Sophomore Seminars

American Greed: From Gold Rush to Silicon Valley


For centuries greed reigned as one of the seven deadly sins, but in the nineteenth century, it went through a major transformation. This course will attempt to solve the puzzle of how greed became an acceptable and desirable component of the American Dream by the end of the Gilded Age. While studies on greed have tended to look to human evolutionary biology or the writings of political economists for answers, this course will turn to specific historical events and trends in the American context in order to trace how ordinary Americans have understood the place and meaning of greed in their lives over the past two centuries. We will explore how dreams of El Dorado jump started a process that encouraged Americans to question how wealth acquisition fit into their beliefs about what it meant to be an American. We will follow this question as it moved through fierce debates over slavery, the conquest of Native lands, the women’s movement, the labor movement, liberalism, monopoly, and the rise of corporations.

In the final part of the course, we will jump ahead to the present to examine modern parallels to the Gilded Age. Many of today’s conditions, from high income inequality and political disunity to new technologies controlled by the wealthiest men in the world, appear strikingly similar. Furthermore, the landmark decision in Citizens United and the 2008 bank bailout seem to indicate a nation and culture once again fully in the grasp of greed, not unlike the earlier period in which the sin first became a virtue. At the same time, however, we see challenges and alternatives presented that call back to earlier ideals. Students will work throughout the quarter on a research-based project on a topic of interest to you that attempts to untangle the complicated role of greed in the modern American political and cultural landscape, culminating in a final presentation of your findings.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Nicole Martin

"I am a social and cultural historian interested in how Americans have framed, understood, and reconciled questions about belonging and place in relation to American expansion. I received a Ph.D. in History from Stanford University (2018), an M.St. in Women’s Studies from Oxford University, and a B.A. in History from the University of California, Berkeley. My current book project traces the creation and rise of the American home as the core social concept organizing nineteenth-century American society. It uncovers how the federal government, social and moral reformers, and various cultural authorities wielded the home as a powerful tool to first connect and then reconstruct the expanding nation according to a single vision of American citizenship. I have taught courses on the Gilded Age, Women in Modern America, and Race and Gender in the American West. Currently, as a Thinking Matters Fellow, I teach the courses, Race and American Memory and American Enemies.”