Turn of the Century

The Reckless Decade w. HW Brands (Part 1)

December 08, 2020
Turn of the Century
The Reckless Decade w. HW Brands (Part 1)
Show Notes Transcript

Economic upheaval, job losses, extremist politics and paranoia, racial conflict and vicious debates about America's role in the world. Oh my! 

H.W. Brands turns back the clock to the 1890s and draws parallels to our biggest issues today. 'The Reckless Decade' was a period of violent tension between rich, and poor, white and black, East and West and capital vs. labor. The 1890s included the closing of the American frontier and the rise of US Imperialism. Populists and muckrakering journalists faced off with robber barons. Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other black leaders clashed over the post-Reconstruction era. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan—created vast empires of wealth, while the poor labored for nickels and dimes.

This is part ONE of a two part conversation about the end of the 19th century.  Dr. H. W. Brands was born in Portland, Oregon, where he lived until he went to California for college. He attended Stanford University and studied history and mathematics. After graduating he became a traveling salesman, with a territory that spanned the West from the Pacific to Colorado. His wanderlust diminished after several trips across the Great Basin, and he turned to sales of a different sort, namely teaching.

For nine years he taught mathematics and history in high school and community college. Meanwhile he resumed his formal education, earning graduate degrees in mathematics and history, concluding with a doctorate in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked as an oral historian at the University of Texas Law School for a year, then became a visiting professor of history at Vanderbilt University. In 1987 he joined the history faculty at Texas A&M University, where he taught for seventeen years. In 2005 he returned to the University of Texas, where he holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History.

He has written thirty books, coauthored or edited five others, and published dozens of articles and scores of reviews. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic Monthly, the Smithsonian, the National Interest, the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, the Political Science Quarterly, American History, and many other newspapers, magazines and journals. His writings have received critical and popular acclaim. The First American and Traitor to His Class were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Prize.

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Joseph Hawthorne:

Welcome to turn of the century, a podcast about the turn of the 20th century. I'm your host, Joseph Hawthorne. Today we're talking about economic upheaval, job losses, extremist politics and politicians, racial conflict and vicious debates about America's role in the world. But we're not talking about a pandemic. Instead, Professor hw Brandes is turning back the clock to the 1890s, where we still are drawing parallels to our biggest issues at present. The quote, unquote, reckless decade was a period of violent tension between rich and poor, white and black east and a West capital versus labor. The 1890s included the closing of the American frontier, and the rise of us imperialism, populace and muckraking journalist faced off of the robber barons or quote unquote, captains of industry. Booker T. Washington, W. Eb Dubois, and other black leaders clashed over post reconstruction in politics, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and JP Morgan created vast empires of wealth, while the poor labored for nickels and dimes. This is the first part of a conversation about that 10 year period, where we focus on economic crashes, and uncertainty of the 1890s. Let's begin. This is Joe Hawthorne with Professor hw brands talking about the backstory of the 1890s in the time leading into our episodes in 1900. So pressor brands, thank you so much for being here. Can you introduce yourself?

HW Brands:

Sure, I'm HW Brands I teach history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Unknown:

Okay, and so we're going to be focusing, as I said before, about the decade leading up to 1900. We're going to start specifically with the Columbian Exposition. So there's going to be a little bit more of just a treat a back and forth conversation. I hope you get a lot out of it today. But I wanted to jump into things and talk about the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Professor brands, can you just give a little bit of backstory? What was the expedition? Why was it important? Why do people remember it today?

HW Brands:

Well, it was one of the first what would come to be called world's fairs. And it basically was a coming out party for Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire, the 1870s. And Chicago wanted to show the world that it was back and that was in business. And so the city fathers Chicago put together this idea that for the 500th anniversary of the 400thanniversary of the Columbus landing in the world, they would put together this Colombian exposition It was called, and they created what they called the White City. And it was consisted of buildings in which people would display the latest inventions, the latest innovations. It was like the fairs that had been taking place in England for centuries in small towns in America, county fairs, state fairs, but just on steroids. It was something that showed off what this modern world was producing what it was becoming their model for it was the Centennial Exposition of 1876, which had taken place in Philadelphia, on the 100th anniversary of American independence. But this one was one that was going to put Chicago on the map. And so innovations, electricity, innovations in transportation, innovations in art, in photography, a whole works was there.

Joseph Hawthorne:

It's a good starting point for the 1890s. And it represents like, a lot of you said innovations, I think on a very technological side and the cultural side, but one of the other reasons that it really jumps out and jumped out looking through your book about the reckless decade of 1890s was bought at Frederick Jackson Turner. Can you talk a little bit first of all about who Jackson Turner?

HW Brands:

Yeah, so Frederick Jackson Turner was a young historian at the University of Wisconsin, and he was thinking about the settling of the West. He grew up in the West and he observed the West, the West during movement from the time he was a child, and it struck his imagination. And he thought that the West in America had been given short shrift by American historians who focused on New England who focused on Virginia who focused on the East Coast, and he thought that the West was a bigger deal than that, or at least bigger deal than Americans generally appreciated. He was also struck in 1891 by the report issued by the Bureau of the Census in which the director of the census remarked something that had never been seen in American history before. And that was the absence Finally, of a frontier frontier was defined by the demographers, the census takers, as a line that separated the settled region, the country from the unsettled region, the country and from the founding of Jamestown in 1607. There had been a frontier, here's where the settlements are. And beyond that is wilderness, the frontier had been moving west, ever since the early 17th century. In the middle of the 19th century, it leaped all the way to the Pacific coast.

Unknown:

But even then, there had been this line that marked behind the line on the eastern side of the line, there were towns and there were farms, and there was the accoutrements of settlement and civilization. Beyond that was where Native Americans still wrong for buffalo round where, where law really didn't exist. So there was this frontier. And the demographers in 1890, tried but couldn't find a way to identify a frontier, the settlement of the West had become sufficiently filled in there were population centers all over the place. And so said, the director of the census, there's no longer a friend here. And this struck Fred Turner's imagination. And he thought, you know, this is potentially a big turning point in American history, there had always been a frontier. And he developed what he came to think of as the frontier theory of American history. And it focused on the recurrent re creation of American institutions. When people moved west, they had to create new settlements, they had to come up with new laws, they had to build new churches and schools and all this stuff. So this recurrent recapitulation of the original experience was something Turner said that characterized the United States characterize the American character. And now that there was no longer frontier, suggested Turner, things would be different. And this caused a certain psychic crisis in America, because Americans had always been used to the idea that there was this area out to the west where things get bad enough in the east, we can go and we can start over again. But that no longer seemed to be the case. Americans had long feared that one day they would become much like Europe, the for like the nations that most of them had fled on coming to America. And the thing that differentiated America from Europe was this generous bounty of land, these places you can go to start over again, if you were, if you were poor, and didn't have much opportunity in France, well, if he was gonna stay in France, there's nothing you can do, you're kind of stuck in America, you could always go somewhere else. Not that most people did. But the idea that you could was a big deal. Now. Now it looked as though that that idea was no longer. It's simply that release valve was no longer going to be available. That was the interpretation that Turner put on it. And Turner's academic paper, it was delivered to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association of Professional historians speaking to other professional historians, but it really caught the sight guys of the time. And within a very short space of time, Frederick Jackson Turner became one of the most celebrated one of the best known academics in America precisely because this idea that this first phase of America history is ending, and there's no longer a frontier. This seemed to match the kind of anxiety that was in American cultural life at the time for reasons unrelated to this, but it gave people gave Americans a way to put their finger on this nx that they felt, can you actually talk a little bit more about that anxiety? And where the frontier theory kind of fit in that? And I'm curious, do you think that it's? Or do you think that it was more of like an elite wealthy anxiety? Do you think that it was kind of a shared among anxiety actually started at the grassroots? for 25 years, farm prices, farm commodity prices had been falling, farmers found it harder and harder to make a living to pay their debts, and they didn't know what was causing this. They sometimes thought that it had to do with changes in the money supply. Sometimes they thought it had to do with the monopoly vendors that they were dealing with. But they knew that life was getting harder. They knew that there were people in the cities who were rich beyond the wildest dreams of farmers, even while farmers were having a harder time getting along. And so they they felt as though we the farmers no longer have the success we did we no longer have the respect that we did. They Realize that the country was urbanizing. And that most of the attention in American society was focused on the cities. On the successful folks in the cities on the glamorous folks in the cities on the rich folks in the cities, farmers had always considered themselves to be the salt of the American earth. And now they weren't getting the respect that they had before. And they were trying to figure out why that was, they knew that their lives were harder than they had been, they turn to the Populist Party, which preached various sort of socialist reforms that would ease the farmers lives, it would perhaps restore farmers to the golden age of the past, because they saw it. And so this anxiety was something that really started at the grassroots level, you could see it in the emerging working class in America. It was a very large part of this, that the Columbian Exposition coincided with the word the beginning of the worst depression. in American history, depressions hadn't existed in the United States, a generation before this, because there wasn't a large enough working class, there weren't enough people who worked for somebody else, that you would really notice a depression and depression is best characterized by when people lose their jobs. And when most people are farmers, farmers, farmers don't lose their jobs, they have a harder time making ends meet, but they still have a job and they still have a home. But when people go to work for somebody else, they lose their job, they often while they do lose their income, they often lose their home. So the loss of a job in an industrializing society was a new phenomenon, a very unnerving phenomenon. So you have farmers who are upset because of the falling prices and lack of respect, you have workers who are facing this depression, millions of people were out of work. So there was a really good basis for the anxiety of the 1890s.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And, again, you're, you're doing a really good job of coming to the points I want to talk about, which is the Panic of 93. So tell me a little bit more about what happened in in the in the economy 93 and also, how that mentally affected people. I don't know if it was I'm forgetting Who is your book now or I read somewhere else. But I read this really great quote that one of the biggest, like traumas that people had coming out of the 1890s was the the Panic of 93 was the depression.

HW Brands:

So there had been financial panics, bubbles and bursts for centuries, they go back to Italian days, they go back to the days of England, but in the United States, they started in the 1810s. So there was a panic in 1890s, there was a panic in 1837, there was a panic, in 1857 and 1873 in 1893. Now, these, these panics were contractions in the financial markets where people bid up the price of one thing or another typically shares of corporations in 1873. It was shares of railroad corporations, the 1890s is a broader array of, of corporations. But there are these booms and busts in speculation. But what made the 1870s and then the 1890s different is that the financial panics spread to the broader economy. So when prices collapsed in 1837, it didn't really affect most people farmers didn't feel that much. But when the panic 1893 came along, then it brought down corporations, it brought down banks, it spread to the larger economy and created the worst depression in American history. Until then, in fact, until the Great Depression of 1930s. And so it, it had this dramatic impact on people's lives. And and most people didn't understand depressions, in fact, panics and depressions are hard to understand why six months ago, was everybody doing fine. And now there are 1000s, then 10s of 1000s, hundreds of 1000s of people out of work, we still don't understand it. So if you you know, in 2005, the real estate market was doing great, the stock market was doing great. And within three years, the real estate market busted the stock market it busted. And nobody knows exactly why. I mean, there's a there's psychological explanation. Basically, prices get bid up too high, and they can't sustain themselves. And eventually people wake up to reality the prices fall. But if you are somebody who lost your job because somebody else speculated. And because their failed speculations caused their bank to collapse. And when their bank collapsed, your employer can no longer keep people on and demand dried up for the product that you were producing. You are at the end of this long chain of events chain of events that you had no control over, but it had control over you. And in fact one of the striking features of the American mindset in the 1890s Was this growing feeling that we are controlled by forces that we don't understand that are out of our control? We used to think that we were in command of our lives. Now we discover that there are these forces outside us that command us depressions are complicated things, but about how long would you say this 1890s depression lasted or kind of it was relatively short, the Depression of the 1870s lasted about five or six years. The depression of the 1890s started in 1893. It was largely over by 1896. So it was sharp and deep. But then the country began to pull out of it. And then and unfortunately for him, that was mostly Grover Cleveland's administration dealt with that.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Were there any particular moments that came to mind that like, you think st ck with Americans, something t at comes to mind for me, w s the deal between JPMorgan nd the klieman administration but you think anything, ther any events that like embittere people are kind of a punctuatio mark

HW Brands:

Well, in 1892, this is, strictly speaking, antedates the depression but there was a strike steel workers at the Carnegie Steel Works in homestead, Pennsylvania, in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and the company was cutting wages, because its prices were falling, it had to cut prices to maintain demand. And so it cut workers wages, and workers decided to well, they're going to go on strike, the company anticipated this and lock them out. This was not unusual. These kind of strikes and lockouts were a fairly standard practice in America by this time. But what made this one more bitter was when the Carnegie Corporation brought in strikebreakers brought in replacement workers scabs, that's what the workers called them, and violence broke out. And people were killed in the shooting between the workers who believe they were defending their jobs. And the Pinkerton detectives, the private security people who were brought in by the company. And this seemed to this seemed to connote that America was at war with itself. These are Americans shooting at each other, killing each other. It took Americans back to the bad days of the Civil War. But this time, it wasn't over politics time, it was over economics. And it really seemed to be not North versus south. But management versus labor. This was a class war. This was a time when socialism in Europe had never been stronger. And so there were socialists in America who thought that this was a class system, there's a working class, and the only way that working class can get what it deserves, is to take arms if necessary. So that was one of those moments when Americans thought, Boy, this is not the country I grew up in, then there was a moment that much more peaceful, but in 1895, when JP Morgan had to bail out, the US Treasury Department, the government's gold supply was dwindling dramatically.

Unknown:

And the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland had to turn to the not the wealthiest man in the United States, but the most powerful money man in the United States and get bailed out. And Morgan got together as a syndicate of investors and they loan they made a emergency loan to the US government emergency loan of gold. And Morgan, effectively rescued the United States from bankruptcy, he made a profit on it, he expected to he was in the money business to make money. He declined, while he for refused to reveal how much money he had made. And because of that, but also because this rich guy could come in and save the American government to many Americans that just seemed wrong, that one person, it wasn't just Morgan by himself, but he represented that. And he seemed that to most people, that one guy will had enough money that he could rescue the government of the United States that the biggest capitalist in the country was necessary to come in and rescue American democracy from failure that just seemed to turn things on their head. So I was also and I want to basically jump off of that I was reading your book from the 90s when it was initially published, and you were the introduction kind of comparing the 90s to the 1890s. So you know, there's always analogies you can make in history of the present day. Do you feel like now is a particularly good time or like the early 20th century is a good comparison with the 1890s. You feel it as well, especially, there is certainly a broad feeling that wealth inequality is worse now than it has been in quite a long time. quite a long time since Well, maybe the 1890s there was this striking growth millionaires millionaires hadn't existed in America before. And furthermore, they they were more visible they than they had been there had been wealthy landowners George Washington was probably the wealthiest man in America in his day. But any so he drove a fancy coach and had a bunch of servants slaves because he was in Virginia. But he didn't live that differently. Then farmers of modest means he was a farmer, he had to get up and he managed his farm. He didn't build this giant mansion, Mount Vernon is nice enough, but it's not ostentatious in a way that things were in the 1890s. There was something else too, and that is that people could understand that George Washington made his money because he was a farmer. And he, he, he wasn't plowing the fields himself, of course. But people understood what he did, and and why he was wealthy the way he was. But people look at bankers like JP Morgan, they couldn't figure out what in the world bankers do. Bankers, put on their suits, and they go to work, they don't sweat, they don't live, they don't produce anything. They just seem to mint money, they make money from all sorts of transactions. So that was something that struck Americans in the 1890s as as just not right. And there were all sorts of plans, schemes, reform programs, to rectify this growing imbalance. And well, so we're in the run up to the 2020 presidential election, and some of the Democratic candidates are saying we ought to be a wealth tax. Well, this is really taking a page right out of the 1890s this concern with growing inequality? And how can you run a democracy, which is based on the principle that everybody's equal my votes equal to your vote, the worker for Andrew Carnegie's vote was equal to the vote of Andrew Carnegie himself. Democracy is based on equality. How can you have a democracy when there is so much inequality that's generated by the capitalist system? And then you also mentioned before briefly about socialism and organizing like that? So going back into the 1890s, really into the early 20th century? Can you talk a little bit more than about some of the different Corbin activist or labor movements? So when I'm thinking about is, on one hand, there are unions, but there's also socialists and anarchists and people, there's a lot of different, I guess, for a better lack of a better word, activist groups, I'm trying to think of a word, but there are lots of people who are demanding change, right. And some of them demand change within the political system. So the Populist Party, formerly called the People's Party, advocated change through the political system, elect new people, and they will enact these reforms, there will be a graduated income tax, there will be nationalization of the railroads, there will be a scheme whereby people can borrow money more easily, there'll be all these reforms, but they were within the system. Right. So the populace would give rise to the progressives who are also reformers, they weren't revolutionaries, they did not blow up the system, they wanted to change the system. The populace were mostly based in the countryside. These were this was a movement of farmers, the progressives when they were based in the cities, this was a movement of the emerging middle class white collar workers. And they too, had their ideas, but they were going to work within the system. Then there were labor union organizers, activists, they were going to work not so much within the political system, but within the capitalist system. The labor union organizes accepted the inevitability of capitalism, there would be owners, and there would be workers. And what they wanted was summarized by Samuel Gompers, who was the leader of the largest labor union at the labor union Association, the American Federation of Labor. And when he was asked, so what do workers want, he said more. And they just want more of wages. They don't want to overthrow the system. But there were groups that did essentially want to overthrow the system, there were socialists, who wanted the government to take over more of the productive enterprise of the country. They were anarchists who literally wanted to blow things up. There were communists, who wanted to see a revolution, class based revolution, where the workers would overthrow the capitalist system. So in all of this stuff, there was this feeling that things aren't working, things are not moving in the right direction, and something needs to be done about it. And then when does progressive or the idea of like being a progressive start to take mold? How would you kind of define that diverse movement so the progressive movement really had a three stage life for if you want to add a little bit at the end, it emerged In the cities during the 1890s, because the city seemed to be many cities seem to be cesspools of political corruption. And there were what were called urban machines. These were party organizations that control the governance of big city, every big city in the country. And the progressives at the city level did their best to regained control of cities, to make sure that the cities are governed in a democratic way. They often discover that their best efforts at reforming the cities were frustrated by the fact that in the United States, city governments are typically creatures of the state governments, it's the states that set the rules for how the city shall operate. And so when the progressives got to the point where they could reform cities, then they would be foiled, they would be frustrated by corruption at the state level. So in order to effect their reforms of the cities, they realized they had to reform the states. So there were progressives in various states around the country. And then they discovered that there were problems that even transcended state, so problems with consumer safety, for example. So to a greater and greater degree, Americans were eating food that was processed, produced beyond their control and beyond their sight. So the Meatpacking industry was scandalous for its unsanitary conditions. Well, the meat Packers, the big ones in Chicago, they were more than just the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago could deal with because they had customers all over the country. So to to improve health standards in the Meatpacking industry required national reforms. So the progressive movement starts at the city level of graduates to the state level, it then finally emerges at the national level, right at the beginning of the 20th century. And it becomes noticeable at the national level, primarily when Theodore Roosevelt suddenly becomes president in the autumn of 1901, upon the assassination of the death by assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley. So Roosevelt is the first progressive president. He's also very loud and boisterous and promoting his progressive agenda. So national progressives now for the first time, have this spokesman somebody that they can rally behind. And I'm really glad you brought up the eurozone, it's impossible to talk about the AI without talking about it. Would you would you say that most progressives were kind of from Theodore Roosevelt's background, more more privileged individuals, Theodore was wealthier and better off than most progressives, but he was not uncharacteristic. So he was well educated, he was college educated, a lot of progressives were college educated, he, he had to worry less about making money because he inherited enough then other progressive, most progressives work. But the thing that characterized progressives was a belief that the problems of democracy could be solved primarily by the application of greater democracy. They had this optimistic faith that the system was basically sound it just needed tinkering with it needed to be reformed. So progressives, they advocated things like the direct election of senators, senators from the time of the Constitution in 1789, until the beginning of the 20th century, had been chosen by state legislatures. And the reason this was important to progressives to change was that state legislators were notoriously corrupt, the Senate was called the Millionaire's club, because of the general belief that you could buy a senate seat, you just have to bribe the 50 members of the Tennessee State Legislature, if you want to get a senate seat from Tennessee that was relatively easy to do. It was thought that it would be much harder to bribe all the voters of Tennessee or whatever state it might be. So that was a good example. Another example, was the introduction of political primaries in the nominating process for presidential candidates. Many people thought, What difference does it make who we vote for if both of the candidates, the republican and the Democrat, if they're both corrupt if they're both in the pocket of the monopolist. So what we need to do is we need to give people a voice in the selection of the party's nominees and so we get political primaries. So the whole idea of progressivism at this level is to improve democracy by expanding democracy.