Saturday, June 11, 2011

Julia C. Ott's "When Wall Street Met Main Street"

Julia C. Ott is Assistant Professor of History at The New School for Social Research.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors' Democracy, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
When individuals refused to join the financial nation, swift reprisals ensued … Crowds meted out violent retribution to “dollar slackers” perceived as disloyal, subversive, and inclined towards bolshevism. These associations were strengthened by the tendency of critics of the war to refuse investment … Roused by warnings issued from the Treasury Department, stalwart citizen-investors also took action against those who attempted to induce others to part with their Liberty bonds [in exchange for merchandise or other securities]. Just as they ferreted out those who refused to subscribe, local patriotic groups – whose ranks swelled with returning servicemen after the war – identified and captured “swindlers” for similar extralegal prosecution. To be sure, strongly coercive measures of financial mobilization met criticism … Yet critics and skeptics concurred that universal investment in federal war debt – if freely chosen – would enrich citizenship, enhance civic culture, and repel bolshevism.
Page 99 of When Wall Street Met Main Street examines the War Loan campaigns of the First World War. Whereas fewer than 500,000 Americans owned any type of stock or bond before 1917, approximately one third of the population (34 million Americans) purchased some form of federal war bond during World War I. As part of its conduct of war, the federal government sought to nurture both the practice of investing and an investors’ mentality. Because the War Loan drives celebrated the benefits of investment as a general practice, they opened the door for postwar marketers of corporate securities. The Great War, therefore, marks a major turning point in the book, which considers how Americans’ relationships with financial securities markets changed dramatically – and permanently – in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

The architects of the War Loans (which included the Liberty Loan, Victory Loan, and War Savings programs) looked upon universal investment in federal war debt as a means of encouraging a widespread sense of identification with the war effort and with the nation itself. Through mass distribution of bonds, stamps, and certificates, the Wilson Administration aimed to mobilize all the inhabitants of the United States, even those opposed to the war and/or lacking full political rights. Shared investment practices would construct a sense of national community among a dispersed, heterogeneous populace, War Loan architects believed. They imagined that universal investment would foster Americanization and counter political alienation and radicalism among those denied the vote. At a historical moment marked by passionate debate over the meaning of citizenship and nationhood, the War Loan drives invited Americans to imagine the nation as a financial market, one in which investment both made and manifested citizenship. Propaganda and spectacle further defended investment as a set of attitudes and practices that would yield a better economic future for individuals and for the nation as a whole.

The Treasury Department determined the goals, terms, quotas, and key themes for the War Loan drives. But on the ground, Americans mobilized themselves through the broad array of private associations that organized public life. The architects of the War Loans could not control the manner in which citizen-investors policed the boundaries of their financial nation. To secure subscriptions, grassroots rituals of financial nationalism mixed celebration and exhortation with emotional manipulation, social ostracism, even physical coercion.

Page 99 reveals a crucial paradox at the heart of the War Loan campaigns. Even as publicity and pageantry cast investment as an instrument of freedom and democracy, Americans employed force to induce individuals to enlist their dollars.
Learn more about When Wall Street Met Main Street at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue