Anthropology in the Liberal Age, 1879–1929
A dominant image of nineteenth-century America was that it had been forged by westward expansion through the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. The advance of white settlement from the Atlantic coast was said to have tamed the savagery of this wilderness and its inhabitants, as farmers and then merchants moved into almost empty lands. In the process, the wilderness of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, which was unfit for civilized peoples, was transformed into the “garden of the world.” However, this “agrarian utopia was destroyed, or rather aborted,” as Henry Nash Smith (1950:191) perceptively noted, “by the land speculator and the railroad monopolist. These were in turn but expressions of the larger forces at work in American society after the Civil War - the machine, the devices of corporate finance, and the power of big business over Congress.” By the 1870s, more than a dozen cities from Pittsburgh and Chicago to Kansas City were industrial centers that belonged to the new age of steam and steel rather than to the agrarian past. The wilderness beyond the agricultural frontier, which had receded steadily earlier in the century, was closed. Westward expansion, which ultimately caused the disappearance of free land, also eliminated the safety valve that relieved poverty in the East and that promoted equality and democracy as members of the urban poor and middling classes became Midwestern farmers. As the frontier closed, the farmers were transformed into agrarian capitalists whose fate hinged on distant markets, shipping costs, and fluctuations in commodity prices (Smith 1950:159, 257–8).
However, after the Indian wars of the 1880s, just when it seemed that civilization had finally triumphed over savagery in this story, calls for further imperial expansion reappeared as big business sought access to and control over foreign markets, first in the Caribbean and Latin America and then in the Pacific and the Far East. In the 1890s, America annexed Western Samoa, acquired Hawaii and conquered Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba. This brought millions of dark-skinned people into America's political orbit. At the same time, the industrialization of the American homeland and the exclusion of African-Americans from its workplaces attracted tens of millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe - Italians, Slavs, Greeks, and Jews - who sought jobs in the racially and ethnically stratified labor markets of the industrial cities in the Northeast and the Great Lakes states.