A recent political cartoon by the Chicago Tribune’s Dick Locher featured two well-dressed lobbyists walking in front of the United States Capitol. “I spend a lot of time in Washington,” one says to the other. “I think I’ll buy a house.” To which his companion responds, “Yeah. I’m buying the Senate.”

A joke, one might say, worthy of Thomas Nast, the Victorian patriarch of American political cartoonists. Certainly, Jack Beatty would say so. Though his Age of Betrayal is an enthralling history of the dynamics of money and power in the late nineteenth century, Beatty has one eye firmly on our own gilded age. When he writes that

political influence, here as everywhere in this period, leveraged fortunes. Money sought power. Entrepreneurial genius consisted in strategic generosity toward public officials...

one may be sure that it is not only Jay Gould and his period but Jack Abramoff and ours that Beatty would bring to mind.

Beatty’s governing argument is simple, and compelling. Industrialization throughout the world has been forged through exploitation; the primitive accumulation of capital has, indeed, always been primitive. As Marx, whom Beatty approvingly quotes on the matter, put it, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time, accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

In the United States, this process in the nineteenth century was politically complicated since here “industrialization was an extra-democratic revolution unfolding in a democracy.” Many of those destined for an accumulation of misery and unlikely to go quietly to their fate were already full democratic citizens. And in the wake of the Civil War, their number was substantially increased by the freeing of the slaves and the other constitutional amendments of radical Reconstruction. Democracy was, in short, an obstacle to the progress of industrial capitalism, and had to be brought to heel. How this was done in the decades following the war is “the saddest story” that Beatty tells: “How, having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age.”

Two series of events, which Beatty vividly narrates, lay at the heart of things. First, the period witnessed the construction of a national market by means of what he terms “political capitalism”-“government favors to business in return for business favors to politicians.” Chief among the former were protective tariffs of prodigious proportions and huge land grants to rapacious railroad corporations that provided them with the speculative leverage they needed to build ahead of demand (and, periodically, to plunge the economy into depression). Chief among the latter were buckets of cash and railroad bonds. Consequently, as Beatty says, “representative government gave way to bought govern¬ment....The United States in these years took on the lineaments of a Latin American party-state, an oligarchy ratified in rigged elections, girded by bayonets, and given a genial historical gloss by its raffish casting.”

At the same time, the democratization of the South was cut short by the “redemption” of white supremacy from Reconstruction, which culminated in the widespread disenfranchisement not only of black freedmen but of many poor whites as well. By the end of the century, the Fifteenth Amendment was a dead letter. Meanwhile, the Fourteenth Amendment, intended to provide equal protection for the rights of freedmen, had been converted by clever jurists such as Stephen J. Field into a charter for corporate insulation from government regulation.

Beatty is particularly sharp on this sort of “inverted constitutionalism” and anti-democratic legerdemain, which also included Republicans insuring their hegemony in the Senate by abandoning the rule of requiring territories admitted to statehood to have a population equal to that of an average congressional district. Beginning in 1876, they successfully pressed for the admission of a host of underpopulated, GOP-dominated states, which meant that “by 1900, a majority of the country lived in states with only 21 percent of the representation in the upper house.” Had they followed the earlier “ratio of representation” standard, Wyo¬ming would still be awaiting statehood.

The “raffish casting” in this betrayal narrative included unscrupulous capitalists, corrupt politicians of both major parties, compliant judges in state courts and on the federal bench, and murderous lynch mobs. Beatty gives the familiar robber barons such as Andrew Car¬n¬e¬gie, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller their dubious due, but nicely concentrates his attentions on the less-familiar Tom Scott, Carnegie’s mentor on the Pennsylvania Railroad and pioneer political capitalist. Reformer Wendell Phillips said of Scott, “[A]s he trailed his garments across the country, the members of twenty legislatures rustled like dry leaves in a winter wind.”

American democrats who opposed the likes of Scott and Carnegie did not go down to defeat without a fight, often a bloody fight, as Beatty demonstrates in dramatic accounts of the battle for Pittsburgh between capital and labor during the great railroad strike of 1877 and for nearby Homestead in 1892. He argues plausibly that the extraordinary violence of social conflict in the late nineteenth century was attributable to the manner in which political capitalism closed down democracy. “The parties placed the coercive machinery of the state-Gatling guns, ‘antitramp’ legislation, Supreme Court rulings-at the disposal of the industrializing elites who, in a quid pro quo, underwrote the swelling costs of Gilded Age electioneering.” Those unable to buy a share of bought government took their grievances to the streets.

The most significant alternative to violent protest was Populism, which Beatty treats with sympathy while resisting the temptation of some to overestimate its racial egalitarianism. The Populists had faith that “in a fully mobilized electorate blood needn’t run in the streets to put bottom rail top. Americans could vote themselves a fairer society.” This was an extravagant faith, for “in the Gilded Age it was easier to credit the virgin birth than that government could serve the general welfare.” The Populists went down to crushing defeat in 1896, yet Beatty credits them with trying: “They sought a way forward better than what came after them.”

As this remark suggests, Beatty believes we have yet to recover from the betrayal of democracy in the Gilded Age. He sprinkles his historical account with periodic reminders of the persistence of political capitalism in our own time and rightly notes that “American politics still rests on the arch-stone set in the era of disfranchisement-a class-skewed electorate.” And, if I am not mistaken, it is not the imperialism of the Spanish-American War alone he has in mind when he asks, “Who were we to keep what William Dean Howells was calling ‘our deeply incorporated civilization’ to ourselves? The world deserved America and America deserved the world.”

Robert Westbrook is the author, most recently, of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Cornell).

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Published in the 2007-05-04 issue: View Contents
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