Fin de Siècle, New York-Style

If a nation appears to be bored, should its political leaders contemplate going to war?

December 30, 2001

If a nation appears to be bored, should its political leaders contemplate going to war?

This country needs a war, proclaimed Theodore Roosevelt in 1895. Against a background of unremitting depression, he and others among the New York elite began clamoring for imperial expansion.

Though war was touted as a way to end unemployment, it was emphasized even more as a way to scour away the barnacles of corruption and money-grubbing that had corroded the American spirit at that stage in history. The presumption was that war would toughen the 1890s generation, just as the Civil War had toughened its parents’ spirit.

The notion that the rigorous persuit of an outright empire would revive the sterner virtues of the Founding Fathers appealed to New York’s upper-class males. They felt cooped up in enervating offices by day — and confined in stifling parlors by night.

Deprived of opportunities for manly heroism, they were growing effete, even effeminate — a dangerous development, surrounded as they were by anarchists, ruffians, immigrants, strikers and criminals.

Armchair activism was complemented by a vogue of physical vigor. Theodore Roosevelt, who would be elected President of the United States in 1901, counseled his enfeebled upper-class-mates to adopt a more strenuous life.

Sports — the “modern chivalry” — would toughen up a “delicate, indoor genteel race” by providing a “saving touch of honest, old-fashioned barbarism.” Others urged America’s youth to enlist in the proliferating Protestant boys’ groups, which drilled martial virtues into the next generation.

But clearly the best antidote to civilization was imperialism. Jingoistic New Yorkers craved the psychic satisfactions of an American empire. They reveled in the potential glory of conquering exotic territories and ruling over dusky races around the globe with pomp and panoply. Imperialism would allow simultaneously for the exercise of a restorative barbarism and the refurbishment of republican virtue.

With the trans-Mississippi frontier closing down, the rejuvenating benefits of conquest could only be achieved overseas. In fact, future President Teddy Roosevelt was ecstatic — and hoped confrontation with Britain might lead perhaps to the conquest of Canada.

Wall Streeters meanwhile disapproved of war with Britain. This, in turn, led the New York Times to criticize them as “patriots of the ticker.” “If their appeals were heeded,” the Times said, “American civilization would degenerate to the level of the Digger Indians, who eat dirt all their lives — and appear to like it.”

Many believed “overproduction” was responsible for the great slump. U.S. capitalism’s ability to supply goods seemed to have outraced the American market’s ability to consume them.

There were also those on Wall Street who argued that a selfless pursuit of Anglo-Saxon duty could be combined with the restoration of sagging corporate profit margins.

Many believed “overproduction” was responsible for the great slump. U.S. capitalism’s ability to supply goods seemed to have outraced the American market’s ability to consume them.

This led some to look overseas for adequate outlets for their products. Several New York City companies in fact had demonstrated a correlation between economic health and foreign sales. Standard Oil of New York supplied over 70% of the world’s kerosene, Duke’s Tobacco Trust rolled cigarettes for the global millions — and Singer sent sewing machines to factories and sweatshops the world over.

New Yorkers were also exporting money. In the 1880s, bankers and industries had begun to make loans to foreign governments, invest in overseas ventures and set up branches abroad. The 1890s depression, in diminishing domestic opportunities, spurred calls to accelerate the process, and Americans increased their investments abroad.

In the course of expanding their export of capital and commodities, however, New Yorkers kept running up against entrenched Europeans. In the Far East, a conglomerate of American oil, rail steel and banking interests (with participation by Harriman, Schiff, Carnegie and Rockefeller) put together a million-dollar American China Development Corporation in 1895. But it lagged far behind the British — and was threatened by expanding German interests.

Increasingly, Teddy Roosevelt and others demanded that the U.S. government play rough on behalf of its entrepreneurs. Europe had inaugurated a new age of imperialism — the word itself first became current in the 1890s.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Europe had managed to swallow up a fifth of the earth’s surface, including most of Africa and much of the Far East.

The United States had to get into the great game and compete vigorously — or risk being cut off from markets and raw materials in a world increasingly carved up into colonies or protectionist blocs. The global economy was a dog-eat-dog world, and late 19th century America should concentrate on biting.

Adapted from “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898”
by Edwin Burrows & Mike Wallace. Copyright © 1999 by Edwin
Burrows & Mike Wallace. Used by permission of Oxford University Press.