Sven Beckert.  The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 

      New York City’s upper class, according to Sven Beckert, rose to economic dominance and united into a distinct social class between 1850 and 1900.  Beckert examines how this upper class elite, which he refers to as the bourgeoisie1, obtained power through the ownership of capital in order to become “structurally dominant”.2  His main argument, and where he departs from other scholars in this field, is that the New York bourgeoisie, comprised of bankers, industrialists, and professionals, evolved to become one, defined, self-conscious group by the end of the 1890’s.  Although Beckert highlights both the instability of this elite group, caused by the lack of aristocracy coupled with constant social mobility, and its diversity of nationalities, religious and political beliefs, Beckert maintains that the coherence within the bourgeoisie eventually overcame these various differences to become one unified class.3 

      Beckert frames his narrative with a description of Bradley and Cornelia Martin’s costume ball held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on February 10th, 1897.  The Martin’s seven hundred guests, composed of professionals, merchants, bankers, and industrialists, came to the ball adorned in satin and precious gems and dressed as famous nobility, such as Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. Given the ball’s lavishness, opulence, and its timing, held during the most severe depression of the 19th century, it attracted significant media attention and quickly became a popular topic of discussion among the general public.   The Martins defended the ball by claiming that it would “give an impetus to trade”4, the general sentiment against such a rationalization during an economic depression prompted increased security for the ball, including boarding up the first floor hotel windows, to ward off “thieves or…men of socialist tendencies”5.  For Beckert, the Martin’s ball serves as an overarching metaphor for the structural class framework that he applies to this study of the making of the bourgeoisie.  The ball demonstrates the shift away from the elite’s belief in frugality of 1850’s to its indulgence in decadence of the 1890’s.6  And perhaps most profoundly, the ball illustrates the increasingly conscious delineation between the classes, represented by the bourgeoisie’s action of literally shutting out the working class from the ball by boarding up the hotel windows.   

   In The Monied Metropolis, Beckert employs a “class-formation approach”7, which maintains that the notion that class functions on many related levels (levels such as overall economic structure, social organization, and collective actions of the elite) is essential to understanding the emergence of the bourgeoisie.  Using this approach, Beckert assigns equal significance to social behaviors at balls as to changes in incorporation law in terms of what they illuminate about the formation of the economic elite.8 Beckert argues that the bourgeoisie became more consolidated in reaction to working class formation.9  His methodology applies the class-formation approach to analyze the making of the bourgeoisie during three time periods; the 1850’s, the 1860’s, and 1873-1896, and he organizes the book into three sections reflecting this chronological scheme.

   In the 1850’s, merchants and manufacturers comprised New York City’s elite upper class.  Merchants were old money, “Wall Street gentry”10, well-educated, residents of Washington Square and Union Square neighborhoods, most of whom amassed their capital in banking and in trade.11  Manufacturers, by contrast, were “artisans turned manufacturers,” 12 who had more recently acquired money from profits in industry, who came from lower classes, and who lived in the mixed neighborhoods of the 16th and 20th Wards, along Fifth Avenue from 14th Street to 40th Street, oftentimes residing near their factories.13 Beckert pinpoints Peter Cooper, whom George Templeton Strong referred to as a “self-made millionaire glue-boiler”14, as a typical manufacturer, despite his extraordinary wealth.15  Peter Cooper’s Cooper Union, established to educate the working-class, for Beckert, symbolizes the industrialist’s worldview and “desire for stewardship of the community.”16  The hallmark of the 1850’s is the social divide between the merchants and manufacturers on the part of their differing ideologies and worldviews.17  Beckert maintains that these differences between merchants and manufacturers resulted in political conflicts and contested control of public spaces.18

      In the second section of the book, Beckert examines the effect of the Civil War on New York’s upper class, arguing that the war was revolutionary because its destroyed slavery and the political power of slaveholders, but also, because “it facilitated changes in business, politics, and beliefs of city’s economic elite.”19  For Beckert, the bourgeoisie made itself in and through the Civil War because of the strengthening of power of bankers and manufactures, who came together to support the Union, as illustrated in the Union Square demonstration which Beckert describes in this section of the book.20

      Beckert then turns to the period between 1873 and 1896 in the final third of the book.  He states that during these decades “conflicts with the city’s working class, as well as a restructuring of economic power relations among bourgeois New Yorkers, led to an increasing articulation of separate identities, socially, ideologically, and at times politically.”21  Beckert sees the Panic of 1873 as a central and an important break in the history of the bourgeoisie because the depression “shattered their postwar dream of unending prosperity.”22 Furthermore, it is during the years following 1873 that the upper class of New York abandoned Reconstruction in the South and began to formulate their own distinct class identity.23  It is after 1873 that the increasing nationalization of city’s upper class occurs.  Whereas Peter Cooper embodied the typical local manufacture and industrialist of the 1850’s,  Andrew Carnegie represented that national-scale industrialist of the 1880’s and the 1890’s.24  Following the depression of 1873, increased unity developed among the upper class of merchants, bankers, and industrialists, in reaction to working class formation.25  Beckert closes his narrative by stating that despite the cohesion of elites, they were not able to amass absolute political power.26

      By emphasizing the cohesion of bourgeoisie, Beckert’s argument is in direct opposition to that of David C. Hammack, who argues that the elites remained fragmented elites at end of 19th century.  In Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century, Hammack describes New York’s economic transformation from a 19th century mercantile economy to an industrial economy.27  Hammack argues that between 1880 and 1910 several “competing elites”, each holding power over certain sectors, co-existed in New York City.  These political, economic, ethnic, and religious elites were involved in significant policy decisions and were compelled to form alliances with each other and with non-elites in order to forward their agendas. Because the elites were not unified, pressure groups representing the lower and middle classes were able to influence outcomes of policy decisions forcing elites to compromise.  To prove his argument, Hammack examines the three major policy decisions which resulted in (1) the consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater New York, (2) the planning and financing of the city’s first subway, and (3) the centralization of the public school system.28 

      In contrast to Hammack, Beckert has chosen to focus on economic consensus among elite, rather than on the political decisions that Hammock analyses. However, it seems that both Beckert and Hammack would agree that elites gained economic power first and then went on to exert this power in the realms of the political and the social.

Likewise, Beckert and Hammack both conclude that hegemony was elusive for the upper class.29  But, the notion of the upper class being unable to achieve hegemony appears somewhat counter intuitive to the idea of the cohesion of elites into one unified group.  If elites were unable to attain hegemony, this phenomenon seems to better support the idea of fragmented elites as espoused by Hammack.

      At the risk of asking the author to write a different book, using a more comparative model may have strengthened Beckert’s argument. He states “it is striking, indeed, that nowhere else in the world did an economic elite emerge as powerful as that of New York City effectively making the United States the most bourgeois of all nineteenth-century societies.”30  Yet, it is hard to gain a deep understanding of New York as unique with regard to the rise of the elite, when it is not compared to other cities.   Despite this shortcoming, Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 makes an important contribution to the literature of the urban upper class and to the history of the American elite.