US History, Short not Sweet

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From Peter Irons, A People’s History of the Supreme Court:

No country on earth grew faster than the United States during the last four decades of the nineteenth century. Between 1860 and 1900 the nation’s population swelled from 31 to 75 million, . . . The number of farms grew from two million to six million, and the development of machines like combines, reapers, and harvesters turned barren land into “amber waves of grain”. . . . It took three hours of labor in 1830 to produce a bushel of wheat; by 1900 the time had decreased to ten minutes. American farmers produced more than their counterparts in any other country, but they did not receive their fair share of the bounty they reaped from the land.

. . . Farm equipment was expensive, and farmers borrowed heavily from banks to purchase machines and supplies. Especially in the South, black and white farmers alike became victims of the “crop-lien” system: the merchants who sold them supplies would demand a lien—in effect, a mortgage on the crop—and charge up to 25 percent interest. Lawrence Goodwyn, a leading historian of farmers’ protest movements, wrote that “the crop lien system because for millions of Southerners, white and black, little more than a modified form of slavery.”

In the Midwest, bankers and railroads squeezed farmers with high interest rates and even higher tolls for shipping their goods to markets. Railroads brought millions of bushels of wheat to cities like Kansas City and Chicago, where farmers paid exorbitant prices to store their produce in grain elevators, . . . In most cases, those who owned railroads and grain elevators enjoyed—and exploited—monopolies granted by compliant state legislators, many of them bribed for their votes. Beginning in 1870, a movement called the Grange . . . spread across the Midwest like a grass fire, enlisting thousands of angry farmers in a crusade against price gouging. . . .

Grangers flexed their political muscles and persuaded lawmakers in several Midwestern states to pass laws that set maximum rates for railroads and grain elevators. . . . Rebuffed by state lawmakers, the Midwestern monopolists turned to federal judges for protection, . . . Corporate lawyers filed dozens of suits against these laws, claiming they violated the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving their clients of liberty and property without “due process of the law.”

Note that the Fourteenth Amendment had been ratified in the wake of the Civil War, ostensibly in order to stop Southern whites from murdering the freed slaves and denying them their civil rights.

At times in our history it has seemed that the business of America should not be business first and foremost; the interests of capital should not always come first and have a kind of sovereignty independent of other and perhaps larger public interests. This broader view has not dominated in recent decades, nor did it in the decades after the Civil War. Irons writes: “It is no exaggeration to describe the battles of workers and employers of the 1870s and 1880s as class warfare”.

No, no exaggeration, but rather an understatement! One might read elsewhere, for example, how over the most recent decades American productivity has nearly doubled, and workers’ compensation has risen less than 10 percent. The 1 percent of the American population who earn the most money now earn approximately 25 percent of the total.

The history of the United States has been a history of vicious and ongoing class struggles. And with this peculiar feature: One of the ways the business classes have fought for their interests has been by attacking any who would use the phrase “class struggle.” And so even liberal academics such as Irons limit their use of the term. And Americans grow up largely ignorant of their own history. To borrow from Lincoln, fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this scourge may someday pass away.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor



Peter Irons, A People’s History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution (Penguin Books; revised edition, 2006). To not mislead readers I would note the word “people’s” in Irons’s title seems to refer to generalist intellectuals, people who are not lawyers or American historians but who are nonetheless interested in the history of the Supreme Court. I was hoping the author would write more about the effects of economic forces on the American legal system—for example, the use of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect businesses from government regulation. In fact, Irons’s book is more interested in civil rights cases, and, rather than treating them as one of the fields in which class (or economic) battles have been fought, he gives them center stage. Thus, for example, a reader may be more engaged by the thirty pages leading up to and including Roe v. Wade than by the four pages on Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the 1819 decision that reflected the power of business interests in American society and the American legal system and paved the way for corporations to run roughshod over the people.

I believe the quotation from the long-time Duke historian Lawrence Goodwyn comes from his The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford University Press; abridged edition, 1978). This is a condensed version of Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 1976).

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