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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.2 (2002) 313-314

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Book Review

The Monied Metropolis:
New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896

The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896. By Sven Beckert (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001) 492 pp. $34.95

"From the perspective of this book," writes Beckert in an early endnote, "the history of New York's economic elite looks very different from the way it is presented in earlier writings" (344). Scholars are understandably inclined to overreach in their claim to originality, and, in some respects, Beckert's revisit to this well-established historical topic is less novel than he would have us believe. Readers of this journal, in particular, will be more impressed by the thoroughness of his canvass of traditional sources (as documented by the 133 pages of endnotes) than by his introduction of new sources, methods, or interdisciplinary insights. Yet, in two important senses Beckert is correct. First, he pays far more attention to the political ideologies and actions of New York's bourgeoisie than have others whose primary interest has been the issue of social exclusivity. Second, he creates a new narrative of upper-class formation, stressing the political conflicts and social divisions among wealthy New Yorkers in the antebellum era, the transforming effects of the Civil War and the depression of the 1870s, and the final and dramatic "consolidation" of the bourgeoisie as a coherent, self-conscious, and powerful upper class in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This narrative contrasts starkly with those that find coherence and continuity where Beckert finds conflict and change. [End Page 313]

The first of these departures is novel only in the context of local upper-class studies; many analyses of Gilded Age politics focus upon the growing power of conservative businessmen, eager, among other things, to defend their own conception of property rights by stabilizing the currency, reducing public debt, enlisting government aid against rebellious workers, and cutting the best possible deal on tariff legislation. But Beckert's careful tracing of the increasing persuasiveness of this conservative ideology among New York's wealthy businessmen, and of their shifting political strategies, adds substance and nuance to this already well-told story. He shows how the reorientation of New York's economy manifested itself in changing attitudes toward former slaves and slaveholders, and how national and local politics intersected in the midst and aftermath of the Tammany Hall scandals. There is a hint, too, of how the exclusive city clubroom served as a venue for the exertion of national political influence.

Beckert's second contribution is more novel, but it is also more problematic. Was New York's bourgeoisie more divided before the Civil War than it would become in the Gilded Age? Beckert stresses the chasm of values, identity, and political affiliation between the established mercantile elite and the rising manufacturers of the antebellum era, and the consolidation of all these feelings and actions within the business class of the latter decades of the century. But he also recognizes continuing post-Civil War divisions between older and newer money—the established elite and the arrivistes—that other historians have described as the longer historical pattern of this most dynamic of American cities. To be sure, some (but not all) of the wealthy manufacturers of the early industrial era were bred in the world of artisan republicanism, but whether this fact can account for an upper-class incoherence any more fundamental than those differences between old and new wealth that are evident earlier and later in New York's history is questionable. Historians who want to debate this issue, however, will find Beckert's book indispensable.


Stuart M. Blumin
Cornell University