In this absorbing history of the first two decades of the twentieth century, David Traxel paints a vivid picture of a transformative period in the United States, when many remarkable individuals fought to decide which path the country would follow. Victorian restraint was being cast aside by men and women testing social conventions and sexual mores, dancing to dangerous "jazz" music, and expressing themselves through revolutionary forms of art.
Traxel traces how these modern ideas were also related to a powerful progressive reform movement that hoped to end the social evils that had accompanied unrestrained industrialization, and he examines the impact of huge waves of European immigration on both the American economy and its social fabric. The struggles to end child labor, win votes for women, rid cities of corrupt political machines, improve public health and education, and prohibit alcohol brought forth a passionate response from millions of Americans who desired both a more efficient and a more compassionate society. Greenwich Village bohemians including Jack Reed, Eugene O'Neill, and Louise Bryant; politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; social reformers Margaret Sanger and "Mother" Jones; journalists William Allen White and Lincoln Steffens; and industrialist Henry Ford come alive in these pages. They were Democrats and Republicans, progressives and Socialists, as well as radicals such as the Industrial Workers of the World and anarchists such as Emma Goldman.
Combining lively anecdote with historical scholarship, Traxel shows how American crusading continued through World War I, though now focused on "making the world safe for democracy." But by the time the doughboys returned the public was tired of what had come to seem empty rhetoric and unattainable goals. By 1920 the Progressive Era was over, though its laws and effects have lived on. This portrait of early twentieth-century America reveals important qualities of our national character that endure to this day.
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January 08, 2007
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Excerpt from Crusader Nation by David Traxel
Looking back . . . I have thought of the period in America, including the last few years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, as the American Renascence, even the Great American Renascence.
Ray Stannard Baker
You see, getting down to the bottom of things, this is a pretty raw, crude civilization of ours--pretty wasteful, pretty cruel, which often comes to the same thing, doesn't it? And in a lot of respects we Americans are the rawest and crudest of all. Our production, our factory laws, our charities, our relations between capital and labor, our distribution--all wrong, out of gear. We've stumbled along for a while, trying to run a new civilization in old ways, but we've got to start to make this world over.
Thomas Edison, 1912
In 1898 the United States stepped into the realm of international power politics for the first time. The country had already become a global economic presence, and was feared as a competitor because of its tremendous natural resources and industrial efficiency. Militarily, however, it was viewed with condescension by the Great Powers until it quickly and decisively thrashed Spain in 1898, seizing as the fruits of victory the colonies remaining in that faded empire: Cuba, which was soon given a limited independence, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Mixed into this rather amateurish adventure were motives of economic gain, national prestige, fear of German or other European expansion into the Caribbean, desire for strategic naval bases, and anger over the blowing up of the battleship Maine. But there was also a strong sense of moral outrage about the way the Spanish had been mistreating Cuban civilians while suppressing a revolt on the island. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children had died in concentration camps just ninety miles off the American shore, and the public demanded that an end be put to such horrors.
America was encouraged to take the path to a world role by Great Britain, looking for allies against the rising and aggressive strength of Germany. Rudyard Kipling, celebratory poet of the world-circling British Empire, wrote a widely distributed poem urging Americans to "Take up the White Man's burden" of civilizing "sullen peoples, half devil and half child."
The challenge was taken up, and yet, in this American assumption of global responsibilities there was a shyness and uncertainty even among those such as Theodore Roosevelt who urged a "large" policy on the United States. The country needed to take a more active role in international affairs, these men believed, if only to protect itself in a Darwinian world where the strong devoured the weak. China, one of the countries being picked apart by stronger nations, provided a negative example for such Americans. The United States could not, argued Roosevelt's close friend and political ally Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, "allow itself to become a hermit nation hiding a defenseless, feeble body within a huge shell . . . shut up and kept from its share of the world's commerce until it was smothered by a power hostile to it in every conception of justice and liberty." At the same time, the policy of extending the country's reach across the seas invited attack on these "hostages to fortune," as Roosevelt recognized by calling the new Philippine colony "our Achilles' heel." A newspaper doggerel writer spoke for many who were unhappy with imperialism:
We've taken up the white man's burden of ebony and brown; Now will you tell us, Rudyard how we may put it down?
Roosevelt had been the Man of the Year in 1898, and also for the decade that followed, the ideal spokesman for his generation and a worthy representative of their ambitions. These were roles for which he was both born, in 1856, and self-made. His father was a member of a wealthy old New York "Dutch" family, his mother came from plantation-owning stock in Georgia, and young "Teedie" had grown up during the Civil War in a household reflecting the regional differences. He had enjoyed a childhood replete with all the good things money could buy, but marred by ill health and poor eyesight, his own weak body making him defenseless against bullies until he overcame these physical disabilities through exercise and will. Some of that exercise had come from long expeditions running through Long Island fields and woods with butterfly net and rifle to collect natural-history specimens, and some through steady work with dumbbells and other such instruments of torture taken up at the urging of his father, who told him, "You have the mind but not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.