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American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 Paperback – October 4, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 66 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this timely study, University of Texas historian Brands (Traitor to His Class) describes the rise of the great corporate capitalists after the Civil War. J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie constituted an trinity of power-obsessed individuals who instinctively understood that wealth was the ultimate political weapon. They defined the cold-blooded authority of big business. Fascinating detours away from the tale of corporate empires examine the Reconstruction process in the South, the Indian Wars of the West, the opening of the Great Plains, immigration in the East, and the rise of organized labor and the agrarian reformers. Effectively, excerpts from the first-person accounts of Booker T. Washington, Black Elk, Jacob Riis, and others convey the drama of the time. Perhaps the only significant omission in this fast-paced, engrossing narrative is a tendency to dwell on political doctrines that sought to repudiate or restrain capitalism while only briefly discussing the dogma of Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism, which favored the monopolists.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“A superb new history. . . . A big, brash narrative.”
Bloomberg News

“A first-rate overview of one of the most important periods in American history. . . . Brands is a terrific writer who commands his material, handles this sprawling, complicated story with authority and panache.”
The New York Times

“Colorful. . . . Sweeping. . . . Brands masterfully chronicles this transformation. . . . His account serves admirably as a survey history of Gilded Age America.”
The Plain Dealer
“An excellent book. . . . Brands is a smart, lively writer. . . . He demonstrates, as the best historians do, that past is prologue.”
The Dallas Morning News


Product Details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (October 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307386775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307386779
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

H.W. Brands taught at Texas A&M University for sixteen years before joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History. His books include Traitor to His Class, Andrew Jackson, The Age of Gold, The First American, and TR. Traitor to His Class and The First American were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
If the term "economic history" makes your eyes glaze over as you think about a dry analysis of GDP projections and steel tonnage figures, fear not. There isn't a single mention of inflation or per capita income in here. Think more along the lines of "Ken Burns: The Gilded Age of Capitalism." Although the subject matter is susceptible to drowning in rivers of mind-numbing statistical data, the author takes a single-mindedly narrative approach to his material. Moreover, economics is not really the sole focus: Custer's last, disastrous campaign; Irish and Chinese immigration; and the rise of Jim Crow are also featured in the book. Usually, the focus is either a major figure of the period or a representative individual. Biographical sketches of J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie are a must, of course, but you also get to read about Little Big Horn from the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old Sioux and Booker T. Washington's rise from slavery to national prominence toward the end of the century.

The tone is neither elegiac nor revisionist. The author deals in a relatively straightforward manner with both the positive aspects of the booming American economy and the seamier sides, such as racial tensions, corruption and labor conflict.

A perusal of the books cited gave me the impression that "American Colossus" is not based on either the latest scholarship or any fresh archival work. For example, the narration of Jay Gould's attempt to corner the gold market is almost exclusively based on the printed proceedings of a congressional investigation. And for a more compelling treatment of John Wesley Harding, I recommend checking out Simon Schama's chapter "American Plenty" in his "
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Format: Hardcover
Many people who have thought about the United States have seen a tension between its commitments to democracy and capitalism. The former is based upon equality. Capitalism is based upon an ethic of freedom which allows individuals to go in their own directions which, in economic life, quickly can lead to inequality. In his new book, "American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865 -- 1900, H.W. Brands examines the uneasy and shifting relationship between democracy and capitalism during America's Gilded Age following the Civil War. Brands is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written prolifically and popularly about a wide range of subjects in American history from Andrew Jackson to both Theorore and Franklin Roosevelt.

The book is written in a popular, narrative style with little technical discussion or statistics. Yet the book is well-informed, thorough, and balanced. It gave me an overview and refresher on its era in a good broad-based account.

In some respects, the book works less well. With its accessibility, the book tends to be thin on economic issues. As a result, the discussions of the attempt of financiers to corner the gold market early in the Grant administration, the panics of 1873 and 1893, and the controversy over free silver both lack detail and are hard to follow in specifics. Although he mentions it at the beginning and end of the book, Brands is not as clear as he might be about the effect of the lack of central bank in the United States between Andrew Jackson's destruction of the Second Bank of the United States and Woodrow Wilson's creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. This lack was the source of much of the instability he describes.
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Format: Hardcover
Whatever your political slant may be it's hard not to see how this period of American history is immensely relevant to the present day. The present day US shares a lot in common with the US during the Gilded Age. Politics in both eras was/is dominated by populism. The strenuous influence of the rich was apparent in US politics to only a few liberals who were jumping up in down in anger that nobody could see what they could see, for better or for worse their prophecies went unheeded. Immigration was an issue that the electorate was deeply ambivalent about. W.H. Brands brings all of this together in a fascinating way.

At first I thought that Brands was a simple Marxist trying to defame Capitalism as much as he could. I personally think this would be a misreading of his attempt at the Gilded Age. Brands does an excellent job of weaving two different sets of voices throughout his book. He weaves the narratives and motives of great capitalists and politicians who dominated the American zeitgeist, ranging from JP Morgan to Boss Tweed to President Grant, to a young, raging Theodore Roosevelt. The second voice he brings to the table are voices of people none of us have ever heard of, the voices of the alien, the poor, the community organizer, and the social commentator (most often journalists). These people offer a great and lost insight into the dark underbelly of the American experiment, and the disenfranchising nature of Capitalism.

I am taking one star away from Brands, not because the scope of the book is too large; but, given the scope of the book, chopping up certain narratives and leaving them to be picked up later, for dramatic effect, was distracting, confusing, and often unhelpful. Other than that it is a great read.
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