The Century Opens:
The United States, 1900-1920
America at the Turn of the Century
Public Life at the dawn of the twentieth century was lived in
arenas rich with direct contact with others.
- No amplification had been invented. No radio. No television.
- Public life sought organizations who brought citizens together and sponsored
speakers to address public matters.
- Power of organization was a major theme in the discourse.
Where did you go for public life at the turn of the 20th
century? Because public life was lived in close contact with others, Americans
encountered it in different discourse communities. Time
to use your historical imagination to imagine youself living in each of these
communities as the 20th century dawns.
Farms and Small Towns
- Most Americans were still farmers.
- These farmers gave life to small towns that supported
agriculture.The town contained the services and merchants that now catered
to the cash farmer and the banks that loaned them the capital needed on the
- Farmers (and their towns) were caught in a cycle of
boom and bust as periods of high prices and prosperity were followed by financial
panic, natural disasters, and bankruptcy.
- Farmers were implicated in the problems of industrialization
because they were dependent on the railroads and industrial development.
- The railroads were necessary to carry the produce
of the farms to market, and the railroads charged exorbitant rates to
carry the produce.
- Industrial development was transforming the farm
into a mechanized business. Farmers had to borrow to buy the mechanization
and the periods of bust meant that they could not pay back the loans and
lost their farms.
- Public Life in the farm communities occured in
churches, Grange Halls (a farm organization), and town squares.
- Subjects which gave shape to public discourse
- Scientific framing and technological change.
- The economic struggles. Often these were discussed
within the rhetorical framework of:
- Rugged individualism. Farmers believed that
the great agricultural nation had been built on rugged individualism.
- Organizing to addreess their problems. Now
too many of those individuals were failing, becoming bankrupt and
losing their farms. Was leaving that individualism behind for a unified
movement the answer?
- Celebration of the farmer. Jefferson had believed
the yeoman farmer would assure freedom to Americans. Pride in being a
farmer was strong. They saw themselves as the reason for the strength
of the nation.
Cities: Business communities
- Great wealth had flowed to those who controlled capital
in the industrial economy. The men of wealth built the factories, organized
the industries, and built the railroads that transported the fruits of the
industrial system and of agriculture. They competed with each other to control
the economy. These were the "robber barens" of the gilded age
- Public life was lived in exclusive business
clubs in the cities. Their children met at the great educational complexes
built by prep schools and the ivy league universities.
- Who was listened to in these communities? Those
who had achieved success, and those who could provide expertise.
- Subjects which gave shape to public discourse were:
- Importance of technological progress. The next
big idea that the wealthy could corner would enhance their wealth. What
was that next idea?
- American progress and greatness. This discourse
also celebrated the technology by linking it to the ideograph <progress>
that had marked American discourse for a century. These entrepreneurs
believed that they were the ones responsibility for the country's greatness.
- Cycle of risk, bust, and wealth. <Risk>
was an ideograph that lionized those who would venture their wealth in
the search for more. When the venture succeeded they were celebrated.
When it did not they failed. With it they often lost their wealth and
status in the community. But this motivational cycle required much rhetorical
Cities: The Immigrant Slums
- Living within blocks of this great wealth were the
rundown, crowded, tenement buildings of the poor.
- The immigrants flowed into crowded communities
within the cities. Ethnic ties were strong in these slums.
- Others were internal migrants from the failing
farms, particularly African Americans coming north from the sharecropping
farms of the South.
- The most important places for their public life
- the stoop, the front steps of their tentament
- their churches, organized ethnically with services
conducted in the language of their old country
- potentially, they could also find public life
in their workplaces, but the workplaces of industrial economy were loud
places where communication was difficult. If they achieved organization,
there were union halls as public places.
- Authority was tied to their ethnicity, often
rooted in the traditions of the old country.
- The subjects for public discourse:
- Pull between a wish to assimilate into the new
culture and the memory of the old culture.
- A naive grand Americanism that celebrated the
greatness of their new country.
- Discrepancy between their dream in immigration
and the reality of the squalor within which they lived. What was responsible?
How can they escape it?
- Mines, lumber companies, and many industries located
away from the urban areas in towns owned by the industrialists. They were
filled with the immigrants and migrants from those same countries that populated
the slums of the cities. But the interaction among those in the town was much
higher than in the ethnic enclaves of the city.
- Such places were filled with jobs, but the residents
lived totally under control of the company. The only jobs were with the company.
All that could be bought had to be purchased from the company store. Housing
had to be rented from the company. All life was controlled by the company.
- Public Life in the company town was lived in:
- the company store. Partcularly the women made
public life here.
- Church. One building served as a church for all
denominations. Each met with others of their faith.
- Subjects for public discourse:
- Neighbors of the town vs. memories of the old
- Discrepancy between the dream that fueled their
immigration or migration and the reality of their lives.
- Grimness of work and life
- Dangers and promise of worker's unity to confront
African American Communities
- By 1900, the South had established the "Jim Crow"
system that disenfranchised the African Americans of the region politically,
culturally, and economically. Communities of African Americans grew on both
ends of the migration routes from the South into the cities of the North.
- Places for public life in these communities.
Above all was the African American church. But in the South there were also
the places where the people gathered, forced by segregation, particularly
- Authority was acquired in the community by
surviving the rigors of the segregated life. African American preachers acquired
special authority. Education also enhanced the authority of those in the community.
- Subjects you would hear in the public discourse:
- Washington versus DuBois. Booker Taliaferro Washington
believed in cooperation with the white establishment and making the most
of the place given to the community by segregation. His Tuskegee Institute
prepared people for the kinds of places segregated permitted them. W.E.B.
DuBois urged that the race unite and oppose the systems of racial difference.
He founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
- Escape to the North. The virtues of the Northern
migration were debated long and hard.
Exigencies and Themes
in the Rhetoric of 1900
As the century opened, there were several
problems that faced the country with variations in the various discourse communities.
These grew from material facts that gave rise to the need for discourse. But
they often reflected the need to draw upon familiar rhetorical themes to address
the crises of the time.
The Collapse of
- Material Fact: The Frontier had been declared
closed by the census of 1890
- Rhetorical Implication: The frontier had been the articulated vision
of a growing America. Americans were motivated as their national public task
to bring civilization to the American wilderness. As a result, the collapse
was a motivational crisis for the culture. What marked the special mission
- Could the motivational power of the frontier be converted? What was
the new American frontier?
- Is the world the new American frontier? Is the American mission to bring
its wonder to the whole world?
- Is business the new American frontier? Is the expansion of American
business the new advancement of progress that we can see, and measure,
and through which we can become a success?
- The motivational power of the frontier was a rhetorical resource available
to be invoked by leaders to address the problems of the nation.
and the Historical Tie to Northern Europe
- The United States was a nation founded and developed
by immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. The immigration in its first
century as a nation had been from those nations. But by 1900, the immigration
that now flowed into the ports of America was from Eastern and Southern Europe.
- Material Fact: Immigration to the US at the
turn of the 20th century was massive.
- 9 million arrived between 1880 and 1900. Another
9 million from 1900 to 1910. And 7 million more from 1910 to 1920.
- This immigration was different. It came from
a different part of Europe, was primarily Catholic and orthodox rather
than Protestant, and flowed into the factories and the cities rather than
onto the open land of the West.
- Rhetorical Problem: Is this immigration good or bad?
- Immigrnats provided cheap labor to factories and sweat shops. They were
providing the labor for the great industrialization.
- But, this great inflow of different immigrants, non-English, Catholic,
governed by memory of homeland more than assimilating into Americans,
bothered Americans. It was destroying the homogeniety of the culture.
These immigrants were different.
- And, the steady flow of immigrants was economically disasterous for
laborers already here, in their eyes, because it kept wages down and destroyed
hopes for strikes and labor actions.
of New Technology
- Material Fact: The time around the turn of
the century was a remarkable period of scientific and technological change.
Inventions were coming rapidly: electricity, the phonograph, the telephone,
the automobile, the airplane. The factories were churning out the new machines
and business, including farming, was increasingly capital intensive, requiring
large amounts of cash to mechanize its processes. The factories were also
drawing large population from the farms and small towns into the cities to
join the immigrants in mass production.
- Rhetorical Problem: Is this new technology a sign of American <progress>
or the cause of economic disparities?
- The meaning of this technology was an important theme for discourse.
Some discourse saw this as the newest phase of American progress, saw
the new scientific world as the venue for the continual betterment of
human life. All problems would be solved by technology.
- Other speakers saw the horrors created by the new capital intensive
world. Borrowed money, necessary to those seeking to participate in this
world, led to their failure. Farmers lost farms; businessmen lost life
savings; and small factory owners were forced out of business by the vagaries
of the market.
- And it was the mine and the factory trapping workers into the evils
of industrialization as the new technology became the output of the economy.
Wealth and Power
- Material Fact: The difference
between opulence and squalor was especially evident in the cities of the United
- Great wealth was built by draining wealth from
others. The great entrepreneuers used monopoly and combination to force
competitors into failure. They used that power to draw ever greater wealth
away from farmers and consumers. There seemed no check on this growing
disparity. Owners of the factories that produced the new material wealth
became exceptionally wealthy.
- Great concentrations of power located in the industrial
system. Railroads and industrial barons that offered jobs easily controlled
government and the economy. Competition disappeared in power to thwart
- Rhetorical Problem: Was the wealth the reward for
successful businessmen? Or was it an abuse? What was the role of public will
in controlling this maldistribution of wealth and power? What was the role
of government as a location of public will?