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The JOURNAL on American History
January 16, 2009

Historian Simon Schama's conversation with Bill Moyers about American history touched on many topics covered on the JOURNAL in the past two years — topics ranging from immigration to the idea of the American Dream. Get reacquainted with the vital strands of the nation's past and present with the MOYERS ON HISTORY player or in the slideshows and pages gathered below.

Immigration Timeline

The 21st century is not the first to grapple with the issue of regulating immigration. In the late 19th and early 20th century, public opinion began to swell against the influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In order to restrict immigration to the perceived "better" immigrant groups, Congress passed first the Quota Act of 1921, then the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act).

The 1924 law imposed a total quota on immigration of 165,000 — less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average. It also based ceilings on the number of immigrants from any particular nation on the percentage of each nationality recorded in the 1890 census- before the large waves began to arrive from Southern and Eastern Europe. The result was obvious — between 1900 and 1910 an average of 200,000 Italians had entered the United States every year. After the 1924 Act, the annual quota for Italians was set at less than 4,000.

>>Slideshow: Explore a media timeline about immigration here.

Legacy of Lynching

Please be advised that there are graphic still photos of lynchings in this slideshow. While these photos are germane to the subject matter, some viewers may find these images disturbing.

In 2000 the newspapers were full of talk about an exhibit entitled "Without Sanctuary" on view in a New York gallery and later at the New York Historical Society. The cause of the talk? The exhibition was of lynching postcards — souvenirs of violence once popular items in the United States. Nooses are news these days. The now well-publicized incident in Jena, Louisiana is just one of a string of events — in states from New York to Minnesota. In 2006 James H. Cone spoke on the resonance of the symbols of lynching:

"...blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching."

-James H. Cone, Watch Dr. Cone's speech "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" at Harvard Divinity School or read the article of the same title.

>>Slideshow: The legacy of lynching in the United States.

The Gilded Age

The United States is the most economically stratified society in the western world. As THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reported, a recent study found that the top .01% or 14,000 American families hold 22.2% of wealth — the bottom 90%, or over 133 million families, just 4% of the nation's wealth.

Additional studies narrow the focus: This from the Pew Foundation and THE NEW YORK TIMES: "The chance that children of the poor or middle class will climb up the income ladder, has not changed significantly over the last three decades. "This from THE ECONOMIST'S special report, "Inequality in America:" "The fruits of productivity gains have been skewed towards the highest earners, and towards companies, whose profits have reached record levels as a share of GDP."

This trend, among others, has some historians and cultural commentators comparing our era to that of the late 19th century Gilded Age. Bill Moyers guest Steve Fraser notes its hallmarks: crony capitalism, extreme inequalities in wealth and income, ostentatious spending and wage depression. Mark Twain is responsible for naming the period between Reconstruction and Roosevelt, 'The Gilded Age.' As THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY notes, it is the only period to be commonly known by a pejorative name. More information on the Gilded Age, including an interview with historian Steve Fraser, can be found here.

>>Slideshow: Explore images from the Gilded Age.

The History of Labor Day

In the late 1800s, the growing U.S. labor movement began to demand official recognition. The New York Central Labor Council, a branch of the Knights of Labor, organized the first Labor Day Tuesday, September 5th, 1882. In 1887, Oregon was the first state to adopt Labor Day as an official holiday, and many other states gradually followed suit. In 1896, hoping to curry favor with Labor to help him win a reelection, President Cleveland declared the first Monday in September Labor Day.

>>Slideshow: Learn more about the history of Labor Day.

The U.S. in the Middle East

In his conversation with Bill Moyers, historian Andrew J. Bacevich poses the question: "How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army?" The answer, says Bacevich, lies in part with our long, yet little-acknowledged history in the Middle East." "The reason we are in Iraq today is because the Persian Gulf is at the center of the world's oil reserves. I don't mean that we invaded Iraq on behalf of big oil, but, the Persian Gulf region would have zero strategic significance, were it not for the fact that that's where the oil is."

>>Slideshow: Find out more about the U.S. and the Middle East.

>>Updates on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Published on January 16, 2009.

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers speaks with historian Simon Schama, who spent months traveling across America in the run-up to an historic election to discover what events in our nation's past can tell us about how we live today and what's in store for the future.

Faith, race, immigration, inequality — trace the roots of contemporary American issues with this review of JOURNAL presentations on air and online.

Citizens offer the president-elect advice for his big day and the big challenges ahead.

Find out more about the Born Again American film and project — and get back to basics by reviewing America's founding documents.

Tips on how to get started volunteering in your locale.

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