- Wars of Incorporation
In my first class in graduate school, a literature survey, the professor observed that the generalizations of the consensus interpretation of the 1950s were now outmoded, but he wondered if there would ever again be a manageable synthesis of American history, given the increasingly fragmented nature of the field. These two books bring very different approaches to this task for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his discussion of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for instance, Maury Klein gives a detailed description of George Westinghouse’s unprecedented display of electricity. Westinghouse installed 12 75-ton generators that powered a 250-foot Ferris wheel, an elevated railway, and 200,000 lamps. Rebecca Edwards also discusses the technology on display at the World’s Fair, but in addition she notes that the anthropologist Franz Boas designed an exhibit of living people from nonindustrial societies, such as Penobscot Indians and Javanese people, arranged according to their supposed degree of civilization. Both of these details reveal important characteristics of American society in this period. But after reading Edwards’s New Spirits, it is difficult to think of the story of industrialization in isolation from changes in the ethnic composition of American society, western history, and the growth of the imperial state.
Klein lays out his thesis in the introduction: “The broadest and most profound movement of the past century has been the irresistible tendency to transform every aspect of American life first into a business and then into a larger business” (p. 4). As such, his emphasis is on entrepreneurship and technology, although he argues that he is adding to existing accounts by discussing the ramification of business methods throughout U.S. society and culture. In a prologue, Klein gives the concept of an “economic hothouse,” a [End Page 223]combination of ideal political and economic circumstances—extending from the Louisiana Purchase to the removal of political obstacles to the American System through the Civil War—that allowed for the exploitation of the vast natural resources of the United States (p. 6).
In his first chapter, Klein stresses the intersection of people and technology, and defines entrepreneurship in a way that is integrally related to innovation. Quoting Joseph Schumpeter, he writes, “Everyone is an entrepreneur only when he actually ‘carries out new combinations,’ and loses that character as soon as he has built up his business, when he settles down to running it as other people run their businesses” (p. 21). Most people were bound by deeply ingrained ways of living and working, while entrepreneurs disrupted these patterns, provoking “resentment and hostility.” Klein notes that Americans have always been divided about whether to admire or resent entrepreneurs, yet his own view comes through as rather sympathetic. He suggests that innumerable innovations are the key driving force of industrialization, going so far as to apply the label of entrepreneurs to those more commonly dubbed “Captains of Industry” and “Robber Barons” (p. 20).
Klein begins the story of industrial growth with a chapter on landownership. Here he stresses the importance of technology, such as the mass production possible with the McCormick reaper. In a characteristic passage, he notes that the first McCormick reaper enabled eight men and one or two horses to clear the same amount of land as fifteen workers by hand, at one-half to one-third the cost. The number of these reapers grew from 1,278 sold from 1831 to 1848 to 4,000 by 1850 and to 40 per day by 1856. At the same time, innumerable improvements were made to reapers—the patent office stamped 160 applications in 1871. Klein also devotes some attention to the role of government, noting for instance that much of the land distributed under the Homestead Act and subsequent legislation was acquired by speculators and businesses rather than small settlers...