Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***