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Book Review

All Hail The Empire Builders

Maureen Farrell, 12.16.09, 12:01 AM EST

Larry Schweikart and Lynne Pierson Doti's ''American Entrepreneur.''

My hometown, Garden City, located on Long Island, N.Y., is perhaps the only five-mile stretch of land in the world where the legacy of Alexander Turney Stewart, the 19th century retail magnate, is woven into the elementary school history curriculum alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other Founding Fathers. As the founder of Garden City, the United States' first planned community, elementary school students are taught to regard Stewart as a hero.

Despite amassing millions of dollars in the mid- to late-19th century, Stewart left no heirs, gave little to charity and asked the trustee of his estate to liquidate his business--so the children of Garden City probably know more about Stewart than most historians. Aside from creating a town, he was a retail visionary who built one of the first department stores in the U.S., placing it on Fifth Avenue in New York; it became the largest importer in the U.S. and one of the leading dry goods merchants. Larry Schweikart and Lynne Pierson Doti, the authors of American Entrepreneur: The Fascinating Stories of the People Who Defined Business in the United States, devote a fair two pages to Stewart's story in their 464-page, 400-year-spanning history book.

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In those two pages, which offer a brief history of Stewart's empire, I had flashbacks to grade school pedagogical techniques--being asked to accept the author's reasoning of Stewart as a hero without any argument to back it up. Schweikart, a history professor at the University of Dayton, and Doti, an economics professor at Chapman University, offer just a few details of his contributions: extending short-term retail credit, dividing his organization into specialized departments and actively recruiting the most talented staff. They close out the discussion on Stewart by reprimanding modern day historians who say he didn't leave anything to charity: "To modern thinking, he did not 'give back to society'--an astonishing contention considering the products he made available to consumers, the breakthrough he attained in sales and marketing that made millions of people's lives more comfortable and the employment and wage he paid to thousands of employees over the years."

Many of the "fascinating profiles" of individual entrepreneurs read like the two pages on Stewart: Wikipedia-style biographies mixed with heaps of praise for entrepreneurs that the authors deem underappreciated by history. Even the best-known titans of industry--John Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and Sam Walton--according to the authors, haven't been properly celebrated. The portraits in the book are mostly frustratingly shallow.

The authors are at their best when discussing overarching themes in business rather than telling stories of the people. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, the authors deconstruct American laws and the building of banks, corporate structures and the monetary system and track down what made entrepreneurship possible. They also look at which government policies fueled or hampered particular industries and how the unique interaction of government financing and private funding fueled the backbone of the country's innovation economy.

The book also offers a crash course in the history of U.S. business. Readers will close the book with a better understanding of how American business evolved and what government policies helped and hindered development, and allowed or crushed the market forces. If you can make it through without getting too frustrated by the author's didactical methods, you'll leave with a much better understanding of the 400 years of America's capitalist experiment. If you had any doubt, you'll walk away believing the authors' contention that: "Encouraged by reasonable taxes and low levels of regulation, boosted by Horatio Alger stories of entrepreneurial virtue, empowered by private ownership and contracts that have been held sacred by court after court, businessmen pushed and pulled the U.S. economy into world preeminence."

Maureen Farrell is a staff writer at Forbes, covering entrepreneurs.

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