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The Gilded Age
For years it was seen as the worst of times: bloated, crass, witlessly extravagant. But now scholars are beginning to find some of the era’s unexpected virtues.
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
ANYONE WHO RECALLS the Gilded Age from an American history course taken twenty or more years ago would be surprised at how the treatment of that era has changed. Most historians used to hold a rather low opinion of the period. Remember Grover Cleveland’s illegitmate child, who figured in the campaign of 1884? And how business appeared dominant in every sphere of life? How Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge fortunes with monopolistic “trusts”? And how, toward the era’s end, when lightning seemed to strike everywhere at once, farmers staged a revolt that frightened almost everyone else half to death?
The facts about the Gilded Age have not changed, but historians’ views have. The first scholarly interpretations of any period have a lasting impact, and every generation tends to be critical of its immediate predecessor. In this case, the determining views first came from some famous contemporaries. Mark Twain gave the period (which lasted roughly from 1868 to 1900) its textbook name in The Gilded Age (1873), the novel he wrote with Charles Dudley Warner. As literature it was a weak performance, but it produced some durable images of social climbing and shady political dealings. The book also encapsulated the country’s traditional boomer spirit based on mindless expansion, which the period seemed to typify. The English diplomat James Bryce added the weight of analytical thought to that stereotype with The American Commonwealth (1888). Bryce admired the nation’s economic dynamism and social flexibility but feared that democracy too often bred mediocrity and wondered if a civilization that so emphasized material gain could produce any true culture. Above all American tolerance of weak and shabby behavior in public life disturbed him.
The first historians of the Gilded Age built upon these contemporary views. Early textbooks couched the period in terms of wars between labor and capital, of settled Americans rising against immigrants, of outmoded ideas facing new social problems. They described politics as corrupt, and government, especially the federal government, as weak and unconcerned with human problems. The nation’s blacks had been trapped in segregation and poverty, and the surviving Indians had been isolated on reservations. Perhaps most disturbing to early historians, the period had begun with a society on a scale that people could comprehend, yet it ended with an economic system based on corporations, chaotic cities, and feeble government at all levels. The historian Charles Beard maintained much of the stereotype in The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and America in Midpassage (1939), which influenced generations of college students. The radical writer Matthew Josephson excoriated the period in two widely read books, The Robber Barons (1934), whose thesis was its title, and The Politicos (1938), which depicted Gilded Age politicians as the flunkies of the corporations.
There was an alternative viewpoint, a thoughtful approach, which Allan Nevins, more than any other student of the period, fostered. Influential both as a biographer and as a professor of history at Columbia University, Nevins edited a major group of books about the era’s leading figures. His own Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932), was the most famous of these, and many others remain the standard biographies of their subjects. Nonetheless, the pace of development in Gilded Age studies was slow, partly because historians emphasized other periods and problems.
By the late 1950s, a new generation of scholars started to rethink the issues of the Gilded Age. Their first focus was on politics. No era had debated partisan questions more fervently. The issues had seemed remote and unimportant to scholars later, but they had fascinated and moved voters at the time.
On such issues as the levying of tariffs on foreign imports, which the early historians portrayed as simply a tool for helping big business, the new writers pointed out that this protection had not especially benefited the railroads or the oil industry, two of the supposed villains of the age. Supporters of high tariffs, who included workers in many industries, had defended them as a means of safeguarding American jobs, of helping producers of certain raw materials, and of shielding small business from foreign competition. Politically, the policy had been central to the Republican coalition, since it promised to promote economic growth among various likely GOP voters.
The political debate over the currency—tight money versus easy money—had equally bewildered early historians. Many Gilded Age farmers favored inflation to counteract the growing value of their debts after wheat and cotton prices nose-dived; some businessmen also liked easy money because low interest rates enabled them to expand operations. This issue tended to pit Westerners and Southerners, who needed cash for economic development, against the East, but it also had a powerful moral component. Those who favored a currency based on some intrinsic value such as gold stood divided from those who saw money as a flexible device for regulating the nation’s economic health. In the broadest sense, the currency debate highlighted the complexity of the national economy and the growing difference of opinion over the role of government in it. In 1964 Irwin Unger elucidated the subject in a Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis, The Greenback Era.