Richard Heffner

The Gilded Age




This is a very caustic portrait of the corruptive and predatory practices carried out by politicians and businessmen in the decades after the Civil War and up to the end of the 19th century, a period known as the Gilded Age. Afterwards, the Progressive Era would represent only a change of facade, with the use of a new deceptive vocabulary in which the fight against monopolies and political corruption occupied a relevant place. However, behind the scene, the cosy rapacious alliance between business and politics went on and on, as usual.



Industrial expansion - ruthless, audacious, and unrelenting - was undeniably a major theme of American life in the decades from Appomattox to the end of the nineteenth century. Characterized by industry's rapid exploitation of the nation's vast human and material resources, and by the feverish accumulation of huge personal and corporate fortunes, this was America's great Age of Enterprise. But it was also America's Gilded Age, an age of aggressiveness, of unbridled acquisitiveness, of coarseness and vulgarity, when concern for the traditional principles of public and private morality bad been supplanted by the worship of Mammon. By 1900 American businessmen had guided the nation to such heights of material success that she entered the new century a stridently powerful industrial giant. But to some thoughtful Americans it seemed that the high human values of an earlier America had been tragically sacrificed in the process.

By the end of the Civil War the scene had been well set for the phenomenal growth of business and for the ideological as well as physical conquest of America by her mighty captains of industry. Investment capital was readily available, for numbers of entrepreneurs had made large profits in the war years. Incredibly rich natural resources in timber, fertile lands, metals, coal, iron, and oil were at the disposal of business. A practically unlimited supply of cheap labor, increased yearly by an ever growing stream of immigrants from distant shores, waited to serve the industrial colossus. An enormous continent guaranteed a profitable and seemingly insatiable domestic market, and a rapidly developing railroad network provided an extensive transportation system to bring together these abundant resources. But the triumph of business enterprise cannot be accounted for in these terms alone. Three other factors played a particularly decisive role: the personalities and genius of American business leaders, the constant assistance rendered business by a friendly national government, and the nation’s acceptance of an ethic that transformed its social order into a business civilization.

In the harsh competitiveness of an industrial age, business leaders rose rapidly to positions of prestige and power: Andrew Carnegie in steel, John D. Rockefeller in oil, Philip D. Armour in meat-packing, J. Pierpont Morgan in finance, and James J. Hill, Leland Stanford, and Edward H. Harriman in railroads. These were the leaders of a new American aristocracy, the giants who controlled the nation's industries, its wealth, and, some maintained, its very destinies. Family, education and gentility were not, however, the usual adornments of America's new overlords. Most often they were of humble origin, without education or training. Yet almost to a man they possessed aggressive personal traits and an unlimited capacity for business affairs that went far to secure them treasure in a brutally piratical age. They were hard-headed, hard-working, enterprising, domineering and imaginative men. Their extravagant visions of personal gain were seldom beclouded with concern for the welfare of their laborers or the many weaker competitors whom they frequently destroyed by fair means or foul. They combined shrewdness in the manipulation of men and materials with a genius for organization to create fabulous industrial empires that astounded the world. And the business elite's thorough mastery of the art of monopolization was clearly evidenced in Rockefeller's consolidation of the nation's oil industry into the Standard Oil trust and Carnegie's domination of almost the entire steel industry.

To these lords of industry and their admirers, the boldness and the enormity of their accomplishments, the development of the continent's natural riches, the construction of an immense national productive plant, and the creation of unheard-of wealth, raised them to heroic stature. But to the critics of the Gilded Age they were simply Robber Barons whose arts were those of the rapacious, though often romantic, highwayman. The magnitude of their achievements could not be gainsaid, yet the cost seemed truly appalling.

And their critics argued cogently that to admire the Robber Barons was not only to condone trickery, cruelty, and frequently robbery, but also to applaud men whose very fortunes proved them most adept at these practices.

Those who criticized and would restrain the venal spirit of the age were to find no effective recourse in the political arena, however, for there the cunning of the entrepreneur found its counterpart in the chicanery of the politician. Like her nouveaux riches, America's politicos were fiercely dedicated to private profit and unconcerned with the public good. Throughout the period unscrupulous national and state legislators were openly bought and sold by the highest bidders, and during Ulysses S. Grant's administrations (1869-1877) a large segment of the Executive branch of the national government was viciously corrupt. The disgraceful Credit Mobilier railroad scandal - involving among others two Vice-Presidents of the United States, Schuyler Colfax and Henry Wilson, as well as a future President, James A. Garfield - proved to be truly symptomatic of the times. American political life, with many of its practitioners engaged in an orgy of thievery that permeated every level of government activity, was at its lowest ebb.

Though businessmen spent large sums to purchase vulnerable politicians, their investments in political power paid lush dividends in governmental assistance to industry's unrestrained expansion. Railroad interests alone received from friendly Federal and state governments land grants and subsidies that attained staggering proportions. These land grants equaled in size the state of Texas, and their value, together with direct money grants made to the railroads, totalled almost three-quarters of a billion dollars! Meanwhile the industrial community at large profited enormously from steep tariff walls erected against foreign competitors. And government assistance was by no means limited only to such positive forms. For government again served industry well in maintaining a consistently negative, hands-off attitude toward steadily mushrooming trusts and monopolies that trampled indifferently over all who stood in the path to profit. And when, under the pressures of an aroused and angry citizenry, some state legislatures did actually pass regulatory acts, these acts were swept aside as unconstitutional by a conservative Supreme Court that later emerged as industry's most ardent champion. Supported by the highest court in the land, the alliance between business and government seemed truly impregnable.

These economic and political developments were greatly facilitated by equally significant changes in the whole course of American thought. Embracing the ideological and ethical assumptions that underlay the Gilded Age, Americans generally viewed with enthusiasm the triumphant emergence of a business civilization whose most appropriate symbol was the dollar sign. And the coarse standards of the business community were clearly reflected in almost every aspect of American behavior. Yet men like E. L. Godkin, the caustic editor of the Nation, Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, the poet James Russell Lowell, and others of their circle who composed America's older, declining intellectual aristocracy, inveighed bitterly against what Godkin termed a "chromo civilization."

Even Walt Whitman, the poet who once had sung most exuberantly of America's democratic virtues, strength and cultural creativeness, now pondered whether his nation's rampant, materialistic post-war individualism hadn't bequeathed her a "hollowness of heart" that in the Gilded Age was manifest everywhere in deceit, faithlessness, cruelty, corruption. Whitman's "Democratic Vistas," published in 1871, lacked the broad optimism of Leaves of Grass and his other early affirmations of faith in democracy. Now Whitman felt that "vulgarians" dominated America and that the democratic individualism which a generation before seemed have promised great national poetry, art, creativeness, had actually degenerated into petty and depraved self-seeking. Not that Whitman had lost all faith in democracy - which for him, as for Lincoln, was synonymous with America – but now he saw its promise and true grandeur in the future only, its materialistic failures in the "chromo civilization" around him.

Despite these criticisms, however, the very materialistic “values” that Whitman and the others deplored were widely accepted. And most Americans, though separated from the rising plutocracy by a vast gulf of riches, came fervently to share its material standards of success. Thus, when the multimillionaire steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, propounded an elaborate rationalization of the new highly competitive economic order, he faithfully reflected the temper of contemporary America.

Though concerned in large part with the philanthropic duties of the man of wealth as the “mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren,” Carnegie's essay, “Wealth,” was significantly couched in the language of Darwinian evolutionary ideas that had already made a deep impression upon American thought. In his Origin of Species, the English scientist Charles Darwin had explained the evolution from low to higher living forms in terms of Nature's inexorable struggle for existence and the consequent survival of the fittest. Immediately industry's apologists seized upon these ideas in self-justification, seeking to translate Darwin's observations of natural phenomena into laws of social behavior. As a major spokesman for the Social Darwinists, Carnegie wrote that though competitiveness “may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.” We must accept “great inequality of environment, the concentration of business . . . in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race." Thus the cut-throat competition of the Age of Enterprise was equated with Nature's own struggle for existence and sanctioned as natural and right. The giants who survived the struggle, the economic masters of the nation, were judged the “fittest” of the race; and even the most brutal business practices were esteemed as tools of survival and human progress.

Yet the Social Darwinists were not wholly consistent. They demanded for themselves positive assistance from government in the form of tariffs, land grants and subsidies. At the same time they condemned regulatory or social legislation as unwarranted interference with the law of the jungle, fraught with the most dire consequences for the “future progress of the race.” Despite these inconsistencies, however, until the advent of Progressivism at the end of the century, large numbers of Americans remained imbued with the ideas of the Social Darwinists.


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