People often say we can learn from history, but they never say what it is history teaches, besides don't make the same mistakes others made in the past. While that is noble and worthy, it is not very practical. After writing and editing this sequel to “Exceptional Americans: 50 People You Need To Know,” I realized this volume is more than a tribute to American capitalism. An astute reader can learn how to become rich by studying how these men and women became successful.
This volume tells the history of American capitalism by profiling many of the most successful men and women in American history. Readers should learn from the best. Included are Stephen Girard, John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Davison Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Daniel Ludwig and John Werner Kluge, each of whom at one point was the richest man in America. Not a single one of them robbed anyone and none of them were barons. I also included A.T. Stewart, Friedrich Weyerhäuser, and Marshall Field, who made the top 12 wealthiest Americans of all time.
But I included many innovators who weren't super-rich such as Eli Whitney (who made little off the cotton gin), Norbert Rillieux (who invented chemical engineering), and Willis Carrier (the air-conditioning man). They made the world better.
Readers can become wealthy, too. The secret to the success of the people profiled is to work hard, gain a competitive advantage, and remember the customer is king. In the words of movie mogul Adolph Zukor, “The public is never wrong.”
The best competitive advantage is a low price, which means trimming costs. Rockefeller built his own barrels, constructed efficient refineries, and used pipelines to bypass the railroads. He went from charging 26 cents a gallon for kerosene in 1870 to 8 cents per gallon in 1885. Only a moron would contend he cheated the public; sadly, that is how they teach his story in school, which is a reason I wrote this book.
Another competitive advantage is convenience. Polaroid took on photography giant Eastman-Kodak by offering instant development. One common characteristic of these capitalists is perseverance. Ford Motor was Henry Ford's third car company.
Do not expect dry history. Included is the origin of the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. The book has Motown music. My job is to keep history interesting; it is the story of our lives and how we got here.
The story of America is simple. God gave man certain inalienable rights. The Founding Fathers set up a government to protect those rights. Given the opportunity to use those rights, Americans succeeded as no other nation has.
Their wealth made no one poor, but brought the people they hired into the middle class. They made luxuries such as sugar, fine clothing, and automobiles common.
America had income equality at its beginning. The Pilgrims made a pact to share everything as they de-boarded the Mayflower on November 11, 1620, to found the Plymouth colony (or as they called it, “the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia”). Long before Karl Marx came along, the Pilgrims invented communism.
And they almost starved. Those who could work felt exploited as they received no more than those who could not work, or whose work was not as productive. Call it greed all you like, but without the incentive to work harder, these young men had no incentive to do more than the least to get by. Not being able to reap the fruits of one's labor is slavery, and that is what Pilgrim communism was.
Without the able-bodied planting the crops, there was no harvest. Without a harvest, the people had nothing to eat. Governor William Bradford wrote of men and women going to work for the Indians just to eat. Rare is the history text that includes mention of white people volunteering to become indentured to Indians. But they had to eat. Bradford wrote of a man collecting shellfish who “was so weak, he stuck fast in the mud and was found dead in the place.”
Bradford called this period “the starving time.” Of the 102 passengers, only 52 survived the first year. Those who survived decided to ditch Kumbaya communism in favor of capitalism. Not only did they survive, but they thrived. The bounty they produced they shared with the poor and invalid.
Foundations work that way today. In 2013, billionaire Bill Gates said, “Two hundred years ago, forty percent of all children died before the age of five. People didn’t have a chance to be literate or to read books, average life spans were less than 40 years. And so in a span of not too much time, even compared to human history, we have made unbelievable progress; the things we take for granted, the ability to go out and learn things, to have air conditioning, to have clothing, to have a toilet is pretty phenomenal. So anyone who looks at capitalism and what it does and says, 'OK, it’s been a net loss versus that life we had before.' I think there is a loss of perspective there.”
He spends his billions on philanthropy, money earned by enabling the Internet by establishing a universal operating system.
Capitalism gets frontiers conquered, diseases cured, and wars won. American ingenuity is the biggest reason life expectancies doubled worldwide in the 20th century, and standards of living are at an all-time high.
Please enjoy reading and as always, share this volume with others. If you can, please read it to a child. We have a great heritage. Please share it.