Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 279-287
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Making an American Upper Class
Timothy J. Gilfoyle
Sven Beckert. The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 492 pp. Maps, graphs, illustrations, notes, and index. $35.00.
By 1900, New York was the national headquarters for the new, modern business structure—the corporation. Nine of the eleven major trusts that emerged after 1882 were headquartered in New York. Gotham's 298 mercantile and manufacturing enterprises valued at more than $1 million totaled more capital than Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, and St. Louis combined. The total deposits in New York banks equaled those in the rest of the United States. The "Wall Street law firm," developed by the likes of William Nelson Cromwell, John W. Davis, and Paul Cravath, became a national institution, servicing the Morgans, Seligmans, Harrimans, and Schiffs. By every important measure—from population density to industrial output to bank deposits to wholesale trade—New York ranked first in the country. 1
The emergence of New York City as the North American entrepot of the trans-Atlantic economy made Gotham's elite the most important in the United States. Despite their critical significance, Sven Beckert argues, "the upper class remains the most neglected social group in United States historiography" (p. 11). Beckert (who employs "bourgeoisie" to denote New York's upper class and economic elite) explores how Gotham's capitalists amassed power and wealth in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most important, he contends that New York's bourgeoisie coalesced into a distinct, self-conscious elite, composed primarily of industrialists, bankers, real estate speculators, and the various professionals who serviced these groups. This urban gentry derived power not from accidents of birth, status or kinship, but rather the ownership of capital. The Monied Metropolis, impressively researched and insightfully argued, represents the most comprehensive study of America's most important nineteenth-century elite. 2
Beckert draws a sharp distinction between the New York bourgeoisie in 1850 and that of 1900. At midcentury, New York's elite was divided between merchants and manufacturers. The former, epitomized by the "Wall Street [End Page 279] gentry" (p. 62), comprised men who joined the Chamber of Commerce; socialized at private clubs like the New York, the Union, the Yacht, and the Century; worshiped at churches like Grace, St. George's, Fourth Avenue Presbyterian or temples like Emanu-El; and lived around Washington and Union squares. Merchants were simultaneously socially detached from the ever-rising mass of workers and the increasingly important manufacturers. The latter, despite their affluence, departed from their merchant neighbors with their working-class backgrounds, rough manners, absence of genteel education, dearth of kinship ties to merchant families, and the grimy nature of their work. Glue and iron manufacturer Peter Cooper, printing press maker Richard Hoe, printer Theodore Low DeVinne, and sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer exemplified this community. While some merchants shared ethnic or religious affiliations with these artisans-turned-manufacturers, the antebellum mercantile elite negotiated business deals and mobilized politically with other New York merchants like themselves. "In a world of global capitalism," concludes Beckert, "it would have been difficult, and usually unprofitable, to do otherwise" (p. 66).
Among the most convincing sources illustrating the social division between merchants and industrialists are the credit reports from Dun & Co. (later Dun & Bradstreet). Beckert relies on these not to explain the economic rise of manufacturers, but to reveal merchant resentment of this ascending class. Credit reporters evaluated not only the economic health and vitality of various industrial enterprises; they judged the moral fitness of these new entrepreneurs. Industrialist John Roach, for example, was described as a "rough illiterate kind of man . . . poorly educated, rugged, brusque and bold." Printing press magnate Richard Hoe was simply a "machinist" (p. 62).
This divide, insists Beckert, was not simply based on merchant resentment of the recent acquisition of wealth by industrialists. Rather, merchants and manufacturers had different mentalitiés. Merchants looked down on the dirty, smelly world of the factory and...