Why the Gilded Age?

By Allan Peskin

Volume V, Number 4 

Summer, 1986

Why the Gilded Age? The standard flippant answer: “Because it’s there,” will not do in this case because in the American consciousness, at least as measured by history textbooks, the Gilded Age is neither here nor there. If it is not ignored, it is denigrated. The very term “Gilded Age,” the title of an 1873 satirical novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, was originally intended more as a rebuke than a description. Subsequent historians have almost uniformly followed that lead and have portrayed an era dominated by corrupt politicians and greedy Robber Barons united in a sinister conspiracy to crush and degrade the toiling masses. Others deplore the crude, tinsel vulgarity of the nouveaux riche and the middle classes, as expressed in gaudy homes, tasteless furnishings, blowzy paintings and syrupy fiction. Conservationists condemn the rape of the landscape, the squandering of natural resources and the sooty ugliness of the factory towns. Women, it is asserted, were suppressed, immigrants exploited, blacks degraded and Indians wantonly massacred.


If even half of these charges are true, they constitute a formidable indictment of a nightmarish era in the American past. Yet, like most nightmares, this one is based only loosely on reality. A spate of recent political studies has demonstrated that the alleged corruption of the Gilded Age has been grossly exaggerated, mainly by reformers who felt compelled to paint an unduly grim picture in order to gain support for their own programs. The much-maligned political leaders of the era now seem to be basically honest, hardworking men who may have lacked imagination or charisma but certainly  not integrity. Similar studies are rehabilitating the so-called Robber Barons by emphasizing their organizational skills rather than their rapacity.


Yet the traditional interpretation refuses to die. Not too long ago a historian lamented that “The so-called Gilded Age is thought of simply as a time of political decadence.” Why such a distorted caricature of the Gilded Age should exert such a persistent hold on the historical imagination despite the corrective efforts of a host of revisionist scholars is a question for cultural analysts to grapple with. Whatever the reason, the result is that the accomplishments of an entire generation have been written out of the American historical memory.


And what a remarkable generation it was! Tested in the greatest war of our national experience, they turned their formidable energy to the pursuits of peace. In a frenzy of construction which outdid the Romans, they built cities, factories, and railroads spanning an entire continent.  They turned the unplowed grasslands of the world’s greatest interior plain into fertile farms and vast ranches, and then spilled across the oceans to create an overseas empire. They tamed the force of lightning and brought it into the home. They discovered the secret of manned flight which had eluded Leonardo da Vinci. Above all, they created a unified national economic and political order to replace the shaky, fragmented patchwork of the pre-Civil War union.


If, in their haste, they were sometimes crude or vulgar, such lapses might be forgivable. But, in fact, they presided over a cultural renaissance which made America teacher to the world. This flowering was not in the traditional realm of high culture in which Europe still ruled, but grew from the vitality of the American people themselves. From the cities,  most notable Chicago, came the skyscraper, regarded to this day as America’s unique architectural signature. From Memphis to Mobile, out of the former slave quarters, came the music which would blossom into jazz. From out of the West came the stuff that would be transformed into a legend which would captivate the world—the myth of the Cowboy.


These same years witnessed the transformation of America into a recognizably modern society. At the same time that the Census Bureau was reporting the closing of the frontier, it was also recording that the typical American was now to be found a city rather than on a farm. He was also likely to be engaged in some form of commerce, for these were also the years which saw the United States’ economy transformed from its old position as a semi-colonial producer of raw materials to its new role as the world’s leading industrial giant.


In short, America entered the modern world and, as with all rites of passage, it was accomplished not without pain, regrets and unavoidable awkwardness. Political and social institutions fashioned for a simpler age had to be reworked to meet new demands. A government framed for a loose-knit union of states had to be stretched to fit an expanded polity. Cities had to absorb and ultimately care for millions of newcomers, many of whom lacked the most basic grounding in urban or even American ways. The South had to learn to make do without slavery. Businesses which previously had been housed under one roof had to devise techniques to manage enterprises scattered across the nation.


Little wonder that some confusion, corruption and even violence accompanied American’s coming of age. But to dwell on these as the essence of the era is to miss the creative vitality of that remarkable period. This is not to suggest that the Gilded Age should be whitewashed, but neither, as one of its leading chroniclers complained, should it continue to be “kicked and scuffed” unmercifully. Perhaps the time is at hand when this critical era in America’s national development can at last be examined dispassionately without either apologies or automatic condemnation. If so, this journal may play a part in helping twentieth century Americans make their peace with a significant segment of our past.