BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Professor Brands, why did you call the 1890s "The Reckless Decade?"
H.W. BRANDS, AUTHOR, "THE RECKLESS DECADE: AMERICA IN THE 1890S": Well, it was a time when Americans seemed to be on the edge of something. They were somewhere between the past and the future, and there were a lot of ways in which Americans themselves thought that they were living recklessly. I thought it had a nice ring to it, anyway.
LAMB: Couple of comparisons between the 1990s and the 1890s.
BRANDS: There was a definite sense, obviously, that something important was ending. In the 1890s, the United States had just -- well, a few years before, celebrated its 100th anniversary. There was also a feeling at that time, fairly well documented, that the frontier phase of American history was ending. Frederick Jackson Turner, during the 1890s, popularized the notion of the American frontier as the formative influence in American history. Well, the Census of 1890 reported that the frontier had vanished, there was no frontier anymore.
So Americans had this notion that they were running up against the end of their history as they had known it and they were on the edge of something new, obviously a new century coming up. Americans in the 1990s feel the same way. With the fact that we're running up to the end of the second millennium of the modern era, it exacerbates that tendency. So there is this feeling that the past is behind us, the future is going to be different from the past. And nobody knows quite how.
LAMB: Who's your favorite character back in the 1890s?
BRANDS: Oh, there's several of them, I'm quite taken by Theodore Roosevelt, to the point actually where I'm at work on a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. William Jennings Bryan was a very attractive individual; Eugene Debs among the financiers and the industrialists. I don't know if I would say that J.P. Morgan was really attractive, but he was certainly a compelling figure.
LAMB: In your introduction you write, "In each decade the distrust and hostility on the part of the aggrieved gave rise to a populist reaction. In the 1990s, a populism of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and the Republican right; in the 1890s, a population of Mary Lease, Tom Watson and the populist left." First, describe what a populist is.
BRANDS: A populist is someone who appeals to the masses; in this case, of the American people, who generally employs a rhetoric of distrust, as I pointed out, of folks -- groups that they identify as elite. And in a democracy like the United States, to be branded elitist is a serious charge. Populists portray themselves as the defenders of received values, of traditional virtues. And because we live in a democracy, they have the edge on anyone that they can portray as an elitist.
They often tend toward demagoguery. In both the 1890s and the 1990s, they were quite taken by conspiracy theories. This is in line with their thinking that elites control the American political systems, the American economy. And there's a notion that if somehow the United States could simply get back to its popular or populist roots, if the common people could once again take control of the political and economic system, then we would return to some golden era of American history.
LAMB: Is there a difference between the populist left of the 1890s and the populist right of today? And if so, what is the difference?
BRANDS: The populist left of the 1890s was more of an economic movement, it was an effort by those people who had certain concrete economic grievances. Farmers, for example, who had suffered from falling prices for two decades, and as a result, found it a lot more difficult to make ends meet than they had in the past. There was a feeling that the country was being taken over by big business, by foreigners. There was a sense that American values were being swamped under a wave of immigration. I guess I should point out also that populism, even though I've used the term of "populist left of the 1890s," and "the populist right of the 1990s," in some senses it defies clear categorization that way because populists often tend to pull their ideas and their notions from all over the political spectrum.
I guess, the most noticeable difference is that the populists of the 1890s found the Democratic Party far more congenial than the Republican Party, even though for a while they split off and tried to found their own party. When the populists as a group were pulled back into the political system, they came back as Democrats. Whereas populists in the 1990s feel a much greater affinity with the Republican Party.
LAMB: Let me ask you a couple questions about yourself. Where do you live?
BRANDS: In Austin, Texas.
LAMB: What do you do?
BRANDS: I teach history at Texas A&M University.
LAMB: And where is Texas A&M located?
BRANDS: It's in College Station.
LAMB: How far away is that?
BRANDS: Ninety miles down the road.
LAMB: How long do you commute?
BRANDS: I usually commute twice a week. I've got my schedule arranged so that I do most of my work -- most of my teaching and most of my work in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
LAMB: Where is your home originally?
BRANDS: I'm from Oregon. I grew up in Portland.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
BRANDS: I went to Stanford.
BRANDS: Well, I started out studying mathematics, actually. But then I decided that I wanted to be in a field that was a little bit closer in touch with subjects that I could talk to other people about. And I'd always had an interest in history, so I wound up getting a degree in history.
LAMB: Which book is this for you?
BRANDS: In number? This is my 11th book.
LAMB: Just give us a rough idea what kind of other books did you write?
BRANDS: Well, I started out writing principally on American foreign policy during the early Cold War. And so I've got a couple of books on the 1940s and 1950s; and then one on the Johnson administration and foreign policy in the 1960s. And then I've got a couple of other textbook-style books.
LAMB: Have you always been a teacher? Have you done any political work or...
BRANDS: Never done any political work. I was in business for a while but not very seriously -- not for very long.
LAMB: On a scale of all the other books you've written, how hard or -- was this book any different to do?
BRANDS: It was different in the sense that this is the first book in which I essentially tried to let the story tell itself. The reason I wrote about the 1890s was that I found the decade very interesting. And in fact, even before I started thinking of parallels between the 1890s and the 1990s, I just thought that the 1890s was a very curious and interesting decade in American history. And as I got looking into the idea of writing a book, I just found all sorts of stories that I thought would simply -- if I just lay out the story, it would be an attractive tale. I hope I've succeeded.
LAMB: How many people living in the country in the 1890s, how many states were there, and who was president?
BRANDS: Working backwards, William McKinley was president from 1897 till 18 -- well, till he was assassinated in 1901. He was preceded by Grover Cleveland, who was serving for his second term in office. He was preceded by Benjamin Harrison. Let's see, there were about -- well the number of states varied from about 40 to about 46 by the end of the decade. The population of the country was around 85 million in 1900 -- excuse me -- in 1890 and had grown to 95 million or so by the end of the decade.
LAMB: Who could vote?
BRANDS: Women could not, with the exception of in certain Western states. Women could vote in some Western states. The franchise was essentially and exclusively adult male business. There were not much in the way of residency requirements, so immigrants could vote almost right off the boat. In fact, that led to the rise of the urban political machines and a good deal of political corruption during the era.
LAMB: You talk about stories. This is out of context, but tell the story about Grover Cleveland and cancer.
BRANDS: In the middle of Grover Cleveland's second term, from 1893 to 1897, there was a financial crisis in the United States. There was a panic -- a stock market -- a financial panic in 1893 that led, over the next few months, to a severe financial drain on the American Treasury.
LAMB: What was the source of the panic?
BRANDS: There was a feeling -- well, the precipitating cause was nervousness on the part of British investors who had lent short-term in the American bond markets and wanted to get their money out. When they started pulling out, then that sent bond prices down. And various other people who were sort of watching the British to see which way they were going to go, realized that maybe it was time to get their money out as well. So the US Treasury, at the time, was committed to uphold the gold standard. And if people wanted to convert their dollars to gold, then the US government had to pay.
At the time it was generally thought that $100 million was the necessary cushion -- $100 million in gold was the necessary cushion in the US Treasury. And the Treasury reported periodically on the state of the gold supply. Well, as more and more foreigners especially wanted to get gold for their dollars, the Treasury gold supply dwindled. It got to the point where President Cleveland decided that the only thing to do was to borrow money from the American private markets which, of course, it had done before. But to do it by means of some technique that would reassure, especially British investors, but also investors in the United States, so he felt obliged to call on J.P. Morgan, who was...
LAMB: Who is J.P. Morgan?
BRANDS: J.P. Morgan was the leading financier, the founder of the House of Morgan, and the man who probably wielded more economic power in the United States than anyone else at the time.
LAMB: Is that the same Morgan Guaranty Bank today?
BRANDS: Right. That's a descendent. And so Cleveland called, invited Morgan to come to Washington, and he asked Morgan what could be done. Morgan said that if the president desired him to do so, he could put together a bond package that would be sellable to British and other investors, and that essentially if, given the Morgan seal of approval, then this would stop the panic. This would stop the run on the American Treasury.
So Cleveland reluctantly went ahead with it. He was reluctant for a couple of reasons. One, as a Democrat, he didn't like the appearance of being in hock to J.P. Morgan, who was one of the most unpopular figures in the country, especially among Cleveland's constituents. And also because, related to this, he knew that Morgan was going to make some money on this deal. Morgan wasn't doing this out of sheer patriotism. He would make some money.
But anyway, Cleveland decided that this had to be done. Well, in the meantime, while this was going on -- the discussions between Morgan and Cleveland were -- the existence of the negotiations was common knowledge. Reporters would hover around the White House. They would see J.P. Morgan come in. He would come out and they'd ask him what happened and he would be rather vague about it, but eventually Congress wanted to know what had gone on, so they brought Morgan in and they were questioning him. By the way, he refused to say how much money he had made off of this, claiming it was his private business.
But anyway, in the middle of this, Cleveland discovered that he had a tumor on the roof of his mouth. He also realized that if news got out in the middle of these very delicate negotiations that the president might die, that that would make the nervousness among investors worse than ever. And so very secretly, he arranged to have first the -- he didn't realize it was a tumor at first. He went into his physician who took a biopsy, cut a slice out, and without revealing who the patient was, sent it off...
LAMB: From the roof of his mouth.
BRANDS: Right. Sent it off to some specialists and, as I say, he didn't indicate who the patient was, and the word came back that, in fact, it was malignant. And so Cleveland's physician said, "You know, if you were me, I'd have this thing cut out right away." And so the surgery took place in deepest secrecy. Cleveland left Washington saying that he was heading for his summer house.
BRANDS: In Rhode Island. And he -- excuse me, Massachusetts. But along the way, he made it to New York City, and then he went aboard a yacht that was owned by a wealthy friend with connections to the administration, and on board -- well, shortly thereafter were brought on board a team of surgeons. A dentist who specialized in anesthesia, a couple of oral surgeons, and they tied Cleveland down to his chair and they tilted him way back and cut this tumor out of the roof of his mouth.
He had to stay on board for a couple of days -- no, excuse me -- just for about one day. Meanwhile, reporters were hovering around his summer house at Buzzards Bay where he was supposed to be, and they hadn't seen him arrive, so they were wondering where the president was. He arrived shortly thereafter. There was considerable subterfuge that was going on. Because Cleveland had had this big tumor about the size of a golf ball taken out of his mouth -- he was a large man, and he had, you know, heavy jowls -- but nonetheless, this sort of caved in his face, and so they made these sort of rubber devices that he would stick inside his cheeks to make his face look fuller than it was. And then they let the word out that he just had a minor illness, a cold or something like that. No, I think maybe they said he had wisdom teeth pulled or something like that.
So they managed to keep the lid on the story until one of the individuals began talking to a friendly reporter. And this reporter thought this was very interesting and could he follow up on it.
LAMB: One of the doctors?
BRANDS: Yes. In fact, I think it was one of the dentists actually.
LAMB: The dentists.
BRANDS: And so this reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer began asking around -- asking the White House, asking for the names of the other members of the medical team. And they, frankly, just stonewalled it. They said that, you know, this guy was shooting off his mouth and, you know, there was nothing to the story at all. And I'm sure that sort of thing couldn't happen today. Reporters
LAMB: But didn't he have to go back and have another operation?
BRANDS: Well, he did. In fact, it was much less serious than the previous one. But, yeah, he had to have a little bit of it cleaned up later on. It probably helped a lot that his wife was pregnant during this period, and she delivered a healthy baby. So that sort of at least gave the appearance of giving the lie to these notions that the president was on his death bed. You know, here is now the father of this, you know, healthy child. And the fact that everybody just wouldn't talk. They kept...
LAMB: Second Grover Cleveland term? Because I remember reading that he'd married at age 49 in the White House someone who was, like, 20 or 21.
BRANDS: Yeah. I don't remember his exact age -- or her exact age. But -- yeah.
LAMB: What kind of a Democrat was he?
BRANDS: He described himself as "ugly honest." He was a reform mayor of Buffalo during the 1880s, and he was sort of the -- he portrayed himself and was portrayed as the antidote to Tammany Hall, the political machine in New York City, which was notoriously corrupt. And at a time during the 1880s when both parties were trying to put a little distance between themselves and the widespread graft that was quite common in American politics during the era of Reconstruction, he seemed to be an attractive candidate. He was fiscally conservative. He was a solid gold Democrat, who stood for the gold standard, as opposed to the populist types, like William Jennings Bryan, who advocated the remonetization of silver at an inflationary rate. He was a conservative establishment Eastern Democrat.
LAMB: You mentioned Williams Jennings Bryan earlier. I was surprised and wondered if there was any connection with Pat Buchanan with William Jennings Bryan, because you say he -- I did not know he was an editorial writer for the Omaha World Herald. Pat Buchanan was an editorial writer for the St. Louis Globe Democrat. One's on the right. Was William Jennings Bryan on the left? Is that where he was?
BRANDS: Yes. The basic difference is that Bryan was essentially a career politician, and he was elected to office many times -- as a congressman, then as a senator. And he was the acknowledged leader of the Democratic Party. He was nominated three times for president, wasn't elected. Finally, in 1913, he was appointed secretary of state. So he was, during the 20 years from the mid-1890s to about 1915, probably the most prominent Democrat in the country. And he had a political record that he certainly could stand on, and did stand on, as opposed to Pat Buchanan, for example, who really was a speechwriter, an editorial writer. Bryan did that simply between trips to the White House -- I mean, not to the White House -- to Washington.
LAMB: Well, you say when he first ran, he wasn't old enough to be president -- or wasn't old enough to be a senator. I can't remember which. I remember reading that.
BRANDS: Well, by the time he ran for president, of course, by the time he would be inaugurated...
BRANDS: ...he was old enough. The 1890s is probably the decade when people really started these marathon runs for the presidency, where they would start two, three or four years in advance. And, in fact, during 1894, 1895, when Bryan was preparing for a run for the White House, at that time he wasn't yet 35; he wasn't old enough to be president.
LAMB: "Cross of gold, tongue of silver."
BRANDS: Well, the cross of gold is a reference to Bryan's...
LAMB: It's a chapter heading is what I...
BRANDS: Right. It was a reference to Bryan's so-called cross of gold speech, which he gave at the Democratic National Convention in 1896 and absolutely swept the delegates off their feet. They decided that a man with this sort of charisma and this power of speech was the person that they wanted to lead them in the presidential contest that year. The cross of gold was a reference to the gold standard. And Bryan gave a very dramatic rendition of how the Republicans and all those who stood for the gold standard were trying to crucify mankind, meaning the common people, upon this cross of gold. And he and various other people persuaded the Democrats that the platform of the Democratic Party should come out in favor of free silver; that was the slogan. What it really meant was that silver should be coined again at a ratio of 16:1 to gold -- 16 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold.
This was widely at variance with the market price of silver relative to gold. And if enacted, it would have led to a massive expansion of the currency, which would have had the effect of raising prices. And although there was a lot of hot air, a lot of just nonsense that surrounded the idea of free silver, there was a basic economic truth that lay behind it. Farmers and other people who dealt in commodities had been hit hard for the previous 20 years by the fact that prices for the products they were selling had been falling steadily.
And this was especially a burden on debtors, because debtors have to pay back their debts in dollars. If they borrow $1,000 and prices fall, if when they borrow $1,000, that would buy, say 1,000 bushels of wheat. If the price of wheat falls, say, to 50 cents, then they've got to sell 2,000 bushels of wheat in order to pay back their $1,000 debt. So they realized that they were getting badly damaged by these falling prices. If they could reverse the trend, if they could expand the currency, cause prices to rise, then they would be paying back their debts.
LAMB: What is our standard today?
BRANDS: The United States doesn't have a standard today.
LAMB: When did we go off the gold standard?
BRANDS: The US went off the gold standard domestically during the 1930s. It went off the gold standard internationally during the early 1970s. So now the US currency floats against all other currencies.
LAMB: Go -- by the way, go back to the panic of 1893 when you said the British were worried. Would you be worried if you heard that the Japanese were pulling their money out of our bond market now?
BRANDS: Well, not...
LAMB: The way I understand that.
BRANDS: ...not being a big bondholder myself, I wouldn't be.
LAMB: But would it have -- could the same thing happen, the panic of 1996?
BRANDS: When I lectured to my US history students, I used to explain to them how the stock market crash of 1929 couldn't happen. It wouldn't happen again. There are various checks in place to prevent this thing from happening. And I gave that lecture for several years, up until 1987, when the same thing appened again. Now so I had to change the lecture, say that, `Well, I guess the stock market can crash again.' I modified the lectures to the extent where I said that, "OK, yeah, there can be a stock market crash, but it's not going to lead to a depression the way the stock market crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression of the 1930s." This is a long way of getting back to answer your question.
I mean, there could be serious problems in the financial markets if -- well, for example, if the US government defaulted, then what would happen essentially is, depending -- it wouldn't happen in the same way, because since the US isn't on the gold standard anymore, there's no run on the gold supply to worry about. What would happen is that the government would have to pay considerably higher prices, considerably higher interest rates and which would have a severe crimping effect on what the government could do. It could very easily put the budget way out of balance again. So there are potentials for the same sort of thing to happen, but not in quite the same way.
LAMB: Back to William Jennings Bryan. How did you research him?
BRANDS: He wrote a couple volumes of an autobiography. I read letters that he wrote, read speeches. There have been a number of very good biographies of Bryan.
LAMB: Are there any recordings of his voice and his speaking ability that you've found?
BRANDS: Yes, there are. In fact, I don't think I listened to any of them for this particular work.
LAMB: I don't want to bore the audience, but I want to read a little bit of his cross of gold speech...
LAMB: ...that you quote here. "'The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty: the cause of humanity.' Bryan paused and continued, 'The individual is but an atom. He is born, he acts, he dies, but principle is eternal, and this has been a contest over principle.'" What's that all about?
BRANDS: Well, he was contending that he and the Democratic Party were standing for traditional values. And they were standing against the modernizing trends in the American economy that were giving unprecedented power to people like J.P. Morgan and the financiers. I should point out that Bryan was one of the principal critics of the Cleveland administration for cutting this deal with Morgan and the investors. And Bryan was one of the figures who was insisting that Morgan should be called to account. He should have to reveal how much money he made on this.
So Bryan was essentially harking back to a golden age in American history and saying that those were the principles that the Democratic Party, the party of Jefferson, the party of Jackson, the party of the people -- those were the principles that the Democrats were standing for.
LAMB: Here's more, and I want to ask you who would say this today. "There are those who believe that if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them." Who would say that today?
BRANDS: The former or the latter? That the prosperity will trickle down?
BRANDS: Well, I think that the...
LAMB: I mean, is it -- could it...
BRANDS: ...the obvious person would be somebody like Steve Forbes, but that was basically the idea behind the supply-side economics of the 1980s in the Reagan administration.
LAMB: Would William Jennings Bryan come back today, be comfortable being a Democrat?
BRANDS: Now that's hard to say, because Bryan was a very good party man. He was tempted to bolt the party and join the populists, but his loyalty to his party was such that he believed that he would stay with the Democrats. So on the one hand, Bryan would certainly think twice about leaving the Democrats. Would he be comfortable? He would not be comfortable with Bill Clinton. He would be rather to the left of Clinton. He would be much more comfortable with somebody like Jesse Jackson, for example.
LAMB: Eugene V. Debs, you mentioned. The thing that I learned when I read -- I didn't know this. Because we've talked here about Robert Todd Lincoln being president of the Pullman Company at one point along the way, the son of Abraham Lincoln. You say in here that Pullman really got its kick in this country because of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Explain that.
BRANDS: Well, when Lincoln's body was being taken back to Illinois, it was thought that it ought to go in style. I mean, after all, this was the president. And so they found the most luxurious railroad car they could. And this was the Pullman Palace Car, manufactured by the Pullman Palace Car Company. The problem that Pullman -- George Pullman, the owner and president of the company, had been having was that these cars were taller and wider than most cars at the time. And they often ran into trouble when they would pull up to platforms or sometimes they would be too tall to go under the bridges. Well, in order to get Abraham Lincoln, the deceased president, back home, the railroads that were taking him back -- the rail lines decided that they would simply have to make the investment to raise the bridges, to pull the platforms back away from the tracks where they had been. And so they did so. So now, all of a sudden, there was much more track that could handle the Pullman Palace Cars. In addition, of course, it was terrific advertising. You know, this was the finest railway car in the world. I mean, that was the implicit and, as Pullman put it, the explicit message, of a funeral procession.
And increasingly other railways found that they had to follow suit, because now one railway could say that, "We have the Pullman Palace Car." And if the others couldn't match it, then the people who wanted to travel in those days, wanted to travel in style, would simply take their business elsewhere.
LAMB: What's the connection -- you mentioned this man right here, born in Indiana, Eugene V. Debs -- what's the connection: Debs to Pullman?
BRANDS: Debs was one of the founders and the head of the American Railway Union, which staged a sympathy strike when -- in 1894 when George Pullman and his company, as a result of the panic of 1893, falling prices, falling demand for their cars, Pullman cut the wages of the workers at his plant in Pullman, Indiana. And it was a company town. It was portrayed as a model town.
LAMB: Pullman, Indiana, or Pullman, Illinois?
BRANDS: I'm sorry. Pullman, Illinois. Yes. And the workers all of a sudden found their wages cut by 25 percent. Now they felt especially bitter about this, because Pullman, aside from being their employer, was their landlord. And even though he cut wages, he didn't cut rents. He maintained the fiction that his business as a landlord was entirely separate from his business as employer. Well, as you can imagine, this caused a great deal of distress among the workers who decided to go out on strike.
The American Railway Union had just been founded that very year. And Eugene Debs, the leader, was trying to establish its credibility as a defender of the rights of workers, especially of railway workers. And so Debs persuaded the leaders of the ARU, the American Railway Union, to stage a sympathy strike, to go out in sympathy with the cause of the Pullman workers. Well, this immediately caused the Pullman strike to become a major stoppage of train traffic from the West Coast to the East Coast. Because what would happen is the American -- the members of the railway union, in sympathy with the Pullman workers, would refuse to handle the Pullman cars. Well, Pullman cars were on nearly all the lines in the country. And when the workers refused to handle those cars, then they would be fired by their employers, the railway managers, which would then cause the railway union to walk off the job in support of their own members who'd just been fired.
So within a matter of several weeks, much of the train traffic around the country had not quite stopped, but it slowed down immensely. You asked a question earlier of what sort of Democrat Grover Cleveland was. Cleveland was president at this time, and Cleveland was not sympathetic to the cause of the workers, to the cause of organized labor. Cleveland, at the instigation of his attorney general, Richard Olney, took the side of the railway managers on the grounds that the railway strike was interfering with the delivery of the mails. So Cleveland and his attorney general, Olney, sought federal injunctions against the American Railway Union, ordering them back to work.
The union leadership defied the injunctions. Debs refused to order his men back to work. He was arrested. He got out on bail. He was arrested again right away, at which point he realized that as often as he put up bail, he would be arrested again. And so he stayed in jail and intended to fight the charge through the courts. Well, meanwhile, Cleveland decided to send in federal troops to assi -- well, the idea was to suppress any violence that was connected with the strike. The governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, said that he didn't want federal troops. He said, "You know, there's no real violence here. In fact, if you send in the federal troops, they're more likely to cause violence than to prevent it."
Nonetheless, Cleveland sent the troops in over the opposition of Altgeld. The troops arrived in Chicago, which was the center of railway traffic in the country and also the center of this strike. And, sure enough, very soon there were widespread riots, arson, looting. Much of Chicago was up in flames during that summer of 1894.
LAMB: How long was Eugene Debs in jail?
BRANDS: He was in jail for about two months before the trial began. Those days trials got started faster than they do today. The trial lasted the better part of a month. He was convicted, and he was sentenced to six months in jail. Now they gave him credit for the time that he had been in jail already, so he only ended up having to serve about three months beyond that. There was another charge that was brought against him that was -- the trial for that began while Debs was just about finishing his prison term -- that one was thrown out of court, so he was convicted on the one charge. Well, actually the government dropped its case on the other one.
LAMB: When did he become a socialist?
BRANDS: It was, in fact, during his time in prison that he, obviously, had time on his hands. He did a lot of reading, and he came out of prison far more radical than he had gone in. He was sort of a left-wing populist type when he entered prison. He was pretty nearly a socialist by the time he came out.
LAMB: Ran for president how many times?
BRANDS: At least three times, I believe, 1912, 1916 and again 1920.
LAMB: You mentioned when we started about the frontier and you start off by writing about a man named Frederick Jackson Turner, which is right down here. Who was he?
BRANDS: Turner was a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He was -- and at the time, Madison, Wisconsin, was fairly close to what was left of the frontier. He was very taken by the idea of the frontier, of spending -- he spent a lot of time in the woods. He would go canoeing, and, in fact, he spent a lot of time fishing. And he had grown up within shouting distance almost of the frontier. He used to describe how he had seen "wild Indian tribes," in his phrasing, when he was young. He was very taken by the trappers that would still go by and come in and paint the town red on Saturday nights. And he had this belief that this frontier experience was central to American history.
Now this was an innovation; it was a striking interpretation on a couple of grounds, in the first place, because it placed so much emphasis on the frontier. At the time Turner started teaching and writing, the center of gravity in the American historical profession was still in the Northeast, in New England, especially. And people who taught in the Northeast tended to see the Puritan experience as the defining experience of American history. They tended to look more to the East than to the West. They were quite taken by the idea that American democracy had its roots in the forests of Germany. They looked for precursors to American democracy in European history.
And as historians have a habit of doing, if they looked hard enough, they were able to find some of those precursors. Turner wasn't in the East; Turner was in the West. Turner looked to the West. To him the frontier was a living part of his experience. And being a Westerner himself and being very taken with the idea of the frontier, he began to look for influences in the frontier as being those determining factors in the American experience. And he came up with what is generally considered to be the most powerful interpretation in the history of American history, if I can put it that way: namely, that the frontier was the defining -- was what made America different, what made the United States different from other countries. He didn't deny that there were certain European antecedents to American democracy, but he asked the question: Why is democracy in America so different from the democracies of Europe? And he said the basic reason is the frontier.
And then he went on to point out that for 300 years, from the 17th century almost to the beginning of the 20th century, the frontier, by which he meant the existence of free land out to the West, where people could go when life got hard in the East, where they could put down new roots, where if those roots didn't sink too well, they could try something new. That period had ended.
LAMB: You say that in 1893 that he was 32 years old at the Columbian Exposition. And when did he surface? When did he make his mark?
BRANDS: That's when he surfaced. Nobody really had heard of him before this. And, in fact, it took a while for people to hear about him. He gave this speech, this talk, lecture at the Columbian Exposition. The American Historical Association was brand new at that point. And the AHA was trying to put a little bit of an intellectual gloss on this Columbian Exposition. And the people who were putting on the exposition, which, in effect, was a world fair, they liked the idea of having a few academics come and lend some intellectual respectability to what otherwise was sort of a technology show and a big blowout.
And so Turner gave his lecture, and, frankly, nobody paid any attention to it at the time. But...
LAMB: You mean it would be like one of these sessions we cover all the time. He just showed up and gave a lecture and nobody paid attention?
BRANDS: Well, he was invited. But, in fact, there were two or three others...
LAMB: But what I'm getting at is was there a big crowd there?
BRANDS: No. It was a warm afternoon, and, in fact, the two other people who were on the panel were written up in the local papers. The Chicago papers felt obliged to report on what was going on. And none of them mentioned Turner. You know, there was somebody doing a paper on lead mining in Missouri or something like this. And nobody really noticed Turner, except that a few people like Theodore Roosevelt, for example, who was an up-and-coming member of the Republican Party. At this time, he was a civil service commissioner. He was quite take by the notion of this. And Roosevelt and other people saw this -- first of all, they thought that it was a reasonable and persuasive explanation of American history. But it was also a way of extending the lessons of the American past into the American future, as these people saw it.
And a lot of people, for example, who said, "OK, I agree that the frontier and the notion of expansion to the West was the defining feature of American democracy. Well, now the frontier's closed, so what do we do?" "We could continue to expand.' `Well, where should we expand to?" People like Roosevelt had in mind expanding out into the Pacific to -- Roosevelt particularly wanted to annex Hawaii, wanted to expand even to the other side of the Pacific, wanted to expand down into the Caribbean, to build a canal in either Nicaragua or Panama. And so this notion of expansion as being necessary to the health of American democracy. You know, until this time, expansion had taken place on the North American continent. But now that the continent's full, we'll just have to continue to expand.
So Turner was adopted by a lot of people who had political agendas. It didn't really have a whole lot to do with this historical interpretation per se. It was a very useful kind of idea.
LAMB: You say Woodrow Wilson read him, followed him. Did he use him?
BRANDS: Well, Wilson was the kind of person who put his own spin on just about every idea that he came up with. Wilson was trying to figure out why American government -- he was actually a political scientist rather than a historian. He was trying to figure out why American government had evolved in a way different from parliamentary governments in Britain and in France. And, actually, Wilson favored the British parliamentary system. But he felt that Turner had some important things to say, although he didn't buy it hook, line and sinker.
I should add, by the way, and this is a mark of an influential historical interpretation -- almost immediately other historians began attacking Turner and saying that, "Well, you know, this is an interesting idea, but he carries it too far."
LAMB: What's the frontier today? Is there one?
BRANDS: Well, if you watch "Star Trek," space is the final frontier. You know, there was a time during the 1960s and 1970s when a lot of people would buy that notion. It's hard to say if there really is a frontier. There's certainly no place where somebody -- an up-and-coming 22-year-old young man can go off within the territory limits of the United States and, you know, make his way, the way somebody could on the frontier. I suppose Alaska is the closest thing, but, you know, Alaska's pretty well civilized, too.
LAMB: On one page here in the book, you have an artist's rendition of Andrew Carnegie, which our audience will see shortly. And right over next to it is John D. Rockefeller of Cleveland playing golf, and then down below, J. Pierpont Morgan. Where was he from? Morgan?
BRANDS: Morgan was from New York.
LAMB: Where was Carnegie from?
BRANDS: Carnegie was from Scotland originally. He came over to this country, essentially penniless at the age of 12. And he was sort of the prototype of the person who survived on pluck and luck and grit, determination. He was a very...
LAMB: How did he make his money?
BRANDS: He started out as a telegrapher. The telegraph industry was closely connected with the railroad industry. He realized -- this was in the 1850s and it was during a period of boom among the railroads -- that there was a lot of money to be made in railroads. He started out then -- he bought an interest in a bridge building company, a company that made iron bridges. And he realized that there was even more money to be made selling iron and steel to the bridge building companies and to everybody else, to the railroads.
So he got into the steel business during the 1860s. And he had a genius for business. He was an organizer. He wasn't, by any means, a technologic -- a student of technology, per se, but he insisted that the latest technology be employed to produce steel at the lowest cost. His belief was that if you could produce steel efficiently, then everything else would take care of itself. He didn't worry much about marketing. He didn't worry about the finances of it all. What he insisted on doing was to lower the unit cost of steel production.
There were cases where -- he traveled around the world. He regularly went back to Scotland. He took a holiday in Europe every year. He would go back, and he would find out how steelmakers were making steel in Britain, which was the leading industrial country at the time he started in Germany, in France, elsewhere. And whenever he found a new idea that he thought would work in the United States, he would come home.
LAMB: How much money did he end up being worth?
BRANDS: Hard to say, actually. He didn't have to report to anybody. There was no income tax at the time. To give you an idea, though, in 1901 he sold his share of Carnegie Steel, which was at that time the major steel company in the country, to J.P. Morgan, who was putting together the US Steel Corporation, which eventually became USX. He sold his share for $250 million, and so walked away with $1/4 billion in cash.
LAMB: In ...
BRANDS: This was 1901. And he spent -- oh, by that time, he had pretty much gone into philanthropy full time.
LAMB: Who was John D. Rockefeller and what's his relation to Senator Rockefeller today?
BRANDS: Well, let's see. He must be great-great-grandfather perhaps. John D. Rockefeller was the person who did for the oil business in the country what Carnegie did for steel. When Rockefeller started in, well, the oil industry in the United States really began in the 1860s. Before then oil was considered just a nuisance. People would be drilling for water, and they'd hit oil and, "Darn it, it's just fouling our springs." But in 1859 a man named Drake in western Pennsylvania deliberately drilled for oil, found it. This was the first gusher in the United States. And during the next -- well, during the Civil War and during the years after, the oil industry took off.
Initially, the oil was used as a lubricant for the railroad industry and as an illuminance. It was refined into kerosene, which was used to light houses all around the country. And Rockefeller rationalized, organized, regularized the oil business. Like Carnegie in steel, he insisted on bringing down the cost of production. He also, like Carnegie, began to extend his business. He started out in refining. Well, he wanted to do more than refining. He wanted to get into transportation. He extended -- he went both upstream and downstream in terms of the oil business so that he could control oil from the time it came out of the ground until the time it was burned in the kerosene lamp of some customer anywhere it might be in the country.
He had a passion for efficiency. He believed that the highest efficiency would be achieved by what amounted to a monopoly. He would drive all of his competitors out of business. He felt that competition rather than being a spur to efficiency, in fact, involved needless duplication. "Why should there be two companies refining oil in this country when I could do it all myself?"
LAMB: If you bring it to today, are there any people like these three men and others that you wrote about today?
BRANDS: A hundred years from now, somebody's going to consider Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, in the same league as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan.
LAMB: Anybody else and what industries?
BRANDS: Gates is the only one that comes immediately to mind, because of the fact that he has made himself, by some counts, the wealthiest man in the country in a space of 15 years, riding an industry that didn't exist 15 or 20 years ago. And so there's that parallel. And also, he is identified with his industry and with his company in a way that Rockefeller with Standard Oil, Carnegie with the steel industry were. There are a lot of other wealthy people in the country. I don't know. I suppose -- well, Sam Walton's dead now, but the founder of Wal-Mart. But it doesn't have quite the celebrity appeal that Gates has. And these reporters followed them everywhere. I mean, these people were front-page news.
LAMB: You write this, "Greed took over as the primarily motivating force, and a new ruling class of warriors and merchants, expert in the exploitation and the satisfaction of greed came to power." It's on page 36. Could you still write that about this era?
BRANDS: Oh, I think so.
LAMB: A hundred years later?
LAMB: And who's greedy in our society?
BRANDS: Well, I wouldn't really want to characterize particular individuals as greedy, but any capitalist economy is based on the notion of economic self-interest. And, you know, if you put it another way, you can -- if you're not being too complimentary, you can call it greed. And our economy runs as much on those lines as it did back then -- maybe not quite as much. There's a government safety net now to deal with those people who were falling out the bottom of the economy during the 1890s. But, certainly, I mean, the idea of profits, and I'm certainly not going to criticize profit. But, nonetheless, the idea of economic self-interest is definitely as much a motive.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this, because you contrast these two men: George Washington Carver -- I mean, Booker T. Washington, excuse me -- right here in this picture and up top, William E.B. Du Bois. They were -- you say they came from two different camps. What if the two of them came back today, and they looked around this country, 100 years later, what would they think? And what was the difference in the two of them?
BRANDS: The difference in the two of them had a lot to do with their backgrounds. Booker Washington was born a slave. He was self-educated. He was a self-made man. There probably was nobody else in the country who was as clearly an example of that as Booker Washington. He became by the 1890s the most prominent African-American educator, probably the most prominent African-American in the country. He became famous and notorious in some circles for a speech that he gave in Atlanta in 1895 in which he laid down the basis for what came to be called the Atlanta Compromise.
And it was a compromise in the sense that Washington said that black people in the United States should not insist on immediate social equality. What they should do is concentrate on self-help. They should concentrate on educating themselves. They should concentrate on, as he put it, making themselves solid citizens, making themselves necessary to the rest of the country. And in doing so, they would be able to claim their rightful place in American society and the American economy.
Du Bois, on the other hand -- Du Bois grew up in New England. He received as good an education as anybody could in the country.
BRANDS: Yes. And he believed that rather than the black race in this country advancing from the bottom up, so to speak, from all of these common people developing their economic skills in the most humble tasks, that advancement for African-Americans would come by the leadership of this elite group that he called the "talented tenth." And so he insisted on opening all doors to black men and women in the country so that the "talented tenth" could get in and they could demonstrate that African-Americans were just as capable as anybody else in this country.
And so there developed a split between Washington's accommodationism, where he would essentially go along with the status quo, which at that time was developing into the Jim Crow system of legalized segregation. There was Washington's view on the one hand, and Du Bois' confrontational view, his insistence on immediate and full social, political, economic equality.
LAMB: What would they think today?
BRANDS: It's hard to say. Du Bois would have to be satisfied. He would have to be pleased at the fact that a man like Colin Powell could be considered very seriously as a candidate for president in this country. He would look around, and he could see that there were black men and women on faculties of the finest universities in the country, in positions of executive responsibility in major corporations. He would admit that the "talented tenth," a term that wouldn't play so well today -- but that the black elites were doing OK.
Washington would accept that, but he would also recognize that life for common people among African-Americans still left a great deal to be desired.
LAMB: We're about out of time. There's a couple of little things. This is a St. Martin's Press book. And right in here in the flap, you say -- it says it's a Thomas Dunne book. What's that mean?
BRANDS: Well, Thomas Dunne has an imprint at St. Martin's, and it's sort of like a publishing house within a publishing house.
LAMB: Do you do all your books with St. Martin's?
BRANDS: No. In fact, this is the first one that I've done with St. Martin's.
LAMB: What's the biggest difference between this and your -- who was your last publisher?
BRANDS: Oxford University Press. The books that I've done for Oxford have been a little bit more directed toward an academic audience. This book is aimed at really an audience of general readers, people who are generally interested in American history and...
LAMB: Harder or easier for you to write compared to the...
BRANDS: Different. I enjoyed writing this as much as I've enjoyed writing any book that I've done. It's just a fun story.
LAMB: By the way, what does H.W. stand for?
BRANDS: Henry William.
LAMB: Henry William Brands is our author, "The Reckless Decade," all about the 1890s subject, and his next book about Theodore Roosevelt. Thank you very much for joining us.
BRANDS: Thank you.
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