The Gilded Age (17-14)


 I was a pretty terrible student in high school. I got good grades in most of my classes but didn’t exert myself in the least, didn’t know how to properly study, and didn’t really know how to read a nonfiction book properly. College was a rude awakening for a year before I found my academic legs and I still never really got up to speed as a history student until my upper class years.


Bill Williams as he appeared in the early 1980s when I was skipping his dull lectures. 

My first US history professor was William Appleman Williams (1921-1990), a really famous left wing historian who had been a hugely influential figure at the University of Wisconsin during the 1960s. He remains an icon of the historical profession, the godfather of 1960s revisionism in American diplomatic history.

I not only knew who Williams was at the time I took his History 201 class, I had even owned and read his latest (and last) book, Empire as a Way of Life (1980), and had alertly followed his series of historical musings in the pages of the Salem Statesman-Journal a few years before.

Williams was a smart guy but very loose about attendance and far less interesting a speaker than I had anticipated. Dull even. I cut his classes like crazy and bullshitted him for an A with a hokey pokey neo-Marxist term paper on the mode of production of pre-Columbian Americans, which was something like 90% of the course grade, I recall. I’m still embarrassed about that garbage I wrote.

Williams, a man with a background in the US Navy, had moved from the Big League history department at Madison to little Waldport, Oregon, a village with a whole ocean next door. He drove the hour each way a few times each week to give his lectures at OSU in Corvallis. He seemed to me to just be going through the motions, regurgitating colonial history to a bunch of kids who didn’t know who he was and who didn’t give a shit about the subject. It was frustrating that he wasn’t a riveting and challenging professor as I had hoped he would be, although I do think if it was later in my academic life when I went through his class I would have liked him more as an instructor.

I knew I needed to beef up my very deficient US history knowledge and got my butt from the tutelage of the great historian and into the mundane classes of a far more conventional history teacher for the second and third parts of the one year sequence. I don’t regret doing that in the least, because there I was held accountable for getting to lectures and actually learned my shit.

Bill Williams used to come in the shoe store and buy shoes for years afterwards. He always had liquor on his breath in the middle of the afternoon, contributing to my assessment that he had just been mailing it in until his official retirement.


Gilded Age Mark Twain, 1872.

 Anyway, I had never really heard of the “Gilded Age” of US history until the second part of that introductory college sequence. The Gilded Age is the universally accepted name among historians for the period starting with the end of Reconstruction in 1877 (when the Republican Party sold out black America once and for all) until the advent of the Progressive Era midway through the 1890s. It was a time of political malfeasance, shady railway expansion, greedy grabbing capitalists turning fast bucks, recurring economic crises, debate over monetary policy and tariffs, and was marked by the sputtering, stunted birth of the trade union movement.

One fun fact that I never knew: the name “Gilded Age” comes from an 1872 book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner about political corruption. That’s cool. And so another title is added to the acquisitions list…

My own historical interests began with the USSR in the 1930s, from which I switched gears to American radicalism in the 1910s and 1920s due to my pathetic Russian language skills. Now here I am, spending my days with Eugene Debs smack dab in the middle of the Gilded Age, learning the landscape as I go. At least it is intellectually stimulating, I’m having a good time.

 Art collectors have too much damned money. If it’s art, things get expensive fast. Hell, some suckers will even pay $40 for a double-truck magazine lithograph from 1894. Can you imagine that? Bunch of weirdos, if you ask me…


 The above Dalrymple lithograph, from the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the Pullman Strike, shows Debs and controversial liberal Illinois Governor John Altgeld being thrown by Lady Liberty, wearing a “Law and Order” tiara, into a garbage dump already populated by Terence Powderly and Martin Irons of the Knights of Labor (both of whom led unsuccessful railroad strikes), Jacob Coxey of Coxey’s Army fame (a march of unemployed workers across America to Washington, DC),  and a fourth person I didn’t recognize, somebody named “O’Donnell.” Who the hell was O’Donnell? Wikipedia was no help, nor was the answer immediately obvious from a quick search of the interwebs.

odonnell-hugh-smI was feeling the need to make a Wikipedia contribution for May so I spent one of my free days this week on the question. It turned out that “O’Donnell” was Hughey O’Donnell, a young skilled operative at the Carnegie Steel Company that emerged as the top leader of the July 1892 Homestead Strike. I wound up spending the whole day reading about Homestead and trying to build his bio from thin air — as there has been precious little scholarly attention paid to him, even though he’s quite clearly “notable” in Wikipedia terms due to extensive coverage of him as a historical actor during the strike.

I felt a little like I was playing hooky from “working” on Debs, but this is all something on which I would have had to spend the same amount of time in August. The story of the Homestead strike is absolutely riveting and I’ve been reading one worker-friendly 1893 book on the conflict ravenously — it’s a real page-turner, like something by Kurt Vonnegut or a really well-written mystery. I’m not quite ready to debrief on it here this week, but suffice it to say for now that there is a HUGE shadow cast over the Pullman strike and the Debs story by the Homestead Strike and the battle our friend Hugh O’Donnell waged two years earlier.

It turns out I didn’t really play hooky after all.

20-young-campaignprimer-p19-sm Marty Goodman passes along this cool little india ink drawing by the great radical cartoonist Art Young (1866-1943) from a cool little 1920 Socialist campaign pamphlet. It is pretty easy to date this drawing just from the content of the description, which mentions that Debs ran four times for President (he actually ran five times: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920) — which means this was “pre-November 1920” — and quotes Wilson of 1919 saying the same basic thing that put Debs into Federal Prison after he had said it in 1918. There ya go: “late 1919 or early 1920.”

While this particular pamphlet  did have a publication date up front, many times political tracts were printed without press dates and we collectors have to deduce their date of origins based on contextual clues like these. It is surprising how almost everything contains a clue of some sort — be they content, typographical design, precise publisher street addresses, other publications listed for sale in the back, or what have you — that leads to a more or less definitive identification of the exact date of publication.


 I’m starting to get serious about the historical literature on the Gilded Age, beginning with a Vincent P. DeSantis bibliography that was published in 1973. Title is The Gilded Age, 1877-1896 — which observant readers will note is coincidentally the same SAME EXACT periodization that we are using for volume 1 of the Debs — Railway Populist, 1877-1896.

The start and finish dates are significant: from the end of Reconstruction (which closed the Civil War era) to the failure of the Bryan campaign (which marked the effective end of the People’s Party as a real force and the first awakening of the Socialist Party’s antecedents). In Debs’s case the start date is accidental — 1877 just happens to be the date of his first published work, but the parallel is convenient nonetheless.

63-morgan-gildedage Next up is a collection of articles edited by our friend H. Wayne Morgan, he of the unreadably bad Debs biography mentioned here last week. His collection The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal (Syracuse University Press, 1963) is a far better effort. Indeed, it is regarded as an pioneering work that refocused American historical scholarship on an era that had been previously given short shrift — the Gilded Age having little of the drama and excitement of the Civil War and Reconstruction which preceded it or the obvious significance for the modern world represented by the Progressive Era which followed.

Ten scholars contributed articles for the volume, including Morgan’s influential think-piece, “An Age in Need of Reassessment: A View Beforehand,” DeSantis’s work on the evolving Republican Party (the dominant political force of the era), and Herbert Gutman’s labor history salvo, “The Worker’s Search for Power: Labor in the Gilded Age.” Gutman’s argument is interesting: that such a low percentage of American workers were unionized in the 1870s that unions were fairly unimportant institutions and that workers in small towns had a better situation than those in large cities owing to a tighter community and more constrained alternative labor market for employers seeking to impose draconian cuts.

 The number of quality biographies of President Grover Cleveland — arch nemesis of Debs during the 1894 Pullman Strike and after — isn’t great. One of the really decent ones just came rolling in. Published in two volumes in 1923, Robert McElroy’s Grover Cleveland: The Man and the Statesman bills itself as an “Authorized Biography,” which is a good enough red flag as any to the likely sympathetic bias of the writer. Still, it’s a solid account of the meteoric rise of the former Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York to the highest office in the land and the idiosyncrasies of his own “strong executive” conservatism. I look forward to mining the section on Pullman.

 I also got a nice cheap copy of the standard biography of radical abolitionist and popular orator Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), who along with Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was one of EVD’s life heroes and primary role models. It was published in 1961, the year of my birth, and was in VG+ condition in a dust jacket — which is how I feel most days. A little general wear and tear, nothing too major.



 “Important Lessons” — Nov. 1889 article — 1,860 words

 “Dishonest Bankers” — April 1891 article — 1,270 words

 “Message to the Federated Orders of Railway Employees” — June 1891 article — 4,410 words

 “An American Aristocracy” — July 1891 article — 1,025 words

 “Remedies for Wrongs” — July 1891 article — 2,660 words

 “The Expulsion of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen” — Aug. 1891 article —  925 words

 “Facts About Federation” — Sept. 1891 article — 900 words

 “The Union Man, the Non-Union Man, and the Scab” — Sept. 1891 article — 1,325 words

 “A Crime Against Humanity” — Dec. 1891 article — 2,625 words



….Word count 467,405 words in the can + 16,800 this week = 484,205 words

• 6 more Saturdays to go until the July 1 target for the end of output of editable text. There are still 116 article pdfs remaining to be processed (or rejected at second reading).

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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1 Response to The Gilded Age (17-14)

  1. Scott Holmes says:

    I just came across this post, 5 years after the fact, as I’m struggling to put together an essay on Twain and the industrialization of North America – and the rest of the world, actually. An interesting book that talks about Debs and the Pullman Strike, that I’m currently reading, is “The Edge of Anarchy” by Jack Kelly.


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