Charles W. Calhoun
From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age
(Hill and Wang, 2010)
The phrase “Gilded Age” started as a satirical term co-coined by Mark Twain and co-opted from Shakespeare in 1873. It was an apt description of the post-Civil War United States. The increase in industry and modernization, the ostentatiousness of high profile wealth, and extremely high voter turnout made our culture look as good as gold on the outside even while it festered on the inside. Greed and rampant get-rich-quick schemes were the norms of the day. Political partisanship and sectionalism were at their egg-throwing worst. Bloody injustices were perpetrated almost daily against newly freed slaves in the South, and increasingly against striking factory workers in the North. Three presidents were assassinated.
For the serious student of U.S. history or political science, Charles W. Calhoun’s detailed From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age will likely make a compelling read. With its structure based on presidential administrations and its focus on political minutiae of getting bills passed, the brief but dense survey would surely make a solid addition to any complement of books on the 19th century U.S.
During this rough and rowdy phase of the country’s adolescence, President Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War hero, allied with the outspoken Frederick Douglass to push for civil rights for newly freed African-Americans in the South. Night riders and members of all white “rifle clubs” weren’t afraid to shoot first without questions, leaving hundreds of blacks dead and making life in places like Hamburg, S.C., a living nightmare. Despite Grant’s best efforts, including at times sending federal troops to the South in a precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the situation remained virtually unchanged. The region was kept in the tight grasp of resentful, unreconstructed Democrats for another century.
The parade of Gilded Age presidents after Grant—Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland (again), and McKinley—decided that racial equality was less crucial to the nation’s success than regional reconciliation among whites, currency reform, and expansionism. Before the era was over our military had succeeded in running the Spanish out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Unfortunately, such an intense time in U.S. history has been rendered dull by the author. The author’s strenuous effort at encyclopedic objectivity is commendable but a little more three-dimensionality would have helped bring this exciting and often gut-wrenching age to life. The populace remains at best a faceless blob reduced to mere statistics. Even the strongest personalities, like the outspoken Douglass, the fiery Democrat orator William Jennings Bryan, and Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, are described only in terms of their stances on legislation. Notorious binge drinker and alleged anti-Semite Grant, one of our most colorful presidents, once got a speeding ticket for riding his horse and buggy too fast through D.C. Sadly none of that, whether fact or legend, is mentioned in this book. Instead, we get a whitewashed Grant—a sober, taciturn administrator who is either loathed or loved by those in his immediate circle strictly for his positions on matters such as currency reform.
What did the black community really think of the Gilded Age presidents? How were they perceived by religious factions in the North and South? What did the populace think of them, and not just through poll numbers but events and anecdotes? Surely something as sexy-sounding as the Whiskey Ring, a Republican scandal, caused a stir in the citizenry outside the nation’s financial districts and nominating convention war rooms.
Moreover, the women in the presidents’ lives, even when they’re exerting direct influence, are most often nameless “wives” given little more than a polite tip of the hat from the author as he passes by them. For the record, Grant’s wife was named Julia Boggs Dent and she was the daughter of a slave owner. Before the Civil War, Grant used his father-in-law’s slaves and even bought one of them. The Grants were scheduled to attend Ford’s Theatre with the Lincolns on the night of President Lincoln’s assassination but canceled because Julia had gotten into a tiff with Lincoln’s wife, Mary Ann Todd. None of this is mentioned in the book. Then there’s President Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife, Lucy Webb, the first First Lady with a college degree, and an ardent abolitionist who convinced her pro-slavery husband to accept her views and change his position. None of this is mentioned in the book.
Overall the work feels like a near miss that doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about the Gilded Age. The central lesson seems to be simply that there’s nothing new in American politics. If its purpose is to document presidential decision-making in the late 19th century, it’s a handy reference. If its intent is to bring the oft-forgotten Gilded Age to life for the average reader, it’s best left on the shelf.