Saturday, March 16, 2013


A review of Charles Morris’ The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy (2006) 

(Rating 4 of 5)

Charles Morris’ book deals with how the United States went from a patched together society after the Civil War to having one of the most powerful economies in the history of the world.  Many historians have clashed over the ‘great man’ theory and social history, this book gives you a bit of both.  The world was changing and that change was going to come regardless of who was in charge.  Nevertheless, these four individuals were responsible for the direction that it ultimately took.

From what I know of political history I came into this book thinking Jay Gould was something of a creep and this book did nothing change my mind.  It is amazing how a person can an act in such a manner that laws would have to be created to prevent someone from ever acting that way again.
Jay Gould

“Then, in the summer of 1869, with his railroad wars raging on every side, and the outcome still hanging in the balance, Gould launched, or was swept up in, the infamous Fisk-Gould ‘Gold Corner’.  It is one of the most notorious episodes in American financial history, one that demonstrates not only Gould’s own self-destructive streak but also the fragility of America’s postwar financial markets and the openness of the corruption.  The Gold Corner forever fixed the image of Gould as the evil genius of Wall Street; even worse from Gould’s perspective, it destroyed an important ally in his railroad wars, fatally tipping the balance against him.” (p.69)
Andrew Carnegie is known as the good entrepreneur, manly for his charity that he displayed for many years.  He some ways he reminds me of Thomas Jefferson who would publicly talk about the evils of slavery, even go so far and abolish the transatlantic slave trade during his presidency, while at the same time owning hundreds of slaves and freeing very few of them.  Carnegie would talk about doing good by his employees and often do badly by them.  Morris describes him as a man who was always obsessed that his employees were making too much and he was always looking for ways to slash their wages.

Andrew Carnegie

John D. Rockefeller was known as a man with a heart of stone.  However Morris shows he could be a ruthless businessman, but of the four subjects he was probably the nicest.  He was very rich man who could have used a better P.R. person.

“Although he often played rough he was surprisingly free of vindictiveness.  When he took over another man’s business, he generally paid a fair price, indeed, he often overpaid.  A typical ploy was to open his books to the target: any sensible man would understand that competition was hopeless and make a deal.  If a target was especially obdurate, rejecting all reasonable offers, a switch would turn and Rockefeller would suddenly unleash total blazing warfare on every front—price, supplies, access to transportation, land-use permits, whatever created pain.  When the target capitulated—they always did—the fair price offer would still be available, often with an offer to join the Rockefeller team.” (p.20)
John D. Rockefeller
Then there was J.P. Morgan, the banker.  He seems to be the elite of the elite in this book, although I think Rockefeller was richer. (Indeed, Morris thinks Rockefeller was richer than even Rockefeller himself was aware.)  Morgan’s role became so prominent that, in a way, he was the Federal Reserve before there was a federal reserve.  Morris points out that it was Morgan bailing out the government in the middle of multiple panics that the Federal Reserve was created in 1913.

JP Morgan


In addition to the giants, Morris discusses the rise of new type of Middle class, one whose role is to be the primary consumers of the new market.  Morris shows how houses would become homes and a new buying culture was to be created.              

This is a great book about how American business boomed in the years that followed the American Civil War.  It is an interesting take on the transformation of a culture.

{Video posted on YouTube by Randy King }

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