Because the National Park Service reflects the historical priorities of Americans over time, it’s not surprising that it is so lacking in sites interpreting Reconstruction, since the great growth period for the NPS came when Reconstruction was not seen as so central to U.S. history as today. Hopefully, this is a good sign that not only is the agency taking the period seriously, but that the government will actually create some new sites to interpret the period exclusively.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
The only logical follow up for Pat Buchanan now that he’s written a book arguing Richard Nixon wasn’t racist is a book definitively showing that the greatest civil rights president was Andrew Johnson.
In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was still up in the air, so politically it might have made sense to pocket veto the Wade-Davis bill to impose a harsher Reconstruction policy upon the South. But Lincoln had one fatal error in his presidency, which was believing in southern unionism. That error made him slow to believe that the majority of whites in the Confederacy wanted to secede, slow to emancipate the slaves, and open to Andrew Johnson as vice-president, his greatest error of all. Pocket vetoing Wade-Davis meant that when Lincoln was assassinated, he was clearly still waffling on what to actually do on Reconstruction and thus his incredibly weak 10% Plan was still his only public statement. But the 10% Plan was far too lenient to the Confederacy and again reflected Lincoln’s belief the Union could be easily put back together again if the reasonable white men of the South bought in.
No one is perfect and that includes Lincoln.
Huh. Imagine if CNN or other American networks followed the path of the BBC and had directives to stop bringing cranks on the air to present absurd and scientifically bogus arguments that human-caused climate change isn’t happening. It’s almost as if we might get somewhere in fighting it.
The more that the young are unemployed, the more than the long-term stability of capitalism is threatened. It’s not just the U.S., but in fact most of Europe as well, that is dealing (or not dealing more like it) with this problem. If even just getting a decent job requires knowing the right person in upper management, that dooms a lot of kids (like myself) who did not grow up rich or have connections coming out of college. If you tell working and middle-class kids that they have no hope of rising in the world, you undermine the economic system you claim to hold dear. Of course the real economic system the rich hold dear is plutocracy so they don’t care, even though this is very much a solvable problem with government intervention into the economy.
Worker deaths in the energy industry have risen dramatically over the past five years because of the oil and fracking booms. That’s not necessary though. Better worker training would cut down on a lot of these accidents, but the companies, not facing harsh penalties from the federal government, put inexperienced workers in dangerous situations. Raising all OSHA fines tenfold would save a lot of workers’ lives.
Children playing next to a dead horse, Chicago, 1893
This is probably my favorite image for teaching in American history. There is so much going on here. The children playing next to a dead horse seemingly uninterested in its existence. The slum where they live is so obvious to the viewer. The condition of the road is so bad. And of course, once you start looking at it, you realize these kids are hanging their feet down in an open sewer.
I have occasionally seen this image cited as being taken in New York, but more often it is Chicago. It doesn’t really matter, but I wanted to mention it in case some of you who are going to spend more time hunting this kind of thing down than I am willing to do sees something suggesting the city or date is incorrect, which of course you should share.
….Our indefatigable commenter-investigators have shown that the image is indeed from New York, between 1900 and 1906.
In the late 19th century, Americans were still trying to figure out why they died of horrible diseases all the time. At this time, the idea of contagion was just beginning to gain acceptance, which would lead to radical changes that saved millions of lives. Still, others had different ideas. Some, despite as you will see below using the language of contagion, believed that sewer gas slipping into our homes was the reason for a number of diseases that of course have nothing to do with such a thing. Thus, here is a poem on the issue published in Modern Sanitation in 1885.
Our sanitation! Tis the art
Of filling up our homes with drains.
Ah! sewer-gas acts well its part
By conjuring up man’s aches and pains.
The beauteous scarlet fever skips
With typhoid hand in hand.
While sweet Diptheria gayly trips
O’er stationary washstand.
The cholera doth laugh to see
Its comma bacilli.
Old dysentery’s microbe
Is out upon the fly.
Malaria with its poisonous dart
Lurks ‘neath the water-trap.
Measles upon its round doth start,
Small-pox wakes from its nap.
The crafty plumber makes his bill
The sewer-gas ascends.
The doctors gives a sugar pill
‘Tis thus we lose our friends.
The undertaker says ‘tis well
The funeral corteges pass.
The letters of the tombstone spell
Hic Jacet, Sewer-Gas.
Gilded Age Americans, capitalist, anarchist, or middle class reformer, loved putting statements in rhyme. These beliefs about sewer gas would be powerful until World War I .
I found the poem in Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt, p. 70-71
The right to water should be a basic human right and Detroit shutting off water to people who can’t afford to pay their bills is an immoral act. The federal government should intervene to stop this from happening.
As we talked about here earlier, the idea that the kids just aren’t doing their activism right because I’m too lazy to find out what the kids are doing today is a stupid critique of modern activism, in part because students are doing awesome things. Pressure from students at Rutgers led that university to cut off contracts from two apparel companies who refused to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Now Outdoor Cap, which made their hats, is crying about it.
On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation revolutionized the relationship between the federal government and organized labor and gave workers a fair shake from the government for the first time in American history.
When Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1933, the economy was in the worst state in American history. But Roosevelt wanted to help business, not hurt it. His first New Deal labor legislation was really more a pro-business measure. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) intended to bring business on the board with a reform program, and in fact parts of the act were welcomed by corporations, especially as it promoted bigness to undermine harmful competition. Somewhat unintentionally, the NIRA’s provision protecting collective bargaining for workers was interpreted by American workers as giving them approval to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor movement helped cleave corporate support from the New Deal.
In 1935, when the right-wing Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt moved for greater empowerment of workers. In fact, it was only when the NIRA was shut down that FDR moved toward this greater empowerment of workers. He was originally skeptical of the act because it did so much for workers and seemed anti-business. But the election of 1934 created an overwhelmingly liberal Congress that the political space existed for Roosevelt to take such a significant step. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) shepherded the bill through Congress (and giving it its popular name of the Wagner Act). Wagner had long been a champion of labor. He had served as chairman of the New York State Factory Inspection Commission in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire and built upon that to become a Democratic senator from the state in 1927. Wagner was the Senate’s leading liberal during the New Deal, shepherding a variety of legislation through the body, particularly around labor issues.
The NLRA guaranteed “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The law applied to all workers involved in interstate commerce except those working for government, railroads, airlines, and agriculture. The agriculture exception, as in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, continues to lead to the exploitation of agricultural workers today and is one of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Deal, although arguably including agricultural workers might have dampened support for these laws enough that they wouldn’t have passed.
The most important part of the NLRA was the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, creating a government agency with real authority to oversee the nation’s labor relations. The government had now officially declared its neutrality in labor relations, seeing its role as mediating them rather than openly siding with employers to crush unions. This was a remarkable turnaround in a nation where unionbusting was a good political move for the ambitious pol. After all, Calvin Coolidge, out of office only 4 years before Roosevelt took over, made his name by busting the 1919 Boston police strike.
Business went ballistic after the NLRA passed. Business Week ran an editorial titled “NO OBEDIENCE!” It read: “Although the Wagner Labor Relations Act has been passed by Congress and signed by the President, it is not yet law. For nothing is law that is not constitutional.”
Conservatives immediately challenged the constitutionality of the NLRA. But Roosevelt’s war on the Supreme Court, while damaging his prestige and ability to get new legislation passed, did have an effect. The pressure of a changing nation by the time the case came to them had an effect. In the 1937 decision in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the government and the act’s future was ensured. Within a year of the decision, three justices retired and Roosevelt ensured the future of his programs.
It’s also important to remember what life for workers was life before the National Labor Relations Act. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t form strong unions and thus were poor, although that was a piece of it. It’s that companies could do basically anything they wanted to in order to stop or bust a union. They could hire spies. They could hire a police force. They could kill union organizers. They could fire you for joining a union. Corporations had all the power and workers had none because in the end, the government was willing to back up the companies through legislation or even through military intervention to bust unions. The NLRA ended that, perhaps not entirely, but largely. Leveling the playing field meant workers now had the right to a decent life, a right they were happy to grasp and fight for. And fight for they did, as union membership skyrocketed after the NLRA was upheld by the Court.
In other words, social movements require accessing the levers of power, even if that means compromising on key principles, in order to codify change.
As is the case with most legislation, it proved susceptible to conservative regulatory capture and today the NLRB is a shell of its former robust self thanks to Republican attacks on it as one of the few agencies dedicated to giving workers a fair voice on the job, a principle to which the Republican Party opposed in 1935 and opposes in 2014.
This is the 113th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.