Remember President Jay Gould? Of course not—the billionaire industrialist never occupied the White House. But, writes Atlantic Monthly editor Beatty (Colossus, 2001, etc.), he ruled the country all the same.
“This book tells the saddest story: How, having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age.” So Beatty writes as an opening salvo in what becomes all-out war on the robber barons, arrivistes and idle rich of the late-19th century. Their fortune was at the expense of ordinary workers, courtesy of elected officialdom’s eagerness to give the rich the keys to the kingdom. Thus, the railroad conglomerates, having once imposed their will by rationalizing America’s 80-odd local time zones to serve their industrial needs, now found that the government was throwing huge sections of the public domain their way. In some instances, the vain hope was that the railroads would actually use that land to bring civilization to the lonelier corners of the country; in others, Beatty suggests, it was mere bribery. Whatever the case, the bestowal of billions of dollars’ worth of the public domain on a handful of owners was a passing scandal in its own time, while the government’s failure to enact land reform during Reconstruction to compensate former slaves was scarcely noticed at all. While the Democrats of the era concentrated on keeping power in the hands of white men, the Republicans stacked the Senate by admitting into the Union states that did not meet the constitutional criteria for statehood, allowed the wealthy to dictate the terms of their own laws and otherwise constructed “a chummy heaven of businessmen and politicians.” As Beatty’s damning story continues, the parallels between then and now mount—save, as he notes, the undemocratic inequalities of the Gilded Age were nothing compared to those of today.
A compelling tale of the haves of the past and the “inverted Constitution” they created.