Political Context, Cultural Background, and Significant Historical Figures


The Gilded Age in American history spans the roughly 30 years from our country’s reconstruction in the late 1870’s following the Civil War to the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century.  It was a time of wide seismic social shifts in the nation – in both our government and in the American psyche as a whole.  On the heels of the Civil War, the federal government managed ambitious nation-building agendas in the West and the conquered South.   Industry, peoples, and institutions struggled to adapt to the break-neck transition from an agricultural to an industrial based economy that was still unfolding.  Labor unrest frequently ended in bloodshed. Several waves of immigrants came to this country in the century’s closing decades.  And the nation’s international role changed radically as it became an increasingly prosperous and powerful country. The era also saw a great disparity in financial gain – More personal fortunes were amassed than at any other time in our nation’s history. 

It was also an Age marked with political gridlock and intense fighting between the leading parties.  Despite corruption, turnout was high and elections between the evenly matched parties were close.  Dominated by special interests, Congress battled inconclusively over protective tariffs and the role of gold and silver in monetary policy and passed almost no significant social legislation after the Reconstruction era.  Control of the house and senate changed several times and in rapid succession over the 30-year period making a consensus on any major issue impossible. None of the presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were memorable.

The most pressing issues included prohibition, educational opportunity, ethnic and racial equality and economic fairness.  Early reformers crusaded for safe working conditions, civil service reform, and women’s suffrage.   State & local governments built schools, colleges and hospitals often with large contributions from philanthropists and religious institutions.  It was an era of fast economic growth as the United States equaled or surpassed the newly industrialized world’s leaders, Britain, France, and Germany, in heavy industries, mining, railroads and foreign investment. 

The tumult of the Gilded Age lacks a clear, cohesive narrative, but the many themes in American history are intriguingly intertwined.  Its struggles are often compared to our own in the 21st  Century.


Bath in 1786 was a city of some 30,000 inhabitants. Since Roman times it had been a health resort, noted for its mineral hot springs. In the eighteenth-century it developed into Britain's premier spa, offering in addition to its water a full program of amusements: gambling, music, theater, sport. Affluent visitors came from all over Europe. The 1780s were a period of robust growth. Edith Sitwell offers an elegant introduction to the eighteenth-century city in her Bath, London: National Trust, 1987. For a more scholarly treatment, read Peter Borsay, The Image of Georgian Bath, 1700-2000: Towns, Heritage, and History, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Walter W. Ison's The Georgian Buildings of Bath from 1700 to 1830, London: Faber & Faber, 1990, is a rich source of architectural plans, illustrations, and maps.

Combe Park in Black Gold is a thinly fictional representation of Prior Park, one of Bath's greatest landmarks. Robert Allen [1693-1764], a wealthy, self-made business man and organizer of Britain's postal system, conceived a house in the Palladian style and placed it adjacent to his quarries of Bath stone. It was completed by the middle of the eighteenth century.

In the nineteenth century the wings of the house were much enlarged and the central building received the addition of an italianate stairway to the portico on the north front. Sir Harry's tennis hall in Black Gold is on the site of a gymnasium, added to Prior Park in the 1830s.

The combe [rhymes with room] at Prior Park is a steep narrow valley extending from the ridge, a short distance above the country house, down to the Avon. In this valley Allen laid out an English landscape garden, then one of the finest in the country. It commands a splendid view of the city to the north.

Prior Park during Allen's lifetime was the center of a lively social and cultural life. Among his many guests were the poet Alexander Pope and the novelist Henry Fielding. Following Allen's death, his property passed to his niece, Gertrude, who sold the furnishings and leased out the buildings. In 1785 she moved back and was living there at the time of Black Gold.

Subsequently, Prior Park has had a checkered history, including two disastrous fires, the significant alteration of its interior spaces, and the neglect of the park. Since the 1830s its buildings have housed a Roman Catholic school, presently Prior Park College, which has beautifully restored the main building. Allen's quarry lies buried beneath the cricket field. The National Trust owns the park and has undertaken to bring it back to its former glory.

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In the eighteenth century, despite sporadic condemnation by magistrates, bare-knuckle boxing became a popular sport and adopted the rules and other conventions that are found in the "battle" between Lord Jeff and Tom Futrell. The latter's advantage in weight of one stone amounted to fourteen pounds.

In the 1780s the sport became fashionable and its champions, such as Dan Mendoza, were celebrities. Futrell did fight in the presence of the Prince of Wales and many other dignitaries. Victor in twenty matches, he was beaten by John Jackson, who resembles the fictional Lord Jeff in his quality of decent, modest gentleman, as well as in his physical strength and skilful style of fighting. The chief difference between them lay in their skin color and social condition.

Lord Jeff also bears a physical resemblance to Tom Molineaux, a freed American slave and a giant of heroic strength, who fought for the British championship in 1810. For a popular account of the sport, see Bohun Lynch, The Prize Ring, London: Country Life, 1925.

At the time of Black Gold there were 35,000 blacks living in London and several thousand more in Liverpool, Bristol, and Bath. Many were slaves, or fugitive slaves, or freed from slavery. Most worked as grooms or domestic servants, sometimes for distinguished personalities, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson. Despite the Common Law's principle that a slave becomes free the moment he lands in Britain, the courts continued to treat slaves as property and affirm the right of owners to recover fugitives.

For an overview of the transatlantic slave trade, read Hugh Thomas, The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Slavery in Britain is discussed by Gretchen Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995, and by James Walvin, Black Ivory: a History of British Slavery, London: HarperCollins, 1992.

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Gainsborough's painting of Elizabeth Linley and her brother Tom (1768) is one of the treasures of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In 1784 the painter sold it to John Sackville, the Third Duke of Dorset. Poetic license has placed it in Harriet's apartment. In 1787 it was most likely in the ducal residence at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent, unless its owner brought it with him to Paris, where he was British ambassador to the French court.

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Gambling was a scourge of eighteenth-century society. Mr. John Twycross and Richard Wetenall did in fact operate a gambling house on Alfred Street near the Upper Assembly Rooms. On April 11, 1787, the magistrates closed down the house and brought the two men to trial. They were convicted with great fanfare and initially fined 1800 pounds. Powerful hands worked on their behalf behind the scenes, and the fines were reduced to 550 pounds. Whether they resumed their profession is not known, but gambling continued unabated in Bath.


Class Structure

French society [population: 26,500,000] was organized traditionally in three classes, called "estates"

  • First Estate – the clergy, including religious orders, numbered 100,000. This estate held 10% of the land.
  • Second Estate – the nobility, high and low, numbered 400,000. They held 25% of the land.
  • Third Estate – it included:

— the bourgeoisie, or middle class, numbering 1,000,000; they held 20% of the land.

— the proletariat, or non-agricultural workers, numbering 2,000,000.

— the peasants, or agricultural workers, numbering some 23,000,000; they held 30% of the land.

The Crown, which stood above the estates, held the remaining 15% of the land.

Growing Social Tensions

Urban and rural workers were trapped between rising prices of rents and basic commodities, while their income remained static or declined. In addition, the 1780s brought on a succession of poor harvests. These conditions led to conflict as wealthy landowners tried to increase their rents and properties. The most rapidly growing class, the bourgeoisie, aspired to greater social distinction, demanded greater rationality and efficiency of the government, and resented the privileges of the First and Second Estates. The country's intellectuals, the philosophes, led by Voltaire, eroded the spiritual foundations of divine right monarchy with their relentless satire of traditional authority in church and state and their persuasive plea for a more secular, humane, and free society.

A Financial Crisis

The royal government's expenditures in 1786 totaled about 600,000,000 livres = $5,000,000,000 [2000]. The Royal Establishment: 5%; Armed Forces: 25%; Administrative Expenses: 20%; Interest Payments: 50%.

The royal government's income: about 500,000,000 livres from taxes and other sources. The deficit was due largely to interest payment on the huge debt created by financing the American War of Independence.

By the end of 1786 Comptroller-General Calonne could not meet expenses by more borrowing. Reducing expenditures was politically impossible. The only feasible alternative was to raise taxes. The poor could pay no more. The clergy and the nobility owned a majority of the nation's wealth, but most of them enjoyed tax exemption. Led by the Parlement de Paris, France's highest court, the privileged classes refused to pay unless the king called together the Estates-General and secured its approval.

This representative body, the French equivalent of the British Parliament, had not met since 1615. The king, who claimed the sole right to govern, refused to yield any of his authority, least of all the power of taxation. As the story in Mute Witness comes to an end, public affairs in France are at an impasse.


Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée

Called by many the founder of education for the deaf, Épée was born in 1712 into a wealthy family. His father was a royal architect at Versailles. In 1729, Épée entered the clergy, advanced to the diaconate but was barred from the priesthood because he refused to take an oath against Jansenism, a reform movement within the Catholic Church. He took up legal studies and was admitted to the bar in 1736. A friendly bishop of Troyes ordained him priest in 1738 but two years later the bishop's successor denied him a license to officiate.

He settled in Paris, lived on a small allowance from his parents, and ministered to the poor. It is said that, while visiting a family, he found deaf twin sisters who were receiving no religious instruction. "I am prohibited from leading the hearing to know God," he said. "I will lead the deaf to know Him."

He learned the simple sign language of the deaf community and converted it into what he called manual French by inventing signs for French words and word endings and using French word order. He went on to establish an institute for the education of the deaf. After his death in 1789, it evolved into the present French national institution for the deaf.

His influence was international and significant. Visitors were welcomed at the institute and he shared his expertise generously. His disciples founded satellite schools in France, America, Austria, and elsewhere. One of these disciples, Charlotte Blouin (1758-1829), who established a school in Angers in 1783, served as an inspiration for Mute Witness's Anne Cartier.

Épée is described as having a full round face, a penetrating regard, an affable smile, and a courtly, benevolent manner 

Thomas Braidwood

Born in Scotland in 1715, Braidwood began to work with the deaf and the hard of hearing about 1760 and created a small school devoted to teaching them to speak. He enjoyed some success. Dr. Samuel Johnson praised him. Critics, however, claimed that the oral skills of his pupils declined once they left his school. He also trained them to lip-read, to use the manual alphabet, and to sign. He gave them a general education.

In contrast to Épée, Braidwood guarded his professional secrets out of fear of competition. In 1783, he moved his school to Hackney near London. He died in 1806.