Harry S. Stout. American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2017. 432 pp. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-09898-9.
Reviewed by Andy Forney (Texas Christian University and US Army)
Published on H-War (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Land—its nature, its expanse, its acquisition—is an American cultural constant. Whether a Turnerarian or not, one would be hard-pressed to claim that the interaction of European cultural ways, later practiced by the majority of those in the United States, with the reality of North America’s physical geography did not create a uniquely American experience. Even today, the prospect of home ownership—acquiring and possessing one’s own land—serves as a guiding goal in American life. For generations, Americans have bound their vision of the American Dream, for good and ill, to the possession of personal property. From this vision came other ideas that provided context to the American experience: capitalism and democracy, monopoly and slavery. At its core, the reality of land, and lots of it, underpinned what many thought and hoped America would be.
The antebellum Anderson family felt this way. As Harry S. Stout argues in his book American Aristocrats, the Andersons’ lives provide a microcosm of how Americans in the antebellum period came to view land as the defining element in their lives. “At a profound level,” he writes in the work’s introduction, “the promise of personal property surfaces as the driving engine in American history” (p. xiv). From the time the family’s original patriarch, Richard Clough Anderson, first set foot in Boston in 1773, land—measuring it, mapping it, buying it, and selling it—consumed the Anderson men. Their lives became intertwined with the young nation’s thirst for new lands, Stout claims, as notions of freedom and entrepreneurship became intertwined with the acquisition of land along an ever-expanding frontier.
While the “America as land” thesis is not a new one (Thomas Jefferson understood it as such as he hoped that the expansion of the United States would create an “Empire of Liberty” made up of free landowners), Stout adds an interesting wrinkle. As he meticulously traces in the correspondence of several generations of Anderson men, the acquisition of land generated a sense of anxiety tied to maintaining this land and the prestige it afforded. Thus the possession of land came to be tied with a new definition of “aristocracy”: wealth in land accrued social capital and political connections based on the perceived value of what one possessed. The loss of land, and the bedeviling scarcity of hard currency, created a fluid economic environment that invited both speculation to increase one’s station, but also hand-wringing over the possibility of precipitous social decline. Such an understanding of an individual’s economic predilections strays from a traditional conception of a “rational actor” model of motives and instead describes “irrational actions” based on social and psychological perceptions.
As Stout argues, this anxiety often led to risky behavior, both economically and physically. Richard Anderson Jr. held legislative office at the state and federal level following the War of 1812, but economic issues in Kentucky dogged him throughout his multiple tenures in office. Using a potent mixture of family contacts, political benefactors, and economic connections, Richard gained a nomination to the US ambassadorship to the new nation of Colombia in 1823. Richard freely accepted the position, the guarantee of a regular salary making up for the dangers of tropical disease and revolutionary instability. Within three years, Richard had cleared his debts, helped fashion the first trade treaty between the United States and Colombia, and died from yellow fever (along with his wife and a nephew). In the same vein, Richard’s younger brother, Charles, sought to capitalize on the Texas land boom of the 1850s by acquiring land (on credit) for a farm to breed race horses. A staunch Unionist, Charles and his family had to escape capture and flee through the night into Mexico after Texas’s secession in 1861. “American elites,” Stout states, “may have been dedicated and courageous, but many were also pulled by avarice to gamble with their lives and the lives of their loved ones” (p. 149).
At the macrohistorical level, American Aristocrat’s narrative complicates many of the existing perspectives about the early national period of US history and the socioeconomic changes of the antebellum period. Stout acknowledges that the “Market Revolution,” the development of an interconnected national and international economy throughout the United States, rests “always in the picture” (p. xix). Although the Anderson clan’s desire for land and capital investment feels modern and seems an indicator of a larger trend, their reliance on kinship networks and domestic production runs counter to this idea and speaks to premodern forms of economic activity. Stout sees the Andersons as “at the intersection of the traditional and the modern, where people still interacted in local, face-to-face networks, knew each other, and identified themselves and other local families in hierarchies of property and authority” (p. xi). Stout, and the Andersons, charts the development of a market economy in the early United States, but it proved an uneven process that was national in scale (at times), rested on the vagaries of hard currency (at times), and required regular involvement by the federal government (at times).
This latter point reveals a contradiction within Stout’s work. He describes the market development outlined above as “the outlines of an emergent laissez-faire capitalist system that observed few restraints” (p. xix). But the Andersons viewed their economic activities as part of a national project and relied on the government, and particularly the federal government, to protect their investments and personal property. Starting with the initial patriarch, successive generations of Anderson men tied their interests to the strength of the federal government. Richard Clough Anderson’s role in the American Revolution defined his life, both as a metaphorical guarantor of the nation’s independence, but also as the means to gain a profession as a government survey general and land through veterans’ bounties. This conceptual and concrete linkage, nationalism bound with personal economic interests, defined the Andersons’ trajectory through the American Civil War. The family readily identified themselves as part of the greater national project, foregoing localism for a steady belief in the power of the federal government to protect private property and underwrite their economic activity. The Andersons’ rise to prominence, striking in its scope and speed, relied heavily on federal policies that favored expansion and capital accumulation.
Chief among these policies was the antebellum federal government’s acquiescence to, if not outright support for, slavery. Stout, however, gives this fact short shrift in his narrative. The uniqueness of the Anderson clan’s lived experience prior to the Civil War belies some inherent truths about capital accumulation and land in the early American Republic. While Stout acknowledges that the United States prohibited the spread of slavery into the lands of the Old Northwest, by choosing to focus his narrative on the Andersons and their spread west from Virginia, he exposes the transregional nature of slavery beyond the South. Several recent works about the American Midwest have outlined the permeable nature of the Ohio River as a boundary to slavery. The fact that an economically successful slaveholding family—here the Andersons—acquired land above and below the Ohio River is significant to how we envision the transfer of political and social ideas among family and social networks before the Civil War. Aside from focusing on the psychological pressures of maintaining status, Stout foregoes such a discussion. He also accepts that the majority of Anderson men who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union without fully plumbing the reasons why.
Stout discusses the Andersons’ relationship to slavery, but as an aside to their acquisitions of land. His narrative, so focused on the generation of American capitalism, thus only deals with half of the story. Slavery undergirded the development of capitalist America by supplying cheap labor needed to work the ever-expanding lands of the slave South, but also by providing a ready source of capital in a nation hard-pressed to circulate hard currency on either side of slavery’s divide. As Richard Anderson prepared his finances for his impending campaign for the Kentucky legislature during 1815, he debated purchasing land in Indiana and other free states alongside further purchases in Kentucky. He also sold slaves to reverse his dwindling fortunes prior to receiving his ambassadorship in Colombia, although he maintained several slaves for his trip to the new nation. The very transregional scope (and international in Richard’s case) of the Anderson’s acquisitiveness displays the intermingled nature of land and slavery in antebellum America; Stout’s narrative pays it paltry attention.
By cataloging the fortunes and anxieties of a successful antebellum family, American Aristocrats allows modern observers to gauge the power of family and social networks in the generation of capitalism, argues against a traditional “rational actor” model of economic development by describing the psychological pressure of status, and challenges some of the bedrock historiographical theories at the foundation of our understanding of America before the Civil War. These are not insignificant ideas to explore. But the very nature of the Anderson experience—its transregional character, ties to the federal government, and interweaving within a larger narrative of slavery and capitalism—deserves much further attention.
. Christopher Phillips, The Rivers Ran Backwards: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Andy Forney. Review of Stout, Harry S., American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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