|Statue of Liberty in Paris|
I put them in "families" because I wanted them to consider that such choices weren't so much individually made, but rooted in family dynamics. Moreover, I wanted them to use their collective reading wisdom (which may mean some didn't read at all ... and could free ride for the discussion a little). The result was fascinating: when each group defended their location of choice, they did so by referencing why other locations were far worse.
One group selected Chicago; it was a growing city, they explained, rising to a status just behind New York City. They referenced the high numbers of immigrants moving there and the attention the city was getting from reformers like Upton Sinclair. But then they turned to negative references. Look at how bad New York was in the pictures of Jacob Riis. California was awful, if you heard the experience of Lee Chew, a Chinese immigrant.
Another group of all women selected Utah and they would marry Brigham Young. They were excited about the protection and camaraderie they would enjoy as a collective bunch and that they wouldn't have to endure a father who ate the best food (as in the selection from Bread Givers) or be attacked by the Klan (as was Lucy McMillan's experience).
Another group thought California would be rad. They used historian Donald Worster's essay on the West as on the forefront of capitalism to make their decision. They wanted to be where there were new innovations, new movements, and new hopes. And finally, one group selected Kansas, because of an ex-slave's recollection of it being far better than the South.
Then I asked the students what I believe is the central problem of how American historians represent the Gilded Age. If America was so bad (racist, sexist, classist, violent, hate filled, greedy, and destructive, which it was, just ask the bison), then why did 25 million immigrants move to the nation between 1880 and 1920? In total numbers, that's about the American population in 1860 in the entire country! Is it the case that historians present the United States as gilded, but there was some real gold there?
So we got talking, and we viewed the Major Problems sources in new ways. We looked at where the sources came from or how could we read into them why the United States was desirable. Some of the documents came from Congressional hearings. When Thomas O'Donnell lamented the plight of workers, he was doing so before a Senate committee on relations between capital and labor. Some Senators wanted to know his experiences, and he was heard. When Lucy McMillan spoke about Klan attacks, it was to another federally-sanctioned committee. At least some members of the U.S. govermnent wanted to know what happened to her. Only years earlier, the Supreme Court had said she had no federal citizenship rights. And finally, why would young Asian men and Slovenian men be enticed by American boosters? When they heard of opportunities, such as wealth, jobs, and citizenship, why was that compelling enough to move? The push factors were significant. Perhaps it meant that Lee Chew didn't believe he had any of those possibilities in China, but there was hope he could have them in the United States. Of course, that did not work out according to plan.
The overall point became not that the United States was so great in the Gilded Age, but that it certainly wasn't as overwhelmingly bad as we easily characterize it. As I try to move my classes from melodramas of good versus evil (where the United States is typically evil, or just a little less evil than others - like Nazis), I think we get a little bit closer to sympathy and understanding for the past. It also provides a global perspective so we can know a little bit about what was going on in those other parts of the world.
My questions to you are: do professional historians overdo the "tragic" or "evil" focus of American history, particularly the Gilded Age? And, are there other documents from the Gilded Age that you would include that would show positive aspects of the nation?