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It sounds like it would have been difficult for it to work economically. Even when Lincoln was advocating free labor, it was a nostalgic idea. As early as , 60 percent of people worked for other people.
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And then there was the railroad—and that changed everything. What was the role of the railroad?
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People tend to think that the main change the railroad wrought was quicker travel. But you talk about it being much more transformative than that. As late as it took four days for goods to travel the 60 miles between Lowell and Concord, New Hampshire. In , the railroad cut that to four hours. Four days to four hours in four years—vertiginous change. In a verb favored by railroad promoters, the railroad "annihilated" American space. Before, the railroad factories could not maintain continuous production for want of continuous supply of raw materials—floods washed out roads, ice shut down lakes, rivers, and canals.
After the railroad, factories could run around the clock and goods could reach customers previously lost to distance. And the goods were more affordable thanks to scale-and-scope production. In the words of the late Alfred D. Chandler, the dean of business history, scale and scope constitute "the dynamics of industrial capitalism.
Everything depends on them. But the dynamics of industrial capitalism destroyed the viability of the free-labor dream. In the book I instance an Akron, Ohio, butcher. Then one day Armour, a pioneer in scale-and-scope production at its Chicago meatpacking plant, drives a refrigerated car into Akron, and holds a sale in the railroad yards, underselling the Akron butcher by a factor of magnitude. Scale and scope have put him out of business. He can still rise—but within the working class and only through collective bargaining.
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Cheated expectations fed the violent strikes of the era, including the largest strike anywhere in the world in the 19th century, the Great Railroad Strike of , which I chronicle in the book. Scale and scope transformed not only manufacturing but farming. Mechanization brought continuous production to agriculture, and the railroad connected the farmer to the city and to the world market. Returns went to scale—to bigger and bigger farms. He could not rise. He stayed a farm laborer—or quit the farm for the city. Still, the free-labor ideal survives in farming as propaganda.
Preserving the tiny number of "family farms" is a justification put forward by the farm lobby. The Homestead Act was put forth by the Republicans as a supposed cure for the class structure congealed by industrialism. The idea was that the eastern factory laborer would leave the factory behind for free land in the west.
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And that was three years pay for the skilled factory worker of ! Small farms weren't economically viable. That was a bitter social turn. There was no escape from industrial capitalism. Some environmentally conscious people are trying to uncouple us from the industrial umbilical. The environmentalist Bill McKibben is pushing a movement to cut the carbon tail of trucked-in food.
One problem with buying local, though, is choice—winter salads suffer.
Another is price. He depends on scale and scope production in agribusiness to keep food prices low. One of the things I think is unusual about your writing is that it blends history—which can be a dry pursuit—with real rhetorical spark and style. Could you talk about your writing process? How important is wordsmithing to you as you write? How would you describe your style? History tends to be written—because of academic pressures—in a polished, professional monotone.
I like a little more drama. At certain moments, intensification, foreshadowing, or dramatic juxtaposition. Little touches matter in a long book. Our late Atlantic colleague, Peter Davison, once told me that for a writer to use the verb "to be" is laziness. Ever since, I have tried to find better—livelier—verbs. I do not believe I use "very" or "astonishing" in the book—a record.
For drama, you also need representative characters. My characters include Tom Scott , president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the world in the s, and a "political capitalist"—a purchaser of politicians retail and wholesale. Even in an era when, as Henry D. Lloyd wrote in The Atlantic , "Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature, except refine it," Scott stood out.
Rockefeller out of business helped to precipitate the railroad strike of , with its bloody climax in the streets and alleys of Pittsburgh swept by Gatling guns. Was it darker than you thought it would be when you set out to write it? Betrayal is among the most embittering experiences in life. I sought to infuse some of the emotion of such personal experiences into my account of the age.
Some reviewers have said, "My God, this is so gloomy! The "Gilded Age" —that rubric obscures the moral facts: betrayal of emancipation, betrayal of democracy, betrayal of free labor. The book ends with our imperialist grab-up of the Philippines, a betrayal of our revolutionary birthright. White Americans did that and tolerated that. And if a great leader—a Lincolnesque leader—a century after Gettysburg had not sounded the call for "a new birth of freedom. Because it was the seed-time of today—government for the corporation—and I wanted to find out where we went wrong and why.
In the textbooks and to a certain extent in American memory, this is the Age of Enterprise—of free-market capitalism, etcetera. Nothing could be further from the truth. Americans need less consolation from history and more truth, especially about juridical racism and the conflict between corporate power and democracy—my themes. The robber barons and their glamorous careers? I think so. This year, a big biography of Carnegie was published. A couple of years ago, there was an page biography of Morgan by Jean Strouse.
In , there was a big biography of Rockefeller. There was recently a big biography of Henry Ford —seemingly the th biography. A biography of Andrew Mellon was just published.