“Free enterprise” is an everyday phrase that connotes an American common sense. It appears everywhere from political speeches to pop culture. And it is so central to the idea of the United States that some even labeled Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims free enterprisers. In his new book, Free Enterprise: An American History (Yale University Press, 2019), Lawrence Glickman analyses that phrase’s historical meaning and shows how it became common sense.
Glickman, a historian and the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor in American Studies at Cornell University, traces the phrase from its many 19th-century meanings, of which abolitionists wielded a dominant one (consider the word free), to its conservative reformulation in the 1920s and 30s. He shows how “free enterprise” became the rallying cry of the business community from the 1930s to the Powell Memo in the early 70s. This book is a whirlwind tour of a keyword that has had immense rhetorical power in modern American history and that scholars have yet to critically examine. Glickman’s book provides a compelling example of how historians can study the historical construction of common sense and is a welcome contribution to intellectual history, political history, and the history of capitalism.
Dexter Fergie is a PhD student of US and global history at Northwestern University. He is currently researching the 20th-century geopolitical history of information and communications networks. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DexterFergie.
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