“100 billion people have lived on planet earth since our species evolved, and for all our archives, all our libraries, and all our museums, we have only the tiniest little sliver of any record of who these people were and what their lives were like,” says Jon Grinspan in his conversation with Robert Amsterdam. “So the challenge of history is to live in the present, and try to connect with these human beings who came before us, try to understand what their meaning was.”
And it is with this tremendous care and attention to detail that brings all the characters to life in Grinspan’s excellent new book, “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915,” which examines one of the most turbulent, polarized period of America’s political history.
In their podcast discussion about the book, Grinspan and Amsterdam explore the striking similarities between the late 19th century and more contemporary events in the United States since Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party, the 2021 insurrection, and the seemingly intractable partisan tribalism prevalent in politics today.
Though many people have described the past five years as “unprecedented” in US history, that’s actually not true, argues Grinspan.
There is a deeper history of democracy in America that has been much more contested, he writes, focusing on the characters of radical congressman William “Pig Iron” Kelley and his progressive daughter, Florence Kelley.
Looking at this family over the course of a critical half-century, one can see numerous lessons of what it cost the country to exit a period of tremendous dysfunction into a period of relative stability.