- Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America's First Gilded Age by Noam Maggor
In 1920s Boston, investors at Lee, Higginson & Co. provided a glowing reference for one of their own to a prospective employer in Chicago: the young man's father was a Cabot, his mother a Lowell, and beyond that Peabodys, Appletons, and Saltonstalls. The Chicago firm demurred, replying that they were not, after all, "contemplating using Mr.—for breeding purposes."1
This anecdote offers a familiar portrait of Boston's so-called Brahmins: nepotistic, hierarchical, and stagnant. In Brahmin Capitalism, Noam Maggor turns this portrait on its head. Instead of fading into aristocratic obscurity after the Civil War, Boston's moneyed elite transferred their attentions from cotton manufacturing to financing continental development. "Contrary to many accounts, the growing financial supremacy of Wall Street did not displace Bostonian investment houses" (205).
Yet Brahmins, Maggor writes, were on a collision course with populists. What would American capitalism look like in the late nineteenth-century? Brahmin Capitalism suggests this question was inherently political: "The new geography of capital that these affluent Bostonians (and their counterparts in New York and Philadelphia) so strenuously worked to create hinged in crucial ways on amenable state institutions" (7). But there was a catch: American capitalists, increasingly operating on a national scale, faced a "rude awakening" from active citizens with their own political economic vision. Differences aside, Maggor argues that urban and Western populists shared a producerist ideology and concerns about centralized financial power. This led populists not to anti-modern nostalgia, but to a vision of modernity that wedded markets to an active democracy (12). Such contests were not uniquely American; they resonated with confrontations abroad as capitalists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America worked to pull hinterlands into global markets (10). Thus Maggor suggests that finer grained histories of globalization-writ-small illuminate the political plays and power dynamics behind globalization—"once heralded as an apolitical form of human progress"—itself (210).
While organized topically, the book contains an overarching narrative of New England capital forging a more integrated national marketplace after the Civil War, culminating in the "great merger movement" of the turn-of-the-twentieth century. Chapter one begins with Henry Lee Higginson's failed [End Page 954] Reconstruction experiments before turning to examples of Boston entrepreneurs reorienting from textiles into Western industries from copper to cattle. This thread continues in chapter three, a biopic of Henry Davis Minot as epitomizing how Brahmins extended networks of capital and expertise from Mexico to Minneapolis and Manitoba.
But the heart of the book centers on political economic contests. Given that a key goal of the "history of capitalism" has been to challenge the naturalization of markets (with its propensity for ahistoricity) within a variety of fields, Brahmin Capitalism is a worthy contribution through its illumination of debates over taxation, city services, articulations of public and private, craftsmanship and art, and defining sources of value and profit. Maggor's populists made persistent if varied demands that markets take account of the larger populace not just as consumers, but as citizen workers.
Thus chapters two and six, "Cultivating the Laissez-Faire Metropolis" and "Age of Reform," examine competing philosophies of taxation and urban modernity. To arguments that taxation was "deprivation" (89), Boston assessor Thomas Hills countered that taxation made "civilization possible," not as payment for services rendered but as a product of society's necessary interdependence (180). Familiar warnings of "capital flight" surged as a debate point with the growth of securities markets and extra-state investment, to the point that "mobile capital managed to escape taxation almost everywhere" (182, 202).
Chapter four showcases the 1877 "battle of the Common." When the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association proposed holding their thirteenth triennial exhibition in Boston Common, elites responded with letters and petitions in opposition. Rationales ranged from the exhibition depriving poor children of their "only place for recreation" to exhibiting "uncouth materialism" rather than "elevating influences" (140-2). By the 1830s, elites had...