The Gilded Age: The First Generation of Historians" by H. Wayne Morgan University of Oklahoma, April 18, 1997.
A good many years have passed since I was in graduate school. I think that Coolidge was president then. (I don't know about your students, but mine would write that down, both because it is obviously true, and because it might be on the next exam.) Two of my favorite professors were well outside the specialty I had chosen, Douglass Adair at Claremont Graduate School, in the Federal period, and Page Smith at UCLA, in the Colonial period. Both said in seminars something that I have often remembered: Pay attention to the first people who wrote about your subject. They lived through it, or remembered it. Their work usually set a benchmark that subsequent historians either accepted or rejected, so they were influential. They had a strong sense of what had seemed important, and what it had been possible and impossible to do. In that spirit, I would like to discuss some of the first people who wrote about the Gilded Age, which I take to be the period from the 1870s to about 1900, a coverage I will discuss. My selection of titles is purely personal. I have tried to analyze works that found a public as well as professional audience. My guiding question is: What view of the period would an interested reader gain from reading the interpretations of this first generation of authors? Let us begin with the basic text, The Gilded Age, A Tale of Today, which Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote in three months in 1873. Mark Twain was a noted western type and journalist. Warner wrote charming domestic essays, and became a travel writer. Both thought they could cash in with a sensational bestseller that allowed them to criticize the current American scene.
The book may be one of the worst ever written. The standard plot summary takes twelve pages to explain its multitude of characters, plots and sub-plots. Mark Twain wrote the first half, focused on the Hawkins family, a thinly disguised substitute for his own relatives. Warner wrote the second half, which dealt with lobbying for government favors in Washington, and a panoramic treatment of political corruption. The politicians were easily identifiable to anyone who followed public events. At a more serious level, Twain and Warner criticized the American people's tolerance of corruption, and unwillingness to demand competent officeholders. In Mark Twain's portion of the book, the real estate speculations and search for government subsidies for railroads, town sites, and river improvements recall the expansive 1850s, when much of the nation's wealth seemed up for grabs. There is an interesting idea in this depiction of political shenanigans, and individual venality: that industrialism began as just another frontier, its fruits open for the taking to anyone who knew which strings to pull. The central character, Colonel Beriah Sellers, modeled on one of Mark Twain's cousins, embodied frontier optimism, and the hope for speculative wealth. "The old flag and an appropriation" was his motto. He cheerfully described fictional networks of railroads; cities replete with every modern convenience; and bustling enterprises. He was a comic but sympathetic figure, who built castles in Spain and lived in them, then built others to rent out! Of course it was all very American. The Nation noted of the popular play made from the book that audiences laughed because they saw themselves "reflected from the stage." It is hard to gauge the effect of a book upon readers, but The Gilded Age must have intensified perceptions of political corruption that its readers gained from the press and magazines. Just how and why the authors chose the book's title, and what they intended it to convey, remains unclear. They presumably meant that the period's gilt of prosperity and activity covered political corruption. The term originally applied only to the first Grant administration, but later scholars extended it to include the century's entire last generation. None of the authors I will discuss employed it. Just who first used it to describe the entire period is unclear, but barring an extensive search for suspects, I nominate Van Wyck Brooks, who used the term in this sense as an aside in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920). It seems to have been in general use in academic writing by the time of Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington in the 1920s, who by and large used it to describe the bad taste of the rich. This use of the novel form to illuminate current events continued in Democracy (1880), which somewhat resembled that of The Gilded Age. The scene was Washington. One protagonist was a powerful senator, wise to the ways of political dealing, modeled on James G. Blaine. The president, nicknamed "The Hoosier Quarryman," was clearly U.S. Grant. And a shrewd attractive woman character, Madelaine Lee, was intent on entering Washington society, and on learning how the political system worked. As the title indicated, the subject was American democracy, of which alliances between politicians and businessmen, and the search for place and power were part. The anonymous author, of course, was Henry Adams. He was already well known, in high minded circles because of his family. He had also attained some notoriety for his analysis in Chapters of Erie (1871) of major political issues such as the Gold Ring of 1869, the financing and bankruptcy of the Erie Railroad, and other episodes that revealed the connections between business and politics.
Adams's novel was more subtle, with a more serious purpose than Twain's, yet it was bloodless. For much of the reading public, the point was to identify the fictional characters and guess at the author's identity rather than to digest the work's idea that any government was only as honest and effective as its citizens desired. Perhaps the problem was popular democracy, which focused on the scramble for success, with little time for the informed analyses of observers like Adams. He went on to write a major multi-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, and taught medieval history at Harvard. He left a posthumous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1918), whose negative views of politics and the period greatly influenced scholars. The novels of Mark Twain and Henry Adams were efforts to reach a mass audience with complex topical information in dramatic characters and plots. Gifted amateur historians were also influential as writers of school textbooks. The eclectic "readers" of William Holmes McGuffey, which aimed to instil in students a code of ethical conduct within the framework of the success ethic, remained very influential. But the country's need for a better educated citizenry and for trained workers stimulated school enrollments, and required textbooks with fresh understanding of American life and history, including the current era. Edward Eggleston was such a talented amateur. He was noted for children's stories and Sunday school books before turning to American history. He also wrote novels set in midwestern towns and based on historic facts that combined nostalgia with an emerging literary realism. Eggleston hoped to avoid "kiln-dried facts," and to depict people's lives amid great events in his texts. He was cautious about judging contemporary events, and relied on the narrative to make his points. He and the publisher were determined to produce books with a "modern" format. This meant active writing, in short, labeled sections; colored maps; charts and graphs; and illustrations of people and events. The narrative treated public affairs, but also discussed science and technology in daily life. He covered population trends; special developments in the South and West; and the symbolism of the varied expositions that marked the nation's movement into a new industrial era.
All of this helped to show how complex the nation was becoming; how varied its population was; and how difficult the new order would be in shaping public policy. The best known of these texts were probably those of David H. Montgomery, who wrote about English and French, as well as American history. His American text covered much more than public affairs, but emphasized the development of transportation, communication, and education that enlarged individual experience, and made the nation's parts interdependent. His texts ultimately sold an amazing ten million copies. These and other such texts reflected the authors' understanding of both the benefits and dangers of industrialism. Their message was: Yes, we have social problems, and yes, industrialism has produced a new order that must develop with some antagonism to existing ideas and systems. But science and technology, and the country's natural and human resources would see the nation through. Self-help, social mobility, and adaptation would manage temporary social and economic inequities. It would be simplistic to say that school text authors overly accentuated the positive. They were very conscious of the disaster of civil war, and hoped that unifying ideals and commonsense would prevent another round of crises as industrialism developed.
The next generation of textbooks would come from trained historians with the dual agenda of depicting history without sentiment, and using it in reforming society. They would be more critical of recent American history, but no less wedded to its importance as both story and lesson. Readers seeking detail and broad narrative turned elsewhere, likely as not to one of several multi-volume studies of American history. These ambitious works reflected the era's desire to quantify and understand information. They were also an effort to give the country an important and complex history equal to its self-image, and to those of peoples in the Old World.
These multi-volume projects usually focused in detail on the nation's early years, or at most went to the Civil War, but some treated the recent past. Such sets appealed to both a desire for information and for prestige among an expanding professional and middle-class that included lawyers, doctors, educators, clergymen, and many commercial and business persons. These were the people who subscribed to quality magazines such as Century, Harpers's and Scribner's, which covered foreign news, literature, poetry, the arts, and history. Of course, one never knew what they read as contrasted to what they bought, or how information of any kind affected their lives. But more than a search for status was involved; and they considered history, including their own times, to be part of general culture. These large series sold well and their authors became public figures.
James Ford Rhodes was foremost among the authors who treated the recent past. A native of Cleveland, he attended college briefly, but was a self-trained historian. He entered his father's prosperous coal and iron business in 1874, and retired in 1885 wealthy enough to study and write full-time, and to afford research assistants. Rhodes aimed to tell the story of the Civil War generation and its heirs with drama and sweep, supported with lavish details. He gathered basic information from official documents, reference works, reports of congressional debates and party conventions, memoirs, and especially from newspapers. He also knew many of the actors in his drama; Mark Hanna was his brother-in-law. Between 1892 and 1906 he produced seven large volumes covering the period from 1850 to 1877, which appeared as a set in 1910. He added an eighth volume dealing with the years 1877 to 1896 in 1919, and a final one for the Mckinley and Roosevelt administrations, 1897-1909, in 1922. A special edition of the nine volumes appeared in 1928, bound in blue and gold, standing on library shelves like a squad of Union soldiers demanding the password. The necessary phrase was something like "the Union and abolition of slavery," themes that unified the first volumes. The narrative slackened somewhat once the Union triumphed, but Rhodes's panorama of events unrolled through Reconstruction, of which he disapproved, and the following decades. He generally favored tariff reduction, sound finance and civil service reform, which all seemed to be good business practices in government. Rhodes understood how difficult it was for politicians to work through the complex political system. He remained a good Republican, but admired many of Grover Cleveland's actions. He also treated social and labor troubles, population changes and immigration, and warned against disorder in meeting new industrial issues. He made at least an occasional obeisance toward developments in science, technology and culture, but the focus on public events was remorseless. The books sold well and with other publications helped make Rhodes a national cultural icon.
Of course, no author escapes the reviewers' quills. Both popular and academic critics praised Rhodes's detail and viewpoint, as well as "the quality of heavy awkward strength" in the early volumes. But the chorus thinned as the series progressed. By the time the last volumes appeared, the total work seemed dated in its emphasis on politics and its lack of analysis. Trained historians were now much more likely than the old fashioned newspaper or magazine writer to review historical works. They expected attention to human motivation, cause and effect, and history's applicability to current issues. Many late reviewers criticized Rhodes's lack of coverage of the West and frontiers, a bow to the growing impact of Frederick Jackson Turner's ideas. Others noted his elitist viewpoint. Frederick Logan Paxson, a rising star at the University of Michigan, thought that Rhodes failed to see how muc h the country had changed in the mid-eighties, when Civil War issues yielded to those of the new industrial order. Charles Beard sharply criticized Rhodes for depicting social and economic issues only in terms of violence, and for not understanding how the country had changed.
Readers desiring a livelier approach than Rhodes's had other options. One was the work of E. Benjamin Andrews, chancellor of the University of Nebraska. Andrews was another gifted amateur historian who brought some unusual experience to his studies. Born in 1844, he fought in the Union army and was wounded. He became a pastor, taught at Brown and Cornell, was president of Dennison University and of Brown, and was superintendent of Chicago's schools before moving to Nebraska. He had thus dealt with a variety of people, and knew something about public taste. He believed that education and history should mold citizenship as well as instruct the young. These views all made him an effective popularizer. Andrews's principal work was a four volume history of the United States published in 1896, aimed at the general reader and student. The publisher took full advantage of the revolution in printing to produce handsome books, lavishily illustrated with photographs, colored maps, line drawings, and tables. Andrews treated popular culture and daily life as well as public events, and tried to be national in scope, with attention to the West and South. He realized that industrialism had produced new ways of perceiving everything. He knew the facts of economic development, but also understood the emotions involved that would fuel demands for reform and regulation. Prosperous business was all very well, for example, but "corporations instead of [being] individuals, more and more became the employers of labor, [and] not only did the old-time kindliness between help and hirers die out, but men the most cool and intelligent feared the new [corporate] power as a menace to democracy." The work was popular, and revised editions remained in print until the late 1920s. Andrews expanded his coverage of the late-nineteenth century in a two volume work of 1896, and then in a large volume of 1903, The United States in Our Own Time. One hesitates to call a 900 page book a summary, but it was easy to read, again lavishly illustrated, and made the period lively and important. The text rested on a narrative of public events, but it was also a kind of scrapbook or photo album of national life that appealed to a generation of readers beginning to respond to images and terse writing (we might say sight bites) rather than to detailed factual accounts. He covered natural disasters, polar exploration (the space exploration of the day), the Oklahoma land runs, expositions, foreign events, and movements for women's rights and temperance. His judgments were cautious, but the depictions were vivid. The book's broad message was familiar: the recent era was special, a period of scientific and technological revolution, of new and sometimes fearsome human problems a nd possibilities, which the country's commonsense and vitality would manage.
Professor Woodrow Wilson offered another treatment of American history. He had received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1886, after publishing Congressional Government, a widely noted treatise that counselled closer cooperation between the legislative and executive branches. By 1900, Wilson was something of a legend in academic circles, and had developed a popular audience through magazine articles, books and lectures. Wilson spoke and wrote in a lofty manner. The opposite of Rhodes, he eschewed confining details in favor of telling generalizations. He summarized American history from the 1820s to the 1880s in Division and Reunion (1893), where he hoped to make sense of the events of his own maturity in a last chapter labelled "The New Union, 1876-1889." In this brief text, Wilson emphasized the finality of the Civil War. As a southerner, he believed that the South might have been right about the compact theory in 1861, but history had settled the argument in favor of central authority and national development. He now sensed a fresh beginning in industrial issues. In one of many insightful points in the last brief chapter, he noted the basic change: every society had inequities of wealth and power, but the scale of this old problem now affected every aspect of life. An alarmed public would demand as yet unclear action, which should reflect at least a sense of historical development, in order to create viable public policy.
Division and Reunion was successful, and Wilson decided to write a multi-volume history of the United States. Most of the chapters appeared first as articles for Harper's Magazine in 1901 and 1902. Harper Bros. expanded these to five substantial volumes with documents, illustrations, maps, charts and bibliographies. The set appeared in 1902 as A History of the American People. The work's focus was in its title, and the smooth, elevated narrative involved the people as well as leading individuals. Of course, all acted out a set of ideals that finally created a nation, however complex its population. Wilson treated events since the Civil War in the final volume. As with Rhodes, a narrative of political events carried the story, but he really organized the material into several large categories. He saw the mid-eighties as a moment of shift from residual Civil War issues to industrial problems, as typified in the tariff, currency, and civil service reform issues, which represented a new interdependence among the country's interest groups. Like other authors, he recognized the force of new social issues, but did not prescribe solutions beyond reliance on existing law and procedures. He thought that the outcome of the election of 1896 certified the country's passage from an agrarian society to an industrial one. He saw overseas expansion as logical, given the nation's history of growth and because of concern for foreign markets and fulfilling a new, prestigious role in international affairs. He treated advances in science and technology, and noted changes in population and in the people's daily lives. Wilson's general view of the period was conservative in treating most specific issues, even as he recognized the wholesale change the country had passed through. He saw no chance to improve the freed Negro's lot. The troubles of labor and agriculture were real, but he opposed suggested remedies such as tinkering with the currency. The economy and business needed regulation, but not outside accepted legal and legislative procedures. He sharply criticized the "new immigration" from central and eastern Europe. The country could not absorb this new wave, and many if not most of these immigrants were untalented and unsuited to the American system. Spokespersons for these groups later challenged these views when he entered politics. Candidate Wilson repeatedly explained that he had referred only to "undesirable elements," and to individuals, not to their countries or cultures. Other kinds of criticism came from fellow academics. Wilson, of course, had studied history but was not a trained historian. He was interested in political science, or more exactly political economy as then defined. He had never enjoyed research, even as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. Imagination and creativity in writing mattered more to him that fidelity to facts. He was candid with the author-editor Richard Watson Gilder who caught him in a major error. "I am not a historian," he wrote. "I am only a writer of history, and these little faults must be overlooked in a fellow who tries to tell a story and is not infallible on dates." The critical reception was mixed. Some scholars noted the work's hasty coverage in some spots. Others appreciated its breadth, clarity, and occasional provocative insights. A Princeton colleague, doubtless a jealous one, called the work "a gilt-edged potboiler." This was unfair, for whatever its academic shortcomings, the History satisfied the popular market for which Wilson wrote it. He could certainly afford to ignore critics. He received $12,000 for the magazine articles, and the set produced $40,000 in royalties before 1910. (Multiply this by ten to get today's values, with no income tax.) The work remained in print until the late 1920s, and a two volume French edition appeared in 1919, just in time for the Versailles Conference.
The first generation of trained historians was now established in higher education, determined to mold the study of history for both the public and students. Two groups of scholars urged the American Historical Association to sponsor a large cooperative work covering all of American history. After discussion in 1899 and 1900, the association decided not to do so. Albert Bushnell Hart of Harvard then quickly organized a group of eminent experts dedicated to producing brief, readable, accurate studies of the most important aspects of the country's history. He adopted the general title "The American Nation Series." Hart was well suited to the formidable task of enrolling authors, dealing with the publisher, Harper Bros., and ensuring some coherence in the books. Hart wanted trained scholars to summarize and analyze events and tendencies in non-technical language. "The subject is the >American Nation,' the people combined into a mighty political organization, with a national purpose, and a national character." He established an advisory board of noted scholars from Massachusetts, Virginia, Wisconsin and Texas, but was clearly the editor-in-chief. He must have been a combination slave-driver and charmer, for he oversaw the production of 27 volumes, including his own, between 1904 and 1908. He grouped the titles around major issues. That for the late nineteenth century was "National Expansion."
The result was impressive. Each volume was about 350 pages. The modern visual aids were striking. There were excellent maps, charts and figures, dealing not only with transportation routes, economic production, demographic changes, but also with regional voting on major legislation, and election returns. The authors organized narratives around large problems such as social and economic events, rather than presenting a progression of details. This approach intensified and highlighted the importance of ongoing issues. William Archibald Dunning, of Columbia, treated the first of these great issues in a study of Reconstruction. Dunning, an expert on political theory, was pro-Southern and the mentor of a cadre of graduate students who examined the alleged faults of Reconstruction in detailed state studies. Dunning's contribution in the series was to combine northern and southern developments in the 1870s into what he thought was a logical whole, with varying kinds of corruption as the binder between sections. In the North he saw unbridled economic growth at the expense of social order, and political corruption at all levels. He was enthusiastic in treating the West. He hoped that the rising New South could avoid the worst industrial evils, now that the race question had been settled in favor of separation.