The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865–1915

Jon Grinspan. Bloomsbury, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-63557-462-3
Today’s political vitriol pales beside the 19th century’s rabid partisanship as depicted in this raucous history of Gilded Age electioneering. Historian Grinspan (The Virgin Vote) examines the post–Civil War era when politics—and much of civil society—were built around fanatical allegiances to the Republican and Democratic parties. The upside, he argues, was a passionate mass politics of enormous, torch-lit rallies that included immigrants, workers, women, and Blacks, with voter turnout averaging 77%. The downside was pervasive corruption under party bosses dispensing patronage, partisan violence enabled by public balloting (in the South, white Democrats killed hundreds of African American Republicans), and government gridlock. A sea change, Ginspan contends, developed in the 1890s as reformers instituted secret ballots, civil-service reform ended patronage, and campaigns reoriented towards individual candidates and genteel debate, at the cost of a drastic decline in working-class voting. Grinspan vividly recreates the period’s tumults and personalities—he foregrounds the colorful father-daughter duo of Republican congressman William Kelley and Socialist activist Florence Kelley—while shrewdly analyzing its evolving culture of civic engagement, conveying it all in snappy, evocative prose. This immersive study shows how the form of politics profoundly shapes its content. Agent: Katherine Flynn, Kneerim & Williams. (Apr.)
Reviewed on : 01/14/2021
Release date: 04/27/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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