by Charles Richter
The period covered by Unit 5 of Joyce Appleby’s The American Vision textbook goes from 1890 to 1920, an era characterized by conflicts large and small, and varying ideas of what it meant to be ‘modern.’ The narratives presented here run very closely to those in a college-level survey, with numerous useful primary sources for students to examine. However, both of the unit’s major themes—imperialism and progressivism—come across as inevitable forces in history.
In chapter 14, “Becoming A World Power,” imperialism is presented in an ostensibly neutral tone, laying out the situations that led to American imperial actions, and explaining the justifications for positions we find untenable today, without lapsing too deeply into presentism. This section is essentially a standard diplomatic history of the era. The downside to this approach in a general history survey for high school students is that it ends up minimizing the voices of dissent. No indication is given that Americans might not have been monolithically pro-empire until a brief mention of Grover Cleveland getting in the way of the annexation of Hawaii. Much like Congress at the time, the text waits for Cleveland to get out of the way, and carries on with building the empire. The text improves on this front once it comes to the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, including snippets of text from Albert J. Beveridge and William Jennings Bryan that are placed in a debate over annexation of the Philippines (501).
The treatment of the war in the Philippines itself does not come close to conveying the brutality the Filipinos faced, but at least recognizes that US forces committed the same atrocities the Spanish had. This would have been a good opportunity to revisit the anti-Spanish propaganda that had led the US into war in the first place. In the Philippines, the US was an invading, occupying force, but there is no discussion here of the centrality of race and whiteness in the either the occupation or the imperialism debate.
One small but timely nitpick in this chapter: Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley, is uncritically identified as “an anarchist who opposed all forms of government” (506). In fact, Czolgosz was hardly committed to anarchist philosophy, but the US seized the opportunity to deport anarchists from the country and delegitimize their political . The precedent that was set with the resulting Alien Immigration Act of 1903 paved the way for immigration restrictions on the basis of ideology.[i]
Chapter 15, on “The Progressive Movement,” satisfactorily addresses the many aspects of progressivism and the various causes that were conceived of as “progressive.” These include journalism, government reform, the suffrage movements, and social welfare initiatives like child labor and prohibition. With any survey of this period, however, the question has to be asked: progressive for whom? The text largely accepts a triumphalist narrative of progressivism that reifies the ideals of the progressives themselves–that government, science, and technology would produce solutions for society’s ills, without reflecting on who is included in that society. However, the Progressive Era is also the era of Jim Crow and lynching, and of business partnering with government to solidify the groundwork of modern coercive capitalism.
The text largely accepts a triumphalist narrative of progressivism that reifies the ideals of the progressives themselves–that government, science, and technology would produce solutions for society’s ills, without reflecting on who is included in that society.
The chapter falters when it comes to the opposition faced by suffrage activists, and aside from a brief mention of the split in the suffrage movement over the 14th and 15th Amendments, it is not until the very last page of the chapter that African Americans are mentioned, in a single column dedicated to “the limits of the progressivism” (524, 541). Religion, as well, is absent from the explanations of progressives’ motivations. The social gospel was a crucial element of the movement that gets no mention here at all.
Credit is due, though, for succinct and understandable explanations of some of the less charismatic yet important aspects of this period. The sections on the Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson presidencies ably address trusts, conservation, and bank reform and link them to broader themes.
The last chapter in this section, chapter 16 on “World War I and Its Aftermath,” is the strongest of the three, with the clearest integration into the narrative of the social challenges and debates that Americans faced during the war. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the wartime, in which upheaval and suspicions are expected, in contrast to the optimism that is assumed when dealing with the progressive movement. The description of the causes of WWI synthesizes a very complex history into an understandable summary. Militarism, imperialism, and nationalism are all indicted in creating the strains that would eventually be pushed too far.
It was refreshing to see relatively little on the minutiae of the fighting, and plenty on the impact on society, from migrations of African Americans and Mexicans, to the curtailing of civil liberties. This extends to the post-war years, with significant sections on strikes, racial conflict, and the first red scare.
Unfortunately, the last paragraphs of the unit suggest that, with Warren G. Harding’s call for a return to normalcy, “Americans wanted an end to the upheaval” (581). While certainly many Americans did want to retreat from the complicated era that brought new rights and opportunities to the less privileged, it was by no means a unanimous sentiment. Again, the question must be asked: normalcy for whom? As many historians have argued, the progressive era was in many ways a retrenchment of conservative values, even through all the upheaval.
Curtis, Susan. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Kolko, Gabriel. The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916. New York: Free Press, 1977.
Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 2008.
Charles Louis Richter is a PhD candidate in American religious history at the George Washington University. His research interests include non-religion and its critics, apocalyptic politics, and conceptions of the American nation. He frequently tweets at @richterscale.
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[i] Julia Rose Kraut, “Global Anti-Anarchism: The Origins of Ideological Deportation and the Suppression of Expression,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 19, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 169.