Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Incredible American Decade

A review of Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America (2003)

(Rating 5 of 5)

As I continue to march through the ages, I now come across Nathan Miller's guide to America in the 1920s. It was a decade that saw an incredible transformation of a nation and a people. This was the era where the motorized car did away with the horse and buggy forever. Sandwiched in between two world wars, the 1920s buzzed with excitement and wonder about the new age. This was the first decade that American women were able to vote in Federal elections. In this era, flight would start to become a more mainstream way of traveling and the skies of the major cities would see the rise of the new incredible feet of engineering: the Skyscraper. With the new popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire now heading into its second season, I would recommend this book as a great introductory guide. It presents a world where alcohol was illegal yet almost everyone was still drinking.

Leadership in the Twenties was lacking in comparison to the nation's first two decades in the twentieth century. The first fifth of the century the nation was led by the inspirational leadership of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the president who was not as successful, William H. Taft—was a great man in his own right. The Twenties saw the leadership of the pathetic, to the boring, and ended with a disaster. Warren G. Harding started the decade off with his election which was the first time in American history in which women participated. It was unfortunate that such a sad president was the result of this historic occasion. Harding was not himself a bad man but he knew that he was not qualified for the job that the people had elected him to do.

(President Warren G. Harding, not that intelligent)

“'John, I can't make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side and they seem to be right and then—God!--I talk to the other side and they seem just as right, and here I am where I started. I know somewhere there is a book that will give me the truth, but hell, I couldn't read the book. I know somewhere there is an economist who knows the truth, and I don't know where to find him, and haven't the sense to know and trust him when I find him. God, what a job!'” (p.88)

(President Calvin Coolidge, smarted than Harding but the personality of a rock)

Calvin Coolidge was smart but dull. He was known as the last nineteenth century president. It was under his leadership that the country went through great prosperity in the heart of the decade. Despite great economic success President Coolidge governed over a nation that had a growing cancer. This cancer, one of the nasty aspects of the 1920s, was raised to height of its power during the decade. The cancer was the hateful Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was more than just a terrorist organization. It was a hate group that extended its political power into the halls of Congress.

“Both Texas and Indiana were represented in the U.S. Senate by Klansmen, about seventy-five members of Congress owed their seats to the Klan, and the governors of Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, California, and Oregon had been elected with its support. In Oregon, where there were over 100,000 Klansmen in a population of 850,000, the Klan elected the mayor of Portland and would have succeeded in outlawing Catholic schools except for a ruling by the Supreme Court.” (p.145)

(Klan march on Washington)

Miller describes how the nation really changed in the Twenties was in the rise of the automobile. Although invented prior, the automobile really had its era begin in the Twenties. Miller compares the auto's impact to similar technological impacts such as television in the 1950s and the Internet in the 1990s. And the man who was at the front of the automobile's takeover of the American streets was Henry Ford with his Model T.

(Ford and the T)

“The Model T offered a combination of innovation and reliability, ruggedness and power never before seen in a reasonably priced automobile. Although derided as the Tin Lizzie, the car was built strong, yet light-weight chrome-vanadium steel, which Ford experts perfected after their chief picked up a sample from a wrecked French racer. Because of its lightness the car got twenty-five miles on a gallon of gasoline compared to the engine, which gave it a top speed of forty miles per hour, semiautomatic planetary transmission, and magneto, which supplied power for the spark and lights while doing with heavy storage batteries, were all new designs.” (p.180)

What Ford did was not only make great cars, but he made them affordable. Ford make them affordable by making them available. He made them available by creating the assembly line, in doing this he revolutionized the industry and made cars affordable to the common man and the common woman.

“'The man who places a part doesn't fasten it,' exulted Henry Ford. 'The man who puts in a bolt does not put on the nut; the man who puts on the nut does not tighten it.' He boasted that any job could now be learned in little time, with nearly half requiring only a single day. Labor costs were reduced because there was no need for skilled workers. Before the introduction of the assembly line, it took twelve hours to build a car; in 1914, the time dropped to ninety-three minutes.” (p.181-2)

(The Assembly Line)

The African-American community, oppressed with discrimination and segregation legally with terrorism and lynching illegally, found a method of resistance and cultural empowerment in the Harlem Renaissance. The center of African-American culture, Harlem, would be the intellectual breeding ground for the Civil Rights Movement that would, on the other side of the century, change the world.

(One of the great American poets, Langston Hughes)

“'On a bright December morning in 1921,' recalled poet Langston Hughes, 'I came up out of the subway at the 135th and Lenox into the beginnings of the Negro Renaissance.' While young white writers found their Mecca in Paris, Harlem was the center of the cultural and intellectual life of black America during the Twenties. If you were black and you wanted to write, you came to Harlem; if you were black and wanted to dance or sing, you came to Harlem; if you were black and you wanted to effect social change, you came to Harlem. Harlem was more than a geographic location—it was the soul and heart of African-American culture.” (p.220)

What most everyone remembers about the Twenties is the failed experiment of Prohibition. Not only did the government fail to stop people drinking, but by making drinking a crime they created a disrespect of the average person for law enforcement. It made heroes of bootleggers and other celebrity criminals. It helped create the rise of the mobster and the criminal rackets that would infiltrate local governments. Organized crime was already on the rise but the coming of Prohibition feed the beast and made it grow faster than it would have naturally.

(Al Capone, top mobster)

“Some of those involved showed a genius for business organization and made fortunes. Every major American city had its own underworld gang that peddled beer and booze and carved out territories for its distribution. Big Bill Dwyer was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks in 1920 and, three years later, was the largest importer of whiskey in the nation. Waxey Gordon—ne Irving Wexler—began his career as a pickpocket on the Lower East Side but, by the mid-1920s, owned a pair of skyscraper hotels, a brewery in New Jersey, and had an interest in a large distillery in upstate New York. Dutch Schultz controlled the beer business in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. In Detroit, the Purple Gang, a loose coalition of Jewish groups, liquidated the competition. In Boston, Charles Soloman assumed the role of boss; in Philadelphia, there was Max 'Boo Boo' Hoff; in Denver, Joseph Roma; in Cleveland, the Mayfield Road Mob. None had the power and influence of Chicago's Al Capone.” (p. 301)

Miller describes the rise of the modern celebrity obsessed culture that would get its first character with Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was made famous by the first solo flight across the Atlantic in which he made aviation history and became a national icon. The celebrity culture would also celebrate Babe Ruth the famous baseball slugger.

(Charles Lindbergh)

(Babe Ruth)

“Charles Lindbergh arrived on the scene as a culture of celebrity was taking root in America—a culture encouraged by the flashy new tabloid newspapers that were revolutionizing American journalism. Scandal, sex, and crime were the lifeblood of the tabloids—or half size—newspapers designed for subway straphangers. The New York Daily News was the first and most successful with a daily circulation of over a million copies. William Randolph Hearst's Daily Mirror and the Graphic—known as the Pornographic—imitated their rival with varying degrees of success. The taboos of genteel journalism had already been broken by the yellow journalism of Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer at the turn of the century, but the tabloids went even further with in presenting journalism as entertainment, gossip as news, the trivial and salacious as the drama of life—a trend that sent quality journalism into full retreat and has since taken over television.” (p. 329)

Second to Prohibition, the one thing most people remember about the 1920s is the way in which it ended. Black Thursday October 29, 1929 the day the stocks started to drop fast. What I found most interesting was the way Miller reminds his readers how the Great Depression came in waves. At first, on October 30, it did not seem so bad. But as the stocks continued to fall, banks began to close and firms followed which led to mass unemployment without any protection to the unemployed from the waves of the market. President Hoover had no idea how to act.

“Americans were puzzled—and then deeply angered—that a president who handed out relief to corporations could ignore the misery of people grubbing in garbage cans for food. No leader who permitted such a policy could maintain the confidence of his people. The Democrats won great gains in the 1930 off-year elections, including control of both houses of Congress. Hoover saw his name transformed into a symbol of derision: encampments of shacks erected by the homeless on the edges of the great cities were 'Hoovervilles,' broken-down automobiles pulled by mules were 'Hoover wagons,' and empty pockets turned inside out were 'Hoover flags.' He was the butt of a hundred bitter jokes. When he dedicated a monument and a twenty-one-gun salute boomed out, an old man was supposed to have said: 'By gum, twenty-one chances and they missed him.'” (p.380)

(President Herbert Hoover)

Miller does a great job at bringing the 1920s and the America of that era to his readers. My only one complaint was like like the Restless Decade there are no visuals (photos, political cartoons, or election maps). Nevertheless this is a great book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in this time period or just likes the show Boardwalk Empire.

{Video from the hit HBO series Boardwalk Empire}

Friday, June 3, 2011


A review of John Milton Cooper Jr.'s Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 (1990)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Now my march through the ages brings me to the early decades of the twentieth century. It was an era of dynamic political leadership and technological innovation of a maturing nation trying to figure out its destiny. This was a time where old ideas were being challenged and America was going to fight in an a great international conflict known as World War I. In the aftermath of the war the United States would decide if it was going to play a leadership role in the world. And that decision would to go in the opposite direction of world leadership, preferring instead retreat and withdrawal.

The century began with the reelection of the last Civil War veteran to occupy the White House. William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, would win his re-election against William Jennings Bryan. Months into his new term, McKinley would be assassinated, and his cowboy vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, would assume the office.

One of the main themes of Copper's book is how rich America was in leadership during this time period. Each political party produced an incredible president who would help reshape the nation and the office of the presidency. The Republicans produced Theodore Roosevelt by accident. Placed in the vice presidency in an effort to get rid of him, Roosevelt would become our most dynamic president ever. No vice president who assumed the presidency had ever even been re-nominated, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 would go on to win a term in his own right due to his incredible performance in the White House. The Democrats produced Woodrow Wilson an academic who gained the office because of a scism within the Republican Party between Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson had studied the American political system his entire life and was about to make theory reality. He would bring back the tradition of presidents delivering the State of the Union address in person*. He would hold regular press conferences and his success with the Congress in producing legislation that was lasting, such as the Federal Reserve, dwarfed that of his predecessors.

“It was ironic that Roosevelt resembled Jefferson in his intellectual range and depth. There was no predecessor whose legacy and influence, particularly on states' rights and the support of limited governmental responsibilities, the new president disliked more. As a self-proclaimed Hamiltonian, Roosevelt meant to exalt the power and prestige of the federal government. As a self-anointed heir of Lincoln and Civil War Republicanism, he yearned to preserve his party's fidelity to nationalism and centralization. But the resemblance to Jefferson was more than intellectual. Roosevelt likewise quickly became a patron of science, scholarship, art, and literature. Prominent among the Roosevelts' frequent and well-publicized guests were the painters John La Farge and Frederic Remington, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the historian James Ford Rhodes, and the Western novelist Owen Wister. The president promoted scientific research thought the Smithsonian Institution, which had been founded in 1846, and boosted public art by commissioning Saint-Gaudens to redesign the nation's coins. In all, through his public pronouncements, associations, and private encouragement and criticism, Roosevelt made himself a cultural arbiter such as the United States had rarely seen before in a president.” (p.36)

(Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President)

(Woodrow Wilson, 28th President)

Even the president who served in the middle of the two giants was a great intellectual named William H. Taft. Despite being a one-term president who was incapable of using the pulpit of the presidency as his two rivals could, Taft not only continued with the trust busting started by Roosevelt but he also had surpassed him. Taft even beat John D. Rockefeller's great machine, Standard Oil. One of the reasons Presidents Roosevelt and Taft had been so successful is they did not take permenant sides when it came to management and labor. They sided with whoever they felt was in the right.

“The greed of the rich and the envy of the poor repelled him equally, and during the 1890s he had repeatedly feared incipient social revolution. Roosevelt had then stood unhesitatingly with pro-business Republicans against radicals and Bryanite Democrats, whom he had luridly likened to the zealots of the French Revolution. Yet he had never believed that the cure for ills caused by the growth of big business and industry lay in choosing sides. In 1894, Roosevelt had told his friend Henry Cabot Lodge that to control mobs he would send troops who were 'not over-scrupulous about bloodshed; but I know that banker, the merchant and the railroad king well too, and they also need education and sound chastisement.'” (p.37-8)

Cooper points out that in addition to the presidents, on the next level on the American political ladder, the men who lost the presidential elections were great men as well. William Jennings Bryan was a legend in his own day who had helped reshape the way presidential candidates campaign. Charles Evans Hughes would go on to become chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Only Al Parker, who was nominated in 1904, did not go on to become a legend. There were also incredible senators and governors during this period such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Robert La Follette. Among the African-American community men such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were continuing the debate that they had begun against each other and for the African-American community in the 1890s. And there were also women such as Jane Addams who was a pioneer in the area of social work.

(Jane Addams)

(W.E.B. Dubois)

Copper also discuss the average American whose life was increasingly changing because of technology. The rise of America's past time and the celebrity status of baseball greats such as Babe Ruth and the more infamous 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson, who was involved in the Black Sox scandal that tainted the 1919 World Series.

But the biggest event of these decades was World War I. America tried to stay out of the war 'over there' for the longest time but unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman note would tip America into the conflict. Led by their commander, General 'Blackjack' Pershing, American soldiers would conduct themselves valiantly. Having to go through the horror of war they helped push the tide and were ultimately responsible for victory over the Empire of the Kaiser.

(General Pershing)

“But combat was not an unrelieved horror. Because most American troops saw action in the summer and fall counteroffensives of 1918, they experienced the exhilaration of a war of movement. World War I produced its share of colorful tales of fighting and inspiring stories of heroism, such as Corporal, later, Sergeant York. Equally celebrated heroes had already emerged from the ranks of aviators. The minuscule but highly publicized air war had long provided both the movement missing on the ground and the opportunity for knight-like individual combat. Before 1917, enough Americans had joined the French air arm to form the nucleus of the Army Air Corps in France. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a former automobile racer who went to France as General Pershing's chauffeur and learned to fly there, downed twenty-six German aircraft and later became a pioneer in civilian aviation.” (p.282)

Instead of the America embracing its role as a leading world power, the United States would ultimately shrink from its responsibility. Woodrow Wilson would fail at what had mattered to him most, the League of Nations. This travesty would do a great deal of damage to America's next generation. John Milton Cooper does a great job telling the story of the early twentieth century America. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

*Presidents Washington and Adams had done it, but Jefferson had ended the practice.

{Video was posted by ryanatallahdotcom on YouTube}

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


A review of H.W. Brands' The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s (1995, original) (2002, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

The Restless Decade of H.W. Brands is a book that lives up to its name. Brands takes his readers for a trip although out America in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Brands presents a nation that is on the edge, with the end of century that began with President John Adams and finished with William McKinley; saw the nation grow from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific Ocean; split in half and fight; and the saw the end of slavery and the beginning of Jim Crow, the American people were unsure of where they were going. The American frontier was closing and the people were unsure of where in the world they as people belonged and what their national destiny was.

The book begins in what is had been the traditional American story which, in our history, was all too familiar. It was the story of settlers trying to stake their claim to the west by going out and trying to settle a plot of land. But this time honored tradition was coming to a rapid close and the way it was closing was odd. In the past, the government did not hand out land based on organized land races but that was how the frontier was closing in Oklahoma.

Another sign that the frontier had seen its last was the end of armed organized Indian resistance. The Massacre at Wounded Knee, which the events surrounding are very elegantly explained making it easy for the reader to understand the tragic end to the last ounce of Indian resistance and the mysterious ghost dance, ends a long bloody chapter of history dating back to the fifteenth century. With the closing of the frontier and the end of Indian resistance things were changing at a rapid pace.

(The Ghost Dance)

(Sitting Bull)

Brands makes his readers familiar with Frederick Jackson Turner, an academic who grew up on the frontier and who saw its closing as an inevitable disaster for the country. To Turner, the frontier is what had protected the Americans from the corruptions of monarchical Europe. With the frontier disappearing American democracy was going to be headed in a not-so-pleasant direction.

“The frontier had been the fountainhead of American democracy, Turner declared. With each stage in the march of settlement westward, Americans had been required to reinvent government, and this continual reinvention precluded the congealing of a political system in which power begot privilege and privilege monopolized power. 'The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people, to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress, out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier, the complexity of city life.' Where land was abundant and cheap, no one needed to kowtow to land lords or employers. Economic independence begot political independence; democracy was the child of the frontier, the natural consequence of free land.” (p.23)

(Frederick Jackson Turner)

Brands does not stop at the vanishing frontier. He discusses the great industries that were rising up in this time period: oil, transportation, and steel. Brands describes the great industrialists that created these industries. These men were Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. Although they could be ruthless in their business dealings they were not all bad. Not only did they employ a great many people, but they also were very charitable with their wealth giving mass sums of money for good causes. It is interesting now in modern times where we have the government bailing out big business, back then J.P. Morgan single handily bailed out the Federal government saving it from default.

(J.P. Morgan, personally bailed out the Federal government)

However, the Industrial Age also produced cities that were a living hell for the inhabitants. Brands quotes from the journalist Jacob Riis who wrote about the condition for the poor and the destitute who were struggling to survive. In addition, the conditions of the cities powered the fuel of the political machines, some of whom had been around since the beginning of the nineteenth century or earlier. The most famous was Tammany Hall, founded by Aaron Burr in end of the previous century. In 1890s, Tammany milked the spoils system to feed itself power, but that was not all, it also provided a huge social need for a great deal of the oppressed.

“'Politics are impossible without the spoils,' Croker answered. 'It is all very well to argue that it ought not to be so. But we have to deal with men as they are and with things as they are. Consider the problem which every democratic system has to solve. Government, we say, of the people, by the people, and for the people. The aim is to interest as many of the citizens as possible in the work—which is not an easy work, and had many difficulties and disappointments—of governing the state or the city. Of course, in an ideal world every citizen would be so dominated by patriotic or civic motives that from sheers unselfish love of his fellow men he would speed nights and days in laboring for their good. If you lived in such a world inhabited by such men, I admit there could be no question but that we could and would dispense with the spoils system. But where is that world to be found? Certainly not in the United States, and most certainly not in New York.'” (p.108)

The Industrial Age created a new idea of employment and unemployment, now with most people working for wages the ability to survive on such wages and the conditions in which they had to work became major issues. Also since the interests large corporations were now very distant from their employees and moved with profits primarily in mind, workers' unions were necessary to get attention to their plight and gain the power to negotiate. Brands talks about both these power struggles and the rise of Eugene Debs.

(Eugene V. Debs)

“Arrests of other A.R.U. Leaders followed, making a continuation of the strike almost impossible. By its liberal—or rather, reactionary—use of the injunction, the government had rendered illegal many acts that formerly had been accepted part of the give and take of labor management relations. Simply by advocating that workers leave their jobs, union officials found themselves liable to criminal prosecution. Some unionist complained that it would have been more straightforward to outlaw strikes altogether—but that would have required approval of Congress, which despite the conservatism in the air wasn't willing to go quite so far. The Cleveland administrations approach had the advantage for conservatives of not requiring the assent of the people's representatives.”(p.156)

Race relations took a turn for the worst in this period. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877 rights that African Americans had gained had been steadily chipped away. If the Supreme Court had done its duty when confronted with the problem in Plessy v. Ferguson things could have turned for the better. They did not and the mass injustice of this decision was elegantly stated in Justice Harlan's dissent* in which every word of it came true.

“Although Justice Brown spoke for the court, he didn't speak for all the justices. Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan vehemently disapproved of the court's decision and delivered a blistering rebuke to the majority in a vigorously phrased dissent. Where Brown had contended that the slavery issue was not germane to the Plessy case, Harlan declared that slavery was absolutely germane. The Thirteenth Amendment he said, 'not only struck down the institution of slavery as previously existing in the United States, but prevents the imposition of any burdens or disabilities that constitute badges of slavery or servitude.' To strengthen the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress and the people of the states had approved the Fourteenth Amendment; together, the two amendments 'removed the race line from our governmental systems.' Quoting an earlier decision involving the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, Harlan explained that the Supreme Court declared 'that the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the law of the States, and, in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color.'” (p.230)

(Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan)

In the African-American community two men competed in the market place of ideas for solutions to the problems facing black men and women for simply being black men and women. One was Booker T. Washington, a former slave, and was W.E.B. Du Bois, an African American intellectual.

(Booker T. Washington)

(W.E.B. Du Bois)

“The difference between the two men consisted chiefly in emphasis. For Washington, the training of the masses took priority. Like an army general gathering his infantry for attack, Washington intended to overwhelm the fortifications of the Jim Crow system by an assault across a broad front. For Du Bois, the education of the elite demanded initial attention. 'To attempt to establish any sort of system of common and industrial school training,' he said, 'without first (and I say first advisedly)--without first providing the higher training of the very best teachers, is simply throwing your money to the winds.' Du Bois envisioned the assault on the racial status quo as being spearheaded by commando units of the talented tenth. The commandos would breach the segregationist front by the force of their intelligent gifts of leadership, and they would thereby open the way for the rank and file to follow.” (p.250)

Also the election of 1896 was a transformative election that would preview how elections were going to be run in the coming century. The issue of the day was money, and whether to have a gold standard or allow for duel metals with silver coined as well. Brands introduces William Harvey and his alter ego 'Coin' who rallies the populists with the cry of free silver leading to the eventual nomination of William Jennings Bryan. However, popular Bryan may have been, he was to lose to William McKinley, whose agent Mark Hanna was going to redefine the political landscape.

(William Jennings Byran, for free silver in 1896 and 1900)

(William McKinley, 25th President of the United States who triumphed for gold and over Spain)

“At the same time, Hanna enlarged the scale of operations of the political manager. In much the same way that the great industrialists secured their markets and broadened their supply bases by expanding into adjacent regions and eventually across the country, so did Hanna. Even as he guided McKinley to election in Ohio, Hanna traveled neighboring states with a message that if Ohio fell to the forces of radicalism, Pennsylvania and Illinois and other states might fall too. In this fashion he forged a network that eventually spanned that nation. The network united, in a more orderly and effective way than before, the financial resources of American big business with the political resources of the Republican Party. It came together in the 1890s partly because of the same kinds of economies of scale and other centralization forces that produced corporate consolidation under Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan, but equally because of the decentralizing forces that were producing the Populist revolt, the great labor strikes of the decade, and the outcry for free silver. The industrial lords and their political allies felt the need to band together against the anarchic tendencies they saw abroad in the land. To achieve their vision of America's future, they had to beat down the forces that wanted to take America's future, they had to beat down the forces that wanted to take America backward into a mythical past.”(p.266)

The world changed at an incredibly faced pace in the 1890s, H.W. Brands smooth narrative guides the reader on a journey to a world that is both very familiar at times and others unrecognizable. It is a book I highly recommend. The only real complaint I have is no visuals (photos, political cartoons, political election maps) which I think would have led to a richer experience.

*It is ironic that it was a former slaveholder who had the only sense of justice on that court.

{Video taken from the academy award winning movie Far and Away that was directed by Ron Howard, and the History channel documentary The Spanish-American War: Birth of a Superpower.}