The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 26
THE "MISSION OF AMERICA" IN THE PROGRESSIVE ERA

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA was a period of internal ferment sandwiched between two external events of transcendent importance for the United States. In 1898 the Western Republic, by driving the last of the officials of a decadent Spain from the New World, raised itself to a first-rank power. Americans conquered an empire. They disciplined strange races living on distant islands. There were many citizens whose thoughts continued after 1898 to run in the old grooves and who wondered how it was possible to reconcile the doctrine of the free individual with that of imposed imperialistic control. But the Zeitgeist was shifting. Americans enjoyed the mood of the conqueror. They accepted imperialism in 1900. They reached into their pockets for money with which to build new battleships. The digging of an Isthmian canal became the symbol of national efficiency and energy. American dollars planted in the rich soil of the lands bordering the Caribbean Sea produced harvests of sugar and bananas. The State Department at Washington began to talk about the solemn duty of instructing in manners those small and sometimes unwashed nations to the southward whose political upbringing had left much to be desired. Then, just as Americans were getting used to their new rôle, the nations of Europe fell to fighting one another. The guns on the western front opened fire just as the crusade for domestic democratic reform of the American Progressives was reaching its climax in the Wilson administration. Finally in 1917, the Progressive Era closed, when bugles warned the citizens that for Americans a new day was dawning.

During the Progressive Era citizens of the United States probed the meaning of that third tenet of the traditional democratic faith, the doctrine of the mission of America. Their minds ran outward as

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