In the years after the Civil War, the United States quickly became an industrialized nation. In the process, corporations prospered, the rich became richer, and the majority of Americans – including recently freed slaves – struggled to hold their own.
But everywhere one looked, big industries and the rich were ascendant and government was their handmaiden. Or, as President Rutherford Hayes said privately, "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."
Why and how this happened is the subject of Jack Beatty's powerful new book "Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865 – 1900." It is an angry book that paints an ugly picture of the times: racism, corporate greed, corrupt government, conspicuous consumption, and violent labor disputes. Despite the huge number of complex issues raised in the book, the central theme is simple. In Beatty's words: "This book tells the saddest story: How having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age."
The two overarching themes are railroads and race. In the second half of the 19th century, railroads spread across the U.S. like wildfire. Given their modest role today, it is hard to appreciate the extent to which railroads had both "annihilated space" and knit the continent together.
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So great was their influence that it was the railroads – not the federal government – that established U.S. time zones. Government aided the growth of railroads by giving them huge land grants – more than 150 million acres – that they sold to build their lines. In the process, insiders and politicians both made fortunes.
Beatty describes this largely by focusing on Tom Scott, who built the Pennsylvania Railroad into a colossus and demonstrated a special gift for "winkling favors out of politicians" with handsome bribes. Yet as the railroads grew and their profits increased, he cut the wages paid to his employees. When the workers organized a strike in protest, Scott used political connections to crush them with federal troops.
Race is the other central theme in Beatty's story. The efforts to grant equality for freed slaves made uneven progress until the Compromise of 1877 put Rutherford Hayes in the White House and removed federal troops from the South.
Violence against the freedmen soon followed, but efforts to penalize the perpetrators stumbled largely because the Supreme Court significantly undercut the reach of the 14th and 15th Amendments. While these laws were clearly passed to help the former slaves, the Court sharply limited the ability of the federal government to enforce them. At the same time, the Court extended the due process protections of the 14th Amendment to corporations and thereby insulated them from state regulation. Beatty calls this "The Inverted Constitution": The Court helped corporations escape regulation at the same time that it failed to help those citizens most in need of government protection.
Enormous disparities were commonplace. The well-to-do lived extravagantly, and the poor struggled in unimaginable circumstances. Beatty quotes a letter Andrew Carnegie sent to a friend: "Ashamed to tell you profits these days. Prodigious!" Shortly afterward, the workers at Carnegie's Homestead steel mill went on strike over a proposed wage cut. The strike turned violent, and troops were brought in to suppress it.
Beatty weaves together a wide range of disparate themes into a strong narrative. He uses short biographies as a way of showing the role that individuals played in moving the nation's political, economic, and legal center of gravity.
He has conducted a vast amount of research, much of it based on the work of distinguished historians such as Eric Foner and C. Vann Woodward. But the reliance on extensive quotes comes at the sacrifice of smooth reading.
"Age of Betrayal" is not the dispassionate analysis of a professional historian; it conveys the opinions and outrage of an essayist mourning the lost opportunity to create a fair and open society. And Beatty believes that history is repeating itself. Like many observers, he fears the increasing income disparities of our own era herald a "New Gilded Age."
Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.