No discussion of American socialism would be complete without a consideration of the role played in its development by the preachers of the “Social Gospel”. The social gospel is the natural outgrowth of postmillennialism and the doctrine of salvation by works. The gospel of Jesus Christ comes from His life, death and resurrection, emanating forth from a cross on the hill of Golgotha two thousand years ago. It is perhaps fitting that the social gospel came forth from Hell’s kitchen in New York City less than two hundred years ago.
The gospel of Jesus Christ was first written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The social gospel was first written by Bellamy, George, Marx and Engels. Although the social gospel was around before the Civil War, it is most closely associated with Walter Rauschenbusch, A Baptist minister on New York City’s West Side known as “Hell’s kitchen”, in the 1880s. In attempting to deal with the many social problems he encountered in Hell’s kitchen, he became involved in local political and social activities. While pursuing post-graduate studies in Germany, Rauschenbusch adopted completely the liberal teachings of his German professors, identifying with Bushnell, Ritschl, and Harnack.
On returning to America, Rauschenbusch became an associate professor of church history in Rochester Theological Seminary. He wrote a number of books on the social gospel during the early progressive era, including Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and a Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). Just as Rauschenbusch acknowledged his “lifelong debt to this single-minded apostle of a great truth”, referring to Henry George’s, Progress and Poverty; and spoke highly of the one-hundred-years-into-the-future novel, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, later leaders of the progressive movement would praise the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch.
The social gospel, at the turn of the twentieth century, taught that Jesus would return at the end of a thousand years of peace and prosperity on earth. To create this world of peace and prosperity Jesus was to return to, ministers of the social gospel taught that man could be perfected through education and an environment more conducive to the development of man’s divine nature created in the likeness of God. Unlike the Antebellum seekers of paradise on earth through the creation of utopian communities, social gospel proponents attempted to create the Kingdom of Heaven through government action and social reform.
One institution of the social gospel that had a lasting effect on the progressive movement was the settlement house. Settlement houses were an attempt to deal with the enormous urban social problems caused by the massive immigration of the late nineteenth century. The first settlement house was established in England in 1884 by Canon Samuel Barnett, a parish pastor in London’s East End. Toynbee Hall, as it was known, was a place where wealthy and educated volunteers provided teaching and basic human services to poor residents. Based on the social gospel movement, it attracted young theologians and other middle-class people attempting to emulate Jesus by living among the poor.
Inspired by Barnett’s efforts, Dr. Stanton Coit and Charles Stover founded the Neighborhood Guild in New York City in 1886. Other settlements quickly followed. The most famous one was Hull House of Chicago, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. Addams was one of the earliest advocates for supplanting private charity with public welfare. “One of the first lessons we learned at Hull House was that private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast number of the City’s disenfranchised.” Adams wrote. She succeeded in getting the City of Chicago to take on much of the work of Hull House. Many of the staff soon abandoned volunteer work at Hull House for paid city jobs as factory inspectors, child welfare agents, and other types of social work.
Other settlement houses founded during this time included, College Settlement, in New York; the East Side House, New York; Northwestern University Settlement, Chicago; South End House, Boston; University of Chicago, Chicago; Chicago Commons; Hiram House, Cleveland; and hundreds of others. By 1910 there were more than 400 settlement houses operating in most of the major cities. Settlement workers tried to improve housing conditions, organized protests, offered job-training and labor searches, supported organized labor, worked against child labor, and fought against corrupt politicians.
Political activism was an integral part of settlement house activity. Settlement house residents took part in union activities, fought discrimination in employment, surveyed workplaces and tenements, publicizing their findings as widely as possible in an attempt to raise public awareness and encourage government and legislative reform. Settlement house activism was the forerunner of the community organizing movement of the twentieth century.
The Gilded Age
The term “Gilded Age” was first used in an 1873 book by humorist and social commentator Mark Twain and his co-author, Charles Warner. It had to do with the opulence and extravagant lifestyle of the post-Civil War industrial tycoons and financiers. The increased demand for all types of consumer goods that follows any war created a second industrial revolution and an unprecedented growth in the American economy. Real wages, personal wealth, national GDP, and capital formation all grew at the fastest rate in history. By 1900, America’s per capita income and industrial production led the world. The Gilded Age from about 1877 to about 1898 was the precursor of the Progressive Era.
The economic boom brought with it the need for additional labor and provided new opportunities for entrepreneurs and workers. Massive immigration from eastern and southern Europe contributed to America’s rapid population growth. Socialism was gaining a foothold in Europe and many of its ideas were transferred to America by the newly arriving immigrants. The Third Great Awakening, with its emphasis on the Social Gospel and postmillennialism, coupled with socialism’s concept of a perpetual class struggle, formed the basis for many of the Progressive Era political policies.
The pervasive political corruption during reconstruction and in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant shocked the civic sensibilities of the people bringing widespread demands for reform. The demand for reform united the “Bourbon” Democrats and the Republican “Mugwumps” helping to elect Democrat reform candidate Grover Cleveland as President for two non-consecutive terms in 1884 and 1892. Spurred on by “yellow journalism” and its “muckraking” reporters, the utopian novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and Progress and Poverty by Henry George, the call for reform extended to social issues as well as political.
A major target of the reformers was the spoils system, used by both Parties for government hiring since the Presidency of Andrew Jackson. Even though it was a primary source of corruption, its reform was resisted by political “bosses” until the assassination of President James A. Garfield in July 1881. His death led to enactment of the Pendleton Act and establishment of the Civil Service Commission. Another significant Act during the Gilded Age was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 that would later be used by Presidents Roosevelt and Taft in their “trust busting” campaigns.
The Gilded Age was the age of the “super-rich”. Expansion and consolidation of the railroads, mining activity in the West, the Invention of electrical power, the sewing machine, the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania and the enormous capital investment necessary to start up and run the giant factories created a host of multi-millionaires. John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, the Astor Family and other wealthy industrialists and financiers became targets of the working class who had developed into a considerable political force. Nearly all eligible men took an interest in politics and voter turnout during the Gilded Age often reached 80 and 90 percent. Resentment of the super-rich caused many to overlook an important side benefit, the enormous growth of philanthropy. Private money was used to endow thousands of hospitals, museums, colleges, libraries, opera houses and various charities. John D. Rockefeller alone donated more than half of his net worth to multiple charities.
In order to increase productivity and improve distribution company mergers became commonplace. Mergers (trusts) in the oil, steel, telephone and telegraph, tobacco, and other major industries drew the wrath of the public and led to much of the new regulations of the early Progressive Era. America also developed a love-hate relationship with the railroad industry. Railroads were a leading factor if not the deciding factor in the North’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Between the start of the Civil War and 1880, the miles of railroad track tripled. It would triple again by 1920. Railroads were the backbone of the American economy and the catalysts for its expansion. At the end of the Civil War, it is estimated that up to 150,000 men and women worked for the railroads with thousands more employed in collateral work. By 1900, the number of railroad workers would exceed one million. Most railroad executives were honest men genuinely interested in the welfare of their companies and employees. Railroad fortunes were responsible for much of the important philanthropy of the late nineteenth century; Stanford University and the John Hopkins hospitals are two examples.
The railroads were also the source of corruption and crooked business practices, however. Throughout the Gilded Age crafty railroad promoters manipulated Wall Street, fleeced many of their investors and arranged widespread bribes among politicians. The term “Robber Baron” was first applied to Daniel Drew who defrauded the Erie Railroad of tens of millions of dollars. Sweetheart freight deals and kickbacks to large volume shippers like Rockefeller and Standard Oil led to creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.
Another major railroad scandal involved the Credit Mobilier of America, a construction company formed by officers and leading stockholders of the Union Pacific Railway. The company was originally set up by Thomas Durant, vice president of Union Pacific, but he soon lost control to Republican Congressman Oakes Ames of Massachusetts and his brother Oliver. The men who ran Credit Mobilier also controlled Union Pacific and awarded construction contracts totaling $94 million to themselves for work costing less than $50 million, taking some $44 million in profits for themselves and other select investors. One forth of the money involved was supplied by Congress in loans and land grants to Union Pacific.
In an effort to forestall Congressional investigation, Ames allowed leading members of Congress to buy Credit Mobilier stock at reduced prices. The eventual investigation in 1872 led to disgrace for Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Senator James Patterson of New Hampshire and Representative James Brooks of New York. Ulysses S. Grant and future President James A. Garfield were also implicated. No one was ever removed from office or tried in court as a result of the scandal, however.
Competition for political office during the Gilded Age was intense with control of Congress frequently changing hands between the Democratic and Republican Parties from 1877 to 1897. Inter-party factions prevented the passage of significant legislation and political parties, not wishing to stir up sectional tensions so soon after the Civil War, generally nominated Presidential candidates without strong ideological positions. The five Presidents between Taylor and McKinley are often referred to as the “forgotten Presidents”.
The industrial and business communities fared well during the Gilded Age; not so, the labor unions. At the time, most Americans looked down on labor unions. The first large-scale union, the National Labor Union, was formed immediately after the Civil War to protect workers in the industrial sector. However, it collapsed during the recession of 1873. The Knights of Labor was another union that represented both skilled and unskilled workers, as well as blacks and women. It too, folded after being associated with the Haymarket Square Bombing in Chicago in 1886.
In spite of anti-union attitudes and some crippling setbacks for organized labor, workers continued to participate in strikes and work stoppages in an effort to get better wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. The Great Railroad Strike, the Homestead Mining Strike, and the Pullman strike all ended in violence and became the most memorable. The American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers ended the decade as the most powerful union in the nation.
High railroad shipping rates and high taxes under the McKinley Tariff caused many small farmers to go deeply into debt. In the 1880s thousands of these small farmers banded together to form the Populist Party. The Populists called for a national income tax, shorter workdays, one-term limits for presidents, government control of railroads and restrictions on immigration. Populist candidate James Weaver, and incumbent Republican President Benjamin Harrison lost the 1892 election to Democrat Grover Cleveland, retaking the White House after his 1888 loss.
The first term of Cleveland had been mostly uneventful. His second term turned out to be tumultuous, however. The U.S. Economy was hard hit by a major recession in 1893, effectively bringing the Gilded Age to an end. The financial condition of the federal government was such that Cleveland had to borrow more than $60 million from J.P. Morgan to keep the government afloat. “Coxey’s Army” of more than 500 protesters marched on Washington in 1894 demanding cheaper money and debt relief. Cleveland was unable to revive the economy and consequently lost the White House in 1896 to Republican William McKinley ushering in the Progressive Era. Continued...
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Philosophy of Evil Socialism in America
"The struggle of History is not between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; it is between government and the governed."