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Published by EH.NET (August 2002)

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Douglas Steeples, Advocate for American Enterprise: William Buck Dana and the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, 1865-1910. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. xxvii + 237 pp. $69.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-313-32102-7

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edwin J. Perkins, Department of History, University of Southern California.

Over their careers I am certain that hundreds, if not thousands of historians, have drawn on the incomparable data published in the Commercial and Financial Chronicle from the middle of the nineteenth century forward. This weekly newspaper is renowned as a reliable resource on foreign exchange rates, securities prices, interest rates, and a myriad of related information on the performance of the U.S. economy. I used a set of the publication’s annual statistical summaries when a graduate student at Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s.

Now, thanks to the diligent efforts of Douglas Steeples, Professor Emeritus of History at Mercer University in Georgia, we have a splendid biography of the long-term owner and editor, William Buck Dana (1829-1910). Dana wrote most of the editorials published in the weekly publication for nearly half a century, beginning in 1865. His voice was among the most prominent and influential in the business world. Most of the leading firms on Wall Street regularly purchased advertising space in the newspaper. The annual subscription price was $12 or about $220 in today’s prices. Because of his regular access to the minds of the nation’s business elite, most of whom were subscribers, what Dana thought about controversial issues and general economic trends mattered.

Steeples divides his book into two distinct sections. The first is a standard chronology of Dana’s life and times. The second half focuses on the attitudes revealed and the opinions forcefully expressed in Dana’s numerous editorials. These topical chapters are titled: The Natural Order of Things, Labor and Its Fruits, Property and Its Rights, and The Role of Government. This organizational structure has its advantages and drawbacks. The major advantage is that the author can concentrate narrowly on a specific topic in one long stream of thought; the disadvantage is that we are exposed to a fair amount of chronological overlapping and some redundancy as well. Nonetheless, on balance, the organization schema is more helpful than harmful.

Steeples is an accomplished biographer who offers a skillful mixture of detail and analysis. He weaves together the highlights of Dana’s personal life as well as his career moves in brilliant fashion. Given the primary interests of most of the eyeballs viewing this screen, I will skip over most of the narrative in the first section of the book – with two critical exceptions. First, Dana was a student at Yale University from 1847 to 1851, and there he came under the influence of Professor Francis Wayland, a staunch advocate of the economic principles espoused by Adam Smith. Second, Dana was a deeply religious man — a devout Presbyterian — who viewed business issues from both a practical and a moralistic standpoint. Indeed, he was convinced that morality and business practicality were rarely, if ever, incompatible. Like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who established huge charitable trusts during their lifetimes, Dana believed that persons with accumulated wealth had a responsibility to promote the “social good.”

In editorials addressing the relationship between business and labor, Dana preached constantly about the mutual interests of the two parties in promoting a thriving economy. In conformity with most of his peers in the business sector, he invariably argued that labor should accede to the wishes of owners to maintain harmony. He conceded that workers had the right to form unions, but he thought there was little justification for prolonged strikes. After the critical showdowns between labor and management at the Homestead steel mills and the Pullman sleeping car factories in the 1890s, his editorials became increasingly anti-labor. He supported the continuance of the open shop. He welcomed the use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against unions in the Danbury Hat case. On the other side of the coin, Dana differed with his conservative peers in advocating the use of arbitrators to settle persistent labor disputes. Perhaps, that one deviant attitude alone might be sufficient to edge him closer to the goals of the labor movement than we may otherwise suspect.

The editor was dead set against the enactment of protective tariffs. He reflected the Smithian view that free trade kept prices low and benefited consumers. Indeed that outlook might help explain in large part why Dana was a registered Democrat, not a Republican. Congressional debates about tariff levels were perennials in the nineteenth century. The editor was also fiercely anti-inflation. He wrote editorials railing against the Greenbackers and Silverites who wanted to expand the stock of money and thereby lighten the burden of debtors.

In Dana’s mind, private property was virtually sacred. He was particularly concerned about the threat of government to undermine the rights of private property. In true Jeffersonian fashion, the editor believed the power of government should be limited. He mistrusted most reform movements. Steeples explains: “In theory, he accepted the necessity of some form of regulation; however, it is difficult to find a regulation of which he actually approved.” Despite his persistent negativity, the author nonetheless depicts Dana as a moderate on this issue, and I believe justifiably so. The editor was not an uncompromising ideologue attempting to turn back the clock. Although he opposed just about every reform proposal, once a new law took effect, he was willing to accept the consequences and to shift his focus to the next legislative battle.

In the prolonged public debate over railroad regulation, Dana modified his views about the advisability of encouraging a system of unrestrained competition. Excessive competition had led to ruthless rate wars, bankruptcies, and corporate reorganizations. The best solution for the railroad “problem,” he concluded, was the federal legalization of cartel arrangements — or pools. Some railroad leaders had hoped the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 might allow pools, but the reverse was codified into law. Thereafter, the editor was an ardent opponent of granting to the ICC the power to set railroad freight rates.

Steeples goes somewhat overboard in his effort to picture Dana as a serious thinker who deserves high rank among the nation’s leading nineteenth-century intellectuals. Admittedly, the editorial staff at the Wall Street Journal today is bright and articulate, but I doubt if any of them merits inclusion in the nation’s intellectual elite. Dana was an important voice not so much because of what he wrote but because he had regular access to critical decision-makers. He was independent and generally non-partisan in his approach to the issues of the day, which was atypical of most newspaper editors in this era. Dana did not hobnob with politicians, financiers, or the captains of industry. Dana had biases, but his tone was not excessively polemical.

Both political and economic historians with an interest in public debates centered on business and financial issues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries should find this biography a valuable addition to their libraries.

Edwin J. Perkins is Professor of History at the University of Southern California. His most recent publication is Wall Street to Main Street: Charles Merrill and Middle Class Investors (Cambridge University Press, 1999).