I don’t often get into political issues on this blog, but I can do history, and it’s inevitable that history sometimes collides with modern political conditions. In browsing some historical material looking for subjects for this blog I was struck by a quote from Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States (1877-1881), which today you could slip into a modern news story, attribute to any number of modern-day political figures (including, perhaps, Barack Obama), and get away without anyone realizing that it was written in 1887, in Hayes’s memoirs:
[I]t is time for the public to hear that the giant evil and danger in this country, the danger which transcends all others, is the vast wealth owned or controlled by a few persons. Money is power. In Congress, in state legislatures, in city councils, in the courts, in the political conventions, in the press, in the pulpit, in the circles of the educated and the talented, its influence is growing greater and greater. Excessive wealth in the hands of the few means extreme poverty, ignorance, vice, and wretchedness as the lot of the many. It is not yet time to debate about the remedy. The previous question is as to the danger—the evil. Let the people be fully informed and convinced as to the evil. Let them earnestly seek the remedy and it will be found. Fully to know the evil is the first step towards reaching its eradication.
Hayes was writing from the Gilded Age, a period of unbridled avarice and greed that has few equals in American history–until, one could argue, the present day. With income inequality becoming a bigger and bigger drain on our society, I think that we would do well to heed Hayes’s words, which were (unfortunately) acted upon no more urgently in 1887 than similar advice is likely to be today. History is sometimes compelling for the way it illuminates how difficult it is to change things.