If a person had to choose a single lens for viewing all of American history, it would be hard to choose one more instructive than that of economic enterprise. From the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, Americans have spent more time trying to make a living than doing just about anything else. They are hardly unique in this regard, but in no country has the economic imperative been given such scope over so long a period as in the United States. Calvin Coolidge famously declared the business of America to be business; he might as justly have said the history of America was business, broadly construed.
The Jamestown colony was a commercial enterprise, directed by the Virginia Company. After some dismal early years, the company found its footing with the cultivation of tobacco. When the supply of labor fell short of demand, the Virginians imported Africans as slaves. The institution took root, and though in time it ramified into other aspects of American life, slavery remained first and foremost an economic institution. When, after independence, its economic value in the Northern states declined relative to its political and social costs, it was abandoned there. Southern critics of slavery, including Henry Clay, hoped the same forces of economic evolution that had doomed the slavery in the North would spread southward, prompting Southerners to end it as well. Secession, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation intervened.
Meanwhile industrialization was beginning to revolutionize American life, transforming America from an agrarian society with predominantly rural values to an industrial society centered on cities and the cities’ novel mores and expectations. Immigration, driven chiefly by the economic hopes of immigrants, rose to record levels, in time alarming voters and politicians sufficiently that they sharply curtailed the influx. A working class—a large group of men and women expecting to labor for wages most of their lives—emerged and made political demands of its own, eventually winning protection for unions as the bargaining agents of workers.
The engine of enterprise didn’t operate smoothly. Industrialization introduced Americans to the phenomenon of economic depressions, which occurred with dismaying regularity. The depression of the 1870s cast millions out of work; the depression of the 1890s was even deeper and more damaging. The 1910s witnessed the start of a plunge, but the outbreak of war in Europe staved it off by boosting demand for American products. The worst depression of all made the 1930s the most excruciating decade in American history, save that of the Civil War.
The misfiring of the economic engine triggered compensating changes in the political system. Besides ushering in protection for the rights of workers, the Great Depression of the 1930s caused the federal government to create a safety net for Americans sidelined by layoffs, injury or advancing years. Amid the criticism of American capitalism for failing the country during the depression, insightful observers noted that capitalism was what had made Social Security and other elements of the welfare state possible, by making Americans productive enough to afford them.
Never was American productivity more decisive than during World War II. Brave as they were, American GIs were probably no more courageous than the soldiers of the British empire or more determined than those of the Soviet Red Army; what made the American side unbeatable was the breathtaking productivity of the American economy. As Franklin Roosevelt predicted, the United States became the “arsenal of democracy”; it also became the arsenal of Soviet communism, Chinese nationalism and pretty much any other country or movement willing to fight the fascists.
And after the fascists were defeated, the American economy made the United States the linchpin of a new order in global affairs. In 1945 America’s industrial production roughly equaled that of the rest of the world combined. American leaders leveraged this dominance to fashion an international economic regime based on free trade and the American dollar.
The “American century”—so named by Henry Luce, the propagandist par excellence of American business—was a period of great growth not simply in the United States but in the world at large. American-led globalization enriched America’s foes from World War II, Germany and Japan, and subsequently America’s Cold War rival China. In the process it elevated the living standards of billions of people. Extreme poverty fell by more than two-thirds in the quarter-century after 1990, from 36 percent to 10 percent, according to the World Bank. Never in human history had so many lives improved so much so swiftly.
Not everyone was delighted. In the United States, globalization was blamed for the loss of manufacturing jobs, for an increase in inequality, and for a lack of accountability in globe-spanning corporations. The charges, which echoed comparable complaints from populists and progressives in the early days of industrialization, produced a backlash against business and a fascination with something its supporters vaguely called “democratic socialism.”
Whether American enterprise has been a force for bad or good is beside the point, from the perspective of its historical importance. The undeniable fact is that it has been a powerful force, shaping every important American institution and touching the lives of every man, woman and child in this country.
Yet for all its significance in determining how we’ve lived, American enterprise has received comparatively little attention from historians. Distaste for what is cast as money-grubbing accounts for part of the neglect; in certain sectors of the historical profession, writing about something or someone is often interpreted as endorsing that thing or person.
More significant is the difficulty of getting a handle on such a sprawling, ubiquitous phenomenon. Prominent business figures have been studied; likewise some high-profile firms. Labor historians have examined unions and their members. But the story of how Americans have made their living—earned their daily bread, bought and sold goods and services, created jobs and companies, organized and innovated, bargained and battled in the marketplace—is scarcely less than the story of America itself. There’s almost nothing it doesn’t include, and no one it doesn’t touch.
It’s also the secret to America’s enduring appeal to the rest of the world. For every immigrant who came for religious or political freedom, there were a score or a hundred who came for economic opportunity—for the chance to make better lives for themselves and their children. They didn’t all succeed, but enough did that they kept coming, by the millions and millions, sometimes in the face of daunting adversity. The American dream has always been a material dream, for the most part; and humans, whatever else they are, are material beings. Everybody eats.
H.W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Masters of Enterprise and other books on American history.
Editor's note: The National Association of Scholars, through its 1620 Project, aims to recruit historians and scholars of all sorts to assemble a comprehensive riposte to the 1619 Project. Their goal is not to erase the history of slavery but to put it in an accurate historical context.
Read our other essays in the series "America is Hopelessly Racist" and "Slavery Did Not Make America Rich."