The art of buy­ing power: 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can graft

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Rogu­ish busi­ness lead­ers, vast in­come gaps and hor­ren­dous work­ing con­di­tions. Sounds like a novel by Charles Dick­ens or Mark Twain.

Ac­tu­ally, those words de­scribe a new book on an ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant and color­ful pe­riod of Amer­i­can his­tory. Jack Beatty’s pas­sion­ate anal­y­sis of the events of that era paints a vivid pic­ture and makes “Age of Be­trayal: The Tri­umph of Money in Amer­ica, 18651900,” worth read­ing.

Mr. Beatty, a se­nior ed­i­tor at The At­lantic Monthly, seems to have read al­most ev­ery book and ar­ti­cle about the era Twain called the Gilded Age. Those ef­forts pay off as we learn about long forgotten, yet im­por­tant, events and per­son­al­i­ties of late-19th cen­tury Amer­i­can life. Th­ese in­cluded vi­o­lent strikes, cor­rupt elec­tions and busi­ness­men who used the pub­lic trea­sury as their own pig­gy­bank.

The down­side of the au­thor’s ten­dency to throw in ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink is that he some­times over­whelms the reader with too much de­tail. A 40-page chap­ter on ef­forts to thwart vot­ing and other demo­cratic ex­pres­sions could have made its points just as ef­fec­tively in about half the space.

Though Mr. Beatty fo­cuses on the past, one of his goals is to use that pe­riod to scare con­tem­po­rary read­ers into be­com­ing as in­dig­nant as he is about our mod­ern­day wealth dis­par­ity and the ex­ces­sive in­flu­ence of busi­ness lead­ers in set­ting pub­lic pol­icy.

“We live af­ter equal­ity; and like Ruther­ford B. Hayes in the first Gilded Age, Amer­i­cans in­creas­ingly see not merely an eco­nomics but a pol­i­tics of in­equal­ity be­hind that re­sult,” he writes.

He also takes ver­bal jabs at Karl Rove and Supreme Court Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia by com­par­ing them to their 19th cen­tury coun­ter­parts, all of whom Mr. Beatty views as male­fac­tors of evil.

Mr. Beatty is at his best when he an­a­lyzes im­por­tant court de­ci­sions — with fre­quent side­bars to profile judges and lawyers — on is­sues rang­ing from tax­a­tion to race re­la­tions.

He gives a de­tailed his­tory — brim­ming with righ­teous in­dig­na­tion — of the 1886 U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion in Santa Clara County v. South­ern Pa­cific Rail­road, when the jus­tices ruled that cor­po­ra­tions were en­ti­tled to the same con­sti­tu­tional rights as per­sons were. Mr. Beatty is an­gry that the de­ci­sion is still in­flu­enc­ing mod­ern ju­rispru­dence, es­pe­cially when the jus­tices ruled that money was a form of speech.

He notes that “120 years of court de­ci­sions cit­ing Santa Clara par­take of that long since mooted er­ror. Time has washed away the po­lit­i­cal scan­dals of the Gilded Age — Credit Mo­bilier, the Whiskey Ring, the Tweed Ring, and the rest. The scan­dal of Santa Clara re­mains the law of the land.”

The lais­sez faire approach of 19th cen­tury judges closely re­sem­bles the ju­di­cial phi­los­o­phy of many of the con­ser­va­tives who cur­rently dom­i­nate the fed­eral ap­peals courts. Mr. Beatty’s con­cerns about the ju­di­ciary’s fail­ure to show suf­fi­cient con­cern for the less for­tu­nate will res­onate even with those who are less lib­eral than he is.

No dis­cus­sion of the era would be com­plete with­out an ex­ten­sive treat­ment of the mass in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion that oc­curred, and Mr. Beatty does not dis­ap­point.

Al­though Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rock­e­feller make ap­pear­ances, they are not the pri­mary fo­cus of the book. That’s a smart approach since all three ti­tans have been the sub­jects of well-re­garded bi­ogra­phies in re­cent years.

In­stead, Mr. Beatty fo­cuses on less prom­i­nent, but still sig­nif­i­cant, peo­ple such as Penn­syl­va­nia Rail­road pres­i­dent Tom Scott. He uses Mr. Scott’s ca­reer to prove his ar­gu­ment that the politi­cians of that era were es­sen­tially wholly owned sub­sidiaries of big busi­ness.

With typ­i­cal rhetor­i­cal flour­ish, Mr. Beatty notes: “The self-blinded hero en­trusts his fate to For­tuna. For a while she saved Tom Scott from fall­ing into the pit. But in the end she aban­doned him . . .”

Scott was a power bro­ker who helped Hayes win the pres­i­dency in the dis­puted elec­tion of 1876, and he and his com­pany reaped con­sid­er­able fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits from Scott’s po­lit­i­cal prow­ess. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, Scott over­played his hand and the rail­road suf­fered ma­jor fi­nan­cial prob­lems that cost him his job.

The strong­est part of his work is Mr. Beatty’s dis­cus­sion of the growth of rail­roads and their con­tri­bu­tion to the na­tion’s pros­per­ity dur­ing the 19th Cen­tury. Fun fac­toids such as how rail­roads pushed for the cre­ation of time zones to fa­cil­i­tate eas­ier sched­ul­ing (dur­ing the 1850s there were 80 lo­cal times) make the book worth­while.

Read­ers will learn a great deal about both the past and present from “Age of Be­trayal.” Had the writ­ing been a lit­tle tighter, how­ever, Mr. Beatty might have made his points just as ef­fec­tively and reached more read­ers.

Claude R. Marx is a po­lit­i­cal colum­nist for the Ea­gle-Tri­bune in North An­dover, Mas­sachusetts, and au­thor of a chap­ter on me­dia and pol­i­tics in the just-pub­lished book “The Sixth Year Itch.”

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