- American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism by Harry S. Stout
The rise of American capitalism has become a dominant theme in the history of the early U.S. republic. From parsing the connection between capitalist enterprise and territorial expansion in the nineteenth century to investigating the relationship between slaveholding and land speculation, historians have begun to consider seriously how capitalism evolved in the new nation. Historian Harry S. Stout adds to this growing body of literature, offering an in-depth exploration of one family's ties to the founding of the American republic. In American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism, Stout traces this family's quest for wealth, prosperity, and political influence. Stout argues that American Aristocrats is not a microhistory. Instead he proposes that it is a generational saga of individual members of the Anderson family, a clan with tethers to major events and actors in the history of the early republic. American Aristocrats begins in mid-eighteenth-century Virginia with the Anderson family patriarch Richard Clough Anderson Sr., and Stout tracks the financial trials and tribulations of Anderson's children and grandchildren as they sought to secure power and prosperity from the colonial period to the end of the American Civil War.
The Andersons, as Stout explores, were one of the most well-connected families in early American history. With ties to presidents, Supreme Court justices, politicians, and military leaders, the Anderson family was among the first generation of the American aristocracy. The Anderson men held prominent positions in local, state, and federal governments. Richard Clough Anderson Sr. fought in the Revolutionary War and was appointed as a land surveyor in Virginia during the late eighteenth century. His responsibilities included distributing land to veterans of Virginia's military who had served in the Revolutionary War. This position, according to Stout, allowed Anderson to acquire prime plots of land for himself and his family and catapulted Anderson and his children into a new economic and social position within American society. The [End Page 423] Anderson children gained membership in the educational elite, attending institutions such as Harvard University and West Point. The Anderson sons and daughters married well, expanding and strengthening their bonds within the political aristocracy. Richard Clough Anderson Jr. was elected to Congress as a representative of Kentucky and subsequently served as the United States' first diplomat to Colombia in the early 1820s. Robert Anderson fought in the U.S.-Mexican War and for the Union in the Civil War's first battle, at Fort Sumter in 1861. The Andersons made continued westward moves in the nineteenth century, purchasing land in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas during the antebellum era.
While American Aristocrats chronicles the Andersons' involvement in many of the major events in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history, it is also a story of struggle: fears of debt, threats of disease, and, most important, financial insolvency. Members of the Anderson clan lived through the booms and busts that characterized capitalist enterprise and avarice in the nineteenth century. They traveled westward in search of land on which to expand and secure their wealth. The Andersons made calculated gambles, leveraging land and slaves to safeguard against the vagaries of the American economy in the nineteenth century. The Anderson sons invested in and benefited financially from the horrors of American expansionism, even fighting on the frontier during the 1830s to enact President Andrew Jackson's violent Indian removal policies.
The biggest challenge with American Aristocrats is the surprising silence of the enslaved people owned by the Andersons. At the beginning of the book, Stout proposes that, as members of America's founding elite, the Anderson family was complicit not only in the horrors of Indian removal but also in the proliferation of slavery in the early republic. And though Stout argues that "slaves make regular appearances in Anderson's diary and correspondence," referring to Richard Anderson Jr.'s accounting...