Age of Betrayal

By Jack Beatty

The thesis of Jack Beatty’s excellent social and political history of America’s Gilded Age is expressed in its title. The triumph of money in America was both a historical watershed as well as a betrayal of American ideals, most notably the faith in equality and democracy that was redeemed in the Civil War. This makes it “the saddest story,” a national tragedy that resonates all the more in the twilight of our own latter-day long barbecue.

The keynote is struck in the introduction in a comment made by Rutherford B. Hayes on how “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer . . . It is a government by the corporations, of the corporations and for the corporations.” The year was 1886. Beatty is hardly less restrained, or subtle:

Gilded age politics induces pertinent despair about democracy. Representative government gave way to bought government. Politicians betrayed the public trust. Citizens sold their votes. Dreams faded. Ideals died of their impossibility. Cynicism poisoned hope. The United States in these years took on the lineaments of a Latin American party-state, an oligarchy ratified in rigged elections, girded by bayonets, and given a genial historical gloss by its raffish casting.

Beatty’s focus is on tracking this legal and political transformation through an in-depth examination of key events and representative biographies that highlight the alliance between government and business, including the Supreme Court’s infamous Santa Clara decision (effectively extending equal protection rights to corporations), the bloody suppression of the Homestead strike, and the rise (and fall) of the Populist movement. This is the story of “political capitalism”: “government favors to business in return for business favors to politicians.” The prototype of the political capitalist is Tom Scott, railroad magnate, though the period was well cast with “raffish” characters to draw on. Or at least the captains of finance and industry – Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller – seemed raffish compared to the colourless non-entities who were president during these years, Thomas Wolfe’s “Four Lost Men”:

For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him walk the streets of life? Who could believe his footfalls ever sounded on a loud pavement? Who had heard the casual and familiar tones of Chester Arthur? And where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the sideburns; which was which?

As Thomas Dewey was later to observe, in America politics is the shadow cast on society by big business. And these were the shadows-in-chief.

The triumph of money was the triumph of big business, and in the economy of the time big business mainly meant one thing: railroads. Roughly equivalent to today’s Big Oil, the railroads were the top rails that stayed on top after the Civil War. Such consistency leads to a general observation that turns Beatty’s thesis inside-out. In short: The Gilded Age didn’t represent the betrayal of American ideals, but their fulfillment. The Civil War’s rhetoric of equality made for good war-time propaganda, but how many people really believed in it? And what, exactly, did they believe? In an end to inequality? Is that an American ideal?

Hardly. The radicalism of the American Revolution was that it did away with old aristocracies of birth and privilege and substituted an aristocracy of wealth. Rutherford Hayes was not the first American statesman to see the triumph of money as a great betrayal of national ideals, but rather a typical minority voice. In the immediate wake of 1776 (and all that) there were similar dyspeptic comments about how money-making and self-interest had replaced republican virtue. In periods of crisis (revolution, depression, war) some progressive gestures are called for (Reconstruction, the New Deal), but when things settle down the pursuit of happiness, so dependent upon the unhappiness of others, reasserts itself. Equality in the United States has been a historical aberration. What seemed like a regression in Beatty’s Age of Betrayal was really just a return to normal:

Americans then [in the Gilded Age] lived before equality, before progressive income, inheritance, and corporation taxes; a generous minimum wage; unemployment insurance; Social Security, and other egalitarian interventions in the market economy made during the Progressive and New Deal eras – the twentieth-century response to nineteenth-century industrialism. We live after equality; and like Rutherford B. Hayes in the first Gilded Age, Americans increasingly see not merely an economics but a politics of inequality behind the result.

But why put up with such a state of affairs, one where it was “easier to credit the virgin birth than that government could serve the general welfare”? What’s the matter, to borrow Thomas Frank’s line, with Kansas? Beatty lays the blame on a by-now very familiar “politics of distraction based on the manipulation of real hatreds and sham issues.” In particular, a cynical playing of the race card (“American history . . . has one subject”). Real hatreds, in other words, rooted in an abiding dedication to inequality. And so does America today have an income gap the greatest since before the Great Depression? Yes. But don’t expect trends to change anytime soon. The pips can take a lot more before they start to squeak:

In 1875 two times as many children under twelve worked in the “tariff-made state of Rhode Island,” mostly in textile mills, as in 1851. “There is, however, little danger of an outbreak among them,” the Sun observed. “They live, as a rule, in tenements owned by the company employing them; and when they strike they are at once thrown out in the street. Then they are clubbed by policemen, arrested as vagrants, and sent to the county jail, to be released to take their choice of going to work at the old wages or starving.” Recently a man had starved to death – three dogs had been found gnawing on his bones.

Today’s financial crisis seems tame in comparison. We still have a way to go.

Review first published online September 22, 2008.

%d bloggers like this: