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Column: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like the Gilded Age

  • An undated photograph of Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth President of the United States. (AP Photo)



For Bloomberg
Saturday, February 10, 2018

In an impromptu speech to a crowd that gathered outside the White House on George Washington’s birthday in 1866, President Andrew Johnson rambled on for more than an hour, referred to himself 210 times (a rate of about three times per minute), and said Republican lawmakers Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens were at least as treasonous as the leaders of the just-defeated Confederacy.

A few days earlier, when a delegation of black leaders led by Frederick Douglass came to visit, Johnson had told them that poor whites, not blacks, had been the real victims of slavery in the South. After Douglass left, Johnson launched into an off-color, racist tirade about him to an aide.

Does any of this sound at least an eensy-weensy bit reminiscent of some recent presidential statements?

The political turmoil of the past couple of years has sent people grasping for all sorts of historical parallels. I’ve seen references to 1930s Germany, 1960s China, 2000s Russia — and of course, as always, ancient Rome.

But if historical analogies are your thing, you can’t do better right now than to spend some time learning about the U.S. from the end of the Civil War to the late 1890s.

Johnson’s Donald Trump-like logorrhea was the least of it, really. The era that followed Johnson’s departure from office in 1869, widely known as the Gilded Age, was a time of exploding economic inequality, stagnant living standards, growing concern about monopolies, devastating financial crises, multiple “wave” elections in which control of Congress suddenly shifted, two presidential elections in which the popular-vote winner came up short in the Electoral College, brazen political corruption, frequent pronouncements that the American republic was doomed, and seemingly unending turmoil over race and national identity.

That all sounds familiar!

And even if you think it can be silly to fixate on historical parallels, the late 1800s seem worth knowing more about simply because so many of the great conflicts from then live on in altered but recognizable form today.

So it’s pretty great timing that, along with that No. 1 best-selling Ron Chernow biography of Ulysses S. Grant, whose presidency ushered in the Gilded Age, there’s also a gigantic new history of the entire era, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, by Richard White. It’s where the above anecdotes about Andrew Johnson come from, along with another 871 pages of richly detailed history.

The book, which came out in September, is the latest installment in the Oxford History of the United States, now more than half a century in the making. The most famous book in the series, James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, had the advantage of a ready-made narrative trajectory.

Authors of the volumes that aren’t dominated by such an epochal event face a tougher challenge, which they’re not allowed to get around by adopting a thematic focus.

Charles Sellers of the University of California at Berkeley tried that for his history of the period from 1815 to 1846 and had his book rejected for the series. Oxford University Press still published it as The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, but Daniel Walker Howe of the University of California at Los Angeles was commissioned to write a do-over, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2008.

White, a Stanford University historian who has previously written about the settling of the West and the transcontinental railroads, plays by the rules in The Republic for Which It Stands, and at times that can be tough going.

But he is such a wise, entertaining and often flat-out funny guide that a reader is rewarded again and again and again for sticking with him.

My single favorite moment in the book comes courtesy of William Dean Howells, the 19th-century novelist and Atlantic Monthly editor of whose letters White makes frequent and excellent use. The scene is the Hiram, Ohio, home of U.S. Rep. and future President James A. Garfield, in 1870 or thereabouts:

“It was evening, and Howells started telling Garfield a story about the New England poets — then already elderly — whom he published in the Atlantic. Garfield stopped him, ran out into his yard, and hallooed the neighbors sitting on their porches: ‘He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier.’ The neighbors came and listened to Howells while the whippoorwills flew and sang in the evening air.”

That lovely image of a calmer, gentler, more erudite time isn’t allowed to linger for long, though.

The Gilded Age — the name comes from a not-very-good 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner — was an era of great ugliness and wrenching change. In recent decades, it has been celebrated for its technological breakthroughs and business triumphs, which eventually did lead to great economic progress, but as White shows, it often didn’t feel like progress to the people living through it. Real gross domestic product more than tripled from 1865 through 1896, according to the estimates at MeasuringWorth.com, but this was due mainly to population growth, which was driven by immigration flows far larger (as a share of population) than today’s and birth rates that, while falling rapidly, were far higher than today’s.

Per capita real GDP actually grew more slowly from 1865 through 1896 than it did over the previous 31 years, and White writes that “by the most basic standards — life span, infant death rate, and bodily stature, which reflected childhood health and nutrition — American life grew worse over the course of the nineteenth century.”

The good news is that things subsequently got a lot better. Scientific and technological breakthroughs played a big role: Physicians began to figure out how germs spread and how to stop them, electric streetcars and then automobiles solved big cities’ epic horse-manure problems, refrigeration made it possible for non-rich urban dwellers to eat healthy food.

But political changes were also crucial as the country shifted from rural and agrarian to urban and industrial. “Without increased governmental powers, cities — the center of the new industrial economy — threatened to become unlivable,” writes White. Government’s powers to build infrastructure and regulate certain behavior did in fact increase, fitfully during the Gilded Age and then with increased speed during the Progressive Era that followed.

Not entirely coincidentally, the 20th century turned out much better for most Americans than the 19th.

So that’s the encouraging ending to the Gilded Age story. Much less encouraging is what happened to the people who were left behind. In the first decade after the Civil War, there seemed to be at least a chance that freed slaves would be given the opportunity to begin a belated pursuit of the American dream.

Instead, white terrorists across the South murdered black political activists and, once they had seized control of state legislatures, pushed former slaves into economic conditions akin to servitude. Northerners and Westerners for the most part stood aside and let this happen because they had their own issues with immigrants and American Indians, and increasingly came to identify with Southern whites’ efforts to suppress blacks’ political voice.

California lawmakers, for example, fought against the Fourteenth Amendment because they worried that its guarantee of equal protection under the law might be applied to Chinese immigrants (the state finally got around to ratifying it in 1959).

The Northeastern opinion-making elite of journalists, professors and Protestant preachers, which had for the most part opposed slavery, grew increasingly racist and nativist in its views.

The one successful civil-rights campaign of the late 19th century was waged on behalf of corporations and their owners, who were protected from labor’s attempts to organize workers, states’ attempts to regulate the workplace and even Congress’s attempts to tax them by an activist Supreme Court that looked beyond the Constitution to, in White’s words, “enshrine a set of economic laws that no democratic government could overturn.”

I’m not sure what exactly the arc of the moral universe was bending toward during the Gilded Age, but it doesn’t seem to have been justice. This is something that, say, critics who decry anti-immigrant actions by the Trump administration as un-American tend to gloss over. An action or statement may be awful and yet still quite American.

And it is possible to be alarmed by a modern turn of events while seeing something more homegrown than the Nazi seizure of power, the Bolshevik Revolution or the fall of Rome around the corner.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist.