April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Even today it is not always easy to see just what was going on in the Gilded Age. We think of it as a time of vulgarity, strife, and self-seeking; we often are as dismayed when we look back on it as the reformers were when they looked out on it; and in general we see little good in it. John A. Garraty takes a fresh look at the period in The New Commonwealth, 1877–1890 , and his stimulating book makes an excellent companion piece to Mr. Sproat’s.
It is Mr. Garraty’s notion that when they seemed to be engaged in a brutal devil-take-the-hindmost race Americans were actually learning how to work together.
… between 1877 and 1890 the character of American civilization underwent a basic transformation, a change so pervasive as to justify the word “new” in my title. This change took the form of a greatly expanded reliance by individuals upon group activities. Industrialization with its accompanying effects—speedy transportation and communication, specialization, urbanization—compelled men to depend far more than in earlier times on organizations in managing their affairs, to deal with problems collectively rather than as individuals.
Something profound was stirring below the surface, and if the reformers failed to see it we ourselves can miss the point also. To them and to us, the era seemed gross, corrupt, materialistic, and vulgar; and yet to judge it by these surface indications is to see it most imperfectly. Mr. Garraty remarks that social attitudes respond to change only reluctantly. He goes on: The Americans of the i86o’s and iSyo’s were particularly unfortunate in this respect. Their world had been shaken simultaneously by two great convulsions—the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War. The first put a premium on co-operation by making their civilization vastly more complex; the second, although it strengthened their sense of national identity, exacted such a heavy toll in life, property, and dashed hopes that it weakened fellow feeling, caused them to reject self-sacrifice for a supposed common good, and encouraged the pursuit of individual gain.
Yet precisely because it was so much more diverse than before, the new civilization enforced its own demand for greater unity. In order to get along at all, men had to pay more attention to one another. In economic matters, in politics and in all of the ins and outs of daily life, Americans became more socialminded; and although this social-mindedness often lacked a humanitarian base, it was an inevitable response to the imperatives of the new age, and it built itself up on a strong moral and idealistic purpose that lay under all of the surface confusion.
The New Commonwealth, 1877–1890 , by John A. Garraty. Harper & Row. 364 pp. $7.95.
The very Americans who dominated the Gilded Age had endured a bloody Civil War rather than abandon their image of what their society should be. Many of their sons proved equally willing to subject their individual interests to the common good, first by becoming progressives, then by fighting another war, however misguidedly and fruitlessly, for equally idealistic reasons. Historians who are satisfied to examine only those aspects of post-Civil War life that dismayed men like Twain and Adams must either ignore much of what came before and after or make unsupportable assumptions about both human nature and social evolution.
It was hard to take. By the late seventies any thoughtful man might have been excused for assuming that American democracy was in the process of collapse. The Civil War itself was a fearful signpost that seemed to point in that direction, and the country’s utter inability to resolve the problems of the reconstruction years by discussion and compromise was another. But somehow the system survived, and in a crude, expensive, rough-and-ready way it slowly but effectively adapted itself to the pressures generated by the new order of things. As Woodrow Wilson remarked, in a sense Americans had to become socialists in order to live in an industrial society; they had to evolve ways of working together (with the greater good of the greatest number somewhere in the back of their minds) because they were fragmented and lost if they did not. Modern America was being born, the sacred “natural laws” the reformers held so dear were plainly not natural laws at all but confused echoes from an earlier age, and for all the shortcomings of the Gilded Age it was after all a time of looking ahead.
“And so,” says Mr. Garraty, “like small boys off reluctantly to September school, squalling, protesting, mourning already the simple joys of the departing summer yet eager, too, for the mysterious adult power the future promised, the American people accepted their fate.”