All of our history is now “indoctrination by historical example.” The academicians who write the officially approved, politically correct distortions of it have failed history, and us. They are of two types: the courtiers, smiling sycophants such as “presidential historian” Michael Beschloss and the insufferable Doris Kearns Goodwin; and their envious colleagues, politically correct pedants, whose books crowd the shelves of university libraries but are otherwise ignored. Jack Beatty, an editor at the Atlantic and a news analyst for NPR’s On Point, writes better than all of them and proves a better historian. That is no surprise. We must look to our men of letters, and to dissidents and rebels, for real history now.
“This book tells the saddest story: How, having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age.” The tale is all too true: the selling-off of the republic to the highest bidder, a crime which modern Americans should recognize, as it is happening again—through the agency, not coincidentally, of the same political party, with the active cooperation of the other. “The corporations have the law on their side,” “own the Legislatures,” and “control most of the newspapers and manufacture public opinion.” That was the opinion of a Pennsylvania newspaper editor, writing at the time of the Homestead Strike of 1892. Just three years later, Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown warned of “the submergence of the people in a sordid despotism of wealth.” But the corruption set in much earlier, as we learn from Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1867, 1868), a fact that Beatty overlooks.
What happened? Beatty is better at answering how than the more difficult question of why. Contrary to persistent myths (the ones about the self-made man, the heroic entrepreneur, the Darwinian struggle of the fittest capitalist), the development came about through a vast program of state-supported industrial capitalism. From 1862 onward, “the industrial and financial interests the Republicans spoke for grasped the fostering hand” of government. They successfully lobbied for high tariffs, government contracts, low-interest loans, subsidies, land grants, the labor injunction, and, when the last failed to quell labor unrest, “state militia, federal marshals, and federal troops to break strikes and shoot strikers.” In order to obtain these valuable benefits, they purchased state legislators and governors, congressmen and senators—even voters, a large proportion of whom “were purchasable.”
Throughout the period, the “alliance between government and business remained the lever of private fortune and economic development.” Laissez-faire was not a philosophy of freedom but one of many convenient slogans with which interested parties managed to ward off regulation and taxation while accepting the bounties bestowed by a bought government. (In private, capitalists expressed contempt for free-market economists; John D. Rockefeller referred to them as “academic Know-Nothings.”)
The gulf between rhetoric and reality is a prominent theme in the book. Republicans championed “free labor,” with its connotations of self-employment and artisan liberty, but delivered wage labor, a kind of industrial serfdom. The business press glorified the virtues of competition, but businessmen preferred the comforts of cooperation, corporate consolidation, and oligopoly. Corporate lawyers spoke of “liberty of contract” (as if a poor laborer and a mammoth industrial concern could negotiate across the table of equality) but pressed judges to rule strikes unconstitutional, and labor unions conspiracies in restraint of trade. Republicans warned of the dangers to property posed by “agrarians” and socialists, but it was they who were redistributing wealth. Everyone paid the tariff, but only two groups really benefited: those who owned stock in protected industries, and Union veterans and their families, as the tariff paid their pensions. It transferred wealth from the South and West to the East, from farmers to manufacturers, from the many to the few. Likewise government bonds: The people paid the interest and the principal through taxes (higher on land than on stocks and bonds), and the already rich reaped their unearned reward, becoming ever richer. Likewise mass immigration: It “piled up unskilled surplus workers,” depressed wages, and “increased inequality.”
“The people supported the government and the government supported the corporations,” and they did it “with the people’s money.” So why did the people submit to this extortion? “Workers and farmers voted on synthetic or sham issues in corrupt elections that yielded oligarchy . . . not representative government.” Why did the people allow themselves to be defrauded? One answer is the “politics of distraction.” In the North, Republicans waved the bloody shirt; in the South, Democrats played the race card. (In 1898, they discovered the greatest distraction of them all—the overseas enemy, the imperial adventure.) A second answer is corruption. Elections were so dishonest that the only thing that gave them any validity was that the corruption was bipartisan. Voters were bribed to vote one way or intimidated not to vote at all. Ballot boxes were stuffed; others were poured into a river. At the end of the process stood Boss Tweed, who famously said, “the ballots make no result. The counters make the result.” Once elected, politicians often succumbed to the temptations of office (free railroad passes, generous “retainers,” corporate stock). When they did not, they were overruled by the “imperial judiciary,” ready in the name of free enterprise and the Constitution to block reform. Beatty justly sums up the federal court’s legacy: “railroads untaxed, monopolies protected, unions broken, farmers extorted, blacks segregated.” Neither mass protest movements nor third-party insurgencies could break through the two-party system, with its winner-take-all results, while politicians proved “adept at co-optation, at calming the waters, at proposing snake-oil solutions to real problems.”
“Gilded age politics induces pertinent despair about democracy.” It seems almost an understatement. Beatty talks of “the paradox of democracy,” how “the forms of democracy—parties, candidates, platforms, primaries, elections, choice—confer agreement on injustices,” legitimate nondemocratic results, and induce a sense of fatalism and resignation among the mass of voters. “We can’t rebel, we have the vote” is how Beatty describes the psychology of the disaffected. Could it be that the vote is the greatest opiate of them all?
Most of those who voted Republican, or who fought in the war, were betrayed in one way or another by the party. Laborers were promised “protection” and higher wages, but they got the opposite. The Northern farmer was promised a “home market” but ended up with lower commodity prices, higher taxes, and extortionate railroad rates. Free homesteads beckoned, but they were as delusive as the saying that rain followed the plow.
“Before 1890, two-thirds of all homesteads failed.” Likewise the freedmen: After they had served their purpose, they were thrown overboard. What Beatty cannot see is that these betrayals were predictable, given the real object of pre-war Republican politics, which was the winning of office and its rich spoils; that antislavery, abolitionism, and Reconstruction would never have been had they not served the political, military, and economic aims of the party and its key constituency—aggregated capital.
The most powerful and enduring American myth is not exceptionalism but regeneration through violence (see the work of Richard Slotkin), Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” being only two expressions of this myth. Yet an ancient truth has it that violence begets violence. Beatty rightly deplores the horrendous violence that wracked all parts of postbellum America, but the myth of redemptive war keeps him from seeing that it was the natural and predictable outcome of a civil conflict that killed over 600,000 and laid waste an entire region. Violence once sanctified is hard to contain. And neither victor nor vanquished is likely to learn the virtues of pacifism.
There is yet another parallel between the Gilded Age and our own time: market fundamentalism. However religious or democratic the country boasts of being, “money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining sole master of the field” (Whitman’s Vistas). It determines everything. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Henry Ward Beecher gave his infamous “bread and water sermon,” arguing that railroad workers should be content with their wages, as they were set not by men but by the market. Henry Demarest Lloyd, the muckraking journalist and author of Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894), pointedly asked if you could “do anything with your fellow man provided you do it in the market?”
Isn’t it time to substitute the rule of reason, and Christian ethics, for that of money?
[Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, by Jack Beatty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 483 pp., $30.00]
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