The 1800s were an era of big questions, many of which we answered in cruel and selfish ways.
Is one race better than another?
Is one religion? If so, which one? In what ways?
Is one economic system better than another?
Is one system of governance like a democratic republic like the US, or socialism, monarchy, theocracy, communism, best?
Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Social Darwinism
Some people answered these questions with a resounding “yes”. But if we think our people and ways are better than anyone else’s, what responsibility do we have to spread those things? Men like Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt were firm believers in social Darwinism, though their vision of it meant teaching those less “civilized” people our ways. And they were okay with the United States taking power over them.
Meanwhile, there were men like William Jennings Bryan who refused to think of others in social Darwinism terms. He spent years fighting that dark philosophy, ultimately prosecuting the Scopes Monkey trial to stop the spread of social Darwinism. But the seeds of eugenics were planted.
Cubans held in concentration camps by Spain
Caught in the middle were the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillippines, and other colonies of the Spanish empire. Spain was busy imprisoning Cubans in concentration camps. Their ruthless behavior toward America’s neighbors caught the attention of the US Senate, which was already champing at the bit for a fight. Men in the United States were worried about their waning influence on society. Groups bellyached about how men were not men anymore thanks to cities and offices. In the minds of some, war was the answer to weak-willed men. And Spain provided that war.
Our guest today is Paul T. McCartney author of “Power and Progress: American National Identity, the War of 1898, and the Rise of American Imperialism”. He teaches at Towson University.
**CORRECTION – In the original version of this story I referred to the USS Maine as the HMS Maine. That was incorrect. HMS stands for “Her Majesty’s Ship”, which makes no sense for American ships. The current version was changed for accuracy.**
Do you believe your people are somehow superior to another people group? Why?
Does that sound like an attitude Jesus would have?
If you are somehow superior, what is your responsibility to other people?
Should the US help people who are being oppressed around the world? When should we intervene?
Do you think that men are in decline? If so, what is the answer to that?
Do you better relate to Teddy Roosevelt or William Jennings Bryan when it comes to war? Or are you a pacifist?
How would Jesus have responded to the cruelty of Spain?
Populism is a tricky subject. We use it these days as a slur, but populism can be a useful phenomenon. History professor and author Michael Kazin says that populism is an important tool when it comes to regulating power. In the late 1800s, railroads and banks were out of control. Industrialists like John D. Rockefeller had uninhibited control of their markets. Rockefeller believed in social Darwinism and didn’t mind using dirty tactics to undermine his competition.
The origins of the Populist Party
The Populist Party sprouted out of frustrations women had with the political machines of their day. Republicans and Democrats were not yet willing to accept women and the issues they cared about. Women were slowly becoming a force within politics, but neither party had the guts to accept them. So women and others decided to form their own party. But in the election of 1896, the Populist Party was worried about a split vote. They worried that if they were to run a candidate of their own then they might split the vote. So the Populist Party backed Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan was a man of God. He quoted the Bible extensively, talked about the example of Jesus. But he was soundly defeated by the Republicans and William McKinley. He had only about 4% of the budget of his opponents. The story of Bryan is an interesting one because it contains the building blocks of fundamentalism.
What is a populist?
Can you name some populists?
What are the advantages of populism? The drawbacks?
How are Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders similar?
William Jennings Bryan was one of the first presidential hopefuls from a major party to tour the country. How has this shaped American politics? Why do we like to see politicians in our home states?
What do populism and fundamentalism have in common?
Do you think that fundamentalism relies on strong figures as populism does? Why or why not?
“A Godly Hero” and “What It Took to Win” by Michael Kazin
Library of Congress collection of Chautauqua materials
How the gold standard made the Great Depression much worse
The Great Depression. Some say that it was caused by a failure of the stock market. Well… that’s not all. Jacob Goldstein, host of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and author of “Money: the Truce Story of a Made-Up Thing” joins us to discuss the role the gold standard played in making the depression what it was.
A run on the bank
Here is why the gold standard made the Great Depression much worse. Simply put, the panic of 1929 caused people to run to the bank and demand their money back in the form of gold. We were on the gold standard back then and you could literally go to a bank and ask for them to get your money in gold. But banks were running out! There was only so much gold on hand because banks don’t generally keep 100% of their money in the vault. And banks (for the ease of our understanding things) “create” money when they do loans. So it was possible for a bank only to have a certain percentage of their loans backed by actual gold.
The Federal Reserve Raised Interest Rates
This created real trouble. If the banks ran out of gold, they’d go broke and have to close. So the Federal Reserve decided to raise interest rates. Raising interest rates gives people an incentive to leave their money in banks because then they get more interest. BUT it also made it harder for people to borrow money or refinance their existing loans. Which put a huge crimp on the American financial system. In order to keep gold in the banks, the Fed had to hobble the loan industry. That meant that businesses couldn’t get loans to help with payroll, and people looking to start a business couldn’t get the money they needed. And the economy froze.
That is why the gold standard was bad for the economy. Preserving it meant sacrificing the loan industry.
The 1800s were a time of milking cows and going to the county fair.
Sure… but what else? We tend to think of this century as a quiet, pastoral era when people were friendly and life was simple. But the 1800s were a crazy time! The American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish-American War, conquest, the suffrage movement, the prohibition movement, massive technological changes. It’s a wonder we ever made it out alive.
In this episode, we explore the early life of William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic Party, the party of Jim Crow that he would soon lead. After the Civil War, it was the Democrats who created Black Codes in the South to restrict the upward mobility of African Americans. They were the party of white farmers and soon transitioned into representing labor unions and, eventually, many black people in the United States. Bryan was one of the men responsible for that transition.
Helpful Links and Sources:
“A Godly Hero” by Michael Kazin
Truce episode about the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)
This season we’re tracing the history of Christian fundamentalism through the life of William Jennings Bryan. But first, we need to learn some important definitions. Our big word of the week is dispensationalism. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Dispensationalism is (in part) the notion that God treats humankind differently depending on what era we are in. It is not accepted by all Christians, but it is a building block of fundamentalism. Another component of dispensationalism is the secret rapture–the idea that God will take His elect to heaven just before the tribulation. It also asserts that the Christian Church will become apostate before the end times. This last tidbit is important! Premillennialism made Christians suspicious of the outside world, but it was dispensationalism that made us suspicious of each other.
Who created dispensationalism?
John Nelson Darby is often credited as the father of dispensationalism. He came up with the idea of the rapture and is the man who packaged a bunch of existing ideas into this systematized vision of the Bible. In the 1700s and 1800s, people adapted the scientific notion of categorizing everything into genus and species and applied it to all areas of study, even when reading the Bible. This encouraged people like Darby to break the Bible into “dispensations” or eras.
Our guest this week is George Marsden. He’s the author of “Fundamentalism and American Culture”.
Are you suspicious of other Christians? Why is that?
Do you believe in the rapture? Why?
Does the God of the Bible behave differently in different parts of the Bible? Or is He the same throughout?
Do you believe that Jewish people were destined to return to Israel based on Matthew 24:32-33 or Romans 11:25-26?
What did you know about the French Revolution before our recent episodes on it? Do you think it was a significant event in world history? If so, why?