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Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920

Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920

by David Traxel

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In this absorbing history of progressive-era America, acclaimed historian David Traxel paints a vivid picture of a tumultuous time of change that was the foundation for the twentieth century.. With WWI on the horizon, the struggles to end child labor, improve public health, advance education, win votes for women, and rid cities of corrupt political machines brought


In this absorbing history of progressive-era America, acclaimed historian David Traxel paints a vivid picture of a tumultuous time of change that was the foundation for the twentieth century.. With WWI on the horizon, the struggles to end child labor, improve public health, advance education, win votes for women, and rid cities of corrupt political machines brought forth passionate responses from millions of Americans. There was a demand for reform and a desire for a more efficient and compassionate society. From wide-eyed dreamers to hard-line politicians, seasoned reporters to diary keeping soldiers, these crusaders–Jack Reed, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, and “Mother” Jones to name a few–come alive in these pages.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Beautifully written–a book that will make all Americans take heart.”–Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Incisive. . . . Copiously referenced. . . . Brings to life the people and events that cast the foundation of America’s path in the last century.” –Philadelphia Inquirer

“Highly readable. . . . filled with vivid anecdotes [that bring] the period into much sharper focus.” –The Providence Journal

“Engagingly written and insightful. . . . [Traxel’s narrative ] is greatly enhanced by his extensive use of the diaries of average Americans.”–The Washington Times

Publishers Weekly
In an elegant and substantive narrative history, Traxel (1898: The Birth of the American Century) recreates America during the Progressive Era, a time when politicians, church leaders and ordinary citizens were on fire to reform society. Traxel looks at labor organizers like Mary "Mother" Jones, suffragists and prohibitionists (whom he simplistically dismisses as "small-town, self-righteous bluenoses"). Woodrow Wilson, whose presidency threads through this book, oversaw business and banking regulation. Victorian sexual mores gave way, divorce became more commonplace. Traxel suggests that America's crusading impulses were partially responsible for the country's entry into WWI, and ironically, the war quenched the nation's reforming zeal. Soldiers returned disillusioned and unable to find jobs: "[l]ike the rest of the country, they increasingly felt that they owed only themselves." And so began an optimism about business and a determination to kick back and have fun that would carry America through the next decade. Traxel's approach is not especially original, and he overlooks the experience of African-Americans. Nonetheless, the book reads seamlessly, and it will serve a scholarly and general audience as a summary of an important era in U.S. history. 19 b&w photos. (Jan. 30) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Traxel (history, Univ. of the Sciences, Philadelphia; 1898: The Birth of the American Century) weaves many of the social, political, cultural, and industrial events that marked the Progressive Era into an engrossing narration that synthesizes previous scholarship about the period. He makes excellent use of anecdotes from published primary and secondary sources to recount the history of the "crusades" championed by the United States at the time. However, Traxel's account is not complete. Ida B. Wells and her antilynching campaign are not included, women's suffrage is only briefly mentioned, and the vital role of African Americans is hardly touched on. All deserved a prominent place in the book. Broader histories, such as Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, do a better job of covering these essential aspects of the era. Nonetheless, Traxel's readable book would make a nice addition to academic and large public libraries.-Diane Fulkerson, Univ. of West Georgia Lib., Carrollton Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The more things change, the more they stay the same: That's one of many object lessons this engaging look at a go-go, earnest, optimistic period of American history imparts. Picking up where his 1898: The Birth of the American Centruy (1998) leaves off, Traxel (History/Univ. of the Sciences in Philadelphia) examines two decades in which Americans of every class and description were bent on changing something-their heads, their lives, the world. The bestselling book of the period was Charles Sheldon's novel In His Steps, a what-would-Jesus-do tract as influential as today's rapturous eschatological imaginings. Theodore Roosevelt was chasing after errant corporations doing their Enron-like work with rapacious zeal-though, Traxel notes, Roosevelt was quite pro-business and was really trying to stave off more radical solutions to capitalist excess. His Democratic opponent, Woodrow Wilson, preached a New Freedom to counter Roosevelt's New Nationalism. In Greenwich Village, bohemians and revolutionaries such as Emma Goldman and Mabel Dodge were a-fomenting. And even out in the heartland, young people were busily experimenting with this and that, "laying the foundations of what would become the permanent youth culture of the United States." Free love, Jesus freaks, American power projected around the world-in many ways the time anticipated the '60s, and it met with the same fate; at the end of WWI, the electorate swung hard to the right (though, for the first time, fewer than half of eligible voters turned out); a culture war broke out that bears strange resemblance to the red state/blue state business of today; radicalism and the youth rebellion were crushed; a crony-friendly, corrupt, rightistand pious administration took power. In all this, Traxel keeps a sharp eye out for historical patterns and luminous moments, noting here the origins of the Japanese American internment in WWII, there the birth of car culture, the rise of Hollywood and the forerunners of Rosie the Riveter. Skilled storytelling in service to making a little-known era vivid and meaningful.

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Read an Excerpt

Crusader Nation

By David Traxel

Random House

David Traxel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375410783

Chapter One

American Renascence

Looking back . . . I have thought of the period in America, including the last few years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, as the American Renascence, even the Great American Renascence.

Ray Stannard Baker

You see, getting down to the bottom of things, this is a pretty raw, crude civilization of ours--pretty wasteful, pretty cruel, which often comes to the same thing, doesn't it? And in a lot of respects we Americans are the rawest and crudest of all. Our production, our factory laws, our charities, our relations between capital and labor, our distribution--all wrong, out of gear. We've stumbled along for a while, trying to run a new civilization in old ways, but we've got to start to make this world over.

Thomas Edison, 1912

In 1898 the United States stepped into the realm of international power politics for the first time. The country had already become a global economic presence, and was feared as a competitor because of its tremendous natural resources and industrial efficiency. Militarily, however, it was viewed with condescension by the Great Powers until it quickly and decisively thrashed Spain in 1898, seizing as the fruits of victory the colonies remaining in that faded empire: Cuba, which was soon given a limited independence, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Mixed into this rather amateurish adventure were motives of economic gain, national prestige, fear of German or other European expansion into the Caribbean, desire for strategic naval bases, and anger over the blowing up of the battleship Maine. But there was also a strong sense of moral outrage about the way the Spanish had been mistreating Cuban civilians while suppressing a revolt on the island. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children had died in concentration camps just ninety miles off the American shore, and the public demanded that an end be put to such horrors.

America was encouraged to take the path to a world role by Great Britain, looking for allies against the rising and aggressive strength of Germany. Rudyard Kipling, celebratory poet of the world-circling British Empire, wrote a widely distributed poem urging Americans to "Take up the White Man's burden" of civilizing "sullen peoples, half devil and half child."

The challenge was taken up, and yet, in this American assumption of global responsibilities there was a shyness and uncertainty even among those such as Theodore Roosevelt who urged a "large" policy on the United States. The country needed to take a more active role in international affairs, these men believed, if only to protect itself in a Darwinian world where the strong devoured the weak. China, one of the countries being picked apart by stronger nations, provided a negative example for such Americans. The United States could not, argued Roosevelt's close friend and political ally Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, "allow itself to become a hermit nation hiding a defenseless, feeble body within a huge shell . . . shut up and kept from its share of the world's commerce until it was smothered by a power hostile to it in every conception of justice and liberty." At the same time, the policy of extending the country's reach across the seas invited attack on these "hostages to fortune," as Roosevelt recognized by calling the new Philippine colony "our Achilles' heel." A newspaper doggerel writer spoke for many who were unhappy with imperialism:

We've taken up the white man's burden of ebony and brown; Now will you tell us, Rudyard how we may put it down?

Roosevelt had been the Man of the Year in 1898, and also for the decade that followed, the ideal spokesman for his generation and a worthy representative of their ambitions. These were roles for which he was both born, in 1856, and self-made. His father was a member of a wealthy old New York "Dutch" family, his mother came from plantation-owning stock in Georgia, and young "Teedie" had grown up during the Civil War in a household reflecting the regional differences. He had enjoyed a childhood replete with all the good things money could buy, but marred by ill health and poor eyesight, his own weak body making him defenseless against bullies until he overcame these physical disabilities through exercise and will. Some of that exercise had come from long expeditions running through Long Island fields and woods with butterfly net and rifle to collect natural-history specimens, and some through steady work with dumbbells and other such instruments of torture taken up at the urging of his father, who told him, "You have the mind but not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will do it." He did, and kept doing so all his life. He also worked at making his mind; in adulthood he could speak three languages besides English with some facility, and could read seven, while he continued his intense, if rather bloodstained, study of birds, animals, and nature, and became a prolific historian and writer as well.

After graduating from Harvard and after an early marriage, Roosevelt entered politics, much to the dismay of friends and family, who regarded that line of work as appropriate only for saloon keepers, corrupt hacks, and Irishmen. "I answered that if this were so it merely meant that the people I knew did not belong to the governing class, and that the other people did--and that I intended to be one of the governing class; that if they proved too hard-bit for me I supposed I would have to quit, but that I certainly would not quit until I had made the effort and found out whether I really was too weak to hold my own in the rough and tumble." He more than held his own, serving three terms in the New York assembly, where he became an important part of the reform element in the Republican Party. But then both his beloved wife, Alice, and his mother died within hours of each other on February 14, 1884, and he fled to the frontier West to raise cattle, shoot big game, and mourn. A few years later, Roosevelt remarried and returned to politics, running unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, then serving as U.S. civil service commissioner before winning public attention as the aggressive president of New York's police commission. His intelligence, honesty, and energy had gained him many admiring allies, but his combative temperament and impatient self-righteousness had also bred enemies. President Benjamin Harrison observed about his civil service commissioner that he "wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset."

It looked for a while as if the firebrand's career would go no further. He had campaigned strenuously for William McKinley in the hard-fought and divisive election of 1896, but, even so, after the victory McKinley was hesitant to appoint him assistant secretary of the navy. "I want peace," the new president told one of Roosevelt's supporters, "and I am told that your friend Theodore--whom I know only slightly--is always getting into rows with everybody. I am afraid he is too pugnacious." These doubts were overcome, allowing Roosevelt to perform superbly in preparing the navy for the war with Spain. As soon as he felt he had done all he could for that service, he resigned to organize the First Volunteer Cavalry, popularly known as Roosevelt's Rough Riders, which he dashingly led to victory in Cuba.

The young politician had a genius for publicity. He knew how to charm and manipulate the press, while journalists appreciated his glamour, outspokenness, and charismatic flair for action. Coming back from the war as one of the most famous men in the country, he was able to mount a winning campaign for governor of New York in that fall of 1898. Two years later, having alienated state Republican bosses with his modest attempts at regulating business and protecting New York's natural resources, he was kicked upstairs to join William McKinley's ticket as vice-presidential candidate. They won the election easily against William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson, but on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot twice in the stomach by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, and died eight days later from the resulting infection. Theodore Roosevelt became president; at just forty-two years old he was the youngest before or since to hold that office.

Men and women of the new president's generation had been waiting impatiently for their turn at the levers of power. They had grown up both inspired and burdened by their fathers' glory, a glory won first on the battlefields of the Civil War and then enhanced by their own part in the prodigious growth of the American economy and American industrial might in the decades after that struggle. But social disruptions and suffering on the same enormous scale had accompanied that growth: abject poverty, especially in the burgeoning cities; women and children working long hours at dangerous tasks; fathers who could not earn enough even when laboring thirteen- or fourteen-hour days in mines and factories to support their families. In the middle of the nineteenth century there had been only a few millionaires; now there were thousands. Such were the disparities in wealth that while children went unfed, the rich would spend tens of thousands of dollars on dinner parties where guests dined off solid-gold plates or, as at one given by Caroline Astor, would use sterling-silver trowels to dig through heaps of sand arranged on the table to find buried treasure troves of diamonds and rubies.

Sometimes these galas were presented as benefits for the poor. In the winter of 1896, during the depths of the worst economic depression up to that time in American history, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Bradley-Martin, perturbed by what they were reading in newspapers about the misery of the unemployed, decided to give a costume ball to help them find work. Mrs. Bradley-Martin reportedly exclaimed, "It would give such impetus to trade!"

The couple was wealthy enough to enjoy an elaborate mansion in New York, a town house in London, and a shooting estate in Scotland; a notable social coup had been achieved in marrying their sixteen-year-old daughter to an English aristocrat, Lord Craven. Louis XIV's glittering eighteenth-century court provided the theme for their costume ball, and the luxurious Waldorf-Astoria hotel was the chosen venue, its Grand Ballroom transformed into the Great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Employment was undoubtedly provided for hairdressers, jewelers, musicians, couturieres, and even some historians of fashion as the seven hundred guests arrived on February 10, 1897, dressed as Renaissance, Elizabethan, French, and a few American historical figures. European royalty were particular favorites, though Anne Morgan, youngest daughter of the powerful financier J.P., came as Pocahontas in a beautifully beaded costume reportedly made by "real Indians." August Belmont, financier and star of New York society, wore a full suit of steel armor inlaid with gold that cost him $10,000. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt attended, while her husband, police commissioner at the time, oversaw 250 of New York's finest as they ensured that anarchists and other unruly elements did not intrude. The overall expenses were paid for by the Bradley-Martins, and amounted to a stunning $369,000. This at a time when the average workman, if he could find work, earned $500 a year. It is no wonder that just two years later, in 1899, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen would write about "conspicuous consumption" in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, noting, "To gain and to hold the esteem of men, it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence."

Such a vulgar display, covered in great detail in contemporary newspapers, called down upon the Bradley-Martins a storm of criticism from both press and pulpit alike. While there were few public defenders of the hosts, who ended up fleeing to a more understanding Europe for refuge, there were certainly those who supported the inequality brought about by the raw capitalism of the time. Two such were the English philosopher Herbert Spencer and the American sociologist William Graham Sumner, who argued that society was just like the wilderness of nature where Darwinian evolution took place, and that only those who were strong and adaptable, those who were "fittest," should survive, flourish, and grow rich--or at least comfortable. This philosophy of social Darwinism was used as a scientific basis for arguing against laws to ameliorate the conditions of poverty or restrain competition. Any attempt to interfere would be against "natural law."

John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest of all Americans, wrote that all "failures which a man makes in his life are due almost always to some defect in his personality, some weakness of body, or mind, or character, will, or temperament." And there were spiritual authorities who argued that this was the way God wanted the world. Russell H. Conwell, Baptist minister and founder of Temple University, had an acclaimed speech, or sermon, entitled "Acres of Diamonds," that he recited more than five thousand times in the years at the end of the nineteenth century. In the course of two hours, he would exhort his listeners to "get rich, and it is your duty to get rich . . . to make money honestly is to preach the gospel. . . . If you can honestly attain unto riches . . . it is your Christian and godly duty to do so." Those who suffered poverty deserved their lot. "To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it." All should remember that "there is not a poor person in the United States who has not been made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of some one else."

But many of Roosevelt's generation, born around the time of the Civil War, worried by and feeling guilty over the great contrast between wealth and poverty that had become so obvious in American cities, were determined to tame social and economic chaos and restore a sense of justice to the system.


Excerpted from Crusader Nation by David Traxel Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Victorian David Traxel is the author of 1898: The Birth of the American Century. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz and is an associate professor of history at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the photographer Rosemary Ranck.

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