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New book charts collision of wealth and populist politics in the Gilded Age

By: Linda B. Glaser,  AS Communications
February 14, 2017

The Civil War came as a crushing blow to the moneyed elite of Boston, who had been deeply embedded in the cotton economy of the early 19th century as textile manufacturers.

With the abolition of slavery and the decline of cotton manufacturing in New England, however, these Boston “Brahmins” revitalized themselves through new business opportunities in the mines, railroads and stockyards of the West. They moved capital from older industries to emerging ones, paving the way for the integrated corporate capitalism of the 20th century.

In “Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age,” historian Noam Maggor explores how new investment frontiers spawned social and political conflict in the urban East and expanding West. According to Maggor, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences, wealthy elites in the 19th century believed in the power of markets and financial investment to allocate resources efficiently and produce growth and widespread prosperity. They saw democratic politics as potentially detrimental to the more predictable and efficient working of markets. In contrast, Maggor said, the populists of the time articulated a competing vision of industrial progress. They believed economic policy should be devised in a participatory way rather than proscribed by self-proclaimed experts.

“Populists were engaged in substantive, creative thinking about policies that could promote greater equality and push back against corporate power,” Maggor said. “They argued that there were more policies to choose from than what the elites presented to them, and they framed policy in terms of accountability to voters, in opposition to the elite’s expert, technocratic arguments that rested on what were viewed as immutable economic laws. Populist politics really emphasized the immense malleability of economic change. They believed economic change could be molded through policy, and that change in policy could fundamentally reshape capitalism.”.”

“Brahmin Capitalism” looks at a moment of transformation that created the American capitalism of the 20th century, but Maggor contends that the history of capitalism is in some ways cyclical.

“We are again seeing contestation over the fundamental terms of what the new globalized economy would look like,” he said.

“If you think about globalization today as driven inexorably by market forces and technology, then you really can’t make sense of populist politics,” Maggor said. “Populist politics comes out of the idea that economic change is always political. This raises the question we ought to be debating – especially among progressives – what is the role of government in restructuring globalization to be more accountable to democratic constituencies and promote a more equal distribution of wealth.”

In some ways, Maggor sees the end of the 19th century as an elite triumph, but he also points to populist victories such as progressive taxation, municipal services, corporate regulation, labor empowerment and public education, including the rise of public universities. Maggor says that even Boston’s vibrant abolitionist movement was a populist one, a grassroots revolt against the elites involved in the cotton economy that fueled slavery.

Maggor’s current project, tentatively titled “U.S. as a Developing Nation,” examines why the American economy diverged from other agrarian economies and became the world’s largest industrial economy by World War I; for the project, Maggor is rethinking American industrialization in the late 19th century in a broad global and comparative perspective.

Event Information:

On Monday, Feb. 27 at 4:30 p.m., the American Studies Program and the History of Capitalism Initiative will host a panel discussion on “Brahmin Capitalism” at the A.D. White House. Panelists will include Professor Elizabeth Sanders (government), Professor Aziz Rana (law) and Stefan Link (history, Dartmouth College).

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