A Look Back To See How We Got Here

I’m teaching late 19th-century U.S. history this semester, and I’m here to tell you, beloved reader, it’s a hard sell.

For one thing, it’s almost all numbers: of miles of railroads built, of immigrants from Europe and Asia, of tons of coal and iron ore being mined and oil wells dug, of cities with populations of more than 100,000 and, well, and more.

The students’ eyes glaze over. Mind-numbing stuff, all those numbers.

And narrative high points are few. Economic panics, however, dot the decades, occurring in 1873, 1883 and 1893. They resulted in massive layoffs, high unemployment and nervous investors.

Political heroics? Forget it. Presidential greatness? None. Just try naming them. I’ll help: Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. I told you it’d be tough.

So who were the big men of the era? The captains of industry and the masters of the trusts: John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon … the list goes on. They made their money off of railroads, oil, steel and banking. Alive, they sought monopoly and cheap labor. In death, they endowed universities and libraries.

Monopolies and the ownership of property begat great wealth, but it also resulted in an enormous gap between rich and poor. The Astors and Rockefellers built mansions; industrial workers and their families lived in coldwater tenements without proper ventilation or sanitation.

Add poverty and economic uncertainty for the many to obscene levels of wealth for the few and the result is an era with similarities to our own, save for one huge difference. The industrial workers and the urban poor of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s struggled without a safety net: No food stamps. No unemployment or disability insurance. No union protection. No Social Security benefits for the eldest among them.

There was another difference. Gridlocked federal, state and local governments of the late 19th century seldom came down on the side of the downtrodden. That would have to wait for the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, for the post-war’s GI Bill of Rights and for the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s.

Governments served, instead, as handmaidens of industry, providing generous land grants to railroads to spur development of the continent, police and National Guard units to keep striking workers and demonstrators in check, and United States Army units to clear the West of Native Americans.

In desperation, laid-off and underpaid laborers struck. Occasionally they rioted as well, but to no avail. Newspaper editors denounced them as infected by the radicalism of 19th-century Europe, carried by the millions of immigrant workers who crossed the Atlantic in search of jobs in an industrializing United States.

Henry George, a California journalist turned newspaper owner, looked deeper. He found a social and economic rift far too wide to ignore. George described it in his 1879 Progress and Poverty, arguing that it could be rectified by a single tax on the value of land. Abolish tariffs. Abolish income taxes. Tax land as an incentive to its owners to use it productively or sell it to people who would.

Needless to say, the landed condemned George’s proposed attempt to redistribute wealth through taxation. But George’s explication of America’s mal-distribution of wealth found an audience. Within two years of its publication, Progress and Poverty had sold 3 million copies.

Dull stuff that? Perhaps to a classroom of 21st-century students, but not to a 19th-century nation in crisis.