The appearance of what Massachusetts cotton manufacturer Edward Atkinson called “a permanent factory population” living on the edge of poverty alongside a growing class of millionaires posed a sharp challenge to traditional definitions of freedom. Did America’s promise still lie in the opportunity it offered ordinary citizens to achieve economic autonomy? “The great curse of the Old World—the division of society into classes,” declared The Nation, had come to America. It became increasingly difficult to view wage labor as a temporary resting place on the road to economic independence, or the West as a haven for the dispossessed small producers of the East.
Given the vast expansion of the nation’s productive capacity, many Americans viewed the concentration of wealth as inevitable, natural, and justified by progress. By the turn of the century, advanced economics taught that wages were determined by the iron law of supply and demand and that wealth rightly flowed not to those who worked the hardest but to men with business skills and access to money. The close link between freedom and equality, forged in the Revolution and reinforced during the Civil War, appeared increasingly out of date. The task of social science, wrote iron manufacturer Abram Hewitt, was to devise ways of making “men who are equal in liberty” content with the “inequality in... distribution” inevitable in modern society.
Among the first to take up this challenge were the self-styled “liberal” reformers. (Their beliefs were quite different from those called liberals in modern America, who advocate that an activist government try to address social needs.) This group of editors and professionals broke with the Republican Party in 1872 and helped to bring about a change in northern opinion regarding Reconstruction. But their program was not confined to the South. Like the men who led the movement for a new constitution in the 1780s, Gilded Age reformers feared that with lower-class groups seeking to use government to advance their own interests, democracy was becoming a threat to individual liberty and the rights of property. Some urged a return to the long-abandoned principle that voting should be limited to property owners. During the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville had reported that opponents of democracy “hide their heads.” By the 1870s, wrote one observer, “expressions of doubt and distrust in regard to universal suffrage are heard constantly... [at] the top of our society.”