CAPE ELIZABETH — While the theme that too few people have too much power runs deep in the nation’s history (Maine workers complained about “elitist” control of their communities and called for the elimination of licensed monopolies as early as 1831), it was shouted with monotonous regularity and deafening volume in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century.

Kaleidoscopic images reveal that this was a period when the nation was marked by industrial conflict (at least 36,757 strikes between 1880 and 1905), the unbridled growth and concentration of capital, and the pronounced inequality in income and wealth.

Cognizant of the economic transformation of the nation, President Grover Cleveland, in his message to a joint session of Congress in 1888, remarked, “As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

The rise of inequality was echoed by Maine’s labor commissioner, S.W. Matthews, who, in 1889, summarized the significance of facts he presented to audiences, stating that they show “how unequal is the distribution of wealth of this country.”

He declared that “the immense fortunes, which of late years have so rapidly multiplied have swallowed up the shares which an equal distribution would give to the masses. The wealth of this country is largely in a few hands.”

The theme of wealth against commonwealth filled the air, and the issues of economic concentration and inequality were highlighted by the enactment of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, and by the fact that 1 percent of the population enjoyed more wealth than the wealth of the remaining 99 percent.

In 1891, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, informed Maine audiences that “wealth is a public trust, and the right to have something to say about wages and hours of labor pertains to the workers from whom the wealth comes.”

Gompers expressed impatience with the impersonal, quantitative and abstract discussions of political economists, which dealt “only with weights and measures, with bushes and yardsticks,” and which treated labor like any other commodity in the market place. When studying men, he declared, “the souls and minds and hearts are the important factors.” It was a loud call for recognition of the “human” dimension of economic relationships and economic activity and labor’s rightful claim to the fruits of its labor.

The Populist Party of Maine (1891) echoed the sentiments of the national organization, which declared, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these in turn despise the Republic and endanger liberty … .”

The Socialist Party of Maine (1900) declared that the great overshadowing question was “Shall the trusts or the people rule the nation? Shall a few irresponsible capitalists own, control and rule the nation or shall the nation, all the people, rise up their sovereign majesty and take over the trusts and administer industry in a just, scientific plan for the benefit of all?”

By 1904, one or two companies, generally brought together by merger, controlled at least half of the output of 78 industries.

In 1912, then-presidential aspirant Woodrow Wilson captured the pulse of concern about concentrated wealth and democracy when he noted that “the masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalist and manufacturers of the United States … .”

These glimpses of echoes from the past concerning the compatibility of some species of capitalism and democracy continued to be expressed. Today, now that corporations are people (do corporations have souls?) and the the expenditure of money in the political process is free speech, it appears that the theme of wealth against commonwealth is front and center again with a vengeance. Other groups, including organized labor, which is clinging to life, are no match for the Goliath-sized financial resources that corporations can call into play.

This paper recently added comments about “dark money” to the mix of concerns about local control and purity of the democratic process (“Our View: Time to shed light on ‘dark money,’ ” Dec. 10). Are the state and its citizens truly sovereign over their political fate? Is it any wonder that many consider government to be the executive committee of corporate wealth?

— Special to the Press Herald

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