1877-1912: A NATION COMING OF AGE
SETTING THE STAGE
The world was witnessing the development of new technology. In 1844 Samuel F.B. Morse created the electric telegraph. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone. Thomas Edison created a light bulb putting hundreds of candle makers out of work. George Eastman developed the motion picture.
Not only were there many new inventions, industrial growth was strong. Andrew Carnegie was big in the steel production business. J.D. Rockefeller founded an oil company, and Cornelius Vanderbilt created a huge railroad company. These guys had tons of money, and they had an impact on the country without going into politics. They left behind Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and Vanderbilt University.
These industries were called big business. The companies were able to grow with money from trusts. Trusts were made up of stockholders that invested money. They were wonderful for the economy because they had the money and power to do things that the government couldn't do. But they were also dangerous. For instance, railroads were giving cheaper rates to bigger companies and to companies they liked; this wasn't fair.
If a company had a monopoly, they could exploit their customers. For example, if no one but Domino's made pizza, they could charge a lot of money for a really bad pizza because people need pizza. But with Little Caesar’s around, they have to compete with each other to stay in business. This keeps prices fair, and the pizza tasting good.
In 1887 President Grover Cleveland passed the Interstate Commerce Act. It said big businesses couldn't rip off their customer. Cleveland also had a problem with import tariffs. He thought the policy went too far in protecting American industry from foreign competition.
In 1888 Benjamin Harrison disagreed with Cleveland. He thought protectionism was appropriate, especially for new industries. Of course, Harrison beat Cleveland in the presidential election. Imagine voting for someone who wanted to make it harder to do business. Still, in 1890 the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed. It placed more restrictions on big business and monopolies. But it wasn't really enforced until 10 years later by Roosevelt, the 'trust-buster'.
Some people thought that paper money was responsible for falling prices that hurt farmers. Big businesses were seen as tyrannical. In 1896 the Populist Party member William Jennings Bryan started spouting off that he wanted lower protective tariffs because they helped those tyrannical businesses. He wanted income tax. He wanted silver coins instead of paper money, and he wanted a more socialist state.
The democrats picked up this party line, but they lost the presidential election. Just a bit of trivia: in The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road was originally silver to support the silver coin idea. The bad witches were big business, and the munchkins were socialist and labor unions. The silver bullion became gold because it looked better in Technicolor.
In 1867 the States bought Alaska. Everyone thought it was a silly idea and called it "Seward's Folly"; It was Secretary of State's William H, Seward's idea to buy it. But in 1897 gold was discovered in Alaska, and everyone decided it was a good idea, after all. People started moving to the land of the midnight sun.
Expansion into the Plains States led to violent encounters with the Sioux. In 1862 there was a Sioux massacre of whites. In 1876 at the Little Big Horn, General George Custer and his troops were wiped out. This is known as Custer's Last Stand.
Finally, in 1890 in Wounded Knee South Dakota during a dance ceremony, things got out of hand. Hundreds of Sioux were killed. Many people were disturbed by what was happening to the displaced native peoples. To make room for more settlers, the reservations kept getting smaller. In 1881 Helen Jackson wrote a book called A Century of Dishonor that explained what was wrong.
The United States finally started getting more involved in foreign affairs. They were concerned about Cuba. Cuba was controlled by Spain, but didn't like it. They revolted. There was an American ship called the Maine docked in Havana, Cuba. It was blown up by the Spanish in 1898. That was enough to get the States involved.
There was a war called the Spanish-American in 1898. It ended with the Treaty of Paris. Cuba was given freedom, and the United States took care of Cuba until they could get along on their own. The United States were also given Puerto Rico and Guam.
The States also helped Panama to become a country because they wanted a canal connecting the Caribbean and the Pacific. In 1903 Colombia refused to build one, a northern province of Colombia rebelled. The US jumped in, gave them lots of money, and helped them to separate from Colombia and become Panama. Then they built the canal.
In 1909 President Taft announced Dollar Diplomacy. This encouraged businesses to invest money in foreign countries. All of these activities were part of Imperialism. The United States had set up shop in Hawaii, the Philippines, and the Caribbean. This was too much responsibility, and not appreciated by the natives.
President Taft had the paternalistic idea that the U.S. was obligated to civilize its "little brown brothers". Such condescending patronage was not without economic motive. The United States wanted the right to exploit these regions economically through trade. But European nations were competing for the same privileges.
So, in 1899 President William McKinley's Secretary of State, John Hay, came up with the Open Door Policy. This meant that anyone could trade with any part of China. It was too dangerous to have China sectioned off the way the rest of the world was. China was still concerned about its exploitation.
In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion happened when Chinese patriots killed more than 200 foreigners in China. More foreigners hid out in Peking for a couple months until they were rescued. It was around this time that America could be identified as a world power instead of a poor upstart nation of rebels.
President Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy was to walk softly and carry a big stick. Maybe this is not elegant strategy, but it was effective. The U.S. military was a strong peacekeeping presence in the world. They maintained stability in Central America. Roosevelt organized peace talks between Japan and Russia. His foreign policy mirrored his hobby of big game hunting in Africa.
Roosevelt also supported Progressivism. This movement wanted to protect workers from the abuses of big business. He said he just wanted a "square deal" for the public. He was known as a 'trust-buster' who broke up monopolies. He acted as a mediator between striking workers and their employers. He standardized railroad prices with the Hepburn Act in 1906. And he created lots of National Parks for the workers to enjoy during their leisure time. Again, nature was important to Teddy. He loved to hunt!
William Taft became president in 1909. He was a big man. He continued Roosevelt's Progressive Movement. He started income taxes and instituted direct election of Senators. Taft was not a popular president, but he hadn't really wanted to be president. His election was Roosevelt's idea.