I’ve spent a good part of my retirement years deepening my liberal education by reading stuff I should have read decades ago. This classic of American history is from the library of my good friend and mentor, the late John Kirkland (who speed-read everything).
Williams, a prominent revisionist historian of the twentieth century, presents a detailed narrative of the evolving political economy of what became the United States. The narrative fleshes out an argument, and ultimately an appeal.
The argument is that this country has seen three successive political economies since the first English settlements in the early 17th century. The first, Mercantilism, borrowed and adapted from the British, saw the State as managing the development of the economy. The foundations of manufacturing industry were laid through protective tariffs, and the steadily advancing frontier underpinned growth of the domestic market. Mercantilism lasted from the colonial era to the rise of Andrew Jackson.
The second political economy was called The Age of Laissez Nous Faire, and it lasted for the bulk of the 19th century. Unlike Mercantilism, laissez nous faire wanted a State that would protect private property and facilitate the efforts of property owners to pursue their private interests. This went back to the economics of Adam Smith and the political economy of Social Darwinism, which held that the common interest would best be served by competition for private advantage, not by any State attempt to define the common interest.
Laissez Nous Faire led directly to the third political economy, The Age of Corporation Capitalism, which Williams considered still to be in process at his present day. Successful individuals like Carnegie or Rockefeller came to dominate the marketplace and to render illusory the idea that anyone who worked hard could get rich. Corporations emerged as a way of magnifying the power of the great magnates. The State made weak attempts to regulate the corporations, but its more prominent role was to facilitate their growth.
Unlike a conventional political history which would feature major events like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the New Deal, Williams puts such events in the context of the reigning political economy. Thus the Revolutionary War secured the political independence that enabled the American State to play its proper mercantilist role. The Civil War resolved the dilemma of slavery that had held back the full development of laissez faire. The New Deal consolidated and strengthened Corporation Capitalism.
Three features are present in all three political economies. First, the frontier provided a safety valve for discontent and a market for the products of expanding industry. And when, in the 20th century, the frontier was gone, the country turned to securing markets abroad, either through conventional imperialism or economic penetration.
A second constant was the absolute commitment to private property. Even major reform movements like the Populists did not advocate public control of any part of the economy.
The third constant was the emergence in each Age of a “class-conscious gentry” that could see beyond immediate conflicts of interest to guide the country as a whole toward what was seen as its best long-term interest. The Founding Fathers were such a gentry in the Age of Mercantilism. Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, among others, fulfilled the role in the Age of Laissez Nous Faire. Business leaders like Carnegie, and political leaders like the two Roosevelts were part of the new “Industrial Gentry.”
Each of the Gentries was limited in its power and confined by its own worldview. None could see beyond the frontier as essential to American prosperity, for example. Thus each of the Ages was, in its own way, a failure. Here Williams concludes his study by pleading that the study of history become “a way of breaking the chains of the past.” He calls hopefully for the advent of a socialist society, while lamenting how far the America of his day was from that goal.
How well have we responded to his plea? He cites with dismay that in 1958, the bottom 20 percent of American families received 4.7 percent of income, while the top 20 percent received 45.5 percent. In 2020, the Census Bureau reported that the bottom 20 percent got 3.6 percent, and the top quintile got 50.5 percent. I was surprised that the difference between 1958 and 2020 was not greater.
The chains of the past still hold us.