Summary: The Search for Order
Robert Wiebe’s overview of American political, economic and social history from 1877-1920 is indeed the story of a search for order, of the struggle of American society to shake off the anxious uncertainty of the years immediately following Reconstruction and move toward the “bureaucratic thought” that would begin to prevail after WWI.
Weibe begins in 1877 with a portrait of a nation in chaos in the years between depression and the national strike in 1877, where the populace, given the “failure” of Reconstruction, no longer trusts governmental authority and looks warily upon the floods of unintegrated immigrants. As the ‘80s begin farms, banks, businesses and railroads are all expanding, leaving the individual worker to fend for himself in the growing, impersonal city. While the federal government is as remote as the businessman’s home office, the local government is both personal and parochial. Those who still live in the “island communities” outside the urban centers cling to their sense of identity as a major farmer/businessman/doctor within the town.
But as the ‘80s move on, the ties that bind these communities are breaking down. Citizens want to take the connection and control back from the new giant corporations. This desire for self-determination and a preoccupation with purity drives the labor, temperance, and religious activists who motivate a populist crusade toward an ill-defined Utopia. Business interests respond by seeking control themselves, frightened of the chaos they feel these populists would bring, and middle class reformers are wary of movements driven by laborers or immigrants themselves. During and after the Panic of ’93 these positions harden into firm oppositions, particularly in the battle over the gold standard. Meanwhile, as the election of ’96 nears, labor and agrarians fail to find a common ground. Bryan’s failure to win the presidency felt like the end of Populism, and the Democrats are in disarray while the Republican party is more focused.
In reaction, the identity of this new middle class shifts from their position within their local community to their profession as part of a national network. Membership in associations such as the AMA and the Bar Association grow exponentially between ’95 and ’05 as they begin to take control of their professions. Loyalty moves from ethnicity to race, from political party to professional organization. The newly confident and conscious professional class is “scientifically” oriented, prioritizing the knowledge of the specialist and disdaining the very rich. Idealists attack the prevailing Gospel of Wealth and social Darwinist thought, noting the vast inequalities that they created. But this idealism is quickly replaced by bureaucratic thought that emphasizes efficiency, professionalism, and the rational progress of Man.
The ascent of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency allows for these middle class professionals to directly apply their bureaucratic thought to politics. Government was to be professionalized much as other arenas of public life had been, with a rational public naturally reaching social consensus. Progressives (concentrated in city governments in the north, state legislatures in the south and west) pushed for effective and efficient government not through legislation but via commissions and agencies to oversee the workings of big business and government itself. Meanwhile Roosevelt proves to be a more activist president, leading the Congress and truly acting as the head of his party. While his successor, William Taft, is unable to maintain Roosevelt’s momentum, the progressives have moved from their urban and state bases to Congress and attempt to continue their programs on the national level. They meet with some success but much frustration, and the resulting split in the Republican party leads to Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912. Wilson moves immediately to push through the Democratic Congress the reasonable tariffs, finance reform, and income tax laws that were prompted by the panic of ’07.
Now that domestic affairs were in order, Americans began to think about foreign policy. Previously administrations had no real coherent policy but a vague ad hoc philosophy reliant on neutrality and the Monroe Doctrine. But in the wake of the Spanish American War the financial classes, looking to new markets in Latin America and Asia, as well as an educated elite looking to expand American power, push to build the State Department and increase American international activism. These first steps are frequently amateurish due to the lack of a true diplomatic corps.
Given the American philosophy of progress and a rational public, the war in Europe comes as a shock. England, via their cooperation with US goals in Latin America, has cagily pulled the anglophile American government into a tacit alliance; attempts at neutrality between 1914 and 1917 are always tilted toward England and away from Germany. At the end of the war Wilson attempts a new, idealistic, peace-centered foreign policy, but the old coalition of elites and financiers fight back.
As the twenties open, the middle classes have generally succeeded in creating order out of the disorder of just fifty years before. They have pushed for rational organization of the economy, professions, labor and the inner workings of government. But the war showed that the old fears of unassimilated immigrants, blacks, and Bolsheviks (the new Anarchists) lay just beneath the surface. This order, hard fought-for and long in coming, must be vigilantly defended if it is to remain.