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America at the Centennial
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Alternative Timeline to 1876 Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

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A New Cultural Ethos

[Picture of homesteaders]

Brinkley: They weren't talking about a reformism movement here. You just had a Civil War that was basically, if you think who is fighting this Civil War, these soldiers from the North, they are coming in to fight for unionism. That's what they originally went in for. Yes, slavery became a big issue after the Emancipation Proclamation, even before. But it's over now. And people want to get back to a sense of normalcy. And what did people go home for? They're not going home for continuing reformism. Like, boy, let's get more democracy. Let's get more people the vote. They want to make money. Unfettered capitalism is what starts kicking in after Reconstruction. People want a way to get more personal income, ways to get richer, ways to go into homestead schemes into the West, ways to go look for gold rushes and mining interest and starting new ranches and it's that personal interest of wealth that people are looking for or at least for a decent life.

Miller: But the larger forces at work in society seem to be these gigantic technological and industrial forces.

Maier: Well, Don, don't you think that the different generations in American history have different issues, different agendas.

Miller: Sure.

Maier: And I think that in the 18th Century, the challenge that attracted the best minds of the time had to be with the designing and establishing of a republic. I think the period of the early 19th Century saw itself as somehow working out that heritage. Making sure the union lasted. Dealing with the question of equality. The war itself changes the country. There are entirely different issues at the top of the agenda afterwards. And it came, I think, in part, out of the war itself. The way this expanded federal government was encouraging a concentration of money, the growth of large corporations. A whole new world came out. And the challenge then had to be in the private sector. It was economic far more that it was political.

Miller: When foreigners came over to observe the country in the 1870s and 80s, this is what struck them about the country.

Maier: I don't think it's just going after the big buck. It's not just being rich.

Miller: It's building.

Maier: There's a real challenge here. And how you organize national corporations, national businesses. How you manage it. It had an appeal independent of the...

[Picture of the Corliss engine]

Masur: There's a new cultural ethos that's helping to shape a set of beliefs about competition, about individualism itself that, I think, comes out of the war. And that effects this period. The period before the war is a period of romance and sentiment. The period after the war is this period of realism, of hard-cold fact. And there's a sense of the individual, rather than being in solitary pursuit of upward mobility, that individual is now in competition, direct competition with other individuals. And this becomes validated. This becomes part of the everyday discourse of society. You talk about that engine, that Corliss engine that ran in the Centennial of 1876. It was described as an athlete of steel and iron. And the sports metaphor takes over the society in all kinds of ways. This is a world where, in the last half of the 19th Century, where football was invented. You talk about industrial technological forces. Think about football as this game on a grid, about acquiring territory in combat formation with one another.

Maier: Soldiers, fields.

Miller: Sure. Exactly.

Miller: The popularity of boxing.

[Picture of a boxer]

Masur: Precisely. The most popular sport in the period. You have round and round of boxers pummeling each other. And even by the time they move away from that, and put on gloves, you have images of these fights. It's the most popular spectator sport in America. And the audience sits there and has blood lust that these figures of these powerful men going at it, coming at you, into the ring. That sense of muscularity, that sense of strength. You can see it time and again in the images of the period as workers expose their bodies to show their muscles as other figures continue to engage in this battle. This battle for nothing less than survival.

Miller: Some historians argue that it wasn't democracy that we were known for in the 19th century.

Maier: And the railroads.

Miller: And the argument that we were known for being a nation of builders -- builders of skyscrapers and these great arching bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge and these stupendous, roaring steel mills. And that's what people were taken to. You know, that was the glamour of America. That's what America had to export to the rest of the world. That's what they saw as the modernization.

Martin: I think we've underplayed the point that Pauline made so eloquently earlier. And that is, this is a democratic republic founded on Constitutional premises and that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and all those values are fundamental. And that, in a lot of ways, I think throughout the 19th century, people who look at this nation see it differently as a result of that.

Brinkley: I don't really see that, Waldo, at the time of the Civil War. What people in Europe would have been seeing is that we are at each other's throats. And this experiment is about to disintegrate.

Martin: But I think what it shows is the complexity, the difficulty. How, you know, it's a nation with a very brief history. And you create a structure and over time, you see how that structure might work.

Masur: But in some ways, we're going to look at a legacy from the period. The fact that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed, they probably couldn't have been passed under any other circumstances. Right! They were passed as conditions for the southern states to come back into the Union. I mean, those will serve as an important legacy. If not for a Civil Rights movement in the 1870s, then certainly for one in the 1960s.

Maier: And it meant that those who are arguing for a real equality could do it under law. That the law was already on the books. You just had to realize the promise that had already been made as a commitment.

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