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Home Uncategorized The Business of America

The Business of America

Emmet Oliver
The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States, by Benjamin C Waterhouse, Simon and Schuster, 280pp, €28, ISBN: 978-1476766645 Calvin Coolidge, thirtieth president of the United States, is really only remembered these days for a) being president during the Roaring Twenties and b) for not saying very much during the Roaring Twenties. He was once approached by the writer Dorothy Parker, who told him she’d made a bet with a fellow who said it was impossible to get Coolidge to say more than two words: to which the tight-lipped Coolidge acidly replied: “You lose.” While Coolidge may have spared his words, he gave us one great piercing aphorism that probably to this day sums up the essence of the country he led for a spell. “The chief business of the American people is business,” Coolidge said in 1925, and it is this supposed general truth that many find explains this great contradictory nation. It also may explain specific American political and social phenomena, including ones we live with today, all the way from President Donald Trump to the Internet. While Coolidge’s observation seems rather definitive, the real relationship between business and America has been a little more ambiguous, as it has been in other parts of the world, including in Ireland where buccaneer business executives like Michael O’Leary are loved and loathed in equal measure. But in terms of historical accuracy, Coolidge was right: the business of America literally from its foundation as a group of settlements on the east coast was business. The first English colonies – Virginia and Massachusetts ‑ were actually private companies. The founding fathers made sure the constitution, drafted in 1787, affirmed the central place of business in early American politics. The Civil War pivoted on the issue of slavery which again was linked directly to the business of cotton farming. Earlier, the Revolutionary War was about taxation of goods and services and a key constituency in that conflict were British businessmen and merchants exporting to America. Without their pressure on their own parliament, America might not have become independent until well into the nineteenth century. While Benjamin Waterhouse’s new book persuasively demonstrates Coolidge’s axiom (via a simple and neat chronological history), it makes a bigger impact by teasing out the ambiguities that mark the relationship all societies have with business and the capitalist instinct. It also shows how the professed respect…

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