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THE RECKLESS DECADE by H.W. Brands

THE RECKLESS DECADE

America in the 1890s

By H.W. Brands

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-312-13594-7
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

A historian peels the romantic veneer off the good old days of late-19th-century America.

Although Brands (Texas A&M Univ.; The Wages of Globalism, 1994, etc.) notes that issues and events of the 1890s have reverberated down through the 20th century, he is convinced--and convincing--that the story of that volatile decade is inherently interesting and its telling "requires no extrinsic justification.'' He charges into his first chapter, on Frederick Jackson Turner's theory on the closing of the frontier, via the gripping personal story of a man who was in the thick of the rush to grab "free'' Oklahoma land. Although he recaptures this immediacy with his discussion the bloody Homestead steelworkers' strike, Brands basically settles into a topic-by-topic exploration of major events in the political, legal, and economic history of great men and the great masses that they led (and coerced and exploited). Ruthlessness, efficiency, and available resources lead to the rise of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and John Pierpont Morgan, the last of whom was even able to personally rescue the country from possible financial default in the Panic of 1893 (for a fee, of course). Journalist Jacob Riis wrote about the misery of urban slum life, and Jane Addams, one of the book's few women, did something about it. Chicago's "boodlers'' and New York City's Tammany bosses made corruptibility a foundation of big city government. Agricultural depression and intense division over the gold standard aided the rise of Populism and William Jennnings Bryan's unsuccessful but dramatic bid for the presidency. With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court helped erode black civil rights by accepting the separate-but-equal standard, and an increasingly imperialistic country found ample cause to meddle in Cuba, Venezuela, the Philippines and Hawaii.

Narratively not always up to its best moments, but well researched and accessible; a persuasive reminder that we should look back over our shoulder at what has gone before.