The U.S. 1880–1920: Turning Point or More of the Same?
Business History Conference 3
AHA Abstract: Were the years 1880-1920 a Decisive Turning Point in American History?
This session is an exercise in the historical synthesis and the re-synthesis that we believe can be promoted by disagreements, debates, and civil discussion. For some years now, historians have emphasized the changes that took place between 1880 and 1920 as the major pivot point in the development of modern America. Following the lead of the late Robert Wiebe, historians in a number of sub-disciplines have maintained that the political, economic, and social transformations of these decades set patterns for the rest of the twentieth century. Thus, the populist and progressive movements put in motion reform efforts that would give a new role to the federal government; frequently, the ideas and policies would be perfected and institutionalized later in the New Deal and the 1960s. Meanwhile, big business transformed the industrial economy while urbanization was creating America’s new frontier. Continental expansion gave way to a new involvement in world affairs.
Recently, however, a number of leading scholars have begun to question that vision of the nation’s history. They have looked with care at both earlier and later changes that either prefigured the institutions and cultures of the twentieth century or that were responsible for significant new institutions and cultures that were not rooted in the experiences of the years 1880 through 1920. Thus, Brian Balogh looks to the intense activities of nineteenth-century state government as the pattern-setting factor in U.S. political history. Other historians look beyond politics and either before or after World War I for the most decisive transitions in gender and racial relations.
Our session focuses on this debate and seeks to further our understanding of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in American history.