Slavery is a fundamental offense against equality as well as the original sin of the United States. But the problem is not the “concentrated wealth” slavery represents: rather, in the American context, it is a denial of the rights of the enslaved, rights that properly belong to all persons. Slavery is, in short, an offense against liberty, in exactly the Declaration’s sense of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is in their possession of these rights—even if those rights have yet to be vindicated—that all persons are equal.
The vindication entailed quite a struggle, one that is not over yet. But it’s a struggle in many ways different from “the effort to curb . . . the power of industrial plutocrats” of the Gilded Age, which gave rise to an administrative and technocratic state to police the problem of the externalities of industrial production and labor, as well as the progressive income tax. That struggle, in turn, is different from twenty-first-century concerns about inequality and the wealth of the “1 percent.”
Wilentz’s failure to draw distinctions here stands in somewhat stark contrast to his ability to draw fine distinctions within the various episodes he depicts. One detects a desire for a unifying liberal thread in American political history. The desire for equality may indeed be that thread—but not if that desire is reduced to opposition to “the power of concentrated wealth.” The pursuit of equality can have liberty or freedom or the vindication of other rights as its objective as well. The campaign for recognition of gay marriage rights had a great deal to do with the desire for equality but very little to do with “curb[ing] the power of concentrated wealth.”
Had Wilentz set forth his sweeping statement about “the driving force in American political history” (emphasis added) as a hypothesis and investigated it—rather than merely teasing it out as the theme of his book reviews—he would certainly have revised it in the course of writing a book on the subject. And it might have been a very good book indeed.
Image: Puck cartoon “The protectors of our industries.” Wikimedia Commons/Public domain