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Published by EH.Net and H-Business (June 2002)

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John Lauritz Larson, Bonds of Enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America’s Railway Age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001. xxiii + 257 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-87745-764-6.

Reviewed for H-BUSINESS and EH.NET by Albert J. Churella, Social and International Studies Program, Southern Polytechnic State University.

Perhaps no other economic change has so consumed Americans than the emergence of big business in the 19th century. As the invisible hand of the marketplace gave way to the visible hand of management, output rose, prices fell, and the United States became an economic powerhouse. This process also fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between business, businessmen, individual citizens, and their democratic system of governance. Big business concentrated wealth and power, and manipulated the streams of commerce in ways that seemed antithetical to the political rhetoric of Jacksonian Democracy. Technical discussions associated with the management of large, vertically integrated enterprises were thus matched with a passionate debate regarding the equitable relationship between capitalism and democracy. Railroads, the nation’s first big business, were at the center of these debates since they embodied massive concentrations of capital and constituted the lifeblood of many communities. While many scholars have studied parts of the railroad revolution, few have attempted to integrate all of the multifaceted effects of this process.

John Lauritz Larson, an associate professor of history at Purdue University, provides just such an integrated account in Bonds of Enterprise. Larson examines the career of John Murray Forbes (1813-1898), whose life spanned the very different worlds of personal, market capitalism and “visible-hand” big-business management. Like a spider at the center of a web (although Larson would probably eschew such a malevolent analogy) Forbes touched all of the varied aspects of the “railroad question.” As Larson points out, this book is not so much a biography as it is a selective depiction of Forbes’ role in developing the “bonds of enterprise” that linked both cities and competing interest groups to each other. Thomas McCraw used a similar approach in Prophets of Regulation, linking four notable individuals to the regulatory mechanisms that they hoped to create. While Bonds of Enterprise may not garner the same degree of notoriety, it is still a fascinating and important work. While still a young man, John Murray Forbes earned his fortune in the China trade. He relied heavily on the standard pillars of long-distance capitalism in the early 1800s; family connections and trust backed by an impeccable reputation. By the 1840s, Forbes settled into what he believed would be a respectable semi-retirement and he invested heavily in railroad securities.

Perhaps the pivotal moment in Forbes’ career occurred in 1846 when he acquired control of the moribund Michigan Central Railroad, a state-owned project that typified the internal improvement mania that had arisen before the Panic of 1837. Like most such rail and canal projects, the state initially envisioned the Michigan Central to be solely a trunk line designed to encourage general commercial development. Private entrepreneurs would then construct feeders to the mainline, allowing, in a very Jacksonian fashion, all of the common men equal access to the economic potential of the railway.

Forbes increasingly saw the economic function of the railroad in quite a different light. He realized that only a combined branch-and-trunkline railroad could earn a satisfactory profit, and he felt that railroad development should proceed gradually and sequentially, allowing each region of the frontier to develop before proceeding to the next. In the process, the railroad must inevitably change transportation patterns in the region that it served causing some regions-and some individuals-to prosper, and others to fail. Like many 19th century entrepreneurs, Forbes had only the haziest idea of the competitive forces that America’s first big business had unleashed. He was, however, deeply troubled by his role in this process. He had grown up in, and attained wealth by, a system of personal capitalism. He professed a life-long belief in the limitless potential of a virtuous citizen in a democratic society. Yet, like Henry Ford nearly a century later, he helped to bring about massive economic and social transformations that, within his lifetime, helped to shatter the moral principles that he held dear.

Forbes and his associates plunged into the “system-building” phase of railroading during the 1850s. No longer advocating a sequential approach to railroad expansion, Forbes increasingly saw railroads as essential to the economic development of the West. As he pieced together the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy system, Forbes preferred to maintain the fiction of local control as long as possible, relying heavily on home-grown investors and managers. While this method allowed local entrepreneurs to assume many of the risks and enabling the Boston capitalists to expropriate all of the rewards, Larson does not see this as a stain on Forbes’ exemplary business ethics. Nor does he blame Forbes for any of the relatively mild financial machinations associated with the Burlington; these he lays at the feet of James F. Joy and other unscrupulous financiers who abused Forbes’ trust.

As farm prices fell after the Civil War, farmers in Iowa protested rate differentials and other types of “unfair” competition. They believed that a lack of competition had caused these problems, while Forbes and other system-builders increasingly understood that overbuilding and excess competition were to blame. Forbes believed that he was advancing the cause of progress by opening up the West and by increasing the general welfare through his business enterprises. He seemed genuinely astonished that the seemingly ungrateful beneficiaries of his efforts depicted him as a profit-hungry robber baron. Perhaps because Forbes’ “style of business was paternalistic, and his patient efforts to develop the Iowa country had been met with hostility,” (p. 142) he responded with a stubbornness that seemed to veer between puzzlement and outrage. For example, the Burlington deliberately inflamed the passions of westerners by raising long-haul rates to conform to Iowa rate-equalization-legislation. Forbes thought that grandstanding populist politicians like Iowa governor William Larrabee were ignorant of the fundamentals of railroad economics; Larrabee was determined to fight “a war against the arrogance of ‘experts’ who scorned the authority of popular government.” (p. 187) Forbes believed that, in the end, only railroad officials could adequately understand the complexities of rate-making, and could thus capture, or at least reduce, the deleterious effects of state and federal regulation.

Ultimately, Larson’s biographical approach strikes very near his target, but it is not quite a bullseye. The reader is left with a thorough knowledge of Forbes’ career, of the railroads that Forbes controlled, and of the regulatory problems that affected those railroads. Clearly, Forbes brought together many of the disparate threads that connected all of the institutions and all of the historical actors associated with the transformative effects of railroads on American life. But there were also many currents that swirled and eddied far from the gaze of that Boston-based Midwestern railroader. There is no doubt that Forbes was a pioneer; whether or not he was typical is another matter.

Portions of Larson’s analysis seem rather quaint and outdated. Bonds of Enterprise originally appeared in 1984, and has now been reprinted with a short additional introduction and amended bibliography. Still, this book employs scholarship that is nearly two decades old. Scholars such as Gabriel Kolko figure prominently in the original bibliography, even though their findings have been superseded by more balanced research efforts. Larson seems needlessly stereotypical in his descriptions of “the squalid poverty of the Chinese” (p. 11) and “that exquisite pride of Oriental leisure.” (p. 17-18) Nor can we be positive that “Forbes seemed to thrive on tension.” (p. 23) And, it may be giving Forbes too much credit to suggest that, “He generated a model for developing the vast interior of the United States, and he adapted or invented many of those instruments of corporate enterprise with which industrialists and financiers revolutionized American life.” (p. 169)

Larson’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject does not detract from the value of this book, however. On the contrary, Bonds of Enterprise is a beautifully written and superbly organized account of a pivotal time, and a pivotal person, in the history of American business. Historians of the 19th-century railroad industry, of business-government relations, and of entrepreneurship will not discover any startling revelations here. Certainly the work of scholars such as Naomi Lamoreaux and Colleen Dunlavy has done more to advance our knowledge of these issues. What the reader will find is an excellent overview of these issues in a form that is readily accessible to people lacking expertise in these areas, as well as to students in graduate-level, or even advanced undergraduate classes. At a time when the history profession seems inevitably destined for fragmentation, compartmentalization, and the study of minutiae, Larson is to be commended for this synthetic work.

Albert J. Churella is an assistant professor in the Social and International Studies Program at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. He is the author of From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1998).