Revisiting the “First” Gilded Age: Business and Politics in the Late Nineteenth-century United States
The historiography of the past half-century has explored a great many aspects of American society between the Civil War and the turn of the century. In the more recent syntheses, historians have tried to reshape the general interpretations of the period, and to provide new accounts of the fast-paced and momentous transformations of American society at that time. But whether they focus on the development of a consumer society, on the upheavals caused by unbridled industrial growth, or on the transformation of the liberal ideology, these works most often elude the crux of the critique implied in the phrase “Gilded Age”: the question of the relations between business and politics. Whereas recent debates have questioned the validity of the phrase to characterize the period, we believe we need to tackle again this very question, in the light of recent historiography and new research.
The purpose of the one-day symposium we propose to organize is to work toward a reappraisal of the ties between the worlds of business and politics, which both underwent deep transformations from the 1860’s to the 1890’s. The issues that may be explored include the following:
- To what extent did business and political networks overlap, and share common interests? How can we account for the many corruption scandals of the period? Did these scandals reflect an increase in government economic power, or deep-seated disagreements on how business enterprise should be run? Were they connected with the emergence of new forms of lobbying?
- Did economic change outgrow the political institutions of the country? Was the Jacksonian-era party system increasingly obsolete? In a new context, did the enduring alliances of local interests, or the persisting force of regional identities, provide solid ground for democracy? On what different geographical scales were the relations between businessmen and politicians played out?
- The historiography of American liberalism, which understands the notion primarily as an ingrained and dominant ideology, has documented various aspects of its transformation in this period. How did businessmen and their allies among journalists, lawyers and lobbyists, contribute to these shifts in the definition of liberalism? Did they work against politicians, and were the latter entirely committed to the mere perpetuation of their party, as usually assumed?
The foregoing questions are but a few possible lines of inquiry: we are generally interested in paper proposals seeking to re-explore the links between the world of politics and the world of business in this crucial period of American history. We also welcome proposals bearing on the trans-national aspects of this set of themes, or aiming at shedding new light on the American situation through the study of the same problem in other countries.
Proposals (300-500 words) should be sent by 14 January 2011, to firstname.lastname@example.org. The symposium is scheduled for 29 April 2011 in Paris, France. It is co-organized by the University Sorbonne Nouvelle’s Center for Research on the English-Speaking World (CREW) and the Centre d’Études Nord-Américaines (EHESS-CNRS).
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