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'The Gilded Age' Was Not So Golden
February 6, 2018  | By David Hinckley

The new PBS documentary The Gilded Age starts off exactly where the title seems to point: toward rich people in expensive clothes savoring sumptuous food.

Soon, however, it digs into a different and far less glamorous side of late 19th century America: the nuts and bolts of the post-Civil War economy that transformed the country almost overnight from agrarian to industrial.

The Gilded Age, which airs at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday (check local listings) in the PBS American Experience series, ties that monumental, lucrative, and often wrenching shift to the handful of men who saw it coming, expedited it, exploited it, and within a few years became rich on levels that rival today’s Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

The Gilded Age draws unspoken yet unavoidable parallels between a Gates or Zuckerberg, who saw cyber-technology on the horizon, and Andrew Carnegie or J.P. Morgan (top center), who saw railroad and steel technology transforming the country more than a century earlier.

In presumed contrast to the Julian Fellowes drama that’s also called The Gilded Age and is scheduled to debut on NBC in 2019, PBS’s The Gilded Age takes an almost academic approach.

Director/producer Sarah Colt and executive producer Mark Samuels paint the economic explosion of these years, covering roughly the 1870s to the turn of the century, as a case study in pure free-market capitalism.

Virtually unchecked by any government entity, men like Morgan and Carnegie treated everything as resources. Not just the steel that built great structures or the coal and oil that provided the energy, but the masses of workers who did the physical excavation and construction.

Carnegie, The Gilded Age notes, saw himself as an enlightened boss who treated his workers well – until he decided labor unions were cutting into his efficiency and profits, at which time he brutally crushed a strike at his largest plant and slashed everyone’s wages.

In the end, he, Morgan, and their fellow über-capitalists came to embrace social Darwinism, that is, survival of the fittest. Boiled down to its essence, it meant that if the poor couldn’t afford a place to live, or their children were starving to death, it was because they had failed. They weren’t fit, and nature was weeding them out.

After the Panic of 1893 threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work, President Grover Cleveland made a point of declaring that the American government had no responsibility to help individuals. That was simply not its function.

Watching The Gilded Age, it’s impossible not to view that vision of government through a modern prism, and to be grateful that over the last century we seem to have accepted that a great nation does not let its children starve. And that it is a legitimate function of government to help give those at the bottom of the economic ladder a fair chance to move up.

On the other hand, we’re still discussing how much of an obligation the government has to help provide, say, medical care – and in the larger picture, whether we’d collectively be better off if government practiced a little more economic tough love.  

We’re also still talking about income inequality, a subject on which The Gilded Age touches when it notes that America’s richest 400 families in the 1890s had nearly as much wealth as the other 11.6 million combined.

J.P. Morgan and his supporters argued that this was not a problem, but a solution. When a run on gold by foreign investors threatened to bankrupt the American government, Morgan personally rounded up enough private contributions, so catastrophe was averted.

Truth is, The Gilded Age more than suggests, America in the late 19th century was run by capitalists, not by its president, Congress or elected officials. Wall Street made the rules, to its own advantage, and no one stopped it.

This did, naturally, create some discontent among those who were helping build the country, but not sharing the wealth – including farmers and many industrial workers. The Gilded Age covers several popular uprisings, including the original Populist Party that started in Kansas and drew enough support that the 1896 Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, ran on a populist platform.

The Populists wanted the government to create public works jobs for the unemployed. They wanted America to quit the gold standard, which would have eased the financial crisis for farmers. They supported a federal income tax and regulations on Wall Street and the powerful monopoly trusts.

Bryan lost to William McKinley, who warned American workers that if they reached for what the Populists promised, they risked losing what they had.

That loss dampened the Populist movement, and while virtually everything the Populists sought was enacted over the next 50 years, this documentary doesn’t go there. It focuses on how industrial America and pure capitalism together ascended at such a head-spinning pace that a divided and wounded nation, fresh from a bitter Civil War, within a generation was on an unstoppable path to becoming the world’s pre-eminent economic power.  

What didn’t come until the aftermath of that ascent was any widespread recognition of the cost.

At an 1897 New York society ball, The Gilded Age notes, the catering bill alone would have fed 1,000 working families for a year.

And 121 years later, the question lingers: Is that the American dream or the American nightmare?

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