My review of American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism by H.W. Brands ran today at PopMatters.
I’ve been going hard at American history in the past few months, having read What Hath God Wrought which covers the era between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, which covers the Civil War era, and now American Colossus which picks up at the end of the Civil War and closes at the dawn of the 20th century. Throw in The Warmth of Other Suns, which focused on the African-American migrations of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and Eden on the Charles, which was about the advent of urbanization, too.
What I’ve learned is that American history is full of ugliness, and that victories for progressive or liberal ideals are few and far between, only achieved after decades of hard-fought battles against the forces of ignorance and avarice. Though it may sound bleak, the lesson I’ve derived from these books is that these victories are inevitable. All the resistance put up against abolition, women’s suffrage, labor laws, and civil rights, ugly as it was, had no effect. Time moved forward and so did the American people. It’s a shame that millions were forced to suffer because a powerful few clung to doomed policies and beliefs. Progressive ideals won the day and were transformed from controversial to conventional almost immediately, becoming the new status quo. The fighting is worth it, and that the fighting must continue even when victory is achieved.
American Colossus depicts this struggle as a tug-of-war between capitalism and democracy. Brands is not heavy-handed about this, but instead allows his thesis to emerge through the course of the book. He shows the advantages of Gilded Age capitalism, how it raised the general standard of living in the United States, but also shows how it did so at the expense of fairness, egalitarianism, and personal liberty. For Brands, capitalism is a powerful engine for driving economies and enriching societies, one that must be monitored and regulated lest it get out of control. The free market can only take a society so far. On its own, it can make a country worth doing business in, but only when tempered by democratic ideals can it make a country worth living in.