SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
NICK SALVATORE: You'll recall that on Wednesday last week, I talked and we discussed to some extent some central issues about late 19th century American Life especially having to do with reconstruction and talked-- and the whole, both last Monday and Wednesday, in a way, both lectures were built around the idea that if you think there is a single identity that working people have that that really is a problematic conception, because not only working people but indeed American people in general are affected by and touched by multiple events in their daily lives.
They're affected by ethnicity. They're affected by race. They're affected by religion and faith. They're affected by the type of work they do. They're affected by how their industry changes over time, et cetera, et cetera.
And the one issue that I didn't get to yet and I want to spend today doing is as the last introductory lecture to give us a background in the 19th century before we turn our attention fully to the 20th century is the question of how all of those multiple identities cultural and other influences, how they affect politics.
To begin with, let me just give you a sense of the political arena in the post Civil War year down to the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, at least the arena as it is seen from the national level.
In the 16 presidential elections between 1868, the first presidential election after the Civil War, and 1928, the last presidential election before the Great Depression, 12 presidents were elected who were socially conservative, pro-business Republicans with the partial exception of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
Two presidents were elected who were this socially conservative pro-business, but they were Democrats. And they were actually the two terms, but it was the same man, Grover Cleveland, who was elected.
Only twice in that period of time between 1868 and 1928 was a, at some times at least, a liberal president elected, a liberal president on certain issues who remained socially conservative, who was explicitly segregationist, but he was less fervently pro-business, a Democrat by the name of Woodrow Wilson.
During that same 60 year period, Democrats controlled the United States Senate for only 10 years, two congresses in the 19th century, 1879 to '81 and then again in 1893 to '95, and three of the potential four congresses during Wilson's two terms in office between 1913 and 1919.
It's important to note that with each Republican candidate who was successful in the presidential campaign and many of the Republican candidates who were successful in their races for Senate or the House of Representatives that they won with a substantial if not at times a majority of working class votes. So political identity in the late 19th and early 20th century is certainly, I would argue, not organized by economic class alone.
Many immigrants who arrived before the Civil War and many native born Americans both urban and rural all alike, many of them voted Republican, as did interestingly the few African Americans who are able to maintain the vote during this period. And I'll come back to that issue in a minute.
In part, the Republican Party appealed to its voters on the basis, one of the central issues, on the basis of tariffs, that is, the tax that the government would put on the importation of goods, manufactured goods, finished goods, or raw materials from other countries.
So for the Republicans who were very clearly in the 19th century as in the 20th century the party of business, they wanted high tariffs on imports. They didn't want cheaper British or German steel, for example, to come in and challenge the still developing American steel industry. They wanted in general to protect American business from foreign competition, because indeed at this time, Britain was the leading industrial force in the world.
Now the reason working people in some cases, in many cases, would be attracted by that position was because by protecting the corporation, you also protected American jobs. And as a result, your jobs wouldn't be challenged or wouldn't be undermined, if you will, by foreign competition.
Democrats on the other hand favored in general a lower tariff, partly because they were interested in making consumer products cheaper, but also because, as we will see again in a few minutes, one of the major components of the Democratic Party's coalition in the 19th century as in the 20th century was the democratic south.
And for the southern politicians, their main concern was the protection of the cotton crop which was their major cash crop. Now cotton is a raw material. You use cotton to make shirts and pants among many other things. So they wanted low tariffs because primarily they were afraid of retaliation. That is, if there was a high tariff placed on steel imports from Britain, for example, that they were afraid that the British government would place a correspondingly high tariff on the importation of cotton.
And since the British textile mills in the late 19th century still played a critically important role as a consumer of southern cotton, that was something they wanted to avoid.
So you had on the tariff issue ways in which depending on where you were in the economy, not what class you were in, but where you were in the economy, you might find yourself a Republican or a Democrat even if somebody looking at you solely in economic terms would say, how can that be? You're in the same class. You have a lot of money or you have no money. How can that be?
Well, also social issues played a critical role in defining political identity in this less than consistent fashion. For example, ethnic and religious commitments were absolutely essential. Take the issue of prohibition, which was-- an amendment finally was passed, the 18th amendment, in 1919. But the movement for prohibition had begun much earlier in the 19th century.
The issue with prohibition was very simple. It was to make America liquor free, to make America as the slogan went dry. So those of you who are worried today about whether the 18 year old bill is going to pass or it's going to stay at 21, there's a whole very strong movement that was successful, at least in 1919, in having a constitutional amendment passed that banned alcohol completely. It also then gave rise to all sorts of smuggling and all sorts of other things.
But this movement was not just a odd or ad hoc movement. The movement was motivated by a series of fundamental commitments made by a diverse group of Americans. First, it came out of a much stricter Calvinist religious perception. Drink in this understanding was a national sin. It was a stain on the soul of America.
And one needs to remember, although we won't talk about this for another week or so, but one needs to remember that this whole period from roughly the 1870s through World War I is a period of intense religious revival. You have the origins of both the fundamentalist and the Pentecostal movements at this period. And you have major revivals being held north and south, east and west, urban and rural. So in that sense, this religious perspective has a context and plays a very important role.
But it's also true that for many especially native born Americans and especially native born white Americans, they connected prohibition and the need for it with a overriding concern they had about the nature of the immigrant populations that were coming into the United States at this time-- Italians, Jews, Poles, Slovaks, Slovenians, Greeks, people from all over the Balkans, to say nothing of especially on the west coast Asians and the beginning in Texas and California of Mexican Americans.
The question that many who identified themselves as native born in a political sense raised was these hordes, as they were called most often, not people, not groups of people, not people from a specific country, these hordes, which is again the very language evokes a sense of the animal is that-- the wild animal, these hordes, could they, they asked, could they be assimilated?
America at this time, in the eyes of native born white people, was indeed a white Anglo-Saxon society. That would include Germany and northern Europe to be sure. But the whole divide, just to stay for a moment with Europe, the whole divide in the way in which immigrants from the north were treated, the British Isles as well as Germany and Scandinavia and the like, were treated as opposed to those from the south and from the east.
And that southern and Eastern European migration began to come in large, large numbers in the period after 1880. And it's in this very period that you've got this tension that's developing.
Indeed, if the native born, or there was a name actually given to them referred to as nativists, in their understanding of the world, there was no room for David Levinsky, none whatsoever, the central character of course in the novel that you're reading, because he came here knowing little if any English. He knew nothing about American ways, et cetera, et cetera.
The symbol however in the late 19th century even more than David Levinsky, the symbol on prohibition continued to be the Irish. Their reputation for drinking was widely discussed. But more than that, their Catholicism was offensive to many Protestants.
The traditional Protestant position was is that the Catholic church was the, well literally speaking, the Catholic church was the whore of Babylon and that the pope in Rome was the anti-christ of which the Book of Revelations in the New Testament speaks of.
You're too young to have heard it first hand. But if you're interested, go back and you can listen to it I think on YouTube, not on-- maybe on YouTube, and certainly you can read it, John F Kennedy's speech in September of 1960 before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, because Kennedy takes on, this is 1960 now, this is well after the period I'm talking about, Kennedy feels compelled to take on exactly the same kind of prejudices, because Kennedy was a Catholic, as others faced in the 1880s or the 1890s.
The third appeal, if you will, of this position was is that there were those who favored prohibition, who saw it as part of a way of building a path for themselves and their families towards better and in a sense greater social mobility.
Middle class people beginning to move into what was in the 1870s, '80s, and '90s, the beginning of a corporate structure in America, the beginning-- and it's only in this period after the Civil War that America-- that technicians and engineers and the like begin to perfect the technique needed to create the skyscraper.
With the skyscraper comes the ability of a giant corporation, be it the Pennsylvania Railroad that we talked about, or be it Standard Oil or whoever, comes the ability to create one enormous building because of the Otis Elevator, and one enormous building the headquarters for a corporation.
So working in that context, more and more folks who have aspirations towards that social mobility found indeed that prohibition was a kind of a signal, a kind of a signal to those above you, your superiors at work, that you were reliable, a steady person.
The irony of course of the attack on somebody like David Levinsky, in terms of the nativist position, was is that if Abraham Cahan is correct, and I think he is in his depiction of Levinsky, you may not have gotten through the whole book yet, indeed Levinsky himself is a classic example of somebody looking to rise in the American context. And indeed in many ways, he achieved that at, as Cahan would suggest, at some cost.
Prohibition then became a singular issue amongst Republicans and amongst those who placed, whatever their political affiliation, who placed what they understood to be a religious commitment above, if they were Democrats, above their political affiliation. So that's one example of how the nature of political identity is complicated and interwoven with many, many other ethnic and religious connection.
The Democratic Party in some ways drew on very different configurations of the American population. Especially in the northern cities, it was the party of more recent immigrants, heavily populated with Irish, Slavic, East European, others from the south of Europe. They were supportive as a party of working people in general and occasionally, not always but occasionally, of trade unions as well.
Most importantly, in the urban north, in Boston, in Baltimore, in New York, in Philadelphia, and so many other places, the Democratic Party became the core of a complex network of ward by ward organizations.
Remember how the American political system works. You can look at the national figures. But indeed, if you're organizing a political party, you want to have a foundation in every single assembly ward or a political subdivision that the legislature in a given state or the city council in a given city has created. So the ward identity is actually really important.
My mother-in-law was a politician in New Hampshire for a number of years. And when somebody would ask her, who was from not in the state, would ask her, oh, you're in the state assembly, she would say, yeah, I'm from ward 6. Her identity was ward 6. She understood she was in the assembly, but it was ward 6 is where she lived and not just in a geographical sense, but where she lived in her political life, because that's the people whom she represented.
Well, it's in that sense that you have here in the late 19th century this complex network where the Democratic Party is at the center of it. You need a job. You've just been laid off. Where do you go? Well, the Democratic Ward Committeeman just happens to run the bar over on Delancey Street or over in Five Points or wherever it may be using New York City as an example. Well, you go-- he's the ward committeeman.
So you go to him. You say, Patty, I've just been laid off. Well, let's see what we can do for you. You get paid. You needed someplace to cash your check. That's where you go. You're unemployed. And they don't have any job for you at that point. Who's going to bring the turkey at Christmas or at Thanksgiving? It's going to be the ward committee. And so you get wound up into this very intricate pattern, which is of immense help to really poor people who don't have much of a economic or financial basis.
That ward concentration of aid and help in the ward organization is augmented also by other types of help. For example, one of the central, aside from the issue of faith, one of the reasons why-- let's take Irish for a moment-- Irish people stayed deeply connected to the church was the church was also a source of support for them in the same way that the Democratic Ward Committee could be.
It was there that they found a place. They didn't have the money to send their kids to parochial school, but they wanted them to go there, whether because of faith reasons or because they thought the education was better than in the public schools or whatever, it was there where the leaders of the Catholic parochial schools could waive the tuition.
They were down on their luck and they were hungry. The husband had died. The wife had three kids, four kids, whatever. And it was there that money would come, that food would come, that support would come. So the church, and this is true not just for the Irish, but the church played a very critical role in people's lives, not just in the matter of faith although there too, but also in actual survival.
And yet as you might suggest or might be suggested, the Democratic Party still remained glued if you will to the tradition of its founder Thomas Jefferson. It still upheld in its national and public presentations a economic vision that stressed individualism, competition, small sized business operations, and an emphasis on some form ultimately of self-reliance.
And you get a sense of this when especially when you turn to the national level and take a look in the middle of this period or actually early in the period in the 1880s, middle of the 1880s, the commitment made to the poor and the working class both rural and urban by one of the only two Democratic presidents during that whole period, Grover Cleveland was elected in 1884 and then again in 1892.
There had been serious crop failures throughout the Midwest in 1885 and 1886. And Grover Cleveland, who was the first democratic president since the Civil War, vetoed a bill that would have given $10,000 for new seeds to give to individual farmers so that they could begin a process of replanting.
Now how did he explain this? And I'm going to quote his part of his veto. He said, "I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering, which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency," he wrote, "to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should I think be resisted to the end that the lesson should be consistently enforced that though the people support the government. The government should not support the people." On one hand, you have got at the national level a position that starkly puts out, from a Democrat, starkly puts out a stance that says it is not the government's responsibility. Keep that in mind when we turn to the Great Depression of 1929 in a few weeks and when we run into a Republican President, Herbert Hoover, who will begin echoing and stating on his own I should say similar kinds of attitudes.
Yet at the same time, we know at the local level the Democratic Party wouldn't exist without that central ward organization and its ultimate affiliations even with church and other groups, but if that was part of the contradiction in the north, the south suggested that there was a very different Democratic Party that coexisted with that northern variant.
First, let me recall for you some of last week's discussions WEB Du Bois, the great historian of race in America, called Reconstruction, that period after the Civil War, called it, and I quote, "A splendid failure." It was a splendid failure because it did not fail where it was expected to fail. Black men and women, freed men and women, did not reduce themselves to anarchy.
In fact, they organized effectively and cogently in their political conventions and their church halls and the like to argue for things that they understood were essentially needed as we talked about last week. 40 acres and a mule was the most popular expression of that complex set of demands.
Despite the fact that I think Du Bois is right that it was a splendid failure, the impact of that failure however splendid it was was severe and oppressive for African Americans. Think about it. We talked last week about the repression of the black vote, the withdrawal of federal troops, no protection at the election booth, and therefore being turned away, certain elements of violence and the like.
Talked at some length on Wednesday about forced labor contracts. January 1 to January 10, if you don't sign up with the plantation owner in that 10 day period, you are arrested for vagrancy, sentenced to a year in jail, and shipped back to the same plantation owner to work for nothing for that year, all supported not only by the courts, but supported by the high sheriff in the county and the system of police in the local area.
Briefly mentioned the pervasive violence against African Americans by whites during this period. It ran from verbal violence to beatings to lynchings. Between 1880 and 1930 almost the identical period I was talking about in terms of the presidential elections, a minimum of 3,344 African American men and some women were lynched in the United States, some of them for ogling white women, some of them for being uppity, for being sassy, all perspectives from the white mind.
Think about this. Over a 67 year period, that averages out to 1.3 human beings a week being lynched. That is incredibly serious violence. That is not just a word. And that impacted deeply both whites and blacks in America.
At the height of this period of massacres, the period between 1890 and 1910, one year in that period, as an example of the intensity, 1892, there were in the south alone 155 African Americans lynched, which comes out to three human beings per week over the course of 52 weeks. The consequences of this reign of terror were severe across the board.
For a moment now, I want to talk solely about some of what the political meaning of it is. And at a later point in the semester, we'll return to this in a different context.
For the Democratic Party of the south, their slogan proudly publicly and repeatedly stated over and over again down into the 1960s was "We are the party of the white man." The party was a firm and unequivocal defender of segregation. And for good measure, it was against any kind of federal intervention. It was against trade unions.
It was against any outside force that could come in and do one of two things-- mess up its system of segregation and or change the nature of the economic structure that would actually give African American men and women and oddly enough poor white American men and women actually a chance to organize for better wages, et cetera, et cetera, because black Americans, as I mentioned last Wednesday, black Americans were caught in a bind where they were kept largely outside of the money or the cash nexus.
They had to buy all of their stuff from the company store on the plantation at prices that were more expensive than in the town.
And when they went in at the end of December after the harvest was in, usually cotton but other crops could as well, when they went in at the end of the harvest for what they called settling up day, the owner of the plantation or his representative, whoever it was, most African Americans referred to him as Mr. Charlie, would say very simply, had a good year, and you know you had a good year, you had a good year.
However, you know, remember the dress you bought. Remember the food you needed. Remember the seed you needed to plant the cotton. Remember this. Remember that. Well, you know, it's a bad year on the market. And we weren't able to get good price per bale. And so you actually owe me money. But because I like you, this is what I'm going to do for you. I'm going to allow you to just go on keep going. Go back to work. And we'll start all over again. We'll see how it works.
Well, of course, what this was, in many cases, it was a way of keeping quote unquote "freed men and freed women" in a state of peonage, in a state of near slavery. This is in part what I meant on Wednesday when I talked about having to rethink the basic narrative of American history that in fact, the period between 1865 and 1965 is not hallelujah, slavery and racism are over. It is a century of living in the era of the legacy of slavery.
And that has profound effects on five plus generations of African Americans to say nothing of five plus generations of whites as well. Nobody, I would suggest to you, nobody walks away from a system as intense as this without being deeply affected by it.
So the Democratic Party, the party of the white man, one of the ways they used to back that up was they talked about, if we let our guard down, if the Republicans will get an edge in, and if the Republicans get an edge in, they are going to bring the black voter back, and we're going to be back in the era of Reconstruction.
Now for white Southerners that had created an enormous fantasy about what the white-- what Reconstruction was about, how many of you if any of you, have any of you seen Birth of a Nation? A clip of it even, maybe? A clip?
AUDIENCE: I've seen the whole movie.
NICK SALVATORE: You've seen the whole movie? OK. It's a 1916 movie. Did you see it as well? Yeah. OK. You want to say what it's about?
AUDIENCE: Well, I-- it was a while ago. I just know that it was-- well, the interesting part was that there were no black people actually in the movie, that white people portrayed black people.
NICK SALVATORE: Yes. Oh, in the actual making of the movie. Yes. Exactly. Yes. Right. That no black actors, although it all had to do with black involvement in the Reconstruction south, but they're all played by white actors.
And the image depicted was that the African Americans who met in convention, who were elected as delegates to constitutional conventions in the states to form new constitutions, et cetera, in the period after the Civil War, they were all depicted as at best buffoons. Drinking, all of the racial stereotypes, drinking, eating chicken legs, unable to speak English in an intelligible white way, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Well, when that Democratic Party politician said if you break your, to white voters, if you break your allegiance to the Democratic Party, this is what's going to happen, it resonated for white voters because this is the culture. This is the images that they had been raised up with.
So in the south then unlike the north or the west, the Republican Party was almost irrelevant because of that association. So national politics then was a coalition of interests among groups that had very, very clear differences. Think about this.
Within the Republican Party, there were many skilled workers and many of the unions that they were in and who supported the Republican Party as well. At the same time within the Republican Party in the north, there were-- it was the only place for northern black voters who, the relatively few who had the vote, to join, yet they were systematically excluded from the very unions that their fellow Republicans were members of.
Take a look at the south for a second. Southern Democrats seemingly perhaps having nothing to do with or intention with Northern Democrats because of the starkness of their racial position, yet they got enormous northern democratic support to checkmate those few northern Republicans who still wanted to raise questions to critique and help to eliminate segregation.
The United States Congress, despite efforts from the 1880s through the 1930s, never passed a federal anti-lynching bill. And the main reason for that was the southern democratic block in the Congress with its allies amongst northern Democrats and indeed even some northern Republicans.
So let me ask the question then. Were there challenges to this system? Whether to the economics of it, to the political stance of either of these two parties, or to some of the specific issues on race, ethnicity, and the like. Well, yes there were.
And I want to talk briefly today about two late 19th century, early 20th century challenges, because we will see over the course of the semester that while these two if you will were splendid failures, they also had an impact on the way in which both political ideas and not insignificantly political dissent developed over the next 30 or 40 years.
The first approach I want to talk about is populism. And populism has its deepest roots in the American experience with small farmers in the late 19th century. Its original place of origin was in Texas.
What they were arguing about was the way in which they felt that the economic system was geared against them. They had no say in, for example, in the creation of or the determination about what the tariffs would be. And that was very important for them as especially in the crops that, whether it be cotton or indeed corn or something of that nature, because they feared that retaliation.
They also had some really difficult demands, not difficult demands, difficult issues with the way in which farming increasingly was being conducted. Beginning in the late 1870s and early 1880s, American farms began to-- farming began to be transformed as what people called bonanza farms. Anybody ever see the reruns of the movie, that old movie, old TV show Bonanza? Nah? That must be-- that must have gone off the deep end.
But that's where the name came from, because these bonanza farms were large, large agricultural almost factories if you will. They were bought by major corporations. They bought up small farmers' land.
And what they did was they had hired people as farm workers to work the land because they were able to-- let's-- I'm going to just pick a number out of a hat-- because they were able to get 1,000 bushels of corn per acre. I have no idea what that's an exact figure but that-- because of the way in which they were able to create efficiencies of scale and the like at a cheaper rate than the small farmer could work his acre and get far less, they were able to command the market.
They got kickbacks from railroads because they said we want 400 cars, and we want a cheaper rate, whereas the small farmer had no produce for 400 cars and so had to pay the larger rate.
Many in the populist movement argued that the central issue was we needed, we being the populists, the small farmers, we needed to find a way to store our crops so that we could not be forced to bring them to market at the height of the harvest because that's the law of supply and demand. That's when the price is the lowest.
The bonanza farm owners had their silos, had their storehouses. And they could parcel them out as they saw fit. So how could-- their solution was something that they called the Subtreasury Plan. What they were essentially saying was the product of their labor, be it cotton, corn, wheat, whatever, the product of their labor was the coin of the realm in America as much as an actual coin, as much as an actual gold coin.
So in the way that you have a treasury system with places around the country so too you have a subtreasury plan for us. The government will intervene and build the silos and help regulate the market and allow a more equitable division of the profits that come from the deeply rich land of the midwest and the southwest.
Now the populist movement was really interesting when you think about it in the context of American history. It was deeply Jeffersonian in its origins so therefore had a very serious commitment to individualism, self-reliance, independence. It drew its protest language. It legitimized its place in American political discourse with reference to the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And they applied that to their context in the late 19th century.
But don't make the mistake that the populists were some kind of anti-modern, antiquated, backward looking group of people. Just quite the opposite. They understood corporate concentration and economies of scale. They not only understood them, they welcomed them.
But they argued and demanded that the benefits of that corporate structure, if you will, has to be shared more equitably amongst all of the people, that you can't have a system that funnels the profits solely upward to an ever narrowing group of folks at the top.
They welcomed technological innovation. They believed in the vastly popular American idea of progress, of unmitigated, consistent progress. And again, they favored-- they were not looking to attack the federal government, dismantle the federal government. They were not arguing for a smaller government.
Through the sub-treasury plan and many other things, they were looking for an actively involved central government, because it was only the government that could, they argued, that could effectively counterbalance the enormous power that the corporations had.
Their two central concerns, or it can be reduced to two points in a way, what was the concern about the impact of concentrated economic power on individual farmers and workers, because their vision was not just farm people but also urban working people, and secondly, the impact of that power on the very experience of democracy itself.
If Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad who we talked about last week can decide for his business purposes to move a depo in Wyoming from one town to another thereby drying up the resources of the town that's already been invested in and moving them to someplace else, maybe because he owns land there or whatever, that type of power raised questions for these populists in terms of how then can we actually have democracy?
Because the most central decisions in our lives, the decision that in fact determines other possibilities, we have absolutely no say in. The failure of populism to grow if you will is complex. They were never able to really to unite with the urban working class. Interests seemed to be too different. Although in the midwest where working class people and farmers actually lived cheek by jowl with each other, it was a different story. There were populist movements that were in fact fairly effective amongst working people there.
Most importantly, they were never, ever able to transcend the basic racial divide of southern politics. Again, this was began as a southern movement and had many of members in the south. The threat to the party of the white man of a third party candidacy, and the populists, they ultimately formed a party known as the People's Party, a political party, which then became the vehicle for running for office, raised the spectre of black rule, the Republican resurgence, et cetera, et cetera.
They did have some successes. They elected United States senators and representatives that had a major influence in if not control of at times the legislatures of Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states. But they were never able to build a national political movement strong enough to essentially impact the national policy.
Their dissent however-- and this is one of the reasons I think of it as also a splendid failure-- their dissent raised issues that were both critical to the nation and its ongoing debate and would have a serious impact on both the socialists of America and indeed in the 20th century the progressive movement as well. I'll talk about progressives at a later point in the class.
So let me turn now to the second movement of dissent and take a look at that. And that has to do, of course, with the Socialist Party of America, which was founded in 1900 from a series of other socialist parties that existed before it. Now some socialists were kind of orthodox followers of Karl Marx, the great 19th century political philosopher and even greater sociologist.
And Marx essentially argued that your class determined your place in society and that ultimately, the working class and the upper class would be the only two classes that remained, that in fact the middle class would be forced through immiseration would be forced to choose sides one way or the other.
Well, Marx's prophecy there was wrong. But there were some in the late 19th and early 20th century in the socialist movement who held to it and still thought that it was viable. More successful in America was the socialist party of America led by Eugene V. Debs.
Debs, native born, born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855, born and raised in a Evangelical-- he was not religious himself-- but in an Evangelical cultural atmosphere, born and raised in an atmosphere that saw little conflict between that Evangelical expression and the deepest meaning of Thomas Jefferson's words and the Declaration of Independence.
He became the national leader of the Socialist Party of America. Like the populists, socialists also welcomed economic modernity. They were not looking to retreat to some Eden, to some utopian community. Rather, they made the argument that in a way, Marx was right about what was happening in American society, not in terms of the disappearance of the middle class, but rather in terms of the growth of economic concentration.
And what they argued was that you needed to have some form of democratic input into those economic structures, because if you didn't, there was no way in which American democracy would be able to withstand the onslaught, if you will, of corporate power.
This is the corporate culture that Mark Twain famously labeled the Gilded Age where, in Twain's words, where they bought legislators, where they bought United States senators, and railroad and steel and rubber and oil barons had them in their control. Now that was Twain saying that. Many in the socialist movement thought in fact that that was what exactly was happening.
But rather than-- and Debs and many in the party, in the Socialist Party, focused on the working class as the hoped for engine of change. And in that sense, there is a clear influence of Karl Marx, because Marx argued that the only entity, social entity, that would be able to transform the system of capitalism would in fact be an organized, self-conscious working class.
But Debs, and others in the party but Debs especially, led the party in such a way as to constantly affirm, for members as well as for others they were trying to influence in America, constantly affirm the basic democratic ethos that they saw as being the most threatened value in America at that time.
Debs said as part of his stump speech when he was talking for socialism in a career that ran over 30 years, he said, "I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, somebody else would lead you out." And he's talking this to working people, middle class people. He says, "You have to use your head as well as your hands and get yourself out of your present circumstances."
So he was telling people he's no Moses. He's not a leader in that sense. He is a leader in trying to raise people's consciousness. He is a leader in saying that there is a fundamental class element here which has to do with the concentration of power, of economic power, and most importantly then what the concentration of economic power allows you, if you're part of those who hold it, allows you to do politically.
Walter Lippmann, who was a journalist, a socialist for a short period of time, and went on to become a adviser to presidents and the like, Walter Lippmann in 1914 did an essay, wrote an essay called The Key to the Labor Movement. And he put it most succinctly.
He said the reason labor is so central and so important is because without a voice, because that will be the voice, he hoped, of working people, of people without enormous economic power, at work, because without that, he said, you end up having a situation where in the most central part of one's day where the most time is spent at work, not at home, not with family, but at work, you have literally no voice.
It's as if you didn't live in a Democratic Republic, but rather you lived in a totalitarian state, because without unions, without some type of collective recognition, Lippmann argued what would happen would be that if you raised a dissent, raised an issue about wages, about working conditions, about whatever, or in many cases, did not vote the way the company wanted you to vote.
And remember, until roughly World War I, voting is done in public. And you go up in front of all of your neighbors and friends. And you say, I want the pink ballot or I want the blue ballot or whatever color is. And one was democratic and one was Republican. So everybody knew. This could be the voting booth, and you could all be on line waiting to vote, and I'm putting my slip in the box. So you all know who I voted for and I'll know who you all voted for. So it was trying to find that kind of a balance.
Debs ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket between 1900 and 1920. His most successful run was in 1912 when he gained 6% of the popular vote in a four way race between Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eugene V. Debs.
In 1920, Debs ran for presidency of the United States for his fifth time as federal prisoner 9453 in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary where at the age of 62, he had been sentenced to a 10 year term for a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio in 19-- the right date, I got to have it here, 1918, critical of American involvement in World War I, which was a classic socialist position.
He was arrested, charged with violating the Espionage Act for urging young men to resist the draft, and sentenced to 10 years. He served 3 and 1/2, I think. But he was in prison at that time. And he was allowed one press release, not a conference, a press release a week. And he still gained over a million votes, although by 1920 because of the amendment that allowed women to vote for the first time in the 1920 federal election, national election, that his one million votes was about 3% of the vote.
But what is most interesting, I think, about for our purposes here thinking about the Socialist Party and Debs, is the following. When Debs was arrested and surrendered in Cleveland at the district attorney's office, he was put on a train, and he was brought from Cleveland, Ohio first to West Virginia, Charleston, where he stayed for a month in a federal prison, and then went down to Atlanta.
Debs began his career in the 1880s as a trade union organizer in the railroad industry. He organized many not just individuals, but he organized many of the unions that others then joined. When he's on his way to jail in 1919, every step of the way, he was brought there by trade union men, all of them wearing proudly the badge of the union in their cap.
So one of the things that also suggests is that socialists, like the populists, found that American political identity is immensely complex, that there is no simple quick fix that one can create or make. Many of those men who helped take Debs to jail and who they in turn themselves-- who they in turn represented even larger groups of people had never taken to Debs's message.
As one socialist in the 1960s put it who didn't know Debs, he was a little too young for that, but he said, the problem with socialism in America, with any movement called socialism, is really very simple. How do you convince a people who are convinced they have had their fundamental essential revolution i.e. the American Revolution of 1776 to 1781, how do you convince them they need another one?
Debs had another approach about it. He said, you know, this was a letter he wrote from jail to his brother commenting on what had just happened about being taken by union men.
And he said, in a way, it doesn't surprise me. He said, because when you don't think about it, politics in America is inherited. You have to think about it and break that inheritance if you will. But other than that, it's an inherited thing. If your father was a Republican or your father was a Democrat, grandfather, the odds were high that's what you would be as well.
And so in a way, the history of both the populists and the socialists suggest something about this complexity of political identity. But let me in a sense conclude, if you will, with some words by Friedrich Sorge.
Friedrich Sorge was Karl Marx's representative in the United States from the 1850s through the 1870s. He was a working man, German originally, obviously learned English, et cetera. Sorge was writing back to Marx's organization in London-- the organization is known as the First International-- is writing back with a report on New York City, the development of the socialist movement in New York City.
And he wrote this on June 20th, 1871, long before the populists or the Socialist Party of America were around. Remember, he had been in the States for about 20 years at the time. So he knew it fairly well. And I quote.
He said, "The capitalist production," meaning industrial production, "grows rapidly, but unfortunately, the consciousness of the working man of his own class consciousness does not keep step with it. We are sorry to state that the working men in general, even in spite of the industrial development are quite unconscious of their own position toward capital and slow to battle against their oppressors."
Now this is a loaded set of words here, because it's all-- you have to remember-- it's all written from Sorge's point of view, i.e. from a rather traditional Marxist point of view. So what you have here is the assumption that, as he puts it, if capitalist production-- despite the fact that capitalist production is growing fast, the consciousness of working people isn't keeping up with it, a basic Marxist analysis that it's material conditions that form consciousness.
Well, what I've been suggesting to you these past two lectures is that while material conditions do in fact affect consciousness, so does ethnicity, so does faith, so does inherited politics, so does a whole slew of other things. And so that to simply make an assumption that material conditions i.e. your class position, if you will, is the sine qua non of your consciousness is just simply not correct.
In another part of this letter which I didn't quote, he also talks about how when working men get angry at the job and they protest to the worker about conditions, wages, whatever it might be, the most infuriating thing to Sorge was is that that may happen on Monday at work. At the end of work on Tuesday, the boss and the worker go home, grab a quick bite, freshen up. And they both go to the 3rd ward democratic political club where they're both members.
Because the fundamental issue in the American experience that helps form a political consciousness is the fact that before industrial development occurred in the United States, citizens had the right to vote.
And the belief, something we essentially share here in this heated political season today, something you hear constantly or not constantly but frequently on the airwaves if you're watching any of the stuff about the campaigns is this belief, and with reason, this belief that in a fundamental way, Americans are equal, because we share a common ballot, and no one ballot is better than another.
But we know, populists and socialists would have told us back at the turn of the century, many people say it today as well, that's true, but to actually effectively exercise or garner the benefits of those individual votes, you need to have a organization that has a concentrated amount of money and power to use that money in the most effective way.
So that there's always been this tension within the American experience. We do all have a vote. And that is of critical importance. And yet at the same time at different points in our history, the concentration of forces have been such that people with a move into dissent without negating the right to vote, without negating its value, but arguing that there are nonpolitical forces that are of enormous importance and that are actually circumventing our ability to implement the vote.
It's because of the willingness to go up against, in their own day in their own lives in their own communities as well as on the national scale, to go up against those who were more powerful than them that gives us our first reason to stop and think again about dissenting traditions.
A second reason might be as we learn more about them, we talked about two now, but even if we learn more about each of these because there's much more to be learned, there may be aspects of their critique that are of interest indeed, even of some relevance, to our own time adjusted for all of the changes in between.
But I would suggest to you that the most fundamental reason why it is important to know about people like this who may say, what do I know about farming? Why would I care about populists for or whatever.
The most fundamental reason to know about it is because both of these movements understood, in their two different ways of approaching it, they understood that the power and the vitality of American democracy depended upon the reinvigoration of our political culture constantly by the Declaration of Independence and by those who would go forward to say no when no was needed, that the role of dissent is not anti-American, but in fact is profoundly American.
That's why the Bill of Rights was put in place in 1791. That's why the right to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, that's why they are so central, because they're there not to bring down the society, but as the populists and the American socialists would suggest, they are there to, to quote the words of the Constitution, to make a more perfect union.
And it is that message that resounds across the time, the century and more from these late 19th early 20th century movements. That message, not the specifics necessarily, certainly, not even the personalities, but that message is a central part of our common political heritage and remains valuable and important even indeed into our own time.
From whatever position, there's no one position, from whatever position you see it from, you'll see when we get later on in the semester, I'll be making the same argument about a group of seemingly foolhardy young conservative political theorists and intellectuals in the period after World War Ii whose work leads them not only to a fundamental critique of liberalism per se, but also to, after the enormous defeat of Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican candidate for president in 1964, leads them and the young people who are beginning to be attracted to the movement not to defeat, but rather to seeing Goldwater's defeat as just the end of act one of a play with many acts.
16 years later, Ronald Reagan becomes president of the United States. They are not unconnected. But they began, I will argue with you, for you, to you, they began as a dissenting movement against the New Deal liberal tradition, which we'll get to again, that they saw as suffocating concepts of freedom. So dissent in America occurs across a political spectrum. And we'll be looking at that in the process of understanding more about the multiplicity of political identity during this time.
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In this lecture, Nick Salvatore, the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of American Studies, explains how cultural and other influences affected late 19th century politics. Recorded on September 8, 2008.
ILRCB 1100 is an introductory survey covering the major changes in the nature of work, the workforce, and the institutions involved in industrial relations from the late 19th century to the present.