Seal on Maggor, 'Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America's First Gilded Age'

Noam Maggor. Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America's First Gilded Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. Illustrations, graphs. 304 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-97146-2.

Reviewed by Andrew Seal (University of New Hampshire)
Published on H-SHGAPE (November, 2019)
Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version:

Hub and Spokes: Boston and Gilded Age Economic Development

In his once well-beloved The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. explained the sources of Boston’s municipal pride, which he unabashedly acknowledged could verge on parochialism. Riffing off a young man’s sarcastic remark that Boston men considered the “Boston State-House [to be] the hub of the solar system,” Holmes’s “Autocrat” character expounded on what made Boston convinced it was the most important city in the world. “Boston is just like other places of its size;—only perhaps, considering its excellent fish-market, paid fire-department, superior monthly publications, and correct habit of spelling the English language, it has some right to look down on the mob of cities.” Holmes went on to trumpet the way that Boston “drains a large water-shed of its intellect,” pulling in the best and brightest of New England (and beyond). Not only that, he continued, but Boston “will not itself be drained”—intellectual pilgrims to Boston seek no holier shrine. Boston is not just the hub but the world itself.[1] 

It is thus interestingly appropriate that one of the main arguments of Noam Maggor’s wide-ranging and deeply original book is a protest against what he convincingly describes as an outworn caricature of Boston’s Gilded Age elite as a pack of parochial, indecisive brooders whom George Santayana (a Harvard man) would later skewer in “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy.”[2] This composite portrait, which owes much not only to Santayana but also to William Dean Howells and Henry Adams, is decisively refuted by the energetic protagonists of Brahmin Capitalism’s main (but not only) plot: the reorientation of wealthy Bostonians’ investment portfolios away from “the cotton-based economy of earlier decades, in which their class had been deeply embedded as textile manufacturers,” and toward “continental industrialization”—the “mines, stockyards, railroads, real estate,” and so forth—of the post-Civil War American West (pp. 6-7). 

This not only was a “capital migration,” Maggor points out, but also required very real travel, grueling tours of commercial duty by young financiers, many of whom had only recently mustered out of the United States Army. With a view of the West that is a bit more Zane Grey than Deadwood, Maggor recounts, “they moved through the untamed wilderness in trains, steamboats, coaches, and on foot. They embraced continental integration as a heroic undertaking and infused it with an exhilarating sense of grandiosity” (p. 9). 

“They” were the sons of Boston’s upper crust—the “Brahmins” of the book’s title—Henry Lee Higginson, Alexander Agassiz, Charles F. Adams Jr., Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, and Henry Davis Minot. Maggor praises these men of privilege for their unwillingness to delegate on-the-ground inspections of the western investment opportunities their firms were considering; their “entrepreneurial, energetic, even aggressive role in conquering the West” was borne out by their acceptance of the burdens of living on the resource frontier (p. 99). Maggor does an excellent job of fleshing out these venturesome spirits, illuminating both their intrepidity and their sense of the sportive improbability of finding themselves so far from the rarefied air of Harvard Yard and Boston Common. “It shows the strangeness of life that I, with my temperament, and bringing up, and associations, should be knocking about among the Rocky Mountains, bunking with strange bed-fellows, and eating the uncouth victuals of the hardy mountaineers,” Minot wrote to his father (pp. 122-23). 

The stories of these young men, the trailblazers of new routes of capital, are told in the book’s first three chapters, but they fade into the background in the book’s back half as other plots take precedence. This split is interesting not only as an observation about the book’s structure but also as a conclusion about its two rather different historiographical interventions. As I note above, Maggor is quite adamant about the inaccuracy of the image of the Brahmin as “declining, detached, and effeminate” (p. 9). A small part of this revisionism may itself be a bit of Boston pride (Maggor earned his doctorate at Harvard), but it is more directly a product of the curiously durable potency of Robert Wiebe’s synthesis The Search for Order, 1877-1920 and its still influential application of modernization theory to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 

That Maggor feels compelled to combat Wiebe’s 1967 classic in 2017 (the date of the book’s publication) is both odd and yet not unexpected. While there have been several other syntheses of this period in the intervening fifty years, none have wholly shaken off the imprint of Wiebe. Within the subfield of Gilded Age economic history, a similar situation exists: historians have repeatedly urged one another to move past the paradigm established by Alfred Chandler in The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977), but it still seems the path of least resistance to begin new scholarship by pushing back on his well-known dogmas about the importance and innovativeness of middle management. Brahmin Capitalism is no different: one of the shifts explicit in its focus on the big Boston money men is that a lot of the hard work and hard decisions of how to link up a still scattershot and patchy continent-wide market was carried out under the direct supervision of finance’s beady eye. 

In other words, the first three chapters broadly revise the Wiebe/Chandler synthesis by doing two things. First, they push our attention upward, from the middle classes to the elite, reapportioning credit for entrepreneurial initiative and expansive vision from management to finance. Second, the first half of the book insists that, unlike the “canonical works about American industrialization” that take continental economic integration as a matter of course, we should instead see it as a highly contingent process that either could have easily gone awry or taken a wholly different path (p. 6).[3]

Maggor asserts this latter argument more than he demonstrates it. He shows us a failed attempt by some of the Brahmin financiers to rejuvenate the cotton economy in the South right after the Civil War, but after that we get no real sense of what alternatives to westward development the Bostonians were considering, or even what serious setbacks they faced in the West. A short chapter (“Eastern Money and Western Populists”) ostensibly reveals the grassroots political response of settlers in the newly organized states and territories looking to curb the power of absentee owners, but there is strangely no sense of tension or drama there: laws were passed, and the financiers presumably made some adjustments. No hell seems to have been raised. What the chapter on western populism really demonstrates, however, is not so much the precariousness of eastern finance’s project of continental integration but rather the diversity and innovativeness of political and legal regimes existing at the subnational level. This is a major argument of the back half of the book, and it extends back across the continent to Boston, picking up from chapter 2 a municipal-level story of finance and industry tussling for the future of Boston’s economic identity. 

Here again, Maggor is making a historiographical argument at a very high level; only this time, instead of contesting an old synthesis for the Gilded Age, he is attempting to forge a new one. Maggor’s ambition and command of the pertinent literature is impressive and deeply exciting. Like many of his protagonists, he is able to dig deep into the grit of particulars while maintaining a topographical understanding of the whole terrain he is exploring. 

The new synthesis for Gilded Age political economic history that comes out of the back half of the book goes something like this. Most of the crucial decisions about the nation’s economic development were not decided at the federal level: not by Congress and not by the Supreme Court. To truly understand the most innovative and ultimately most influential thought about issues like property rights, taxation, protections for labor, absentee ownership, and many others, one must look at subnational governments—at states, territories, and municipalities. There is no overall pattern to these innovations, and no good way to sum them up or characterize them as collectively either good or bad for labor, or good or bad for capital. We can only categorize what these innovations were broadly doing; they were steps taken in “the politics of market formation” (p. 210). 

Setting the terms of who had access to and who had priority in the market, what could be sold there and under what terms, and even how large the market was and how it interacted with other markets and other institutions were all questions that Gilded Age Americans contested vigorously and diversely, with innumerable answers and innumerable stalemates, as opposing parties found ways to stymie each other before an answer could be reached. These stories do not have the sweep and elegance of the older syntheses, and perhaps the problem simply lies in the nature of the content. It is hard to imagine a “subnational synthesis.”[4] 

Brahmin Capitalism tries to manage this complexity by placing Boston at its hub, making the argument that Boston should not be treated merely as a case study but as a powerful actor in the Gilded Age politics of market formation. But Boston was still only one actor among many, and by writing Boston’s story, sometimes Maggor tries to do too many things at once. Yet the larger outlines of Maggor’s project are clear: the book’s ambition and intelligent drive toward a new synthesis is both inspiring and already impressive.


[1]. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (Boston: Philips, Sampson and Company, 1858), 143, 145.

[2]. George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” in Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913): 186-215.

[3]. In this argument, Maggor is following a kind of dissident tradition of Gilded Age and Progressive Era scholarship, including works by James Livingston, Martin Sklar, Elizabeth Sanders, Gerald Berk, Richard Franklin Bensel, and Philip Scranton.

[4]. Some of the most significant works in this vein include: William J. Novak, “Law and the Social Control of American Capitalism,” Emory Law Journal 60, no. 2 (2010): 377-405; William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (June 2008): 752-72; Gary Gerstle, “The Resilient Power of the States across the Long Nineteenth Century,” in The Unsustainable American State, ed. Lawrence R. Jacobs and Desmond S. King (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 61-87; Kimberley S. Johnson, Governing the American State: Congress and the New Federalism, 1877-1929 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Emily J. Zackin, Looking for Rights in All the Wrong Places: Why State Constitutions Contain America’s Positive Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); and Amy Bridges, “Managing the Periphery in the Gilded Age: Writing Constitutions for the Western States,” Studies in American Political Development 22, no. 1 (April 2008): 32-58.

Citation: Andrew Seal. Review of Maggor, Noam, Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America's First Gilded Age. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019.

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