America at the Turn of the Century: A Look at the Historical Context

The National Setting

By 1900 the American nation had established itself as a world power. The West was won. The frontier -- the great fact of 300 years of American history -- was no more. The continent was settled from coast to coast. Apache war chief Geronimo had surrendered in 1886. Defeat of the Sioux at the battle of Wounded Knee in 1891 had brought the Indian Wars to a close. By 1900 the Indians were on reservations and the buffalo were gone. Homesteading and the introduction of barbed wire in 1874 had brought an end to the open range. The McCormick reaper had made large-scale farming profitable and, in 1900, the U.S. was by far the world's largest agricultural producer. The first transcontinental rail link had been completed in 1869. Three decades later, in 1900, the nation had 193,000 miles of track, with five railroad systems spanning the continent.

The world's first oil well had been drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. By 1900, major oil fields were being tapped in Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. The supply of American oil seemed limitless. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust dominated the world's petroleum markets and controlled more than 90 percent of the nation's refinery capacity.

At the turn of the century, the strength of a nation's industrial capacity was measured by the number of tons of steel it produced. In the 1880s Andrew Carnegie had constructed the world's largest steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and by 1900, the United States was the largest steel producer in the world, turning out 10,000,000 tons a year.

Henry Ford had built his first gasoline engine car in 1892 and the world's first auto race was held in Chicago in 1896. With the founding of the Ford Motor Company in 1903, the age of the automobile was underway.

By 1900, telephones were in wide use. Cities were being electrified. Moving pictures were a curiosity. Guglielmo Marconi was conducting experiments that would lead to the development of the radio, and the Wright brothers were at work on a heavier-than-air flying machine.

Cities were growing. New wealth and devastating fires produced a boom in urban construction. Architects Richardson, Hunt, McKim, Mead, and White flourished; Sullivan pioneered the skyscraper and his protege, Frank Lloyd Wright, was beginning his career in Chicago.

National Politics

Republican William McKinley of Ohio was elected president in 1896 and re-elected in 1900. He had been preceded by Democrat Grover Cleveland and would be followed -- and overshadowed -- by Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt, who was vice-president when McKinley was assassinated in 1901, but later elected president in his own right.

McKinley was the last of five Civil War veterans to serve in the White House, signaling the end of the post-war era. He was also the fifth of the six Ohio presidents to serve during the fifty-year period 1868-1908. The ascendancy of Ohio and the Midwest in national politics demonstrated that the United States was no longer a nation oriented to the Atlantic seaboard. It stretched, as Katharine Lee Bates's 1895 anthem, America the Beautiful, put it, "from sea to shining sea."

In this period of booming growth, the nation experienced a dramatic presidential election. The 1896 campaign was perhaps the most fiercely fought contest since Andrew Jackson's time. Republican McKinley represented Eastern conservative mercantile and industrial interests; Democrat William Jennings Bryan stood for Western radical agrarian interests. McKinley was a staunch supporter of high tariffs and the Gold Standard, while Bryan favored easier credit and "free silver." Thirty-six years old, Bryan was known as the "Boy Orator from the River Platte" and compared by some with the river itself -- "a mile wide and an inch deep." His "Cross of Gold" speech became famous: "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," he thundered.

This was a time of both confidence and ferment. In the cities and the states, political "Progressives" were coming to power, experimenting with reforms such as women's suffrage, direct election of United States senators, the initiative, recall, the Australian ballot, primary elections, and laws setting minimum wages, work standards, and regulated rates for common carriers and services. Followers of the Progressive movement believed in the perfectibility of man and his society. It was, said historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "an attempt through government action to curb the arrogance of organized wealth and the wretchedness of poverty amid plenty." Although McKinley certainly was no Progressive, the movement was on the rise; two of the three presidents who followed him were Progressives: Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

McKinley looked every inch a president. Young reporter William Allen White said of him after an interview: "He was the statue in the park speaking." A dignified, reserved man, McKinley was the last of the old-style, low-key presidents. McKinley is generally considered to have been a good but weak man. He was promoted into the White House by his friend, Ohio party boss Mark Hanna; he was bullied into a war with Spain in Cuba by the sensationalist New York press and a jingoist Congress; and he was trapped into acquiring the Philippines by his Assistant Secretary of the Navy, young Theodore Roosevelt.

The Spanish-American War of 1898

This war was immensely popular with the American people. For the first time since the Civil War, men from the north and the south closed ranks and marched to war, as the bands played the marches of John Philip Sousa. The conflict lasted less than 100 days, only 289 Americans lost their lives in battle, and the United States scored a triumphant victory over Spain. This "splendid little war," as Secretary of State John Hay called it, changed the course of American history.

After 400 years, Spain was no longer a power in North or South America; the only power of importance in the Western Hemisphere was now, without doubt, the United States.

The U.S. Navy's Asiatic squadron, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, defeated the ramshackle Spanish fleet in the battle of Manila Bay -- in less than a morning, without losing a single man. The navy gained great popular support and every schoolboy knew the names and specifications of the major ships of the line. After a two-decade effort to build a modern "steel navy," the United States was a great naval power.

The United States became an imperialist power with the taking of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and the later annexation of Hawaii. As a new player in Asia, America would now confront the ambitions of the Japanese Empire, a confrontation that would not be played out until World War II.

By annexing the Philippines, the United States took up the so-called "White Man's Burden," as urged by poet Rudyard Kipling. It would be our purpose, said McKinley, "to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them." They were "our little brown brothers," Governor General William Howard Taft later said, displaying something of the racial attitudes of the time. This sense of the superiority of the white race and thus the inferiority of the colored races helps explain the rise of Jim Crow segregation laws within the United States during this period.

Having led his cavalry troop of cowboys, the "Rough Riders," up San Juan Hill in a skirmish with the Spanish in Cuba, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt became a national hero and, as fate would have it, McKinley's successor as president of the United States.

World's Fairs and World Consciousness

A number of world's fairs were staged in the turn of the century period, and some of the American Memory collections offer glimpses of these events. Edison's films offer a ringside seat at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York.

Like the Spanish-American War, world's fairs both contributed to and resulted from increasing American interest in the globe. They celebrated the nation's own technological achievements, from infant incubators to the electric lights (frequently featured in titles from the Edison company). But they also put on display the exotic architecture and peoples of other nations and the American West.

Just after the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago was involved in an international expedition. Railroad publicist Joseph Gladding Pangborn organized the of the World's Transportation Commission to gather information about foreign transportation systems, especially railroads. The expedition lasted from 1894 to 1896 and visited over twenty nations in today's less developed countries.