The epicenter of the American economy since the Civil War and the birthplace of modern capitalism, New York City played a significant role in transforming "a small nation of scattered farms into the world's leading economic power," writes Thomas Kessner. Focusing on the four decades between 1860 and 1900, Kessner engagingly illustrates how Gotham City, in addition to funding the Union victory and financing the railroads heading west, also became the nation's busiest port and the center of banking, information, and manufacturing by attracting the most driven, energetic, competitive, and innovative people in the world. Woven into his narrative are detailed portraits of legendary individuals such as John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbuilt, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan, all of whom defined the Gilded Age and ushered in the American century. Possessing the right stuff at precisely the right moment in history, these men took full advantage of the permissive, even chaotic, business climate of New York to create colossal wealth for themselves as well as the nation, rewriting the rules of commerce and investing the process: "No succeeding generation enjoyed the economic power, the open political atmosphere, and the shaping influence available to this group of capitalists," Kessner writes. This remarkable boom (and occasional bust) period also triggered an ethical shift in which "business decisions came to turn less on what was right or good, than on what was strictly legal." Greed and corruption were rampant during this time as many unscrupulous speculators hurried to cash in before regulations closed loopholes and laws imposed rigid rules of conduct.
Kessner does an excellent job of capturing the excitement of this era in which the American economy was transformed from a vast network of many small businesses to a relatively few number of large corporations. In presenting this rich story, the author makes clear that the city's greatest asset was the equal opportunity it offereda claim that still holds true today, making the allure of New York as strong as ever. --Shawn Carkonen
Mike Wallace Co-author of Pulitzer Prize winner Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898
There are many capitalisms -- each marked by the culture and society from which it emerged. As Thomas Kessner reminds us in this graceful and lucid narrative, America's corporate economy was forged in late-nineteenth-century New York City, and, to this day, it bears the imprint of tussles among the businessmen, labor organizers, political leaders, and urban reformers of Gilded Age Gotham. -- Review