Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Labor's New Century

After 1897, the great economic depression began to fade into Americans' memories. As recovery set in, a consolidation and centralization of power became visible across the United States. A flurry of statemaking activities began to restructure America's political economy, beginning in 1898 with the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War, and continuing afterwards as state managers in the army, navy, civil service, and many other areas pushed to develop the size and capability of their own bureaucracies. The federal government's budget increased significantly during these years, making it a major employer of labor.1 Military strength and commercial enterprise received new emphasis as the federal government's twin goals, leading the state into interventionist adventures around the globe.

Perhaps the Panama Canal provided the best symbol of this new climate, a project heralded by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the colossal engineering feat of all the ages.” For years, American government and business leaders had dreamed of a canal that could strengthen the navy's strategic capabilities while enhancing the flow of commerce. After negotiations with Colombia proved fruitless, construction of the canal became possible in 1901 when the United States gave its support to a revolution engineered by a group that included representatives of the New Panama Canal Company. Construction finally began in 1906; before its completion in 1914, the canal would require the labor of more than 45,000 men, women, and children, who excavated more than 230 million cubic yards of earth.2

____________________
1
The federal budget nearly doubled between 1880 and 1900, then rose another 30 percent by 1910 to a total of $693, 617,000. See Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 1104.
2
Roosevelt's comment can be found in his letter to James E. Watson, August 18, 1906, in Elting E. Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952). On the expanding state, see Emily Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982); Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Gerald O'Gara, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943); Harold and Margaret Sproat, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776–1918 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939). On the Panama Canal, see Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), and David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977), 472 and 611.

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