• Michael Branson Smith

Does this sound familiar? “The nation was fabulously rich but its wealth was gravitating rapidly into the hands of a small portion of the population, and the power of wealth threatened to undermine the political integrity of the Republic.”

It’s a description of the U.S. in the late 1800s, from The Growth of the American Republic, by historians Samuel Morison and Henry Commager, published in 1930 (and cited in this 1957 Supreme Court case).

The nation’s pronounced economic inequality, a focus of Occupy Wall Street and its satellites, including Occupy Chicago, is hardly a new concern. The fear that the “small portion” is subduing the vast majority with the muscle of its money is not new, either—nor are attempts to resist. In 1894 the prominent lawyer (and future secretary of state) Elihu Root exhorted the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York to prohibit corporate political contributions: