Duties of America

The 1880s in the United States proved to be a time of rapid economic and personal growth, and it marked the height of the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age ran from approximately 1870 to 1900. The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, and the Second Industrial Revolution brought new products and residents to the nation. The 1880s saw more than five million immigrants from Europe migrate to the United States, and new technologies like steam made transportation faster. Railroads connected the American West with the east, and farmers were more eager to move westward. The ease of transportation, the promise of lands, cattle, and homes incited the American public to push forward.

As the west expanded, cities boomed with the new waves of immigrants. Encouraging the growth of immigrants came from U.S. industries contracting foreign labor, until 1885 when the Foran Act made the practice illegal. Also, the padrone system flourished. This system used a labor boss who encouraged ethnic groups to come to the United States for work. These individuals would come here and live and work with friends, families, and peoples of the same nationality. Hence, newcomers to the United States could retain a sense of the old world while building a new life in another country. However, even though the rise of new and expanded industries—those of coal, steel, and manufacturing—needed cheap immigrant labor for production, not everyone remained happy about the changing shape of the American social landscape.

The rise in immigration saw traditional immigrant groups become outnumbered. Some of those old-stock groups consisted of British, Irish, Scotch, Scandinavian, and German immigrants. These are also the traditional White Anglo-Saxon immigrants from the colonies and early years of the nation’s forming. These older immigrant groups upheld social standards of the middle-class ideal, while the newer groups worked the least desirable jobs. These jobs ranged from agricultural work to steel mills. The middle classes viewed the manufacturing jobs as beneath them and those of uneducated and common men. These tensions, along with the expanding territory of the nation, laid the framework for the intense political and social divisions that lay ahead.

In cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, the rise of immigrants brought the growth of political machines and changes in voting patterns. These machines rallied working-class and immigrant votes to bring non-middle class, old-stock immigrant candidates into office. In places like New York, which had a higher immigrant population than a native one, this shift in office holders ignited heated debates among the city’s residents. Many upper and middle class citizens felt that the lower classes were bringing down their quality of life, and they believed that these new voters were corrupting society with their lack of morals and education. New York City’s Boss Tweed, William Marcy Tweed, is probably the most famous of these political reformers. Through coercion, ethnic affiliations, and corruption, leaders like Tweed helped bring police departments, fire stations, and public services to growing American cities. Tweed died in 1878, but his legacy survived him. More importantly, the growth of political corruption reflects the growing divide between the wealthy and poor in society. John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie made their fortunes in the oil and steel industries. Men like Carnegie and Rockefeller earned the title of Robber Baron because of their aggressive business practices. They quickly built up their companies by buying out the competition, forcing competitors to go bankrupt with price wars, and obtaining and holding monopolies on the market. These business practices reflected many of the political practices of the day, especially those of the political bosses in urban areas.

Social forces began to react against these political and economic units, and writings of muckraker journalists brought a wide array of issues to light. Muckraker journalists tended to investigate areas of corruption, corporate crime, child labor, and other areas of social contempt. The writings of the muckrakers brought forth the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Law. This law banned pacts, agreements, and laws preventing or restricting interstate or foreign trade. As reforms began to take hold, and grassroots organizations developed to reform labor laws, housing codes, and city services, U.S. society grappled with its growing pains. The middle and upper classes viewed the rise in immigration as the problem; they claimed that new immigrants were taking jobs away from Americans, and they felt isolated from local politics. As these social dilemmas worked their way into national politics, senators, writers, and reformers continually focused their works on reforming the state of American society. Theodore Roosevelt, then an assemblyman in New York, captured these social moods by declaring that both the wealthy and the poor were responsible for urban decay, declining morals, and political and economic corruption. His words mirror John Henry Hopkins’ 1857 The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States. This work followed the nineteenth-century belief that citizenship and patriotism were linked through political action, and public speeches like Roosevelt’s merely captured the sentiment. Reiterating patriotism and activism in politics proved poignant as the United States expanded its borders and continued to grow economically.


But let me reiterate, that in being virtuous he must not become ineffective, and that he must not excuse himself for shirking his duties by any false plea that he cannot do his duties and retain his self-respect. This is nonsense, he can; and when he urges such a plea it is a mark of mere laziness and self-indulgence. And again, he should beware how he becomes a critic of the actions of others, rather than a doer of deeds himself; and in so far as he does act as a critic (and of course the critic has a great and necessary function) he must beware of indiscriminate censure even more than of indiscriminate praise. The screaming vulgarity of the foolish spread-eagle orator who is continually yelling defiance at Europe, praising everything American, good and bad, and resenting the introduction of any reform because it has previously been tried successfully abroad, is offensive and contemptible to the last degree; but after all it is scarcely as harmful as the peevish, fretful, sneering, and continual faultfinding of the refined, well-educated man, who is always attacking good and bad alike, who genuinely distrusts America, and in the true spirit of servile colonialism considers us inferior to the people across the water. It may be taken for granted that the man who is always sneering at our public life and our public men is a thoroughly bad citizen, and that what little influence he wields in the community is wielded for evil. The public speaker or the editorial writer who teaches men of education that their proper attitude toward American politics should be one of dislike or indifference is doing all he can to perpetuate and aggravate the very evils of which he is ostensibly complaining. Exactly as it is generally the case that when a man bewails the decadence of our civilization he is himself physically, mentally, and morally a first-class type of the decadent, so it is usually the case that when a man is perpetually sneering at American politicians, whether worthy or unworthy, he himself is a poor citizen and a friend of the very forces of evil against which he professes to contend. Too often these men seem to care less for attacking bad men, than for ruining the characters of good men with whom they disagree on some pubic question; and while their influence against the bad is almost nil, they are sometimes able to weaken the hands of the good by withdrawing from them support to which they are entitled, and they thus count in the sum total of forces that work for evil. They answer to the political prohibitionist, who, in a close contest between a temperance man and a liquor seller diverts enough votes from the former to elect the liquor seller. Occasionally it is necessary to beat a pretty good man, who is not quite good enough, even at the cost of electing a bad one—but it should be thoroughly recognized that this can be necessary only occasionally and indeed, I may say, only in very exceptional cases, and that as a rule where it is done the effect is thoroughly unwholesome in every way, and those taking part in it deserve the severest censure from all honest men.

Moreover, the very need of denouncing evil makes it all the more wicked to weaken the effect of such denunciations by denouncing also the good. It is the duty of all citizens, irrespective of party, to denounce, and, so far as may be, to punish crimes against the public on the part of politicians or officials. But exactly as the public man who commits a crime against the public is one of the worst of criminals, so, close on his heels in the race for iniquitous distinction, comes the man who falsely charges the public servant with outrageous wrongdoing; whether it is done with foul-mouthed and foolish directness in the vulgar and violent party organ, or with sarcasm, innuendo, and the half-truths that are worse than lies, in some professed organ of independence. Not only should criticism be honest, but it should be intelligent, in order to be effective….

Criticism should be fearless, but I again reiterate that it should be honest and should be discriminating. When it is sweeping and unintelligent, and directed against good and bad alike, or against the good and bad qualities of any man alike, it is very harmful. It tends steadily to deteriorate the character of our public men; and it tends to produce a very unwholesome spirit among young men of education, and especially among the young men in our colleges.

Against nothing is fearless and specific criticism more urgently needed than against the “spoils system,” which is the degradation of American politics. And nothing is more effective in thwarting the purposes of the spoilsmen than the civil service reform. To be sure, practical politicians sneer at it. One of them even went so far as to say that civil-service reform is asking a man irrelevant questions. What more irrelevant question could there be than that of the practical politician who asks the aspirant for his political favor—”Whom did you vote for in the last election?” There is certainly nothing more interesting, from a humorous point of view, than the heads of departments urging changes to be made in their underlings, “on the score of increased efficiency” they say; when as the result of such a change the old incumbent often spends six months teaching the new incumbent how to do the work almost as well as he did himself! Occasionally the civil-service reform has been abused, but not often. Certainly the reform is needed when you contemplate the spectacle of a New York City treasurer who acknowledges his annual fees to be eighty-five thousand dollars, and who pays a deputy one thousand five hundred dollars to do his work—when you note the corruptions in the New York legislature, where one man says he has a horror of the Constitution because it prevents active benevolence, and another says that you should never allow the Constitution to come between friends! All these corruptions and vices are what every good American citizen must fight against.

Finally, the man who wishes to do his duty as a citizen in our country must be imbued through and through with the spirit of Americanism. I am not saying this as a matter of spread-eagle rhetoric: I am saying it quite soberly as a piece of matter-of-fact, common-sense advice, derived from my own experience of others. Of course, the question of Americanism has several sides. If a man is an educated man, he must show his Americanism by not getting misled into following out and trying to apply all the theories of the political thinkers of other countries, such as Germany and France, to our own entirely different conditions. He must not get a fad, for instance, about responsible government; and above all things he must not, merely because he is intelligent, or a college professor well read in political literature, try to discuss our institutions when he has had no practical knowledge of how they are worked. Again, if he is a wealthy man, a man of means and standing, he must really feel, not merely affect to feel, that no social differences obtain save such as a man can in some way himself make by his own actions. People some-times ask me if there is not a prejudice against a man of wealth and education in ward politics. I do not think that there is, unless the man in turn shows that he regards the facts of his having wealth and education as giving him a claim to superiority aside from the merit he is able to prove himself to have in actual service. Of course, if he feels that he ought to have a little better treatment than a carpenter, a plumber, or a butcher, who happens to stand beside him, he is going to be thrown out of the race very quickly, and probably quite roughly; and if he starts in to patronize and elaborately condescend to these men he will find that they resent this attitude even more. Do not let him think about the matter at all. Let him go into the political contest with no more thought of such matters than a college boy gives to the social standing of the members of his own and rival teams in a hotly contested football match. As soon as he begins to take an interest in politics (and he will speedily not only get interested for the sake of politics, but also take a good healthy interest in playing the game itself—an interest which is perfectly normal and praise-worthy, and to which only a prig would object), he will begin to work up the organization in the way that will be most effective, and he won’t care a rap about who is put to work with him, save in so far as he is a good fellow and an efficient worker. There was one time that a number of men who think as we do here to-night (one of the number being myself) got hold of one of the assembly districts of New York, and ran it in really an ideal way, better than any other assembly district has ever been run before or since by either party. We did it by hard work and good organization; by working practically, and yet by being honest and square in motive and method: especially did we do it by all turning in as straight-out Americans without any regard to distinctions of race origin. Among the many men who did a great deal in organizing our victories was the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, the nephew of a Hebrew rabbi, and two well-known Catholic gentlemen. We also had a Columbia College professor (the stroke-oar of a university crew), a noted retail butcher, and the editor of a local German paper, various brokers, bankers, lawyers, bricklayers and a stone-mason who was particularly useful to us, although on questions of theoretic rather than applied politics he had a decidedly socialistic turn of mind.

Again, questions of race origin, like questions of creed, must not be considered: we wish to do good work, and we are all Americans, pure and simple. In the New York legislature, when it fell to my lot to choose a committee—which I always esteemed my most important duty at Albany—no less than three out of the four men I chose were of Irish birth or parentage; and three abler and more fearless and disinterested men never sat in a legislative body; while among my especial political and personal friends in that body was a gentleman from the southern tier of counties, who was, I incidentally found out, a German by birth, but who was just as straight United States as if his ancestors had come over here in the Mayflower or in Henry Hudson’s yacht. Of course, none of these men of Irish or German birth would have been worth their salt had they continued to act after coming here as Irishmen or Germans, or as anything but plain straight-out Americans. We have not any room here for a divided allegiance. A man has got to be an American and nothing else; and he has no business to be mixing us up with questions of foreign politics, British or Irish, German or French, and no business to try to perpetuate their language and customs in the land of complete religious toleration and equality. If, however, he does become honestly and in good faith an American, then he is entitled to stand precisely as all other Americans stand, and it is the height of un-Americanism to discriminate against him in any way because of creed or birthplace. No spirit can be more thoroughly alien to American institutions, than the spirit of the Know-Nothings.

In facing the future and in striving, each according to the measure of his individual capacity, to work out the salvation of our land, we should be neither timid pessimists nor foolish optimists. We should recognize the dangers that exist and that threaten us: we should neither overestimate them nor shrink from them, but steadily fronting them should set to work to overcome and beat them down. Grave perils are yet to be encountered in the stormy course of the Republic—perils from political corruption, perils from individual laziness, indolence and timidity, perils springing from the greed of the unscrupulous rich, and from the anarchic violence of the thriftless and turbulent poor. There is every reason why we should recognize them, but there is no reason why we should fear them or doubt our capacity to overcome them, if only each will, according to the measure of his ability, do his full duty, and endeavor so to live as to deserve the high praise of being called a good American citizen.


Dilemmas within American society continued to erupt, soften, and manifest into new social concerns. The 1880s saw Americans continue to fight over political and national boundaries. In 1887, after years of disputes between white society and the Native Americans, the Dawes Act attempted to protect Native American lands. The act gave Native American homestead lots, but continued white aggression for land ownership; the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 cost Native Americans over half of their land. Land disputes in the 1880s also paved the way for the growth of the Department of Labor, in 1888, and labor unions. The rise of immigrants brought cheap labor, and initially old-stock immigrants sought protections through unions to keep their jobs. But, labor unions quickly changed shape as workers realized that they must unite together, across ethnic boundaries, to give themselves a united front.

Labor unions and the acquisition of land were not initially seen as political activism, but these actions forced new laws and regulations to be enacted. The twentieth century saw the birth of labor laws and restrictions. They limited the hours of children, the workday, and eventually legalized unions. More importantly, the era saw the integration of citizenship ideals and education merge. In 1914, Henry Ford established his Americanism program in his auto plants, and in 1915, the National Education Association adopted curriculum for teaching citizenship advocacy in the classroom. Here, workers were given higher wages, shorter hours, and better benefits while being instructed in courses on civics and living moderate and moral lifestyles. Ford saw this program as a way to integrate the much-needed immigrant worker into American life and culture. Parts of his program filtered into schools and other factories.

American citizenship debates continue into the present era. As of May 2006, proposed legislation circulates in the U.S. Congress concerning immigration restrictions for the United States. The 2006 debate mirrors previous citizenship and immigration discussions because of the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the U.S. Congress. This act prevented Asian immigrants from coming to the United States because many feared they were taking jobs away from whites. The rise of Chinese (and Asian immigrants) came from the building of the railroads. In 1924, the Immigration Act performed similar restrictions on immigrants, but it placed quotas on entry numbers from the 1890 census. The 2006 debate concerned removing, restricting, and legalizing illegal immigrants. Also, parts of the debate concerned a changing population—one with an emerging majority of Hispanic residents—and fluctuating political identities. Similar to what the 1880s experienced with election results favoring immigrant desires, the same trends occurred in 2006, and old fears that immigrant workers were taking jobs away was again a hot political topic. Questions of what it means to be an American citizen and what a person’s role is in society have taken the forefront in early twenty-first century political debates.

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