Most Americans regard the Declaration of Independence as our country’s defining document, but historian H.W. Brand makes the argument that another text, Adam Smith’s capitalist manifesto “Wealth of Nations,” held as much influence in shaping our national identity. As Brand explains in “American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900,” his page-turning, thesis-driven account of one of the most dramatic periods in American history, “the dual manifestos of 1776 were also dueling manifestos.”
In sections that are organized more thematically than chronologically, Brand examines how the shifting dynamics between democracy and capitalism gave rise to our first titans of industry and money politics; swayed presidential elections and caused the creation and splintering of political parties; and informed the conversation on race, immigration and culture. “By the century’s end,” Brand observes, “the imperatives of capitalism mattered more to the daily existence of most Americans than the principles of democracy.”
Brand’s laser focus on the push and pull between democracy and capitalism does somewhat limit the book’s scope and prevents it from being a comprehensive history of the era. The nascent women’s rights movement is mentioned only tangentially and the groundbreaking innovations in American literature not at all. Even the lives of black Americans in the post-Civil War South is couched mostly in terms of the economic impact of slavery’s abolishment.
That said, this is a compelling, well-researched history book that makes the reader appreciate how democracy and capitalism aren't necessarily the same thing – and for much of the latter half of the 19th century, capitalism was the driving principle of American life, business and politics.