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How the Century Began

A Conversation with H. W. Brands

HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

When Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris talked recently with historian H. W. Brands, the conversation turned to America at the turn of the last century.

William Ferris: Your new book on the United States in the 1890s has the title, The Reckless Decade. What was reckless about it?

Brands: Americans felt that the country was on the verge of something, but they didn't know quite what. Some people saw a great age of technology, the dawning perhaps of an American century. Others saw the enormous growth in immigration, the rise of industrialization, and urbanization and its problems, as a moment when America was beginning to become like the Europe that they feared and in some cases despised. There was a sense that the country was moving faster than it had ever moved before, and this struck many people as recklessly endangering all that was good about the United States they knew.

Ferris: With the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War in 1898, the United States asserted itself on an international stage for the first time. When all was said and done, the U.S. had intervened in colonial rebellions in Cuba, in the Philippines against Spain, and had emerged victorious. This, I would gather, is what we think of as a beginning of what we call the American Century. Why do you think America entered the world stage at this particular moment?

Brands: Most Americans had no idea that they were embarking on a course of empire when they went into the war. They were responding to what they saw as an increasingly intolerable situation in Cuba. Most Americans had no desire to exert a protectorate over Cuba, and certainly the vast majority had no idea that the war would leave the United States in control of the Philippines. It is a good example of the law of unintended consequences.

While it is true that there was an expansionist group of people like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan who had been agitating for a larger role for the United States, those people weren't the ones who triggered the war against Spain. It was the reported actions of the Spanish and the brutal nature of their attempted suppression of the Cuban insurrection--and, more proximately, the destruction of the Maine in February of 1898--that caused Americans to go to war. The momentum that developed carried Americans away with the notion that, yes, indeed, their country might be a great actor on the world stage, but that was brief. By the end of the Filipino aspect of the war in 1902, Americans had soured on the idea of empire.

You'll remember that in the First World War it took Americans three and a half years from the outbreak of war in Europe for the U.S. to intervene. There remained a considerable reluctance to take on a world role. The Second World War was different: the Americans understood the consequences of what they were getting into.

Ferris: Do you think there was a sense in the 1890s that America was destined to play a part in controlling the world's future?

Brands: There was about as much sense of that as there is today that the United States is going to dominate the twenty-first century, which is to say, that there were some people in the U.S. in the 1890s who said that it was inevitable; there were some people who said it was inevitable and desirable; there were other people who said that it's not going to happen, it shouldn't happen, it will be the ruin of the United States if it does happen.

Ferris: In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau had declared the American frontier closed--that there were two people per square mile in the West, enough to consider it "settled." Then in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his lecture on the significance of the closing of the American frontier at the Chicago Colombian Exposition. Did the closing of the frontier change how Americans viewed the United States as a country?

Brands: It did for people who were prone to reflecting on the grand meaning of things, people like Frederick Jackson Turner, people like Theodore Roosevelt, who in fact had come upon essentially the same interpretation, enunciating it somewhat differently from Turner.

Actually, after the frontier was officially declared closed, there was more land homesteaded than had been homesteaded before 1890. If you were living in Wyoming in 1893, you wouldn't have seen things markedly different from what they had been just four or five years before.

But there was a feeling the future was going to be different in the sense that Americans would no longer have this escape valve. They would no longer have this relatively easy way of abandoning failure in the East and moving to the West in an attempt to find success.

Ferris: Did that prompt Americans to turn their eyes to international affairs? Would Manifest Destiny inevitably go global?

Brands: Well, as a historian, I never say inevitably. American civilization and nearly all Americans were quite unabashed about speaking of American civilization and seeing it as superior to most competing civilizations. For those people who were already inclined to think the westward movement would inevitably have to flow out into the Pacific itself, that provided a convenient rationale and justification for positions that they might well have taken by some other means. A lot of it just depended on whether you thought an enlarged American civilization was a good idea. There were some people like E.L. Godkin, who said, "What do we want with new territories when we haven't even civilized Kansas yet?"

Ferris: You write that the cities in the 1890s were caught between eras of American life, village versus the city, agriculture versus industry. Can you elaborate on that idea a little?

Brands: In village life, there has long been a sense that everyone is responsible for everyone else. Everyone knows everyone else, and it's hard to turn a blind eye to the misfortune of somebody you know by name and you encounter every day. With the rise of cities, there develops an anonymity. Americans are confronted with a situation where they live next door to people that they don't know, and when you don't know the people, it's much more difficult to really care about them.

There's another problem. In rural life, it's much easier to be self-sufficient. If you own your own farm, you can almost always find something to eat. The overall national economy might go up and down, but individuals are able to support themselves, or they can look to this social safety net of people that they know.

In cities, people don't have farms, they don't even have garden plots that they can fall back on in hard times. They're simply in a commercial financial relationship with their landlords, with the owners of the grocery stores, the markets, the butchers. When the economy goes into a slide, they lose their jobs. Without their jobs, they don't have any means of support. And they can't turn to the system of social support they would have had if they lived on the farms or in the villages. They're caught in a bind.

Where a need develops on a large scale, as it did in the 1890s, what filled the need in most cases in the big cities were the urban political machines, Tammany Hall being the prototype. The bosses of Tammany Hall and their lieutenants in the street provided a safety net that allowed people to get by. When they lost their jobs, Tammany would make sure that they had a basket of coal on the front door stoop or some groceries if they didn't have enough to eat. In exchange, these people, largely immigrants, would vote for Tammany Hall or its counterpart in other cities. There was corruption, of course. It took the New Deal and analogous programs at state and city levels assuming those responsibilities, more than any effort by the middle-class reformers, to clean up the corruption that the urban political machines exemplified.

Ferris: How well do you think Americans were dealing with these changes?

Brands: That varied from person to person, not unlike today. People with the skills to go into burgeoning industries like the electrical industry, or younger people who didn't have the emotional investment in old ways of doing things, found it an exciting time to be alive. Those who weren't quite as flexible or adaptable thought America was going to hell in a handbasket.

Ferris: In your book, you talk about the creation of U.S. Steel and the shift of industry from the hands of industrialists like Carnegie and Rockefeller to financiers like Morgan and others. What did this change mean for American business as a whole?

Brands: It became increasingly difficult for businesses to stay in the hands of their creators. U.S. Steel is an example. It was created as a way for Carnegie's opponents to try to gain a foothold. They lined up with J.P. Morgan. The Carnegie Company at that time was worth more than $400 million. No single individual had that kind of money, so the scale of business required that individuals go to the big financiers, who could then demand capital from all around the U.S., from across the Atlantic, ultimately from around the world. They could put together the financial package that would allow the investors to buy out Carnegie, who himself got something like a quarter of a billion dollars for his share in Carnegie Steel. The scale had gotten so great that individuals simply couldn't manage it in the way they had before.

Ferris: Now, let me ask you this. Did this transformation have an impact on the daily lives of Americans, or did their lives pretty much go as always?

Brands: To the extent that more Americans were working for big business, things got more impersonal than they had been before. The new owners of U.S. Steel were investors who lived all over the U.S., who lived in England.

On the other hand, in the Pullman strike of 1894 it worked the other way around. Pullman thought of himself as the model employer, and thought all the people who worked in his town were happy, or at least ought to be. When Pullman cut wages, without cutting rents in the company housing, it was very easy for the workers, the employees, to concentrate their resentment on this single individual. The transformation of the economy as a whole led to an increasing sense on the part of individuals that they were dealing with forces that were beyond their control, and perhaps beyond anybody's control.

Ferris: That same period turns out to be the heyday of muckraking journalists. You have Jacob Riis and magazines like McClure’s waging crusades against the injustices of the society. Why was this style of journalism so popular?

Brands: There was probably more muck to rake. Secondly, there was increased competition among the magazines. With the introduction of new presses and other technology, it was possible to sell magazines less expensively. As the circulation increased, the possibility for generating advertising increased. There was this imperative to get the news out, to get a story that would rivet readers' attention.

Also, there was increased attention to the activities of the big business trusts. One of the most widely read of the business muckrakers was Ida Tarbell, who did a scathing exposé of the practices involved in the creation of the Standard Oil Company. It's interesting to go back and read her: Tarbell is considered one of the muckrakers, but her tone is very dry compared to the sort of thing that one reads today.

Ferris: How did the magazines influence the public opinion and government policies on issues like American imperialism and the problems of the working class?

Brands: Probably in much the same way that magazines and newspapers do today. At any given time there's what you might call a policy-aware public, people who are interested in matters of public affairs and, in some cases, in a position to influence them. These would include other newspaper and magazine editors, politicians, people who were well educated and who took time to educate themselves to issues.

Ferris: I grew up on a farm, and I was especially interested in what you said about how in the early nineteenth century, American farmers enjoyed a prominent role in American society, but that by the 1890s, agriculture was languishing and farmers increasingly were less respected. Why did farming languish?

Brands: When Thomas Jefferson spoke of a nation of yeoman farmers, he was speaking to the vast majority of Americans. By 1900, the balance was more equal between city and farm.

One of the concrete changes from about 1880 to the mid-1890s was falling prices for the goods that they were producing, for their wheat, corn, cotton.

The farmers also felt squeezed by the large corporations they had to deal with, whether they were the railroads or the manufacturers of farm equipment or the grain elevators that they sold their grain to. They found themselves competing in a market where the other side of the transaction was increasingly dominated by large cartels or in some cases monopolies. Farmers certainly did feel that they were being squeezed.

Ferris: In the 1890s, there were both Progressive and Populist movements. Do they embrace the same issues but approach them in different ways? How do you distinguish the two?

Brands: They embraced some of the same issues. They certainly did approach them in different ways. The Populists were overwhelmingly a movement of the farm and a movement of the Midwest and the South.

The Populists advocated nationalization of the railroads; they advocated the free monetization of silver in a ratio of 16:1, which would have amounted to an enormous devaluation of the currency.

The Progressives were more centered in towns, and tended to be better educated and more affluent than the Populists. They essentially accepted the status quo and sought to modify it. They tended to have great confidence in the ability of the system to respond to good ideas, to respond to education. They weren't as radical as the Populists were.

Ferris: Do you see the split between Progressives and Populists as reflecting a split in American society between urban and rural?

Brands: There were large elements of city life that were neither Populist nor Progressive. Immigrants were often feared or despised by the Populists, and in turn distrusted the Progressives. But it is quite true that the Populists did distrust city life, and they saw farm life as uniquely valuable, uniquely supportive of American values. They saw themselves as the heirs of the Jeffersonian tradition and of everything that they thought was important in the American way of life. They saw the cities as dens of iniquity and a threat to everything that they held dear.

Ferris: These movements are rooted in the 1890s--why that decade rather than the 1880s or the 1900s?

Brands: To some extent it was a matter of the influences that had been developing over the previous twenty or thirty years reaching a critical point. There was a new class of leaders in the 1890s. People like James Weaver came along, Tom Watson, Ignatius Donnelly, and Mary E. Lease. I suppose it had something to do with a certain distance from the cataclysmic events of the earlier generation, of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Populism reached its high point in about 1896, when the Populists essentially forced the Democrats to adopt many of their positions and the Democrats and the Populists together ran William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. After William Jennings Bryan lost, the Populists never revived. Many went back to their old parties. To some extent, the failure of Populism was built into the U.S. Constitution, which makes it very easy for a two-party system to develop, but very difficult for a third party to challenge the hegemony of the other two.

And then when Theodore Roosevelt became president after the assassination of William McKinley, the Progressive movement had a national spokesman, a very charismatic figure. Roosevelt had long embraced progressive principles. As the Rough Rider and the wielder of the big stick, he could bust the trusts and crack the corporate barons into line.

Ferris: In terms of social change in the 1890s, there were some serious labor incidents: the Homestead Strike, the railroad workers' strike that was led by Eugene Debs, and Coxey's march. Why was there so much labor unrest?

Brands: To some extent, they were all results of the same set of influences.

The Homestead strike resulted from essentially from increasing competition within the steel industry. Carnegie was trying to move in the direction of greater automation within the plant, requiring fewer skilled workers and more unskilled workers. When he cut wages at Homestead in 1892, the workers decided they weren’t going to stand for it, and they went out on strike. Henry Frick, who was Carnegie's manager at Homestead, brought in the Pinkertons, this private army, to try to suppress the strike, to bring in strike breakers. This led to very severe violence.

The rail strike that started at the Pullman works outside of Chicago and ultimately jumped the tracks and spread clear across the country, was a result of similar sorts of pressure upon the workers, who found their standard of living falling. In this case, it was exacerbated by the depression that had begun between the Homestead strike of 1892 and the rail strike of 1894. And the march of Coxey and his so-called army for jobs was in very large part a response to the depression as well.

I guess you could ask the question, what's the depression a response to? It came after British investors pulled their money out of the U.S., in response to pressures from elsewhere. There was a general feeling among workers that industry was consolidating for its own survival, and the only way for workers to defend their rights and their standard of living was for them to organize.

Ferris: Meanwhile, the race issue was playing out in different ways in this country. In Plessy versus Ferguson, the Supreme Court affirmed "separate but equal." During the same period, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were developing two very different visions of how blacks should fight for equality. How would you describe the societal and economic position of blacks in the 1890s?

Brands: One thing to bear in mind is that the race question in America in the 1890s was overwhelmingly a regional question as well. Most African Americans in America still lived in the South. To the extent that people outside the South took an interest, it was largely as observers rather than participants. I think it was this that made it possible for the issues that came to a head during the 1890s to be decided the way they were.

Take, for example, Booker T. Washington. Washington, in giving his famous speech at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition in 1895, was essentially appealing to whites in the South. He said, "Cast down your bucket where you are," appealing to white factory owners, white landowners to look to African Americans as that group in society in which they needed to invest so that the South as a whole could advance. Washington used another analogy. He said, "In all things social, we can be as separate as the fingers. In all things having to do with mutual progress, we will be as united as the hand." What Washington was acknowledging was that white Southerners, many of whom grew up during the era of slavery, would never accept social equality for blacks. What he hoped was that whites would accept the idea of black economic advancement. He felt, he hoped, that that would be less threatening to defenders of the white status quo.

W.E.B. DuBois, being a Northerner, took a rather different view. He felt that blacks had been guaranteed equal political rights with whites as a result of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War. He saw Washington’s so-called Atlanta compromise as a retreat and as inevitably self-defeating. DuBois believed that only if blacks insisted on all of their rights would they be able to defend any of them.

In this context, I think you can read the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson as an effort to split the difference. It deals explicitly with legal rights, as most Supreme Court cases do: the legal right of the State of Louisiana to write a law requiring segregation in railway facilities, or, to turn it around, the right of blacks to be able to ride in any railroad cars. The Supreme Court decided that equality before the law was still necessary, but that the separation of the races was acceptable.

There were some people who disagreed, people like Justice John Marshall Harlan, who in dissent was able to see quite presciently that separate but equal would never fly. In a society dominated by one class or the other, separate would inevitably mean unequal, which is the way it turned out. But in the 1890s, the separate- but-equal formula seemed to offer a way out of the problem. The Supreme Court was willing to accept it, and many people, both in North and South, although not including very many blacks, saw it as a reasonable compromise in the situation.

Ferris: In somewhat similar vein, how do you think that whites, and especially lower-class whites, were attempting to assert themselves on the race issue?

Brands: That varied from group to group, from individual to individual, and from year to year. Initially, in the rise of the Populist movement in the South, first with the Southern Farmers' Alliance and then with the Populist Party, there were efforts to forge an alliance across racial lines. They saw that the most important division in society was the class division rather than the racial division. As one white Populist said, They’re in the gutter just the same as we are. But the old notions died hard, and the opponents of the Populists, in the South especially, found that if they tried to create a racial wedge between blacks and whites in the Populist movement, they could often play on the fears of each group and separate the two sides. Tom Watson is a good example of somebody who succumbed to this. He initially advocated unity between blacks and whites in the Populist Party, but after this failed he went back to the old race-baiting that had been a staple of Southern politics for generations.

Ferris: The close of the century is marked by the Spanish- American War, which some called a “splendid little war.” For a lot of people who were in it, it was miserable as are most wars. Ten times as many Americans died of typhoid and dysentery and other diseases as died in battle. But it was a springboard for Teddy Roosevelt's political ambitions. Who other than Roosevelt might have found it a splendid little war?

Brands: George Dewey, who was the victor of the battle of Manila Bay. He was initially even more famous than Roosevelt. There were children all over the country named for Dewey. He was given a tickertape parade in Manhattan. He thought briefly that he might have presidential hopes. In his case, though, he didn't have the political background that Roosevelt did.

The Spanish-American War was a great war for those elements in the United States who were advocating a more ambitious agenda for American foreign policy--people like Henry Cabot Lodge, like Albert Beveridge, like A.T. Mahan-- who had been pushing what they liked to call their "large policy" for several years. The Spanish- American War demonstrated that American military power was useful, that it could be successful without great effort. It underlined the importance of a large navy; it asserted American interests on a world stage and made other countries stand up and take notice of the United States.

There were other people who differed, though, who thought the United States had assumed responsibility that it didn't need to assume, and that would just cause the United States problems. During the debate over the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War, a lot of analogies were drawn to Rome and its transition from a republic to an empire. The critics said, "If the United States embraces an empire, the United States will meet the same sort of fate that the Roman republic met when it became an empire.”

Ferris: An inevitable question is, can we really compare the end of the last century with the end of this one? In looking at the 1890s, the characters seem larger than life: Teddy Roosevelt, Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jane Addams, Hearst, Pulitzer, DuBois, Lillian Russell, Diamond Jim Brady. There's a romantic veneer on that decade. If we look at the 1990s, the question becomes, have our heroes or our notions of heroes changed? How do we compare these two decades?

Brands: I'd be careful about applying the label of “hero” to very many people in the 1890s. There were few people who were perceived as heroes. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, after his, quite honestly, heroic actions at San Juan Hill, was seen as a hero. But there were a lot of people who distrusted Roosevelt as an egomaniac, as someone who would in political terms engage in all sorts of trimming and shaving to guarantee his election. He had a lot of political enemies from his earlier incarnation as a politician in the New York State legislature. A hundred years after the fact, it’s easy for us to focus on isolated aspects of these people. J.P. Morgan, for example, was a very powerful individual, but in his time he was widely hated. One has to be careful looking back at this decade to try to figure out what the significance of these individuals was.

In any kind of objective sense, there's no reason why the 1990s should be more like the 1890s than, say, like the 1970s. A hundred years of historical distance isn't any magic number. But to the extent that the ends of eras and centuries and millennia are convenient markers in historical terms, to the extent that that prompts people to ask questions about where is America going, I think there are parallels there.

We spoke earlier about the sense on the part of some people that the era about to begin would be a great era for the United States. There were others who felt that the greatness in America was behind, that the era to come could only be worse. That was the question posed by Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis.

You can see very much the same theme in the 1990s. The United States is either going to be the great superpower of the world, presiding over an era of peace and prosperity after a horrendous twentieth century that witnessed two world wars and a long Cold War, and the introduction of the threat of nuclear Armageddon, or it might be an era when America declines relative to competitors like China, for example, or when rogue regimes like that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq gain control of weapons of mass destruction and wreak horrors across the world.

We don't know what the twenty-first century is going to look like, just as people in the 1890s didn't know what the twentieth century was going to look like. As everyone recognized, there were certain possibilities then, but there were also great dangers. I think very much the same thing applies now.

It's important to know that even someone like Theodore Roosevelt, on the very eve of the Spanish-American War, didn't know whether there was going to be a war. He hoped there was going to be a war. He'd been pushing for war for three years. But in April of 1898, after McKinley had asked Congress for authorization to use troops, and Congress was slow in granting McKinley that authorization, Roosevelt expostulated at one point, "I don't know whether there's going to be a war. I don't know anything at all." We can look back and we can say, oh, that was just momentary frustration. Well, Roosevelt, who wanted the war to come, who'd been working for the war, didn't know it was going to come. We don't know what's going to happen in the twenty-first century, so in that regard, I guess the two decades are certainly comparable.

Ferris: Let me ask you a fundamental question about the idea of studying a decade as a block of history and culture. What is the reason for picking any decade, and in this case, this particular decade? But why not five years or one year? Why ten years?

Brands: There's actually no reason why ten years any more than, say, a year or thirteen days. A year is astronomically defined, but a decade obviously isn't. However, humans live in history, and much of history is defined in human terms. I suppose if one was studying ecology, a decade wouldn't make any sense whatsoever. Trees and plants have no conception of that sort of thing. But humans do. Humans set these somewhat arbitrary boundaries on what they do.

If we lived in a society that used something other than a decimal system, I'm sure we wouldn't look at decades. But a decade is in some respects a convenient historical period. It's longer than a year, it's long enough to constitute a substantial portion of a person's life, but it's not the whole life. It's not as long as a generation. If you look at the course of a nation's life, it's a snapshot. But it's a long enough exposure of the snapshot that you can see important things. You can appreciate influences, you can appreciate movements, and you can appreciate things that you wouldn't get if you looked at history in terms of a day or a year or even a couple of years. You can see things that you wouldn't get if you shortened the exposure. But you also get more of an immediate view than if you looked at, say, an entire generation. So ten years is a happy medium. It's a medium between an instantaneous view of some society at some point in its history and a generational view.

Ferris: What should Americans walk away from the 1890s with? How does this help us with our world today?

Brands: If I had to extract a single lesson from the 1890s, or for that matter from any decade, it would be that things usually don't turn out the way you expected them to. I don't know if that's of any help to anybody, but I'll use the example of the Spanish-American War. We started with that.

When Americans went into the Spanish-American War, they thought the war was about Cuba. It ended up being about an American empire. Many Americans thought this was a great thing and many Americans thought this was a terrible thing. But almost none of them had seen it coming.

If people can learn something about history, it's probably that the future will be full of surprises.

Ferris: That's a wise note on which to close this conversation. It has been absolutely wonderful talking with you.

Brands: Well, it was my pleasure.

About the Author

H.W. Brands is professor of history at Texas A&M University and the author of ten books, among them The Reckess Decade: America in the 1890s.