America, always turbulent, was spastic between 1880 and
1922. It outdid the Civil War in variety
of phenomena and processes occurring, not only
in America but in America's relations around the world.
Its gestures exceeded now the great movement to the West,
although the "frontier" was said to be closed; for more people moved
into the seventeen semi-arid Western States by far than moved in, out,
and around the region before, and have done so in
every decade up to the present.
The creative edges of the country's culture began to center upon
New York City. Financial, corporate, and media concentration
abetted the newer immigration, representative of the flourishing
culture nodes of Europe that had long since been
centralized and citified.
The structural changes in government - election forms,
civil service, bureaucratic expansions,
tax systems, etc. - exceeded those of the
Jacksonian period or any other, including the changes from
colonies to States, and during Reconstruction before 1880.
A giant country entered the throes of metamorphosis.
The First World War, in the latter part of the period,
was the most prominent set of events, drawing
historical attention from and covering up one,
then another, set of events, all the way to the
distant horizon of relationships. The War
speeded up many processes, and confirmed many
attitudes of the people, of American leaders, and of
the foreign world.
If you stepped behind the War, you encountered a
radical labor movement banging against a
conservative labor movement, and against the capitalist system.
Across from these, confronting and struggling to eliminate them,
was a corporate and free enterprise system.
Looking at this, you saw a fantastic set of corporate maneuvers,
of expanding industries, of products multiplying
exponentially in variety and volume.
Behind this were to be seen many cities growing
furiously, accepting great numbers from the country and abroad,
ruled by surreal (meaning all too real)
bosses and machines, ditch-digger descendants of Pericles of
Athens, Sforza of Milan, St. Anthony, St. Patrick,
St. Stephen, St. Francis.
Around and about were the highly vocal individual
reformers of every evil - in education, prisons,
sweat-shops, industrial safety, immigrant assimilation,
public works, etc.
Then the processions of feminists working their way more and more
stoutly towards the suffrage Amendment of 1919, pathetically
persuaded, as it would turn out, that the vote would equalize the sexes
and clean up the Augean stables of politics.
A revival and revision of the old direct democracy movement was in
progress, reminiscent of the Jacksonian democrats, the Jeffersonian
democrats, the Revolutionary radicals, and the Rhode Island and
Behind these we see the agrarian movement organizing in politics, as
Populists and the Farmer-Labor Party. The Farm Bureau Federation,
following the Grange, developed for farmers a modern system of
representation of interests at every level of government and
particularly in Washington; it would eventually be grafted onto
government offices, or vice versa, in some respects.
Counties all over the country received federally financed
farm agents whose job it was to counsel farmers about
improved methods of farming and rural life,
and to help them cooperate with other farmers
and the outside world generally, a noble and successful social
invention, one of the best in the history of America.
It seemed that everyone was putting a shoulder to the wheel,
or sticking a spike in the spokes. It was a loveless age,
of incredible turmoil, of populations pouring in,
migrating everywhere, of the world's most rapid
industrialization and development of grand markets,
of politics running the gamut of fraud and fearfulness.
It was the first national age, the fast-urbanizing age,
the coming of professor-economists.
Political participation was heaviest in history,
exultant with boodle, bigotry and bamboozle.
Myriad saloons were the stupefied nerve centers of politics. While
rural elements held securely their structured emplacements in state and
county governments, and in Congress (cooperating often with mining,
railroad, and industrial tycoons against bosses and
populists), the cities fell one after another into the hands of political
machines, of both Democratic and Republican parties, often Irish
Catholic with Catholic allies: Poles, Bohemians,
Slovaks, Croatians, Hungarians, Italics, Germanics, many, many
others, coddled, coaxed, bullied and bought by the Celts.
And Jews in staff capacities.
Boss Crocker's Tammany Hall "Executive Committee"
of 1890 numbered four pimps,
twelve liquor dealers, seven pugilists (not counting himself),
six Tweed gang members and seventeen officeholders.
Crocker retired to Ireland, whence he came,
to breed racehorses.
Countering the thoroughly corrupt but popular machines were
civic reformers who grew in numbers to fight the organizations,
drawing help from bucalists, but more often from
reform elements of the upper classes and
independent professions and business leaders.
Often battered, never finally defeated, reproducing themselves
everywhere, the machines dominated urban politics,
for two memorial generations, the 110 years
between 1865 and 1975.
What made the urban political machine so successful
for over half of our history?
City government was formal and directed from the state capital.
Even when legislatures and federal government were
trying to be "progressive," they saw the world
as a set of mechanical machines, that should be fixed up
by altering this or that device of government.
The city machines were human.
They were impatient with devices of government and
altered them in fact to suit their needs.
They operated by organizing people of all kinds into reciprocal
relationships, "robbing the rich to help the poor,"
but also helping the rich to get richer.
And welcoming projects - public works, housing, real estate
developments, electric power developments, tramways, all kinds of
licensing on behalf of sanitation, reliable workmanship, and
professional knowledge - the more to do, the more the rake-offs,
commissions, jobs for friends and families, favors to be exchanged
for cash or reciprocity. Since machine politicians took from all
projects - governmental and private alike,
whether a city-owned slaughterhouse or a company's new factory
- they often behaved in a progressive manner,
and even espoused large expansions of government activity.
But generally they were conservative except on
the extension of welfare programs.
The political machine assumed especial importance in the basic care of
the population. Any man with several votes could get a hearing,
even if utterly poor; he could get a little work, perhaps,
a little cash for food and other necessities,
he could get referred to somebody in a church
group or business, he could keep his self-respect
by calling himself a member of the organization,
the "First Ward Republican Organization Club of Chicago,"
or something like that.
The cities also presented messy problems and practices
that nice people could hardly discuss:
crime and prostitution, gambling, racketeering,
foul business practices, illegal demands from groups
and men who were in a position to block constructive action.
The organization, by unifying powers in the area,
could decide upon and enforce rules to keep conditions
from getting worse in the short run, and
would levy its hidden charges as it went along.
This, indeed, was the philosophy of police departments all over
America: to keep the city looking clean and to cover up any
malfeasance that was likely to raise a public stink.
The police of this age, increasing rapidly in numbers,
had also the mission of preventing the poor from rioting
or otherwise bothering small business and the well-to-do.
Like private security forces today, they
concentrated upon protecting private property.
When personal disorderliness, traffic and other public
duties came to occupy regular police excessively, private security
forces were employed by corporate interests.
Police were generally corrupt, and seem hardly to have been
affected by threats of reform or by actual honest administrators
such as Theodore Roosevelt, who was for a time
Commissioner of Police in New York City.
Most murders were never reported.
One report counted 1266 in 1881,
4290 in 1890, and 7840 in 1898,
but probably not one in ten American murders appeared
on the books, especially those committed by the
police themselves and by soldiers on active duty.
The number of prison inmates grew by 50%
in the decade 1880-1890.
They kept increasing at a slightly exponential rate,
held back by the perennial problem of
insufficient space to contain convicts.
In 1890 New York City supported an estimated
40,000 common whores besides a
host of call-girls, "ballet dancers," part-time partners,
courtesans, and kept women
(obsequious, divorce-deprived wives apart),
a total probably of 120,000
engaged in the business of prostituting themselves,
about 20% of the eligible population of females.
There is small reason to consider that Chicago, Cincinnati,
Richmond, San Francisco, or New Orleans differed significantly.
Bosses were a national phenomenon.
Boss Ed Crump ruled in good part Memphis, Tennessee,
for nearly half a century until after World War II.
Once he was driven out by the adoption of a new reform called
"The Commission Plan of City Government," that was to bring in a
group of councillors sharing duties and powers and
keeping each other honest.
Before long, Boss Crump was in control of the Commission, and the
red-light districts, deplorable racketeers of all kinds,
the demi-mondaine, the public facilities, ports and streets,
and the schools were once more being coordinated
centrally from his office. Blacks composed over half the
people, but received only a minor,
yet well-schemed, cut of the action.
A census of criminals, underworld, and demi-mondaine of
America has never been made, nor even a careful estimate.
I would guess that one in twelve adults
would have been the average number enumerated
over the years in such a survey, but only in good times.
Slackening the definition of criminals would increase
the number to one in eight, probably,
and at certain times, as during prohibition, this
trio of occupations would have been
the most numerous of any occupation in the land,
much more numerous than schoolteachers,
for instance, or honest lawyers, or even honest politicians.
Nor did their receipts appear in calculations of
the national income, not even after World War II when the
Gross National Product accounting system
came into play.
Nationalism swelled to a mighty chorus of politicians and
publishers. In 1897 the Patriotic League started up with "The
Religion of Citizenship." The country was sacred, now. Newspapers
were bastions of jingoism (that English vaudeville term of Boer War
times). Hearst and Pulitzer led the way. Scripps-Howard came
along, then. Newspaper chains grew lengthy but began to rust, and
with but a few new chains coming along,
receded and broke up in the later twentieth century.
The role of women was expanding.
Clara Barton, Founder and Head of the American Red Cross
from 1872 to 1904, turned up everywhere,
until finally she phased out, confessing a
"lack of coordination," and then
"blurred eyes," and "pulse all out of time."
She thought "huge hats, dangerous hairpins,
Hobble and Harem skirts and some moves of
the suffragists are hard to defend when assaulted."
Her list of the eight greatest American women came to:
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone Blackwell,
Frances Dana Gage, Mary A. Bickerdyke, Abigail Adams,
Dorothea Dix, and Maria Mitchell. She had placed
Susan B. Anthony above all, on an earlier occasion.
Grist for the mill; she would have preferred to name more.
The Bill of Rights was slackly enforced.
It had another century to go before it would become a fetish,
a touchstone, a liberator of the mouth,
the ears and the eyes for persons and groups. Women as an
organized force grew grandly, seeking principally the vote,
whose power to crack tradition and injustice
everyone greatly exaggerated.
Picketing, publicizing, parading, lobbying, and getting jailed
were the major tactics. The year 1913
saw the greatest parade since the Grand Army of the
Republic marched after the Civil War ended.
President Woodrow Wilson changed his mind.
So did various state legislatures.
The Tennessee victory of female suffrage foretold general victory,
which came in 1919, with the adoption of the Nineteenth
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. An unnecessary delay it was;
a memorial generation earlier, the Supreme Court had willfully
determined that the Constitution, so malleable when it came to the
projects of robber barons, could not be stretched to give women the
vote under the Bill of Rights or the Reconstruction Amendments.
The right to vote did not do more than weigh a little heavier against
the sex imbalance, but was inevitable and necessary,
because it was the most obvious badge of civil equality.
People, even historians, are ashamed of divorce,
so they ignore it as a valid indicator of the
progress of women and society. In 1880,
one in 21 marriages ended in divorce,
the figures had risen to 1 in 12 by 1900
and 1 in 5 by 1922.
(Presently the rate is 1 in 3).
However, inasmuch as divorce laws were a State affair,
gaining suffrage in the States, which had been done in a
number of cases, allowed new strong
pressures for their liberalization.
The vote for women was part of the full popular and progressive
movement toward direct democracy. Progressive leaders included W.J.
Bryan, T. Roosevelt, R. La Follette, J. P. Altgeld, T. Watson, E. Debs,
Hiram Johnson, C.E. Hughes, and ultimately W. Wilson.
Most had their hard-shell and conservative sides -
racist or bible-thumping or nativist or red-baiting -
American politicians have rarely held consistent
cosmologies or ideologies. Of the several men just named,
I would choose John Peter Altgeld as the ideal Progressive,
nothing crazy sticking out - and brave.
The majority of people still did not accept evolution,
two social generations after science did,
and were convinced that God performed the whole work
of creating the world in six days, resting
on the Seventh, apparently satisfied
(although no one else seems to have been) with the results.
In those days, unlike the present, states
were supposed to be able to regulate many aspects
of civil rights that today are given over by the courts
to the federal government.
The conflict between religion and science has been a depressing and
costly feature of American politics. Whenever it became evident that
Americans suffered from many gaps and faults in their ethical
beliefs and conduct, and that steps should be taken to help the public
to act logically, maturely, pragmatically in solving issues, the
movement was blocked by an immediate insistence that the way to
go was to have children, read the Bible,
pray and go to church, and soon,
so the movement has had to be abandoned.
This abortive process, many times repeated,
may be one reason why the American character
and the American media, including the political dialogue
of the nation, have afforded such models of arrested
development. A by-product of the Bible Belt domination
of public education has been a threat-effect
where the domination is absent, in the North and East.
For it was always improper for politicians and public alike
to express anger at the dichotomy between
religion and science that had to be injected
into the minds of the young, and was to
be observed in their own hypocritical behavior,
whereby they would laugh at the Bible Belt and Bryan,
but insist that they believed in religion themselves,
yet it shouldn't be carried "too far."
Only a few persons, like John Dewey and the Humanist Society,
did not become passive and continued to argue that
a society could not progress very far without resolving the conflict
in favor of science, that a scientific society could only
progress so long as religion was not authoritative
and coercive but open to inquiry
all the way from its bottom premises to its social conduct.
The owning classes everywhere were shaking in their boots;
populist parties everywhere were howling for their blood,
and it was feared that these would win over the nation at the polls.
And, winning, promulgate terrible laws that would help debtors
hang on to their homes and farms,
prevent grain storage and railroad owners from
charging exorbitant rates, and impose an income tax.
Almost none of this happened, first
because the populists usually lost in elections,
second because they hardly settled in office
long enough to pass their favorite laws,
third because the opposition was fierce, ranging from
well-financed lobbies to the major parties in and around the
legislatures and governors and mayors,
fourth because such legislation as they managed to pass
was watered down and sometimes knocked out
by the courts up to and including the Supreme Court.
Senators now became directly elective by the voters. Enough
support was obtained in Congress and the States to amend the
Constitution so as to allow the federal government to enact an
income tax. What resulted was a tax laughably low and immediately
compensated for by the wealthy, who controlled their own vast
incomes and could set them more or less at any level. One day they
would be truly hit by the tax, but not for a memorial generation, and
then when the country was into World War II and beyond.
Progressive legislation such as set up the Federal Reserve System to
control wild banking and started up a national highway system and
backed up loans to farmers and ordained humane working conditions
for seamen, as well as the Clayton anti-trust act
(that also guaranteed unionizing as a right):
all of this activity undeniably lessened
Other progressive measures, such as that hardly pushed through by
Governor Charles Evans Hughes, which set up a New York State
public utilities commission to regulate and reduce corruption in city
utilities, exemplified the Progressive movement's bogging down in
particular reforms (though truly it may be considered that a host of
detailed reforms may add up to good government in the end, still
note the "hardly" of this strenuous effort that exhausted much of the
energy of the Progressive movement on the state level in
New York for a while.)
Many devices occurred to let (a largely mythical)
populace express its mind and make decisions.
The initiative, referendum, and recall were
made part of many a state and city's popular powers. Study after study
has been conducted to appraise the effects of allowing people in the
mass directly to petition for and vote on new laws,
or to vote for or against proposed laws,
or to call back an elected officeholder and
make him present himself over again to the voters.
Individual cases were found to be beneficial.
As a whole, these devices were ineffectual;
they were not used enough or they were used too much,
and pressure groups, especially in California,
learned how to use such laws for proposing and getting passed
measures in their own interest.
The costs, the inconvenience, and the effects -
all indicated that this was not the way to go to
get that pie in the sky called people's democracy.
Direct primary elections to nominate party candidates to run in the
general elections were instituted everywhere,
to get rid of bosses, caucuses, lobbying and financial tricksters,
and candidates of the interests.
Unhappily, the same "evil forces" re-invented the
techniques of mastering the demos,
most of whom did not vote in the primaries.
The Commission form of city government spread around to a
number of places, 50 towns and cities by 1916,
Galveston being the most famous, for having
invented it after its devastating flood.
Later the scheme ceased being modish.
The verdict of scholars: again, not worth the effort,
when its effects are compared with the experience
of mayor and council governments. But there came too a weak vs.
strong mayor controversy, and generally scholars sided with the
strong mayor form of government, giving less
powers to the city council.
A correlation ensued of movements to strengthen the central
executive in all governments, Presidents, department heads,
Governors, County executives, and mayors, and in the cities a new
added form was posed and adopted increasingly. To the council or
to a weak council-weak mayor form would be attached a City
Manager, and now began a forceful movement around the country to
bring in professional help, persons who were trained and
experienced in running cities. Hundreds of places invested in the
city manager plan before World War I.
The managers were ordinarily appointed by the elected city councils
and served under a contract until quitting or being fired. The average
city manager locale came to be better governed than the
mayor-run city, but the system seemed to work best where the city
was not too large and had a fairly high average income. That is, the
plan favored efficiency and economy against the
human needs of the poorer half of the population.
It appeared better -- by our lights -- to have a
mayor-council plan where the mayor had enough sense
to bring in professional management talent.
Existing systems of apportioning seats in legislatures
came also under fire in the Progressive era.
It could be readily shown that practically everywhere,
substantial minorities or even majorities of the electors
of a given jurisdiction were casting their ballots against
the actual winning candidate, who obtained merely more votes than
his nearest competitor, often by no means a majority.
The problem was severe in Southern elections, in which the
Republican Party scarcely existed, so here run-off elections were
instituted to ensure that one of the two leading Democratic
candidates had to win a special election, before walking home a
winner in the final election against the
ever-weak Republican candidate.
In the North, reformers found the winner-take-all majority system
offensive. To represent the minority, so often large, several new
systems of voting were taken up and applied here and there. The most
famous of these was the Hare system of Proportional
Representation, that was strongly but vainly urged upon the British
Parliament in the middle of the 1800's by John Stuart Mill, the
eminent economist and theorist of representative government.
Cincinnati acquired a fame among students of political science for
adopting proportional representation, but not many localities or
states followed suit. New York City also used proportional
representation for a while, but the election of far-left councilmen
enraged the major party machines and was abandoned.
Essentially a PR system called for multi-member districts and a
limiting of the voter's choice to less than the number of seats to be
filled. Thus the minority would be represented. In the Mill-Hare type
of plan the voter denoted his first, second and further choices in the
order of his preferences and then the total vote cast was divided by the
number of seats to be filled, and when any candidate reached this
resulting dividend or quota he was declared elected, and the second
choices of the ballots were shifted and counted to help provide a quota
for the next man to be chosen. No votes were wasted, it was claimed.
The State of Illinois was the first to adopt a PR plan for its
legislature; it was not so exact as the Hare system. It set up three-member
districts; a voter could vote for 1, 2, or 3 candidates. A
single choice gave the candidate three votes, a double choice two, a
triple choice only one. Especially by voting for only one candidate,
the minority party could get its candidate elected. (Often the parties
conspired to divide the candidacies as they thought proper, two for
one party, one for the other.) Whether the scheme brought Illinois
an assembly of improved characters remains dubious.
In the final analysis, the Progressive Era, which could be said to have
ended with the United States entering World War I,
although indignant, clamorous for justice, and humane,
could be termed an attempt to achieve justice and democracy
by adjusting the mechanics of the system.
It proposed and enacted a host of devices
that were limited in scope and effect when seen in the light of the
grand objectives claimed for progressivism.
The urban poor lacked toilets or electricity when
these were widespread elsewhere; the poor were killed in the
many thousands annually in accidents of the mines,
smelters, sewers, and railroads. Although these were not
poor men as wage-rates went, in 1881
30,000 trainmen were killed in accidents of
brakes and couplers.
Scores of thousands of girls slaved at piecework in
foul garment factories, averaging a wage of
eight cents an hour. A steelworker
(usually Slavic by origin), feeding a blast furnace in a
Pittsburgh steel mill, earned $12.50 for his 60-hour week.
The whole world was turbulent in these years
before 1914, and of course for six years of
War thereafter. In America, it was a constructive
unrest and agitation for the most part.
Few had to be killed, many to be beaten,
one notes in retrospect, to control affairs.
These were almost entirely miserable workers
on strike for higher pay and shorter hours.
Dedicated revolutionaries were treated badly.
To hear all, not some, not a few, of the American notables who
were touted as models for children in the lower schools for
five biological generations from 1870 to 1970,
these workers represented the cutting edge of a
gigantic movement of the lower orders to upset all that was
holy. They were probably anarchists, it was believed, or
under anarchist influence. They were certainly and by definition
un-American. They were racially inferior - else
why would they be so stunted, swarthy, and speechless.
The police and militia were freely employed against labor
demonstrations and political meetings where disheveled orators,
often in broken basic English, harrumpfed at the injustices of the
legal and economic system.
When the World War erupted and the United States joined in,
farmers and workers were conscripted in huge numbers,
put under military discipline and law, and
had no chance to protest or rebel on any account.
Those who worked long hours in the war factories -
including many members of the minorities and women -
were warned not to agitate and unsettle by words or deeds
the production process, on pain of prosecution
for being a threat to the war effort of the nation.
larger progress of the turbulent ("Progressive") age was one of
the mind, a muck-raking mind, an angry, disapproving, and
struggling kind of mind, which, although it excited party politicians
and business owners against its radicalism, did not have the depth,
breadth or power to create a new social vision and society. And this
mind did not begin really to capture American society until it had
matured in futility in the nineteen twenties and came back for a
second, much more successful, round in the thirties.