Are Cruel Years Coming to a Neighborhood Near You?

In 2010, with the blessing of a five to four Supreme Court decision, unlimited money from anonymous corporate sources was allowed to select candidates and call the political tune. It is hardly surprising the party best able to tap these funds scored major gains. While suspicious of repentant witches, the public fell for a heroic narrative of capitalist individualism gallantly charging into the 20th century bearing gifts for all. Rand Paul, the clearest voice of the victorious Republican Party, championed the tried and true values of American individualism, freedom and capitalism of this earlier time.

Politicians often express a warm, fuzzy adulation for “the good old days,” a past that never was. Many are informed by a broken nostalgia-meter or an ability to “misremember.” In 1980 Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan fondly recalled the 1920s and 1930s when “we did not have a racial problem.” Others painfully recalled a south of lynching, legal discrimination and disenfranchisement, and a North of de facto discrimination, anti-Black riots, and white Major League baseball.

Paul was correct that this was an era of few government efforts to regulate business — and he might have mentioned there were no pure food and drug laws, no income taxes, no votes for women, and a U.S. Senate called “the Millionaires’ Club.” He also did not discuss how “robber barons” amassed fortunes with scant regard to legalities, how government protection of “free enterprise” made corporations masters of the political and economic landscape, how working families lived in misery, and how middle class aspirations rarely flowered.

In 2000 when George W. Bush came to power (by a five to four Supreme Court vote) he also looked nostalgically at this era. Back then the wealthy patrons Bush called his “base” had no taxes to worry about, and the slogan was “let the buyer beware.” When the President moved to privatize Social Security, my wife, Professor Laurie Lehman, and I thought it was time to remind everyone what life was like for real people in the early 20th century. We put together a collection of 22 autobiographical writings by ordinary people of the day — a coal miner, sweatshop operator, women union organizer, policeman, farming wife, shoe-shine boy, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican immigrants and Black sharecroppers. Casting the book from their standpoint, we called it The Cruel Years: American Voices at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. My Introduction filled in the background sounds and stress of an unlamented era for most. “Hearing the words of these people is a requirement for a truly democratic society,” wrote Howard Zinn in his Preface.

At the outset of the Bush years, we wanted to warn of what it would mean to repeal the safety net, leave banks and corporations to regulate themselves, allow an elite to guide policy, and what it meant to let women and the working and middle classes to fall back into an abyss. You certainly wouldn’t want to live there today!

Politicians feel free to offer their cuddly fictions of a century that produced happiness for only a few. But when the rosy tale of a Rand Paul persuades voters that this was the best of times, we are in trouble. Before speeding backwards, people need to turn around and look where they are headed.

The free enterprise system that climbed into 20th century brought a gloomy inequality. One per cent of the population owned as much as the other 99%. A small elite sitting on the boards of dozens of companies controlled 40% of U.S. industry and their monopolies and trusts dominated economic life. The media surrendered early. In 1900 the New York Times proclaimed “Millionaires will be commonplace and the country will be better for them, better for their wealth, better for the good they will do in giving employment to labor in the industries which produce their fortunes.”

The wealthy justified their comfortable catbird seat. In Chicago Marshall Field made $600 an hour and paid his retail store clerks three to five dollars a week after three years of satisfactory service. Chauncey Depew’s steel mill laborers worked from six in the morning to six in the evening seven days a week in 115 degrees for $1.25 a day. Andrew Carnegie spoke for this elite: “We accept and welcome great inequality of wealth and environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial in the hands of the few, as not only being beneficial, but essential for the human race.”

Legislators, presidents, and judges bowed to the affluent. Bankers Magazine in 1901 announced “the business of the country . . . is gradually subverting the power of the politician, and rendering him subservient to its purposes.” Tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt boasted he could “buy up any politician” and claimed reformers “the most purchasable.” “We hire the law by the year,” claimed a railroad magnate. The 14th Amendment, designed to protect the citizenship rights of former slaves, was altered by the Supreme Court to mainly protect corporations as “persons.” This was the high Court’s first twist of the 14th Amendment. The Sherman Act of 1890, passed to curb monopolies, instead was used to stop strikes and jail union leaders.

Government officials dutifully identified corporations with the public good. When choking industrial smog blanked Chicago, a leading politician said smoke was beneficial to children’s lungs. Governments saw no need to protect workers from unsafe working conditions that took more than a million lives a year, a higher number than any country which kept records. President Benjamin Harrison noted in 1892, “American workmen are subjected to peril of life and limb as great as a soldier in time of war.” A Texas court made this ruling, “as long as men must earn a living for their families and themselves by labor, there must be . . . oppression of the working classes.” President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill to hand seed grain to Texas farmers stricken by a drought, saying “it weakens the sturdiness of our national character” — and instead gave rich bondholders $45 million more than the value of their bonds. Republican and Democratic Presidents used the Army to crush nationwide strikes.

Government welfare for the upper class had these consequences: widespread poverty, child labor, and homeless families. Homeless children (100,000 in New York alone) scrounged for food, searched for shelter, and begged. Employers at mills and mines preferred to hire children since at 50 cents a week, they were the cheapest. Ministers stepped forth to claim work kept children out of trouble. Asa G. Candlers, founder of Coca Cola, said, “The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor; as early as he may be at labor the more beautiful, and the most useful does his life get to be.” Working children suffered an accident rate in factories double the adult rate. They saw matters differently. At a Philadelphia textile plant boys and girls unfurled banners reading, “We Want to Go To School!” “More Schools, Less Hospitals!”

The cry of the poor, of mothers and children and of a neglected middle class, has to be heard. We do not have to follow the modern disciples of Ayn Rand back to a century that produced enormous wealth for a few, and saddled painful economic and social conditions on the body politic. We owe those whose efforts built this country a truthful recounting of their pain, sacrifice and enduring contribution. We owe their hard-working descendants a more just share of the wealth they create. And we should get cracking.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of forty U.S. history books and editor of another 212, and his website is WILLIAMLKATZ.COM

This essay is based on The Cruel Years [Beacon Press, 2002]


William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.