Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 2008


Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 4, Fall 2008, pp. 259-75.


Copyright 2008 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


In the years after the Civil War, the United States experienced tremendous economic growth. Entrepreneurs such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie built giant corporate businesses that dominated entire industries. The practice of vertical integration- in which a single business controlled all aspects of production and marketing-drew workers from different areas together under the same employers. Moreover, the corporations conducted interstate commerce, and they became powerful enough to drive competitors out of business. With their smaller rivals removed, the corporations were free to market their goods across the United States. As efforts to foster economic prosperity continued into the twentieth century, they began to include reforms, indicating that private business does not have to be incompatible with public welfare.

Corporate business growth was the natural outcome of American liberalism. Liberalism, in its nineteenth-century sense, may be defined as a retreat from traditional authority. Without a king or a strong central government, private individuals were left to their own devices. The ones who had the means were able to assume leading roles in society. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, different views of American liberalism appeared. Thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson vilified strong national government as the principal threat to liberty. Federalists, and later Whigs, took a different view. They believed that government aid to private enterprise, as well as internal improvements, would help the United States prosper.