Blogs > HNN > Robert Parmet: Review of Jack Beatty's Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 (Knopf, 2007)

Jul 9, 2007 12:56 am

Robert Parmet: Review of Jack Beatty's Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 (Knopf, 2007)

Robert Parmet is Professor of History, York College of the City University of New York.

Our times, which have been called an era of “mass affluence,” inevitably invite comparison to earlier periods of United States history, such as the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties, when the few had great wealth and the many suffered. In Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1665-1900, Jack Beatty highlights this disparity during the years between the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War. His title recalls muckraker David Graham Phillips’ 1906 expose, The Treason of the Senate, a scathing account of how that “millionaire’s club” served constituents other than the American people. However, Beatty goes beyond the Senate. He “tells the saddest story: How having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age.”

Beatty also recalls other writers who had similar views of America’s leaders in the late nineteenth century. He writes with a passion for social justice as he cites such authors as William Demarest Lloyd, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells. An author reminiscent of Harold U. Faulkner, Matthew Josephson and Ray Ginger, who readily chronicled injustice, he is closer to recent social historians than those who regard business leaders as “Captains of Industry” rather than “Robber Barons.”

Beatty writes with a sense of social justice. Unlike most historians before 1950, he does not ignore race. Reflecting the light thrown onto race relations by the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s, he cites C. Vann Woodward, Eric Foner and others in describing the blatant corruption, violence and deprivations of human rights in the cause of white supremacy in the South during and after the Reconstruction era. As racial atrocities multiplied in the South, industrial development skyrocketed in the North.

Eager to identify his sources, Beatty often mentions them by name in his text, as well as endnotes. Such reliance on authorities is unnecessary; the abundance of information he presents is more than sufficient to tell his story. Similarly, lest the reader miss the point that the past sins he describes relate to present ones, Beatty too often strays from the past to make present-day connections. In short, he should leave well enough alone.

Beatty actually begins his account with the pre-Civil War era, discussing such matters as Andrew Jackson’s war with the Bank of the United States and the emergence of railroads, all the while explaining the relationship between business and politics through the Civil War up to the Spanish-American War and the end of the century. “The railroad executive and the mechanic,” he writes, “stood equally only at the ballot box.” Yet when it was time to vote, “the party system . . . insulated industrialism from democracy through a system of distractions, based on the manipulation of real hatreds and sham issues.” From its beginnings, the Republican Party defended “the right to rise” and “identified freedom with economic development.” As “the party of greed,” the Republicans vied for power with the Democrats, who after Reconstruction wrested control of the South as “the party of hate.”

In a book short on heroes, there are loads of villains. This group includes two associate justices of the U. S. Supreme Court, John A. Campbell and Stephen J. Field, financiers Jay Cooke and Jay Gould, Pennsylvania Railroad president Tom Scott, Populist leaders Mary E. Lease and Tom Watson, and President Grover Cleveland. Contributors all to the assault on democracy, they undid the human rights gains of the Civil War, manipulated the nation’s economy and political system, and, except for Lease and Watson, were hostile or indifferent to the plight of America’s poor.

“The triumph of money” resulted in part from the weakness of organized labor. Beatty indeed describes American fears of a working-class uprising in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871 and such violent labor disasters as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and Homestead Strike of 1892. Yet he gives relatively little space to the calamitous Haymarket Riot of 1886, which contributed to the demise of the nation’s largest labor organization of the era, the Knights of Labor. That group receives only passing reference, and Terence V. Powderly, its head, none at all. Even Samuel Gompers and his ultimately more durable American Federation of Labor do not appear especially significant, despite their defense of the American capitalist system against criticism by labor radicals. Beatty does discuss Eugene V. Debs, but makes the common error of misidentifying the militant Industrial Workers of the World, which he helped found, as the “International Workers of the World.”

A book with passion and conscience, Age of Betrayal strives to connect the past to the present. Not especially interested in balance, it offers images of raw economic, political and racial power to those who see the history of the United States through rose-colored textbooks. Its occasional omissions and errors, and a tendency to hyperbole, all are subordinated to its message.

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