Runaway trains

Jonathan Kirsch is the author, most recently, of "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."

JACK BEATTY’S “Age of Betrayal,” a work of history about the role of the railroads in the making of America, is illuminated and enlivened by its author’s eye for the telling detail. To illustrate the power that the railroads wielded in the 19th century, Beatty informs us at the outset that “Americans set their watches to eighty local times” -- until the men who ran the railways decided to standardize the time zones across the continent for the convenience of their timetables. “Julius Caesar regularized the calendar in 46 B.C. Pope Gregory XIII reformed it in 1582,” Beatty writes. “On November 18, 1883, America’s railroad corporations stopped time.”

Having conquered time, the railroads proceeded to “annihilate American space.” The availability of speedy rail transportation in 19th century America accelerated the pace of life, encouraged immigration from abroad and pushed the immigrant population ever westward, revolutionized the operations of both farm and factory and concentrated vast wealth in the hands of a new American aristocracy based on money rather than blood.

The price the United States paid for the success of the railroads (and such follow-on enterprises as land speculation, the extraction of natural resources and the industrialization of every aspect of the economy) was the betrayal of the democratic and egalitarian values that were the heart and soul of the new nation -- or so Beatty argues. Great fortunes were earned by “great men” but only at the cost of the impoverishment, oppression and disenfranchisement of the common people. “The language of economics muffles the cries of the full humans broken to the machine,” Beatty writes, stirringly, “and elides the politics of their breaking.”


Beatty lets us hear those muffled voices and reminds us of much we may have forgotten (or never really knew) about American history. He points out that “industrial capitalism was up for debate in Gilded Age America,” and that the U.S. witnessed “the most violent strikes in the industrializing world,” including skirmishes in the streets between soldiers armed with Gatling guns and strikers armed with pistols. Lawmakers around the country were bought and paid for by corporate interests; they reciprocated by voting for land grants and construction bonds that allowed the railroads, the lumber and mining interests, and land speculators to make their fortunes at public expense, a phenomenon one newspaper editor characterized as “a pretty big ‘steal.’ ”

“Age of Betrayal” chronicles the remarkable reach of corporate power in 19th century American life. The storied stockyards of Chicago, where the ancient practice of animal husbandry and butchery was fully industrialized, were possible only because railroads were available to ship the vast quantities of dressed beef to market. The invention of the refrigerated railroad car in 1888 did much the same for corporate agriculture in the far West, helping to turn the men and women who worked the fields into “farm families without farms, and no prospect of getting them.”

Beatty, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly and author of “The Rascal King,” a biography of Boston’s Democratic party boss James Michael Curley, is above all a relentless dismisser of cherished national myths. Abraham Lincoln may be celebrated as a rail-splitter who reached the White House, but Beatty, citing historian Edward Pessen, notes that Lincoln’s father “belonged to the richest 1% of property owners in his area” and that only one of the 40 presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan -- Andrew Johnson, a janitor’s son -- rose from the “lower or upper lower classes.” Nor, in actual fact, did the frontier serve as a safety valve for the nation’s overcrowded cities. Only 400,000 homesteading claims were filed between 1860 and 1890, while Boston alone welcomed more than 3 million new migrants between 1830 and 1890; moreover, many of those who did stake claims to land in the West were speculators rather than genuine homesteaders.

Beatty has a real genius for drawing connections among seemingly disparate events and personalities. He uses the Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which “at least” 105 African Americans in Louisiana were killed by a white mob (an event he ranks among “the bloodiest acts of terrorism [and] political violence in our history”), to launch an explanation of how the 14th Amendment, extending due process and equal protection of the laws to all citizens, was “cleaved ... from its history” by certain lawyers and judges and invoked to defend racial discrimination rather than prevent it. Indeed, Beatty offers a tour de force of legal analysis, tracing an “upside-down reading” of the Constitution that begins with the so-called Slaughter-House cases following the Colfax Massacre, continues through a California case that led to the sheltering of corporate wealth and power by the 14th Amendment, and reaches all the way to Roe vs. Wade and Brown vs. Board of Education.

“Gilded Age politics induces pertinent despair about democracy,” Beatty writes. “Dreams faded. Ideals died of their impossibility. Cynicism poisoned hope.” Why then, he asks, did a greater percentage of Americans go to the polls during the Gilded Age than do today, if in fact the government continually put corporate interests above the public’s? “A hypothesis consistent with much of the contemporary evidence and with the lore of rule from Roman history to Machiavelli to Karl Rove is the politics of distraction,” he concludes. “The parties exploited sectional, racial, cultural, and religious cleavages to win office, then turned government over to the corporations. Sound familiar?”

Throughout his book, Beatty writes with one eye on the Gilded Age (as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner dubbed it in their 1873 book of that name) and the other on our own benighted era. When Rutherford B. Hayes is quoted as complaining about “excessive wealth in the hands of the few,” for example, Beatty points out that “Hayes could be describing public life today.” This ability to hot-wire our history to the here and now is what gives “Age of Betrayal” its distinctive bite.