- The Politics of Money in Industrializing America, 1865–1896
In many ways, late-nineteenth-century reform thought was of a piece. Almost all the radicals and reformers of the period, and their movements, were tied to at least one other by shared ideas and analysis, even by common proposals and programs. William Sylvis provides an interesting example. Born in 1828 and an important figure in early post-Civil War reform, Sylvis, an ironmolder and active Methodist, became president of his international union in 1863 and the second president of the National Labor Union, formed in 1866, where he encouraged the tendency within the organization to go into politics.
Sylvis’s thought ranged widely and touched on most of the reform interests of his day. He became a supporter of the interconvertible bond scheme and was comfortable with greenbackism. He also spoke and wrote a good deal about “manhood,” an important notion for him and for other post-Civil War male reformers. For Sylvis, manhood meant a republican independence and control of one’s own life. It also required participation in the marketplace and involved mid-nineteenth-century evangelical values that ranged more widely than just Methodism. Manhood meant living a sober and moral life and required providing adequately for a family through “honest industry,” which included supporting a wife who did not work, though she should be able to vote (and if she had to work, belonged to a union and received equal pay for her work, to prevent her wages from undercutting those of her husband).
The ability to command a competence sufficient for this manhood depended on financial reform, among other things. Reformers like Sylvis condemned the existing financial system for allowing the few to create special privileges for themselves in order to appropriate the wealth created by the producers, impoverishing the producers. The impoverished producers were dependent, controlled by others. Their lack of control over their work and its rewards could lead to a loss of personal control, manifested most often in [End Page 583] drinking. Without the possibility of a competence they had no need of foresight and often became slaves of their passions. Manhood, a cultural and gender issue, required financial reform. For Sylvis, reform of the currency and the abolition of the National Banking System were much more than problems of political economy. Nor was it so just for Sylvis. Populists, greenbackers, farmers, Alliancemen, Knights of Labor, members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, even trades unionists and socialists participated in this constellation of cultural, political, and economic reform thought. One could enter the constellation at many points and emphasize, and some times reject, different elements of it, but the assumptions and issues were shared widely in the late nineteenth century.
In Goldbugs and Greenbacks Gretchen Ritter concentrates on one segment of this universe: reform thought concerning the currency and banking reform between 1865 and 1896. She makes a distinguished addition to two important historiographical traditions: Populism and its reform antecedents and the political and economic history of the currency debates of the decades following the Legal Tender Acts. To simplify a complex argument, Ritter uses the debates over the nature of money and currency and the associated National Banking System to evaluate the possibilities for success of the antimonopoly opposition to the political and social order that emerged in the years between 1865 and 1896. She argues that “the mass production model of industrial capitalism” that has dominated twentieth-century America was not inevitable; the antimonopoly alternative was both politically possible and economically feasible. The antimonopoly parties, from the Greenbackers through the Populists, resisted economic centralization and its concomitant concentration and maldistribution of wealth and emphasized “development that maintained a growing, democratic society . . . based on a decentralized, regionally organized, and sectionally balanced economy” (p. 105).
The first chapter introduces Ritter’s argument and provides the first taste of its complexity. A discussion of the work of Hicks, Hofstadter, Unger, and Goodwyn enables her to place Goldbugs and...