Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 3
Scott Reynolds Nelson, College of William and Mary
Alison M. Parker, College at Brockport, State University of New York
Historians have long agreed that the late nineteenth century was a transformative period in United States history. The rise of corporate capitalism, hothouse economic grown, proletarianization, mass immigration, white supremacy, and tumultuous social movements were just some of the significant developments in the Gilded Age, traditionally considered as 1877 to 1900. Yet in recent decades the Gilded Age has become a vastly neglected period. This stimulating roundtable will reassess and rethink the major themes, significance, and periodization of America’s Gilded Age.
In this session four senior scholars whose intellectual careers have dwelled at length in the late nineteenth century will raise provocative and timely issues about the meaning and long-term significance of the Gilded Age. In different ways they will challenge the rather narrow periodization of the Gilded Age, proposing that conceiving of a “Long Gilded Age” that stretches significantly before 1877 and with a causal reach that extends well beyond 1900 will illuminate in new ways our understanding of a key period of transformation in US history.
Scott Nelson will begin by noting that Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s Novel The Gilded Age which gave the period its name actually drew upon financial editorials Twain had written as early as the 1850s. A common financial and cultural vocabulary that attacked commodity-chain institutions first emerged amidst battles in the plains of Kansas in 1854 and continued to shape U.S. cultural politics beyond the end of the 19th century. Leon Fink will examine three major themes related to labor in what he calls the “Long Gilded Age” of 1877 to 1920: the relationship between labor and the state; the transnational character of labor struggles; and attention to the contingency of development throughout the decades at the turn of the century, exploring in particular how things might have turned out differently. Elisabeth Perry will rethink the Gilded Age with particular attention to gender, arguing that the transformation of women’s education in the late 19th century reshaped the period more than historians have realized, paving the way for the growing power and influence of women in national politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, Alison Parker will examine the long-term legacy of white supremacy, looking in particular at the central role played by Gilded Age Supreme Court decisions in shaping the 20th century approach to race relations and civil rights activism. The Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) recognized corporations as persons under the 14th Amendment, thereby giving constitutional protections to corporations at the very moment that African Americans and other individuals were being denied equal protection under the law. The evolving legal culture around these issues profoundly shaped the long history of race and civil rights activism in the United States.
We expect that this session, by reframing and rethinking a crucial period in US history—echoes of which one senses even in the 21st century--will attract a broad audience, from academic historians to graduate students and high school teachers.