A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States



The political, social, and economic crisis of American society (referred to in the preceding chapter) came to a rapid boil in the 1890's. How the government attempted to solve this crisis would greatly influence America's path in the 20th Century.

The 1890's are often described in cute phrases like "the Gay Nineties" and "The Gilded Age" (taken from the title of a book by Mark Twain, this expression referred to the shallow and ostentatious materialism of the wealthy as expressed in their taste for for gilded furniture, walls, etc). But these characterizations fail to reflect the fact that the decade also witnessed the most serious depression  in American history up until that point. So serious was this economic collapse that it was called "The Great Depression" until the even greater breakdown of the 1930's.

Many forces and factors came together in the 90's in ways that seemed very significant--and threatening--to the future of the country. Some of these forces are described below.


While America was sliding down the slippery slope of a business cycle into economic depression, millions of immigrants were pouring out of the "steerage" holds of steamships, through Ellis Island, and into the United States. This is why the history of the period is particularly dynamic. Every immigrant became part of the story--and helped change the story at the same time. Certainly this influx of immigrants--counted in the millions--help to intensify the crisis which will be discussed in this reading.

Immigration has a complex significance for Americans. First, it provided the country with  a labor force, without which the country could not have industrialized. Second, immigration has given our country its unique multi-national character. There is no country in the world like ours. Indeed, there are no classrooms like American classrooms--just take a look around. America is indeed a unique experiment of people with different colors, religions, and cultures living together (Recent developments in Bosnia or Rwanda are, sadly, more typical).

Third, immigration is one element of most Americans' personal history, of our quest to figure out who we are and resolve the "identity crisis" most everyone experiences. Whether you are an Irish-, Italian-, German-, African-, or Jewish-American, who you are is inevitably interwined with who your great- or great-great-grandparents were. You can never fully understand yourself without confronting and understanding the immigrant history and traditions of your people. [ A translated letter sent to my Russian grandmother from her brother , on the eve of her departure to America, follows this reading].

From 1830 to 1920,  over 40 million people emigrated to America. It was one of the great mass movements of people in all of human history. Why did they come? There was no one reason. Historians use a so-called "Push/ Pull" analysis to explain the phenomenon. Some immigrants were pulled by hopes of economic opportunity and freedom; others were pushed by persecution, famine, or war. Still others were both pushed and pulled. If one studies the statistical portrait of this mass immigration, certain trends become evident. [Please examine the chart which follows and see how many trends you can extrapolate from the figures]. One is particularly important.

Before 1890, "old" immigrants predominated, namely those from Western Europe and English-speaking countries. After 1890, "new" immigrants were more common, namely, those from southern and eastern Europe who came from cultures much more different than those already living here. Their language, their food, and their clothing all seemed strange to Americans. For this reason, the "New Immigration" excited another national moment of intense nativism (that is, prejudice against immigrants).

There was a growing fear, after 1890, that these strange people couldn't assimilate into American culture and would eventually overwhelm "our way of life." For this reason, considerable pressure was put on these immigrants to "Americanize" and to deny their cultural identities. Schools, in particular, were powerful instruments of Americanization and the "melting pot" mentality. So from the beginning, we had an ambivalent attitude toward immigrants. On the one hand, we needed them and were proud that out country served as a refuge for them . As Emma Lazarus wrote in her famous poem,

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe  free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the tempest- toss'd to me..."

(The entire poem follows). On the other hand we feared them. Today we tend to favor more of a "Salad Bowl" approach to immigration which encourages unity, but also respect for ethnic traditions (though the American people are still divided on this question, witness the debate over programs like bilingual education, or the recent congressional effort to make English the "official" language of the U.S.)

Life was difficult for immigrants. Apart from nativism and the pressures of Americanization (which began when many were pressured to change their names at Ellis Island), immigrants suffered all the privations of poor people. Their hard lives were well-documented in the photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Many of them, at least at first, lived in the slums of New York City's Lower East Side, in the so-called "dumb-bell tenements" which had been built by real estate speculators as temporary quarters for the immigrant hordes, but which still stand today. Workplaces were equally grim. For Jewish immigrants, the sweatshops of the garment industry awaited. (Now 100 years later, and long after they were supposedly "abolished," sweatshops--in the Third World and at home--are again making the headlines!) Italians often worked in shoe factories, and the Irish were often relegated to "shovel work" in the streets of New York.

Much of the energy and dynamism of the labor and radical movements of this time (these will be discussed later in class) came from this great wave of immigration. But to some Americans, immigrants were simply cheap labor that threatened to undermine their own standard of living-- hence the hostility of some unions to them. To others, they were a cultural time bomb that threatened to destroy our values. A primary concern of the 20th Century was how to defuse this bomb.

The Farmer Was The Man

Apart from immigrants and workers, the other key cast member in the drama of the 1890's was the farmer. Indeed, it was farmers who mounted the most dramatic challenge to the status quo during this period.

The construction of railroads and the Homestead Act of 1862 (which promised 160 acres of public land free to those who worked it for five years) brought many farmers out to the mid-west after the Civil War. It was these same farmers who harvested only bumper crops of despair during the last twenty years of the century.

What went wrong? According to the farmers, they were victims of a greedy system. Specifically, they blamed "middlemen" in the form of railroad and grain elevator companies for stealing the fruits of their labor ("Elevators" are used to store grain prior to shipment) . They claimed that these companies charged excessive rates. Indeed, by the 1880's, it cost "one bushel of wheat to send another bushel east." To remain competitive, farmers had to buy more expensive machinery, yet they had less money to do so.

Farmers also blamed government policy for their plight. They felt that the government kept the money supply, which was then tied to a gold standard, too tight. With relatively few dollars circulating, deflation set in and prices for food declined, driving many farmers into bankruptcy--and rage. They demanded that the government expand the money supply, by issuing paper money backed by silver as well as gold--a "bi-metallic standard." This increased supply of money would lead, farmers believed, to a mild inflation of agricultural prices. This would not only put more money in farmers' pockets, but would also make it easier for them to pay off their debts with "softer money," that is, dollars that were worth less than those they borrowed. (Farmers are almost always debtors, because of their need to mortgage money to buy their land and new equipment). We will go over this material in class.  

The farmers' demand for inflationary relief was summed up by the slogan: "Free Silver at 16:1." This meant that the government should buy and coin an unlimited amount of silver ("Free silver") at the fixed price of 1/16 the price of gold in order to back new dollar bills which would be released into the economy. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act that provided for the limited purchase of silver. This did not satisfy farmers. [To appreciate the emotion behind such seemingly technical demands see "Voice of Agrarian Revolt" which follows].

Some economists--then and now--believe that farmers were themselves responsible for their plight. There were just too many of them, and it was their overproduction of food that undercut prices. Needless to say, this is not the explanation favored by farmers.

Farmers did more than complain. They organized powerful groups to advance their interests. In 1867, the Grange was organized (Sudbury still has a Grange Hall--and Grange chapter) as a social organization, to bring farmers out of rural isolation. By the 70's, it had become a political organization successfully pressuring state legislatures to pass laws regulating railroad and elevator rates--the "Granger Laws."  In 1877, the  Supreme Court in Munn vs. Illinois ruled that these laws were constitutional and didn't encroach on the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce. But then in 1886, in the Wabash case, the Court reversed itself and farmers were left to pressure the federal government for regulatory relief.

After the Grange ceased to be an effective advocate, farmers turned to more radical organizations, the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party (also called the "Populist Party"), respectively. Both groups turned to direct political action to help farmers, the Alliance backing friendly Democratic and Republican candidates and its successor, the Populists, running their own candidates. Both groups had some success. The Alliance helped to elect four governors, three senators, 44 congressmen, and 100 state representatives. Then, in 1892, the Populist candidate for president, James Weaver, won over a million votes. Two years later, the populists were elected to three governorships and enough state legislator positions to allow the party to control a half-dozen states. [The Populists' 1892 Omaha Platform called for deep, wide-ranging change. Its ideas would heavily influence the thinking of American reformers in the years ahead. We will examine it in class. To get the flavor of the Populist Movement, please check out the lyrics of their song, "The Farmer Is The Man," which follows].

"The Great Depression"

In 1893, as the World's Fair in Chicago celebrated our wondrous technological progress and exuded grand confidence in the future, the United States fell into the worst depression in its 100-year history. By every measure, this collapse was a disaster:

In 1893, 500 banks failed and 15,000 businesses;
By 1897, one-third of all railroads had gone bankrupt
Unemployment rose to 20% of the labor force

Moreover, violent strikes flared. The Homestead and Pullman strikes--already discussed above--occurred during, and partially because of, this depression of the 90's. It was during this period that armories were built in the center of cities ( as well as in mill towns like Marlboro, Framingham, and Hudson), not to protect the country from foreign invasion, but to subdue rebellions by American citizens. One railroad executive suggested giving workers  "a rifle diet."

On May 1, 1894, a rag-tag army of the unemployed--named "Coxey's Army"--marched on the nation's capital. It was led by Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessmen, who while driving over a rutted road, got the idea to improve the roads and put the unemployed to work through government-financed "public works" programs. Twenty-thousand desperate men followed Coxey into the capital to petition their government for relief. Because such mass demonstrations were unknown at the time, many politicians and well-to-do Americans viewed Coxey's Army with great apprehension. Perhaps a second revolution was coming. When Coxey finally arrived in Washington, the anxiety had reached a fever pitch. Would the very  seat of  the National Government be taken over? The event ended somewhat anti-climatically, for when Coxey began to walk to the steps of the Capitol Building to deliver a speech to the crowd, he was arrested for walking on the grass. This was the end of "Coxey's Army," but  it was not the end of upperclass fears that the depression could spawn a popular revolution which would endanger capitalism itself.

It was now 1896, and the country paused for its quadrennial presidential election which seemed destined, because of the enveloping crisis, to be one of the most significant in our history. The nation's fate seemed to hang in the balance.

The Campaign & Election of 1896

Only one political reality was clear in 1896: President Grover Cleveland would have a hard time becoming the Democratic Party's nominee. Not only had Cleveland already served two terms, but as a "Goldbug" Democrat, committed to the gold standard, he was disliked by farmers. Moreover, his actions in helping to break the Pullman Strike had alienated many workers.

The Republican Party held its convention first and nominated Senator William McKinley, a genial and popular candidate. Promising a "Full Lunch Pail" and a return to prosperity, McKinley was also a gold standard man (though he supported gestures like the Sherman Silver Purchase Act). Further, he supported high tariffs, a popular position among manufacturers and workers (who were concerned about their jobs), though distinctly unpopular among farmers (who were denied the opportunity to buy cheaper manufactured goods from abroad).

The big surprise of the political season occurred at the Democratic Convention. There a young congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, set the convention on fire with a rousing, "free silver" speech:

"...You must not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,
you must not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold...!"

The speech also led to the nomination of Bryan himself. The silverite faction had taken control of the Democratic Party. The Populist Party held its convention last and found itself in an awkward situation. If Populists nominated their own candidate, the silver vote would be split and McKinley would be elected. If they nominated Bryan, who was not really very radical, all of their other reform proposals--besides "Free  Silver"-- would be forgotten. They decided to choose half a loaf, and nominated Bryan, who was now the nominee of two parties.

The campaign of 1896 is often called the first modern political campaign. This is not thanks to William McKinley, however, who used a more traditional "front porch" strategy, staying home, having delegations visit him for staged events, and giving stock speeches in which he "droned on about God and Motherhood."  Bryan organized a very nontraditional, grassroots campaign. He went to the people, travelling 18,000 miles, in a non-stop effort which saw him deliver almost 3500 speeches. (Critics charged that he was like the Platt River, near which he was born, "an inch deep and a mile wide at the mouth"). He became known as the "Great Commoner." To many--mainly farmers and poor people-- he seemed an almost messiah-like figure embarked on a near-religious crusade, promising not just an election victory, but deliverance.

In September, Bryan was ahead and panic struck Wall Street and the industrialists who saw the "Great Commoner" as a revolutionary threat. Corporations poured money into the flagging Republican campaign, Ministers delivered sermons about the impending disaster, and workers received notices that if Bryan won, they would be laid off. Later, there were reports of voters being bribed or paid to vote twice. In some counties, McKinley received more votes than there were registered voters. The great orator, William Jennings Bryan--"the one American poet who could sing outdoors"--narrowly lost. The hopes of millions were dashed. The poet Vachel Lindsay remembered the night:

"Election night at mid-night,
Boy Bryan's defeat,
defeat of western silver,
defeat of the wheat...
Defeat of tornadoes
by the poison vats supreme,
defeat of my boyhood,
defeat of my dream.

The Crisis of the 1890's

The wealthy and powerful breathed a sigh of relief after Bryan's defeat. ("All's right with the world," crowed McKinley's campaign manager, Senator Mark Hanna). But the relief was temporary. There were circumstances that made the crisis of the 90's unique--that is, uniquely dangerous, and it wasn't clear what could be done about it.

The depression was severe. Workers and farmers were angry. Strikes multiplied and violence flared. Capitalism was shaken. Still, the nature of the crisis went beyond the depression. After all, there had been depressions or serious recessions before, occurring roughly every twenty years.

Something had changed, however. During previous periods of economic dislocation, American society had been well-served by certain safety valves, including economic growth  and the frontier. Perhaps the poor's share of the pie did not got bigger, but the pie itself grew. And if things got too tough for workers or farmers they could always move to the frontier, and start anew. The opportunities that the frontier afforded for a fresh start gave our society an optimism and stability that European countries simply didn't have.

But momentous changes were occurring, and they didn't go unnoticed. In 1893, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner studied census reports and wrote a piece called, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." In the "Turner Thesis," as it became known, Turner argued that the frontier was responsible for defining the character of our people, for encouraging values of hard work and individualism. He also argued that the traditions of American democracy were born in the cradle of the frontier, remote areas where pioneers had to learn to govern themselves. (Previously, historians claimed that our values and traditions had been being brought over on ships from England).

"The Turner Thesis" was of more than just passing academic interest, because Turner also announced that census reports confirmed that the frontier--our great shaping force--was now gone. The unsettled West was now only a memory. Turner's conclusion was confirmed by other events. In 1889, Oklahoma (supposedly perpetual Indian territory) was opened to white settlement in one dramatic "land rush." One year later, the massacre of the Sioux by the US Army at Wounded Knee, SD, signaled the end of Indian resistance.

Turner's argument carried with it this implicit concern: if the frontier had given us our character and democratic values, what would happen to our society now that the frontier was gone? Would we become a class-bound, feudal society like those in Europe? And without an open frontier to serve as a safety-valve, what would happen as social discontent built up, particularly now that economic growth also seemed a thing of the past? What would now be done to ensure stability in American society? Perhaps the country would survive this depression. But what of the next?

The Crisis of the 1890's had arrived, and both the poor and the rich, from their very different perspectives, looked for a way out. Would there even be a United States--as we knew it-- when the new century dawned? For some this possibility provoked fin de siecle (end-of-century) despair, for others hope.

And then suddenly, from stage right, entered the Spanish-American War...

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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