Ross Evans Paulson. Liberty, Equality, and Justice: Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the Regulation of Business, 1865-1932. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. vi + 361 pp. $59.95 (cloth) ISBN 0-822-31982-9; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-1991-7.
Reviewed by Tom White (James J. Hill Library, Saint Paul, Minnesota)
Published on H-SHGAPE (April, 1999)
Values, Languages, and the Frustrating Quest for Liberty, Equality, and Justice
The course of industrialization in the United States proved an uneven one. To many, what Alan Trachtenberg dubbed the "incorporation of America" proved a mixed and, often, empty promise. Ross Evans Paulson's study encompasses much of that process. At the very outset he offers his conclusion that between the close of the Civil War and the New Deal the "attempt to achieve civil rights, women's rights, and the regulation of business was, for the most part, a story of failure" (p. 1).
Paulson explores his tripartite theme through the device of values, examining how the majority defined and prioritized them. Specifically, he discusses notions of liberty, equality, and justice, as pursued from 1865 to 1932. How the dominant culture determined those values, in turn, profoundly influenced the largely failed outcome of the repeated quests to realize them.
He addresses the tension between "old languages and new realities" that surfaced during the Gilded Age. During that turbulent era, Reconstruction issues of how to deal with former slaves and Confederates, conflict between the demands for women's rights and social respectability, and the emergence of big business all tested the nation's traditional core values. In the first instance, the Reconstruction experiment signaled a new willingness to extend civil rights under the protection of the federal government when individual states could not or would not uphold them. Yet, a combination of political pressure and judicial interpretation undercut and rolled back that "constitutional revolution" by the end of the century.
Similarly, advocates of equal rights for women splintered into various groups with often different definitions, and, hence, different goals of liberty as they confronted the rapidly changing American political and cultural landscape. As women faced the often bewildering aspects of life in the emerging industrial and urban new order, they diverged and sought different, sometimes conflicting goals. Seeking equality of rights, they altered traditional notions of liberty "as freedom from dependence and freedom to seek independence." Nonetheless, by 1898 too little progress had been realized. Always, there remained "the persistent reality of women's interdependence in their families, neighborhoods, and communities" (p. 234). The goals of liberty, equality, and justice, remained elusive and heavily circumscribed.
Finally, by 1898 attempts had foundered on how to deal with the powerful new economic phenomenon--the huge corporation, or "big business"--that had emerged in the last half of the nineteenth century. What did the term "justice" actually mean and how could it be realized in the much altered American economic, cultural, political, and social landscape? How could these new legal creations be held accountable for their actions? What were their effects on the traditional core values that informed so much of the American Dream? To many, Paulson contends, "the impact of the corporate economy seemed to diminish the reality of both liberty and equality, both competition and cooperation, both individual mobility and community autonomy, both the 'privileges or immunities' of ordinary citizens and the 'equal protection of the law' for all." In the end, the rise of the major corporation as an institution militated against "the interdependence that was believed to be essential to maintaining a democratic community" (p. 236).
Despite its multifaceted reform impulses, the first third of the twentieth century brought inadequate relief to these festering problems. Many fashioned "new languages" to express and define their core values and goals. Yet, the "old realities" of (for many) unrealized expectations persisted. In the regulation of business, advocates borrowed freely from the producer-oriented world of the past to marry it to the consumer-oriented world of the industrialized new century. Reflecting the values of antimonopoly and efficiency, these social languages informed a wide variety of reformers in their advocacy of antitrust measures, regulation by commissions and other agencies, and/or judicial restraint of business behavior on a case-by-case basis.
Women's rights advocates continued to divide and march in different political directions. Particularly after passage of the suffrage amendment, an important step toward political equality, women divided even more sharply over a variety of issues "as traditional views of rigid, gender bound human nature reasserted themselves" in the 1920s (p. 240). Finally, the new social languages that embraced civil liberties did little to eliminate the "old realities" of discrimination that cut along the fault lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and class.
During the entire period under discussion, Paulson is concerned with those very core values of liberty, equality, and justice. Americans debated and fought over their meaning as the nation transformed itself from an agrarian, rural, producer-oriented society to one that was industrial, urban, and consumer-oriented. In the end, or at least by the end of Paulson's study in 1932, Americans' prioritization of these values was as important as their contending definitions, for most continued to rank individual liberty above equality and justice for all. Tragically, this resulted in far too little change, as well as an erosion of interdependent community values, Paulson insists, that are fundamentally necessary to sustain a democratic community.
This is a good book, based upon a wide-ranging synthesis of the relevant literature. Though not an easy read, this study is well worth the effort. Paulson interweaves his interest in Americans' core values in a sophisticated and sensitive fashion, simultaneously discussing how they related to race, ethnicity, gender, and class, over a tumultuous and extended time frame. It is recommended for anyone seriously interested in the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and the often lean years of the 1920s.
Review commissioned by Gayle Gullett <GGULLETT@asu.edu>, Arizona State University.
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Tom White. Review of Paulson, Ross Evans, Liberty, Equality, and Justice: Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the Regulation of Business, 1865-1932.
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