Brahmin Boston and the Politics of Interconnectedness

By Noam Maggor, Cornell University

The first age of globalization between around 1870 and World War I created a strategic new role for cities, making them into pivotal sites for the worldwide movement of capital, goods, and labor. And yet, urbanization was never merely derivative of this larger process. Cities were more than nodes in wide-ranging networks or points where faraway connections became localized. They emerged, rather, as places where global integration was itself produced and forged, always via social and political conflict.

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The posh Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, circa 1870. Orderly and homogeneous, it looked visually and architecturally similar to the capitals of Europe, signaling a retreat from the surrounding industrial landscape and embodying the cosmopolitan sensibilities of a unified upper class.

The city of Boston assumed the attributes of a “global city” in this period as its preeminent business leaders pulled away from the manufacturing economy of its adjoining region and turned toward far-flung business ventures. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Boston’s fortunes were deeply linked to the industrial towns that surrounded it. In those years, the streams and waterfalls of the New England countryside, the area’s arteries of transportation, the docks and wharfs in Boston Harbor, and the city’s banking institutions all pulsated with the ebbs and flows of textile production. After the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, with cotton manufacturing entering an era of squeezed profits and relative decline, the city’s “Brahmin” elite mobilized to recast Boston as a major North American financial center. Embracing new business “opportunities” in mines, stockyards, and railroads in the Great American West, these businessmen re-made the city’s financial district into a base of operations for ventures far and wide – in Michigan, Kansas, Illinois, and, increasingly, Colorado, Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon. Bostonian investments played a leading role in fueling a capitalist penetration of the continent’s deep interiors – the American equivalent of efforts elsewhere at the time to harness vast territories into the world economy, in Latin America, India, and Africa.

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Mexican Central Railway train at station, circa 1890. The largest private enterprise in Mexico under Porfirio Diaz, financed and managed from downtown Boston.

The pivot to the West thoroughly financialized Boston’s business district, whose prosperity was decoupled from regional industrial growth. A new vanguard group of investment bankers from within the elite – scions of prominent New England families like Henry Lee Higginson, Nathaniel Thayer, and Charles F. Adams Jr. – came to the fore, eclipsing the former dominance of cotton industrialists. The number of financial firms in the business district proliferated, reaching two hundred by 1868, including investment banks, brokerage firms, and national banks. Downtown became home to the headquarters of national corporations such as the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Kansas City Stockyards Company, and Calumet and Hecla Copper Mining Company (of Michigan). Whereas these companies conducted no actual business in New England, their boards of directors, as well as top executive offices, were populated with Bostonians, who made management decisions on behalf of Bostonian shareholders. The new business orientation toward trans-regional investments readily crossed national borders. It allowed a Boston investment firm such as Kidder, Peabody & Co. to serve as the exclusive American agents of the London giant Baring Brothers, thereby facilitating the influx of British capital into the American economy. It also made Boston into the unlikely headquarters of the Mexican Central Railway, running between El Paso and Mexico City, which Bostonians incorporated in Massachusetts and then financed under favorable terms that were granted by Mexican President Porfirio Diaz (including hefty construction subsidies, tax breaks, and army protection).

Boston’s new economic orientation – entailing a sharp turn toward a new capitalist geography – was a controversial political proposition. This type of transition could not proceed merely in the private realm of business, in the city’s financial district and in enterprises halfway across the continent. It took place, more soberly and closer to home, within urban government, where the economic future of the city became enmeshed in a series of controversies. City government thus became a key site where the relationship between Boston and the broader political economy of the continent was negotiated and debated. This was not merely a battle between competing legislative agendas but a contest between rival visions of the modern city and its position within the political economy of North America.

The two contending urban visions could not have been more diametrically opposed. For Boston’s elite men of business, who looked for profitable ways to deploy their large pools of capital, the shift away from the manufacturing economy of the region seemed straightforward enough. They saw the growth of Boston as a financial hub as vital for bright economic prospects. For most other Bostonians, this shift represented a dubious proposition. They were skeptical that Boston’s ever-growing banking resources, invested elsewhere, would trickle down and benefit the urban population as a whole. They rallied in city politics to implement a very different vision of metropolitan development.

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George Putnam School, on Columbus Avenue in Roxbury, built in 1881. These types of ambitious public buildings, catering to a growing urban population in the outlying districts of Boston, were at the core of the metropolitan pattern of development, as envisioned by city government. Elites warned against the high cost associated with this construction.

Urban leaders in the democratically elected city government, where the business elite had no presence and exercised little direct influence, came primarily from the upper strata of the working class: neighborhood businessmen, skilled workers, mechanics, and tradesmen. Vindicated by their triumph over slavery in the Civil War, men like Charles Slack, a radical abolitionist printer, and Thomas Hills, a passionately egalitarian upholsterer turned tax assessor, forged a powerful political challenge to the elite’s policy designs. These men were keen, not on turning away from manufacturing, but rather on democratizing their “industrial commonwealth.” With these priorities in mind, they drastically expanded the territorial jurisdiction of the city and used robust public spending on infrastructure and services – roads, water pipes, sewers, parks, schools, and more – to promote dynamic and broad-based metropolitan development. These efforts yielded meaningful gains for wide segments of the population. They swelled the diverse industrial base of the city and enlarged the urban housing stock, creating a large population of working-class homeowners.

Elites viewed these municipal policies as counterproductive, distasteful, and, in the long term, potentially disastrous. In raising taxes and siphoning off precious resources toward neighborhood development, these programs threatened to derail Boston’s ascent as a financial powerhouse. Instead of funding metropolitan infrastructure, these affluent men contended, the city should focus its attention on trans-regional connections, nurturing “fresh channels through which the wealth of the newly-developed West could be poured into her lap.”[1] Instead of empowering municipal authorities to shape economic conditions, city government should step back and allow capital to flow freely to other regions in search of high returns. “It was undeniably better,” they made the case, “that Boston should send her capital forth to civilize, enlighten, and educate the world than that she should sit supreme upon a few hills, and reign over a single port.”[2]

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The Boston Stock Exchange, circa 1895. Trading on the floor increasingly focused on the shares of out-of-state corporations, facilitating the interregional transfer of capital.

Economic interconnectedness emerged in this context, not as a spontaneous market process, but as a set of inescapably political questions. This was emphatically not a contest between forward-looking cosmopolitans and reactionary localists, who opposed economic integration as such. It was, rather, a conflict between competing approaches to city building, with conflicting notions about the fundamental terms of market formation. These two visions dictated drastically different priorities for city government and therefore necessarily clashed when core policy issues – taxes, spending, infrastructure, use of public space, and more – came on the agenda.

The collision between competing urban visions demonstrates how a global history perspective can enliven urban history, without abandoning the contextual, finely-grained analysis that has been the hallmark of the field. Urban history has traditionally examined cities as discrete containers of social and political processes, not as interconnected sites in a larger political economy. This approach has analyzed cities as stand-ins for the nation-state and tended to push supra-local geographical trajectories into an unexamined backdrop. As a result, scholars have written off large swaths of policy questions that animated urban politics as economically immaterial. Greater attention to the changing position of a city in larger geographies instead opens up these political spaces as terrains for fresh inquiry. It recasts what had often been dismissed as the domain of ethnic jealousies and venal corruption, as arenas of surprisingly substantive contests over the institutional underpinnings of worldwide economic integration.

Urban history, likewise, can insert a much-needed political dimension into the history of economic integration and the history of globalization more broadly. Lost in many accounts of globalization that are enamored with long-distance “networks” and infused with a sense of “global predestination” is a deeper appreciation that trans-territorial linkages are ever and always politically constituted, and hence also politically malleable. The logic of integration did not simply foist itself upon cities, nor was it merely “out there” for the residents of cities to accept or reject. Integration into larger economic systems was a historical process to be molded and shaped. Skeptics, therefore, could not be easily reduced to resentful “tribalists,” so-called “strangers in their own land” who were at odds with modernity or globalization. What might be – especially from the perspective of the current moment – misinterpreted flatly as instances of anti-globalization “backlash” contained far more complicated agendas. These were not merely inward-looking rejections of interconnectedness, but in many cases creative efforts to renegotiate, reorganize, and rearrange relationships with the larger world. In fleshing out these political struggles, urban history can, not only augment or add texture to existing accounts of globalization, but offer unique and critical new insights.

[1] Charles F. Adams, “Boston,” North American Review 106 (January 1868): 8.

[2] B. W. Harris, The Annexation Question: Closing Argument of B. W. Harris, Esq., for the Remonstrants against the Annexation of Dorchester to Boston, before the Committee on Towns of the Massachusetts Legislature (Boston: Rockwell and Rollins, 1869).

Noam Maggor is the author of Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age (Harvard University Press, 2017). His new book project, tentatively entitled “The United States as a Developing Nation” explores the integration of what became the American West into the economic orbit of the United States, aiming to position the western U.S. comparatively alongside other global peripheries that were pulled into the world economy in the late nineteenth century. He teaches courses on the history of capitalism and the history of globalization at Cornell University.

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