Jack Beatty has written what he calls "the saddest story" - the betrayal of the American dream. Beatty is a staff writer for The Atlantic Monthly who both writes and reviews books of historical importance.
"Age of Betrayal" is Beatty's name for what was dubbed "the gilded age" by Mark Twain and others who lived during this unique quarter-century when a handful of Americans were able to acquire and increase enormous wealth.
A large working class, also on the increase, saw its dreams fade as it languished in a state of wage slavery of a type and scale not hitherto imaginable.
The sad story began in the aftermath of the Civil War. Men fought and died to preserve an ideal of freedom and democracy that became a beacon of promise to Americans. After the war, expansion of the West became a reality and the railroads seemed to make anything possible. With the railroads, created by corrupt capitalists, came the regulation of time itself, and there followed the regulation of supply, demand, and labor. America was abuzz with the obsessions of industry and the lower classes were excited by it, believing that they now stood a chance to advance. Immigrants poured in, fired by the prospect of a better life.
But first, there was that pesky problem of race to be resolved. Reconstruction, the solution for the formerly disenfranchised blacks, was so unpalatable to Southern whites that widespread mayhem was the ultimate result, followed by a reining in of civil liberties for African Americans that mirrored their former condition of slavery, with extreme poverty and lack of property on its coattails. If working-class whites took any joy in this reversal of fortune for the hopeful blacks, they would rapidly find their own race downtrodden by the grinding necessities of factory, mill and mine. Descriptions of conditions for ordinary industrial workers of the time are pitiful.
The "robber barons" who stood at the top of this roiling heap were easily able to justify their sins, it seems, on the basis of a twisted philosophy which held that government owes the people nothing, while the people owe government their highest loyalty. If the people are not productive, they deserve to live in privation. Productive workers, by this construction, should be happy to work for 50 cents a day,
six days a week. While Andrew Carnegie, himself a child of immigrants, summered in Scotland, he employed the infamous Henry Clay Frick to quell the worker's strike at his Homestead steel mill, resulting in many deaths and few gains for the workers. Industrial giants like Carnegie, Gould, Pullman, Astor, Fisk (and Frick himself, whose ostentatious mansion now houses one of the world's finest art collections) justified their accumulation by indulging in acts of charity, endowing hospitals, museums and schools that were characterized by meretricious grandeur.
One strength of this explosion of industry and its inevitable consequences - an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, a backlog of resentment among working class people that fostered the promulgation of communist ideals - was that nearly all men voted, even the blacks who were lynched to warn them away from the polls. Voting rates were up to 90%, spurred by the widespread practice of buying votes, as well as by the fierce partisanship of the times. Arguably, the "age of betrayal" hastened America's rise as a great world power and did much to secure its success in two world wars and its current status as a world leader, perhaps
the world leader.
Arguably, too, America's place in the forefront of the world stage is kept secure by the same promise of wealth for the working man and success for the lowest immigrant arrival -- a promise whose fulfillment today is again in question. Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 is a book for any thoughtful student of American history and the contemporary political scenario.