Era of Hope and Sorrow

Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865–1900 by Jack Beatty (Knopf, 496 pages, $28.95)

West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson (Yale University Press, 416 pages, $30.00)

Are we living through a "new Gilded Age"? Although the phrase calls up images of rococo mansions and Victorian etiquette from the late 19th century, liberal commentators have recently turned that era into a potent metaphor for the present. David Remnick made The New Gilded Age the title of a collection of essays from The New Yorker. Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, evoked his youth in a more egalitarian, securely middle-class society, and then declared, "But that was long ago, We are now living in a new Gilded Age, as extravagant as the original." Kevin Phillips echoed the charge in a Prospect article that blasted "the moral degradation" of the corporate rich and their corrupt dealings with the Bush White House and the Republican Party.

Gustavus Myers and Matthew Josephson would be pleased. As historians on the left, they set out decades ago to indict the most powerful businessmen of the late 19th century for exploiting workers, cheating consumers, and debauching the body politic. Myers' History of the Great American Fortunes and Josephson's Robber Barons supplied both activists and teachers with the first half of a straightforward tale of ruin followed by redemption: The immoral fashion in which the Carnegies and the Rockefellers stormed into power and incorporated the nation provoked a backlash of mass indignation and a new spirit of reform. That spirit sparked the Progressive Era and triumphed with the New Deal. Movements and legislation friendly to labor and harsh on big business helped produce the America in which baby boomers like Krugman came comfortably of age.

As his book's title suggests, Jack Beatty, a talented journalist and biographer, aims to revive at least the critical aspect of that literary tradition. "This book," he writes, "tells the saddest story: How, having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age." Not that he doesn't make good use of recent scholarship about subjects his progressive forerunners largely ignored. Foremost among these is the conflict between blacks and whites in the not-so-reconstructed South. Beatty describes in bloody detail how Ku Klux Klansmen massacred former slaves who dared to take part in electoral politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. He also admires the radical democratic ideology that inspired trade unionists to resist the likes of Andrew Carnegie and emboldened small-scale farmers to challenge the railroad magnates and bankers who preached the divine rights of property and subsidized the politicians who did their bidding. "To have made such enemies," writes Beatty, "is Populism's glory. No other party in the [19th] century cared to shape its program to the need of Americans with dirty fingernails."

Beatty is a passionate and often eloquent writer, albeit a rather undisciplined one. He devotes a long section of his book to key rulings by the Supreme Court that turned the 14th Amendment from a boon for freed slaves into a virtual blank check for corporate conduct. One learns a great deal about the justices responsible for this fateful move, especially Stephen J. Field, who took his seat on the bench in 1863 and didn't retire until a few months before the start of the conflict with Spain. With the unbending certitude of a Calvinist preacher's son, Field voted to gut the antitrust law, strike down the income tax, and uphold racial segregation. Unfortunately, Beatty seldom includes one good quotation or anecdote when he has six or seven available, and most of his narratives will be familiar to anyone who's read a survey of the era. Still, he tells an essential story about the damage done by insurgent capitalists -- details that all those adoring obituaries of Milton Friedman somehow neglected.

It's just one side of the Gilded Age, however. Beatty fails to explain why millions of non-rich Americans didn't share his scorn toward some of the leading figures of their time. Grover Cleveland despised the Populists; as a stalwart exponent of laissez-faire, he intoned that even during a depression, "the Government should not support the people." But the principled New York Democrat may have been the most admired politician of the age: In three consecutive presidential elections, he won a plurality of the popular vote. Neither does Beatty account for why, during the last third of the century, more than 12 million immigrants arrived to search for opportunity in such a corrupt, class-divided nation. Nor does he dwell on such innovations as electric lights, the telephone, steamships, fast and cheap train travel, the Sears Catalog, and women's suffrage in most western states -- all of which convinced observers here and abroad that the United States was a paragon of modernity.

In contrast, Heather Richardson, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, understands that in most periods of economic growth, winners are as prominent as losers. In Gilded Age Dixie, young black men who stood up for their rights often lost their jobs, and sometimes their lives; but, on the plains of the West, they could toil in integrated crews of cowboys, whose hardships and toughness shaped the core of an enduring cultural icon. Of course, for Native Americans, this interracial fraternity was nothing to celebrate. Meanwhile, back East, the industrial moguls who drove their factory hands to early deaths also needed a growing number of managers and clerks to staff their corporations and sell their products. Many of these white-collar workers could buy a home, complete with icebox and that giant step forward for man and womankind: indoor plumbing. Their daughters could afford stylish clothes and attend high school instead of going out to work. Amid the turbulence of mass strikes and agrarian rebellion, the modern middle class was born.

While Richardson is an adept social historian, she fumbles the task of explaining the political conflicts of the time. In place of Beatty's betrayal of popular government, she sees the middle class imposing its fears and values on the rest of the nation. Certainly, a medley of social gospelers, settlement-house workers, civil-service advocates, and muckraking reporters helped to expose and clean up the worst aspects of Gilded Age rule. Even today, Jane Addams and Lincoln Steffens remain archetypes of the middle-class progressive. But, for Richardson, the "mainstream" is an abstract spirit that, through some unexplained process, humbled both robber barons and their class-conscious opponents.

Thus, Grover Cleveland was a "champion" of the middle-class when he called for cutting taxes, and so was William McKinley, whose "mainstream vision" enabled him to defeat William Jennings Bryan in the epic contest of 1896. Meanwhile, union leader Samuel Gompers befriended McKinley and was "increasingly using middle-class language" to argue for higher wages and an eight-hour workday. And don't forget Carnegie, who, notwithstanding his enormous wealth, "deliberately" employed "mainstream language" to denounce the U.S. conquest of the Philippines. Richardson seems unconcerned that Cleveland fought to lower tariffs while McKinley sponsored a major bill that raised them, or that Gompers voted for Bryan, or that the anti-imperialist movement did little to shake support for a foreign policy of military swagger. The meaning of the Gilded Age thus gets smothered in a mess of banalities.

In her way, though, Richardson is trying to make sense of a larger truth. The order that emerged by the end of the 19th century frustrated conservatives such as Justice Field who wanted no brakes on capital. But it also dashed the dreams of such radicals as the utopian novelist Edward Bellamy and the socialist Eugene Debs. Americans were, as ever, a heterogeneous lot, whose political leanings are hard to summarize. But most seemed eager to find a middle ground between plutocracy and collectivism, a moral capitalism that would encourage entrepreneurs and the activists, in and out of government, who sought to curb influence and tax profits. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson understood this, and their administrations made liberalism the common sense of the land.

It is hazardous to draw historical analogies, but we may, a century later, be on the cusp of a similar transition. The Internet and cell phones have transformed patterns of communication, as did moveable type and the telegraph in previous eras. But real wages are stagnant, and unions in decline. Still, most Americans favor a higher minimum wage and, whatever their income, want the government to guarantee that everyone has health insurance. Global corporations enjoy a market share that Carnegie could only dream about. But anxiety about global warming has spawned a mass consciousness that could herald a new dawn of environmental controls. And, due to the debacle in Iraq, Republicans have lost their reputation as the party that sagely defends the national interest.

If a new Progressive Era has yet to begin, it is more because liberals aren't ready to mobilize public sentiment than because that sentiment is not lumbering their way. But I would bet that the new Gilded Age -- with all its glitz and pain -- is history.

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