H.W. Brands on Capitalism’s Triumph in the U.S. 1860-1900

In American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, a grand-scale narrative history, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist H. W. Brands brilliantly portrays the emergence, in a remarkably short time, of a recognizably modern America. “American Colossus captures the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, when a few breathtakingly wealthy businessmen transformed the United States from an agrarian economy to a world power. From the first Pennsylvania oil gushers to the rise of Chicago skyscrapers, this spellbinding narrative shows how men like Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller ushered in a new era of unbridled capitalism. In the end America achieved unimaginable wealth, but not without cost to its traditional democratic values.” More.

In the above lecture, Brands first tells the story of Jay Gould, an American railroad magnate and financial speculator, who in the 1860s wanted to corner the market on gold and raise the price of it. He used personal connections with the sister of U.S. Grant to arrange a meeting with the president just months after he took office in 1869. Gould’s goal was to persuade Grant that higher prices for gold would be good for the American economy. Grant, naively, assented, or agreed not to do anything to keep the price of gold low. A bubble in the gold market ensued. The bubble burst on September 24, 1869, causing the first economic Black Friday, a panic in the securities market, and a collapse of the gold market. “At the root of the scandal were two well-known scoundrels, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk. The two financiers had worked together in 1868, when they used stock fraud and bribery to keep Cornelius Vanderbilt from taking control of the Erie Railroad, which they owned. Now, they tried their hands at cheating Wall Street investors,” the PBS American Experience explained. “Black Friday scarcely put a dent in Jay Gould’s financial career.”

In a visit to Lyndhurst, Gould’s estate in Tarrytown, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, I picked up a copy of a biography, Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons by By Edward J. Renehan Jr. Follow the link for reviews, video lectures by the author, or to download the first chapter for free. The author argues that Gould was not Wall Street’s greatest villain, but a creative genius.

 Brands lectures on “How the Rich Got Rich: The Gilded Age in America.” He focuses on three of the 19th century’s great capitalists: John D. Rockefeller, oil industry magnate; Andrew Carnegie, steel industry magnate; and J.P. Morgan, American financier.

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