Wednesday, February 26, 2014

AHA Conference Review: Friday January 3, 2014, 10:30-12:00

My second panel was "The U.S. 1880-1920: Turning Point or More of the Same?" This really hit the Gilded Age and Progressive Era sweet spot.

In "The American Watershed, 1880-1920" Louis Galambos argued that the period after the Civil War was defined by a search for opportunity, not a search for order among distended units of the society, as Robert Wiebe had argued in his classic The Search for Order. Opportunity went hand-in-hand with a developing educational system. High schools came into their own during the post-Civil War period, as did professional schools catering to the law, engineering, and other valuable disciplines. The government played a productive role in this process. The land grant colleges allowed states some flexibility in meeting their own economic needs through higher education. Scientific agricultural stations and private sector research and development departments provided forums for individuals with advanced training to utilize their knowledge in a socially useful way. Galambos pointed to a re-defined the Gilded Age. In his view, intelligent, educated stivers seeking to improve their world replace Matthew Josephson's robber barons.

In "Progressivism's 'Gilded' Beginnings: The Lost Decade of the 1880s in American Politics" Rebecca Edwards took on the notion that the federal government during the Gilded Age followed a strictly Laissez-Faire policy by examining key pieces of legislation passed in the 1880s that addressed such diverse topics as the civil service, immigration, interstate commerce, labor,  marriage, Native Americans, and naval construction. She further argued that these state building seeds later blossomed more fully in the Progressive Era. This is not to say that the laws themselves were progressive, or even good policy, but the same could be said about laws passed between 1900 and 1920. The overlooked legislation of the 1880s expanded the scope of federal power and prove that there was not such a stark contrast between the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Instead, the two periods should be considered one larger era, instead of two smaller ones. The same could be said about social movements. Instead of a period of rampant individualism, there were civic-minded, issue-based social movements, such as labor unions and the Greenbacker movement, in the 1880s. Once again, the 1880s seem more like the Progressive Era than the stereotype of the Gilded Age.

In "The Search for a New Capitalist Order," Noam Maggor examined how capital from the east flowed to the west. After the Civil War, financiers had capital to invest. Traditionally, this capital had gone into the cotton economy, but after 1865 it flowed west into mines, railroads, ranches, real estate, etc. The eastern elites did not jus throw their money into these ventures, they traveled west, examined the ground, met the people, collected information, and made decisions based on the conditions they witnessed. Some westerners rebelled at the machinations of the easterners, and attempted to use the state constitution processes to limit the power of the financiers. Of course, the moneymen fought back, and used their influence to successfully temper the anti-business reaction.

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