Wealth and Democracy : How Great Fortunes and Government Created America's Aristocracy
For more than thirty years, Kevin Phillips' insight into American politics and economics has helped to make history as well as record it. His bestselling books, including The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) and The Politics of Rich and Poor (1990), have influenced presidential campaigns and changed the way America sees itself. Widely acknowledging Phillips as one of the nation's most perceptive thinkers, reviewers have called him a latter-day Nostradamus and our "modern Thomas Paine." Now, in the first major book of its kind since the 1930s, he turns his attention to the United States' history of great wealth and power, a sweeping cavalcade from the American Revolution to what he calls "the Second Gilded Age" at the turn of the twenty-first century.
The influence of money on government is now, more then ever, a hot political issue. With a grand historical sweep that covers more than three centuries, Phillips's astute analysis of the effects of wealth and capital upon democracy is both eye-opening and disturbing. While his main thrust is an examination of "the increasing reliance of the American economy on finance," Phillips weaves a far wider, nuanced tapestry. Carefully building his arguments with telling detail (the growth of investment capitalism in Elizabethan England was essentially the result of privateering and piracy) and statistical evidence, he charts a long, exceptionally complicated history of interplay between governance and the accumulation of wealth. Explicating late-20th-century U.S. capitalism, for instance, by drawing comparisons to the technological advances and ensuing changes in commerce in the Renaissance, he also discusses how 18th-century Spanish colonialism is relevant to how "lending power began to erode... broad prosperity" in 1960s and '70s America. Finding detailed correspondences between the giddy greediness of America's Gilded Age (complete with a surprising quote from Walt Whitman "my theory includes riches and the getting of riches") and the "great technology mania and bubble of the 1990s," Phillips (The Cousins' War, etc.), noted NPR political analyst, notes that "the imbalance of wealth and democracy in the United States is unsustainable," as it was in highly nationalistic mid-18th-century Holland and late-19th-century Britain both of which underwent major social and political upheaval from the middle and underclasses. Lucidly written, scrupulously argued and culturally wide-ranging, this is an important and deeply original analysis of U.S. history and economics. (May 14) Forecast: Filled with tables and graphs and a rather dense text, this may be more talked-about than read, but talked-about it will be by commentators and pundits. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2001
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Excerpt from Wealth and Democracy by Kevin Phillips
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: FROM PRIVATEERSMEN TO ROBBER BARONS
The people who own the country ought to govern it.
--John Jay, first chief justice of the United States, 1787
Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress. --Andrew Jackson, veto of Second Bank charter extension, 1832
Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress and touches even the ermine of the bench. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. --National platform of the Populist Party, 1892
The debate over the compatibility of wealth and democracy is as old as the republic. From the start, concern that the egalitarian-seeming United States of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries might develop wealth concentrations to match Europe's was a worry for many but also the guarded hope of an important few.
Alexander Hamilton, who favored both a financial class and an aristocracy, would have cherished the possibility of such an elite. John Adams, who thought aristocracies inevitable, would not have been surprised. Thomas Jefferson brooded that such a danger could flow all too easily from urban growth, finance, and commerce. Richard Price, the British reformer friendly to the American Revolution, warned the new nation against foreign banks and finance; and Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1837, hedged his praise for democracy in America with concern that the new industrial elite, "one of the harshest that ever existed," would bring about the "permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy."