July 2007

I’ve been reading Don’t Know Much About History, which is a question-and-answer style approach to American history that is largely essential facts and trivia. It’s entertaining. This morning, I read a section on the Gilded Age, a time when every branch of the government was pro-business and a small group of men became very rich while the rest of the country was stagnant or losing ground.

Sound familiar?

This was the late-19th century era of JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Boss Tweed. The Captain of Industry, be it the railroads, steel, or oil, made money hand over fist while the rest of America struggled through periodic depressions. From PBS:

While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty…

For immediate relief, the urban poor often turned to political machines. During the first years of the Gilded Age, Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall provided more services to the poor than any city government before it, although far more money went into Tweed’s own pocket. Corruption extended to the highest levels of government.

It’s an interesting cycle. Industrialists exploit the working class to produce a lot for as little cost as possible, and the working class in turn seeks help and support from the people in power who are supported by the industrialists. It means a lot of money goes into the pockets of a few men while everyone else suffers, but the people still look to their leaders for help. Corruption breeds in these environments; Tammany Hall and the New York political machine prospered in this time by promising to help the people and thus influenced the common people to do the bidding of the big bosses.

Um. Sound familiar? It seems to me that there are obvious parallels between this era and today, although the Gilded Age is carried to an extreme. Or is it? A largely pro-business government today keeps the minimum wage low and sacrifices the environment to the benefit of industry, and the top 1% of the American population gets richer while the cost of living is outpacing wage growth for the rest of us.

This, boys and girls, is called plutocracy.

The good news is that the poverty and oppression in the 19th century bred the populist and progressive moment. So we can still hope.

Some links:
Gilded Age from American Experience: Andrew Carnegie
The Gilded Age at Digital History
Robber Barons at Wikipedia
Populism at Missouri State.
Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era at Historical Text Archive


If you don’t live in the New York area, you may not have heard that the powers that be are currently considering plans to cut down on congestion in Midtown during the workday, which, in this case, would probably mean paying a toll to get into that part of the city with a car. The measure is, let’s say, not so popular.

Streetsblog reminds us that this is not the first time for such a controversy. In the early 1930s, there was another controversial measure proposed to cut down on car congestion: parking meters. From the WSJ:

But many drivers believed that charging for parking was downright un-American. The “newfangled nuisances,” “damn foolish contraptions” or “gypometers,” opponents said, illegally infringed on the individual’s right to free use of the public streets. They amounted to a tax on automobiles, depriving owners of their property without due process.

If only those people could see the signs for $7.50/half-hour today!

Mr. Pibb + Red Vines = Crazy Delicious
On this day in 1804, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton during the most famous duel in American history, possibly altering the trajectory of history, as I suspect that the former Secretary of the Treasury would have accomplished a lot more should he have survived; he was only in his late 40s (though there’s some dispute over the year of his birth).

Some linkage:
American Experience: The Duel
The 2004 bicentennial reenactment, which took place in tropical Weehawken, New Jersey.
I think this book cover is hysterical.
My favorite Got Milk? ad of all time.

Anti-Evolution protestors at Scopes Monkey Trial
On this date in 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial began. Feels like things haven’t changed much. But sometimes there is progress.

More info on the trial can be found at this University of Missouri site.

The dramatic version of the events of the trial, the play Inherit the Wind is currently on Broadway and stars Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy.

Sam the EagleOn last night’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann reported that bald eagles are no longer endangered, and provided some of the history on our national bird, including the fact that Franklin considered the eagle to be a bird of questionable moral character, hence his promotion of the morally upstanding turkey as national bird. Instead, the president just gets to pardon a turkey every Thanksgiving. And sometimes also in July.

The reason we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th is because of the Declaration of Independence, a document that wasn’t so esteemed as now until Lincoln, a document that hung on a wall of the National Gallery exposed to natural sunlight for a very long time, which is why it’s about to disintegrate now. Lincoln called upon the document in the Gettysburg address and elsewhere, recalling the self-evident truths that all people are created equal and have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Seems like a good reason to celebrate to me. Bring on the fireworks!

The Declaration of Independence at the National Archive
Thinkin’ Lincoln: a webcomic
More on the Declaration, including influence on Lincoln

On July 3, 1826, Thomas Jefferson slipped into a coma. He last words were, “is it the fourth?” Jefferson died the next day, July 4, 1826, 50 years after that fateful day in 1776 that made him famous and wrote that hollowed document that changed America and the World.

On that same day in Quincy, MA, John Adams slumped into his reading chair and died. His last words are quoted as “Thomas Jefferson Survives.”

50 years before this, the two men combined their talents and formed a friendship that helped bring about the American Revolution and our independence. That bond was solidified in 1785, when Jefferson and Adams were both presented to King George III, and George turned his back to them. Neither man forgot the incident, nor did they forget who was standing by their side.

Their friendship went through harsh times during the party wars of post-Washington politics. (I refer to the person, not the place here.)

Jefferson’s epitaph read:

There as no mention of his presidency, a time in his life he most hated.

Adams was the longest living person to hold both the highest offices in the land. He was 90 when he died. And until Ronald Regan broken his record in 1981, he was the oldest president to be elected.

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