America's business

CONTEMPORARY Americans know the history of their nation in political terms: the era of the Founding Fathers, the rise of American democracy, the struggle of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the emergence of modern America. Largely neglected in this chronicle is the role of business, even though economic activities, unlike the political ones under a long string of weak Presidents and Congresses, are scarcely unimportant to the nation's development and stability. To be sure, by the late nineteenth century business would draw the attention of historians, but mostly to its negative side, such as the era of the ``robber barons.'' For the same reason, there would be focus on the business contribution to the coming of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the formation of the military-industrial complex, the spread of American imperialism, and similar untoward events of recent times. The tragedy of this one-sided interpretation is that the good that business people have done over the years has been interred with their bones. America was the world's finest and most successful capitalistic nation. From its earliest days, business theory and practice were evident, although often camouflaged by intellectual and political matters that took center stage. What is more, the growth of America's capitalistic system was seldom easy, and usually an enormous challenge. At first, the challenge was a wilderness environment, then it was a system of religious values that attempted to put significant restraints on the accumulation of wealth. By the mid-eighteenth century the challenge was whether to accept a stable, slow-growth economic environment that British mercantilism illustrated, or to chart an independent and, perhaps, perilous economic course as a new nation.

The challenges multiplied by the turn of the nineteenth century with the acquisition of new territory, the arrival of numerous immigrants and, most of all, the expansion of democracy. When applied to politics, democracy meant that virtually anyone could vote and hold office; when applied to business, it meant too many businessmen, some able, some not, thereby providing the ecstasy of boom times and quick growth and the agony of sharp collapses and lengthy recovery periods. The challenge to stabilize this frantic situation was met not by government, which perferred a predominantly laissez-faire approach to economic matters, but by businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. And when government did enter the scene in the twentieth century, the challenge to businessmen was to continue America's economic growth while ensuring that government regulations under new predicaments - including entry into major wars - would be honored....

Americans have viewed business positively from the perspective of their times. Increasingly, it was the business system that Americans turned to in solving their economic problems - even the first roads and canals, usually thought to be public projects, were the products of private individuals extolled for their enterprising genius.

Foreign visitors flocked to the United States for a glimpse of America's state-of-the-art technology, and even circumspect British observers on rare occasions were forced to exude a bit of emotion over the expert ways of businessmen ``in the colonies.'' Although many of the 30 million immigrants who came to America in the nineteenth century became farmers, more entered the industrial labor force with the aspiration of moving onward and upward in the business community. Not a few became inventors and businessmen whose products transformed American life - and for the better. In sum, ``made in the U.S.A.'' was a term of endearment over much of the nation's history. And that past has created a contemporary business system - what I call a mature business civilization - that still has enormous strength and attractiveness.

From ``Made in the U.S.A.: The History of American Business,'' by Thomas V. DiBacco. Copyright 1987. By permission of Harper & Row Publishers Inc. Mr. DiBacco is a historian at the American University and a frequent Monitor contributor.

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