John A. Hobson
John Atkinson Hobson (1858–1940) grew up during an economic depression in England that ultimately shifted his intellectual interests from literature to economics. One of his major contributions is the theory of under-consumption, which argues that low consumer demand and high supply of goods will lead to a sluggish economy. Hobson also held that imperialism could be stripped down to economic interests by the mother country: it was no more than a search for new capitalist markets. This selection explores Hobson’s observed relationships among economy, international struggle, imperialism, and nationalism.
From John A. Hobson, Imperialism and the Lower Races. New York: James Pott and Co., 1902, part II, chapter IV.
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), the Republican party candidate from Illinois, won the presidential election without carrying a single southern state. Although he had worked his way up from humble beginnings to a comfortable law practice and even one term in the House of Representatives, before 1858 Lincoln had not earned the political prominence that he burned to achieve. In that year, in a series of debates as part of a campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Lincoln established a national reputation. Although he lost the battle for the Senate, he won the much more important war for national political power. It is important to note that Lincoln had established a much stronger antislavery position than he would present in his First Inaugural Address, as his famous assertion that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” demonstrates. He maintained at that point that America would be all slave or all free. By March 1861, with southern states openly seceding, Lincoln espoused the position of limiting slavery to its existing locales, but not interfering with it there. Although he was willing to compromise on this issue, he would not allow the southern states to secede from the Union. In his view, the Union was perpetual, unless dissolved by the citizens of the whole nation. Unlike Calhoun, who ardently advocated “states’ rights,” Lincoln argued that the Constitution and the sovereignty of the people demanded that he preserve and defend the Union. In his First Inaugural Address, excerpted here, he presented his modified position on slavery but also his own interpretation of the American nation and of the nature of the Union.
Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Complete Work., ed. John G. Nicolay and John Hay. New York: The Century Co. (1894): 2: 1–7.
John C. Calhoun
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the primary exponent of states’ rights and of the idea that ultimate sovereignty lay in the states and not with the federal government was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Born in 1782, he was not of the planter elite, but he made his way to the top by dint of his powerful intellect. He earned a law degree and practiced law in South Carolina before beginning his political career. Calhoun distinguished himself by the tight, forceful logic of his political and legal argumentation. He died in March of 1850 with an impressive record of governmental service to his credit, having served as a congressman, secretary of war, vice president, secretary of state, and senator. An ardent nationalist early on, he became a states’ rights spokesman and bitter political enemy of President Andrew Jackson. The defining contest between Jackson and Calhoun was the battle over the limits of the power of the federal government, which came to be known as the Nullification Controversy.
Register of Debates in Congress, vol. IX. Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton (1833): 532, 534, 535, 537–40.
Josiah Strong (1847–1916) was an eminent Congregationalist minister, head of the influential American Evangelical Alliance, and a leading spokesman of a movement for social activism among white Protestant Christians known as the Social Gospel. In essence, Strong believed that a Protestant America was destined to lead the world to an earthly Christian Kingdom of faith, prosperity, and social justice. He held that American superiority was based on its Anglo-Saxon “race,” its pure, spiritual Protestant Christianity, its love of civil liberty, and its material abundance. Hence he supported a specific ethnic and cultural view of who constitutes a good American, and he combined this with a social Darwinist and imperialist view of America’s racial and cultural superiority and its world mission. The work excerpted here, Our Country, was published in 1885, republished more than once, and translated into numerous languages.
Josiah Strong. Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, rev. ed. New York: American Home Missionary Society (1891): 15, 20, 44–45, 54–61.
Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) was a mechanical engineer (and champion tennis player) who aimed to increase industrial efficiency by training laborers to work with minimal movement and maximum speed in order to make their efforts in tune with the mechanical efficiency of the machines they operated. Only a scientific study of labor – the number of physical movements required, for example, to bolt an automobile tire onto its mount, or the ideal pace at which workers should shovel coal into a blast furnace in order to maintain steady heat – could bring about the efficiency made possible by machinery. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911) was for many years the foundational text used at the Harvard Business School, established in 1908. The following excerpt comes from the book’s opening chapter.
From Principles of Scientific Management, By Frederick Winslow Taylor. New York. Harper and Brothers. 1911.
Frederick Jackson Turner
Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” is one of the most significant works in American historical writing. Turner (1861–1932) was born in Portage, Wisconsin, a region that had been part of the frontier itself not long before his birth. Drawing an interest in history from his father, Turner earned a Ph.D. in American history from Johns Hopkins University in 1890. He taught at both the University of Wisconsin and at Harvard University until 1924. He first presented these ideas in a talk delivered at the American Historical Association Convention in Chicago in 1893. It was written in the wake of an 1890 Census Bureau report that proclaimed the disappearance of the frontier in America.
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1920), 1–3, 4, 6, 7, 9–15, 22–24, 27–33, 35, 37–38.
The phrase “the white man’s burden” and its association with the British writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) is well known today, but few realize that this exhortation was addressed to the American people, who had taken possession of the Philippines in 1899 as a result of the Spanish-American War (1898). Ignoring the independent Philippine government when signing a peace treaty with Spain, the US occupied Manila and within a year defeated the troops of the protesting Filipino government under the elected president Emilio Aguinaldo. US troops captured Aguinaldo in 1901, but a full-scale guerilla war continued—and tactics like the “waterboarding” of captured insurgents were introduced—until 1913. Kipling, however, consistently advocated the position that, as he claimed for the British in India, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
During America’s Gilded Age (1865–1900), individuals and families who achieved great wealth celebrated it as never before. Elegant city townhouses, huge country manors, lavish parties, and an extensive set of leisure activities were pursued by the wealthy elite, while the rising middle class emulated their “superiors” in fashion, food, and dress. The result was a period of unprecedented material accumulation in American history, a new emphasis on reputation and respectability, and the rise of “conspicuous consumption”—a term coined by economist Thorstein Veblen 1857–1929 to describe one of the major cultural impacts of the Industrial Revolution.
Although Veblen has earned the reputation as a skilled satirist and harsh critic of the lifestyles of the rich and famous during America’s Gilded Age, his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) also provides a deeper understanding of the intimate relationship between the economy and society, and between wealth and cultural values. Veblen’s most unique contribution was to examine the workings of the economy through the lens of evolutionary theory. His views on economic behavior, patterns of consumption, and business excess continue to resonate today.
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Macmillan (1902): 68–101.
To some extent, Kipling was wrong that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” since the preeminent American man of letters Mark Twain (1835–1910) did meet the challenge posed by the poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Incensed by the blatant racism of Kipling’s exhortation—as well as the role of racism in sparking the Civil War in his own United States—Twain lashed out with a brilliant satire of imperialist attitudes. This essay is emblematic of Twain’s final years, during which he became increasingly embittered and pessimistic about the chances of “civilization” to overcome barbarism. It is posed in the form of a preacher’s address to an American audience. The voice of the huckster-preacher conveys what to him seems the perfect alignment of financial and moral considerations; to his mind, it is just a matter of public relations to obtain the willing incorporation of the Filipinos into this “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust.”
Mark Twain, The Family Mark Twain (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935), 1390–1391, 1394–1395, 1397, 1398.
One of the great leaders of America’s industrial success was Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), who rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the United States. One might imagine that a self-made multimillionaire such as Andrew Carnegie would fully embrace the values of free enterprise capitalism, and indeed he was a staunch defender of individual initiative and the survival of the fittest. But Carnegie was also concerned about what he called “the proper administration of wealth” and the creation of an American corporate aristocracy. He frequently wrote about these problems, and he proposed a specific solution in an essay entitled “Wealth” that was published in the North American Review in 1889. Concluding that “a man who dies rich dies disgraced,” Carnegie proposed a new “gospel of wealth” that would provide tangible benefits for all without infringing upon individual liberty. Backing up his words with action, Carnegie became one of the greatest philanthropists of his era, providing funds for parks, concert halls, universities, and hospitals.
Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” North American Review 148, no. 391 (June 1889): 653, 657–62.
Born the son of an unknown white planter and a black slave mother Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) was one of the most exceptional human rights leaders in American history. His fiery speeches and eloquent writing made him an important leader of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, and his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), is considered a classic in American history and literature. Douglass devoted his life foremost to the issues of freedom and equality, and his powerful words on these subjects provide another important perspective on the meaning and the limitations of the American Revolution.
One of the most vexing challenges faced by Douglass during his long career was public skepticism about his slave background. Many whites in both the north and the south doubted that such an articulate and intelligent man as Douglass could ever have been a lowly and ignorant slave, which in itself reveals much about prevailing racial attitudes and assumptions in America at that time. This skepticism compelled him not only to write his Narrative but also to address and challenge white misconceptions in all of his speeches and writings. One of Douglass’s most critical speeches occurred on July 5, 1852, at a meeting of the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. In his address, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” Douglass used “scorching irony” to denounce American slavery, which he claimed showed a shocking disregard for both the Constitution and the Bible. He concluded that Independence Day was a holiday only for whites; for blacks and slaves, it was only a bitter reminder of the fact that they had no freedom or liberty to celebrate.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Ed. David Blight. Bedford Books (1993): 141–45. This shortened version of the speech is the one Douglass reprinted in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).