Gilded Ages and Stormy Seas

Our current woes have plenty of precedent in American history
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We live in a world of chaotic change and uncertainty. Let’s learn from when that last happened.

Stop me when this sounds familiar.

The United States has just won a decisive victory against a great ideological threat to human freedom. Flush with that triumph, the victors now set about remaking the country in their image, unleashing huge economic and social forces in their full creativity and force. Pretty soon, people tell themselves, all will be made right.

Except it turns out those forces don’t quite behave the way they’re supposed to. Chaotic and fast running out of anyone’s individual control, they reshape America’s landscape and people in ways not previously imagined. New technologies, social arrangements, and scientific theories are unmooring what was once taken for granted, and the old America appears to be slipping away.

To try and tame or at least organize this new tide, two different coalitions of veteran Americans emerge. One calls itself progressive, seeking to impose a new vision on American society, unmoored from previous traditions and based on an absolute confidence in the correctness of their views. The other comes under different headings, but seeks to restrain and temper America in the old, traditional ways that had worked so well before.

I’m not talking about our own time, the post-Cold War era broadly speaking, but what are known as the Gilded and Progressive Ages of American life. That my description sounded so familiar is not an accident; I believe that with appropriate adjustments, we have much to learn from those times for our own.

I know this sounds pat. Lazy historical analogies are a dime a dozen in American public discourse. Everything that happens is 1933. Or 1939. Or 1945. Or 1964. Or 1865. Or 1877. Or any other great historical event with easy answers and clear sides you want to pick. 

But the argument I’d like to make is different: the two periods are similar precisely because both were profoundly uncertain. 

This was a time in which, as the late thinker Peter Augustine Lawler would quip, things were getting better and worse all the time, at the same time. Most old and new Americans were being presented with new opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. You could read more books, hear more music, travel more, change to more jobs, and generally enjoy more things than ever before. More and more basic stuff became cheaper and cheaper, putting it in reach of more and more ordinary Americans.

But lots of things were going the “wrong way,” too. Old arrangements like life on the farm or independent artisanship were breaking up or weakening, and moving up in the opportunity-filled but often filthy and corrupt cities was far from easy. Work in factories and other industrial jobs made more money but risked a great deal, including injury and death. Discrimination and abuses by any reasonable standard were common. Meanwhile, the rise of secular or at least neutral forms of entertainment and leisure made a previously deeply religious and moral (even moralizing) country nervous.

And the question of what exactly it means to be an American was increasingly in doubt. The country had been founded as a primarily rural, West European or English Protestant country based on small, tight-knit communities. By the end of this period in 1920, most lived in urban areas of various sizes, and even the tightest community there was likely looser than most small towns, with millions having different religions and approaches to life.

This raised many questions for ordinary Americans: Could the old American system of government and self-government work under these conditions? Was the constitution obsolete? Was there a way to tame the raging energy of the country and find its bearings (and did it need to be)? What did civic virtue mean in the new age? Or religious faith?

Questions like these feel just as pressing in our time as it did in theirs. As then, our politics are deeply divided and deadlocked as the old consensus breaks down and people scramble in search of new or old answers to revolutionary questions. The dissolution of old social organizations a la Robert Putnam has people wondering what can replace them or rebuild the old system so people truly flourish.

The natural instinct of Americans, especially educated Americans – then as now – is to find some overarching theory, launch some new crusade against something to rally Americans and unite them. Schools, then as now, are seen as the training ground of new regiments and battalions of activists for the sake of the crusade.

But caution is in order. Sometimes these crusades are vital, as can be seen from the fight for women’s right to vote or the much longer fight for the right of Black Americans to freely vote. But there are plenty of crusades that failed or did harm and which certainly divided Americans – the progressive excitement for eugenics and the prohibition coalition among these. 

It is not at all obvious that a sense of moral righteousness equates with good sense, correctness, or what’s “good for the country.” Just because crusades are now launched in the name of more secularized causes doesn’t mean they’re not prone to the same sort of errors and zealotry religiously-tinged crusades were and are. And even when fully successful, crusades should eventually end. A solution dependent on keeping everyone in a state of zealous ferment over so much is a recipe for division, often unnecessary division, and often over small differences.

There is another way. 

This same period that saw the rise of powerful wealth concentration and organized ideological reformists also witnessed what Professor Samuel Goldman has called “the greatest flourishing of civil society” in American life. Mutual aid associations of ordinary Americans covering everything from insurance to education could be found everywhere and among every social group, including the most disadvantaged and discriminated against. 

And civic involvement meant something a lot broader yet also substantially more modest than the extremely overambitious agendas of today’s right and leftwing NGOs and associations. Politics were important, but primarily local and at most state politics where people could make a real difference (this is still the case). To be a good neighbor or friend, to help people out in time of need, to argue but stay friends for the sake of common causes.

Teaching this era properly means teaching it not only as a time of moral retreat or progress (though it was both, depending on your perspective). It also means encountering and dealing with the uncertainties, the foibles, prejudices (in the original sense of received opinions, sometimes good and sometimes bad), and sheer idiosyncrasies of ordinary men and women in confusing times. It means looking at the solutions arrived at in their time and comparing them to our own, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It means offering options and ways of being a good citizen to the vast majority of Americans who want private lives and largely wish to not be embroiled in every controversy the elite worries about.

More than all of this, though, teaching this era is about learning humility. Then, as now, every American had an opinion on what was going on and what should be done about it. But a careful look at the results and the arguments shows that more was unclear than not. That there were cases where the answers are clear in retrospect (women’s and black suffrage chief among them) but many more where we’re still largely arguing the same points, or the same themes with different arguments. And even in cases where one side “won,” it’s not at all clear the winning side was the correct one. 

It’s about learning that being an American means not unity in thought, but rather learning that we’re all going to argue and that we all need to still get along somehow, and anyway, none of us really knows everything, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. 

Americans know how to get riled up over crusades, with all the positive and negative results of these. But America’s students should also learn a bit about the importance of the importance, value, and even beauty of a world of ordinary human possibilities and challenges. And this is something the Gilded Age provides in spades.

 

Avi Woolf
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator who hosts an ongoing series on the Gilded Age entitled Stumbling Colossus at Avi’s Conversational Corner.