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David Levering Lewis : America at the Turn of the Century
David Levering Lewis 1900 was a bit of mixed bag, it seems to me, on the one hand, because this is the year when this country becomes the premiere producer of manufactured goods. Clearly, a lot of people were making a lot of money, but it's also a time that reflects the savaging of one of the deepest depressions, or I think we used to call them "panics", this country had ever experienced, a long, deep shock to the economy which began in 1893 and was just abating, I guess, 1897-1898. And those people who were adversely affected by that experience are not quite seeing the benefits of this robust prosperity that came, from one perspective, roaring on after the Republicans won a smashing victory in 1896. In many ways you could even say that the century, the new century, begins in 1896 rather than 1900, which is so often true of how centuries they don't begin neatly. It's a time of controversy, too, because the country has just become embarked upon its great imperial adventure. We've acquired the Philippines or we are trying to acquire the Philippines, because, of course, in 1900 some 120,000 US troops, many of them African American, are trying to suppress the Filipino uprising, "insurgency", as we called it. I think Teddy Roosevelt said that these people were really being very obstreperous in behaving as though they had a responsibility for the country in which they happened to live the Philippines. The ratification of the Treaty of Paris the year before and the Filipino uprising had created a great divide amongst Americans people like Andrew Carnegie and David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford and Mark Twain and others deplored what we were doing as a traducing of our American exceptionalism. The city on the hill was in fact going down into the mire, and doing it rather bloodily, and others who said echoing Kipling, who had, of course, enjoined us in that famous poem, "The White Man's Burden" we were simply behaving as a responsible civilized power should. So there are those aspects, but I suppose for ordinary citizens it was truly a great time to be an American because a degree of prosperity was beginning to percolate throughout the society that seemed to be unprecedented historically.

Technology plays its part, and it's the democratization of technology. It isn't just the inventions of the telephone and the various other means of communication. It's that more and more people sign onto their use and their access and that seemed to be peculiarly American. We don't have Henry Ford but he's in the wings ready to come along and further transform the national experience.

The prosperity masks and unevenness that, depending on where you were, could make you feel that this was not your America. On the one hand, this is the time when the cottages are going up in Newport, when the Chicago Gold Coast materializes, when Fifth Avenue comes on line, but if you didn't live in those places and if you were a common laborer, if you belonged to the great union, the International Workers of the World, the wobblies, you would have thought that you had every reason to be militant in order to get your just deserts and that your chances of getting them were not very promising. After all, it was clear to many American working men and women that the Homestead Steel Strike of the early 1890s when Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick broke the backs of the steel workers, that that was a watershed and so increasingly even though we think of American labor as being blessed some more than others. The American Federation of Labor, for example, was an exclusivist phenomenon racially and because it was limited to skilled workers, it excluded the great mass of workers and as people pour into this country from slavic Europe and southern Europe and, indeed, the migration out of the South of African Americans begins, you're going to have these populations who have not yet been able to make their political or economic resonance in the economic republic.

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