Saturday, January 29, 2011

Charles Calhoun, Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail

Ever since I read Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy I have been waiting for a book of equal detail for the gilded age and progressive era, a time frame that is more-or-less my professional focus. I doubt that such book will ever be written. No publisher would risk such a fat tome on such a small audience. The last large book covering the gilded age was probably H.W. Morgan's From Hayes to McKinley. Since then there have been few books covering only the politics of the Gilded Age and they have lacked the detail and breadth of Wilentz's similar treatment of the early period. Richard Cherney's American Politics in the Gilded Age springs to mind, but that was published in 1997. Therefore, I was very excited to see that Charles Calhoun recently wrote a general survey of the political history of the period entitled Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail. As no brick and mortar bookstore carried it, I ordered Calhoun's book online.

Overall I really liked Calhoun's treatment of the era. He is something of a revisionist on Ulysses Grant, a group I count myself standing among. Earlier historians, such as Allan Nevins, were overly influenced by their mugwump sources and took a reflexively anti-Grant position. Nevins's classic biography of of Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish is an excellent example of this historiographical position. In my opinion these historians (and I have a lot of respect for Nevins) honed in too much on the Henry Adams talking points about Grant and ignored some of his more positive traits, such as his phenomenal ability to read public opinion, a point Calhoun gives the former general significant credit. Calhoun also is critical (although not overtly) of Grover Cleveland, a figure revered by the aforementioned Nevins. Cleveland liked to portray himself as a new type of politician who placed the needs of the people over those of his party. In fact, Cleveland's record is not as good as he believed. He made the normal patronage compromises other politicians made. In addition, his second term was a total disaster. Herbert Hoover did a much better job fighting the Great Depression than Cleveland did of the early economic catastrophe.

Calhoun does illustrate the unintended consequences of legislation during the era. Two cases illustrate this quite well.  The Pendleton Act, which created a professional civil service a limited patronage appointments, drove political parties to seek more money outside the system from special interest groups. The Lodge Force Bill, which was supposed to make it harder to illegally prevent against African Americans in the south from voting led white regimes in the former confederacy to legally restrict the franchise through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow mechanisms.  

Although I really liked this book I have three criticisms. First, it is way too short, less than 200 pages of text. Perhaps the publisher wanted it short and sweet, but for someone hungering for detail, this book did not deliver. Second, this brevity lead to some short cuts which raises questions by the reader. For example, when covering the 1893 depression Calhoun mentions that foreign investors panicked over the future of the United States currency and cashed in their bonds for gold, leading to a gold drain. However, there is no explanation as to why Europeans would have become so concerned about the future of the American currency. There are a several points like this in the book.

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