When Corruption and Venality Were the Lifeblood of America

The age was cynical but White’s book, allowing for a lapse or two, is not. This is because he is drawn to what he describes (in a phrase borrowed from the book’s unsecret hero, the novelist and editor William Dean Howells) as “the common” — the striving middle- and working-class America of shops and neighborhoods, churches and trade unions. These realms, too, were part of the Gilded Age. In mostly unsung ways, they expanded the public good, driven by the promise of a free-labor democracy purged of the oligarchic slavery that died with the Confederacy.


But that promise, White demonstrates, turned out to be treacherous. The ambiguous liberal ideals of contract freedom and self-regulation that helped eradicate slavery became instruments for brute and chaotic corporate power. With the ex-slaves betrayed and the Indians conquered at last, an “uncommon” America emerged, characterized by neither the imperatives of creative destruction nor even simple greed as much as by extravagance, mismanagement and predatory flimflam. Risk-taking and rugged individualism, big business’s eternally self-proclaimed virtues, were in extremely short supply at the top; Gilded Age fortunes sprang from government subsidies, insider tips and, above all, the corruption required to get these favors. “Corruption suffused government and the economy,” White writes; it was not a distortion of the system but the system’s lifeblood.

The book begins with an evocative description of the public mourning and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, whose tragic shade haunts every chapter. Lincoln would be revered as the Union’s savior and the Great Emancipator, but his envisaged “new birth of freedom” would soon enough be suppressed. White treats the decade after Appomattox (with a nod to the historian Elliott West) as the Greater Reconstruction, in which the federal government aimed to clear out the Far West as well as tame the defeated South by inculcating the virtues of free labor and economic development. White also suggests that the venality and political feebleness that ensured Reconstruction’s overthrow in the South marked the actual commencement of the Gilded Age.

Linking the subjugation of the Indians with the government’s treatment (and, finally, abandonment) of the ex-slaves is meant to provoke recognition of the limits of American equality after the Civil War. Yet it leads White to pass too quickly over the fruits of Southern…

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