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Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900by Jack Beatty
Synopses & Reviews
A brilliant reconsideration of the Gilded Age in America, when an oligarchy of wealth triumphed over democracy, when dreams of freedom and equality died of their impossibility. Jay Gould, the “Mephisto of Wall Street,” never runs for office, but he rules. This was his time (and John D. Rockefeller’s and Andrew Carnegie’s), and this was his country.
At the end of the Civil War, with the rebellion put down and slavery ended, America belonged to Lincoln’s “plain people.” But “government of the people” and economic democracy were betrayed by political parties that fanned memories of the war to distract Americans from government of the corporation.
Synthesizing the research of a new generation of scholars, Jack Beatty gives us a fresh look at the “revolution from above” of industrialization that forged modern America. In Age of Betrayal, Supreme Court justices turn the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws” to the freed slave into the shield of the corporate “person.” The presidents of the Pennsylvania and Southern Pacific railroads engage in a bidding war for congressmen. A depression brought on by railroad speculation throws millions out of work, the hungry riot for bread in Buffalo, the homeless sleep on Chicago’s streets, “tramps” are arrested, strikers are shot, and the nation’s presidents avert their eyes.
In the 1890s the Populist revolt from below challenges the revolution from above. Entrepreneurial capitalism ends in the early 1900s, as 1,800 giant firms are compacted into 157 behemoths.God instructs President McKinley to invade Cuba and seize the Philippines from Spain; turning from liberators to occupiers, U.S. troops slaughter and starve the (Roman Catholic) Filipinos in the name of “Christianizing” them. In perpetrating this “infamy,” William James cries out, “We have puked up our traditions”—revealing how these sordid decades had remade us.
A passionate, gripping, often shocking history of wealth over commonwealth—thirty-five years of American history in which we see the reflection of today’s gilded age.
"'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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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." Reviewed by Carlos Lozada, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
A senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, Beatty tells how, having redeemed democracy during the Civil War, America betrayed it during the Gilded Age. That time, he says, saw the birth of the plutocracy and inequality that rules the country a century later. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Age of Betrayal is a brilliant reconsideration of America's first Gilded Age, when war-born dreams of freedom and democracy died of their impossibility. Focusing on the alliance between government and railroads forged by bribes and campaign contributions, Jack Beatty details the corruption of American political culture that, in the words of Rutherford B. Hayes, transformed “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” into “a government by the corporations, of the corporations, and for the corporations.” A passionate, gripping, scandalous and sorrowing history of the triumph of wealth over commonwealth.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and news analyst for On Point, a National Public Radio news and public affairs program. He is the author of The Rascal King, winner of an American Book Award, as well as the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.
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