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Learning from the tumultuous politics of another century in ‘The Age of Acrimony’

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It’s not what you thought. The period between the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt was not a historical wasteland punctuated only by Reconstruction and racial tension, railroads and the accumulation of great riches. The political figures of that age were not all ciphers in facial hair. The American people were not bystanders as the world was roiled by revolution. The country didn’t slumber for decades.

It’s not every day — it’s not every year — that a book appears that upends all the guiding historical views of the age. Then again, Jon Grinspan’s “The Age of Acrimony” is that rare disturbance in the waters of the historiography of 19th-century America. It is an engaging, inviting, and ultimately disruptive story of what happened between the assassination of Lincoln and the sinking of the Lusitania, though neither really serves as a bookend to Grinspan’s argument.


In chronicling what he calls “the unleashing and restraining of convulsive, popular energies that would remake democracy,” Grinspan offers us two books crammed into one hardcover binding. One is the story of how American politics changed in the period, but really how Americans changed and how that transformation changed American politics. The other is an American family chronicle, focused on the Kelleys of Philadelphia, who gave us William D. Kelley (1814-1890), a remarkable lawmaker who embraced Black rights more intimately and more fervently than almost all of his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, and his daughter, Florence Kelley (1859-1932), who had a remarkable political journey herself en route to being one of the founders of the NAACP.

The father was known as Pig Iron, the daughter as Florie, and Grinspan weaves their story — an American story and, in his estimation, the story of America — into that of the country. There are times when the Kelley story seems a digression, but then again there were historical digressions aplenty in that era. Suffice it to say that their passage serviceably illuminates the country’s — from blustery winds of partisanship to more gentle (and genteel) breezes of reform that in time define the country even as they upend the nature of what it is to be an American in a broad half-century period.


Overall, Grinspan delivers a compelling look at America in this period, devoid of the clichés and cloying generalizations of textbook history.

We knew, for example, that America was, in more than one way, on the make in the 19th century, and that it was, as well, on the move. But this brings it home, or rather underlines the mobility of the American home: Grinspan tells us that 90 percent of the teens in one Wisconsin county in 1870 were gone by 1880. Americans in 11th-grade history are exposed to the sterile fact that there was a recession in 1873. But consider this: Before the decade was out, about a third of the country’s workers had been unemployed for 100 days.

“The dark and dreary Gilded Age has become a stereotype,” Grinspan writes, “but what is often missed is that the Americans who lived through these years were hardly passive actors, waiting to lose their fingers in cranking factories.’'

But the big change was still to come.

It would come in a new kind of reform, prosecuted by a new type of reformer “tacking back from elitist moralism and appealing to a class of newly upper-middle-class voters.” It would come, too, as the country began a slow migration away from political partisanship — and as allegiances drifted into the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, and then the Populist Party. It would come, finally, with social reforms such as child labor legislation, the regulation of food and drugs, and a spate of four constitutional amendments in the second decade of the next century, along with initiatives, referenda, recalls, and party primaries —reforms that, he argues, “were only possible because a generation first quieted their politics.’'


Here’s Grinspan’s explanation: “In the best cases, these reforms gave the public a voice in processes that had been formerly decided in smoke-filled rooms. In the worst cases, what reformers called ‘direct democracy’ merely empowered well-funded special interests to push through causes and candidates that would never win support in general elections.”

The new politics spawned a new perspective, new tactics — and new constituencies. “Instead of outraged masses and opportunistic bosses,” Grinspan writes, “the new politics called for conscientious voters and efficient leaders.’'

Plus one more: different kinds of presidents, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt.

“Teddy obliterated the old model of the virtuous, retiring national grandfathers, replacing it with expectations of an active president who made himself the physical embodiment of the government,” Grinspan writes.

Now consider this. The author of this book is curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Three blocks away lives President Joe Biden, replicating the old model of the virtuous, retiring national grandfather, replacing an active president who made himself the physical embodiment of the government. So who says that the only Age of Acrimony was between 1865 and 1915?


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

Jon Grinspan

Bloomsbury, 384 pages, $30

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.