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