The Great Upheaval

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In 1892 the splits and alliances caused by the Civil War and Reconstruction were fading into memory, like the ideals and slogans of the antislavery conflict—much as the Cold War, Vietnam, and the social upheavals of the sixties are doing today. The outlines of a modern industrial society were just hardening into visibility in the darkroom of history. The same is true of today’s evolving global economy. Inventions were changing long-rooted customs; familiar roles could no longer be played with confidence.

So in the America of the 1890s, a sense of doom shadowed even the cheery celebrations of modernity like the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner noted that year that the frontier was closing, and he wondered how American democracy would stay vital in its absence. New England patricians like Brooks and Henry Adams worried over the inroads of universal suffrage and political machines and greedy capitalist newcomers on the old aristocratic sense of responsibility. Henry wrote of the “degradation of the democratic dogma"; Brooks of civilization in decline.

Other “old-stock” Americans were troubled by the “hordes” of “new” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who were pouring in through what the poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich labeled our “unguarded gates.” The noble egalitarian expectations of the abolitionist crusade crumbled as legislatures and courts raised the new walls of segregation on the ruins of Reconstruction’s integrated state governments. Even kindly “experts” and the “best people” believed that no other solution to “the Negro problem” was possible; the Africans’ place was on the bottom rung.

All the pessimism was made a bit more dark by the awareness that an old century was descending into the twilight.

Keeping the right place was important. Some women were disturbingly unwilling to do that. The demand for votes for women was growing, and so were the number of women’s colleges. Even an organization like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (founded 1874), for all its rigidity on the evils of rum, had its liberating side: It made women vocal political activists.

Economic issues, it is clear, became tangled in what we would now call culture wars. The farmer, his ranks dwindling, was no longer the “sturdy yeoman” of legend, a self-sustaining citizen under his own fig tree. He was just a supplier of market goods at the mercy of the market, the railroad, the banks. The small businessman felt crowded into dependency by the trusts; the craftsman, drafted into the unhappy ranks of the factory work force. Thousands of these self-identified members of the dispossessed classes joined in Populist protest. Behind the railing at high tariffs and tight money was the notion that the old order was changing and that the dream of the founders had gone wrong. All the pessimism was somehow made a bit more dank by the constant awareness that an old century, like so many old things, was descending into the twilight. It was the hour of the fin de siècle blues.

Does it sound familiar? I suspect it explains a good deal about those shifting votes of the 1880s, and I think it may cast some light on the 1980s and 1990s too. You may want a reminder of how the story comes out. In the 1896 election the Republicans ran William McKinley, who stood for high tariffs, “sound” money, the full dinner pail, and, in general, the continuation of the march into the age of steam and steel, high voltage, and skyscrapers. His opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was an odd combination (by today’s standards) of economic radical and cultural conservative—in favor of cheap money, government support for farmers, labor unions, even women’s rights—but also of biblically strict personal behavior and the moral standards of rural America as against the debilitating and sinful city. Bryan was roundly and soundly defeated, and the Republicans not only won the next three presidential elections in a row but kept control of the House and Senate until the new century was well under way.

Whether the Republicans rejoicing in the dawn of the 104th Congress are likewise on the leading edge of history none of us knows. But definitely there is something out there that, like the twentieth century, is coming to an end, and its death writhings and tail lashings knocked over a forty-year congressional “reign” very easily.