American History Lecture Nine

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Lecture - Questions

In the late 1800s the United States was still admitting new states almost as fast as they could form. For example, in 1896 Utah was admitted as a new state. That was the territory settled by Mormons after they migrated from Illinois. As a condition of admission to the United States, Utah agreed to accept only traditional marriage and to ban the practice of polygamy (multiple wives for one husband).

Also in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial segregation in railroads, schools, and other public facilities was fully constitutional, under the "separate but equal" doctrine. This was the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, and it is considered one of the worst judicial decisions ever. It remained the law until it was overturned in 1954 by another Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which then began the process of integration in many public schools. Hence from 1896 to 1954 many public schools, particularly in the South, were segregated by the skin color of the students such that most public schools in the South (and many in the North) were comprised of either all-white or all-black students.


1938 sign in an Ohio restaurant window excluding blacks

So-called "Jim Crow" laws were passed throughout the South after the Civil War to segregate (separate) blacks from whites in schools, restaurants, neighborhoods, theaters, transportation, and drinking fountains, and also to interfere with the right to vote by the former slaves. The name "Jim Crow" comes from a show performed on stage in the 1800s whereby a white man pretended to be black, by wearing "blackface" makeup and mocking blacks based on stereotypes of that time. Today such performances and any use of "blackface" makeup to pretend to be black is considered offensive and racist.

Segregation by race was also common in the North, and it is incorrect to pretend that racism occurred only in the South. The photo to the right shows a restaurant in Ohio which posted a sign in 1938 saying it wanted only white customers. For roughly a century after the Civil War no federal law prohibited discrimination by private businesses, and it was unclear whether Congress even had authority under the Constitution to ban private discrimination. It was not until 1964 that Congress passed a Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination by restaurants, hotels, transportation, employers, and other businesses which affect interstate commerce in any way. Private clubs which are not businesses, such as country clubs, sometimes continued to discriminate in the North and the South, and are still generally beyond the authority of Congress under the Constitution.


Once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Eads bridge was completed in 1874, and the prosperity of the United States skyrocketed in this post-Civil War era, enormous wealth was created by the railroads in transporting goods and people nationwide.

Cornelius Vanderbilt became the second richest man in world history, after John D. Rockefeller (discussed below). Many decades earlier, beginning at the age of only 11, Vanderbilt quit school in order to work with his father to transport cargo and people by ferry boat between Staten Island and Manhattan. Through tremendous hard work and shrewd business practices he amassed a fortune which culminated in his ownership and management of several railroad lines. He built Grand Central Station in Manhattan, which is a railroad terminal for millions of travelers today.

It was not until the age of 70 that Vanderbilt expanded his fortune by focusing heavily on the growing importance of the railroads. First he acquired the New York & Harlem and Hudson Line, and then obtained control of the New York Central Railroad through the kind of ruthless business tactic that was common in that era when there were few regulations and little intervention by courts. A very cold winter had frozen the Erie Canal, and Vanderbilt refused to accept passengers or freight from New York Central Railroad in order to sever its connection to the western destination of its passengers and freight. Stranded by the being cut off from necessary destinations, that railroad then capitulated to Vanderbilt's demands that he be allowed to buy a controlling interest in New York Central Railroad, and from that position he was able to control much of railroad transportation from New York City to Chicago.

The Biltmore Estate of the Vanderbilt family in North Carolina, still the largest private home in the United States having 250 rooms and nearly 179,000 square feet

Vanderbilt himself was a crude, unrefined man who was never accepted by the elite in high society. He donated relatively little to charity, with the exception of his donation to the Methodist Church in Tennessee which was used to build Vanderbilt University. Instead Vanderbilt left almost his entire fortune to his eldest son, giving relatively little even to the rest of his many children.

But Vanderbilt is credited with establishing the foundation for modern transportation today, with trains that ran on time and served the public both in carrying freight and passengers. He used new technologies in a shrewd and sometimes merciless way, while devising methods of business organization which are still being used successfully.

Big Business and Big Oil

The railroads and grain elevators were not the only types of "big business" that began to generate wealth while also aggravating ordinary Americans. The biggest and wealthiest business of all, perhaps in the entire history of mankind, was built by John D. Rockefeller to control the production and supply of oil.

Oil has been used since the Ancient Greeks learned to pour it into the sea and then set fire to it in order to defend against attacking fleets of ships. Noah may have used thick oil (called "pitch") to waterproof Noah's ark. Moses' basket may have been made waterproof using oil, just as American Indians used it to waterproof canoes.[1]

But the first modern oil well was in Pennsylvania, when Colonel Edwin L. Drake drilled down 72 feet near Titusville (just east of Pittsburgh) and struck "Oil Creek." Oil production began there in 1859. That oil sold for $40 a barrel then, compared with only about $50 now (this price fluctuates daily in the free market). But because of all the inflation since 1859, a dollar was worth far more in 1859 than today, and thus oil was much more expensive then. Oil was first used for medicine, as there were no cars yet.[1]

A devout Christian who abandoned public high school before finishing,[2] John D. Rockefeller had just started his first job a few years earlier. He developed a tremendous work ethic, and was immediately attracted to the discovery of oil in 1859. He quickly entered the business and worked with an inventor who knew how to cheaply refine the oil into something usable. By 1870 Rockefeller founded Standard Oil Company, and then began pursuing highly aggressive business tactics to drive out competitors and consolidate his control (monopolize the industry).[3]

In 1882, Rockefeller formed a new type of business entity called the "trust", and named it the Standard Oil Trust of Ohio. But ten years later a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court forced him to break up his Trust into 20 smaller businesses. In 1899 he formed a holding company for all his businesses in the name of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. By 1911 it controlled an astounding 95% of the entire oil industry, but then the U.S. Supreme Court forced Rockefeller to break up it up into smaller pieces and separately controlled companies, one of which became Exxon. Rockefeller then retired and devoted the remainder of his long life to philanthropy (giving away his money to charitable causes).[3]

Rockefeller became perhaps the wealthiest man in the history of the world. Predictably, people grew jealous of him, and his competitors sometimes lost their businesses. Many politicians were determined to break up his huge company, and many critics accused him or his employees of engaging in illegal activities, even bribes, to build his business empire. But other industries began to follow his example, and large industrial companies formed "trusts" (a type of monopoly) to control sugar, lead, beef and even whiskey.

Congress ultimately passed the Sherman Act (sometimes called the "Sherman Antitrust Act") to prohibit monopolization and "restraint of trade" beginning in 1890. This law was sponsored by Senator John Sherman of Ohio (a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880 and the brother of General William Sherman). The Sherman Act was not what broke up Rockefeller's oil empire, because in 1895 the Supreme Court weakened the law by upholding a powerful Sugar Trust, in U.S. v. Knight Co. The Sugar Trust controlled 98% of the sugar market, and the Supreme Court allowed it to continue. Despite being weakened, the Sherman Act remains a very important law that is used frequently today. Some complain that "Big Tech" (e.g., Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) are monopolies which should be broken up under the Sherman Act.

The controversy about Rockefeller and monopolies divides free enterprise thinkers. Some insist that the free market itself will cause the breakup of monopolies as appropriate. Others say that monopolies are an impediment to free market competition and should be broken up by the government before they cause more damage, and without waiting until the forces of the free market break them up.

Debate: Should government break up monopolies?

Rockefeller was part of a huge economic boom that began before the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and continued through 1900. There was a massive increase then in America's "gross domestic product" (GDP), which is the total output (in dollars) of all the goods and services produced by labor and property located our country. The GDP measures how much our entire country is producing, valued in dollars. When we are prosperous the GDP increases, and when we are in a recession the GDP goes down or does not increase as much. A depression is a severe, prolonged contraction in the GDP, along with high unemployment and immense hardship. Since 1854, there have been 33 recessions, but only one depression (the Great Depression which began with the stock market crash in 1929).

By the late 1800s the wealthiest city in the United States was Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which was the center of the profitable lumber industry because a canal connected it to logging from rich Pennsylvania forests so that numerous massive logs could be converted at sawmills into usable lumber. Now Williamsport is best known for hosting the Little League World Series each year!


Under the Grant Administration, gold was the basis for money: debts were payable in gold, and paper money could be traded in at any time for a fixed amount of gold. This prevented inflation because the amount of gold in the world has always been very small and nearly constant. All of the gold ever discovered in the history of the world totals only 9,800 cubic meters, which is less than the size of four Olympic-sized swimming pools. The scarcity and nearly unchanging supply of gold makes it nearly impossible to lose its monetary value, although speculators can drive its price up or down in the free market today. The "gold standard" is an expression today which refers to any highly respect standard in any field, not just money.

From about 1878 until the end of the century there was strong pressure to return the nation's standard for money to Alexander Hamilton's "bimetallism", under which money and debts were based on two metals rather than one (gold and silver). When gold was the only standard during the Grant Administration, advocating "bimetallism" meant adding a silver standard to the gold standard.

Two forces drove this pro-silver or "free silver" movement: Westerners had discovered silver mines, so they wanted the silver to become more valuable, and farmers wanted to cause inflation to increase the prices for their goods while lowering the real cost of their debts to the banks.

Westerns and Southerners arranged for passage of the Bland-Allison Act in 1878, which required the government to purchase $2-4 million worth of silver each month. In addition, a bill passed (over President Rutherford Hayes' veto) allowing for the free and unlimited coinage by the government of silver, such as silver dollars, at a value of 16-to-1 relative to gold (16 ounces of silver were worth 1 ounce of gold). The government began minting silver dollars that are collectors' items today (and worth much more than one dollar now).

But the price of silver fell as more was mined, because an increase in supply of something usually makes it less valuable. The monthly government purchases declined also. Deflation continued for the next ten years. $84.43 in 1890 could buy the same goods which cost $100 to buy in 1878. Imagine that! Deflation is devastating to farmers, as their income from milk and beef and other farm products decreases, while their debts grow higher in real value. Meanwhile, those who had cash, such as bankers, became wealthier during deflation: their same amount of cash could buy more goods and bigger homes due to deflation.

Westerners wanted more silver purchased, and the debtors and farmers wanted inflation. They forced passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890, which required even greater purchases by the government of silver. The Silver Purchase Act required the government to issue notes (like large-denomination dollar bills) to purchase 4.4 million ounces of silver each month, regardless of its value in dollars. The bill passed in a compromise with the Northerners, who obtained a high tariff for the benefit of their manufacturing at the same time through passage of the McKinley Tariff Bill.

The paper notes used to buy the silver each month were redeemable in gold, which was more valuable than the increasingly plentiful silver. So pretty soon the public was demanding gold from the government in return for these new notes. This created a "run" on the government's gold reserves of our nation, with its total supply falling below $100 million and headed quickly towards zero.

This developed into the Panic of 1893, and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in order to stop the run on gold. An immensely wealthy Wall Street banker, J.P. Morgan, arranged for more gold to be imported from Europe to protect the government reserves. The "run" on the government's gold reserves then stopped.

There was a bestselling and influential pamphlet called Coin's Financial School which was published just after the panic and economic depression of 1893. In this fictional work, professor Coin lectures gold-standard advocates on the benefits of monetizing silver at a 16:1 ratio. The pamphlet swept the country, much as Thomas Paine's Common Sense had been so influential over a century earlier. Coin's pamphlet laid the foundation for William Jennings Bryan's "Free Silver" presidential campaign in 1896 against pro-gold Republican William McKinley. Bryan, one of the greatest orators in history, delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1896:[4]

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it. ...
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Reporters wrote that Bryan's remarkable speaking style for this speech "came like one great burst of artillery" and that "some, like demented things, divested themselves of their coats and flung them high in the air." Bryan was then selected on the next day, by the delegates who heard his speech, as the Democratic nominee for president.[4]

Unions and Immigrant Workers

As the American economy grew, and businesses became more profitable, workers began to band together and "unionize" (create "unions"). A union is a group of workers at a factory or business who join together in order to negotiate better wages and working conditions. They acquire power through their collective action, by threatening to strike if the owner does not give in to their demands. In the early 1800s there were no unions and no strikes, but by the late 1800s workers began to see that they could increase their wages and improve their conditions by forming unions and threatening to strike. Today, Walmart does everything it can to keep its workers from unionizing, and union organizations despise it for that reason.

Factory owners responded by hiring Chinese workers at lower wages, and unions objected to that. Factory owners would also import Chinese workers to "break a strike," and keep the factory operating despite the refusal of the regular employees to work. So quickly the unions became opposed to immigration from China.

From 1877 to 1880, the Workingmen's Party developed for ordinary workers. It was socialistic (against capitalism) and opposed to immigration from China. Its leader was Dennis Kearney, who was actually imprisoned for his provocative speeches. (Today the broad interpretation of the First Amendment prohibits such imprisonments.)

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted as a culmination of growing opposition to Chinese immigrants, who were thought to lower wages for workers. This Act banned the Chinese from immigrating to the United States, and was not repealed until 1943 when America sought Chinese cooperation in the war against Japan.

Some cities passed laws to frustrate efforts by Chinese to operate businesses in competition with Americans. San Francisco, for example, passed a law requiring laundries to be in only expensive stone or brick buildings, which made it more difficult for the Chinese to open laundry businesses. But Chinese Americans challenged that law and took it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which invalidated the law and gave the victory to the Chinese immigrants in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886).

In 1886, Samuel Gompers formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in order to demand limiting the workday to 8 hours and stop employers who required longer workdays. Initially this was a non-political organization, not aligned with either political party. By 1901 it had 1 million members. The Knights of Labor, another labor group in the 1880s, had 700,000 members at that time. So these labor groups were quite large.

In 1886, workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. in Chicago began a strike in the hopes of shortening the workday to 8 hours. The company tried to break the strike by using new workers, and police were called in to protect the new workers. A fight broke out and one person was killed.

Anarchists were anti-civilization extremists who sided with the unions, and the anarchists planned a large rally the next day to protest the alleged police brutality. They expected 20,000 to show up at the public Haymarket Square in Chicago, but actually only 1500 to 2000 attended, with the police there also. At one point a protester threw a pipe bomb at the policemen, and its explosion killed seven policemen and injured more than 60 others. The police then fired into the crowd, and killed four.

Eight anarchists were tried for conspiracy to commit murder; seven were convicted, and four were hanged in November 1887. This was a huge embarrassment for the union movement, which did include many socialists and anarchists. It caused a delay in acceptance of the eight-hour workday, and many workers left the Knights of Labor to join the more moderate American Federation of Labor.[5]

Despite the fact that radicals killed policemen in the Haymarket Square riots, in 1969 radicals (including future President Barack Obama's friend Bill Ayers) detonated a bomb to destroy a statute honoring the fallen policemen. The mayor of Chicago correctly criticized it as an attack on law and order.[6]

Another violent conflict involving striking workers occurred near Pittsburgh in 1892, called the Homestead Strike. Guards hired by wealthy businessman Andrew Carnegie suppressed a strike by workers, and ten were killed in the conflict.

The most aggressive leader of the labor movement was Eugene V. Debs, who headed the American Railway Union (railroad workers). Debs was jailed for leading a strike against Pullman railroad cars in 1894 over wages. In 1895, in a case entitled In re Debs, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld judicial power to prohibit strikes against railroads, and upheld the power of courts to jail those who disobey court orders and engage in strikes anyway (as Debs had).

Debate: Are Unions a Good Thing?

Indians and the Frontier

Conflicts with the Indians peaked with "Custer's Last Stand" in 1876 (its official name is the "Battle of the Little Bighorn"). There were subsequently bloody battles in 1877 between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce, an Indian tribe led by Chief Joseph in Oregon and Idaho. This tribe did better against the U.S. Army than other tribes had, but ultimately this tribe was relocated to Oklahoma just as many others had been. Today Oklahoma has by far the largest Indian population (by percentage) of any State.

New York Times' article (July 6, 1876) describing Custer's Last Stand, and calling Indians "savages" which would be considered racist today

In honor of the presence of the Nez Perce Indian tribe in the northwest before they were moved, there are now 38 national historic sites in remembrance of them in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho,[7] which are frequently visited by tourists.

In 1881, a book was published that attempted to do for the Native Americans what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for African Americans. Called A Century of Dishonor, it complained about and exposed unjust treatment of Indians by the United States. Its author was Helen Hunt Jackson.

In 1887, partly in reaction to this book, Congress enacted the Dawes Act to help Indians. This law granted landholdings (allotments, usually 160 acres or 65 hectares) to individual Native Americans, which replaced communal tribal holdings. In other words, this law attempted to convert the tribal structure of Indian life into the individualized private property system used by Europeans and most Americans. It sought to absorb tribe members into the general public.

This law was a complete failure. Within decades most of the tribal land had been transferred into ownership by non-Indians, and the Indians were worse off than they were before. This was an example of government trying to make something better, but actually making it worse.

In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier was settled and officially closed. The era of frontier America, which first began with the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, and then spread westward for nearly 300 years, was finally over. Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893 that frontier experience had promoted individualism and democracy.

By the end of 1890, 44 States had been admitted to the United States. The only States that were not yet admitted into the United States were Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii. They joined later.

Tariffs and an Income Tax

Recall that the tariffs were a cause of the Civil War: the North wanted higher protective tariffs, while the South opposed them. The Civil War resolved the dispute over slavery, but it did not resolve the dispute over tariffs. After the War, the North still supported higher tariffs and the South still opposed them. The West, particularly farmers, also opposed higher tariffs.

In 1890, the McKinley Tariff established the highest tariffs ever, but in a compromise it did make sugar "duty free" (no tariff on sugar). Other than sugar, prices increased on goods and products due to the higher tariffs. These higher tariffs reflected the continued dominance by the Republican Party, which controlled the White House in 1890 (Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison, was president). Partly due to public outrage over the higher tariffs, the Democratic Party won many seats in Congress in the 1890 elections after the McKinley Tariff was enacted.

In 1894, the Wilson-Gorman Tariff and Income Tax Act passed, which added an income tax along with increased tariffs. But in the lawsuit Pollack v. Farmers Loan and Trust Company, the Supreme Court declared the Income Tax Act unconstitutional because it did not apportion the tax by population as required by the Constitution.[8][9] The Supreme Court decision required a constitutional amendment (the 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913) to be passed before allowing a direct taxation based purely on income without regard for population. In the 1900s the income tax replaced tariffs as the primary source of funding for the federal government.

The Conservative Democrat

After Chester Arthur served out the presidential term for the late James Garfield, Republicans were so unhappy with Arthur that they did not renominate him. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party -- which had not won a presidential election in nearly 30 years -- turned to a conservative candidate from the then-Republican State of New York: Grover Cleveland. The Democrats hoped that by nominating the conservative Grover Cleveland they could pick up some Republican support and finally win a presidential election.

His opponent was the Republican Senator James Blaine from Maine, who was a liberal (or a "moderate"). Blaine is best known today for his opposition to funding by States of religiously affiliated schools (and particularly Catholic schools). In 1875, Blaine tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit States from providing any funding to religiously affiliated elementary and high schools. When that failed, his "Blaine Amendment" was incorporated into 37 State Constitutions, where they remain today and frustrate school voucher programs.[10] A referendum in Florida in 2012 to repeal the Blaine Amendment in the Florida Constitution (and enable full school vouchers) failed by a vote of 56-44% (in Florida, a 60% approval is needed to change its state constitution). Since the late 1960s voters in seven additional states have also rejected attempts to remove Blaine amendments from their state constitutions: New York, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma.

Some key eastern Republicans opposed James Blaine in 1884 due to scandals, and supported Grover Cleveland for president instead. These Republicans were known as the "Mugwumps"; they felt Blaine could not be trusted, and they were probably right! The defection by the Mugwumps to support Cleveland enabled him to win his key home state of New York, despite its Republican tradition at the time. (Today New York is mostly Democratic rather than Republican.)

This strategy of the Democrats, aided by division within the Republican Party, worked. Cleveland was elected president in 1884 for his integrity and his support of multiple Republican political positions: the gold standard, opposition to unions, opposition to government spending, and support of free enterprise. Cleveland was the most conservative president since James Monroe, even though Cleveland was a Democrat.

Cleveland did as he said he would. He vetoed a record number of bills passed by Congress, mostly concerning pensions for Civil War veterans. Cleveland was frugal like most conservatives, and did not want more government spending.

In 1888, Cleveland faced a new Republican challenger for president, Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won more votes, but Harrison won more electoral college votes and thereby won this close election. Harrison, who was from Indiana and enjoyed the popularity of and sympathy for his grandfather (who had been president before dying after only one month in office). Benjamin Harrison favored protective tariffs and increasing veterans' pay.

Grover Cleveland came back for a rematch in the presidential election of 1892, and beat Harrison that time. But then he was faced with the financial Panic of 1893, during which hundreds of banks and businesses failed. President Cleveland was criticized for doing nothing, but refusing to bail out the banks is a conservative solution. In fall 2008, President Bush and Congress did bail out the banks, in contrast with Cleveland's conservative approach.

The Panic of 1893 caused a wealthy Ohio populist who had been hurt by it to lead a march on Washington, D.C., setting a precedent for "marching on Washington." Jacob Coxey promised to gather 10,000, but by the time he arrived in D.C. "Coxey's Army" consisted of only 500 people, which was still enough to attract attention. But the conservative Cleveland held his ground:[11]

Upon arriving in Washington, Coxey and his supporters demanded that the federal government immediately assist workers by hiring them to work on public projects such as roads and government buildings. The United States Congress and President Grover Cleveland refused. Law enforcement officials arrested Coxey for trespassing on public property. Coxey's Army quickly dispersed upon its leader's arrest.

Historians cite this march on Washington as an example of how Americans increasingly looked to the national government to solve all their problems.

Cleveland also held his ground against problems instigated by unions. He put down ("broke") the Pullman Strike against the railroads in Chicago in 1894.

In case you are wondering, Grover Cleveland was only a distant relative of the General Moses Cleaveland, after whom the city of Cleveland was named. Many presidents have had common, easy-to-remember names, such as "Jackson" and "Adams" and "Wilson" and "Bush" ... and now "Trump".

Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat to win a presidential election between 1857 and 1911 -- more than a half-century -- because Southern Democrats were generally blamed for being a cause of the Civil War.

Preparing for the "Turn of the Century"

Social movements in the late 1800s also occurred, preparing the nation for the turn of the century (that is, the beginning of the 20th century):

  • Women's rights: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was pro-life, founded National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 and, before that, led the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. This foreshadowed the women's suffrage movement in the early 20th century to obtain a constitutional right to vote for all women, which ultimately became the 19th Amendment as ratified in 1920.
  • Women in government: The Hull House was founded by Jane Addams in Chicago in 1889, and it grew into a city-based social movement that argued for reform of city government by increased involvement of women. It is still active today.[12]
  • City government: The National Municipal League was founded in 1894 in order to make city government more honest, efficient and effective. It is active today under the new name of the National Civic League.
  • Self-improvement: the Chautauqua Movement, founded in New York in 1874, was a part of a "knowledge revolution" devoted to promoting adult education (along with some entertainment!). This foreshadowed the adult learning programs of the 20th century, and educational conferences held today in connection with political movements.
  • Hawaii: the United States dethroned the Hawaii leader Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, because she recognized only natives on the islands and opposed joining the United States. Nearly 50 years later an attack on Hawaii by the Japanese would force the United States into World War II.
  • Imperialism: Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote books beginning in 1890 on American sea power, urging a strong navy and imperialism by United States. This foreshadowed American imperialism around 1900.
  • Racial accommodation: Booker T. Washington, a self-taught former slave, urged an approach of self-help and accommodation in order to improve conditions for African Americans. He founded the Tuskegee Institute for research and gave a famous speech in 1895 to the Atlanta Exposition, in which he urged a racially diverse audience to cooperate and accommodate each other. This foreshadowed a later division in the African American community between a conciliatory and a confrontational approach.
  • Prohibition (of alcohol): the Women's Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 by women in order to combat the problems that alcohol caused in their families and society. The WCTU sought nationwide "prohibition" (of alcohol), and eventually obtained it early in the 20th century as the 18th Amendment (which was later repealed by the 21st Amendment). Even today there are some regions of the country (such as some rural counties) that are "dry" (do not allow any alcohol to be sold there).
  • Skyscraper: Midwest architecture developed the skyscraper in 1885 with the 10-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, followed by the Wainwright Building in St. Louis in 1891.[13] From there the skyscraper spread to New York City in 1902 with the Flatiron Building, and many dozens of skyscrapers there today.

Election of 1896

As explained earlier in this Lecture, William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination in 1896 with a stirring, but perhaps misguided, speech entitled the "Cross of Gold," which advocated use of silver. He united the Populist Party with the Democratic Party by opposing high tariffs, and he ran and lost for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Despite losing repeatedly, he was the single most influential person in the Democratic Party for two decades, and helped secure the Democratic nomination (and election) of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Bryan then served as the Secretary of State under Wilson, until Bryan became the first and only Secretary of State to resign entirely based on principle: his moral opposition to World War I.

Bryan was someone who might be called a "Christian fundamentalist" today. He adhered to the teachings of the Bible, he supported Prohibition (the banning of alcohol), and he opposed teaching in public schools that humans were somehow the result of evolution. Bryan also opposed imperialism by the United States. He had many opponents in the more liberal newspapers, particularly later in life, but no one doubted that he was a man of strong principles. We will return to his career in a future lecture when we discuss the 1920s.

The Populist Party no longer exists today but it had an enormous influence on the development of the United States. Its platform included demands for the secret ballot, the direct election of senators, the right of citizens to have referenda or initiatives to change their state laws directly (New Jersey voters just passed two laws on Election Day), reforms of banks, and a "graduated" income tax that charges a higher percentage of wealthy people than of poor people. All of these ideas eventually became law. The Populist Party was also pro-silver and argued for a government takeover of the railroads. Many farmers supported the Populist Party, which reached its zenith (peak in power) in the 1890s. It disappeared because economic conditions improved and because it took an unpopular position against the Spanish-American War (notice how wars often end the life of political parties, as the War of 1812 ended the Federalist Party).

The Republican Party recaptured the White House in 1896, as a Republican from Ohio named William McKinley was elected. His Irish name helped attract support of large numbers of Scotch-Irish immigrants. McKinley favored the gold standard. But after being reelected in 1900, McKinley was assassinated in 1901 in Buffalo by an unemployed anarchist. A 96-foot tall obelisk (a mini-Washington Monument) was then built in the center of the Buffalo to honor McKinley. A 42-year-old Teddy Roosevelt, his Vice President, then became the youngest President in American history and held power until 1908.


As the United States became more powerful in the late 1800s, and particularly in the 1890s, we began to "flex our muscle" and exert influence over small foreign countries. This influence by a large, developed country over a smaller, less-developed one is known as "imperialism". We were getting bigger and more powerful. Thanks to Manifest Destiny, we had expanded to the Pacific Ocean. Many then felt, why stop there? The United States next took Hawaii, an island paradise in the Pacific Ocean, in the 1890s.

Next Americans started wanting to free Cuba from Spanish control, and newspapers got into this act. "Yellow journalism" consisted of newspapers increasing their sales by stirring up a desire to go to war. The term was named after a popular comic strip called the "Yellow Kid."

In the 1890s the two leading publishers were Joseph Pulitzer, who published the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, who published the New York Journal. They were in a "circulation war," with each running more and more sensational headlines to try to sell more papers. The result of their greed for influence and revenue was the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.

In 1895, some Cubans wanted to become independent from Spain. Americans seemed to like the idea. It would push Spain back to Europe. This idea also sparked idealism, reminding people of our own American Revolution. Big Business like the idea too, because it saw ways to profit from the island. So newspapers whipped the public into the mood for war, which the United States had not experienced since the Civil War, more than 30 years earlier.

Spanish-American War

Two specific events triggered this war: the Spanish minister to the U.S., Enrique Dubuy de Lome, wrote a secret letter insulting our president, William McKinley, by calling him a "low politician." Cuban rebels intercepted it and leaked it to the press. The second event was an explosion on the battleship "Maine" in the Havana, Cuba harbor. The ship sunk, and immediately the press blamed Spain. In fact, the explosion was probably merely an accident.

As a result of newspaper sensationalism about these events, the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, and began fighting them in the Spanish colonies of the Philippines and Cuba. The Teller Amendment added to the congressional war declaration a promise of self-determination ("freedom") for Cuba.

Victory for America was swift in Cuba, and it produced a future president: Theodore Roosevelt and his "Rough Riders." They heroically conquered a hill during brief fighting in Cuba, which was nothing compared to John McCain's 7 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but the media played up Roosevelt's conquest as much as possible.

The fighting in the Philippines was much fiercer, and cost far more lives and money. In 1898, Commander George Dewey snuck into Manila Bay in Philippines and destroyed the entire Spanish Pacific Fleet. The United States thereby defeated Spain quickly there, but some Muslim natives of the Philippines and surrounding areas intensely rebelled for three years, using "guerrilla" or terrorist tactics that became more familiar to the world a century later.

This type of unrelenting resistance was a precursor to the difficult Vietnam War, and fighting terrorists in the 21st century. Finally, the United States Army simply killed nearly all the Filipino insurgents who continued to attack Americans. But Muslim fighting to establish Islam as the primary religion in the Philippines and neighboring territory continues to this day.[14]

After the fighting stopped in the Philippines, the issue was presented to President McKinley as to what to do with the territory. Newspapers opposed an American return of the Philippines to Spain, fearing Spain would mistreat the Filipino people. President McKinley agreed with the newspapers and kept the Philippines as an American territory. It remained a U.S. territory until 1946, when the United States granted it independence shortly after World War II.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States granted Cuba independence on the condition that it insert the "Platt Amendment" into its constitution. This Amendment gave the U.S. the right to intercede in Cuba whenever necessary, and allowed the U.S. to keep a naval base (called Guantanamo Bay) on the island. More than a century later, the Bush Administration imprisoned terrorists there after they were captured in Afghanistan following 9/11, and liberals have complained about continued use of that facility for this purpose. President Obama promised to move these suspected terrorists to United States jails and try them in American courts, but public opposition to his plan prevented this from happening.

The Treaty of Paris in 1898 ended the Spanish-American War with Spain leaving Cuba, the United States buying the Philippines for $20 million dollars from Spain, and the United States also acquiring Guam and Puerto Rico as territories which remain part of the U.S. to this day.

Debate: Was our imperialism driven by business interests, such as sugar in Cuba and Philippines? Many critics said so, calling our foreign policy "dollar diplomacy" (diplomacy motivated by profit-making).

More Imperialism

More "imperialism" by the United States continued after the Spanish-American War. In 1899, an "Open Door Policy" with China provided for open, free trade by all nations, which boosted world trade with China and ended "spheres of influence" by which a western country would claim exclusive influence over certain regions of that vast country.

But anti-imperialism violence struck back in 1900 in China. Called the "Boxer Rebellion," it was a massive rebellion by the Chinese against Christianity and Western imperialism. The rebellion was repressed by a unique alliance of troops from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Austria-Hungary.

In 1900, the Foraker Act was passed by Congress to give some self-government to Puerto Rico, which by then was a U.S. territory.

In 1901, the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty between the United States and England authorized the U.S. to build a neutral canal in Central America. This led to the building of the Panama Canal, which linked efficient shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and became a huge success, much as the Erie Canal in New York had about 90 years earlier. The first ship passed through the Panama Canal in 1914. However, Democratic President Jimmy Carter gave the canal to Panama in a 1977 treaty (with narrow Senate approval over much opposition by conservatives), and China runs the Panama Canal today.

The issue of imperialism continues to this day. In 2020, conservative African ministers in the United Methodist Church accused liberal American ministers of imperialism as they tried to impose on African churches changes in church doctrine on the issues of marriage and behavior by the clergy. Why should more conservative ministers in Africa have to follow a liberal new direction taken by ministers in the United States? While there is a tendency to view American imperialism as mostly conservative in its nature, in recent years that has not always been the case.

Debate: Was imperialism all bad? Was any of it bad?

Progressive Movement

A fascinating and influential demand for political change began to develop around 1900 as the "progressive movement." It started with a Republican governor of Wisconsin named Robert LaFollette. It was not so much a political party as a movement that can be summarized in two words: "better government." Not "less government" that a conservative like President James Monroe (1817-1825) wanted, and not "more government" that a liberal like Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) wanted, but "better government."

Then progressives tended to work within both political parties. They tried to run government in a smarter manner, rather than simply reducing it. We have had two progressive presidents: Republican Teddy Roosevelt and, later, Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The high point of the movement, the "progressive era," was 1900-1920.

Here were the goals of the progressive movement:

  • Political "reform"
  • Suffrage for all women (Amendment 19 to the Constitution)
  • Direct elections of senators (Amendment 17 to the Constitution)
  • Civil service (merit) system rather than a spoils system (civil service system was adopted in the Pendleton Civil Service Act, and later expanded)
  • More "equitable" tax laws (Amendment 16 to the Constitution)
  • Breaking up monopolies
  • Food and drug laws
  • Laws against child labor
  • Laws against "sweatshops"
  • Creation of the Federal Reserve System (1913) and federal trade commission (1914)
  • Aid to farmers
  • Protection of labor "rights" (pro-union)
  • Government commission to regulate railroad rates
  • Safety improvements in the workplace
  • Direct democracy in passing referenda or initiatives to make state laws by direct public votes
  • More, but smarter, regulation
  • Anti-war
  • Slightly pro-business in the early 1900s, but anti-business today

A specific example of what the progressive movement addressed was the "Triangle Fire" that took place in New York City on March 25, 1911. This was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until the terrorist attack on 9/11 (interesting coincidence in the two dates: 1911 and 9/11). In the Triangle Fire, 140 people burned to death, many of them young girls, due to a 10-minute fire that swept very quickly through a "sweatshop" shirt factory in Manhattan. Tragically, the doors had been locked to keep workers from taking breaks or stealing goods, and the girls could not escape fast enough. Public outrage followed, and the progressive movement passed building code laws to help protect against this happening again. To this day it is not know what started the Triangle Fire, and (to the chagrin of the progressives)₤ the owners were acquitted of any crimes.[15]

When you hear the term "progressive" today, it has different meaning. Today "progressive" refers to a very anti-business strand of the progressive era of a hundred years ago. Today progressives are entirely in the Democratic Party, and support Bernie Sanders for president in 2020. Note, however, that 12% of the Democrat Bernie Sanders' supporters in 2016 voted for the Republican Donald Trump in the general election, which suggests that some progressives like attempts by Trump to make government work better.


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. When John D. Rockefeller later had children of his own, he and his wife homeschooled them until age ten.
  3. 3.0 3.1
  4. 4.0 4.1
  6. Bill Ayers, "Fugitive Days" at p. 176 (Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts 2001)
  8. The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9, paragraph 4, states that "No Capitation [head], or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken."
  9. The Supreme Court had allowed other types of taxes, such as an income tax during the Civil War and an inheritance tax. See