The Rise of the Plutocrats

Sunday, June 3, 2007


The Triumph of Money

in America, 1865-1900

By Jack Beatty

Knopf. 483 pp. $30

"Having redeemed democracy in the Civil War," laments Jack Beatty, "America betrayed it in the Gilded Age."

These opening words neatly capture the premise and promise of Age of Betrayal, an ambitious and politically charged work that spans far more terrain than its subtitle suggests. The redemption, of course, is the demise of American slavery. The betrayal, however, is the rise of rapacious industrial corporations in the decades immediately following the war -- a rise Beatty believes merely distributed inequality and injustice more equitably. The ascent of such business interests, he contends, was enabled by corrupt governments, a pliant judiciary and a malleable populace that, with the exception of the Populist movement, remained too traumatized and divided by the war to put up much of a fight.

Beatty's journey starts on the railways that began crisscrossing the nation before the war. Railroads accelerated and cheapened transportation, helped "knit back together a broken Union" and revolutionized work in urban factories and in farms -- all at the cost of unprecedented concentrations of wealth and workplace conditions that crushed body and spirit. Politicians in cahoots with railway executives made it simple. "Of the seventy-three men who held cabinet posts between 1868 and 1896," Beatty calculates, "forty-eight either served railroad clients, lobbied for railroads, sat on railroad boards, or had railroad-connected relatives."

So pervasive was the rail industry's power, Beatty notes, that in 1883 the railways even stopped time. Previously, the United States had some 80 different time zones, but for the sake of efficiency, local times gave way to a standardized system. "The sun told time from Genesis to 12:01 A.M. on November 18, 1883, when the railroads dispensed with it," quips Beatty.

A senior editor with the Atlantic Monthly, Beatty is skilled at connecting unlikely dots and revealing unintended consequences. One of his most compelling narratives shows how the 14th Amendment to the Constitution -- extending equal protection and due process to all persons -- eventually led to the notion of a corporation as a legal "person." This produced an "Inverted Constitution," with economic rights trumping civil ones. "The 'person' whose 'life, liberty, or property' the Fourteenth Amendment secured," Beatty writes, "was not the freedman but the corporation."

Other writers, such as Charles Morris in his 2005 book The Tycoons, have written convincingly about this era with more favorable eyes, stressing the arrival of new industrial technologies and a burgeoning middle class. Beatty emphasizes the downside of such progress -- almost to a fault -- and even traces the roots of today's corruption and inequality to the politics of the Gilded Age.

But his narrative is complicated by an odd political statistic: Nationwide, voter turnout boomed during this period, exceeding 70 and 80 percent in some regions. "Why, if politics ignored their needs, did roughly 30 percent more Americans than now vote then?" Beatty asks.

Americans, he concludes, remained too mired in the politics of black versus white to focus on the politics of workers versus capitalists. In short, the democratic redemption was far from complete, rendering its subsequent betrayal less unexpected -- if no less tragic.

-- Carlos Lozada is a deputy national editor of The Washington Post.

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