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Rise of the United States

HISTORY 100
WORLD HISTORY
SPRING 1998

1 APRIL
THE RISE OF THE UNITED STATES


DICTIONARY    TIME-LINES

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

In this section, you should learn to identify and discuss the following names and things:

In addition, you should have considered the following issues and be able to discuss them.

Although we have not covered these topics in great detail, you should although be thinking about them:


TEXT

American History textbooks and the American historians who write them usually break the history of the United States into two parts, with the Civil War marking the division. If I were teaching a course in American History, I would divide the course at 1898 rather than 1865. In fact, I have taught American History, and I have in fact divided the course at 1898 rather than 1865. This was in another place and another time. It took place back in the 1950's, a period marked by a witch-hunt for "communists" or "communist sympathizers" (they called them comsimps) that went under the general name of McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) headed a senate committee investigating "unAmerican activities," and he became the most familiar of a number of people trying to root out commies and comsimps from influential positions in our society. The people who needed to be rooted out included librarians, school teachers, dentists, film actors, radio comedians, and almost anyone else.

Back to the point, however. I was asked by the administration of the school to explain the "suspicious" division of my course. Being a graduate student without a PhD or tenure, I had no protection against this sort of inquisition and could have been fired if the administrators did not like the reasons I gave them. I was not being paid so much that it made much difference, one way or another, and so I simply gave them my reasons.

It seemed to me that, from 1776 to 1898, the United States was primarily an agrarian country concerned with settling the land that had come under its control. Its disputes were primarily internal and by far the greatest part of its immigrant population came from northwestern Europe for the purpose of farming. It was one of the few liberal republics to have maintained its independence and commitment to democracy, and it served as an ideal and support for liberal and democratic movements throughout the world. The rulers of the kingdoms and empires of Europe looked upon the United States as a source of "Red Republicanism".

In 1898, however, the industrial development of the United States and its exploitation of its natural resources had reached such a level that it could complete for world markets against the great industrial powers of Europe. In that same year, and most suddenly, the United States began building an overseas empire of its own. The Spanish-American War of 1898 was supposedly fought to assist the people of Cuba in gaining their independence of a cruel and tyrannical Spanish empire, but the United States took other Spanish possessions in the process, including Puerto Rico, some assorted Pacific islands, and the Philippines. In the same year, America annexed the kingdom of Hawaii and divided up the island of Samoa with Great Britain and Germany. In 1899, the people of the Philippines, who had thought that the Americans had come to liberate them, rebelled, and the American army and navy crushed the rebels and their hopes for freedom. This shocked and sickened many Americans of the time, but it was done. The United States had been transformed from an agrarian nation based on democratic ideals into an industrial and imperialist power.

It seemed to me that this was perhaps the watershed in American history, the time at which an "old America" had passed away and a "new America" was born. Without going into the matter too deeply, it would seem that American industrial development was the underlying cause of this transformation, and one might ask how this industrial development (most which took place between 1865 and 1885) had occurred, and how it had been paid for. There are many possible answers to this question, and they are all true to a greater or lesser degree.

In the first place, the Civil War had done a great deal to develop Northern industries. Many steel mills, tool shops, ship yards, and the like were established to fill the military needs of the North and were easily converted by their owners to peace-time production. The federal government had paid for this sort of thing by issuing greenbacks, paper money that could be used as real money because the government promised that anyone who wished could trade the greenbacks in for gold or silver money. This amounted to a national debt, and the government began to pay it off by restricting the coining of new gold and silver money and by retiring the paper currency. This meant, of course, the government took in taxes in the form of paper money which it then burned. This policy had the effect of reducing the amount of money in circulation. It was the equivalent of the modern Federal Reserve Board raising the prime lending rate to the point where the nation would be always on the edge of a recession. For the banks, however, the government's policy was one that steadily increased the value of the gold and silver money they owned. Money was concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy men, such as J. Pierpont Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who then invested it in projects of industrial development. By 1898, the war debt was substantially retired, and the discovery of gold in the Klondike began to increase the national "wealth" in the international currency of gold bullion.

I would suppose that our present (1993-1998) economic boom is the result of a similar process. People are always very upset about the size of the national debt and national deficit spending over the long run, without paying too much attention to the dynamics of the matter. Consider that the national debt reached about three trillion dollars (that's three thousand billion dollars) in 1990. That's a lot of money, of course. But inflation has been "under control" for the past eight years, averaging only about three percent annually. That adds up, however, and means that the value of the dollar has decreased almost twenty-five percent during those eight years. That means that the three trillion dollar national debt of 1990 is now worth only about two and a quarter trillion dollars. That's still a lot of money, but it doesn't take much of a mathematician to figure out that the immense national debt is melting away. High finance is funny.

At any rate, people throughout the world who owned gold back in the 1870's and 1880's recognized that the United States was a good place to invest it. American companies could always get credit at relatively reasonable interest rates, since the lenders knew that the money that would be repaid would be worth significantly more than the same amount of money at the time that they lent it. It was this influx of foreign capital that made possible the great burst of railway building that changed the face of the nation and made possible an equally great burst of industrial development.

You see, the United States consists of three regions, each isolated from its neighbor. The rivers of the East run into the Atlantic and it is isolated from the Midwest by the Appalachian Mountains. The Midwest consists of the great basin of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and its water-routes run to the Gulf of Mexico. The rivers of the West run to the Pacific Ocean, and it is isolated from the Midwest by the Rocky Mountains. Until the nineteenth century, water transport was the only economical way of shipping goods for any long distance and water transport between the regions of the United States was economically unfeasible. The development of the steamboat in the early years of the nineteenth century made it possible to use inland waterways to the fullest, and every developed country, including the United States, began building canals to link those waterways and regions. The Erie Canal, joining the Hudson River and Lake Erie, was the first route to unite the East and Midwest. It was an immense work, but nothing like that which would be required to join the West and Midwest. In the long run, this proved to be unnecessary. The reliability and freight capacity of steam-driven locomotives had been improving steadily and, by the close of the Civil War, the paddle-wheel river boats and expensive canals were a thing of the past. Both American and foreign capital was poured into railway building, and the results were quickly apparent.

One result was that it was now possible to ship iron ore from Minnesota to Pennsylvania where there were great deposits of anthracite coal. This was the foundation upon which Andrew Carnegie's immense steel empire was built. Another result was that it was now possible to ship live cattle from the plains of Kansas and Texas to great slaughter-houses and canneries in Chicago and then to ship the products of the canneries throughout the nation and world. In order to settle the Continent and to create this new industrial economy, the United States needed a greater population than it had, and so the promise of jobs and freedom drew a new wave of immigrants. Coming from southern and eastern Europe, the ethnic makeup of the country was changed significantly. Other changes of similar magnitude were also taking place. America was becoming an economic empire well before it became a political empire as well.

This period of American History, from about 1875 to about 1900, is often called The Progressive Era or The Gilded Age, and corresponded with the late Victorian era in Great Britain and the Belle epoch in France. In a way, they were the fruit of a century of invention and material progress, some eighty years in which the European nations had enjoyed relative peace, and some eighty years in which the conservative alliance formed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 had managed to keep wealth and power in the hands of the traditional elites.

In the United States, however, it was an era of social turmoil in which the American Trade Union Movement was born, the Socialist Party was established, local reform movements proliferated, and in which violent and deadly clashes grew increasingly common. A government long committed to protecting the welfare of business found itself facing the threat (and, in some areas, the reality) of popular revolt, and began to turn its attention to long-overdue measures to protect the workers from their employers and the public at large from American business.

Why should the maturation of the Industrial Revolution in America have been accompanied by what might very well have become a bitter class war? Perhaps because the American public, including the working class, had been paying for the nation's economic growth, but had not been allowed much of a share in it. Back in the 1950's, an economist by the name of Walt Whitman Rostow published an interested work entitled The Stages of Economic Growth. His basic proposition was that economic growth is not gradual or uniform, but historically follows a well-defined path. There must be a period of capital accumulation and development of infrastructure. Whatever part of the product of the working class is turned into capital or economic infrastructure cannot be available to them for consumption. Consequently, the working class and consumers generally must pay for this capital accumulation and infrastructure development. Eventually, however, the level of capital accumulation and infrastructure development reach a level that Rostow called the take-off stage, and like the airplane that Rostow had in mind, the economy takes off.

By and large, this formulation seems to be valid, but it means that, in a capitalist economy, the working class pays for the creation of capital that is kept in private hands. One might ask why the working class accepts such a system. Sometimes, of course, they don't and there is a class war. Sometimes, workers are kept so suppressed that they are unable to protest, and, at other times, the attention of the working public is diverted by one means or another. Sometimes, the government works to keep an equitable division of wealth among the various classes. And, sometimes, the capitalists accept a measure of civic responsibility that earns them popular respect.

That seems to have been the case in the United States. Many, although certainly not all, of the wealthy accepted the proposition that they were stewards of the nation's wealth and that they should give as well as take. Stanford, Vanderbilt, Carnegie-Mellon, Rockefeller Universities and others; Pulitzer Prizes, Carnegie Public Libraries, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as hospitals, scholarships, museums, parks, and all sorts of other public amenities bear the names of the great industrialists of the late nineteenth century in America. I suspect that it was this, more than any other single thing, that saved the United States from the sort of class warfare that occurred in many places elsewhere in the world.

Oh, yes. Back to the administrators and my course. I met with three gentlemen and started to explain my reasoning but didn't get any further than the point about anti-imperialism. They were interested in that and started talking among themselves about William Jennings Bryan on the matter of imperialism, Alfred Thayer Mahan's influence on Theodore Roosevelt, steam-powered ships and the need for coaling stations, and so forth. After a while, one of them noticed that I was still sitting there and told me that I could leave if I wished. As I closed the door behind me, I could see that they had gotten some coffee and were still talking. They may still be there after all of these years, for all I know, still drinking coffee and still talking about 1898.


ASSIGNMENTS

REQUIRED ASSIGNMENTS

We have covered so much territory and touched on so many ideas in this particular essay that is difficult to choose sites that would give you an overview of the material. Consequently, I'll suggest only a couple of required sites to visit, and you might use whatever spare time you have available to browse through the recommended sites.

We'll let a site in the United Kingdom, The The Steel Industry, stand for all of the heavy industries that contributed to the growth of the United States economy during the nineteenth century, and Electricity represent the industry that came to dominate the twentieth century. A visit to Ellis Island will serve to indicate the flood of immigrants who contributed to the nation's growth.

RECOMMENDED ASSIGNMENTS

The story of the violent attempts of coal miners to organize and gain a better life for themselves is told (from the mine-owners' point of view) in The Molly Maguires, while the growing fear of social unrest is typified in the events discussed in The Haymarket Massacre. Some idea of the clashes between owners and workers is conveyed by a new site constructed by a major in our own Department of History in The Pullman Strike. The aversion of many Americans to the new imperial stature of the United States is eloquently presented by one of the greatest speakers of his day, William Jennings Bryan, speaking on Imperialism


This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
31 March 1998
Lawrence KS