American History Lecture Eight
This lecture is shorter than usual, so that you have time to write an essay of at least 700 words this week on anything related to this lecture, or about the first half of the course (through Reconstruction). Give your essay a title.
In the time period after the end of Reconstruction (1877) until the key presidential election of 1896, economic issues were particularly important. Very little else was happening: the presidents were unremarkable and, frankly, entirely forgettable. Social disputes like slavery were resolved. And for the longest time in American history, there were no wars. America had no wars between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898, a period of 33 years. Ask yourself: when was the second longest time of peace in American history?
This period, 1877 to 1896, saw the greatest advances in technology in the history of world, mostly in New Jersey by Thomas Edison. Our prosperity today is largely a result of the tremendous innovations of the second half of the 1800s. Free enterprise was booming, and the biggest political issues were economic ones. Many of the economics questions on the CLEP come from 1877-1896.
As to civil rights (post-slavery issues), the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment was limited to prohibiting racial discrimination by government. These decisions held that the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply to racism by private groups. The Supreme Court thereby ended the civil rights movement until it reemerged in 1950s to end racial segregation in the South.
After the North won the Civil War in 1865, the Republican Party claimed victory and blamed the Democratic Party for the war itself. From then until 1912, only one Democratic candidate for president was able to win a presidential election: Grover Cleveland, who won in 1884, then lost in 1888, and then won again in 1892. And he was a conservative Democrat from the then-Republican State of New York. The reason the Republican Party won the presidency so often was because it was "waving the bloody shirt" every election, which means it was reminding voters of how the Democrats sided with the supposedly treasonous South in seceding and causing the Civil War.
Republican rule of the nation meant that free enterprise and big business were favored. This led to tremendous prosperity, and the nation grew into a world power in the second half of the 1800s.
The United States also grew in size when the Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, William Seward, agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867. Critics ridiculed this purchase as "Seward's Folly," describing the land as a mere "icebox". At the time, no one knew there was oil and gold there.
Russia needed money to pay for its defensive efforts at the time, as it felt threatened by the massive and growing British Empire. The purchase price was $7,200,000, which was only about 1.9¢ per acre. The Senate approved this deal nearly unanimously, but the House of Representatives delayed before eventually authorizing funds for the purchase. The property became useful in World War II in fighting Japan, and during the Cold War in opposing the communist Soviet Union. One can see Russia from parts of Alaska.
But while the Republicans controlled the presidency from 1868 to 1912 (with the exception of Grover Cleveland), the Democratic Party controlled much of local politics. "Tammany Hall" was the name of the Democratic Party organization that controlled New York City. It was a completely corrupt "machine" that elected people, gave out jobs, and even stole money from the City. Eventually, it was the New York Times and America's most famous cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who harshly mocked its leader, "Boss" Tweed and drove him from power. Thomas Nast's cartoons whipped the public into scorning Boss Tweed and demanding that he be brought to justice. When Boss Tweed was eventually sent to jail, Nast cheered Tweed's humiliation. This demonstrated the growing influence of political cartoons in changing the course of history.
Shortly after the Civil War the Republicans won presidential elections easily. But the presidential contest of 1876 was virtually a tie, and former Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes was able to win only due to a post-election deal between the Republican and Democratic Parties. The deal, as mentioned in the prior lecture, was for the Republicans to end Reconstruction in the South in exchange for the Democrats agreeing to the swearing in of Hayes as President. Hayes served for only one term. He was considered a "moderate" and the Hayes Administration was uneventful. To its credit, it was free of the scandals that plagued the Grant Administration before him.
In the period just after the end of Reconstruction, many African Americans moved away from discrimination in the South towards the Midwest, especially Kansas. These migrants are known as the "Exodusters".
Most of our images from the Civil War period and afterward are from pictures taken by Mathew Brady, the greatest photographer of the 19th century. Born in Albany, New York, he learned to make daguerreotypes when he was about 15 years old and went on to take portrait pictures of many Civil War soldiers and most prominent Americans during the rest of his life. Brady maintained studios in New York City and Washington, D.C., but also struggled through financial failures in his self-employed business. The photograph of Thomas Edison included later in this lecture was taken by Mathew Brady.
Recall that the Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who won the Civil War, was elected president in 1868, at the age of only 46 (one of the youngest presidents ever elected). He served two full terms and then retired, following the example set by President (and General) George Washington. But this left Grant with nothing to do at the age of only 54.
Less than ten years later, Grant was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. He knew he would not live much longer. But he was bankrupt, having lost his fortune in an unsuccessful investment company, and his beloved wife Julia was to live another 17 years after Grant died.
In an attempt to earn some money for his wife to live on after Grant died, he began to work as fast as he could to write his memoirs (autobiography). Grant did not know how many more days he had to live, so he worked as hard as his poor health would permit. His memoirs were a first-person account of his childhood, education, participation in the Mexican War, and especially his experiences as a Union General during the great Civil War battles (except for Gettysburg - Grant was at Vicksburg then). Grant completed his memoirs only a short time before he died in 1885. (He is buried in New York City, along with his wife, at a monument known a "Grant's Tomb.")
This book, the "Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant," by Ulysses S. Grant, was a masterpiece. Mark Twain, himself one of the greatest American writers, called Grant's memoirs the best "of any general's since Caesar." Edmund Wilson, a prominent 20th century American writer, praised Grant's memoirs by observing that the "reader finds himself ... on edge to know how the Civil War is coming out." Sales of the book generated a fortune of $450,000 for Grant's wife, which (due to inflation) was equivalent to more than $10 million in today's dollars.
Grant's memoirs are now freely available on the internet for your own enjoyment and learning, at the Gutenberg website, in an easy-to-download pdf format. Grant's first words to begin his book are, "'Man proposes and God disposes.' There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice." Enjoy skimming or reading this important book, and your homework assignment this week can be based on your thoughts about it. (If you download the pdf, then you can search for terms in the book (by holding the control key down and hitting the "f" key), such as "Appomattox".
America was not the origin of major religions, or even most great ideas like free enterprise. America was not the place where most scientific breakthroughs occurred. America has not been the leader in great writers, or great statesmen. Some of the concepts that have been so successful in America, like the "separation of powers" structure in the Constitution, are based on insights that originated in Europe.
Indeed, it is not easy to name what did originate in America. Not democracy. Virtually none of the great physicists, mathematicians, composers, writers, or other great thinkers came from America. What, if anything, is so special about America in its place in the world?
The answer, in two words, is "Yankee ingenuity." Virtually all great inventions since about 1776 came from America, and these creations of man have brought the world an immense wealth beyond all imagination.
America creates, and the rest of the world copies. The Encyclopedia Britannica, considered the finest encyclopedia, listed the greatest inventions in the history of the world along with the originating country, and by far the highest percentage are attributed to the United States. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica lists only 29 inventions for the United Kingdom, but that includes useless and even harmful creations like cloning, as well as other inventions that predate the United States such as carbonated soft drinks (which are also not particularly productive). The United States, meanwhile, is credited with over five times as many inventions: 170. All other countries are even further behind America and Britain in inventions.
The American invention of the cotton gin in 1792 illustrates how inventions create wealth. Previously, the separation of cotton from cotton seeds required backbreaking labor by many men (often slaves). But the U.S. Constitution has a unique clause that authorizes Congress to grant special rights of ownership to inventors for a period of time, in order to give them an incentive to invent:
- To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries
Soon after the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the first Congress passed the first patent law in 1790 to encourage Americans to invent useful devices, and ever since Americans have been doing exactly that. The inventor makes money for himself because no one else may copy his invention for 20 years without paying him for it, and the public benefits from how the inventions save time and money in performing useful tasks.
Within a few years of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and passage of the first patent law, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which was a machine that replaced the hard labor of 50 men to separate cotton from cotton seeds. He received a patent (which is sole ownership and a right to prohibit copying) for his invention beginning in 1794. Whitney became wealthier due to his creation as people paid him for the right to make and use his invention; southern plantations became wealthier from his invention because it reduced their costs; and the entire public became wealthier because the price of clothes containing cotton decreased due to the lower costs. This is how an invention creates wealth for the world.
Several of the most important inventions concerned communications, which created wealth by reducing the costs of exchanging information, and increasing the amount of information available. In 1831, an American scientist named Joseph Henry invented the first electric telegraph, which enabled communication across distances by using codes to represent letters.
Soon thereafter, the American Samuel Morse created Morse code to standardize the communication codes used (1835), and then in 1843 he invented the first long-distance electric telegraph line. This enabled the sending and receiving of messages almost instantaneously over long distances, without having to wait for someone to travel the distance. Morse is often credited with inventing telegraphy because he made it practical. In 1844 he sent the first long-distance message over a telegraph: "What hath God wrought?" Obviously this greatly increased the ability of people to communicate with each other, and for businesses to communicate their needs and purchases. This was not like the internet yet, but it was a tremendous improvement over sending letters by U.S. Mail, which could take weeks when the distance was long. The Pony Express was not even available then; it was first established in 1861 to try to speed up mail delivery.
In 1866, after four attempts, the transatlantic cable established permanent communication with Europe based on laying a cable on the ocean floor. This facilitated trade between the continents, and helped families communicate with grandparents back in Europe.
Then, in 1876, the greatest invention of all for communications occurred: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. His motivation was to help his nearly deaf mother hear. Alexander (called Aleck) had been homeschooled by his mother to learn to read and write, and he wanted to repay the favor:
- Unlike others, who spoke to Mrs. Bell through her ear tube, Aleck chose to communicate with her by speaking in low, sonorous tones very close to her forehead. Young Aleck surmised that his mother would be able to "hear" him through the vibrations his vocal intonations would make. This early insight would prove significant as Alexander Graham Bell went on to develop more elaborate theories regarding the characteristics of sound waves. It would also lend rationale to Bell's opinions as to how the deaf could be assimilated into a world of sound.
In Boston, 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, Bell spoke the first sentence over the telephone to his assistant Watson: "Watson, come here; I want you."
But just as John the Baptist was immediately followed by someone far greater, Jesus, Alexander Graham Bell was immediately followed by someone far greater, Thomas Edison (pictured to the right with one of his inventions, the phonograph). When Thomas was 7 years old, Mrs. Edison put him in the local public school. The public school teacher was irritated by Edison's curiosity and questions, and aggravated by his failure to follow directions like the rest of the class. The teacher concluded that Edison was incapable of learning, and after merely three months the teacher told young Edison's mother that her son was an idiot.
Mrs. Edison was furious at the teacher and the public school. She immediately pulled young Thomas out of school and never sent him back. She then homeschooled him by reading from the Bible, and his father encouraged young Thomas to read the classics. Young Thomas became a voracious reader and, by the age of 12, became interested in science, chemistry and the works of Isaac Newton. Young Thomas also became an entrepreneur as a teenager, first publishing a newspaper and then memorizing Morse Code so that he could get a job transmitting messages over the telegraph by age 15. He had a tremendous "work ethic," putting in 12-hour work days, 6 days a week, and then inventing in his spare time. Thomas Edison's famous quotes include:
- "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
- "Everything comes to him that hustles while he waits."
- "I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work."
- "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."
This homeschooler changed the world, and was ranked by Life magazine as the most influential person in the entire world over the last millennium (1000 years). Known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," which is a town in northern New Jersey next to the town named after him (Edison), Edison did his best work in New Jersey. One historian wrote about him:
- Thomas Edison was more responsible than any one else for creating the modern world .... No one did more to shape the physical/cultural makeup of present day civilization.... Accordingly, he was the most influential figure of the millennium.
Edison's inventions (from 1875 to about 1900) include most of modern technology:
- an automated telegraph system
- a mouthpiece transmitter to make the telephone practical
- an office copying machine (mimeograph)
- a stock ticker for Wall Street
- the phonograph (record player) (1877) (Edison is shown with his phonograph in the picture on the prior page)
- a practical light bulb (1879)
- the electric power station (1882)
- the industrial research laboratory
- motion pictures (movies) (1889)
- fluoroscopes (used for X-rays today)
Self-employed, Edison created one marvelous invention after another, acquiring more than 1300 U.S. and foreign patents throughout his life. The wealth generated by Edison's work is unfathomable.
A biographer credited Edison's "highly individualistic style of acquiring knowledge that eventually led him to question scores of the prevailing theories on the workings of electricity." Edison's success was not caused by any special advantages: his family was poor and Edison himself was nearly totally deaf. Imagine that: the inventor of the phonograph (record player) was deaf! Edison said, "Of all my inventions, I liked the phonograph best." In the picture of him on the prior page, he cannot fully hear what his own invention is playing. We should remember that the next time we resort to excuses for not accomplishing as much as we could.
One of Edison's sons, Charles, became a conservative governor of New Jersey and was later a co-founder of the Conservative Party of New York, which remains active today.
There were other marvelous inventions and engineering feats in the second half of the 19th century. The Brooklyn Bridge, which still stands today on the east side of lower Manhattan (connecting it with Brooklyn), is a cable suspension bridge that was completed in 1883. It was remarkable at its time, and heralded in many new suspension bridges to span across other American waterways. Soon the Brooklyn Bridge enabled the transportation of 33 million persons a year, and that was before the arrival of automobiles!
Not every invention was American, but often the Americans ("Yankees") are best at making a creation practical and most productive. Henry Bessemer of England invented a means for converting molten pig iron into valuable steel, which was called the "Bessemer process." The process removes impurities from the molten iron by oxidizing it with air that is blown through it. In the 1870s Americans built steel mills, particularly in Pennsylvania, to take advantage of this process and produce large quantities of steel. Those steel mills brought wealth to Pennsylvania for a century, until cheaper labor in Asia and a lack of protective tariffs drove the American mills out of business, leaving Pennsylvania depressed today.
The "Gilded Age"
Not everyone was completely pleased with the booming prosperity of the United States in the decades after the Civil War. A popular writer and humorist from Missouri, whose pen name was "Mark Twain" (his real name was Samue Clemens), criticized the decades after the Civil War by calling them the "Gilded Age."
He described this era (from the end of the Civil War through the 1880s) as "gilded" because it appeared golden, but beneath the shiny surface was greed, corruption and hardship. Mark Twain even wrote a novel by that name, in which Washington, D.C., was run by greedy businessmen and corrupt government officials. (Mark Twain wrote several other influential novels, including "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," describing a fictional journey on a raft on the Mississippi).
In real life, the Gilded Age featured "robber barons," who were people who became extremely wealthy through ruthless business practices. The worst "robber baron" was Jay Gould, a financier on Wall Street who committed rampant fraud by printing false stock certificates to defraud investors. He even tried to corner the gold market in 1869. That led to a financial panic known as Black Friday. After Gould drove up the price of gold by hoarding it, President Grant learned of the scheme and started selling the government gold reserves on the market to cause the price to fall. The price of gold then fell sharply, and many lost their savings. Gould, however, had sold out at the highest price to make the biggest profit!
There were also phenomenal business successes during this era. Andrew Carnegie immigrated from Scotland without any money and ended up with massive wealth from founding the Carnegie Steel Co. (later became U.S. Steel Co.). He amassed a fortune that he then donated to build structures like Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, and the enormous New York Public Library (plus 2800 other public libraries). He wrote the "Gospel of Wealth" in 1900 to describe his vision of capitalism.
Debate: it wasn't the "Gilded Age," it was the "Golden Age!" Agree?
Debate: do you support "caveat emptor," or do you prefer government regulation of monopolies and robber barons?
The Election of 1880
The marvelous inventions of the 1870s led up to a very interesting presidential election in 1880. The race of 1876 had been a virtual tie, and the general election in 1880 was nearly as close, with only 10,000 separating the winner (the Republican) from the loser (the Democrat).
The Republican Party had a difficult time choosing its nominee for president. There was an historic stalemate and deadlock during the Republican National Convention when the delegates attempted to make a selection. Former President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to become president again, despite having served two terms. His main rival was a powerful Republican Senator from Maine, James Blaine. A third candidate, John Sherman of Ohio, also ran. None was able to obtain a majority of the delegates despite dozens of ballots (mini-elections) cast by the delegates. James Garfield went to the convention without any desire to be considered for president, and sought to support his fellow Ohioan John Sherman.
The big issue in 1880 was the "spoils system," which was an important part of the political "machines" common at the time. The view of many politicians, from President Andrew Jackson to President Ulysses S. Grant, was that the victor in an election should be able to "clean house" and install his supporters in the new Administration. Under the "spoils system" or "patronage system," the winner of an election gets to hand out government jobs to his supporters. "To the victors go the spoils," is the famous saying for this.
The "Stalwarts" in the Republican Party favored the spoils system, whereby the new president would fire the holdovers from the prior Administration, and everyone in the new Administration would then be in agreement with the new leader. These Stalwarts included former Radical Republicans. Opposed to the Stalwarts were moderates like Blaine and Garfield, who wanted a civil service system where a government employee would keep his job even after a new leader is elected. They sought so-called "reform" of the spoils system to stop the corruption that a spoils system might lead to.
After many "ballots" (mini-elections) among the delegates at the 1880 Republican National Convention, Blaine realized he could not win. He and Sherman then withdrew their candidacies and threw their support behind a "dark horse" candidate, James Garfield. At first Garfield refused to be a candidate, but delegates elected (nominated) him anyway, on the 36th ballot! The delegates had met for days in a hot summer convention center in Chicago, without air conditioning, and debated and voted 36 times before nominating James Garfield, who was a former Union general and a current Republican congressman.
But Stalwarts, like a powerful Republican Party Senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling, supported the "spoils system" and opposed Garfield and Blaine over it. To appease the Stalwarts and try to earn their support, Garfield picked a Stalwart, Chester Arthur, as his running mate (Vice President).
President Garfield, however, did not compromise after he was sworn into office. He appointed an anti-Stalwart rival of Senator Conkling to run the New York Customs House, which was a key position that Conkling thought he would be appointed to. Garfield insulted Conkling in order to establish that the president had control over these positions based on merit, rather than based on patronage that benefited senators.
Furious, Conkling opposed this nomination of his rival, and tried to block it in the U.S. Senate. Conkling even arranged for the Senate to confirm all of Garfield's other nominations except this one; Garfield responded by withdrawing all those other nominations except the one that Conkling opposed! This forced the other senators to choose between Conkling and all the other nominees, who were friends of other senators. Conkling, having been checkmated politically, resigned in protest in the expectation that he would be reappointed by the New York legislature to his position. Fed up, however, the New York legislature refused to reappoint him (in those days U.S. Senators were picked by the legislatures rather than elected by the people), and Conkling was gone from the Senate. The issue had thereby been resolved in Garfield's favor and against the Stalwarts.
But then tragedy struck Garfield. On July 2, 1881, in a railroad station in Washington, D.C., an embittered attorney, who had unsuccessfully sought a consular post, shot President Garfield. Garfield then lived for several weeks as experts from around the country examined his wound, and tried to get the bullet out. Garfield even asked Alexander Graham Bell to develop a device (an induction-balance electrical gadget) to find the bullet. Nothing worked, and all the doctors who probed Garfield's wound had the effect of infecting him. This was before doctors took better care to sterilize instruments and wash their hands to kill the germs.
Garfield was removed to the "Jersey Shore" (ocean-front property along the coast of New Jersey) to recuperate. This helped at first, but ultimately an infection in the wound killed him on September 19, 1881, when he died from an internal hemorrhage.
The assassination shocked the country and discredited the Stalwarts. Vice President Chester Arthur, who was Garfield's running mate in order to appease the Stalwarts, had never been elected to any public office before, and was never elected to one afterward either! He had been an abolitionist and a New York attorney. Historians view him as being ineffective as a president, which is not surprising given his lack of experience for the position.
The Democratic Party next won big in the congressional elections of 1882, by advocating reform of the patronage or "spoils system." President Arthur then abandoned the Stalwarts and established a civil service system whereby the victor cannot fire and replace government workers with his supporters. Specifically, President Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Act in 1883, which established an examination system for federal jobs. It also established the Civil Service Commission, which is a bipartisan committee to administer federal exams. Those who supported "reform" of the government employment system declared victory.
Debate: Do you support a "spoils system" or a "civil service system"?
The Grange Movement
Not everyone in America was happy with Republican dominance in the White House, or with unregulated free enterprise in the economy. Many farmers, for example, felt that railroads were charging prices that were too high. From 1867 to 1874, there was a political movement for States to regulate the prices charged by railroads, which was led by "Granger" politicians. A leader in the "Grange Movement" was Oliver Kelley, a former official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Initially the "Grange" (the short name for the farmers in the Grange Movement) was devoted to social gatherings and educational programs for farmers, who otherwise had a somewhat isolated and tedious lifestyle.
In many ways, farmers in the 1870s were like homeschoolers today: divided and lacking in political force. The Grange Movement attempted to change that. When there was a financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873, the Grange surged in popularity among farmers who had too much debt and faced expensive rates to ship their goods on the railroads. Popularity grew in the farm States of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and the Grangers were able to pass "Granger laws" to regulate the railroads and storage facilities for the benefit of farmers.
The Grange Movement reached its zenith (peak) in 1875. It then began to decline as its activists started other organizations: the Greenback Party (in the 1870s), the Farmers' Alliances (in the 1880s) and the Populist Party (in the 1890s, which eventually joined with the Democratic Party).
Debate: Do you think government should be able to set the rates charged by railroads and other "public facilities"?
- The second longest time period of peace in American history was between the end of the War of 1812 (in 1815) and the beginning of the Mexican War (in 1846), a period of 31 years. See http://americanhistory.about.com/library/timelines/bltimelineuswars.htm
- A daguerreotype is an early type of photographic imaging done directly onto a silver surface.
- Art. I, Sec. 8, http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.articlei.html#section8
- Specifically, the teacher thought that Edison's brain had been "scrambled" or "addled".
- From "The Heroes Of The Age: Electricity And Man," http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html
- In 1879, Edison invented the light bulb in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where there is a monument to his honor and a small museum. By 1882, Edison was able to light up New York City, and by 1898 there were 3,000 electrical generators nationwide.