investment world that cotton culture could be as remunerative under free labor conditions as it was under slavery.  Cultivating cotton on a sea island off the coast of South Carolina proved more challenging than the young Bostonians anticipated.  The heat, high humidity, lack of infrastructure, and hurricanes combined with a recalcitrant newly-freed labor force to overwhelm the young men from the North who returned to Boston in defeat.  They might have benefited from knowledge of the experience of ship builders in the early National period who struggled to harvest live-oak trees for construction of the nation’s renowned frigates.  The live oaks thrive in the swampy Atlantic coastal regions of the Southern states.  The parts essential for the best ship construction were acquired but only at heavy expense of human effort and treasure.

The spectacular growth of the American heartland in the post-Civil War era is well documented.  What Maggor adds to that body of literature is a microscopic analysis of the role of Boston investors in that explosive expansion.  Railroad construction required financing as did exploitation of the mines and forests of the United States.  Maggor documents the Boston investors’ contribution to that underwriting.  The Mexican Central Railway, a 1,225 mile road that ran from El Paso to Mexico City, for example, was incorporated under Massachusetts law and controlled by the Boston investment group that owned the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and was directed from Boston where nine of its thirteen directors resided.  The Mexican Central connected with the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe and feeder lines constructed to regions where remunerative freight could be found.

The moneyed interests in Boston did not invest in a pig-in-a-poke but relied on their men-on-the-ground to advise them on the potential of attractive enterprises — men who devoted themselves to careful study and analysis of the projects they reviewed for their employers in Boston.  Those employers were family and friends of the advance-agents, who saw themselves as missionaries to the great unwashed of the American heartland and who were often surprised at the intellect, cunning and energy of the lower class men they studied.  It was not unusual for the surveyors to assume responsibility for the undertakings they recommended for investment.

Maggor juxtaposes his exposition of the flow of Boston capital into the heartland with discussions of changes in Boston itself.  At the same time that Boston financiers were gaining national influence with their monetary assets they were losing control of their city.  In the heyday of cotton manufacturing and the import/export trade, the city of Boston belonged to the elite.  The controlling offices were held by those with money and ownership of the factories.  With the decline of cotton manufacturing and import/export, Boston became home to small manufacturing and commercial firms whose owners and employees made up in numbers (read votes) for what they lacked in wealth.  Moreover, the lower and middle classes expanded their political power by expanding the city itself, incorporating what had been outlying towns into the city proper over the protests of the moneyed class that considered itself to be the soul of Boston, the people who mattered.  As the nineteenth century advanced, Boston’s elite were increasingly isolated in pockets they were able to defend against the urban juggernaut.  Beacon Hill and later Back Bay became enclaves of the rich and powerful — powerful nationally but increasingly impotent locally.

Maggor showcases the hometown conflict facing the moneyed interests of Boston with a chapter dedicated to the fierce battle over use of the Common.  Using direct quotations from the debaters, Maggor paints a vivid portrait of the positions taken by the combatants or in the case of the moneyed class, their paid spokespersons.  These positions reflected the philosophies of the two sides and their opposing views of their city and their place in it. The rhetorical storm grew out of a request of mechanics in Boston for use of a small part of the Common for an exposition featuring the mechanical advancements of which they were proud.  Similar expositions were common in the decades after the successful Crystal Palace Exposition in London in 1851.  The Common was a barrier between Back Bay, home to a large portion of the moneyed class who saw any intrusion into the sanctuary they portrayed as an urban retreat for the lower classes, as a threat to their privacy and security.

Following the battle for the Common, Maggor investigates the conflict between East Coast investors and the constitutional conventions at work in the states being carved out of the western territories.  Boston investors, like the others in the East, were concerned that state constitutions might infringe on their freedom to harvest the resources of the territories and to regulate the railroads owned by Eastern moneyed interests.  Delegates to the conventions were not of the elite of society but residents of the new states who had vested interests in the operation of their government.  These delegates sought protection from the rich men back east who sought to take off the resources of the state at minimum or no cost and to run rampant over organized labor and any resistance to railroad rate setting.  Representatives of the East Coast moneyed interests played hard ball with the constitutional conventions threatening the loss of investment funds essential to the development of the state.  Neither side won complete victories but the moneyed interests probably gained the most from the negotiations.

Meanwhile, back in Boston the elites built political coalitions that propelled them back into control of their city government.  Once back in power the elected elites strove to undo what the populist administrations had constructed and reduce the support of lower classes that came at the expense of those better off.  The conflict between those dependent upon a strong and well financed city government and those who wanted to reduce that government parallels the national political conflict of the second decade of the twenty-first century.  As Maggor assures us, the development of the United States as an industrial power and leader of the world did not come about smoothly but in fits and starts with uneven results.  Brahmin Capitalism is a guide to the background of that development as it progressed in Boston, a premier leader in investment at home and beyond.

Maggor’s work lacks a bibliography but extensive citations largely make up for that failure.  The writing is like silk, so smooth that it often moves the reader along at such a pace that the underlying meaning of the narrative is missed and demands a second and even third reading.  This is not an easy book to digest.  It demands concentration but makes the effort worthwhile.  Students of business history will benefit from a reading of this work.

David O. Whitten (Professor of Economics, emeritus, Auburn University) is author (with Bess E. Whitten), of Birth of Big Business in the United States: Giant Commercial, Extractive, and Industrial Enterprise, 1860–1914 (Praeger, 2006) and (with Douglas Steeples) Democracy in Desperation:  The Depression of 1893 (Greenwood Press, 1998) and editor of Business Library Review, International (aka Wall Street Review of Books founded by Robert Sobel) from 1976 to 2002.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century