A fascinating history of New York during the late 19th-century, a time when big money was changing the face of the city.
The word “bourgeoisie” doesn’t get much of a workout these days, now that Marxist-tinged analyses of the world have become suspect even within academia. But Beckert (History/Harvard Univ.) employs the term fearlessly to describe New York’s mercantile class, whose members, in the early decades of the 19th century, tended to lead quiet, unostentatious private lives. That class, which included large numbers of traders and ship owners, owed much of its wealth to the international cotton trade, which bound New York to the South (and, in large measure, explains why the city gave only lukewarm support to the Union cause during much of the Civil War). In the postwar era, Beckert writes, the merchants’ power was eroded by a new kind of capitalist, the manufacturer. Many of these newly wealthy industrialists, who profited greatly from the war and worked their way up from the shop floor to ownership, were inclined to more public displays of wealth. Shunned as arrivistes, they nonetheless gained supremacy over the better-established merchants. What is more, they had a stronger grasp of politics, and through various mechanisms they remade city and, later, state government into an arm that served their interests with private legislation and other species of cronyism. The new plutocracy asserted itself with huge mansions, soirees that aped the manners of the European nobility (the author often returns to a fancy dress party at the end of the century, to which dozens of New York’s grandes dames came costumed as Marie Antoinette—whose fate, “they confidently believed, would not be theirs”), and other unsubtle displays of conspicuous consumption. Their arrival on the scene, Beckert insists, added a new dimension to the history of class struggle—and their influence on American politics endures in the age of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
“New York has taught me to put capital and capitalists closer to the center of modern history,” Beckert writes. His account is a dazzlingly successful exercise in doing just that.