1865–1875: When Corporations Became America’s Aristocracy

1865–1875: When Corporations Became America’s Aristocracy

1865–1875: When Corporations Became America’s Aristocracy

Such sayings as, “The less government you have, the better,” were adopted as incontrovertible maxims.


This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

The Great Festival

Excerpted from the July 6, 1865 Issue

Before this meets the eyes of our readers, the Fourth of July will have been celebrated, and never before have we had such cause of rejoicing. It is not simply the birth of the nation which we now commemorate, but its regeneration. We celebrate not only the close of a long and bloody civil war, but the close of that “irrepressible conflict” which absorbed all the intellect of the country, perverted its understanding, corrupted its morals, and employed most of its moral and mental energy, either in the attack or defence, in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, of one of the worst forms of barbarism;—a conflict which began to exercise a paralyzing influence on industry and to poison social intercourse. We celebrate not simply the national independence, but the close of the agitation about slavery, and the extinction of slavery itself. 

It is not simply the triumph of American democracy that we rejoice over, but the triumph of democratic principles everywhere. The vigor of popular government, the prodigious national vitality which it develops and fosters, received its most splendid illustration in our last campaign. There is no believer in the capacity of the human race for greater happiness and greater virtue than it has yet attained, who will not rejoice with us this week. If the conflict of ages, the great strife between the few and the many, between privilege and equality, between law and power, between opinion and the sword, was not closed on the day Lee threw down his arms, the issue was placed beyond doubt.

If we cared to play the slave behind the Consul in his chariot in the triumphal progress, we might say much of the risks we still run, of the stumbling-blocks which still bestrew our path, of the temptations to which we may succumb, or of the thousand sins that will assuredly beset us. We prefer to reserve this less agreeable task to some season when it will be listened to with more attention, and will not damp honorable and fairly won rejoicing. There are few who celebrate the Fourth of July this year, who do not find, in the recent history of their families or those of their friends, reminders that the brightest picture has its dark side. For how many thousands who went forth to hasten the great consummation over which the nation is singing paeans, do the bells ring, and the banners wave, and the music swell in vain!

* * *

The Danger of the Hour

Editorial (E.L. Godkin)
Excerpted from the September 21, 1865 Issue

The question of the wisdom or folly of President Johnson’s plan of reconstruction turns upon the amount of confidence which ought to be reposed in the good faith and good intentions of the Southern people. He is evidently of opinion that there ought not to be any limit to this confidence. We are given to understand that before very long he means not only to permit the militia to be called out in all the Southern States, but to recall the Federal troops, and leave our Southern brethren entirely to their own devices.

What we fear from the President’s policy is, not a renewal of the war, but the restoration of the state of things which led to the war. We do not anticipate a revival of slavery “pure and simple;” but it was not slavery in itself which led to the revolt, but the state of feeling and of manners which slavery bred—the hatred of democracy, the contempt for human rights, the horror of equality before the law, the proneness to violence which always results from inequality, the tone which all these things communicated to Southern manners, literature, education, religion, and society. What we fear now is the reconstruction at the South, not of “slave society,” properly so called, but of a society so closely resembling slave society as to reproduce most of the phenomena which made slave society, politically, so obnoxious, and so dangerous. This government, we now know, cannot be carried on, if any portion of the population which lives under it is legally kept in degradation, or legally excluded from the enjoyment of any of the rights or privileges possessed by the rest of the community.

The great question to be answered by those who propose handing the South over immediately to the control of the Southern whites, is not whether they can be trusted not to revolt again, or not to restore slavery again—we know them to be physically unable to do either of these things—but whether they can be trusted to establish among them that form of social organization which we know to be necessary to the peace and happiness of the nation, to the vindication of our own principles before the world, and to secure which we have spent millions of treasure and torrents of blood. Nobody will venture to answer this in the affirmative. Nobody has answered it in the affirmative.

We are all affected by the languor which was sure to follow the prodigious efforts of the war. Trade is rapidly reviving, and Southern orders are just as sweet and as soothing, Southern tongues just as glib and as smooth, as ever they were. We are witnessing to- day, in the impression produced on Northern opinion by Southern professions, a fresh display of that consummate political ability which, for half a century, laid a large, acute, intelligent, and industrious community prostrate at the feet of a few thousand slave-owners, the product of a society on which civilization had left only the faintest traces. And we run great risk at this moment of being dragged into compromises, the consequences of which our children will rue, as we have rued those of our fathers.

E.L. Godkin (1831–1902) was the founding editor of The Nation and, after selling the weekly in 1881, editor of the New-York Evening Post

* * *

Mr. Walt Whitman

Henry James
November 16, 1865

* * *

The South as It Is

John Richard Dennett
Excerpted from the August 3, 1865 Issue

So much has been said of late about the lofty hopes which the emancipated slave entertains in reference to his future, of the insolence of his demeanor, of the certainty that in his hands freedom will become license, that I have looked with care to find indications of these things. So far as concerns the Negro’s manners, it seems to me that he has by no means removed all traces of his former servility of demeanor. My observation has, of course, been confined within narrow limits of time and space, but as far as I have seen, in the hotels, at barber shops, in public conveyances, in the streets, the colored people appear good-natured, well behaved, and certainly far more respectful and deferential than one ever expects to find white Americans. At Norfolk and Portsmouth, towns where, a short time previous to my visit and a short time after, whites and blacks were engaged in savage party fights, I met some Negroes who might be classed as exceptions to this description; but even in those towns, though there was little visible good humor, there was no insolence. How long the deportment of the blacks will retain the characteristic marks of their servitude, and how long a time will elapse before white people cease to be more angry at a Negro’s impudence than at a white man’s, are questions only to be decided by future experience.

John Richard Dennett (1838–1874), class poet of Harvard ’62, journeyed through the South after the Civil War, filing regular reports in The Nation. He was later an assistant editor. 

* * *

Chicago in Distress

Frederick Law Olmsted
November 9, 1871

* * *

The Growth of Corporate and Decline of Governmental Power

Excerpted from the May 15, 1873 Issue

Some thirty or forty years ago American society discovered that this country lies remote from European complications. In this safety of isolation American society said: “We will lay aside the responsibilities and sacrifices of citizenship, and religiously ascribing all virtues and all growth and progress to a republican form of government, will allow our own to go to the dogs, devoting ourselves meanwhile to the business of getting rich.” The broadest views of duty were covered by the word “industry,” and of elevation by the word “wealth.” These ideas were flung about by the press, and caught up and adopted by society, so that every philanthropist who addressed a public school generally summed up his moral teachings in the prediction that all the good boys would work hard and get rich.

Such sayings as, “The world is governed too much,” “The less government you have, the better,” “Individual enterprise will accomplish everything, if you will only give it a chance,” were adopted as incontrovertible maxims, and society set itself to giving individual enterprise all the chance it asked. At the same time, the science of government, which had received so much attention from the earliest statesmen, was allowed to die out in this country, and the business of governing was gradually abandoned to a class of professional politicians contemptuously called office-holders and office-seekers, and the task of serving one’s country fell into general disrepute.

In a country so undeveloped on the one hand, and so rich in resources on the other, there were innumerable fields for individual enterprise—and fields of such vast extent as to be beyond the powers of any single fortune. Hence it was inevitable that individual enterprise should seek the aid of combined capitalists, and that these combinations should take the form of corporations. Such corporations were manifestly too small, too weak, and too local to control legislatures, or seriously conflict with the interests of the community which created them. They were practically, as well as theoretically, the creatures of the legislature, and created for the public convenience. In time, however, these several corporate links, with others of the great chain, became welded together, and since then consolidations here and “giant enterprises” there have brought great corporations upon the whole country. The immense power of great and concentrated wealth which is actively employed made itself almost immediately felt.

With such new forces springing into existence in every State, more numerous, if not intrinsically greater, than was ever known before in the history of corporate bodies, and growing rapidly into a magnitude that could never have been anticipated, and with the efficiency of American government constantly lessening, it is apparent that a time might, indeed must, come when Government would be really too inefficient to maintain the rights of society by duly restraining their aggressive powers. Such is not far from the condition of American society at the present moment. Corporations to a certain extent take the place in American society of the privileged classes in aristocratic Europe; for they constitute a feudal system which exacts service, if not homage, from an influential portion of every community, and which carries on a disguised warfare with the Government, sometimes in Congress, sometimes in State legislatures, in which warfare concentrated wealth and power are arrayed against the wishes and, in some cases, interests of society at large.

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