In this chapter we’ll look more closely at the growth of American cities, the ongoing difficulties of black Americans in the South, and the beginnings of the progressive movement and party.
One of the most prominent changes in American life in the nineteenth century was the growth of cities and of the number and percentage of Americans living in them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, Boston had a population of 25,000, New York City 60,000, and Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had not even been established. By 1850, Boston had 137,000 residents, New York 515,000, Chicago 30,000, San Francisco 21,000, and Los Angeles 1,600. By 1900 forty percent of American lived in cities or large towns and Boston had grown to 561,000, New York 3.4 million, Chicago 1.7 million, San Francisco 343,000, and Los Angeles 102,000.
We have seen previously that many of America’s new city-dwellers had migrated from the countryside in search of work in new industries and many more were immigrants from foreign countries. Although we’ve considered the rapid growth of American cities, it is important to note that the addition of thousands of new residents from one U.S. Census to the next, every ten years, was just the tip of the iceberg. City populations not only increased rapidly, they changed even more quickly. During the decade 1880-1890, for example, the population of Boston increased by about 85,000 people, from 363,000 to 448,000. But the number of people who moved into Boston during that decade was nearly ten times higher. More than 800,000 people passed through Boston during the decade between 1880 and 1890. Most stayed for a while and then moved on. The rapid turnover of Boston’s residents can be seen in the city directories published annually. Directory canvassers found that only about half the homes they visited had the same residents, from one year to the next.
Population historians have discovered that the most mobile city-dwellers were often wage-workers and the poor. People who owned businesses and valuable real estate were much more “persistent,” in demographic terms, because they were in a sense anchored by their possessions. Over time, though, the greater persistence of more prosperous residents often allowed them to gain greater political power than poorer people who in many cases were not around long enough to organize or often even to vote. Many poor and working-class city-dwellers were also recent immigrants, who needed time to learn the language and customs of their new homes. By 1900, inland cities such as Buffalo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis were all the centers of regions where more than 75 percent of people lived in an urban setting. More than three quarters of the residents of these cities were also classified as “Whites of Foreign Parentage,” according to Census language. That meant they were immigrants or the children of immigrants, overwhelmingly from either Irish or German-speaking families. Descendants of German immigrants, who arrived in great numbers just as the Midwest was opening for settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, still make up the majority ethnicity of a wide swath of middle America.
Chicago embodied the triumph of American industrialization. Its meatpacking industry typified the sweeping changes occurring in American life. In the last decades of the nineteenth century Chicago had become America’s butcher. Chicago’s famous Union Stock Yards were opened in 1864, on 320 acres of swampy land southwest of the city. Animal pens were connected to the railroads with fifteen miles of track. The Yards processed two million animals in 1870, and by 1890 they were processing 9 million animals a year. By 1900, after an expansion, the 475-acre stockyard employed 25,000 people and produced over 80 percent of the meat sold in America. The Yards contained nearly 2,500 livestock pens that could house 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle, and 22,000 sheep at the same time. The Chicago meat processing industry, a cartel of five firms, produced four fifths of the meat bought by American consumers. British author Rudyard Kipling visited the Stock Yards on a visit to America. “Once having seen them,” he reported, “you will never forget the sight.”
Chicago’s explosive growth reflected national trends. In 1870, a quarter of the nation’s population had lived in towns or cities with populations greater than 2,500. By 1920, a majority did. Chicago’s newcomers had at first come mostly from Germany, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, but by 1890, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and others from southern and eastern Europe made up a majority of new immigrants. 1900, nearly 80 percent of Chicago’s population was either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born immigrants. In 1906, American novelist Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a dramatic account of the experiences of a Lithuanian immigrant family who moved to Chicago. Although Sinclair intended the novel to reveal the brutal exploitation of labor in the stockyards and meatpacking industry, to build support for the socialist movement, its major impact was to expose the entire process of industrialized food production.
The growing invisibility of slaughterhouses and livestock production for urban consumers had enabled unsanitary and unsafe conditions. On April Fool’s Day in 1878, the New York Daily Graphic published a fictitious interview with the celebrated inventor Thomas A. Edison. The article described the “biggest invention of the age”, a new Edison machine that could create forty different kinds of food and drink out of only air, water, and dirt. “Meat will no longer be killed and vegetables no longer grown, except by savages,” Edison promised in the fictional account. The machine would end “famine and pauperism.” And all for $5 or $6 per machine! The story was a joke, of course, but Edison nevertheless received inquiries from readers wondering when the food machine would be ready for the market. Americans had apparently witnessed startling technological advances that would have seemed far-fetched mere years earlier, so the Edison food machine seemed plausible to some readers. While the newspaper story of a “meat machine” was a joke, Chicago’s food manufacturing business was the real thing. American consumers no longer had to raise their own food, as their ancestors had done in the past. The new food industry was the machine, and Sinclair described it in The Jungle. “The slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors,” he wrote, “like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.” Sinclair’s description of the dangerously unsanitary and inhumane practices of the stockyards and packing plants was even more upsetting to American readers than his exposé of the working conditions faced by poor immigrants. Popular outrage over The Jungle led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
2. Urban Reformers
In addition to engineers and city planners addressing growing cities’ needs for drinking water and sanitation, idealistic nineteenth-century reformers turned their attention to improving social conditions in American cities. Some reformers called attention to the social problems caused by the cultural dislocation of immigration, economic inequality, and the rapid growth of America’s cities. Others experimented with solutions. This spirit of reform became a key element of the early-twentieth century Progressive movement in politics and culture that tried to correct some of the social inequities of the Gilded Age.
An early critic of urban inequality was Jacob Riis, a native of Denmark who became one of New York’s most prominent journalists. Riis, born in 1849 into a family of fifteen children, emigrated to New York at the age of 21. Originally trained as a carpenter, Riis became a newspaper reporter specializing in melodramatic accounts of the poverty and misery he found in neighborhoods like New York’s infamous Five Points. When words failed to convey the disparity he witnessed between the glittering world of New York high society and the hopeless world of the poor, Riis turned to photography. In 1889, Riis’s eighteen-page article “How the Other Half Lives” was included in the widely-circulated Christmas issue of Scribner’s Magazine, with nineteen line drawings rendered from his photographs. Riis expanded the material into a 303-page book, which he followed two years later with a sequel called The Children of the Poor. Riis wrote a dozen more books over the next ten years and lectured regularly on social conditions in New York City. His efforts to call attention to the inequities of city life brought Riis to the attention of New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who later called Riis “the most useful citizen of New York.” Although the narratives in Riis’s books echoed many of the stereotypes of his time, his photographs were revolutionary. Middle- and upper-class Americans discovered there was an “Other Half” living in Gilded-Age America, and some began to devote themselves to reducing the inequality of their time.
One of the most effective social reformers who put her ideals into action providing direct services to poor city people was Jane Addams. Addams was from a prosperous Chicago family, the youngest daughter of a prominent Illinois politician. Born in 1860, Addams lost her mother and several siblings at a very young age, then grew up reading Charles Dickens’s depictions of poor Londoners and revolutionary tracts like the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini’s Duties of Man. After four years at Rockford Female Seminary, Addams embarked on a multiyear “grand tour” of Europe. She found herself drawn to English settlement houses, where philanthropists embedded themselves among communities and offered services to disadvantaged populations. Impressed by an 1887 visit to London’s famous settlement house, Toynbee Hall, Addams decided to start her own in Chicago. She returned home and opened Hull House in 1889. Begun in an old mansion that Addams purchased, moved into, and renovated with her own funds, Hull House grew to a thirteen-building complex that housed twenty-five women volunteers and served over 2,000 people per week.
Hull House workers provided for their neighbors by running a nursery and a kindergarten, administering classes for parents and clubs for children, and organizing social, recreational, and cultural events for the community. Services included public baths, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and a summer camp. In addition to their service work, Addams’s volunteer staff produced detailed studies of poverty, disease, and living conditions in the Chicago neighborhoods Hull House served. Social reformer Florence Kelley, who stayed at Hull House from 1891 to 1899, convinced Addams to begin exposing conditions in local sweatshops and advocating for the organization of workers. She called the conditions caused by urban poverty and industrialization a “social crime.” Addams began pressuring politicians. Together Kelley and Addams petitioned legislators to pass anti-sweatshop legislation that limited the work hours for women and children to eight per day. While Addams called labor organizing a “social obligation,” she also warned the labor movement against the “constant temptation towards class warfare.” Addams, like many reformers, favored cooperation between rich and poor and bosses and workers.
Jane Addams and her organization began to influence public opinion and political debate on issues such as education reform, immigrants’ rights, occupational health and safety, child labor, and pension laws. Addams’ approach to solving problems of urban poverty included equal parts of direct aid to poor city people, scientific study into the roots of poverty and dependency, and political activism to bring this information to the public and elected officials and to advocate change. Addams became an international celebrity. In 1912, she became the first woman to give a nominating speech at a major party convention when she supported the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the Progressive Party’s candidate for president. Her campaigns for social reform and women’s rights won headlines and Addams’ advocacy grew beyond domestic concerns. Beginning with her work in the Anti-Imperialist League during the Spanish-American War, Addams increasingly began to see militarism as a drain on resources better spent on social reform. In 1907 she wrote Newer Ideals of Peace, a book that would become for many a philosophical foundation of pacifism. Addams emerged as a prominent opponent of America’s entry into World War I. Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1931 for her work at Hull House, her advocacy work, and her anti-war activism.
3. Gender, Religion, Culture
Urbanization and immigration fueled anxieties that American culture was being subverted and that old forms of social and moral policing were increasingly inadequate. The anonymity of urban spaces presented an opportunity for female sexuality and for male and female sexual experimentation along a spectrum of orientations and gender identities. Anxiety over sex reflected generational tensions and differences, as well as racial and class ones. As young women pushed back against traditional expectations about premarital sexual expression, social welfare experts and moral reformers labeled such girls feeble-minded, preferring to believe that such unfeminine behavior must be a symptom of clinical insanity rather than free-willed expression. Young people challenged the norms of their parents’ generations by donning new fashions and enjoying the delights of the city. Women’s clothing loosed their physical constraints: corsets relaxed and hemlines rose.
While many women worked to liberate themselves socially and sexually, many, sometimes simultaneously, worked to uplift others. Reform opened new possibilities for women’s activism in American public life and gave new impetus to the long campaign for women’s suffrage. Much energy for women’s work came from female “clubs,” social organizations devoted to various purposes. Some focused on intellectual development; others emphasized philanthropic activities. Increasingly, these organizations looked outward, to their communities and to the place of women in the larger political sphere. Unfortunately, few of these organizations were biracial, a legacy of the uneasy mid-nineteenth-century relationship between socially active African Americans and white women. Rising American prejudice led many white female activists to ban inclusion of their African American sisters. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (formed in New York City in 1890) and the National Association of Colored Women (organized in Washington, D.C., in 1896), were both dominated by upper-middle-class, educated, northern women, but despite their similarities they remained divided by race.
Women’s work against alcohol propelled temperance into one of the foremost moral reforms of the period. Middle-class women based their criticism of alcohol on ideas feminine virtue, Christian sentiment, and their protective role in the family and home. Other women worked through churches and moral reform organizations to clean up American life. And still others worked as moral vigilantes. Carrie A. Nation, an imposing woman who believed she worked God’s will, won headlines for destroying saloons. In Wichita, Kansas, on December 27, 1900, Nation took a hatchet to bar at the luxurious Carey Hotel. Arrested and charged with causing $3,000 in damages, Nation spent a month in jail before the county dismissed the charges on the basis of “delusion”. But Nation’s “hatchetation” drew national attention. Describing herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,” she continued her assaults, and days later she smashed two more Wichita bars.
Most women, however, worked within more reputable organizations. Nation had founded a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), but the organization’s leaders described her as “unwomanly and unchristian.” The WCTU was had been established in 1874 as a modest temperance organization devoted to combating the evils of drunkenness. But from 1879 to 1898, Frances Willard transformed the organization into a national political force, embracing a “do everything” policy that adopted any and all reasonable reforms that would improve social welfare and advance women’s rights. Temperance, and then the full prohibition of alcohol, however, always loomed large.
Many American reformers associated alcohol with nearly every social ill. Alcohol was blamed for domestic abuse, poverty, crime, and disease. The 1912 Anti-Saloon League Yearbook, for instance, presented charts correlating increases in alcohol consumption with rising divorce rates. The WCTU called alcohol a “home wrecker.” More insidiously, perhaps, reformers also associated alcohol with cities and immigrants, maligning America’s immigrants, Catholics, and working classes in their crusade against liquor. Reformers believed that the abolition of “strong drink” would bring about social progress, reduce the need for prisons and insane asylums, save women and children from domestic abuse, and usher in a more just, progressive society.
Many American women expressed new discontents through literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” attacked the expectation of feminine domesticity and criticized Victorian psychological remedies administered to women, such as the “rest cure.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening likewise criticized the domestic and familial roles available to women in American society and called attention to women’s feelings of malaise, desperation, and desire. Literature by and for women challenged the Victorian era’s constructions of femininity and feminine virtue, as well as established feminine roles.
It would be suffrage, ultimately, that would mark the full emergence of women in American public life. Generations of women had pushed for the right to vote. Notable victories were won in the West, where suffragists mobilized large numbers of women and male politicians were open to experimental forms of governance. Wyoming was the first state where women could vote beside men, beginning in 1869 with its acceptance as a U.S. territory and continuing with the writing of its state constitution in 1890. By 1911, six western states had passed suffrage amendments to their constitutions. Women’s suffrage was typically entwined with a wide range of reform efforts. Many suffragists argued that women’s votes were necessary to clean up politics and combat social evils. By the 1890s, for example, the WCTU, then the largest women’s organization in America, endorsed suffrage. An alliance of working-class and middle- and upper-class women organized the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903 and campaigned for the vote alongside the National American American Suffrage Association, a leading suffrage organization composed largely of middle- and upper-class women. WTUL members viewed the vote as a way to further their economic interests and to foster a new sense of respect for working-class women.
The need to protect working-class women was illustrated in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan caught fire. The doors of the factory had been chained shut to prevent women employees from taking unauthorized breaks. The managers who held the keys had saved themselves when the fire broke out, but left over two hundred women locked in the factory. A rickety fire escape ladder on the side of the building collapsed immediately. Women lined the rooftop and crowded the windows of the ten-story building to avoid the flames and smoke. Many jumped, landing in what newspaper reports described as a “mangled, bloody pulp”. Life nets held by firemen tore at the impact of the falling bodies. Among the onlookers, “women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept [and] hurled themselves against the police lines.” By the time the fire burned itself out, 71 workers were injured and 146 had died.
A year earlier, the Triangle women had gone on strike demanding union recognition, higher wages, and better safety conditions. The owners of the factory had decided that a working fire escape and unlocked doors were too expensive and had called the police to break up the strike. After the 1911 fire, reporter Bill Shepherd reflected, “I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls [and] their great strike last year in which the same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.” After the fire, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were brought up on manslaughter charges. They were acquitted after less than two hours of deliberation.
While many men were challenged by the social changes women demanded, many also worried about their own masculinity. It seemed clear to many observers that industrial capitalism was withering American manhood. Rather than working on farms and in factories, where young men formed physical muscle and spiritual grit, new generations of workers sat behind desks, wore white collars, and, pushed paper. A generation of young men were in danger of becoming what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described as “black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, [and] paste-complexioned.” Neurologist George Beard even coined a medical term, neurasthenia, for a new condition marked by depression, indigestion, hypochondria, and extreme nervousness. The philosopher William James called it “Americanitis.” Academics increasingly warned that America had become a nation of emasculated men. Churches too worried about feminization. Women had always comprised a majority of church memberships in the United States, but they were gaining too much influence. The theologian Washington Gladden said, “A preponderance of female influence in the Church or anywhere else in society is unnatural and injurious.” Many feared that the feminized church had emasculated Christ himself. Rather than a rough-hewn carpenter, Jesus had been made “mushy” and “sweetly effeminate,” in the words of Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch.
Advocates of a more masculine, muscular Christianity sought to stiffen young men’s backbones by putting them in touch with their primal manliness. Pulling from contemporary developmental theory, they believed that young men ought to evolve as civilization evolved, advancing from primitive nature-dwelling to modern industrial enlightenment. But modern men had missed the earlier stage of development that should have toughened them up. To facilitate “primitive” encounters with nature for their members, muscular Christians founded summer camps and outdoor boys’ clubs like the Woodcraft Indians, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Boy Brigades. Other champions of muscular Christianity, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, built gymnasiums, often attached to churches, where youths could strengthen their bodies as well as their spirits. It was YMCA leader who coined the term bodybuilding; others invented the sports of basketball and volleyball.
Muscular Christianity, though, was about more than building strong bodies and minds. Many advocates also romanticized the “Wild West” myth and championed imperialism, cheering on attempts to civilize non-Western peoples. Gilded Age men were encouraged to embrace a particular vision of masculinity connected intimately with the rising tides of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Contemporary ideals of American masculinity at the turn of the century developed in parallel with the United States’ imperial and militaristic endeavors in the West and abroad. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had embodied the idealized image of the tall, strong, virile, and fit American man that simultaneously epitomized the United States’ imperial agenda. Roosevelt and others like him believed a reinvigorated masculinity would preserve the American race’s superiority against foreign foes and the effeminizing effects of over-civilization. The centrality of manhood as an imperial ideal may well have set back women’s efforts to gain a voice and a vote in American society.
4. Racism and the New South
Like the farmers alliances before them, some suffragists adopted a cruel racial position. When it became necessary to choose between supporting votes for all disenfranchised people or votes for only women, many suffragists abandoned the fight for African Americans who were being denied the right to vote in the South. Some felt this was reasonable, since black leaders had abandoned women a generation earlier in their effort to secure passage of a Constitutional amendment insuring black voting rights. But some women, even outside the South, went a step further and argued that white women’s votes were necessary to maintain white supremacy. Some white American suffragists argued that enfranchising white upper- and middle-class women would counteract black voters.
Emancipation had overturned the southern social order. When Reconstruction had attempted to grant freedpeople full citizenship rights, whites had lashed out in fear, anger, and resentment. Southern whites resisted not only in organized terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan but in political corruption, economic exploitation, and violent intimidation. Whites took back control of state and local governments and used their reclaimed power to disenfranchise African Americans and pass “Jim Crow” laws segregating schools, transportation, employment, and various public and private facilities. The reestablishment of white supremacy in the so-called “redemption” of the South from Reconstruction contradicted proclamations of a “New” South. And nothing so forcefully continued the barbaric southern past than the wave of lynchings that washed across the South. Whether for actual crimes or fabricated crimes or for no crimes at all, white mobs murdered roughly five thousand African Americans between the 1880s and the 1950s.
Lynching, the illegal hanging of victims by angry mobs, was not just murder; it was a ritual rich with symbolism. Many victims were not simply hanged, they were terrorized, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and shot. Southern lynchings often became carnivals, public spectacles attended by thousands of eager spectators. Rail lines ran special cars to accommodate the rush of participants. Vendors sold keepsakes. Perpetrators posed for photos and collected mementos. One notorious example occurred in Georgia in 1899. Accused of killing his white employer and raping the man’s wife, twenty-four-year old Sam Hose was taken by a mob from the Newnan town jail where he was being held before trial. Word of the impending lynching quickly spread, and specially chartered passenger trains brought thousands of visitors from Atlanta to witness the gruesome affair. Members of the mob tortured Hose for about an hour. They sliced off Hose’s ears, fingers, genitals, and cut the skin off his face as he screamed in agony. Then they poured a can of kerosene over his body, burned him alive, and sold his body parts as souvenirs.
At the height of Southern lynching, in the last years of the nineteenth century, white southerners murdered two to three African Americans every week. In general, lynchings were most frequent in the Cotton Belt of the Lower South, where southern blacks were most numerous and where most worked as tenant farmers and field hands on the cotton farms of white landowners. Mississippi and Georgia had the greatest number of recorded lynchings: from 1880 to 1930, Mississippi lynch mobs killed over five hundred African Americans; Georgia mobs murdered more than four hundred. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many prominent southerners openly supported lynching, arguing that it was a necessary evil to punish black rapists and deter others. The supposed threat of sexual assault of white women by black men was used for generations as an excuse for white violence. In the late 1890s, Georgia newspaper columnist and noted women’s rights activist Rebecca Latimer Felton (who would later become the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate) endorsed such extrajudicial killings. She said, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.” Felton praised the killing of Sam Hose, saying he had deserved less sympathy than a rabid dog. When opponents argued that lynching violated victims’ constitutional rights, South Carolina governor Coleman Blease angrily responded, “Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of South Carolina, I say to hell with the Constitution.”
But how to circumvent the Constitution was an ongoing problem for white supremacists. The Fourteenth Amendment had promised equal protection under the law and the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from denying any citizen the right to vote on the basis of race. In 1890, a Mississippi state newspaper called on politicians to devise “some legal defensible substitute for the abhorrent and evil methods on which white supremacy lies.” The state’s Democratic Party responded with a new state constitution designed to purge “corruption” at the ballot box by disenfranchising blacks. African Americans hoping to vote in Mississippi would have to jump through a series of hurdles designed to exclude them from political power. The state first established a poll tax, which required voters to pay for the privilege of voting. Second, it stripped suffrage from those convicted of petty crimes most common among African Americans. Next, the state required voters to pass a literacy test. The disenfranchisement laws effectively moved electoral conflict from the ballot box, where public attention was greatest, to the voting registrar, where party officials were able to deny the ballot without the appearance of fraud. This technique was so successful that it has continued to be practiced to the present.
Between 1895 and 1908, the rest of the states in the South approved new constitutions including these disenfranchisement tools. Six southern states also added a grandfather clause, which automatically enfranchised anyone whose grandfather was eligible to vote in 1867. This ensured that poor, illiterate whites who would have been otherwise excluded by poll taxes or literacy tests would still be eligible. Finally, each southern state adopted an all-white primary and excluded blacks from the only political contests that mattered across much of the South. These white supremacist tools did their work well. In 1900 Alabama had 121,159 literate black men of voting age. Only 3,742 were registered to vote. 130,000 black Louisiana voters had voted in the contentious election of 1896. Only 5,320 voted in 1900. While African Americans were clearly the target of these laws, some whites were disenfranchised as well. But most southern whites considered this a price worth paying to prevent the black vote that “corrupted” the region’s elections.
At the same time that the South’s Democratic leaders were adopting the tools to disenfranchise the region’s black voters, these same legislatures were constructing an elaborate system of racial segregation. In rural areas, an African American who broke the local community’s racial norms could expect swift personal sanction that often included violence. Crop lien and convict lease systems were important legal tools of racial control in the rural South. Maintaining white supremacy in the city, however, was a different matter altogether. As railroad networks and cities expanded, so did the anonymity and freedom of southern blacks. Southern cities were becoming a center of black middle-class life that threatened racial hierarchies. White southerners relied on segregation to maintain white supremacy in restaurants, theaters, public restrooms, schools, water fountains, train cars, and hospitals.
Segregation violated the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. To protect white supremacy, the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment only prevented discrimination directly by states. It did not prevent segregation imposed by individuals, businesses, or other entities. Southern states exploited this interpretation by segregating railroad cars in 1888. Then, in a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1896, New Orleans resident Homer Plessy challenged the constitutionality of Louisiana’s segregation of streetcars. The court ruled against Plessy and established the legal principle of separate but equal. The law said racially segregated facilities were acceptable as long as they were equivalent. In reality this was almost never the case. The Supreme Court defended its decision with language that echoed the racist assumptions of the day. “If one race be inferior to the other socially,” the justices explained, “the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Justice John Harlan, the lone dissenter, countered, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” Harlan went on to warn that the court’s decision would “permit the seeds of race hatred to be planted under the sanction of law.” Ignoring Harlan’s warning, whites segregated public spaces throughout the South.
Segregation was built on the constitutional fallacy of “separate but equal.” Southern whites erected a defense of white supremacy that would last nearly sixty years. The South rejected black citizenship and limited black social and cultural life to segregated spaces. African Americans lived divided lives, acting the part whites demanded of them in public while maintaining their own world apart from whites. But many black Americans of the Progressive Era resisted their separation from the mainstream of American culture. Activists such as Ida Wells worked against southern lynching, while Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois offered competing visions of the possibilities of African American life. Washington and Du Bois were activists with extremely different life experiences, and this difference resulted in years of intense rivalry as they each advocated their distinct strategies for the uplifting of black Americans.
Born in Virginia in 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was subjected to the degradation and exploitation of slavery early in life. But Washington also developed an insatiable thirst to learn. After working his way through the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, Washington established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington envisioned that Tuskegee’s contribution to black life would come through industrial education and vocational training. He believed that attaining practical skills would help African Americans achieve economic independence and develope a sense of self-worth and pride of accomplishment, even while living within the restrictions of Jim Crow. Washington poured his life into Tuskegee and led the institute for over thirty years, By his death in 1915 Tuskegee’s endowment had grown from a starting grant of $2,000 to over $1.5 million, which insured its survival to the present as Tuskegee University.
Washington was both praised as a race leader and criticized as an accommodationist to America’s unjust racial hierarchy. He argued that blacks should focus on education and entrepreneurship instead of directly challenging segregation and Jim Crow. This public position of conciliation toward white supremacy concealed Washington’s efforts to assist African Americans in their legal and economic struggle for racial justice. In addition to founding and leading Tuskegee, Washington published a handful of influential books, including the autobiography Up from Slavery (1901). Washington was also active in black journalism, working to fund and support black newspaper publications, many of which sought to counter W.E.B. Du Bois’s growing influence.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in western Massachusetts in 1868, the child of free black parents. He had his first experience of the South when he went to Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee. Du Bois’ time in the South in 1880s left a distinct impression that would lead him to study what he called the “Negro problem,” the systemic racial and economic discrimination that Du Bois predicted would be the problem of the twentieth century. After Fisk, Du Bois attended Harvard, crossed the Atlantic for graduate work in Germany, and returning to Harvard in 1895, became the first black American to receive a PhD there.
Du Bois became one of America’s foremost intellectual leaders on questions of social justice with writing that underscored the humanity of African Americans. Du Bois taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio and Atlanta University in Georgia and wrote about the history of the transatlantic slave trade and black life in urban Philadelphia. The most well-known of his works included The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Darkwater (1920). In addition to publications and teaching, Du Bois supported black civil rights with the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, which he helped found in 1909. Du Bois worked with the NAACP from 1909 to 1934 as editor of The Crisis, one of America’s leading black publications. Du Bois attacked what he considered Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist approach to civil rights and urged black Americans to concede to nothing, to make no compromises and advocate for equal rights under the law. Du Bois said Washington had “implicitly abandoned all political and social rights…I never thought Washington was a bad man…I believed him to be sincere, though wrong.”
With white supremacy secured, prominent white southerners looked outward for support. New South boosters hoped to confront post-Reconstruction uncertainties by rebuilding the South’s economy and convincing the nation that the South could be more than an economically backward, race-obsessed backwater. To support this goal, they began to retell the history of the recent past. A kind of civic religion known as the “Lost Cause” glorified the Confederacy and romanticized the Old South. White southerners looked forward to a segregated future while simultaneously imagining a past inhabited by contented and loyal slaves, benevolent and generous masters, chivalric and honorable men, and pure and faithful southern belles. Secession, they began to claim, had not been about protecting the institution of slavery. Confederate soldiers had fought only for home and honor, not the continued ownership of human beings. The New South, then, would be built physically with new technologies, new investments, and new industries, but would celebrate the political and social customs of the Old South.
Lost Cause champions dominated the South. Women’s groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy joined with Confederate veterans to preserve a pro-Confederate past. They built Confederate monuments and celebrated Confederate veterans on Memorial Day. Across the South, towns erected statues of General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures. By the turn of the twentieth century, the idealized Lost Cause past was entrenched not only in the South but had gained credibility throughout the country. A generation of historians, from about 1900 to the 1930s, wrote histories that supported the Southern perspective. And in 1905, North Carolinian Thomas F. Dixon published a novel, The Clansman, which depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of the South against the corruption of African American and northern “carpetbag” misrule during Reconstruction. In 1915, acclaimed film director David W. Griffith adapted Dixon’s novel into the groundbreaking blockbuster film, Birth of a Nation. The romanticized version of the antebellum South and the distortion of Reconstruction dominated popular imagination and the film almost singlehandedly rejuvenated the Ku Klux Klan.
While Lost Cause defenders mythologized their past, New South boosters struggled to wrench the South into the modern world. Railroads, roads, and manufacturing became their focus. The region attracted industries like textiles, tobacco, furniture, and steel. While agriculture, especially cotton production, remained the mainstay of the region’s economy, these new industries provided new wealth for owners, new investments for the region, and new opportunities for the exploding number of landless farmers to finally flee the land. Industries offered low-paying jobs but also opportunity for rural poor who could no longer sustain themselves through subsistence farming. Men, women, and children all moved into wage work. At the turn of the twentieth century, nearly one fourth of southern mill workers were children aged six to sixteen.
5. Targeting Trusts
In one of the defining books of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly argued in 1909 that because “the corrupt politician has usurped too much of the power which should be exercised by the people,” the “millionaire and the trust have appropriated too many of the economic opportunities formerly enjoyed by the people.” The people had failed to hold their politicians accountable, which had allowed corporations and their owners to dominate American economic life. Croly and other reformers believed that wealth inequality eroded democracy and the people had to win back the power usurped by the moneyed trusts. These “trusts” were monopolies or cartels that entered into agreements or consolidations (often illegally) to control a specific product or industry.
The rapid industrialization, technological advancement, and urban growth of the 1870s and 1880s triggered major changes in the way businesses structured themselves. Many believed a Second Industrial Revolution was underway, enabled by new technological inventions and propelled by new national and global markets and by the federal government’s laissez faire, or “hands off,” economic policy. An argument influenced by the ideas of social Darwinism claimed that an unregulated business climate had allowed for the beneficial growth of trusts, notably Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel (consolidated in 1901 with other producers as U.S. Steel) and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. These two corporate giants displayed the vertical and horizontal integration strategies common to the new trusts: Carnegie used vertical integration to control every phase of business from raw materials to transportation, manufacturing, and distribution; and Rockefeller practiced horizontal integration by buying out competing refineries. Once they dominated a market, critics warned, the trusts would be free to inflate prices, bully rivals, and bribe politicians.
Between 1897 and 1904, over four thousand companies were consolidated down into 257 corporations. The twentieth century became the age of monopoly and the aggressive businessmen known as robber barons. Their cutthroat stifling of economic competition, mistreatment of workers, and corruption of politics sparked an opposition that pushed for regulations to rein in the power of monopolies. The great corporations became a major target of reformers. Big business, whether in meatpacking, railroads, telegraph lines, oil, or steel, posed new problems for the American legal system. Before the Civil War, most businesses had operated in a single state. They might ship goods across state lines or to other countries, but they typically had offices and factories in just one state. However, once railroad routes crossed several state lines and mass-producing corporations operated across the nation, questions arose about who had the authority to regulate such firms. During the 1870s, many states passed laws to check the growing power of corporations. In 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws in a series of rulings, finding in cases such as Munn v. Illinois and Stone v. Wisconsin that railroads and other companies of similar size necessarily affected the public interest and could thus be regulated by individual states. Later rulings, however, conceded that only the federal government could constitutionally regulate interstate commerce and the new national businesses operating it. In 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which established the Interstate Commerce Commission to prevent discriminatory and predatory pricing practices. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 aimed to limit the anticompetitive practices institutionalized in cartels and monopolistic corporations. The Sherman Act declared that not all monopolies were illegal, only those that “unreasonably” stifled free trade. The courts seized on the law’s vague language, however, and the act was turned against itself to limit the growing power of labor unions. Only in 1914, with the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, did Congress attempt to close loopholes in previous legislation.
Aggression against the trusts and the progressive practice of “trust busting” gained popularity with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Roosevelt was by no means antibusiness, he imagined himself a mediator between opposing forces such as between labor unions and corporate executives. Despite his own wealthy background, Roosevelt pushed for antitrust legislation and regulations, arguing that the courts could not be relied on to break up the trusts. Roosevelt also used his own moral judgment to determine which monopolies he would pursue. Roosevelt believed that there were good and bad trusts, necessary monopolies and corrupt ones. Although his reputation as a trust buster was wildly exaggerated, he was the first major national politician to go after the trusts. “The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts,” he said, “are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.” Roosevelt was also an expert at reading which way the political winds were blowing, and may have been responding to popular opinion in his choice of targets.
His first target was the Northern Securities Company, a trust used by wealthy bankers, including J. P. Morgan, to hold controlling shares in all the major railroad companies in the American Northwest. By controlling the majority of shares, rather than the principal, Morgan and his collaborators tried to claim that it was not a monopoly and circumvent the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Roosevelt’s administration sued and in 1904 the Northern Securities Company disbanded into separate competitive companies. Two years later Roosevelt signed the Hepburn Act, allowing the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate best practices and set reasonable rates for the railroads. Roosevelt was more interested in regulating corporations than breaking them apart. However, his successor William Howard Taft firmly believed in court-led trust busting and during his four years in office more than doubled the number of monopoly breakups that occurred during Roosevelt’s seven years in office. Taft notably went after U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation that J.P. Morgan had formed by merging nearly every major American steel producer.
Trust busting and the handling of monopolies dominated the election of 1912. When the Republican Party re-nominated the incumbent Taft for a second term, Roosevelt left the party and formed the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican votes, allowing the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to carry forty states with only about 42 percent of the popular vote. Wilson’s platform emphasized neither trust busting nor federal regulation but rather small-business incentives so that individual companies could increase their competitive chances. Yet once he won the election, Wilson edged nearer to Roosevelt’s position, signing the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914. The Clayton Anti-Trust Act substantially enhanced the Sherman Act, specifically regulating mergers and price discrimination and protecting labor’s access to collective bargaining and related strategies of picketing, boycotting, and protesting. Congress created the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the Clayton Act, ensuring at least some measure of implementation.