From Progress to Poverty: America’s Long Gilded Age

From Progress to Poverty: America’s Long Gilded Age

Progress and Poverty

The America that emerged out of the Civil War was meant to be a radically more equal place. What went wrong?


The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain enduringly described it, sticks out like a sore thumb on the American historical landscape. It is a symbol of corruption, greed, extravagance, and exploitation, of a country gone wild with excess. It also serves as a yardstick to measure the indiscretions and inequalities of subsequent times, not least our own. Still, the Gilded Age has never received the scholarly attention lavished on Reconstruction or the Progressive era—the periods before and after—though it is generally attached to the latter as a way of explaining the eventual swing toward a long period of reform.

Richard White takes another approach. In his impressive new book The Republic for Which It Stands, the latest volume in the ongoing “Oxford History of the United States,” White links the Gilded Age with Reconstruction—the two “gestated together,” he writes—and, in so doing, casts both in a different light while raising new questions about a nation born in the cauldron of civil war. Indeed, there’s a sense in which White has the Gilded Age effectively encompass the Reconstruction era; both periods, he argues, were defined by ongoing, and often explosive, struggles over the fundamentals of society and state in postbellum America: Who would rule and be ruled, whose vision of political economy and social relations would prevail, and who would pay the price? White thus speaks of the “twins” that were conceived in 1865. The first was “the world [that Americans] anticipated emerging from the Civil War,” which “died before being born”; the second “lived” but was “forever haunted by its sibling.” The book’s prologue, “Mourning Lincoln” (acknowledging an important study of the same name by Martha Hodes), makes the case for the larger social meaning of Lincoln’s assassination and sets the tone for the many pages that follow. The Republic for Which It Stands offers a sobering and generally dispiriting view of the nation’s contested road from the end of the Civil War to its emergence as an industrial-capitalist power by the turn of the 20th century.

There are no small challenges to reconceiving the three decades of American history that White covers in his book, especially given the demanding standards of comprehensiveness to which the Oxford series is devoted. Readers will find a veritable kaleidoscope of subject matter, from electoral politics, political economy, and industrial warfare to popular culture, literature, and sports. They will find figures of political and cultural prominence as well as those who are now relatively obscure, but who at the time were consequential for their ideas and activism. And they will find geopolitical breadth, as White—drawing on his expertise in Western US history—makes sure that the trans-Mississippi West and its racially and ethnically mixed denizens figure significantly in the unfolding story. Holding the more than 900 sprawling pages together is a framework in which party politics and national elections are set as the chronological markers for a developing battle between the forces of liberalism and anti-monopoly, all carried along by the commentary of the novelist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells, whose intellectual journey in many ways mirrored the political drift of the times.

White’s early chapters on Reconstruction unspool many of the thematic threads that he then weaves together for the remainder of the book. On the one hand, Republicans in Congress looked to extend Lincoln’s America—exemplified by Springfield, Illinois, a place in which artisan shops, small manufacturers, and family farms predominated—to both the West and the South. To that end, the federal government extended and expanded the power that it had accumulated during the Civil War into the postwar period and created new institutions to enact this vision. On the other hand, this newly powerful federal government still lacked the administrative capacity to see such projects through. The Freedmen’s Bureau was to supervise the transition from slavery to freedom in the former Confederacy, ensuring that contract rather than coercion mediated new labor relations, but the bureau was understaffed and underfunded. The Reconstruction Acts, the high point of Republican Radicalism, enfranchised African-American men, but the rapidly shrinking US Army of Occupation was often unable to protect the exercise of their new rights. (In both of these cases, White draws on the important recent work of the writer and historian Gregory Downs.) The results predictably saw African Americans sink into the mire of a “coercive labor system, which although not slavery, was not free labor either,” dependent as it was on “extralegal violence, coercive laws, burdensome debt relations, and the use of convict labor.”

In the trans-Mississippi West, part of the “Greater Reconstruction” (a term that White borrows from the historian Elliott West), the federal government—acting as an “imperial state”—extended its reach and promoted railroad development at the expense of Native peoples, who fought back with ferocity and determination before being relegated to reservations. In effect, the government engaged in a form of land redistribution that it had refused to impose in the South, transferring lands from the control of Native Americans into the hands of aspiring white agricultural operators (through the Homestead Act) and railroad corporations (through the Pacific Railway Act and a raft of other incentives). As White portrays it, Reconstruction—in the South and the West—was largely an uneven process of state-building that advanced a highly repressive brand of capitalist development.

In this way, despite the gains of emancipation and of advancing the principles of civil and political equality, Reconstruction laid the groundwork for the Gilded Age, with its growing wage-labor force, expanding industries, swelling cities, massive population movements, and unprecedented consolidations of wealth and power. Reconstruction also threw a dominant liberal ideology into crisis, as the dramatic expansion of the federal state and the mobilizations of working people in the South, North, and West posed new questions about the world that the abolition of slavery appeared to make possible.

Here White turns to Howells, who seemed to put his finger on the political dilemma that most of his fellow liberals found themselves confronting. “The era’s problem, as Howells saw it, was adjusting the ideal of liberty to the necessity of order,” he writes; the solution “was to sever ‘administration’ from democracy” and, in Howells’s words, “evolve order out of chaos, government out of anarchy.” For Howells and other liberals of the era, this meant free trade, civil-service reform, a return to the gold standard, limitations on male suffrage, opposition to women’s suffrage, and replacing elected government officials with appointed ones. The liberal sensibilities that had once nourished the antislavery movement were now fractured by the challenges of “free labor” and had given way to a deepening suspicion of democracy itself.

Liberalism’s retreat into an antidemocratic search for order was not precipitated by the ambitions of Radical Reconstruction alone. It was also encouraged by one of Radicalism’s offspring: anti-monopoly. As a movement and a set of ideas, anti-monopoly had its roots in the 1820s, when workingmen’s parties and their intellectual allies pushed back against the market expansions of the era. But it was in the post–Civil War era that anti-monopoly developed a mass following and made its presence felt in American politics.

Anti-monopoly expressed the vision and aspirations of Lincoln’s America in a world in which the prospects for its survival were rapidly eroding. Anti-monopoly sentiments took hold among urban workers, family farmers, and small-town merchants and retailers, fed by the traditions of Euro-American republicanism, free-labor ideology, and socialism. They would find a geographical base in the South and West, but especially in what White, channeling the writer Hamlin Garland, calls the “Middle Border” (effectively the Upper Plains and the Missouri River Valley). They would also find organized expression in the Grange, the Greenback-Labor Party, the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, and, eventually, the Populists.

Anti-monopolists bridled at the inequalities of wealth that surrounded them. They decried the voracious markets that enabled a small elite to monopolize society’s most vital resources and undermine the independence of small producers in town and country. And they blamed the moneyed corruption of party politics for their collective plight. To readjust the balance in favor of small producers, they set their sights on the privately controlled national banking system and large railroad corporations; to restore the integrity of the political system, they rallied voters to the banners of independent political parties.

For anti-monopoly struggles, the so-called money question—how much currency should circulate, what it should consist of, and who should issue it—was key. White does an excellent job of explaining the complex manifestations involving gold, greenbacks (the paper currency first issued by the federal government during the Civil War), and silver. Coining silver as well as gold served inflationary ends and won the favor of many small producers whose debt burdens would be lightened; it also stoked the enmity of bankers and financiers, who were creditors and thus worshipped at the altar of gold. But it was greenbacks, not gold or silver, that became the center of anti-monopoly politics—both because they would increase the volume of currency in circulation and, especially, because they would put the federal government, rather than private banks, in charge of the money supply.

Still, anti-monopoly was far more than a single-issue movement. To attract farmers and industrial workers, it embraced a wide range of issues, from railroad regulation, cooperative purchasing and marketing, and the eight-hour workday to mechanics’ lien laws, land reform, and progressive taxation. Henry George, one of the most formidable anti-monopoly theorists, saw land monopoly as the cause of economic impoverishment and catapulted to national and international fame after the publication of his immensely influential Progress and Poverty (1879). In 1886, George nearly won election as the mayor of New York City on a United Labor Party platform that included a land tax and a critique of wealthy landlords (garnering more votes than a young Republican named Theodore Roosevelt in the process). Meanwhile, anti-monopoly tickets—some associated with the Knights of Labor—emerged victorious in towns small and large across the country. William Dean Howells also came under George’s (and anti-monopoly’s) spell.

Yet George’s politics also exposed the limits of anti-monopoly as a mass movement. Although some efforts were made by Greenbackers and the Knights of Labor to court the support of African Americans, these anti-monopoly groups, like George himself, were adamantly hostile to Chinese immigrants, whom they saw as symbols of heathenism and slavery (Chinese workers were often derided as “coolies”). “Look to the Midwest, East, and South,” White observes, “and the Knights seemed the vanguard of at least a limited racial equality; look to the West and they appeared very different. At various times, the Knights distrusted Italians, Finns, Hungarians, and more, but the one racial or ethnic group they banned from the organization was the Chinese.”

White’s critique of the racism that anti-monopolists embraced, or at least failed to shake, frames his interpretation of the course of Gilded Age reform. On the one hand, his heart is very much with anti-monopolism and the related reform impulses of the period, and no one could be a sharper critic of the alliance between capital and the state that emerged out of the Civil War. Readers of Railroaded, White’s 2011 book, will see much of what they admired there in this volume, including deft treatments of policy-making and corrupt bargains at all levels. Vivid chapters on the “Great Upheaval” of the 1880s and on “Dying for Progress” demonstrate the human costs that industrial development imposed on the country and many of its people.

On the other hand, White has serious misgivings about the era’s radicals and reformers. Over the last half of the book, he shows us the expanse and depth of reform activity across the United States—though he tends to be dismissive of the socialists, who were crucial to the mobilization of the immigrant working class and eventually left their special mark on the country’s midsection—and he reminds us of the remarkable spectrum of people reform attracted, including renegades from the liberal elite like Howells. For all of these reformers, whether workers and farmers who faced impoverishment and dependency or temperance advocates who attempted to tie the evils of drink to those of industrialization, the “home,” and the dangers it faced in the Gilded Age, proved to be the animating image.

Yet, as White sees it, reform’s very capaciousness was also its weakness. “Reformers pushed against the bonds of the status quo,” he writes, “but when they broke those bonds their own lack of common purpose became all too apparent.” They achieved piecemeal victories, but a larger reconstruction seemed elusive, especially given the juggernaut of centralization and industrial consolidation they were up against. White’s treatment of Populism, the largest of these movements and the one best embodying the Greenback and anti-monopoly traditions, thus emphasizes both its “essential moderation” and its contradictory views of the state: simultaneously distrusting federal power and demanding federal intervention in the American economy to the benefit of small producers. If anything, the changing demographics of the country (especially the declining size of the rural population) and the reform currents already under way (including the achievement of some demands regarding taxation and farm legislation) marked Populism’s effective irrelevance.

What is missing from White’s nearly exhaustive book is a vision of the United States in the Gilded Age world—of its foreign relations and of how it emerged as a world power. White doesn’t attempt to duck this matter: “Most of the changes examined in this volume took place on national and regional scales, not the transnational,” he notes in the introduction. “Transnational developments mattered, but during the Gilded Age the nation took shape in response to these larger changes rather than as a simple reflection of them.”

Perhaps. But America’s imperial presence in the world was central to the capitalist society that came into being. After all, this was the period that saw the appearance of newly configured nation-states on the country’s northern and southern borders (the Dominion of Canada in 1867 and the Porfiriato in Mexico in 1877, both overlapping with Reconstruction); massive new US investments in Mexico and the Caribbean Basin; the purchase of Alaska (in 1867) and the annexation of Hawaii (in 1898); and the crafting of a commercial imperialism that emphasized the Pacific and Asian markets. (William Seward, the Republican luminary and Lincoln’s secretary of state, played a central role in this, while the anti-monopolist farmers, as William Appleman Williams long ago showed, bought into it readily.)

There were also the US invasions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines (we call this the “Spanish-American War”), which give wider meaning to White’s important points about the federal state during the Gilded Age. The West, he argues, “became the kindergarten of the American state.” Indeed, in many ways the West became an imperial laboratory (White refers, correctly in my view, to the federal government of this period as an “imperial state”). The federal government created a number of large new territories in the trans-Mississippi West during the Civil War to secure its power and authority there. It then kept those territories under federal control for a lengthy period and established a number of substantial hurdles involving race, religion, family (“home”), and belonging that all had to be cleared before the territories could be admitted to the Union as states. The trans-Mississippi West, that is to say, served in many ways as a proving ground for the overseas occupations that followed.

The same holds true for the US Army, which not only served as the military wing of state authority and imperial reach; it also became an important vehicle for capitalist development. The Army suppressed Indian resistance to infrastructure-building and white settlement; broke labor strikes; and supported the work of industrialists in the trans-Mississippi regions. Many of the same soldiers and officers then served in the Philippines and the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War. The Jim Crow segregation that increasingly characterized the South in the 1890s and early 1900s needs to be considered in relation to the apartheid policy of reservations, while the escalating racism and anti-Catholicism of the period—both absorbed and reconfigured by reformers—fueled the imperial warfare of the late 1890s. Which is to say that the regional, national, and transnational were intricately connected and together made up the United States that emerged at the turn of the 20th century.

As was true of the earlier Railroaded, White seems quite mindful, in The Republic for Which It Stands, of the resonance between past and present. “I have written a book about a time of rapid and disorienting change and failed politics,” he tells us at the very beginning of the book, “and now I finish it in a parallel universe.” White’s treatment of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age gives the lie to any argument about 19th-century “laissez-faire” as the progenitor of American capitalism, and helps us understand the historical depth of capital’s dependence on the state and vice versa. (“Laissez-faire was planned,” as Karl Polanyi once put it.) Without state action at many levels—defeating slaveholding antagonists, securing private property and commercial contracts, offering generous incentives to developmental entrepreneurs, repressing labor agitation, and sending Native peoples to isolated reservations through military means—capitalism’s traction would have been shakier and more limited.

White also highlights the violent confrontations that Gilded Age capitalism provoked and the wide-ranging popular critique it nurtured. The proponents of anti-monopoly mounted a withering attack on the sources and nature of power in American society—a more fundamental attack, I believe, than White allows—that rallied millions of Americans to their side, whether through independent parties or a large variety of social movements. Progress and Poverty, a long and difficult work of political economy, outsold every other book in the 19th century except for the Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Never before, or since, have national elections been more closely contested or “third” parties—Greenback-Labor, Knights, Readjusters, Populists—more successful in competing for power at the state and local levels. Although these parties were gone by the early 20th century, they would leave important social-democratic legacies for Progressivism and the New Deal, and for us to recognize and appreciate.

But not to emulate. Contemporary activists looking for inspirations from history—a “usable past”—often find this period rich in examples. And there can be little doubt that a commitment to democratic practice was most strongly embraced by those who marched under the banners of Radical Republicanism and anti-monopoly—especially African Americans, whose political struggles don’t get the attention they deserve in this volume. There can also be little doubt about who led the charge against political democracy, not only in the South, where that effort had the most repressive effect, but in the Northeast, Midwest, and West as well: the businessmen, financiers, and liberals of the Gilded Age, along with the planters and other large-scale agricultural interests.

Yet while White may underestimate the radicalism of these popular movements and overestimate their fit within a reform mainstream (many of the policies they had earlier championed were enacted in pared-down form only after their own defeat), his disappointment and disenchantment are worth reflecting upon. The racism of these movements was endemic and cannot be explained away by reference to political overtures across the lines of race and ethnicity; it grew out of a deep hostility toward the propertyless poor and those who symbolized the slave and the abjectly dependent (thus the Chinese as well as African Americans). Only rarely was a new direction charted, and it usually required extraordinary leadership and a lengthy period of incubation.

Equally important, the economic analysis of the anti-monopoly movements, especially Populism, proved of less and less relevance as the “producers” these movements comprised increasingly fell into the ranks of the working class. Anti-monopoly identified exploitation mainly in the sphere of exchange; its focus was on control over the money supply (greenbacks), cooperative marketing (subtreasury), and the regulation of vital infrastructure, especially railroads. Anti-monopoly was far less concerned with relations of power in workshops, on farms, and in families, which often involved women as well as people of color; nor did it adequately address the challenges of industrial labor, aside from a commitment to the eight-hour workday. Thus the anti-monopolist Southern Farmers’ Alliance (composed mainly of landowners) not only excluded African Americans (who were mostly farm laborers and sharecroppers) from membership, but also brutally crushed a black cotton-pickers’ strike in 1891 that the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had supported.

Populism, and anti-monopoly sensibilities more generally, lived on in a variety of forms, mostly veering left through the 1930s and veering right thereafter. That the “populist” label can be attached today to movements of the left and the right (though mostly of the right) is an indication of both its continued rhetorical salience and its limited usefulness as a way forward for progressives, despite the lift that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have given it. Democracy in the 19th century was widely understood in the gendered terms of masculinity and patriarchy, and could be imagined as a central component of populist and anti-monopoly movements whose social base was constituted by male household heads. Democracy today cannot possibly be imagined without including relations of power that 19th-century populism and anti-monopoly for the most part ignored or actively excluded: those involving racialized groups, stateless people, and women and men as well as the rich and poor, or the “people” and the “interests.”

In The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White re-creates the rich textures of a world that still speaks to ours and from which we have much to learn—a world that created forms of wealth and power that still bedevil us, while invigorating notions of economic justice that had emerged across the 19th century and would remain consequential well into the 20th. But from the 21st-century perspective of what many see as a second Gilded Age, it is clear that we need a language of struggle and a vision of the political future that the first Gilded Age simply did not provide.

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