Widening economic inequality has been one of the most striking and significant problems facing the United States during the past half-century. Mandell covers two facets of public and scholarly discussions of this issue in this wide-ranging and insightful book. First, he suggests that most accounts look back no further than the Gilded Age, the late nineteenth-century decades in which American inequality previously achieved unprecedented levels. To correct for this lapse, he traces a long previous history that originated during the earliest period of European settlement. Second, he presents this history as a story of repeated contestation over political and economic values. Because the Founders and the U.S. Constitution did not address the issue of laissez-faire liberalism and the preeminence of property rights, a resolution was left to emerge over time. An understanding of this history can inform contemporary debates at a time when anxieties about inequality and aspirations for economic justice are as powerful as they have ever been.
Egalitarianism, advocated by Diggers and Levellers, as well as by the English Commonwealth tradition, was a resilient strand in the ideologies that fostered the American Revolution and its republican ethos. Mandell notes the bitter irony that, although Native Americans served as emblems of equality, the appropriation of their lands underwrote whites’ hopes for curbing poverty and building a non-hierarchical society. Revolutionary governments instituted the price controls and other regulatory measures that provoked the arguments for economic liberalism that were to prevail in the long run. Calls to restrict wealth accumulation stopped with the abolition of primogeniture and entail. Suspicion of “aristocracy,” however, helped to secure the election of Thomas Jefferson and, later, Andrew Jackson, to the presidency, initiating franchise reforms in many states that de-coupled political participation (for white men) from property ownership. Although an emphasis on equality of opportunity placed increasing weight on education, Mandell also shows that an early American reliance on English literature and on Federalist authors instilled in children conservative habits of deference to authority.
Widening inequality and capitalist development sparked labor protests in the 1820s and 1830s, and the panic of 1837 helped to spur a revival of the egalitarian tradition. The upsurge of communitarian efforts in the early 1840s, the New York anti-rent movement, and the calls for land reform initiated by George Henry Evans’s National Reform Association, all challenged established orthodoxies. Coupled with abolitionism and opposition to the Mexican War, these developments fostered the political realignments that led to the Civil War. Land reformers eventually secured passage of the Homestead Act of 1862—albeit a measure that was “only…a shadow of the original goal” (221)—but Reconstruction-era hopes of redistributing land to liberated slaves were dashed. Mandell succinctly shows how that episode exposed the assumptions of a political system that prioritized racial hierarchy and attachment to private property, but that had also, for many whites, detached citizenship and opportunities for economic advancement from access to landownership. The conditions that doomed Southern land reform were also those that set up the Gilded Age’s dramatic rise in economic inequality.
In one sense, Mandell’s reference to a “lost tradition” points to hopes for an egalitarian America that have repeatedly been disappointed. As he suggests, however, they were also repeatedly revived several times in the nineteenth century. His brief epilogue lays out the post-Reconstruction history of arguments for equality—in labor campaigns and populist platforms, in Progressivism and the New Deal, in the Great Society, and in the recent Occupy movement. In another sense, however, the tradition seems “lost” because it no longer figures in mainstream discussions of economic possibilities or policies dominated by liberal or neoliberal ideologies. But its revival has often followed economic disaster, as in 1819, 1837, or 1929. The 2008 recession brought it partly to the fore again. Who knows what the 2020 covid-19 downturn will bring? Mandell’s useful book belongs on the reading lists of the scholars, elected officials, and others who will be engaged with figuring out a path ahead.