The Gilded Age by Mark Twain Book Review


The “Gilded Age” was a period in the late 19th century of great industrialization, economic revolution, and overall growth for the United States of America. Appearing to be almost a “Golden Age” of sorts due to the many achievements home to this era, Mark Twain was the man who stated that, in his opinion, the aforementioned golden aspect of this period was more of an outer layer, as he believed that this period more fully embodied a flawed American society. In this society, he saw things such as inequality, greedy materialism, and a corrupt government at the heart of the improvements; thus coining it the “Gilded Age”. While his point is both amiable and arguable, it can be presented that Mark Twain’s assertion that this age was gilded is rather unfair as suggested by the exceedingly rapid developmental rates of the American industrial and economic systems, the “Laissez-faire” policies which provided a free enterprise for competition without corrupt governmental interference, and the reality that at the time, the American system was possibly the most logical solution to social injustice pertaining to the liberty of the citizens.

To begin, Mark Twain’s statement on the inherent injustices of the “Gilded Age” are unfair due to the plentiful evidence of rapid furtherance and progression of the American economy at the time. For example, as observed by an astute Captain of Industry, Andrew Carnegie, the nations of the world moved at a relatively steadied rate of development, while “the Republic thunder[ed] past with the rush of the express” due to the economic system in place at the time (Document F). This highlights potential flaws in Twain’s statement, as there is no possibility that a system largely beneficial and of an impetus nature to a society could be hindering those inhabiting such a country. With the economy as a whole progressing at an exponential rate, the people of America were seeing great successes and were rapidly surpassing much more experienced countries, allowing for great amounts of wealth and employment across the country. While there were still people living on and below the poverty line, it would be invalid to blame this on the economic system or the era at all, as poverty always has and will always be a constant factor of any modern nation. As stated once again by Carnegie, “...while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race” (Document C). In observing that the society as a whole was progressing, it is valid to note that the inequalities that were so astutely observed by Twain were nonspecific to his “Gilded Age”, but were rather an unfortunate yet expected casualty of the victory of the progress of the American people altogether.

Next, Twain was incorrect in his statement on the “Gilded Age” due to his claim of ‘political corruption’, as America had implemented a “Laissez-faire” policy that inherently prohibited any government involvement in the economy and the competition therein. One example of this is seen in the Lawrence Textile Strike, where workers protested a significant reduction in pay, leading to quite a violent fight until their requests were appeased. While there was a local police response to the commotion, the federal government refrained from intervening, honoring the policy to stay out of economic dealings, even when daily life was interrupted by riots and chaos. In fact, the protestors pictured carried American flags during their marches, showing that they believed America, and therefore the federal government, to perhaps be on their side of the argument, instilling patriotism and reinforcing the uncorrupted separation of economy and government, as the flag is the “guarantor and symbol of equality” (Documents E and F). By allowing the people to freely assemble to assure their security and not interfering with the public on this matter, the federal government lived up to its agreements of a “hands-off” system, which enables anyone to see that a ruling force allowing citizens to go against their authorities in the name of liberty and their welfare can in no way be corrupt. Another instance of the apparent separation between economy and government is seen in the fact that there was a stark contrast between the rich and the poor, in that the government “guarantees of peace for the laborer and security for the capitalist” (Document A). While some may argue that the monopolies established by certain capitalists led to government corruption due to monetary influence (as presented by various political cartoons in Document I), this source reminds that keeping a capitalist from his wealth would be similarly corrupt, since such an act would be explicitly violating policies that are meant to protect the economic progression and competition of the U.S. and the citizens within, meaning that the existence of such irregularities implies the stayed hand of the government in and of itself. By keeping out of the affairs of the economy and the wealth of its citizens, the government grants the liberties of competition, betterment, and personal decision to the American people, and any “leveling” of the playing field would be going directly against all that the government stands for since its purpose is to benefit the people, as seen most fit by the people.

Finally, Twain’s views on the “Gilded Age” and it's disastrous inequalities are clearly disproved by the notion that although not every man lived the same as the next, there were simply no better options than the free enterprise and competition policies that had already been implemented; as instituting or reconstructing the principles of the system would have led to widespread depression and panic, halting and reversing the prolific advancements of the nation up to that point.  This is best stated in an analogy referencing Henry Adams, stating simply that “his historical neck was broken by the sudden eruption of forces totally new” (Document H). This further discredits Twain’s words by showing that although he may have been dissatisfied with the then-current economic structure, to suddenly change it would be more catastrophic than any trusts or monopolies could fathom to be, and doing so would cripple progress and success. In upending the overall fundamentals of free enterprise, the people would be unsure of their motives, since hard work and good circumstance would no longer equivocate to more wealth. The ideology behind capitalism entirely would be lost, meaning that the country would fall back into a prior state alongside the older, less modern countries of the world, where fewer freedoms are granted and more people are struggling to improve their station in life. One source suggests that as long as the people are the same in the eyes of the law regardless of wealth, and the votes of the people are weighted equally,  then the government effectively grants the same liberties to its citizens without consideration of class, employment, or social status (Document F). While Twain was concerned with the inequalities of the men and women within America, it is clearly evident from this source that liberty and equality are not conditional of one another, meaning that although citizens may not be of equal wealth, they are still of equal worth. The capitalist system granted liberties extensively to every and all of its eligible citizens, therefore upholding the standard to be fair in its dealings with a person, no matter his wealth.

In conclusion, Mark Twain’s claim that the “Gilded Age” was brimming with injustice, greed, and a corrupt government is deemed invalid due to the rapid progression of the American society as a whole, the “Laissez-faire” policies prohibiting government interference in economic issues, and the idea that the wealth versus the worth of the citizens had no impact of the view of the citizens, thus deeming them all equally free from a federal standpoint. In suggesting that this age was only coated with a thin layer of gold since there was poverty and imperfect citizens would be to say that every period to ever come about was gilded, since society will never truly be utopian. Rather than focusing on the everlasting troubles of mankind and applying them specifically to this time, the late 19th century should be a source of pride for Americans such as Mark Twain rather than being a point of shame and disdain. If citizens have a constant need to alter the systems in place, they will never see the value behind those systems and ponder the reason why they were deemed the most fit to begin with. Focusing on the shortcomings of an imperfect world will forever lead society in a circle of unhelpful reformations and previously tried ideas; when instead, bright minds would be better put to use in learning from the past, observing surrounding countries, and looking forward to the future so that America can move forward in a straight line - working towards being more golden, and less gilded. 

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