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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard


An Age of Criticism

Attacks on Abuses in American Life.—The crisis precipitated by the Progressive uprising was not a sudden and unexpected one. It had been long in preparation. The revolt against corruption in politics which produced the Liberal Republican outbreak in the seventies and the Mugwump movement of the eighties was followed by continuous criticism of American political and economic development. From 1880 until his death in 1892, George William Curtis, as president of the Civil Service Reform Association, kept up a running fire upon the abuses of the spoils system. James Bryce, an observant English scholar and man of affairs, in his great work, The American Commonwealth, published in 1888, by picturing fearlessly the political rings and machines which dominated the cities, gave the whole country a fresh shock. Six years later Henry D. Lloyd, in a powerful book entitled Wealth against Commonwealth, attacked in scathing language certain trusts which had destroyed their rivals and bribed public officials. In 1903 Miss Ida Tarbell, an author of established reputation in the historical field, gave to the public an account of the Standard Oil Company, revealing the ruthless methods of that corporation in crushing competition. About the same time Lincoln Steffens exposed the sordid character of politics in several municipalities in a series of articles bearing the painful heading: The Shame of the Cities. The critical spirit appeared in almost every form; in weekly and monthly magazines, in essays and pamphlets, in editorials and news stories, in novels like Churchill’s Coniston and Sinclair’s The Jungle. It became so savage and so wanton that the opening years of the twentieth century were well named “the age of the muckrakers.”

The Subjects of the Criticism.—In this outburst of invective, nothing was spared. It was charged that each of the political parties had fallen into the hands of professional politicians who devoted their time to managing conventions, making platforms, nominating candidates, and dictating to officials; in return for their “services” they sold offices and privileges. It was alleged that mayors and councils had bargained away for private benefit street railway and other franchises. It was asserted that many powerful labor unions were dominated by men who blackmailed employers. Some critics specialized in descriptions of the poverty, slums, and misery of great cities. Others took up “frenzied finance” and accused financiers of selling worthless stocks and bonds to an innocent public. Still others professed to see in the accumulations of millionaires the downfall of our republic.

The Attack on “Invisible Government.”—Some even maintained that the control of public affairs had passed from the people to a sinister minority called “the invisible government.” So eminent and conservative a statesman as the Hon. Elihu Root lent the weight of his great name to such an imputation. Speaking of his native state, New York, he said: “What is the government of this state? What has it been during the forty years of my acquaintance with it? The government of the Constitution? Oh, no; not half the time or half way.... From the days of Fenton and Conkling and Arthur and Cornell and Platt, from the days of David B. Hill down to the present time, the government of the state has presented two different lines of activity: one, of the constitutional and statutory officers of the state and the other of the party leaders; they call them party bosses. They call the system—I don’t coin the phrase—the system they call ’invisible government.' For I don’t know how many years Mr. Conkling was the supreme ruler in this state. The governor did not count, the legislature did not count, comptrollers and secretaries of state and what not did not count. It was what Mr. Conkling said, and in a great outburst of public rage he was pulled down. Then Mr. Platt ruled the state; for nigh upon twenty years he ruled it. It was not the governor; it was not the legislature; it was Mr. Platt. And the capital was not here [in Albany]; it was at 49 Broadway; Mr. Platt and his lieutenants. It makes no difference what name you give, whether you call it Fenton or Conkling or Cornell or Arthur or Platt or by the names of men now living. The ruler of the state during the greater part of the forty years of my acquaintance with the state government has not been any man authorized by the constitution or by law.... The party leader is elected by no one, accountable to no one, bound by no oath of office, removable by no one.”

The Nation Aroused.—With the spirit of criticism came also the spirit of reform. The charges were usually exaggerated; often wholly false; but there was enough truth in them to warrant renewed vigilance on the part of American democracy. President Roosevelt doubtless summed up the sentiment of the great majority of citizens when he demanded the punishment of wrong-doers in 1907, saying: “It makes not a particle of difference whether these crimes are committed by a capitalist or by a laborer, by a leading banker or manufacturer or railroad man or by a leading representative of a labor union. Swindling in stocks, corrupting legislatures, making fortunes by the inflation of securities, by wrecking railroads, by destroying competitors through rebates—these forms of wrong-doing in the capitalist are far more infamous than any ordinary form of embezzlement or forgery.” The time had come, he added, to stop “muckraking” and proceed to the constructive work of removing the abuses that had grown up.