Prophet of Perspective: Thomas K. McCraw
The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy. By Thomas K. McCraw. Cambridge,
Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. vii + 485 pp.
Illustrations, notes, index. Cloth, $35.00. ISBN: 978-0-674-06692-2.
Reviewed by Richard R. John
Thomas K. McCraw is justly admired as a consummate prose stylist, a talented editor, a perceptive historian of the United States, and an inspiring teacher whose mastery of the biographical form led to a string of elegantly written prize-winning publications that are widely read and often taught. The publication one month before McCraw’s death in
November 2012 of his last book, The Founders and Finance, provides the occasion for this essay, which contends that McCraw also deserves to be remembered as a founder of two thriving academic subfields— policy history and the history of capitalism—despite the fact that he trained relatively few history PhD students, and rarely appeared in public during the final years of his life as the result of a debilitating illness that greatly limited his mobility.
McCraw’s contributions to scholarship defy capsule summary. In large measure, this is because they are so diverse. To a degree that is unusual among academics, he published in a multitude of styles for a variety of audiences. Among the audiences that he targeted (and this list is not exhaustive) were fellow historians, social scientists, government administrators, undergraduates, the proverbial general reader, and his colleagues at Harvard Business School, for whom he prepared numerous case studies and teaching notes. McCraw was also an effective classroom instructor who taught for many years a popular course for
Harvard MBAs on the history of capitalism. All in all, McCraw may well have reached as large an audience as did his renowned colleague
Alfred D. Chandler Jr., whom McCraw succeeded as the Isidor Straus
For helpful advice and suggestions, I am grateful toWilliam R. Childs, Walter A. Friedman,
Nancy R. John, Susan McCraw, Rowena Olegario, and Edwin J. Perkins. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I was a friend of Tom McCraw’s for many years and, as a PhD candidate at Harvard in the early 1980s, took a very stimulating independent study with him on the history of American public policy.
Business History Review 89 (Spring 2015): 129–153. doi:10.1017/S0007680514001020 © 2015 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. ISSN 0007-6805; 2044-768X (Web).
Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School. Chandler was a consummate hedgehog who had one big all-consuming idea rather than a fox who knew many things, as McCraw aptly observed in an admiring memorial tribute to his colleague, in which McCraw revived the ancient distinction that the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin had invoked to characterize the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.1 McCraw himself was by temperament more of a fox: there is no McCraw thesis and no McCrawian school. Even so, it would be a mistake to overlook certain themes that recur in his oeuvre, especially since at least two of them—the constructive role of U.S. economic policy and the dynamism of capitalism—have proved to be of enduring significance for historical writing today.
This essay provides a brief survey ofMcCraw’s ideas about economic policy and capitalism. Other reviewers might have chosen different themes; possibilities include the relationship between the United
States and the world, the advantages and disadvantages of biography as a literary form, and even the contrasting aesthetics of history and social science. Even so, I believe that the two I have chosen provide a revealing perspective on McCraw’s most abiding concerns. This essay has three parts. The first part provides a brief overview of McCraw’s intellectual milieu; the second part surveys his contributions to our understanding of economic policy and capitalism; and the third part shows how in
The Founders and FinanceMcCraw combined his interests in economic policy and capitalism to reinterpret a pivotal event in the American past.
Thomas K. McCraw was born in 1940, in Corinth, Mississippi, the son of a civil engineer who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA inMcCraw’s youth was a vast and sprawling federal government–owned public utility, located in the southeastern United States, that was, and is, among the country’s largest generators of electric power.
McCraw’s memories of this vast organization were strong and enduring.
In looking back at the age of fifty on his upbringing, McCraw remarked in 1990 that at his age his father had been the construction superintendent of the largest coal-fired power plant in the world.2 “I remember, quite vividly,” McCraw added, in recollecting a childhood visit to a massive 137-foot single-lift canal lock that his father had built, “going down into the huge hole that was dug for this lock, looking up at the sides as 1 Thomas K. McCraw, “Alfred Chandler: His Vision and Achievement,” Business History
Review 82, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 209. 2 Thomas K. McCraw, “Ideas, Policies, and Outcomes in Business History,” Business and
Economic History, 2nd ser., 19 (1990): 6.
Review Essay / 130 the concrete was being poured, and simply being overwhelmed with the scale of it all.”3
McCraw’s youth was peripatetic. Like many civil engineers, his father moved his family often as he relocated from assignment to assignment, always within the South. McCraw attended primary school in East
Tennessee, graduated from high school in Alabama, and earned his BA at the University of Mississippi. To fund his undergraduate education,
McCraw obtained a fellowship from theU.S.Naval ReserveOfficers Training Corps, which obligated him to serve a four-year stint in the navy upon graduation. Following the end of his tour of duty, he came north to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he obtained a PhD in history in 1970. McCraw’s dissertation advisor at Wisconsin was the political historian Paul W. Glad; in later years, he would also make reference to the influence of the renowned legal historian J. Willard Hurst.