History of the USA

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frequent plowing. Millions of farmers moved into the high plains west of the 100th meridian. So huge was their grain output that slumping world prices beginning in the mid- 1880s put them into severe financial straits. Meanwhile, the vast continental sweep between Kansas and California became filled with new states.


By the early 1900s the nations economy, tied together by the railroads into a single market, was no longer composed primarily of thousands of small producers who sold to local markets. Rather, it was dominated by a small number of large firms that sold nationwide and to the world at large. With great size, however, came large and complex problems. In 1887, Congress created the INTERSTATE COMMERCE COMMISSION to curb cutthroat competition among the railroads and to ensure that railroad rates were "reasonable and just." In 1890, on the other hand, Congress attempted to restore competition through passage of the SHERMAN ANTI-TRUST ACT, which declared illegal trusts and other combinations that restrained trade. The U.S. Supreme Court favored laissez-faire and consistently blocked both federal and state efforts to regulate private business. The so-called robber barons and their immense fortunes were practically unscathed as they exploited the nations natural resources and dominated its economic life.


New Social Groupings: Immigrants, Urbanites, and UnionMembers


In 1890 the American people numbered 63 million, double the 1860 population. During these years the nations cities underwent tremendous growth. Many new urbanites came from the American countryside, but many others came from abroad. From 1860 to 1890 more than 10 million immigrants arrived in the United States; from 1890 to 1920, 15 million more arrived (see IMMIGRATION). Most were concentrated in northern cities: by 1910, 75 percent of immigrants lived in urban areas, while less than 50 percent of native-born Americans did so. In the 1880s the so-called new immigration began: in addition to the Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, and others of the older immigrant groups, there came such peoples as Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Bohemians, Greeks, and Jews (from central and eastern Europe, especially Russia). Roman Catholics grew in number from 1.6 million in 1850 to 12 million in 1900, producing a renewed outburst of bitter anti-Catholic nativism in the 1880s. The large cities, with their saloons, theaters, dance halls, and immigrant slums, were feared by many native American Protestants, who lived primarily in small cities and the rural countryside.


The outbreak of labor protests from the 1870s on, often characterized by immigrant workers opposing native-born employers, intensified the hostility. In 1878 the KNIGHTS OF LABOR formed, opening its ranks to all working people, skilled or unskilled. The Knights called for sweeping social and economic reforms, and their numbers rose to 700,000 in 1886. Then, as the organization broke apart because of internal stresses, the American Federation of Labor, under Samuel GOMPERS, formed to take its place. Concentrating on skilled craftworkers and tight organization, it endured.


Domestic Politics


Gilded Age politics became a contest between evenly balanced Republicans and Democrats. Winning elections by small margins, they alternated in their control of Congress and the White House. Five men served as Republican presidents: Hayes; James A. GARFIELD (1881); Chester A. ARTHUR (1881-85), who succeeded Garfield on his assassination; Benjamin HARRISON (1889-93); and William MCKINLEY (1897-1901). Their party regarded industrial growth and capitalist leadership with approval, believing that they led to an ever-widening opening of opportunity for all.


Grover CLEVELAND rose from obscurity to become Democratic governor of New York in the early 1880s and then U.S. president (1885-89; 1893-97; although he won a popular-vote plurality in the election of 1888, he lost to Harrison in the electoral college). Reared a Jacksonian Democrat, he believed that society is always in danger of exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. A vigorous president, he labored to clean up government by making civil service effective; took back huge land grants given out fraudulently in the West; and battled to lower the protective tariff.


In the Great Plains and the South, grain and cotton farmers, suffering from falling crop prices, demanded currency inflation to raise prices. By 1892 a POPULIST PARTY had appeared, to call for free coinage of silver to achieve this goal. Cleveland resisted, stating that such a monetary policy would destroy confidence, prolong the great depression that began in 1893, and injure city consumers. In 1896 the Democrats, taken over by southern and western inflationists, ran William Jennings BRYAN on a FREE SILVER platform. Ethnic voters surged into the Republican ranks--for the depression was a disastrous one and the Republican party had always urged active government intervention to stimulate the economy. In addition, as city dwellers they feared inflation. William McKinleys election began a long period of one-party (Republican) domination in the northern states and in Washington.




During the period known as the Progressive Era (1890s to about 1920) the U.S. government became increasingly activist in both domestic and foreign policy. Progressive, that is, reform- minded, political leaders sought to extend their vision of a just and rational order to all areas of society and some, indeed, to all reaches of the globe.


America Looks Outward


During the 1890s, U.S. foreign policy became aggressively activist. As American industrial productivity grew, many reformers urged the need for foreign markets. Others held that the United States had a mission to carry Anglo-Saxon culture to all of humankind, to spread law and order and American civilization. In 1895 the United States intervened bluntly in the VENEZUELA BOUNDARY DISPUTE between Venezuela and imperial Britain, warning that, under the Monroe Doctrine, American force might be used if Venezuela were not treated equitably. A Cuban revolution against Spain, begun in 1895, finally led to the SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR (1898), undertaken to free Cuba. From that war the United States emerged with a protectorate over Cuba and an island empire consisting of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The United States also annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, completing a bridge to the markets of the Far East. In 1900 the American government announced the OPEN DOOR POLICY, pledging to support continued Chinese independence as well as equal access for all nations to Chinas markets.


William McKinleys assassination brought Theodore ROOSEVELT to the presidency in 1901. A proud patriot, he sought to make the United States a great power in the world. In 1903 he aided Panama in becoming independent of Colombia, then secured from Panama the right for the United States to build and control a canal through the isthmus. In 1904, in the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, he asserted the right of the United States to intervene in the internal affairs of Western Hemisphere nations to prevent "chronic wrongdoing." The following year his good offices helped end the Russo-Japanese War. Having much strengthened the navy, Roosevelt sent (1907) the Great White Fleet on a spectacular round-the-world cruise to display American power.


Progressivism at Home


Meanwhile, the Progressive Era was also underway in domestic politics. City governments were transformed, becoming relatively honest and efficient; social workers labored to improve slum housing, health, and education; and in many states reform movements democratized, purified, and humanized government. Under Roosevelt the national government strengthened or created regulatory agencies that exerted increasing influence over business enterprise: the Hepburn Act (1906) reinforced the Interstate Commerce Commission; the Forest Service, under Gifford PINCHOT from 1898 to 1910, guided lumbering companies in the conservation of--and more rational and efficient exploitation of--woodland resources; the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906; see PURE FOOD AND DRUG LAWS) attempted to protect consumers from fraudulent labeling and adulteration of products. Beginning in 1902, Roosevelt also used the Justice Department and lawsuits (or the threat of them) to mount a revived assault on monopoly under the Sherman Anti-Trust Law. William Howard TAFT, his successor as president (1909-13), drew back in his policies, continuing only the antitrust campaign. He approved passage of the 16TH AMENDMENT (the income tax amendment, 1913), however; in time it would transform the federal government by giving it access to enormous revenues.


Republicans were split in the election of 1912. The regular nomination went to Taft, and a short-lived PROGRESSIVE PARTY was formed to run Theodore Roosevelt. Democrat Woodrow WILSON (1913-21) was therefore able to win the presidency. Attacking corporate power, he won a drastic lowering of the tariff (1913) and establishment of a Tariff Commission (1916); creation of the FEDERAL RESERVE SYSTEM (1913) to supervise banking and currency; a broadened antimonopoly program under the CLAYTON ANTI-TRUST ACT (1914); control over the hours of labor on the railroads (Adamson Act, 1916); and creation of a body to ensure fair and open competition in business (Fair Trade Commission, 1914).


During the Progressive Era, southern governments imposed a wide range of J