Book 11; Continent: North America

The Tycoons by Charles Morris

  • 383 pages (appendices begin page 319)
  • Put the kids to bed before you dig into this one: the sections are short enough for your own bedtime reading, but following some of the concepts may require “quiet time”

Have you ever wondered how the titans of industry liked to unwind? About John Rockefeller’s relationship with his grandkids? Perhaps you might like to read an intimate portrait of how the “robber barons” conducted themselves at home. Then this is definitely not the book for you. Its author is all business, so no names of cherished family pets or charming tales of family Christmas traditions.

Honestly, you won’t miss the fluff. Morris provides a careful, evenhanded look at John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould and Pierpont Morgan in context of the business world they knew. His task is only somewhat narrower than describing the economic history of the post-Civil War U.S. as a whole. Yawn, right? Except that the reader gains some insight into how a handful of men and their actions influenced—even created—the economy we experience daily in the 21st century.

Morris builds a detailed case for the influence of the men on modern business and the consumer-driven world we live in today. Although banker Morgan claimed to be appalled by “bitter, destructive competition” (because running a man out of business prevented him from paying his debts), the others used decidedly ungentlemanly tactics to win in an arena of Victorian-era business practices. For example, Jay Gould manipulated stock values and, famously, the gold market, to gain control of a large fraction of the railroad industry and build Western Union into a telegraph company. Not that Morgan was anyone’s chump—he was essentially the U.S. central bank in the form of one man, regarded as such by domestic and foreign investors alike. Morris carefully outlines how Gould, Morgan and the others each built an empire.

The other reason to appreciate Morris’ work is that his descriptions of the tycoons contain neither the Ida Tarbell-style venom for the wealthy class of the day nor paeans of business heroics. I’d had a history-class fly-by of the robber barons, Ms. Tarbell and the issues of their day, but schoolroom history loves to create heroes and villains. Instead, he offers food for thought about how these men in the post-Civil War era brought about an American business world that makes possible corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s (for instance, Gould and Rockefeller changed the logistics of rail freight, even for cattle).

Overall, the book’s scope embraces a much larger topic than the men themselves, and the insights are sometimes surprising. One of the book’s lengthier discussions focuses on the effort to standardize gun manufacture during the Civil War so that parts were interchangeable. I tend to shy away from military history, so this topic was a revelation to me. While interesting in its own right, Morris carefully ties it to the development of standardized methods of manufacturing finished steel products (specifically, rails for the railroad industry), the perfection of which made Carnegie’s plants models of efficiency. Morris even has a brief discussion of fertility rates among the new “middle class” born of the new economy, including birth control methods of the times—crazily enough, the author ties that seeming departure off-topic into the larger theme of the book (but no spoilers here).

This book is conceptually dense at times and requires more careful reading than I sometimes cared to give it. If you plan to tackle it, then turn off the television and consider making some marginal notes in certain spots. The reward is a different look at the economics of the local strip mall next time you pop into Starbucks.

Photo credit: carnegielibrarypgh / Foter / CC BY-NC

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One thought on “Book 11; Continent: North America

  1. Pingback: Book 12; Continent: Europe | History Reading Challenge

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