Magazine article Newsweek

The Spirit of America: As a Society, We Seem to Adapt to Unexpected Change Better Than Most Others. Looking Forward, We May Find a Need for This Resilience

Magazine article Newsweek

The Spirit of America: As a Society, We Seem to Adapt to Unexpected Change Better Than Most Others. Looking Forward, We May Find a Need for This Resilience

Article excerpt

Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

We Americans, charter members of a get-with-it-now society, don't have much use for history. But we should. In this new year, we face momentous uncertainties: war (or wars), a weak economy. Although the past cannot foretell the future, history--even history seemingly unrelated to our present troubles--offers a relevant lesson for today. It attests to America's enduring resilience in the face of change and adversity.

Let's go back a century. One of the forgotten masterpieces of American journalism is "Our Times," a six-volume survey of national life from 1900 to 1925 by Mark Sullivan. He covered almost everything: politics, fashion, lifestyles, literature. In his era, America first projected its power onto the global stage. In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt began construction of the Panama Canal; in 1907, he sent his Great White Fleet of battleships around the world. But Sullivan's major theme was the rapidity of social and economic change.

In 1900, he noted, the country had only about 8,000 cars and "less than 10 miles of concrete road." Moreover, there was "no such word as the radio, for that was yet twenty years from coming; nor 'movie,' for that too was still mainly of the future." Telephones also were rare. There was one for every 66 people.

Of course, Sullivan couldn't know the half of it. The Census Bureau recently issued a fascinating report, "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century." It says little about science, technology or the economy. Still, the population changes it depicts are eyepopping. For starters, we've grown enormously. In 1900, the United States had 76 million people, less than a third of the 281 million in 2000. Expansion also redistributed economic and political power.

A century ago the West and South were virtually vassals to the Northeast and Midwest, which had most of the people and power. In 1900, the West--a region starting with Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico--had only 5 percent of the population; now it has 23 percent. In 1900, New York was the largest state with 7 million people; California was 21st with 1.5 million. In 2000, California was first with 34 million, New York third with 19 million. (Texas was second with 21 million.)

Nor was that all:

We went from a young to a middle-aged nation. In 1900, the United States was almost literally a country of kids. One of three Americans was under 15; now that's one in five. The median age (half the population younger, half older) jumped from 23 to 35. Life expectancy increased from 47 to 77.

Big families virtually disappeared. …

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