Talking Politics Guide to ... The Gilded Age

We talk to historian Sarah Churchwell about the Gilded Age in late nineteenth century America and the comparisons with today. Rampant inequality, racial conflict, fights over immigration, technological revolution: is Trump's America repeating the pattern or is it something 

new?


Talking Points:


In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles W. Warner coined the term “The Gilded Age,” in their eponymous novel. 

  • The phrase was re-discovered in the 1920s and applied retrospectively to the period of the 1870s-roughly 1900.
  • The Gilded Age satirized the way wealth and consumerism were taking over American life and showed how this move towards a “huxterist” culture was subverting America’s democratic ideals.


Yet this was also a period of real growth. 

  • The major transformation of the period was the railroad. 
  • Rampant inequality characterized the era: the robber barons on the one hand, and poor immigrant communities on the other. But in the middle of this, there was also a group of people working their way into the middle class.


Immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe, exploded during this period.

  • America did not have immigration control. 
  • The first immigration laws were passed in the 1880s and 1890s, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act.


Reconstruction overlaps with the Gilded Age.

  • There was no redistribution to the former slaves. Johnson effectively pardoned the former Confederates. 
  • The Klan emerged during this period as domestic terrorists.
  • This ultimately leads to the Great Migration, African Americans leaving the South to seek opportunities further North.


The bridge between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Period was the age of populism.

  • William Jennings Bryan was a grassroots populist who almost became president.
  • There are many echoes to the present moment: white working class men asserting their right to be middle America at the cost of excluding other communities.


Is this a new Gilded Age?

  • Today, the tech giants are cornering technology the way that Carneige cornered steel. 
  • But maybe the gilt is the story, and the exceptional moments are the aberrations. 


Further Learning:

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