Thursday, April 5, 2012

Isaac & the Plutocrats

America has not always been a nation with great disparity between the wealth of its richest and poorest citizens. In his famous book, Democracy in America published in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville opened with this observation: "Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions," a statement that obviously ignored American slaves who certainly did not share in such "general equality."

As for the rest of the American population, most were farmers. Writing in 1781, Thomas Jefferson said: "While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe." To assure that America continued to have land for the agrarian republic he regarded as the ideal, Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory in 1803, providing room for further expansion.

By 1850, farmers still represented 64% of the labor force, although Jefferson's idea of leaving "the general operations of manufacture" in Europe had begun to change. At the beginning of the Civil War there were only a few hundred American millionaires.* By 1890 the number had risen to about 4,000, among them such familiar names as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Jay Gould. The number of farmers, however, had dropped to 42% of the labor force. During the time these incredibly wealthy men were creating their fortunes in railroads, steel, and oil, farmers were confronting higher interest rates and foreclosures, lower prices for their crops, and drought, blizzards, and other hardships caused by Mother Nature. It is no wonder that the great disparity in wealth between farmers and laborers, in comparison to the wealthy and politically powerful men of the Gilded Age, created resentment and distrust.

As Isaac Werner wrote in his journal in 1889, "...disgraceful low ruling prices ruining near everybody but 'skimmers' with money. Things getting daily into worse shape and more discontent among the producing class causing oceans of thinking among the commonest people." In a speech delivered in 1890 by Mary Elizabeth Lease, a leading Populist speaker, she said, "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master. The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East. Money rules..."

It is startling how the language of the Populist activists of Isaac's time and the Occupy Wall Street protesters of today is so similar, and the political cartoons of the late 1800s are almost capable of appearing today without modification. Compare some of the goals expressed by the 99ers today with the concerns of Isaac's time--jobs, more equal distribution of income, and a reduction of the influence of corporations on politics. Both then and now, activists sought economic justice and directed much of their anger toward corporate abuses. In their 1880s newspaper The Nonconformist, the Vincent brothers of Winfield, Kansas blamed "corporate greed, that breeds anarchism and everything else that is hideous, in the proportion that it deepens its grip upon the industrial masses."

In Isaac's time the wealth of the few soared during and after the Civil War. Recent statistics from the Congressional Budget Office show that between 1979 and 2007, the incomes of the top 1% of Americans grew by an average of 275%. As for the country's total wealth, in 2007 the richest 1% of Americans owned 34.6% and the next 19% of Americans owned 50.5%. By combining these numbers, it can be seen that the top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country's wealth, leaving 15% of the wealth in the hands of the bottom 80% of the population.

In the 1800s there were no federal social programs like those we have today to help the aged and the poor. Therefore, the economic extremes between the needy laborers and the very rich were especially severe. When the steel workers in the Carnegie Homestead Steel Mill attempted to negotiate a wage increase because the price of steel had increased during the three years since their prior union contract had been negotiated, they were told that management would instead reduce their wages in the new contract by 22%. When farmers were losing their farms to foreclosure and feeding their children a mixture of ground wheat and water to keep them from starving, the wealthy were building mansions fit for royalty.

The agrarian society upon which Thomas Jefferson placed his faith, believing that farmers possessed a "peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue...[which] keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth" is a mere sliver of the American population today. In the century and a quarter since Isaac joined with other farmers and laborers to form the People's Party to confront the political power of Wall Street, corporations, and trusts, the American population has changed. Data from the 2010 census shows the total U.S. population as 308,745,538, with only 613,000 farmers, with those farmers representing about 2.5% of the nation's working force and only about 0.5% of all employed Americans. As for the present workers in manufacturing and industry, many of them have seen their jobs given to foreign laborers. Yes, America's work force has changed; yet, the issues of economic inequality are being debated as vigorously today as they were in Isaac's time.

*A million dollars in 1890 would be equivalent to about $24,400,250 in 2011.
Plutocracy is defined as government by the wealthy; also, a controlling class of rich men.


Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

My post "Politics Hardly Seem to Change" of November 24, 2011 has been one of the most viewed. Because so many people enjoyed that one, I decided it was time to share more of the political cartoons from the 1890s that I have found in my research. If you enjoy this post and missed the earlier one, be sure to use the archives to find the post of 24 Nov 2011.

The Blog Fodder said...

After 125 years of progress America is back to Square 1 it seems like. I hope there are enough Progressives left to solve the problem once again. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when we need him? Who is today's Upton Sinclair?