Critics & Crusaders: A Century of American Protest

By Charles A. Madison | Go to book overview
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THE LIBERAL BACKGROUND

FOR A GENERATION and more the crusade against Negro slavery had dominated the activities of American liberals. The various progressive movements of the 1830's and 1840's had been almost completely eclipsed by the concentrated Abolitionist effort of the succeeding decade. Once the Civil War had ended, however, it appeared as if all zeal for reform had died with the slavery issue. With the Negroes nominally free, even the extreme Abolitionists -- Wendell Phillips excepted -- acted as if the millennium had arrived.

Yet the voice of liberal protest was sorely needed in the years following Lee's surrender at Appomattox. For the end of chattel slavery coincided with the intensification of economic inequality. The Civil War had not only stimulated Northern businessmen to develop machine industry at an accelerated pace but had also enabled bankers to concentrate and control the liquid capital of the nation. When peace came, these two groups had the means and the techniques for the exploitation of the continent that lay open before them. Nor did they hesitate to make the most of their boundless opportunities. With an arrogance and callousness that matched their energy and enterprise, they established new industries, covered the country with a spider web of iron rails, and exploited the nation's vast natural resources -- all to their great personal advantage. In their compulsive efforts to get rich quick they

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