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gilded ageAs Barbara (The Power of Beauty) keenly observed how art took a dramatic turn towards Cubism and fragmentation in the early 1900s, I cannot help but wonder what led up to that shift. This week I have been exploring New England for the first time, and one common theme in New York, Mark Twain’s house, and Newport seems to be the wealth and glamour in the Gilded Age, rising in the 1880s, but lasting for some until the late 1930s. It was men like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan who amassed fortunes unlike anything America had seen before. Yet, is it not interesting that Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism was in vogue, and both the new millionaires and people like John Dewey and Teddy Roosevelt also adopted theories based on Social Darwinism?

On the one hand, the millionaires justified their large fortunes on the Social Darwinist theory that the fittest will rise to the top. The first generation millionaires came from moderate or poor families; they started in the factory, or clerk positions, and rose to the top based on genius, good investments, luck, and hard work. They were the nouveau rich, and many credited it to the fact that they were simply following the natural process of social evolution. On the other hand, Dewey and Teddy Roosevelt accepted the premise of Social Darwinism, but then used that as a justification to put more and more controls on businessmen who would inevitably rise to the top if government did not intervene. Granted, some laws and limits were needed at the time—children should not work in factories, businessmen should not blur into political tycoons, and the powerful should not exploit the weak. Roosevelt, however, began a trend of government intervention in business which tends to tumble into a whole mess of problems if no one checks the multiplying nature of the tumbleweed.

Yet, a common thread seems to connect the new millionaires and the new brand of politicians—both had a disillusioned view of human nature, and both go to dangerous extremes because of this. Many of the “Robber Barons,” or “Captains of Industry” (or both), justified their actions because they said that they were naturally more fit then the rest, and that they were progressing towards a stronger breed of American industrialism. As James J. Hill said, “The fortunes of railroad companies are determined by the law of the survival of the fittest.” Indeed, that seemed to be the case, but, they often used this logic to overlook malpractice and injustice. While many of the “Captains of Industry” had gone from “rags to riches,” and had rightly earned their fortunes, they often participated in bribing and conniving other corporations and politicians to exchange favors for them, while also paying the lowliest workers very small sums, working them for very long and grueling hours, and manipulating them to vote for certain candidates. Many were capitalist without a conscience, entrepreneurs with no limits, and big business daddies with thousands of indentured children. They viewed human nature as a thing which progresses for the fittest, reaching unimagined heights, and which puts the unfit in their just places—sketching man as merciless, scientific, and devoid of love.

Understanding that Social Darwinism led to this view of human nature, the politicians took advantage of it, acting as the savior of the poor weak man. Starting with Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, and his disassembling of the corporation, government slid into very dangerous, yet arguably needed, reform. While the first Roosevelt quite possibly did genuinely desire to adopt fair policies towards the workers and the corporations, he walked a very thin line, and set a precedent for other presidents and politicians that government should solve the solutions of the common man. While most of Roosevelt’s policies were regulations, setting limitations on big business, it led the way for more and more obtrusive reform, moving from protecting rights to providing rights. The fundamental problem with this eventual shift to providing rights lies in the misunderstanding of the nature of man and the nature of government—if men are simply evolving creatures, then they have no basic rights to begin with; thus, the government, at its whim, determines their rights, and then provides them with those rights. This is the other extreme that Social Darwinism can, and has, projected on mankind.

In sum, both the business tycoons and the political reformers seemed to disregard man as a being created in the Imago Dei, each man having fundamental God-given rights that define him as human, which neither big business nor big government have the right to take away. They forget Russell Kirk’s first conservative principle—“that there exists an enduring moral order,” that we cannot alter and shall not attempt to contradict. Let the Gilded Age serve as a reminder that, as Russell Kirk states, “Sin is a literal statement of fact,” and the government is just as likely, if not more so, as big business to disregard man’s humanity if it elevates them to a position of power. Let us heed the oh so wise and humorous Mark Twain’s warning:

The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble, through the rivalry of schools and creeds that are anxious to obtain official recognition, and there is great danger that our people will lose our independence of thought and action which is the cause of much of our greatness, and sink into the helplessness of the Frenchman or German who expects his government to feed him when hungry, clothe him when naked, to prescribe when his child may be born and when he may die, and, in fine, to regulate every act of humanity from the cradle to the tomb, including the manner in which he may seek future admission to paradise.

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2 replies to this post
  1. When Jesus said the poor are with you always, the statement was not prescriptive, but descriptive of the heart of man that the ultra rich and powerful would manipulate the poor to accomplish their own purposes. When reflecting on poverty, I realize that God also uses the poor and unseemly to accomplish his purposes. However, God fills and edifies an unseemly man for his benefit and God's own glory. Had the concept of Social Darwinism not been developed, certainly other theories would have risen providing justification to those ultra rich who would have chosen to manipulate the poor.

    Even though the error of Social Darwinism was well accepted as truth, were the works of those captains of industry who professed a relationship with Christ the same as those who did not accept the Gospel?

  2. This is something of an ahistorical reading, imagining that there were not those at the time who understood those eternal things. In an era that was creating mass markets, promoting industrialization and shifting the weight of the nation from farm to city there were those who still held to the “eternal things” (here, one could look up the history of the Wanamaker Department store in Philadelphia). Conservatism is always better when it eschews schematicism for the concrete and actual.

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