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The Capitalist Revolution

Reading Guide for American Collosus, by H. W. Brands

The Capitalist Revolution

-What was the “capitalist revolution?”

“Participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards”

The government slowly became a sponsor of business rather than placing economic constraints.

The capitalists created a stunning transformation within American life. They turned society from soil based to urban, lifted the standard of living to a thing once considered aristocracy, they drew hundreds of thousands from foreign countries to American shores, established a growth projection for the economy and military powers to the farthest corners of the world.

-What reasons does Brands give us to think that capitalism and democracy are incompatible?

In accomplishing the capitalist revolution, the American democracy was threatened to eclipse. The thoughts of Jefferson and Smith were antagonistic and in ways opposed each other fully, and only one could win. By the end of the century the fate of Capitalism mattered more to everyday Americans than the basic principles of democracy. The advantages of capitalism may even prove more durable than the edge democracy proved to hold during it’s prime.

The Conquest of the South

-What was Special Field Order 15? Why did General Sherman institute it?

Special Order 15 guaranteed the islands from Charleston south, abandoned fields along the rivers 30 miles prior to the sea, and the expanse of land bordering the St. John’s River, would be reserved for ONLY freed negroes to inhabit and manage at their own discretion. Sherman also later gave mules confiscated during the war to the black settlers. Special Order 15 along with confiscated mules became the “40 acres and a Mule” slogan that served as a beacon for black hope and a battle cry for Radical Reconstruction. General Sherman made this order to aid emancipation. He claimed that emancipation could not succeed without measures to make former slaves independent of their former masters, thus, giving them land would help them to establish their independence.

-Why was Special Order 15 not the model eventually used in the post-slavery South?

Sherman’s plan had serious draw backs. The first was political; Republicans were in favor of free labor, but they also respected private property, and confiscating and redistributing land cut against their beliefs. The second drawback was constitutional; Sherman’s order was only justifiable during wartime because it was a wartime measure, once the war concluded the peacetime interpretations of the constitution would again apply. The third drawback was economic; emancipation alone disrupted the southern economy, and if the confiscation and redistribution of land occurred the disruptions would only be compounded.

-What were the black codes? Why did white Southerners think they were worthwhile? What did black Americans think of them?

Black codes were attempts to reimpose slavery in every way but name. They sought to define the rights of freedmen. Some of which included the right to marry, parental status, the right to sue and testify in court, bring criminal charges to others, etc. Many white people favored these newly installed black codes because they couldn’t imagine a society without control over the blacks. They feared blacks roaming the countryside causing trouble and committing crimes and couldn’t imagine a world where blacks would work voluntarily, on their own free will. Whites believed these codes were necessary for the survival of the southern economy, and also for the welfare of blacks who didn’t know enough to care for themselves. The blacks obviously had different views of these codes and even petitioned in complaint of them. Blacks felt hunted and felt the new laws would punish honest and hardworking men and women. Blacks claimed they had enriched the south and it would be just as impossible for southerners to live without them as it would for blacks to be removed from them.

-How was the labor problem eventually solved in the South?

A system emerged that solved the planters’ cash-flow problem and the workers’ problem with old-style field labor. This system was called Sharecropping; based on partnership of landowners and laborers in the production of cotton and other commercial crops. At the harvest the two parties divided the crop, benefitting each and solving the labor and economic struggles in the south.

Lakota’s Last Stand

-Who were the Sioux (Lakota)? How had they adapted to western expansion?

-Where were the Black Hills? Why were they important to the Sioux? Why were they important to white settlers?

-What led to the Battle of Little Big Horn? What was the result of it?

-In the end, what happened to Crazy Horse and the rebel Sioux?

Affairs of the Heartland

-What happened to the Sioux in 1890? Why was it important?

-Why was debt such a problem for farmers? What other problems did farmers face in the 1890s?

-What did farmers do about these problems?

-What was the Farmer’s Alliance? What was the Populist Party? What did they argue should be done to help farmers?

Speculation as Martial Art

-What structural changes affected American society after the Civil War? How did paper money, railroads and steam power affect the United States?

The new system of labor that emerged in the United States following the Civil War was probably the biggest obstacle that affected society. The lives of farmers, freedmen, and even non-slave owning whites were completely transformed after the war ended. Former slaves felt they became entitled to land, “forty acres and a mule,” however only a handful of freedmen became autonomous landowners. Most rented land or worked for low wages on plantations. Many small white farmers were thrust into poverty, entering into cotton production rather than production of food crops for their families alone. It was a much greater undertaking than they were used to. While sharecropping emerged in the south, Wall Street emerged as an economic superpower in New York. Not only were financial institutions gaining traction, but steam engines were paving the way towards a new standard of transportation. The greenback notes led the way in paper money, although the transition from gold, to coins, to paper was rough and not yet fully accepted. Vanderbilt and other world powers led the way in steam and railways which were much on the rise.

-While speculation has always been around, speculators like Vanderbuilt and Gould are very new at this point. What characterizes the speculation of Vanderbuilt and Gould?

-How are moguls like Vanderbuilt and Gould different from regular owners of business? How do they manage their businesses differently?

-At the end of the chapter, Henry Adams argues that capitalism is attacking American democracy? What in the chapter might lead you (or him, for that matter) to believe that?

The First Triumvirate

-How did the capitalists make their fortunes? Did they do it through hard work, or a job? Or did their speculation require different skills? What were those skills?

-Think about the nature of the business transactions the capitalists were doing. What technological innovations needed to be in place for them to manage businesses in the ways they did, over such long distances?

-What is a trust?

Toil and Trouble

-Who were the Molly Maguires? What do they tell us about the working class?

-What was the Great Strike?

-Why would workers join unions? Why would they fight, and die, for these unions during the Great Strike?

-What was the government’s role in the Great Strike? Were they mediator, or did they take a side?

-How do you think the Great Strike demonstrates Brands’ argument that during this era capitalism and democracy were fundamentally at odds?

Meet Jim Crow

-What was Booker T Washington’s solution to create a compromise between white and black southerners? What was his strategy?

-Why were black men lynched? What reasons did white men give for the lynchings? How did Ida B Wells dispel these myths?

-What was the economy of the New South like?

-What was the Plessy v Ferguson decision? Why was it so important?

Imperialist Dreams

-What does Alfred Mahan argue about sea power?

-Why does the United States enter the Spanish-American War?

-What are the arguments against annexing the Phillipines?

-What are the arguments for annexing the Phillipines?

-Why does the United States expand during this period? Why should the United States have an empire?

Below The El

-What was the experience of being an immigrant in American like? What challenges did they face?

-How is the life as a working class American different in the cities than it is for the farmers we previously saw?

-What was life in the city like?

-What was a “muckraker”?

School for Scandal

-What was Tweed’s party machine? How did it gain and hold onto power? How is this type of politics different than nowadays?

-If you were a voter, why would you vote for Tweed’s candidate?

-Brands, at the conclusion, suggests that these scandals were endemic of the capitalist ethos of the period. What evidence do we have to suppose that? Do you agree?

The Wages of Capitalism

-What started the Pullman Strike? What did the strikers want?

-Who won? Who lost? What was the federal government’s role in the strike?

-What did Coxey’s Army want?

-What do both the Pullman Strike and Coxey’s Armey have to do with each other? What do they tell us about the time period?

The Apotheosis of Pierpont Morgan & The Democratic Counterrevolution

-Why does Cleveland ask J. P. Morgan for help? What do they decide to do?

-What good did the capitalist revolution do? What bad did it do?

-In the end, who won? Capitalism or democracy?


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