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Workshop 5:  Lectures & Activities

Page 12


Lecture Transcript Three:
Unrest in 1893 and the Closing of the American Frontier

Lecturer: Professor Jonathan Chu


Image of Johnathan  Chu

What's really interesting about all of these presentations is the way in which you all came to a similar kind of set of values, not only in technological terms, but you all sort of valued multiculturalism; that you were trying to account for the way in which the world had become integrated and the presumption that, somehow, things might work better that way, or that would be the way in which people instinctively would want to work out their lives.

There is an interesting thing that happens also in 1893; that, just at the very moment in which Chicago is celebrating itself, at the very moment in which we now have the distribution of cheap, relatively wholesome food, setting the stage for a real increase that would take place in the standard of living, there is also a marked contrast. There is a panic in 1893, arguably the worst economic disaster in the United States in its history, including the Great Depression. What probably differentiates it is that more people are living on farms, and that's what saves them from complete starvation.

But the depression triggers a series of bankruptcies among railroads, which in turn adversely affect people living on farms. About 25 percent of unskilled workers lost their jobs. Then there are those labor disputes that you're all very familiar with—the Pullman strike, Haymarket Square—and the Populist protest to indicate that things were very wrong. The things that were very wrong were hazards of an unregulated marketplace and the incapability of traditional legal structures and legal rules. For example, states couldn't regulate interstate commerce, and the federal government wouldn't regulate the railroads or businesses engaged in interstate commerce because they thought they were making a fundamental assault upon property rights, a series of dislocations that occur as a result of the rapid growth and the changes that had taken place.

One of the interesting things that also happens is that some people—men of learning, enterprise, historians—might have something interesting to offer in this respect. Coincidentally, the American Historical Association was meeting at Chicago, and at their meeting, Frederick Jackson Turner offered some observations about America, and in those observations provided a number of implications about America's future. This is that famous Turner Thesis in which he talks about the influence of the frontier upon American history and where he makes the point that the frontier has been a crucial part in helping to form and shape American democratic institutions. He also adds that in the 1890 census, it was announced that the frontier had officially been closed.

Now, what followed, not necessarily directly from Turner, or that Turner concluded, but the implications of Turner's speech resonated among Americans, because if American democratic institutions depended upon the presence of the frontier, and the frontiers were closed, what was America to do? How is it to cope, particularly at a moment when large groups of immigrants unfamiliar with American democratic institutions were flocking to cities, being governed and absorbed into political machines, who obviously didn't really understand democracy as well? The frontier had closed. If all of these people were coming, if there was labor unrest, there was wide polarities and disparities of wealth, the cities were in a mess, what was America to do? We can see the shift that occurs between 1893 and 1898.


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