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The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900

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On Sale: April 10, 2007
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Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Age of Betrayal is a brilliant reconsideration of America's first Gilded Age, when war-born dreams of freedom and democracy died of their impossibility. Focusing on the alliance between government and railroads forged by bribes and campaign contributions, Jack Beatty details the corruption of American political culture that, in the words of Rutherford B. Hayes, transformed “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” into “a government by the corporations, of the corporations, and for the corporations.” A passionate, gripping, scandalous and sorrowing history of the triumph of wealth over commonwealth.


Chapter 1: Annihilating Space

There have been two great dispensations of civilization, the Greek & Christian and now comes the railroad.
—William Cregg,
southern textile mill owner, 1853

Julius Caesar regularized the calendar in 46 B.C. Pope Gregory XIII reformed it in 1582. King George III subtracted eleven days from the British calendar nearly 200 years later. On November 18, 1883, America’s railroad corporations stopped time.

In the 1850s Americans set their watches to eighty local times—thirty-eight in Wisconsin alone, twenty-seven in Indiana, twenty-three in Illinois. Noon in Chicago was 11:27 A.M. in Omaha, 11:50 A.M. in St. Louis, 12:09 P.M. in Louisville, and 12:31 P.M. in Pittsburgh. An 1883 railway gazetteer included time conversion tables for over 8,000 stations. Fingers plowed the ink off dark columns of type, plotting a route across the temporal Babel.

Yet, perhaps because few Americans traveled far, most of them tolerated this time quilt, to judge by the letters column of the New York Times, which printed seven letters of travelers’ complaints in fifteen years. Basically, Americans took nature’s word for time: Noon arrived when the sun looked nearest to being overhead, at times that differed with locations. (“A movement of one degree around the earth’s surface—about 48 miles due east or west in the United States—changes local time four minutes,” according to one authority.) Town clocks, to be sure, were set not by sundials but by almanacs that averaged the sun’s variations over months and years. A scattering of localities rented astronomically precise time from observatories, which wired them through Western Union.

These innovations, however, only welded time more firmly to place. “[I]t would appear to be as difficult to alter by edict the ideas and habits of the people in regard to local time,” a U.S. Senate report concluded in 1882, “as it would be to introduce among them novel systems of weights [and] measures.” The Senate failed to reckon with a self-sovereign power that, having “annihilated” space—a railroad-boomer verb phrase—sought dominion over time. The sun told time from Genesis to 12:01 A.M. on November 18, 1883, when the railroads dispensed with it. “The sun,” the Indianapolis Centennial commented, “is no longer to boss the job.” Fifty-five million people “must eat, sleep, and work as well as travel by railroad time. . . . The sun will be requested to rise and set by railroad time. The planets must, in the future, make their circuits by such timetables as railroad magnates arrange.”[1]

Those magnates rode the mystique of progress. The founding of the Greenwich observatory in 1848 stimulated a worldwide movement to standardize time in zones of longitude. That Greenwich promoted itself as the “prime meridian” consternated the French, who urged Paris.[2] American time chauvinists likewise objected to “John Bull’s time.” The railroads themselves only slowly came around to the idea. Rate wars undermined their will to cooperate. As competition yielded to consolidation, resistance weakened.

At an 1883 railway time convention, William F. Allen, the editor of the Traveler’s Official Guide to railways, used two maps to show railroad managers the advantages of standardizing time. One depicted the prevailing forty-nine different times in a fling of colors; the other, four broad bands, north to south, fifteen degrees of longitude apart. The old map, in the clashing hues of competition, represented “the barbarism of the past”; the new map, a consolidated rainbow, “the enlightenment we hope for in the future.”[3] The delegates left persuaded, and with cosmic presumption set out to fix time.

When Britain adopted the reformed Gregorian calendar in 1752 a mob gathered outside Parliament demanding “Give us back our eleven days!” By contrast, the railroads’ imposition of standard time on the United States occasioned anxiety but not protest. On November 17 city jewelers, the New York Times reported, “were busy answering questions from the curious, who seemed to think that the change in time would . . . create a sensation . . . some sort of disaster, the nature of which could not be exactly entertained.”[4] On the eighteenth, the master clock at Chicago’s West Side Union Depot was stopped at 12:00, waiting for the railroad-decreed noon, which arrived, via telegraph, nine minutes and thirty-two seconds later. “Have you the new time?” strangers inquired of one another. In Washington the attorney general ordered federal employees to conduct business in the old time. The railroads could not force their standard on the U.S. government. That would take an act of Congress. Popular disquiet over the issue delayed legislation until 1918, when government surrendered time to the railroads.[5]

Railroads had long since accelerated the tempo of life, and a book, American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences (1883), traced that condition partly to this source. The author, George Beard, introduced a new term, “neurasthenia,” to describe the “nervelessness” or “lack of nerve power” brought on by “modern civilization” in its most emotionally invasive form, the railroad. Its shrieking whistle, the historian Barbara Young Welke observes, “shattered the traditional division between public and private,” and making the train on time quickened dictatorial anxiety. Using a new word, a Cincinnati paper feared that “the longer a man is a commuter the more he grows to be a living timetable.” “Today a nervous man cannot take out his watch and look at it when the time for an appointment or train is near,” Beard asserted, “without affecting his pulse.” He listed depression, dyspepsia, inability to concentrate, uterine irritability, and impotence as symptoms of neurasthenia. The diagnosis caught on. By 1888 a magazine editor could call “neurasthenia . . . almost a household word.”

Until the 1880s, when total railroad trackage and passenger usage both doubled over the decade, the speed-up captured by watchwords like “on time” and “on the tick” and “on the clocker” had occurred gradually, and under cover of celebration. Standard time focused a pent-up ambivalence.[6] “Damn Vanderbilt’s time! We want God’s time,” one old party fleered at a railroad time consultant. Many pre-codgers felt the same way. Told that his train left at eight o’clock “standard” time, a Pennsylvania Irishman, thinking of Standard Oil yet making a railroad-resonant point, replied, “Well that settles it.” Settles what, asked the conductor? “Why, the whole of it. They’ll be gittin’ the wind next, they’ve got the time now.”[7]

Pittsburgh banned standard time until 1887. Augusta and Savannah held out until 1888. City after city balked in Ohio. When the Bellaire school board voted to adopt standard time, the city council had the board arrested.[8] The mayor of Bangor, Maine, vetoed a time-altering resolution passed by its city council. Any change “that disarms the customs of people handed down from time immemorial,” he argued, “should at least have the sanction of the State legislature.”[9]

Standardizing time challenged both nature and democracy. “The system adopted by you,” editor Allen boasted to the railroad managers at their next meeting, “now governs the daily and hourly actions of at least fifty million people.”[10]

But who elected the railroads to govern? “Today the 75th meridian is standard because the railroad kings have ordered it,” one congressman declared. “Tomorrow the railroads may make it the 76th, or the 80th.” Let the people decide, he said. Put time to a vote.

Private enterprise had done more than upend a convention rooted in millennia of observation and agreement. Standard time, the New York Herald observed, “goes beyond the public pursuits of men and enters into their private lives as part of themselves.” In his fascinating book Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, source of much of the detail above, Michael O’Malley explains: “Once individuals experienced time as a relationship between God and nature. Henceforth, under the railroad standards, men and women would measure themselves in relation to a publicly defined time based on synchronized clocks.”[11]

Already they measured distance in time, translating miles into minutes. “[T]he real distance between New York and Philadelphia,” a writer in Niles Weekly Register noted in 1848, “is just the same as it was a hundred years ago—but the relative distance is changed from seven days to seven hours.”[12]

To a Nebraska editor, the conquest of space and reordering of time offered “signal proof” that railroads were “the most potent factors of our progressive civilization.” He marveled that, “In a quarter of a century, they have made the people of the country homogeneous, breaking through the . . . provincialisms which marked separate and unmingling sections.”[13] The railroads had knit back together a broken Union—but in their time and on their terms. Those twenty-five years yielded up a new dispensation. From November 18, 1883, the phrase “corporate America” meant most of what it suggested.

The railroad pierced horizons. Just before sleep young Richard Nixon would hear the whistle of a train cutting the night, inviting him to dream. Where might those tracks lead? The yearning the whistle spoke to, the train alone could satisfy. You could go anywhere. Track led on to track; possibility to possibility. The railroad formed a network; and, like the Internet, it drew investors with the prospect of “network effects”—the Golconda of connectivity, things joined multiplying the value of the same things apart.

America’s railroads often “built ahead of demand,” laid tracks to people-less places. “Railroads in Europe are built to connect centers of population,” Horace Greeley reflected, “but in the West the railroad itself builds cities.” Build it and they will come. European observers viewed this strategy as incipiently suicidal. What if they did not come? If investors had similarly interrogated schemes for laying broadband cable ahead of broadband demand, they might have saved billions in the telecom bust of 2000–2001. Regarding Americans, it’s not enough to say, with John Kenneth Galbraith, that speculation buys up the available intelligence. The romance of big recruits them for ventures of scale.[14]

“By the 1840s,” the railroad historian James A. Ward writes, “promoters and railway financiers discovered that isolated lands had a pecuniary worth they could extract even before their railroads gave them any market value”—by securing land grants from governments, then selling the land to speculators and settlers to pay for construction. Ralph Waldo Emerson likened “[r]ailroad iron” to “a magician’s rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.”[15] Railroad corporations routinized the magic. Government provided the land, 155 million acres of it—in Minnesota the equivalent of two Commonwealths of Massachusetts, in California of two New Hampshires.[16] And men so ruthless that one who wrested millions from this marriage of powers, Jay Gould, was reputed to be “the worst man on earth since the beginning of the Christian era.”[17]

By 1800 a half-million Americans had migrated from the original colonies across the Appalachian barrier. They might have gone to the moon.

“Nowhere did eastern settlements touch the western,” Henry Adams writes in his history of the United States during the first administration (1801–1804) of Thomas Jefferson. “At least one hundred miles of mountainous country held the two regions everywhere apart.” Snaking through gaps in the mountains in Pennsylvania and Virginia, three wagon roads, unimproved since the French and Indian War of the 1750s, formed the only land link between the regions. A journey up one of the few rivers to the interior might end wetly in a waterfall.

The river systems turned their backs on each other. “The valley of the Ohio had no more to do with that of the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the Roanoke, and the Santee, than the valley of the Danube with that of the Rhone, the Po, or the Elbe.” Nearly a quarter of a century before the Erie Canal, Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury under Jefferson and James Madison, had outlined plans to link the valleys by canals. But by land, Americans believed, it would take “centuries of labor” to “conquer those obstacles which Nature permitted to be overcome.”

Without a bridge able to bear the weight of an industrializing economy the sundered regions might evolve into separate countries.

“Whether we remain in one confederacy,” Jefferson wrote in 1804, after completing the Louisiana Purchase, “or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederations, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part.” Jefferson was ready to concede to geography, in Adams’s words, “the experiment of embracing half a continent in one republican system.”[18]

Even along the seaboard, after nearly 200 years of expanding settlement, Adams wrote, distance barred larger integrations: “Each group of states lived a life apart.” As late as 1812, a wagon pulled by four horses took seventy-five days to go from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina.[19] Between Boston and New York stagecoaches ignobly competed with fast walkers. The road from Philadelphia to Baltimore was “tolerable” but a driver “rejoiced if in wet seasons he reached Washington without miring or upsetting his wagon.” On his hundred-mile journey north from Monticello to the new capital in Washington, D.C., Jefferson wrote his attorney general, five of the eight rivers he had to cross had “neither bridges nor boats.” South of Petersburg, Virginia, “even the mails were carried on horseback.”[20] When you had taken the stagecoach from Charleston to Savannah, you had exhausted the public transportation of the South.

If American geography mocked the presumption of the United States, it vetoed a united economy. Coastal towns barely tapped their hinterlands. Privately operated turnpikes supplied the only considerable point-to-point transportation. Their tolls, however, discouraged wide use; a survey of the records of western Massachusetts farmers between 1750 and 1855 found only one entry for a turnpike toll in 1,827 trips to market. Inclemency and season often rendered impassable the alternative “shunpikes,” poorly maintained by embarrassed citizens working off their taxes.[21]

Transportation costs—for wagon, team, feed, teamster, and lodging— meant that farmers could not profitably ship corn more than forty miles or wheat more than eighty. By land, in 1815, it cost an estimated 30 cents “to carry one ton of goods a distance of one mile,” Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell write in A New Economic View of American History. By boat upstream, the cost fell to 6 cents; by raft downstream to 1.3 cents; by ocean to less than one cent.[22] These economics suggest why the ship, not the covered wagon, dominated trade to the first West. Using technology essentially unchanged for centuries, traders sailed down the Atlantic coast, into the Gulf of Mexico, and up the mouth of the Mississippi to New Orleans.[23]

Over 1,800 flatboats arrived in that port in 1807, carrying whiskey, pig iron, lumber, and nonperishable agricultural goods from as far north as Pittsburgh, but only a hundred boats departed upstream.[24] On flatboats descending the inland rivers shipping costs were conscionable; on keelboats pulled upstream by as many as thirty hands they could mount to $100 a ton.[25] And the pace upstream—New Orleans to Louisville in four months—was of a man staggering.[26]

For want of transportation the western economy stagnated. With farmers unable to ship their goods east, surpluses accumulated. Prices fell. Subsistence farming persisted. Producing for use not sale, western farmers did not have the money to buy eastern goods priced to cover the cost of transporting them. Meanwhile, relative scarcity inflated food prices in coastal America.

[1] The information in this and the previous paragraphs is taken from Michael O'Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (New York: Viking, 1990), pp. 58-136; John E. Stover, American Railroads (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 157-58; John R. Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 203-5; Carlton J. Corliss, The Day of Two Noons (Washington: Association of American Railroads, 1951), pp. 5-16; and Ian R. Bartky, "The Adoption of Standard Time," Technology and Culture, vol. 30, no. 1 (January 1989), pp. 25-56. Also from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Evening Transcript, 10/25/1883.
[2] O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 109.
[3] Ibid., p.113.
[4] For Britain, see Washington Post, 10/29/1883, p. 1. For jewelers, see New York Times, 10/17/1883, p. 1.
[5] For the attorney general, see New York Tribune, 10/17/1883, p. 1.
[6] Barbara Young Welke, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 40, 157-58; James A. Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life (Knoxville: University of Kentucky Press, 1986), p. 108. For more on George Beard, see Linda Simon, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray (New York: Harcourt, 2004), especially pp. 97-167.
[7] O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 146.
[8] New York Times, 2/23/1889, p.1.
[9] O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 132.
[10] Ibid., p. 129.
[11] Ibid., p. 134, 135.
[12] Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life, pp. 111-12.
[13] O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 128.
[14] For Greeley, see David E. Nye, America as Second Creation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), p. 157; Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life, p. 82.
[15] Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life, p. 81; Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Young American," in Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 213.
[16] Gustavus Myers, The Great Fortunes, vol. 2 (Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1910), p. 44.
[17] Seen in Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Thomas K. McCraw, Richard S. Tedlow, Management: Past and Present (Cincinnati: South-Western Publishers, 1996), Case 2, p. 38. Said of Jay Gould by fellow swindler James R. Keene; also, O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 191.
[18] Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1 (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1930), pp. 7, 8, 83.
[19] Tedlow et al., Management, Case 1, p. 54.
[20] Adams, History of the United States, vol. 1, p. 14.
[21] Winifred B. Rosenberg, "The Market and Massachusetts Farmers, 1750-1855," Journal of Economic History, vol. 41 (1981), p. 30.
[22] Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 147.
[23] George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860 (New York: Rinehart, 1960), p. 5.
[24] Richard Wade, The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 40.
[25] Atack and Passell, A New Economic View of American History, p. 156.
[26] Lance Davis et al., editors, American Economic Growth (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 486.
[27] Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keysar, Daniel J. Kevles, inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 29.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jack Beatty|Author Q&A

About Jack Beatty

Jack Beatty - Age of Betrayal

Photo © Mary Mead

Jack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic and news analyst for On Point, the national NPR news and public affairs program. His book The Rascal King on legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley won an American Book Award, was shortlisted for the NBCC award, and was one of USA Today's 10 Best Books of the Year. He was the editor of Colossus, a book on corporations, which was named one of the 10 Best Business Books of the Year by Business Week. He was a Poynter Fellow at Yale, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Alfred P. Sloan Foundation research grants, a William Allen White Award for Criticism, and shared an Olive Branch Award for an Atlantic article on arms control. He lectures frequently throughout the country.

Author Q&A

A conversation with
Jack Beatty
Author of

 Q. Are there any common misconceptions about the Gilded Age in America? What most surprised you as you conducted your research for Age of Betrayal?

The most common misconception is that the period of rapid industrialization after the Civil War was an era of laissez-faire capitalism. Not so. It was an era of what I call “political capitalism,” when, to quote the Chicago reformer and muckraker Henry D. Lloyd, “Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature, except refine it,” and when through its hireling politicians business used the machinery of government– the state militia, anti-tramp and vagrancy laws, and court-issued injunctions against strikes–to crush labor. As I relate in bloody detail, the United States witnessed the most violent strikes in the industrializing world as a result of what Lloyd called “government by campaign contribution.” Versions of Lloyd’s judgment on Standard Oil–with the Santa Fe, or Illinois Central, or any number of other railroads substituting for it–apply to other state governments and to the federal government.

The protective tariff, as I show in a chapter entitled “Vote Yourself a Tariff,” was political capitalism on steroids. Manufacturers paid the bills of the Republican party, which in the 1896 election campaign amounted to nearly $16 million; in return, GOP politicians raised the tariff for industries already covered and extended tariff protection to new industries. American consumers paid for this largesse in higher prices on common articles from nails to pocket combs. The tariff acted as a tax– but “a very sly one,” as Woodrow Wilson pointed out. People knew when they paid property or excise taxes but “very few of us taste the tariff in our tea.” That’s one reason tariffs enacted as emergency revenue-raisers during the Civil War endured until Wilson’s election in 1912. Another reason was that, behind high tariff walls, America was transformed from an agricultural Arcady into the world’s leading industrial power. Many Americans viewed the tariff in that light; yet others, as the guarantor of high wages against cheap foreign labor. “No American citizen who enjoys the advantages of this country is entitled to cheaper commodities than can be produced by free labor in this country,” Senator William Stewart of Nevada boldly maintained. Advocates of protection argued then and economic historians since that the tariff served the broad national interest even as it enriched industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, the king of protection, and was a fecund source of pay-to-play political corruption.

Q. You introduce a cast of characters in the book, some of whom provide incredible portraits of corruption. Who was the worst?

My choice would John C. Fremont, the first presidential nominee–in 1856–of the Republican party. Though he procured a federal land grant for his railroad on Capitol Hill with an $11 million “corruption fund,” Fremont was not, in dollar terms, the worst boodler… Still, his penchant for larceny shocked me. Who knew the Pathfinder was a swindler? I mean he was anti-slavery. Had a heroic reputation as an explorer of the West. Married a daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, the celebrated Jacksonian reformer. Yet in a gamy episode I go over, he sold millions of dollars in fraudulent railroad bonds to French investors dazzled by his political celebrity. He fled Paris just ahead of the gendarmes; and received a five-year sentence in absentia from a French criminal court. Though the public line on him was that he was feckless, an incompetent (“It is rare that national fame ever rested on such insubstantial foundations,” the San Francisco Bulletin commented), Fremont used his reputation as a fool to hide the fact that he was a crook–or rather, a failed crook on account of being a fool.

A serpentine lawyer, John A. C. Gray, threatened to expose Fremont’s assault on France in the U. S. unless Fremont ceded control of his railroad. "Fremont," I write, "only slowly realized that brains were necessary in crime and that Gray had foxed him out of the Memphis and El Paso.” According to his son Frank, “Only the wise counsel of my mother prevented Father from shooting Gray.”

The story of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the successor to the Memphis and El Paso, is a saga of outrageously candid bribery: Tom Scott, president of both the T&P and the Pennsylvania Railroad engaged in a flagrantly publicized bidding war for congressmen with Collis P. Huntington, of the Central Pacific, who wanted to keep the T& P out of California, where his railroad enjoyed an extortionate monopoly. Of Huntington, a former associate said: “…I never met a man who was so full of selfishness and so devoid of the commonest principles of fairness or integrity as C. P. Huntington. He has never knowingly favored a good man or an honest measure. He is the very essence of ...the organization of cruelty, and a complete compiled edition of business falsehood.”

In the Gilded Age’s highest flight of political capitalism, Republican operatives promised Scott a subsidy for the T&P in exchange for securing the votes of southern congressmen to install Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House. Thus the “corrupt bargain” of 1877, which ended Reconstruction in the South, was partly the product of the corruption of politics by business. After Hayes, following through on his side of the bargain, ordered the remaining federal troops in the South to return to their barracks, B. A. Glenn, a black man from Georgia, wrote him: “How could you betray those who almost fought for your election? O shame that we should thus be dealt with!” I took my title and theme from Glenn’s words.

Q. Were there any heroes in this time period?
Yes, the freedpeople of the South who, in the face of white terrorism and of betrayal by the national Republican party and the Lincoln-appointed justices of the U. S. Supreme Court still believed in the promise of American democracy–in that sordid age were almost alone in their, tragically-misplaced, idealism They bled for the right to vote, seeking to give moral meaning to the Civil War, to cleanse the mephitic air of American history. 

In two sorrowing chapters, “The Inverted Constitution” and “The Scandal of Santa Clara,” I tell the appalling and largely forgotten story of how the 14th Amendment, passed to protect the rights of the 3.5 million freed-people, became instead the constitutional bulwark of the rights of business corporations. “{O}f the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1938, “less than one-half of one percent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than fifty percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.”

Workers who struck railroads they knew would blacklist them from the industry in retaliation–they were moral heroes. They struck against the satanic principle that it was acceptable to pay starvation wages if that is what the market dictated–that you could do anything you want to human beings so long as you did it through the market. The railroad men who took part in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877–the subject of my chapter, “Bread or Blood”–stood up for a world more attractive they would not live to see. The unskilled steelworkers at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Mills who walked off their jobs when Carnegie locked-out skilled unionized workers at the mill–they were moral heroes. They acted in solidarity with their fellow workers, honoring a principle above self-interest in an age of tumescent personal greed epitomized in Carnegie.  The “arch-sneak and hypocrite of the age,” according to one GOP Congressman, Carnegie posed as labor’s friend, praising unions in print while breaking them at his mills. Carnegie hired Pinkertons to shoot his striking workers, then lied about it, blaming “Bloody Homestead” on his partner, Henry Clay Frick.

The dirt farmers in Texas, Kansas, and throughout the South who led the Populist Revolt of the 90’s were heroes. They refused to bow to “the money power” and rejected its parties, transforming the Farmers’ Alliance, the largest democratic mass-movement in American history, into an insurgent third party–the People’s Party, which offered the one genuine hope for reform in the Gilded Age. The Populists invented a language of democratic radicalism that could not be more relevant today. “Money controls our legislation, its colors our judicial institutions, it manipulates parties, it controls policies”–William A. Peffer, the Populist senator from Kansas, could be talking about public life in what the Economist recently labeled “the new Gilded Age.”

Finally, and to their everlasting credit, southern Populists tried to transcend the givens of time and place and conditioning to reach out to the poor black farmer. "They could not escape history, yet they tried, “I write in the last lines of my chapter on Populism, "The Politics of the Future.” “Maybe Tom Watson contrived Revered Doyle’s peril {Watson was a Georgia Populist congressman who claimed a lynch mob was coming after a black ally of his, and called on his white followers for help. In their hundreds they answered his call.} But the white farmers rubbing sleep from their eyes, collecting their rifles, saddling their horses, hitching their teams, and riding through the Georgia night to protect a black comrade from lynching and maybe die doing it–that was real, that was the best of Populism. In all these bitter years you will find nothing so moving.”

Q. It’s easy to read about the Gilded Age and feel shocked by the cruelty and suffering imposed on the common man. At the time, how much did the everyday worker understand that his government was being controlled by the interests of the wealthy?

It’s hard to say. The inarticulate neither wrote many letters nor left memoirs. But to judge by the number of strikes–between 1881 and 1900, 1, 253,685 men, women, and children went on strike in Pennsylvania alone!–and the number of times the strikes were put down violently by the National Guard or the U. S. Army on behalf of corporations, everyday workers knew the government wasn’t on their side.

So how did the parties get their votes? Through the “politics of distraction.” The politicians worked the wires of sectional/cultural issues derived from the Civil War. Remember, the US in these years was “two nations united by force of arms,” to quote one scholar of the period.  In “Bloody-Shirt” campaigns, Northern workers were urged to “vote as you shot” against the rebel-dominated southern Democracy. The specter of a return of “Negro domination”–Reconstruction–kept poor white farmers in the South from voting Republican or for third parties.

Also, voters were resigned–Lord Bryce, the Tocqueville of the Gilded Age, spoke of the “fatalism of the multitude”–and cynical. Forgetting the political idealism of the 1860’s, they tended to accept the corrupt terms of Gilded Age politics as the only terms possible (yet, in a paradox I try to explain, as many as nine in ten eligible voters in some states went to the polls). As I write: “The publicity given corruption broadcast the death of hope. Nothing could be done with the unregenerate parties and nothing could be done outside them.”

Q. Railroads changed the economic landscape of America and the world almost overnight. Do you see a similarity today as technology allows for instant, global connection and communication?
Nothing today, economic historians argue, compares to the existential difference the railroad made in American lives. The railroad, in a phrase of the day, “annihilated American space.” In 1841 it took four days for goods shipped from Concord, New Hampshire to reach Boston, sixty miles away. In 1842, via the just-opened Boston and Lowell Railroad, it took four hours.  That was vertiginous change, one captured in phrases like “on time,” “on the tick,” and “on the clocker.”  By the 1880’s the necessity of living by railway timetables were largely blamed for a new medical condition–“neurasthenia” or “lack of nerve power.” Today, wrote George Beard, the doctor who introduced the term, “a nervous man cannot take out his watch and look at it when the time for an appointment or train is near without affecting his pulse.” Neurasthenia was no laughing matter to American men: its symptoms included incontinence and impotence.

The railroad transformed American space into an economic geography. “The western and middle western parts of the U. S. were, economically speaking, created by the railroad,” the economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote, a process I document in my chapter on the colonization of Illinois by the Illinois Central Railroad and the rise of Chicago, the “Rome of the Railroads,” from a settlement of two (white) families in 1822 to a metropolis of 2.5 million in 1900.  The railroad age brought instant communications: telegraph lines ran along the railroad tracks.
Today’s changes in transportation and communications are changes in degree. The railroad was a change in kind. “There have been two great dispensations of civilization, the Greek and the Christian and now comes the railroad,” a man of the 1850’s wrote as not even George Gilder, the techno-panegyrist, would today.

Q. What parallels do you see between the Gilded Age and our current time?

Parallels? Let us count the ways.

First, the grip of organized money on politics and policy. When Mark Hanna, William McKinley’s Karl Rove, darkly remarked, “All questions in a democracy are questions of money,” he had our number: 2008 will see the first billion-dollar presidential campaign.

Next, money’s centrality in electioneering promotes what a 2004 report for the American Political Science Association, “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality,” calls “inequalities in political voice.” Campaign contributions enable access to politicians, access leads to voice, voice to policy–to tax breaks, subsidies, “earmarks,” regulatory relief, and the power to set the agenda. Meanwhile, the voice of Americans who “sweep floors, clean bedpans, or collect garbage” goes unheard.

This reinforces the second most salient parallel between our Gilded Ages–democratically-toxic inequalities in incomes and life-chances between the rich and the rest. In Gilded Age One, a survey of the 1890 census found, 4,047 families possessed as much wealth as 11,593,887 families. In Gilded Age Two, according to a recent article in the New York Times, the 300,000 richest Americans “collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans.”

Inequalities in political voice augment this economic inequality–and stymie efforts to ameliorate it. The veto power the rich exercised over politics in Gilded Age One blocked the adoption of income taxes.  Government relied instead on regressive taxes on property, on drink and on tobacco–as well as the sly tariff tax. In Gilded Age Two a handful of rich heirs have made elimination of the “death tax” a popular Republican cause while raising the income “cap” on the payroll tax to restore solvency to Social Security. The movement faces a presidential veto should it get through a Republican-led filibuster on the Senate floor. “Our government is becoming less democratic, responsive mainly to the privileged and not a powerful instrument to correct disadvantages or to look out for the majority.” To that sentence in the 2004 APSA report, James B. Weaver, the first and only presidential candidate of the “People’s Party”–the Populists–would shout Amen. “Public sentiment is not observed,” he declared in 1892. “The wealthy and powerful gain a ready hearing, but the plodding, suffering. unorganized complaining multitude are spurned and derided.”

One difference between the Gilded Ages: inequality then conformed to the pattern of the unequal past. Inequality today follows decades of broadly-based prosperity and narrowing inequality, the fruit of the egalitarian policies introduced by the New Deal. Between 1950 and 1970, for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90% the top .01% earned $162; today they earn $18,000. Today the top 1% recieve a larger share of the national income than at any time since 1928–before the New Deal. Our ancestors lived before equality; they could not imagine a fairer future. We live after equality; we have forgotten a fairer past.

A hard-to-document parallel is a loosening of the restraint of shame then and now. In Gilded Age One the Chicago Tribune ran weekly summaries of duels, yet money-honor was everywhere honored in the breach. For over twenty years Herman Melville worked as a Customs Inspector on the Hudson River piers for $4.00 a day (kicking back 4% of that to the state and national Republican parties); he maintained his self-respect against the staining presumption of the age that everyone was on the take, his brother-in-law recalled, by “quietly returning money which had been thrust into his pocket behind his back.” That was rare. When public codes of decency collapse, people who act honorably come to feel like suckers. That happened then and happens now as the papers bring news of the self-dealing CEO du jour and the latest sell-out of the public to the private interest by government officials.

There is an exhaustion of indignation in both eras, a moral numbing, a sinking of expectations. That the crapulent outpatient building for wounded veterans at Walter Reed was run by a private contractor led by a former Halliburton executive should have led to calls for Bush and Cheney to be impeached for failing their oaths to see that “the laws are faithfully executed.” Yet that scandal came on the heels of so many others that indignation flashed and quickly faded. Who expects better of public life–of public men and women–today?

We in Gilded Age Two are in a position to understand Gilded Age One: We know what it’s like to raise children in a society without ideals.

Q: How do today’s CEOs compare? Is there a 21st Century Jay Gould?

A twenty-first century Jay Gould? Our corporate CEO’s are not in Gould’s league: financial scoundrel that he was, he created not just financial but a modicum of social value: The railroads he ruthlessly reorganized ran on time and the efficiencies gained he passed along to shippers in reasonable rates. Along with Carnegie, Rockefeller, and the other wrongly-labeled "robber barons," he was a creative entrepreneur. These men garnered huge rewards because, like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, they succeeded on a colossal scale. Today’s CEO’s who loot their stockholder’s for fortunes whether they succeed or fail are the real robber barons.

From the Hardcover edition.



“An engaging, responsible and compelling book. It offers an excellent introduction to the epic saga of late 19th-century America and an important message for our own time.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune“Illuminated and enlivened. . . . [Beatty's] ability to hot-wire our history to the here and now is what gives Age of Betrayal its distinctive bite.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review“Readers will immediately by impressed by the range of subject matter he can handle, from political, economic, and constitutional history to the history of labor, social movements and time. . . . Absorbing in its detail and refreshingly uncompromising in its perspective.” —The Boston Globe.“A shocking, heart-breaking account of corruption and just plain meanness.” —The Providence Journal

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