Friday, November 5, 2010

1900s: Chicago and urban growth

For the first decade of the 1900s I finally jumped into local history, which is my favorite lens, and chose Chicago (my adopted home town) as a case study of the entire country's growth of cities in the industrial revolution, although it was the most dramatic case up to this point.

The Plan of Chicago, created by the leadership of Daniel Burnham in the first few years of the Century paints an elegant picture of the new grand ideas urban planning coming out of the industrial revolution applied to the relatively sparse canvas of U.S. cities, especially in the growing west. That Chicago was so rapidly rebuilt by commercial and leaders following the Great Fire of 1871 shows the energy and urgency toward growth and the ability to ignore basic social and structural considerations such as housing, transportation, or public health. It is natural to see how this led to uncontrolled massive expansion of the city as support for its industry, and secondarily by default, a place to live for masses of immigrants coming to work in the jobs created by the growth.

As I read about the lack of overall vision and planning on a national scale for Reconstruction, but successful planning at the corporate level with the Carnegie's and Fricks of the world, with hindsight it appears inevitable that the application of the planning philosophy would move from industry to government. And the Plan of Chicago is an example of the link as Burnham created it on behalf of the commercial and merchant's clubs, who then lobbied the city to implement its ideas. When I lived in New York several years ago I read The Power Broker about Robert Moses, the infamous and powerful city planner. He was clearly the next step (and apex?) in the planning evolution as a member of the city he was able to combine the creation of an overall vision and take the necessary steps (no matter how unpopular or unfair) required to execute his grand plan.

One hundred years later I am amazed at how much the Chicago of today is influenced by the first integrated central plan for the city.

I also just read Sin in the Second City about the infamous red light district of Chicago and it's most famous house, operated by the Everleigh sisters at the same time as the Plan of Chicago was being written. While the stories of the Everleigh house are fascinating, and their higher class status compared to all of the other establishments in the Levee District made for very interesting clashes, if not just a brilliant competitive positioning as a business, it is a great microcosm for the state of progress in the city, and country, at that time. While Burnham and industry's leaders were attempting to create a grand vision for Chicago and to establish and process for the city to implement it, this district was allowed to flourish because of the corruption of local officials and the general acceptance of most of the city's leaders that vice was just a given result of growth and it was at least concentrated in one area. This finally changed in the next decade as pressure increased from religious and moral leaders in the city and across the nation on city officials who finally had no choice but to act to clean up the district. This coincides with starting the first projects from the Plan, widening streets into avenues, building bridges, relocating people.

Overall it was a time of transition, with governments slowly taking initiative to shape our landscapes, both physical and morally. I suspect this may be a trend to watch in future books.

Both books were enjoyable reads. Carl Smith's review of The Plan of Chicago was written for the original's 100th anniversary. I found it a surprisingly written with a good pace and level of detail. I would have loved more illustrations, but maybe I'll just have to go find and explore a copy of the actual Plan. 4/5 stars. Sin in the Second City was a great story, but the story was challenged at times, and as compelling as the Everleigh sisters were, the reform efforts just were as juicy tales so the book is a little choppy and slow at times. Although it did make me want to visit their original establishment in its heyday as I cannot quite fully imagine what it was like. But I doubt my wife would approve of such research, even with time travel. 3/5 stars.

1900: Wizard of Oz

To wrap up one century and move into another I switched from book to essay, returning to one of my all time favorite topics: Is the Wizard of Oz and allegory of late 19th Century populism? (If there was any lingering doubt as the the nerdiness of this entire endeavor, let it now cease.)

I read Henry Littlefield's 1964 paper that suggests L. Frank Baum was an active observer of the growing Populist movement of the late 1800s centered around William Jennings Bryan and the promise of bi-metalism as a solution to western farmers' economic ills. While later scholars, including David Parker's 1994 paper refute the direct allegory suggested by Littlefield, it is regardless a great illustration of the forces and parties at play in the country at that time, even if it is a total coincidence. (After reading a Baum biography a few years back, I personally agree with the coincidence theory, or at least indirect influence, as Baum was likely more directly influenced by women's rights and other issues of the day, which are also more pronounced in the later Oz books.) (See what I mean by nerdiness?)

The Kansas setting of Dorothy's home represents a time of hardship for western American farmers on the plains. On top of severe weather, they were caught in an economic storm of low commodity prices and increasing shipping rates from the expanding railroad empires. At the same time the industrializing eastern cities were discovering escalating conflicts between the labor classes and the ruling capital owners. All of these parties were, of course, looking for political support of their causes. In fact, it was viewed almost as a zero-sum game: power could not support equally labor, capital, and the farmers.

In this world there were several individual who crusaded for, or represented the characterization of each of the factions. Bryan, with his single issue platform of bimetalism (which would cause inflation and help farmers at the expense of eastern industrialists) was the most prominent. William McKinley (or his predecessors) is another prominent character on the national scene as the ruling party controlled by those of money.

Against this backdrop it is easy to see how a story with the cornucopia of characters in Oz can be an allegory of the times. Scarecrow as farmers. Tin Man as labor. Cowardly Lion as Bryan. And powerful entities controlling different factions and vying for control: the Wicked Witch of the East (Eastern capitalists) who had enslaved the Munchkins (laborers), the Wicked Witch of the West (McKinley) who had conquered the Winkies (recently acquired Philippines), and the Wizard himself, who ends up having no real power (perhaps Mark Hanna, a politcal powerbroker?)

And did I mention Dorothy's magic shoes that prevail at the end are silver?

Regardless of whether Baum intended the story to be an allegory, or if he was simply naturally influenced by major story lines of the day, it is a fun exercise to the look at the Turn of the Century issues from various constituencies' perspectives.

(Disclaimer: I discovered the original Littlefield essay in high school history class when the teacher had us find out who the various characters represented as a homework assignment. In the pre-Internet days, this was quite a challenge and may or may not have included consulting with upperclassmen for clues. In graduate economics courses I reread the original article along with several criticisms, which I just revisited.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

1890s: 1898

Looking to round out the 19th Century and begin transitioning to the next, I read David Traxel's 1898: The Birth of the American Century to learn more about the events leading up to and during the Spanish American War and how results of the conflict officially changed America's role in international relations.

In hindsight, the events of this year do seem to be a natural termination of the trends of the previous four decades.

Formal reconstruction and recovery from the Civil War was more or less over, with a new economic, political, and race relations equilibrium established. And the generation of the war was beginning to hand over the reigns to the next. I had never contemplated the concerns of having US troops on their way to Cuba pass through the American South--this was the first time since the Civil War/Reconstruction and no one knew how the public would react. The fact that they were cheered is telling of how the country's focus and priorities had changed in just a few years.

The changing of national focus had been seen in the fast migration and "taming" of the West, which had an almost sudden end, as the frontier was officially gone by the 1890s. Industrialization, with its urban focus and complementary need for trade, including international trade, to keep the economic engine churning was leading to a new interest in foreign conerns--a"foreign" concept to the isolated mentality established with the Revolution.

Urbanization and communications had allowed the media to emerge as major players in the country's actions, with the popular lead up to the war by the competing newspapers and their moguls as the classic example of creating news. It seems almost too neat of a story, with figures too large for life.

Traxel's book is okay. Not great, but readable and interesting enough. 2/5 stars. The main portion of the book is the war, but it is sandwiched between general survey history chapters on various cultural and political topics.

The book did, however, feel like a movie that was written with a sequel in mind.

The Germans were being set up as a future bully / enemy with their actions in the Philippines. The year ended with the European powers now having to consider America as a player in their events. And Teddy Roosevelt, after his introduction a few books ago, is emerging as a big hero.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Late 1800s: Settling the West

Aside from slavery, the driving concept of 19th Century America was manifest destiny. Given the vastness of the western United States, especially for anyone who has driven cross-country, and the imagery of the small, primitive wagon trains and cowboys on horses, it is amazing how quickly the thousands of miles were settled and transformed.

The decades leading up the Civil War resulted in acquiring more land from Mexico and Britain, and moving Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi. Then coming out of the war, with technology advancements in transportation and economic shifts, the stage was set for a sudden expansion into an apparent void.

The American West is more or less a collection of short histories of various events and topics related to the settling of the states between the Mississippi and California in the second half of the century. Dee Brown is the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee so his stories of the major "Indian Wars" are well documented and, naturally, very sad. Each one seems to further reduce ways of life along with territories. While George Washington and other early presidents may have struggled with the issue of Native Americans, the lack of national concern after the Civil War to the situation versus the speed of, essentially, annihilation over the course of just a few decades is astounding.

The other chapters in the book are quite secondary, providing a good overview of the development of the cattle industry, stories of colorful characters and events. But the narratives do not tie together as well as they could and much fell flat. 2/5 stars.

(Read July 2010)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

1870s: Reconstruction

I almost skipped over the one topic that is probably the most glossed over in school history classes--Reconstruction--but I knew I really need to understand more of what happened, and why, to former slaves specifically, and the country as a whole coming out of the Civil War. I started this reading project with a primary interest in economic history but it is easy to get wrapped up in just the basic political history. But this time period was one of the most crucial turning points for the country's economy, government, and social institutions that would determine the course of the United States in the future.

And this is to not diminish the profound impact for an entire race of people.

Prior readings of the issues leading up the founding of the Republican Party soon before the War and its cast of characters from different backgrounds, regions, and priorities gave great context for how the party would not be in position to govern and manage such a massive transition. While Lincoln presumably would have been a more effective and visionary leader than the disastrous Andrew Johnson, there is no evidence that a cohesive and forward-looking plan could have been politically or practically implemented. The moderates and radicals and even Democrats each had opportunities to run things, but none were able to provide a stable new equilibrium for former slaves labor, investing in the Southern economies, reintroducing the former Confederacy into the Union, or establishing civil rights.

From the perspective of the 21st Century I still cannot fully grasp the mindset of 1870 Americans. Only a few years prior slavery was accepted practice. Even the most radical anti-slavery factions would probably be considered bigots today. The average moderate thinking was somewhere in between. Even if they were able to have the vision for integrating the former slaves into a fully equal civil society by today's standards, would they have been able to create a path to move in that direction while achieving the immediate goals of rebuilding the Southern economy and politically reintroducing former confederates? I would love to hope so, but it is doubtful.

This book by Eric Foner was much more of an investment to read than I expected, but well worth it. While it is not a fast flowing narrative, I will give it 4/5 stars due to the comprehensive coverage of an important, underrated subject matter. He is very detailed in the blow by blow accounts of what happened and didn't happen in the years 1863-1877, showing how the different constituencies of each region in the South and North had competing goals and incentives throughout the period and the worked together when it suited their own needs, and competed when it didn't. This meant that the make up of the political parties, especially the Republicans, could change from state to state, geographic region to geographical region, and over time. For the former slaves, this meant they were at the mercy of political alignments focused on various economic issues. And unfortunately for them, there were few groups in the country that saw personal economic benefits of a newly freed class of workers. A few saw benefits of a new voting bloc, and very few saw altruistic motives for helping them.

Foner's analysis of regional politics shows the vast differences of issues and action in places such as Louisiana with a large former free black society and sugar economy, versus the upcountry Carolinas with smaller farms and a large poor white population, versus the cotton belt counties that were plantation dominated. He also did a great service tracking the progress of specific issues such as the development of education in the south where it is easy to see how the institutions of the 20th Century were established. Many times I thought while reading, "so these are the events that will lead to a landmark Supreme Court decision 80 years in the future." We're now how many generations out of Reconstruction? And we're still untangling the mess, even if it was inevitable.

(Read June 2010)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

1890s: Benjamin Harrison

The unlikely subject of my next reading assignment came about not because of my personal interest in Indiana history, but because his name appeared in several of the previous books, even if ever so briefly. And yes, his house in Indianapolis is next on my visit hit list of homes of obscure presidents. Hello, Benjamin Harrison.

Between the author's obligatory introduction and conclusion that make the case of Harrison as the first modern president and least appreciated, there is a surprisingly contemporary story of national politics, economics, and personal toll. Similar to Lincoln, Harrison was not the favorite candidate entering the nominating process but he emerged as the least objectionable and possibly the most winnable Republican. And like Lincoln, once elected he struggled with the selection of his cabinet, eventually convincing his biggest rival to take the secretary of state position. While we heard many comparisons to Lincoln when Obama chose Clinton for this position, Harrison's choice of James Blaine may be the better parallel. And unlike the amazing relationship formed between Lincoln and Seward during a unique, wartime situation, Harrison and Blaine continued to be rivals, one of the causes of their eventual downfall.

Also strikingly similar to modern political patterns was how similar 1892 was to 1994 and to what is expected in 2010. After several years of Democratic power in the 1880s and a down business cycle, the Republicans swept the presidency and both houses of congress in 1890. Seeing a mandate for significant change, they immediately pushed for large, expansive legislation to increase the services provided by the federal government, along with its budget. While several of the issues were clearly progressive and great with historical perspective (ie enforcing black, southern suffrage) and some are possibly as debatable now as they were then (pensions, anti-trust, monetary policies), internal party politics limited the effectiveness of a seemingly unstoppable platform. Senators and congressmen were more likely to vote based on what would get them re-elected and strike deals than just go with the president's favor. Yet still in the midterm elections of 1892, the Republicans lost control of Congress due to public dissatisfaction, and Harrison finally lost re-election two years later.

The foreign relations and economic monetary issues of the early 1890s are clearly primitive to the US and global economy of today. However, the questions and decisions made at this time were beginning to move the country's role from a self-contained, decentralized nation of states to an industrialized national power.

Here comes the Spanish American War and the battle of Populists and Progressives.

The book itself is good and typical of this solid series: 3/5 stars.

But before continuing on I realize I have skipped over some important subjects so I am going to go back a little. Primarily I need to read up on Reconstruction in the South.

(Read March 2010)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

1890s: The Industrialists

The Gilded Age has always been a fascinating, if not romantic era to me with its larger-than-life capitalists, the shaping relationship with labor, the exponential growth of the economy, and the literal laying out of the infrastructure for the 20th Century. While focusing on the love-hate, and then mostly hate relationship of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, this book does a decent job of describing some of the cultural and personal tensions that emerged as America industrialized. There were certainly cases of Horatio Alger rags to riches, as Carnegie himself almost symbolized. But for the masses this was not the case, and the romantic era was actually covered in soot, dangerous, and filled with limited earning power and opportunities for the vast, vast majority of individuals. While Carnegie appeared to internally struggle with this fact while at the same time allowing his sheer power and money to keep his own labors at bay, the author paints a picture of a more ruthless Frick who had no such notions of tension. Whether accurate representations of their own mindsets, the overall story is a good representation of a pivotal time in this country's development and tensions that grew and evolved into major story lines throughout the next century and still exist in a form today.

Book review: 2/5 stars. As the author noted there are many in depth biographies of the two main characters already published so he tried to create a narrative around their relationship. The middle part of the brief book told the story of the Homestead strike and riot that he tried to use to illustrate a turning point in their relationship. While that story was probably the most interesting part of the book, his argument feels incomplete and it is essentially a story within a story.

(Read February 2010)