Dissatisfaction with social conditions in the Gilded Age extended well beyond aggrieved workers. Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan in the late 1880s spoke of a “deep feeling of unease,” a widespread fear that the country “was in real danger of another kind of slavery that would result from the aggregation of capital in the hands of a few individuals.” Alarmed by fear of class warfare and the growing power of concentrated capital, social thinkers offered numerous plans for change. In the last quarter of the century, more than 150 utopian or cataclysmic novels appeared, predicting that social conflict would end either in a new, harmonious social order or in total catastrophe. One popular novel of the era, Caesar’s Column (1891) by Ignatius Donnelly, ended with civilized society destroyed in a savage civil war between labor and capital.

Of the many books proposing more optimistic remedies for the unequal distribution of wealth, the most popular were Progress and Poverty (1879) by Henry George, The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884) by Laurence Gronlund, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). All three were among the century’s greatest best-sellers, their extraordinary success testifying to what George called “a wide-spread consciousness... that there is something radically wrong in the present social organization.” All three writers, though in very different ways, sought to reclaim an imagined golden age of social harmony and American freedom.

The Great Labor Parade of September 1, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 13, 1884. A placard illustrates how the labor movement identified Gilded Age employers with the Slave Power of the pre-Civil War era.

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