Business

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Growing up in a family with many members who earned their livings on Wall Street and with many ancestors and relatives who had done the same, I—as might be expected—very early heard stories of business that I found as fascinating as the tales of military action I was soaking up at the same time. The novelist Thomas Hardy explained that “war makes rattling good history,” but it was James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald, who explained why business makes the same. Since the Industrial Revolution, with all its new opportunities, Bennett wrote in 1868, “Men no longer attempt to rule by the sword, but find in money a weapon as sharp and more effective; and having lost none of the old lust for power, they seek to establish over their fellows the despotism of dollars.” The workings of democracy, of course, prevented any despotism from developing, but the battles for success and dominance in the marketplace can be as exciting as any battle for political or military dominance.

Unfortunately, it was Karl Marx who popularized the word capitalism, so it is perhaps not surprising that its history, until recently, has been largely written by its enemies. Indeed, many of the “classics” of American business and economic history suffer from a profound animus on the part of the authors toward the economic system of the United States. Among the books in this tradition are History of the Great American Fortunes by Gustavus Myers, History of the Standard Oil Company by Ida Tarbell, and The Rise of American Civilization by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard.

One of the most famous books of this ilk is The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 by Matthew Josephson, first published in 1934 (not a good year for capitalism) and still very much in print after 70 years. It is, to be sure, a great read, and it was the book that firmly established the previously obscure phrase robber barons in the American lexicon as the collective term for the capitalists of the Gilded Age. But it is deeply tendentious and dishonest, exhibiting just about every intellectual sin it is possible for a historian to commit, not to mention the fact that much of the “research” seems to have been lifted from Gustavus Myers.

However, there have always been books written by people who find business and economic history as fascinating as I do and have no ax to grind (or, perhaps, they grind the same axes I do, so I’m less apt to notice). Here are 10 books that have had a particularly big impact on me over the years.

Panic on Wall Street: A History of America’s Financial Disasters

by Robert Sobel (1968; Beard Books). This may have been the first book of explicitly business history I ever read, and I loved every page of it. Sobel’s book is the tale of 12 great panics that hit Wall Street between 1792 and 1962. He tells their stories with clarity and sets each clearly in the economic context of its time without burdening the reader with unnecessary theory. The book is still in print in paperback after more than 35 years, no small compliment to the author by the marketplace.

Morgan: American Financier

by Jean Strouse (1999; HarperCollins). J. P. Morgan was the most powerful banker in American history and arguably the most powerful banker who ever lived. As he didn’t suffer fools gladly and made little attempt at fostering good public relations, it is not surprising that he became the lightning rod for all who hated Wall Street in an era when the gold standard was an urgent political issue. For the first time in a full-length biography, Jean Strouse gives us not only the extraordinarily competent banker but also the passionate art collector, the father, the friend, and the man of his times. It is a masterpiece.

Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of the Steam Age

by Wheaton J. Lane (1942; Knopf; out of print). Written only eight years after The Robber Barons, Lane’s biography of the Commodore gives a completely different picture of this man, who fully deserves his more-than-life-size statue (commissioned by himself) in front of Grand Central Terminal in New York. Fiercely competitive, Vanderbilt went from Staten Island farm boy to one of the richest self-made men in New York City by providing safe, cheap transportation to the New York public. A contemporary perfectly captured Vanderbilt’s business ethics: “The Commodore’s word is as good as his bond when it is freely given. He is equally exact in fulfilling his threats.”

How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World