Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pretty Ferocious Book Review

The October 31, 2010 San Francisco Chronicle has a pretty devastating review of H.W. Brands' American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by T.J. Stiles.  This is not my area of specialization, but Stiles' criticisms are not just of how Brands interprets the facts, but of the facts themselves:

The trouble begins on the second page of the prologue, when Brands quotes Daniel Drew. Unfortunately, the quotation is derived from an autobiography that was shown to be fraudulent 24 years ago by Drew's only biographer. In other words, Drew never said it.

Such lapses in research become fatal when linked to a failure of interpretation. On the next page of the prologue, Brands writes that the Civil War "emancipated the capitalist classes from the constraints imposed by [Andrew] Jackson and his Democratic heirs." This is about as incorrect a description of Jacksonian policies as I can conceive. Antebellum Democrats tried to limit government involvement in the economy, not impose "constraints." Contrary to Brands, Jacksonians did not insist on a level society, just a level playing field. Jackson himself said, "Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions." He accepted "natural and just advantages," but rejected artificial distinctions created by government. But such complex historical reality doesn't fit into Brands' simplistic thesis of a contradiction between capitalism and democracy. The tensions are there, certainly, but are crushed into caricature by this ill-informed account.

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From all that I know of Jacksonian Democracy, this is a pretty accurate description of the situation.  Jacksonians were hardly anti-capitalist.  At most, they were hostile to what they perceived as governmental favoritism towards the rich with the advantages that they enjoyed from creating institutions such as the Bank of the United States.  This was an era awash in laissez-faire capitalism, and the major dispute between what became the Whigs and the Democratic Party was the question of whether the national government should actively subsidize businesses, such as with internal improvements (canals, roads, railroads) or protect American manufacturing through substantial tariffs.  The idea of capitalism as some sort of evil can certainly be found among some groups of the time, but I can't think of any Jacksonian Democrats in that camp.

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