A couple of years ago I audited a fascinating EdX course offered by Cornell on the history of American capitalism. It’s now archived.
Benjamin C. Waterhouse’s book The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2017) surveys much of the same terrain, albeit in a more abbreviated form. The text of the book is less than 200 pages. And yet, even though the book ranges from the European “exploration, exploitation, and ultimate inhabitation of the New World” to the fallout from the financial crisis, it is not superficial. Waterhouse highlights “the most important historical developments, especially changes in business practices, the evolution of different industries and sectors, and the complex relationship between business and national politics.”
Take, for instance, the rise of general incorporation laws. Before 1800 corporate charters “had to be granted by the sovereign—the king or Parliament in colonial times; the state or federal legislature after independence.” Charters were issued to only 335 businesses during the entire eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century states started granting corporate charters administratively rather than legislatively, making the process a lot less cumbersome. “In 1811, New York became the first state to enact such a law for manufacturing firms. In 1837, Connecticut became the first state to allow general incorporation for any kind of business. And by 1870, every state had some type of general incorporation law on the books.”
Or consider corporate opposition to environmentalism in the 1960s and 70s. Responding to new standards enacted in 1970 that limited automobile emissions, Chrysler claimed that “citizens have been needlessly frightened” about air pollution. In general, critics of the environmental movement, “conservatives as well as many labor unions,” worried about the social costs—“shuttered factories or higher-priced products”—that would result from stricter environmental regulations. Advocates of environmentalism, according to the president of the Heritage Foundation, were “zero-growth zanies. … Zero growth may help the elites, who can go out and till their organic gardens and watch the sun come up from the serenity of their redwood hot tubs, but it doesn’t do much for those among us who are still trying to make it up the economic ladder.”
Waterhouse is an academic, but The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States should appeal to a popular audience. It’s a most palatable introduction to American business, and by extension social and political, history. And it serves as an informative backdrop to what we’re seeing today.