The frustration of making sense of the period has been expressed by John D. Buenker and Peter G. Filene who argued in various essays that, beyond sharing a general dissatisfaction with Industrial America, reformers were too disparate to share common motives for reform. The argument at the center of the book makes a clear case that the array of progressive reform impulses were, in fact, quite unified when viewed through the lens of class. Given his argument based on class, McGerr takes a few cues from Karl Marx—and many more from Sigmund Freud by way of Richard Hofstadter, the notable mid-century American historian.
In the s, it was Hofstadter who made the argument that the progressive impulse of the early twentieth century was driven by a status anxiety among middle-class Americans unsure of their place in the new industrial order. McGerr has updated this brilliant but dashed-off argument, developing a deeper, more subtle analysis grounded in the primary sources of the era. For example, he takes time to portray the ethos of maximalist individualism that defined the industrial upper class at the turn of the century.
In developing this argument, McGerr challenges the views of both the New Left in the s, that progressives were nothing more than petty bourgeois defenders of the new industrial elite—and from more recent arguments of the New Right that progressives of the era were socialists in all but name. Foremost among these is the way he brings progressive support for segregation into his larger argument. Many progressives supported legal segregation. Indeed, in the first decades of the twentieth century segregation intensified—and not only in the South. These efforts, McGerr argues, showed the limits of social transformation imagined by progressive reformers.
More importantly, it demonstrated the ways in which progressive desires for order took primacy over ideas of racial equality and integration. The second strength of the book is the extensive use of sources embedded in a tightly organized narrative that covers both the major accomplishments and small victories of the progressive movement. As readers, we witness both the trust-busting heroics of Theodore Roosevelt and the long struggle of Lillian Wald and others to limit child labor.
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Most importantly, we are given a vantage of changing industrial society from the viewpoint of those whose everyday lives were most dramatically altered. A third strength is the discussion of the obstacles that challenged and ultimately defeated this army of crusading middle-class reformers.
Progressivism, McGerr contends, offered middle-class Americans the utopian promise of a perfected society. Because such a transformational vision demanded so much of Americans, it proved to be an unrealistic vision that led to inevitable letdowns. Their rise embodied its transformative power. Money had always been a vehicle for magical thinking, but it became an especially powerful focus for fantasy in Gilded Age America, where dreams of overnight wealth and dramatic self-transformation proliferated in the popular imagination.
In the speculative climate that had characterized the United States since its founding, monetary value remained arbitrary and evanescent, a tissue of paper and promises. Money was ubiquitous and powerful yet ephemeral and invisible; it increased and decreased mysteriously in worth and sometimes it disappeared altogether, without warning. Men who could manage it successfully, like Carnegie and Rockefeller, created monopolistic corporations. Official moralists tended to overlook the contradictory impact of monopoly power.
They also ignored the speculative aspects of money, which they treated not as a manipulable instrument of power but a just reward for hard work. The poor, from this view, were responsible for their own plight. Working-class folk were not impressed. They knew that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was trickier than any self-help writer imagined. That was why they embraced an ethic of solidarity rather than individualist striving.
The first fruits of the labor movement appeared in , as a railroad strike spread along the lines from Baltimore and Pittsburgh to Chicago and St. Resisting wage cuts and mass firings the backwash of a long depression , workers fought pitched battles with local militia, the National Guard, and in some places the US Army. As soldiers fired on their fellow citizens, railway cars burned, and the bodies of dead strikers lay strewn about the streets, labor gradually yielded to the combined power of capital and the state.
This became the pattern of labor-management strife in the Gilded Age. Even in prosperous times, the ethic of individualism left unprotected workers at the mercy of unregulated capital. McCormick sought to reduce labor costs by replacing workers with machines and speeding up the work of the rest. His policies provoked a tsunami of strikes in and around Chicago in , concluding with a mass protest in Haymarket Square, where a bomb exploded and seven policemen were killed. Five German anarchists were eventually executed for the crime, on slim-to-nonexistent evidence.
Whenever unions resisted management policies—whether at Homestead in , Pullman in , or any of dozens of other workplaces—the result was always the same: Still, discontent with conscienceless capitalism spread, through the countryside as well as the cities.
Southern farmers, black and white, faced conditions little better than peonage as they struggled with crop liens, unstable markets, leached-out soil, and other sources of chronic indebtedness. Midwestern farmers, whose entrepreneurial horizons were wider, bought land at inflated prices and then found themselves underwater when the economy took a dive.
They were indebted to tight-money banks at steep interest rates and dependent on railroad monopolies charging extortionate rates to take their goods to market. The vagaries of weather and commodity prices intensified their distress. This was a plan that could appeal across regional and even racial lines. Watson realized this, and challenged Southern farmers to form a biracial coalition against the bankers and their political allies. It was a bold move, and it even earned Watson some black support, but in the end the biracial coalition fell victim to the implacable force of white supremacy.
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White elites exploited racism to divide and conquer their Populist opponents. Then, as now, talking about race was a way of not talking about class. The Gilded Age marked a key moment in the rise of American racism—a transition from the relatively fluid race relations of the Reconstruction era to the rigid segregation of Jim Crow. Ferguson and written into state constitutions across the old Confederacy. Racism acquired more scientific legitimacy than ever before or since, which would remain largely unchallenged until the pioneering work of Franz Boas and other anthropologists in the early twentieth century.
In a society where traditional Christian beliefs were buffeted by the chill winds of positivist science, where identities were fluid and sources of value were in doubt, race became a category one could count on, solid ontological ground for a culture in constant flux. This was reassurance for whites only, but sometimes even whites craved more palpable antidotes to racial anxiety. White supremacy erupted in periodic rituals of racial regeneration: Despite the eloquent protest of Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, and other black leaders, the fortunes of their people reached a low point in American public life during the Gilded Age.
African Americans were the not the only targets of racist ideology.
Doctrines of white supremacy singled out Anglo-Saxons for special praise, fostering suspicion of Italians, Jews, Slavs, and other non-Anglo immigrants and laying the groundwork for immigration restriction. But unlike American Indians, whose remnants had been confined to reservations, and Asians, who were excluded altogether, European immigrants could at least claim that they were Caucasian.
Anglo-Saxon racism became a crucial ingredient in the emerging ideology of empire. The pursuit of empire satisfied longings for emotional, physical, moral, and even spiritual revitalization—that is, if one accepted the idea that an American empire was the work of Providence.
William James, for one, did not; he viewed the Spanish American War and the acquisition of colonies as a fundamental departure from American traditions of decentralized power and government by consent. But he and other anti-imperialists were driven to the margins of debate, disdained as fainthearted objectors to the fulfillment of national destiny. An era that began in reunion of the warring sections ended in the reunited nation becoming an international power—maybe even, as Henry Adams suggested, the international power. The key to this transformation lay in the crisis of the s.
The stock market crash of May touched off four years of the worst economic depression the United States had ever seen. Prolonged mass unemployment produced a desperate search to stay alive among huge portions of the population.