The Gilded Age Makes A Comeback

Edith Wharton portrait.jpg

The historian Carl Degler, who recently died, studied the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the late 19th century. That period has striking parallels to our country at the beginning of the 21st century. Between 1880 and 1915 the country’s face changed, and today the same phenomenon is occurring. The polarization of society and the divisive politics of that time were resolved, according to Degler, only by the rise of progressivism, which returned America to a sense of balance. The lack of a progressive “third way” today is startling, given that the concentrations of wealth and power are higher than ever existed in the Gilded Age.

At the time, America was about to leave behind Jefferson’s ideals of an agrarian-based egalitarian society: the principles of free education, democracy, and land ownership. Now, we are urbanizing again, to a new and greater degree. As we evolve from industrialization to digitalization, the same cycle appears to be occurring. Here in Florida, urbanization is nearly complete, with a single archipelago of semi-urbanity having spread its web across nearly the entire peninsula.

While this may seem like advancement, a gradually disempowered class feels increasingly resentful of the fast-moving cities. Here in Florida, those cities are woven in and around the rural populations. The situation seems dire, but it's only a shadow of the human toll taken during the industrial revolution. Still, it is easy to see why social issues and moral values are central to those feeling left out of the cosmopolitan, prosperous cities.

In the 1890s, no amount of handwringing by do-gooders helped reduce the suffering of children in mines, or the shameful exploitation of railroad workers. Populists, labor firebrands, and utopians contributed little to the solution, only sparking more controversy. Strikes increased divisiveness and polarized the country.

Ultimately, it was through the emergence of progressivism in the reasonable center that true progress was made, and that the balance of the original founding principles was restored. No such movement exists today.

An iconoclastic thinker, Degler called the progressive movement an essentially conservative one, pointing out that Fred Howe and its other luminaries pressed to conserve the original Jeffersonian goals of American reform. Degler quoted Howe: “The great problem now before the American people is, how can opportunity be kept open; how can industry be saved from privilege; how can our politics be left to the unimpeded action of talent and ability?” The progressives formed the American Creed around the new city and industry which were then rising. Howe’s questions are apt in this era’s uncertain world.

A progressive center has yet to emerge from today’s highly polarized political climate. We continue to see and hear more divisiveness, and the upcoming presidential campaign promises to be nasty. Neither party has brought the two sides together. Our political campaigns in Florida reflect this same dialectic. Local races, once a bit more genteel, seem to be modeled after the national scene. A vacuum has opened up in the center. And today, just as at the end of the ninteenth century, there is little incentive yet to fill the vacuum.

Degler saw turn-of-the-century American society as riven into the many poor and the few rich, and viewed the country’s founding democratic ideal as having been permanently subverted. His penetrating analysis of the last Gilded Age, and of an America that was gradual splintering, influenced a generation of scholars and historians. Degler’s essay, “New World A’Comin,’” noted that the rise of progressivism came only after decades of serious abuse and human tragedy at the end of the Industrial revolution.

Progressives such as Howe and fellow reformer E. A. Ross encouraged the shouldering of a certain moral responsibility from top to bottom. But up until Ross’s treatise, Sin and Society in 1907, forty years of increasingly grisly and dark times for workers passed before things got much better.

In today's America, we don't see dead children carried out of coal mines; no dead strikers, and no labor riots in the streets. 'Worker abuse' does not signify starvation or mortal danger. Protest against the privileged wealthy class is also less strident than it was a hundred years ago. Thus, if a progressive movement emerges from our current troubles, it is likely to be comparatively mild, and will need to fight against much more powerful odds to emerge. For one, the news media has no vested interest in settling disputes. And for another, the working class isn’t in peril for its life, and any great settling of accounts between the working class and the elite seems as though it will be put off to the distant future.

I was a student in Florida in the 1970s when I first studied Carl Degler’s ideas during a unique period. The Vietnam War had just ended, and the national identity was sensitive. In Florida, we were highly conscious of the difficult relationship with Cuba. So, along with American history, the state required a course called “Americanism vs. Communism.” The notion of Americanism— not capitalism, you may notice, or democracy, but “Americanism”—included the terms “melting pot,” “exceptionalism,” and “The American Dream.” In a rural state with wide-open land at the time, this anxiety to present a unified, signature American identity had a powerful effect on those of us coming of age: Americanism was on the defensive.

In that mix, Degler’s ideas were provocative. “Wherever men have striven to realize their moral visions, they have demonstrated that ideas, as well as economic forces, can change the direction of history,” Degler wrote in Out of Our Past. With Degler’s death, the notion of history’s moral trajectory may finally have died also. He challenged pat concepts: he refuted the notion of “melting pot,” citing the lack of assimilation of many ethnicities, and the stubborn refusal of a few to put racism behind them. Instead, he called America a “salad bowl.” He also rejected the idea of American exceptionalism, and noted that Jeffersonian ideals were only renewed through hard work. Maintaining these ideals today, in America’s new urban face, seems a fading dream as well.

Here in Florida, the rancor of last autumn's gubernatorial race seems forgotten. People are back at work, tourists are flowing into the state, and the population is swelling. Construction, thanks to easy credit, is everywhere. Reform is unlikely while the good times are here. Americanism, it seems, has triumphed, and the quaint, Jeffersonian notions of an agrarian, egalitarian society are again collecting dust for the time being.

Instead, we have a superficial choice between two political parties that seems less and less substantive, and more and more like a marketer’s dream: Coke or Pepsi. Degler’s notion of history as a continual evolution of ideas, and of the rise of a progressive 'third way' is, for now, dormant. Many of us who were lucky enough to read Out of Our Past in Florida’s public schools still keep Degler's provocative ideas with us. Those ideas may be put to good use when today's soft drinks go out of style, and the public is thirsty for a middle ground once again.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Flickr photo by Cliff: That Other Gilded Age. Edith Wharton, oil on canvas by Edward Harrison May, seen here during her privileged childhood. Wharton's fiction became acclaimed for its critical view of Gilded Age society.


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Thanks for informative post! After World War II and during the cold war years, the idea of American uniqueness was reborn in the form of the concept of "national character," also of ancient vintage. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the assumption that it was legitimate to refer to the character of a whole people had come in for sharp criticism, principally because of the insistence by the German Nazis of the superiority of the so-called Aryan peoples and of Germans in particular.

David Off
Web Designer in Minnesota

Beware of the law of unintended consequences

The quote from Degler is very revealing, " can our politics be left to the unimpeded action of talent and ability?” So, actually impeding the action of talent and ability would be a solution? A liberal (in the classic sense, not left wing) society is one where people can freely use their talent and ability. But talent and ability are not equal, not even with a small family. So there will be unequal rewards based upon unequal talent and ability. To mitigate the effects of this unequal distribution of rewards, requires the use of force (government) to take from one and give to another. You may end up with a perceived more equal society based on one measure, money, but society itself will deteriorate as the progress due to the action of talent and ability is impeded.

That's progressive?