America’s Long Journey: Labor and antitrust and reform

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

Labor and antitrust and reform

Just as the prewar South lived its days in active or subconscious fear of slave rebellion and race war, as we shall see, so the postwar North was haunted by the equally unreal but equally terrifying specter of worker rebellion and anarchy. In fact, the two situations look like the same image in a distorted mirror.

In both cases, the economic masters — the slave-holding class in the prewar South, the industrialists in the postwar North — knew what they were doing, and they did it for their own interests. Their version of the Southern, or the American, way of life meant them on top, and very few of them, at that. It meant having a stranglehold on government at all levels, and nobody to say them nay except once in a great while. Regardless of political theory, the reality was that only a few men ran things. A few tens of thousands governed millions – and fewer than a thousand men governed those tens of thousands, and a couple of hundred ruled the thousand. In both cases, government did the bidding of the ruling class, and the people had a meaningful say only in matters in which the ruling class had no interest, or had different interests that divided it.

Freedom? Freedom in the prewar South, and in the postwar North, was confined mostly to a few rich families, and they were free the way the old Romans were free – only in the background presence of (which is to say, the continual semi-conscious fear of) rebellion by those whose lives were consumed in their service.

Now, of course this is only a partial picture, and it is less true in smaller towns and rural areas, but it is somewhat true even there. Striking workers in the postwar North were liable to be shot down by the National Guard, or beaten by hired thugs, to a drumbeat of (often hysterical) approval by the bought-and-paid-for press, just as runaway slaves or incipient slave revolts were treated in the prewar South. Labor agitators were liable to be killed, or given what was called a fair trial and incarcerated at hard labor. And all of this, because it occurred against a background of fear of insurrection, was accepted as necessary by the general public. Indeed, because it was slanted by the mainstream media of the day, to the vast majority of people, it didn’t even happen, or had an entirely different cast of characters, and plot, and fortunate outcome. Just as class warfare in the prewar South came cloaked as a concern to preserve the purity of the white race, class warfare in the postwar north was billed as preservation: of Americanism, as against foreign agitators; of civilization, as against rabble; of native stock, as against the scum of Europe. And it worked for more than a generation. But gradually, two things began happen.

First events began to educate. Despite media lies and political suppression, awareness gradually spread. Certain newspapers and magazines began publishing exposes, either to increase their own circulation through sensationalism, or out of concern for reform, or from a mixture of the two. The predecessors of the 20th-century muckrakers began showing genteel America how the other half lived, and why. Thus, articles on Jim Crow laws by Ida Wells; attacks on political corruption in California by the Central Pacific Railroad, by Ambrose Bierce; thus Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor, detailing the history of the white man’s treatment of the American Indians, and Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth, exposing Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. After 1893, there was McClure’s Magazine, which hired talented writers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and would go on to employ a large stable of muckrakers who influenced the early 20th century. In the wake of McClure’s success, other magazines sprang up or reinvented themselves, and served as the nervous system for the national consciousness, spreading awareness of the urgent need for reforms. And as the middle class began calling for reform, they began to get it, because, being of the middle class, they were able to unite for political purposes without being shot down as anarchists.

Second came the clarification of diverging geographical interests. Farm towns and mining districts and grazing lands might each be under the thumbs of a few families in their respective areas, but those families became ever more aware of the way they, in turn, were squeezed by larger combinations beyond their grasp. Railroad corporations, for instance. Banks. Manufacturers and others who determined the price of raw materials. The postwar West, like the prewar South, came to see itself as a region governed as a colony from the industrial and commercial heartland centered in New York City.

In response, South and West came to unite their political efforts, which led to the birth of Populism, that great protest movement against the domination of the national life by Eastern industrial and commercial interests. Populism spread throughout the western and mountain states, but it came to advocate panaceas such as the 16-to-1 movement (advocating that the government fix the valuation of silver as 1/16th the price of gold), which was expected to revive the depressed Western economy. People desperate for change, subject to hidden forces that they cannot understand, are vulnerable to those who designate scapegoats and promise miracle cures, and this is what happened to the Populists. The Democratic Party, which had not controlled the federal government since 1861, aligned itself with this movement. This assured that it would remain out of office for the short term, but eventually led to political resurrection under Woodrow Wilson and then Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom attempted to institute an era of political and economic reform.

Did you ever wonder why, in the old West, bank robbers and train robbers often became popular heroes? That’s why. It’s a story as old as Robin Hood, and older – lone individuals taking arms against entrenched political and economic injustice. It doesn’t change anything, but perhaps it serves to keep people’s hopes alive while they wait for better times.

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