Americans have always believed they live in a land of opportunity, where anybody who has a good idea, determination, and a willingness to work hard can start a business and prosper. In practice, this belief in entrepreneurship has taken many forms, from the self-employed individual to the global conglomerate.
In 19th-century America, as small agricultural enterprises rapidly spread across the vast expanse of the American frontier, the homesteading farmer embodied many of the ideals of the economic individualist. But as the nation’s population grew and cities assumed increased economic importance, the dream of being in business for oneself evolved to include small merchants, independent craftsmen, and self-reliant professionals as well.
The 20th century, continuing a trend that began in the latter part of the 19th century, brought an enormous leap in the scale and complexity of economic activity. In many industries, small enterprises had trouble raising sufficient funds and operating on a scale large enough to produce most efficiently all of the goods demanded by an increasingly sophisticated and affluent population. In this environment, the modern corporation, often employing hundreds or even thousands of workers, assumed increased importance.
Today, the American economy boasts a wide array of enterprises, ranging from one-person sole proprietorships to some of the world’s largest corporations. In 1995, there were 16.4 million non-farm, sole proprietorships, 1.6 million partnerships, and 4.5 million corporations in the United States, a total of 22.5 million independent enterprises.