Thursday, January 14, 2016

Turmoil in the Gilded Age

Herbert Spencer
I am always intrigued by comparing what is happening during the same historical period in various parts of the country, as well as considering how those events have lessons for today.  When I came upon Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth, I had to read it! 
The dust jacket tease describes the book this way:  "The United States in the 1870s and '80s was deep in turmoil--a brash young nation torn by a great depression, mired in scandal and corruption, rocked by crises in government, violently conflicted over science and race, and fired up by spiritual and sexual upheavals.  Secularism was rising, most notably in academia.  Evolution--and its catchphrase, 'survival of the fittest'--animated and guided this Gilded Age."  While this description may have suited the East Coast region, it sounded very little like what was happening in Isaac B. Werner's community.
Isaac arrived in Kansas in 1878, and like many others, he made his first home in a dugout.  Crop prices were good in the early years, when there were fewer farmers growing crops and less of the prairie had been broken for fields.  Those prices led Isaac and many others to go into debt for livestock and equipment, and when prices for their crops dropped, they were buried in debts on which they could pay no more than the interest.
Henry Ward Beecher
The Banquet at Delmonico's in 1882 had little resemblance to Isaac's world of a subsistence living on food stored for the winter from what they could raise during the growing season.  At the banquet in New York City, "Dinner began at half past six with raw oysters on the half shell...With a new course arriving every ten minutes, the feast lasted two and a half hours, a band playing selected pieces throughout...   The menu, printed on an engraved seven-by-five card tatted with a silk bow to a red cloth backing, was written in French...  Course after course cascaded from the kitchen, ferried by haughty French waiters..."
The banquet was in honor of Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher who had expanded Charles Darwin's theory of evolution beyond animals to encompass human society, history, psychology and ethics.  Many of the wealthy men gathered to honor him had adopted his philosophy to justify their own success and the personal wealth they had acquired, often at the human expense of low wages and unsafe working conditions for their employees.  By accepting the notion that their success was based on their superiority--survival of the fittest--they justified the huge differences between their lifestyles and the extreme poverty and harsh working conditions of their employees.
Charles Darwin
Among those in attendance were Henry Ward Beecher (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," 12-7-2012, and "Keeping a Journal," 6-6-2013 in the blog archives); Union General / Senator from MO / Interior Secretary / and adviser to President Rutherford Hayes, Carl Schurz; and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.  Among the other followers of Spencer were lawyers, ministers, academics, and paleontologists.
While these men seem to have had little in common with Isaac Werner, their abusive mistreatment of workers had much to do with the People's Party, in which miners, factory workers, and farmers came together politically to confront with their numbers at the ballot box the wealth and power of men like these.  As the reviewer in Publishers Weekly wrote, " Werth elegantly reveals a firm philosophical foundation for all the antilabor excesses of the Industrial Age."  Those excesses impacted struggling workers like Isaac and led to the political movement in which he participated.

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