Living in the early twenty-first century in the West, a time of the ideologization of just about everything, when administrative-state sclerosis cripples national ambition and when we have been habituated to believe that everything is political, it can be difficult to comprehend times when other sorts of dynamics—and other sorts of public actors than those to which we are sadly accustomed today—shaped the American scene. Mark L. Goldstein’s new biography of the financier and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran (1798–1888), Before the Gilded Age, goes some way to helping restore our grip on the middle decades of the nineteenth century, through the story of this remarkable man.

It is a graduate student’s dream to stake out for his dissertation a significant but largely neglected subject for which the source material is rich and...


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