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Lecture: American Empire and Progressivism


American Empire

Progressive Era

Ansel Adams: Snake River photo

American Empire

The History of Empire

Modern empires originated in the 18th century, when European countries began to consolidate commercial networks around the world. In order to assure political and economic stability in the regions where they obtained raw materials, Europeans used military force to manage their colonies.

Colonies also emerged as markets for European manufactured goods as well as a source of raw materials. This is why, just prior to the Civil War, southern cotton producers had complained that the northern industrialists were using the south as a colony.

Document: William Jennings Bryan on Imperialism in the Philippines (1900) audio


The U.S. was a comparative latecomer to the idea of a centralized empire. By the 1890s, Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium all had empires, with colonial outposts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Russia and China had extensive land-based empires in Asia. There were several factors that led the U.S. to create an empire (Christianization and the social gospel movement, social Darwinism, the "White Man's Burden", the desire for new markets, etc.), but the thesis developed by Frederick Jackson Turner ties many of these goals together. As you read Turner's essay, think to yourself:

Document: Frederick Jackson Turner: The Significance of the Frontier (1893)


The other causal elements are also significant. Not only did foreign missions provide a sense of purpose to religious evangelical personnel, but they also provided a role for women prior to the Progressive Era. Women who did not wish to become mothers or housewives, but wanted to help society could become missionaries. Some middle-class women didn't fit into restrictive Victorian society because they were "different": too educated or opinionated, not physically attractive enough for the marriage market, too independent. As missionaries, these women could live in parts of the world that most women would never see, while society saw them as sacrificing to help Christianize others. The social gospel and missionary movements provided an outlet for this female energy.

Social Darwinism

Document: Uncle Sam Looks Abroad (1896)


Understanding social Darwinism is critical to understanding not only imperialism, but many kinds of prejudice and persecution. Darwin was a 19th century scientist who developed the evolutionary idea of Natural Selection. According to the theory, the earth is very old, and plant and animal species have adapted to changing conditions through the natural die-off of those who cannot obtain food efficiently.

Those who can compete successfully in food acquisition naturally reproduce, which carries on the characteristics. Humans are seen as being just another species, evolving in this fashion in competition with other carnivores.

But social Darwinists took the theory and applied it to human society instead of the entire natural world. According to social Darwinism, certain elements of society compete against the other elements for "survival". Those best adapted to the environment survive, those who don't adapt "die off", a trend referred to as "survival of the fittest". This can be applied along class lines: the richer classes have adapted the best, as evidence by their wealth, so the poor classes are not fit and therefore should not receive any assistance (let them starve). Those who want to assist the poor can use the same theory: the poor require assistance because they aren't as fit, so the rich should help them out.

Social Darwinism can also be applied racially. Since "white" Europeans dominate the world, with many of their colonies consisting of Mongoloid Asian and Negroid Black Africans, whites must be the fittest race. The others are inferior; their regions not only deserve to be colonized, but they desperately need the superior race to assist them (or they should die off, depending on how the argument is constructed).

Document: Pears Soap Advertisement


Social Darwinism can be applied culturally. Since Jews live in globally-interconnected communities throughout the world (a premise which is itself open to question), they belong to no particular culture. Those cultures that have created products that have a global impact (English government, German science, Italian music) over history are stronger and thus more fit. Jews living in one of the stronger cultures are less fit, and thus undermine the superior culture. If you know anything about Nazism, you know where that idea is headed.

It's easy to see how those who subscribed to the "let's help them" argument saw Christianization and American-led economic development as the benevolent way to deal with other cultures and races. Since most people believed in social Darwinism at some level (and many still do), I'd have to agree that trying to help is better than trying to injure. A British writer, Rudyard Kipling, referred to taking care of native peoples as a responsibility, the "White Man's Burden".

Document: Charles B Spahr: The Imperialist Religion (1900)


"Parlor Piano"

Popular music reflected the tendency to look on other cultures as primitive. The popular song "Under the Bamboo Tree" reflects this trend.This is an actual 1903 recording, courtesy of the National Library of Canada's Virtual Gramophone. Please note that "lak" means "like".

Under The Bamboo Tree

Down in the jungle lived a maid,
Of royal blood tho' dusky shade,
A marked impression once she made
Upon a Zulu from Matabooloo;
And every morning he would be
Down underneath a bamboo tree,
Awaiting there his love to see
And then to her he'd sing:

If you lak-a-me, lak I lak-a-you,
And we lak-a-both the same,
I lak-a say, this very day,
I lak-a change your name;
'Cause I love-a-you, and love-a-you true,
and if you-a-love-a-me,

One live as two, two live as one,
Under the bamboo tree.

Second verse:
This little story, strange but true,
Is often told in Mataboo,
Of how this Zulu tried to woo
His jungle lady in tropics shady.
Although the scene was miles away,
Right here at home, I dare to say,
You'll hear some Zulu ev'ry day
Gush out this soft refrain:

Gold vs. Silver

"Note from $10 Bill: Will Pay to the Bearer on Demand Ten Dollars" Paper money at this time was like an I.O.U. for gold and silver. The government printed money which represented Treasury holdings of the precious metals. The most precious metal was gold, and the U.S. printed paper money which could be exchanged at any bank for holdings in gold. Gold was considered "real" money.

The economy in general basically ran on the concept of supply and demand. When the demand for money was high, and the supply was low, the printed dollars were worth more. This was good for lenders, like bankers, and big business, which invested much of its profits. It was bad for debtors because it meant that the paper money they used to pay back their debt was worth a lot, maybe even more than when they had borrowed it. If the demand was too high, and the supply was too low, the government could print more money to create inflation. This would slow the economy and make it easier for lenders to get paid back, although the paper money might be worth a little less.

But since paper money had to be based on "real" money, the government had to buy more gold to increase the Treasury reserves whenever it wanted to create inflation. This was expensive. When the government bought silver instead, which was cheaper, it could rapidly increase reserves and bring inflation down quickly. In other words, purchasing silver was an easy way to make paper money worth less, making it easier for debtors to pay back loans.

Document: Herbert S. Bigelow: A Convention Prayer (1900)


You've read how Cleveland tried to do this with the Silver Purchase Act (1890), which pleased debtors and was disdained by banks and business. But then the Depression of 1893 came, and economists didn't know why it had occurred. The logical thing to assume was that it was the result of increased silver holdings and decrease in the value of the dollar.

Populists, who found their support in the debtor farming communities, were in favor of what they called "free silver", the unrestricted addition of silver to the Treasury. Businesses and banks in general were in favor of implementing a "gold standard", which would eliminate silver as a basis for paper money. This is the big issue of the 1890s; everyone took sides.

In general, after the Depression of 1893 (which lasted till 1898), Republicans tended to favor a gold standard, Democrats were split between controlled silver and free silver, and Populists were free silver. But there were exceptions. A working man, making low wages in a factory job and in debt, would have trouble deciding how to vote. Free silver would be better for him to pay his debt and it would reduce the price of consumer goods. But it could hurt the business he works for, which could cause the factory to shut down and cost him his job. Many working men were Democrats, and so often Democrats were split.

When William Jennings Bryan was chosen as the Democratic nominee for president, he was clearly free silver, which is why the Populists also nominated him. But after his loss, he backpedalled on the free silver issue and lost Populist support. But by then the Republicans, with their gold standard agenda (adopted in 1900), no divisive issues, and lots of campaign support money from banks and business, had a clear monopoly on national politics.

The Wizard of Oz

One Populist disappointed in the events of the 1890s was L. Frank Baum, author of (among other things) The Wizard of Oz. The story itself has been analyzed in recent years as a parable of Populism. If you haven't read the story, take a look.

Several scholars have looked at the Wizard of Oz as a parable of populism and monetary concerns of the day. Henry Littlefield (1964) and Hugh Rockoff (1990) both analyzed the story. In a parable, every dramatic element is a symbol or representation of something actual. Dorothy represents the heart of American life, the dog Toto is her best friend. They are swept by the cyclone (the forces of nature, always allied against the American farmer) to Oz. Their house lands on and kills the Wicked Witch of the East (eastern industrialists) who is wearing silver shoes. If you've seen the 1939 movie, they changed the shoes to ruby slippers because that looked better in Technicolor, but silver is important because it represents the silver standard. The Good Witch of the North encourages Dorothy to put on the shoes. Dorothy wants nothing more than to go home, and the Witch tells her the Wizard will help her. She must go visit him in the Emerald City.

Dorothy walks in her silver shoes on the yellow (gold) brick road. She meets three characters along the way who join her on her journey: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion. The Scarecrow represents the American farmer, fearful that he has no brain when in reality he's the smartest of the bunch. The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker, who has no heart because all his limbs got chopped off by machines and he was rebuilt of tin. The Lion is William Jennings Bryan, cowardly for giving up the fight for silver in his second run for president.

The Emerald City is the color of money, but in the book (unlike in the film) the characters have to put on green-colored glasses before they ent. They have a terrible time with bureaucracy (Washington, D.C.) and finally they meet the Wizard and he tells them they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West before he will help them. So off they go to the west, where the Witch again represents the forces of nature, especially drought (she is ultimately killed by water). The Witch has two sets of minions, the Winged Monkeys and the Yellow Winkies. The Winged Monkeys are the American Indians of the west, once free but now enslaved. (In the movie, they have mohawk haircuts, but I can't believe that the designers knew this parable in 1939!) The Yellow Winkies are probably Filipinos, a racist reference left out of the film.

When they kill the Witch and return to the Wizard, they unmask him as a fake (President McKinley?) and realize they have the answers to their own problems. The Scarecrow becomes the ruler of the Emerald City (the farmer as president), the Tin Man becomes king of the east (the eastern cities) and the Lion returns to the forest (Bryan never ran again for president). But to get back home, Dorothy gets advice from the Good Witch of the South (where populists hoped to find support). She's had the silver all along, the secret to salvation. She clicks her shoes and goes home.

Before you ask, no, Baum never admitted to this being a populist parable. But it'll make you look twice at those Winged Monkeys!


"Photo of Queen Liliuokalani"

One of the biggest issues concerning Hawai'i was sugar. Before the establishment of the sugar beet, sugar cane was the only source of mass-produced sugar. Sugar requires a tropical climate, and thus there are very few regions in the U.S. where its cultivation is practicable (primarily Louisiana, where today Domino sugar is produced).

Certainly the U.S. was not the only nation with a sweet tooth. Germany and Great Britain had also continually negotiated treaties with Hawai'i, and had plantations there. Foreigners had held plantations in Hawai'i since the 1830s, when a series of treaties were forced upon King Kamehameha III. In 1875 a new treaty with the U.S. allowed free admission of Hawaiian sugar into U.S. markets, and in return Hawai'i promised there would be no territorial concessions to nations other than the U.S.

The key here is that most of the plantations were owned by American citizens living in Hawai'i, a foreign country run by its own monarchy. By 1887 the U.S. had gained a naval station there (at Pearl Harbor), and Americans controlled two-thirds of the taxable land. Gradually these Americans gained power and formed a revolutionary group, at first requesting American annexation. When that failed, they created a Republic of Hawaii run by haoles (whites). The President of the republic was Sanford Dole, a man descended from missionaries and a justice on the Hawaiian Supreme Court.

Document: Mark Twain on the Sandwich Islands (1873)


Queen Liliuokalani, however much she had to listen to the American planters, in her heart wanted to return control of Hawai'i to its native people. She created a counter-revolution designed to return Hawaiian rule to herself and her Hawaiian cabinet. This would have reduced or eliminated U.S. control, and thus the U.S. government chose to support American business interests in this time of growing empire. In 1893 the U.S. military forced her abdication. She was taken into custody and ultimately swore allegiance to the Republic in order to gain clemency for the counter-revolutionaries. The U.S. annexed the islands after those who promoted annexation claimed that Japan was prepared to annex Hawai'i (this wasn't true). You can look at a brief web page on Liliuokalani and the government's recent (1993) Apology to the Hawaiian people.

In recent years there has been an attempt to revive Hawaiian culture, including the language (here's an on-line example). One problem is that the original language was oral, not written. American missionaries wrote the language down in the 1820s, and may not have heard many of the nuances of sound. I was taught that there are only 12 letters in Hawaiian, and five are the vowels. I notice that now Hawaiian is being written using 18 variant letters, as you can see in the Liliuokalani or language sites. Hawaiian music is also being revived, especially chanting. The Americanized "Don Ho" sound is the product of American, not Hawaiian, musical taste, although much modern Hawaiian music combines the old language with the new sound, as in this modern version of the famous song composed by Liliuokalani herself, "Aloha 'Oe". Lyrics

"Aloha 'Oe"

Hearst, Remington and the Spanish-American War

This story begins with Spain, which had colonies all over the world as early as the 16th century. Most of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, and the southwestern U.S. were part of the Spanish empire. One of their last outposts in the 1860s was Cuba, which in 1868 rebelled against Spain in a war for independence that continued for ten years.

American sympathy was with the Cubans, because the U.S. had a soft spot for independence movements against European countries. Plus the Monroe Doctrine, developed in the 1820s, made any European action in the Western Hemisphere an American concern. As the rebellion continued, American business profited as $33 million in sugar land was purchased at excellent prices. Spain put down the rebellion, but in 1895 civil war (or not, if you were Cuban) erupted again, and the rebels wanted the U.S. to help. They often committed acts of violence against American property, and even took American hostages, just to get the U.S.'s attention. Spain was also brutal, putting Cuban civilians into concentration camps. But American business interests wanted stability to ensure trade, not war.

Blood and gore sells newspapers. During this time a rivalry had sprung up between two New York papers, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Both papers reported the Spanish atrocities against the Cubans in great detail, knowing the public wanted horror stories showing the Spanish in a poor light. Both engaged in "yellow journalism", unethical and sensationalist reporting. Hearst in particular was a master at sensationalizing events. He believed that pictures tell the story, but photographs were too costly to reproduce, so he used artists. Frederick Remington was one of the greatest artists of the day. Legend has it that Hearst sent Remington to Cuba to 1897 to cover the war, and when Remington reported that all was quiet and there would be no war, Hearst wired, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." "Photo of T. Roosevelt"

Certainly war sold papers, and the reports had a lot to do with convincing Americans that the Cuban cause was worth a war. The same year Hearst sent Remington to Cuba, President McKinley sent an ambassador to Spain offering to arbitrate between Spain and Cuba, with a threat of action if arbitration were refused. Hearst printed a letter from the Spanish ambassador which called McKinley a weak president. In 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, killing 260 men. The yellow press went crazy; headlines read "Maine Destroyed By Treachery" and "Country Thrills with War Fever". The claim that a mine caused the explosion (a finding which is still somewhat in dispute, although it has recently been reaffirmed) encouraged the move toward war. More information on journalism during this war can be found here.

The "splendid little war" (a.k.a. the Spanish-American War) was won decisively by the U.S. in a matter of months. Cuba was taken by Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders (his role was magnified by the press, but his aggression as a leader was significant), while the Philippines was secured half-way around the world by Admiral George Dewey. The Filipinos had also been rebelling against Spain, and a German fleet was waiting for the fall of the colony so Germany could acquire it. Instead, the U.S. took the Philippines and wouldn't let it go. In 1899 the Filipinos rebelled against the U.S. for their independence (Americans call this the "Philippine Insurrection", implying rebellion from within an empire), but the rebellion was put down.

One of the most horrible things about the war was the evacuation of Cuba. Despite the fact the Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, the navy failed to support the ground troops, and evacuation was delayed. The result was yellow fever and dysentery that claimed more lives.

Again music played a role.

"Parlor Piano"

Apparently, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders sung the song "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" so often, the Cubans thought it was our national anthem!

(There'll Be) A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

When you hear dem-a bells go ding-ling-ling,
All join 'round and sweetly you must sing,
And when the verse am through,
In the chorus all join in,
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.

Politics in the Gilded Age

Some would say that the politics of this era, also known as the Gilded Age, were dominated by political machines. The Dictionary of American Politics (1949) defines a machine as:

An organization controlled by a boss or a small coterie of leaders which subjects party organization and public officials to its will and operates efficiently and ruthlessly in exploiting governmental activities of nearly every sort for the private gain of its members.
One of the most famous was the Tammany Society, and Democractic party club in New York City that preyed on recent immigrants and poor workers, exchanging some assistance for votes at the ballot box. William Tweed, the ring-leader, was referred to as "Boss" Tweed, and controlled activites that ranged from ballot box stuffing to violent intimidation of Republican voters. Campaigns were won with votes cast by people who were dead or had never existed. The Tweed Ring, or the term Tammany Hall, even today are invoked to signify political corruption.

Thomas Nast cartoon with Boss Tweed as a money-bag headCertainly machines were terrible examples of the democratic process. But Alistair Cooke's America points out that local machine politicians provided much assistance to poor people in return for their votes. These politicians were a force in local life, much more so than today. Many spoke the language of their immigrant constituents in the big cities. They were summoned in time of family need, including births, deaths, and imprisonments. They used their influence to help families medically, monetarily, and during job disputes. In other words, for a price (re-election), they provided a needed service.

But the trouble they caused was enormous, as documented by journalists like the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast. Working for Harper's Weekly beginning during the Civil War, Nast criticized and lampooned everyone from Andrew Johnson to Boss Tweed, for whom he created a Tammany Tiger and a money-bag headed businessman as symbols.

Farmers during this era were able to turn to the Grange movement. Although founded in the south after the Civil War to encourage better agricultural practices, the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry was most popular in the west and mid-west. Grangers helped get assistance for farmers through the political process and established cooperatives for agricultural purchasing, grian elevators, and farm equipment. The town where I was raised (Bakersfield, CA) has a Grange Hall, where farmers hold events. As a kid, I never realized the connection of that modest building to history. When I go to the Del Mar Fair, I see flyers with an application to join the Grange in San Diego County; the flyer emphasizes community, family values, connectedness, and a dedication to agriculture.

The Progressive Era

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a Scandinavian immigrant who arrived in 1870 at the age of 21. He struggled after he arrived despite a skill in carpentry, taking odd jobs and, at one point, starving and contemplating suicide. He eventually got a job with a news bureau, and began the road to becoming a reporter. By 1877 he was a police beat reporter for the New York Tribune, writing exposés about urban poverty. "Sweatshop Photo"

Experiencing frustration that conditions were not improving despite public sympathy, Riis turned to documenting conditions using photography. He felt that photos could provide irrefutable proof of appalling conditions, proof that politicians could not ignore or chalk up to dramatic story-telling. Many of his photos appeared in How the Other Half Lives, Riis' full-length book, available on-line.

Historians James Davidson and Mark Lytle, in their book "After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection" point out that Riis' focus on unposed, real-life photos belies their use as interpretive images. They use the example of a family photo album: does your photo album represent your entire life, or only those portions you chose to record? Riis' photos are not objective. In some cases, he did arrange his subjects, and in every case he chose what elements to photograph. The angles of his photos tend to be low, so that the photographer would not appear to be literally or figuratively "above" his subjects. Riis was a Progressive, trying to make a point.

Social Progressivism

At the turn of the century, the middle class was different in its cultural values than it is today. So many of the creature comforts that define the middle class, so many of its items of "conspicuous consumption" were still new, and not yet taken for granted. Automobiles, the telephone, the telegraph, the camera, the phonograph: all were still wonders, incredible pieces of technology. Other technologies permitted a higher standard of living than anywhere in the world. During the early 20th century, refrigeration and canning made it possible to preserve fruit and meat for use in any season. Ready-to-wear clothing was available from mail-order catalogs, pasteurized milk was delivered to cities, flush toilets and porcelain bathtubs were available for interior bathrooms, radiators could be used to heat a room, and home electricity was becoming more common.

The songs of the day reflected some of the lifestyle changes brought on by this technology.

"Parlor Piano"

Hello, Ma Baby Hello Ma Baby sheet music

I've got a little baby, but she's out of sight,
I talk to her across the telephone;
I've never seen ma honey but she's mine all right,
So take my tip and leave this gal alone.
Ev'ry single morning you will hear me yell
"Hey, central, fix me up along the line!"
She connects me with ma honey, then I ring the bell,
And this is what I say to baby mine.

Hello, ma baby, Hello, ma honey,
Hello, ma ragtime gal,
Send me a kiss by wire,
Baby my heart's on fire!
If you refuse me, Honey, you'll lose me,
Then you'll be left alone; Oh, baby, telephone
and tell me I'm your own.

Second verse (not sung here):
This morning through the 'phone she said her name was Bess,
And now I kind of know where I am at;
I'm satisfied because I've got my babe's address,
Here pasted in the lining of my hat.
I am might scared 'cause if the wires get crossed
'Twill separate me from ma baby mine,
Then some other man will win her and my game is lost,
And so each day I shout along the line....

"Addams and Kids at Hull House"In this environment, it was possible to see that others did not have what you had, to note the distinctions among classes and feel that these distinctions were wrong. Perhaps this is why your sources note the prominence of women, who had the closest contact at home with many of these items, and for whom these items represented status and success. Perhaps as more women became personally and politically active, they became more aware of the "have nots", and wanted to help. In some ways, Social Progressivism is related Social Darwinism, putting forward the view that one should help the poor because they cannot help themselves. In another way, Social Progressivism is just the continuation of defining the role of government in the lives of American citizens.

As with Social Darwinism, Social Progressivism could be scientifically justified. Social science (especially sociology) was being invented as a discipline. Applying scientific principles to human society became the means of documenting the need for reform, and creating rational reform. Data could be collected about any element in society, then collected and rational conclusions made. It was possible to understand the problems of society and solve them, it was believed, using scientific study.

Progressivism impacted other areas of culture as well, in particular the style of the home. A shift from Victorian values of conspicuous consumption to an emphasis on a simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyle is evident in domestic architecture.

Document: Gustav Stickley: The Craftsman Home (1909)


click for slideshow

Lisa's slideshow is also linked here if it isn't showing in the rectangle directly above.

Production and Work

"Assembly Line" One of the most fascinating changes, and one responsible for the numerous wonders of the home, was the change toward the assembly line for production. The concept of interchangeable parts was not new; Eli Whitney was working on it during the early 19th century. But the idea that a worker could be still, while the product moved on a conveyor belt, brought revolutionary change.

Prior to assembly lines, the product remained still as workers worked on it. Cars were thus assembled on the factory floor, with specialty workers going around to each car, adding this or that. Alternatively, one car could be built at a time, from the ground up. But an assembly line put the vehicle in motion as it was being assembled, and broke up the process of work. An auto worker who had previously worked on a team assembling a motor now simply twisted a few bolts into an engine passing him by on an overhead track or conveyer belt.

The new focus on social science impacted production too. Studies in human efficiency made it possible for factory owners to ensure maximum production on the assembly line. Frederick Taylor, an engineer at Bethlehem Steel, became an expert in these studies. His work on "time-motion" studies was influential. An example would be that worker twisting bolts into the automobile engine. If the worker had to walk ten steps to where the bolts were kept, then walk back to the assembly line, then stoop to attach the bolts, valuable time and energy was being wasted. The work space would be rearranged so that the box of bolts was closer, and the vehicle raised at that point so the worker could stand, not stoop. Improvements all along the line could speed up production enormously.

The problem was that time-motion studies, and their results, made the worker like a part of a machine. There was no individualism or skill involved in an assembly line worker's job, and their very physical motion became part of mechanization. There was little satisfaction is seeing a completed car, and being able to say, "I put three bolts in the undercarriage of that". This devaluation of labor was one reason (along with dangerous conditions and 59 hour weeks at $2 a day) that unions became so popular during this time. Another reason was the injustice of harsh treatment against striking workers.

Woody Guthrie was a folk singer who documented the labor movement in songs.

"Folk Music"

This excerpt from "Ludlow Massacre", recorded in the 1940s, documents this event.One of my students sent me the full lyrics:

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.
I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.
We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall
stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.
We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn't try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, "God bless the Mine Workers' Union,"
And then I hung my head and cried.

Socialism also became popular.

The obvious cause of the devaluation of labor was the capitalist system, which glorified efficiency and competition at the expense of human dignity. The solution, said the socialists, was for workers to own the means of production. Originally, this idea had been presented by 19th century European socialists, then Karl Marx (who predicted that workers would overthrow the class system because they were being exploited), and ultimately some progressives and IWW organizers. More about them later.

Document: Upton Sinclair: The Jungle (1906)


Birth Control

Certainly Progressivism provided a real-world role, outside the home, for middle class women. For many, it gave their lives purpose beyond that of raising a family. Like the missionary activity during the Empire period, social work provided an opportunity for females, particularly those who did not wish to marry, to serve society in a meaningful way.

Like the new social scientists, many Progressive women sought scientific explanations for social problems. When it came to the conditions of the working poor, one obvious problem was the size of the families. Unlike in farming communities, where every child born is needed for labor, many children become a burden in an urban setting. They become more mouths to feed and clothe and house, while the adults earn the same amount in wages and live in the same square footage. The middle class had already learned that controlling family size increased family wealth. Despite laws against disseminating birth control information, middle class women had enough education and enough educated relatives all speaking the same language, to understand the basics.

Document: Advertisement: Pessary/Sheath (1891)


Besides, in Victorian families, sex was considered a necessity for the creation of children. It was assumed that men would grow up with some sexual experience, often at a house of prostitution as a guest of a male relative. The purpose of this experience was to teach men enough so that they did not hurt, disgust or abuse their wives once they were married. Women, however, were raised with very little knowledge about their own bodies. Many thought they were dying when they got their first menstrual period. Gynecological examinations were considered immodest, to be undergone only if one was in terrible pain and unable to function normally. Most middle class women first experienced sex on their wedding night, an event they were prepared for by a brief discussion with a female relative: "Couple in Embrace"

Dear, men are very different from women. They have an animalistic side of them that is unrefined, and requires a sexual outlet. When you and your husband are in bed together, the important thing is to lie quietly. No matter how much it hurts, don't let on that you are dismayed or in pain. You will need to tolerate his baser lusts, because that is the way you will fulfill your destiny, which is to be a mother. If he's a good husband, he won't trouble you with his desires more than a couple of times a month. Good luck, dear.
Needless to say, many middle class women had been trained not to enjoy sex, and many middle class men had been trained not to bother their wives with their sexual desires (which is why prostitution was a booming business at the time). This did, however, provide an automatic kind of birth control.

The poor, especially the immigrant poor, had no such prudish concepts about sex and no such knowledge about birth control. Margaret Sanger, a middle class Progressive nurse who had daily contact with the poor, wanted to educate them about birth control. But obscenity laws prevented it. It is impossible to teach someone about birth control without discussing the use of certain bodily parts involved in conceiving children, and to publish the names of those parts was considered obscene. Sanger persisted, sometimes landing in jail, but succeeding in opening the first birth control clinics. As you read the document, think to yourself:

Document: Margaret Sanger: The Case for Birth Control (1917) audio


Sanger was not alone; she was joined by other Progressive women. One of these was Lithuanian immigrant and anarchist Emma Goldman, of whom you will learn more soon. Another was Mary Ware Dennett, who founded the Voluntary Parenthood League in 1919 (the first full biography of her was written in 1996; this review of a recent book also has a description of her work, and this site has her book "The Sex Side of Life" itself).

a name="text">Influences of the Progressive Era

There are many relics of Progressivism today, including the public school nurse and the school lunch programs you may have experienced as a child. Many social services, public playgrounds, and parks are the result of municipal progressivism.

But the most important Progressive means for influencing change has been two political tools: initiative and referendum. We have both tools now in California, where either people who sign a petition (initiative) or the legislature puts issues on the ballot for us to vote on (referendum). Not every state has this form of direct democracy. Initiative and referendum are icons of early 20th century Progressivism in Western states. See the map at the Initiative and Referendum Institute's website."Family at Supper"

Much of our approach to educating children was affected by Progressive reforms in education, particularly those of John Dewey. Dewey, a philosopher on many subjects, broke away from classical education to emphasize schooling that would apply to the real world and involve experimentation and daily life instead of abstract learning. One reason why first grade math teaches addition by visualizing three apples plus two pears, for example, is because of Dewey. However, I feel that the Progressive movement in education did do some damage in its agenda to create a melting pot of Americans. By "Americanizing" immigrant children from Europe and Asia, it provided a way for them to belong and to develop as part of American society. But it also caused a generation gap and conflicts with parents, many of whom still spoke the language and practiced traditions from "the old country". Their Americanized children began to look down on the older generation and lose respect as they spoke English and played baseball. This was particularly wounding for families that had worked so hard to give their children a better life, and loved this country dearly.

Similarly, some Progressive legislation designed to protect women did tremendous good, but also served to restrict the female roles. One example is the Muller v Oregon Supreme Court case of 1908, which limited maximum working hours for female wage-earners because they are physically inferior due to their maternal role. Enforcing reduced hours is clearly a good thing, but how can a woman who's carried and birthed a child be physically incapable? These issues will come up again, when some women will oppose the Equal Rights Amendment because it would remove protective legislation.

Also during this era, the Industrial Workers of the World became an important force in labor. Founded in 1905 in Chicago (remember Chicago for the Haymarket Riots and the Pullman Strike?), it emerged in opposition to the American Federation of Labor. The AFL, which had been founded in 1886 by a group splintering off from the Knights of Labor, was what we might call a moderate union. It was very large because it was essentially composed of many local unions, and Samuel Gompers, its leader, focused on wages and working conditions. They supported Democratic candidates, and began the association between labor and the Democratic party. But the IWW (known as the Wobblies) was international and focused on industry instead of crafts and local groups. Wobblies saw nothing in common between industrial workers and capitalist employers, and tended to be Marxist intheir outlook. They were subject to government crackdowns on their meetings and activities, especially when they came out against participation in World War I.

W.E.B. DuBoisI have already noted that, concerning AfricanAmerican rights, W.E.B. DuBois was in opposition to Booker T. Washington, who promoted social and economic rights over political equality. DuBois was Harvard educated with a degree in History, and promoted the development of a black political elite who could fight for representation and rights in the political arena. He was deeply suspicious of capitalism as a cause of racism, and was against the colonization of Africa by European powers, and saw a direct connection to the fates of Africans around the world. In 1906 he and fellow scholars founded the Niagara Movement to fight against ideas of black inferiority, opposing segregation and interference with voting rights. They also supported female suffrage and equal opportunity in all aspects of civil life. The idea that "Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty" will emerge again in the 1960s with Malcolm X.

Document: W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth (1903)


In terms of the environment, progressive thinking (I don't use the capital "P" here because it often wasn't political) began to solidify. President Theodore Roosevelt has been lauded for creating national parks and establishing conservation. But don't get too carried away with Theodore Roosevelt's efforts at conservation. Early 20th century conservation was for the purpose of use; in other words, stop overhunting so there will be more to hunt later on. Roosevelt himself was a big game hunter, and on one trip to Africa the British government had kindly suspended the game limits for him. He killed so many animals that they had to stop him and reassert the limits. So keep perspective. The issue at this time is appropriate use by future generations, not the preservation of natural areas without human interference. Thanks to naturalist John Muir (see his document - he also co=founded the Sierra Club) Congress passed the National Park Bill in 1899, which created both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Muir was a preservationist, not just a conservationist - he wanted wilderness areas left untouched.

Document: John Muir: A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)


Special Feature: American Women Before the 20th Century

Alternate link to video: A Very Brief History of American Women Before 1919



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.