The Vexed Meaning of Equality in Gilded Age America

The Vexed Meaning of Equality in Gilded Age America

The Very Soul of the Republic

Equality’s vexed meaning in Gilded Age America.


All men are created equal.” Today, it is difficult to appreciate the radicalism of Thomas Jefferson’s almost matter-of-fact pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence. The 18th century was a world of inequality, grounded in deeply rooted hierarchies of class, race, gender, and religion. The Declaration of Independence tied the new American nation’s fate to the ideal of equality. Jefferson’s words provided a standard by which people could judge their society and, not infrequently, find it wanting. Ever since, a perceived lack of equality has been the catalyst for powerful social movements in the United States and abroad.

Equality may be, as Jefferson wrote, “self-evident,” but its precise meaning is not. Like freedom, equality has always been what philosophers call an “essentially contested concept,” one that is a subject of disagreement and that possesses multiple meanings. Does it suggest equality of opportunity or equality of economic condition? Does it apply primarily to how one is treated in the public sphere, or does it reach into the intimate realm of the family? Equal legal and political rights frequently coexist with widespread economic inequality. Equality for some often involves inequality for many others. The equality of white men has historically rested on the subordination of nonwhites and women. The rallying cry of equality has been, to borrow a phrase from the Italian historian Franco Venturi, a “protest ideal”—​a critique of the existing order more than a clear blueprint for changing it.

In the aftermath of American independence, the lexicographer Noah Webster described equality as “the very soul of a republic.” Indeed, by the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville and countless other visitors from Europe were struck by the pervasive claims to equality found in American life. But there was also, of course, a glaring exception: the impenetrable barriers that excluded black Americans, whether slave or free, from the enjoyment of anything remotely resembling equality.

The Civil War and Reconstruction sought to eradicate these barriers, destroying the institution of slavery and rewriting the Constitution and laws in an attempt to guarantee equal rights regardless of race. Yet the nation soon retreated from the work of racial equality, and at the same time an expanding industrial capitalism gave birth to a class of plutocrats who dominated large sectors of the economy and exercised inordinate influence on politics. As Charles Postel shows in his new book, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866–1896, the years that Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner dubbed the Gilded Age produced a widespread sense that something was seriously amiss in the American economic and political order, and a variety of mass citizen movements arose aiming to secure greater equality.

Postel, who teaches history at San Francisco State University, is best known for his 2007 book The Populist Vision, winner of the Bancroft Prize. That book succeeded in the difficult task of reinterpreting a movement—the People’s Party of the 1890s—that had already attracted the attention of historian heavyweights, including Richard Hofstadter and Lawrence Goodwyn. Hofstadter’s Populists were prototypes of what he called the “paranoid style” in American politics (a concept that has recently enjoyed a new lease on life as a too-easy explanation for the electoral success of Donald Trump). Imprisoned in nostalgia for a lost golden age of small-scale farming, the Populists, Hofstadter claimed, were prone to irrational and xenophobic conspiracy theories to explain their economic plight. Goodwyn’s Populists, on the other hand, were proto-socialists who rejected 19th century capitalism in favor of a cooperative commonwealth in which both government and the economy were able to operate on democratic principles. Postel offered a correction to both. He showed that, contra Hofstadter, the Populists were forward-looking men and women who embraced technological change, were comfortable with modern means of transportation and communication, and understood all too well the inequities of the economic system they confronted in the 1890s. In contrast to Goodwyn, Postel made a convincing case that they embraced the capitalist marketplace, so long as the rampant power of giant corporations and national banks was curbed by the federal government.

In some ways, Equality is what Hollywood would call a prequel to Postel’s first book. It offers a lucid, thoroughly researched account of three mass movements of the 1870s and ’80s that sought to redress various forms of inequality in Gilded Age America: the Grange, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Knights of Labor. All three were national in scope, had a strong impact on politics, and attracted the support of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and all were key participants in the public debate over equality. What interests Postel is not only how these movements defined equality and tried to achieve it but also how, in his view, they could not escape—and sometimes participated in—the post-Reconstruction rollback of the rights of black Americans. Rhetorically, all three elevated solidarity—among farmers, women, or laborers—to a cardinal principle, but all fell short of transcending the divide of race.

Postel begins his book with the Grange. Founded by federal bureaucrats after the end of the Civil War as a fraternal order to promote scientific agricultural practices and lessen the social isolation of rural America, the organization quickly grew to more than 20,000 local affiliates, with a combined membership in 1875 of over 800,000. The Grange demanded political equality among the nation’s regions and economic equality between farmers and city dwellers. Its rules prohibited the discussion of politics, but Grangers inevitably entered the political arena, since they believed that state and national legislation was essential to redressing economic inequality. Reflecting the enhancement of government power resulting from the Civil War, Grange-affiliated legislators in many states enacted laws to regulate the rates that railroads charged farmers to ship their goods, and they called on the federal government to construct publicly owned railroad lines in order to increase competition and reduce the cost to farmers of shipping their crops to market. Equality for the Grangers meant an end to economic monopolies and the special privileges they enjoyed such as the lower rates that railroads offered to large-scale shippers.

The Grange, Postel argues, was dedicated to a vision of equality, but the organization illustrated the difficulty of putting equality into practice. It claimed to represent all farmers, but the interests of black sharecroppers in the South were hardly the same as those of plantation owners, and Grangers favored the latter at the expense of the former. Mainly speaking for land-owning farmers, they ignored the needs of landless agricultural laborers. Gender equality also proved difficult to achieve. The organization recruited rural women and employed female lecturers. But men dominated the ranks of Grange officials, and female members complained that it was hard to get a word in edgewise at local meetings. In the end, the reality of equality never matched the rhetoric.

Postel turns next to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Originating in the 1870s in the Women’s Crusade against the liquor trade (in which groups of women knelt in prayer outside saloons, sometimes entering them to smash bottles of alcoholic beverages), the WCTU quickly expanded to become “the most extensive and powerful women’s organization in U.S. history.” At its peak, it claimed 150,000 dues-paying members. While its cry was “home protection,” the WCTU ended up bringing a generation of women into the political arena, and its longtime president, Frances Willard, became one of the leading public figures of the Gilded Age.

The WCTU had wide-ranging aims. It campaigned not only for Prohibition but also for women’s suffrage (since it believed that men would never vote to outlaw alcohol) and for sexual equality in the workplace, legal system, and family. It called for cooperative housekeeping, insisting that men undertake their fair share of domestic responsibilities, and for the establishment of free kindergartens to help relieve the burden of child-rearing. The organization recruited women regardless of race.

Finally, Postel turns to the Knights of Labor, which evolved from a secret society of Philadelphia garment cutters founded in 1869 into a national labor organization with some three-quarters of a million members by the mid-1880s. Like the Grange and the WCTU, the Knights consisted of numerous local branches, or assemblies. Anyone could join, with the exception of a few categories of nonproducers: bankers, lawyers, and liquor dealers. Members included trade unionists, greenbackers (who wanted the government, rather than private banks, to control the currency), devotees of a single tax on land (Henry George’s panacea for ending economic inequality), anarchists, and socialists. Uniting this hodgepodge was the conviction that rising economic inequality was undermining the promise of the American Revolution and that the wage system should be replaced by a vaguely defined form of cooperative production that would move society beyond the battle between labor and capital to a harmonious, equitable future. The first organization to recruit extensively among the lowest-paid and least-skilled workers, the Knights proclaimed the solidarity of all labor and welcomed black and women workers, although it could not escape prevailing prejudices against the Chinese, whom it barred from membership.

Much of Postel’s history will be familiar to scholars of late 19th century American history. Where he breaks new ground is in his focus on how the national orientation of the Grange, the WCTU, and the Knights of Labor led them to embrace a “white nationalist framework of sectional reconciliation.” The struggle against slavery cast a long shadow over the Gilded Age. The era’s radicals often viewed it as a model for their own activism. Yet because of their desire to organize nationally and to recruit members regardless of their Civil War loyalties, these groups played an important role in disseminating a view of that conflict in which slavery played only a minor part and Reconstruction was considered a disastrous mistake. This had dire consequences for black Americans and for an ideal of equality that transcended racial difference.

The Grange offers the starkest example of how an organization that attempted to unite Northern and Southern farmers in a common enterprise ended up becoming an agent of white supremacy. The Grange’s stated principles said nothing about a racial qualification for membership. In practice, however, the organization displayed no interest in recruiting Southern black tenants, sharecroppers, and farm owners or, for that matter, Chinese or Mexican agriculturalists in the West. In the South, Grange leaders gravitated toward the white planter class and adopted the Southern white view that the “unreliability” of free black labor lay at the root of the region’s economic problems. In parts of the South, Granges became adjuncts of the white-supremacist Democratic Party. In some areas, their leadership even overlapped with that of the Ku Klux Klan, whose aims included restoring planters’ control over the black agricultural labor force. The Grange’s understanding of equality ended up encompassing whites alone.

Far more complex was the experience of the WCTU when it came to race. Frances Willard grew up in an antislavery household; her father was a Free Soil member of the Wisconsin legislature and a pre–Civil War acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln. For a time, the organization reflected the egalitarian impulse so powerfully strengthened by the end of slavery. The WCTU welcomed black women as members and encouraged black men to vote in local referendums on banning the sale of liquor. The prominent black activist, writer, and orator Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked closely with Willard in the WCTU. But so did Sallie Chapin, a member of a prominent former slaveholding family whose brother had been a leader of the secessionist movement in South Carolina. Chapin’s presence, Postel notes, gave Southern branches of the WCTU “sterling pro-Confederate credentials.”

As the tide of postwar egalitarianism receded, the WCTU’s willingness to flout prevailing racial mores also waned. In the 1880s, the group continued to recruit black members, but to avoid accusations of promoting “social equality,” it increasingly organized them into separate local branches. By the 1890s, Harper had been eased out of the WCTU’s leadership. She and the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells took Willard to task for failing to speak out against the wave of lynchings that spread across the South, often in the name of protecting white women from assault.

As for the Knights of Labor, its principle of working-class solidarity (except for the Chinese) officially encompassed African Americans. The Knights’ national leader, Terence V. Powderly, insisted that the interests of black and white workers were identical. He demanded that black members be treated fairly within the organization and reprimanded white members who failed to do so. In 1886, when the organization held its national meeting in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, Powderly appeared on the platform with black New York labor leader Frank Ferrell. When the hotel housing the New York delegation refused to provide Ferrell with a room unless he agreed to take his meals in the kitchen, the entire delegation moved to other accommodations. Nonetheless, many white Knights viewed black workers as low-wage competitors who should be excluded from membership, and those willing to let them join often insisted that they be segregated in their own local assemblies.

During the mid-1880s, the Knights of Labor experienced a meteoric rise and, after a series of defeats in strikes against railroad companies, an equally swift decline. In the South, most whites had left the organization by the end of the decade. As they withdrew, Postel notes, African Americans moved to “make the Knights their own” and to use it for their purposes. By the early 1890s, the majority of Knights in the South were black cotton pickers, lumbermen, and domestic workers. But no longer part of an interracial coalition, black Knights faced the same kind of violent repression that had helped to end Reconstruction when they tried to take collective action. In 1887, in response to a strike for higher wages by black workers in the Louisiana sugar fields, the local all-white militia murdered at least 30 strikers, with little protest from white current or former members of the Knights.

Postel’s account illuminates in new ways the failure of the Grange, the WCTU, and the Knights of Labor to live up to their pronouncements about equality. We learn a great deal about the obstacles to transforming the abstract ideal into lived experience. We gain an enhanced respect for the pre–Civil War abolitionist movement, one of the few predominantly white movements in our history to make the rights of African Americans central to its agenda. But what is missing from the narrative is sustained attention to the aspirations, priorities, and definitions of equality of black people themselves. African Americans appear in the narrative primarily as victims of racism and of the inability of radical movements to rise above it.

As the examples of Harper, Wells, and the WCTU show, black activists felt no hesitation in criticizing reform organizations for acquiescing—or worse—in racial inequality. But we do not learn how the advent of what the historian Rayford Logan called the “nadir of American race relations” affected the way that black Americans approached their struggle for equality. Many black members of the WCTU and the Knights, for example, seem to have felt that being organized into racially segregated branches, while demeaning, was a price worth paying to secure white allies in a larger struggle. Flawed allies are better than none at all, and as the system of Jim Crow and disfranchisement was erected in the South, black people seeking social change did not have the luxury of demanding perfection.

Even though many veterans of the Grange, the WCTU, and the Knights joined the People’s Party, that great movement of the 1890s receives surprisingly little attention in Postel’s account. Populism, he writes, “marked the cresting of the post–Civil War egalitarian wave,” but presumably he felt that he already told their story in his previous book. Had he continued into the 1890s, he would have been able to discuss the balance between racial exclusion and inclusion in the Populist movement. Despite many examples of Populist racism, solidarity across the color line was not unknown. Most notable, perhaps, was the fusion movement that enabled a coalition of black Republicans and white Populists to win control of the government of North Carolina from 1894 to 1898. Echoes of that achievement persist as an inspiration for North Carolina’s biracial progressive resistance, led by the Rev. William Barber. It deserves more than the brief mention it receives here.

Postel’s subtitle evokes, no doubt intentionally, Gunnar Myrdal’s classic study of American racism, An American Dilemma, published in 1944. For Myrdal, the dilemma was essentially psychological. It existed in the divided mind of white Americans who professed a commitment to equality yet refused to acknowledge how the condition of black Americans made a mockery of the country’s egalitarian ideals. The dilemma that Postel asks us to confront is somewhat different: the fact that the post–Civil War farmers’, women’s, and labor movements, all committed rhetorically to equality and solidarity, could not escape—indeed, often embraced—the trap of racial exclusion.

Today, the Grange survives in some rural areas as a social center rather than a political movement. The WCTU continues to exist but has long since been superseded by other groups demanding gender equality. The Knights of Labor disappeared long ago, but its principle of solidarity among all laborers inspired movements from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Congress of Industrial Organizations as well as today’s fight to raise the minimum wage.

Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, the presidential campaigns of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty, and more generally the dysfunctionality of contemporary capitalism, equality—or the widespread lack thereof—again occupies a prominent place in political debate. Beyond the fate of the individual organizations it covers, Equality reminds us of a homegrown radical heritage that critics of today’s deeply unequal America can be inspired by and must improve upon. The ideal of equality remains as radical as it was in Jefferson’s day. But equality limited to some is not equality.

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