A penetrating, character-filled history "in the manner of David McCullough" (WSJ), revealing the deep roots of our tormented present-day politics.
Democracy was broken. Or that was what many Americans believed in the decades after the Civil War. Shaken by economic and technological disruption, they sought safety in aggressive, tribal partisanship. The results were the loudest, closest, most violent elections in U.S. history, driven by vibrant campaigns that drew our highest-ever voter turnouts. At the century's end, reformers finally restrained this wild system, trading away participation for civility in the process. They built a calmer, cleaner democracy, but also a more distant one. Americans' voting rates crashed and never fully recovered.
This is the origin story of the "normal" politics of the 20th century. Only by exploring where that civility and restraint came from can we understand what is happening to our democracy today.
The Age of Acrimony charts the rise and fall of 19th-century America's unruly politics through the lives of a remarkable father-daughter dynasty. The radical congressman William "Pig Iron" Kelley and his fiery, Progressive daughter Florence Kelley led lives packed with drama, intimately tied to their nation's politics. Through their friendships and feuds, campaigns and crusades, Will and Florie trace the narrative of a democracy in crisis. In telling the tale of what it cost to cool our republic, historian Jon Grinspan reveals our divisive political system's enduring capacity to reinvent itself.
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.