How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Exhilarating History

I’ve been getting to know the decades between 1898 and 1920 in America … and my goodness, were they dramatic! From the Spanish-American War in 1898 to national women’s suffrage in 1920, the years were packed with inventions, controversy, disasters, political movements, and economic gains. For the most part it was an exciting time to be alive. Some people’s lives were better than before, others had it worse, but change was in the works.

The Spanish-American War is fascinating because it gave form to imperialism (the belief in and practice of empire-building) in America, which also launched us into world politics. America hadn’t had a proper war with outsiders since the War of 1812 with Britain. In 1898, the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines from Spain and also annexed Hawaii. This empire stretched nearly halfway across the world! That really troubled some people because ruling over other countries, without making them equal, seemed antagonistic to the sacred belief in liberty and democracy.

Theodore Roosevelt became a war hero and governor of New York in 1898, vice president to William McKinley in 1900, and president in 1901. I think you all remember from your history books what a vibrant character he was! “The Hero of San Juan Hill,” “The Lion,” “The Trust Buster” … an energetic, compelling man, he pushed America toward becoming a world power. He also expanded the control of the government in domestic affairs; from the 1890s huge monopolies had come together and were abusing consumers, so he enacted laws to stop that. Have you heard of the novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? I haven’t read it, but I’ve read about it. Apparently it was one of those novels, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that created awareness and transformed public attitude. This time it was about the plight of workers in places like the Chicago stockyards and the terrible things that could be in processed foods. Roosevelt was profoundly affected and sent out investigators, which soon produced new safety regulations.


Roosevelt was president until 1909. He had a lively young family of six children, and his life and their lives were definitely the stuff of books and movies. The American people either loved him or hated him; sometimes both.

Wow, what can we talk about next? The Wright brothers’ 1903 flight, the first time a craft flew through the air with nothing to rely on but its own propulsion? The huge 1906 San Francisco earthquake? (By the way, one of my favorite series, American Girl’s History Mysteries, provided a very good story about that for younger readers; it’s called The Strange Case of Baby H.) The peak of European immigration in 1907 and the growth of cities? The deadly 1911 fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, which helped reform labor laws and practices? And then you get into the Titanic in 1912; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the years of World War One from 1914 to 1918; America’s reaction to the War and their participation from 1917–1918; and the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 that crippled whole American towns and snuffed out twice as many lives as the Great War. (That epidemic really holds my interest because my grandma was born in Chicago in 1918; I wonder how it affected her family’s lives.)


So much went on during these two decades that, if you’re interested at all, history books about them are inevitably exciting. My favorite so far is from the American History by Era series, called The Age of Reform and Industrialization, 1896–1920. It contains primary sources and expert secondary sources about a whole slew of subjects and events. And something else I’ve been discovering about historical research is that not only are firsthand accounts more reliable, they’re also more fun to read. The authors lived the action, after all; to them, it wasn’t history to be studied, but life lived. No one (except a novelist) can quite convey the horror of the San Francisco earthquake or the shirtwaist factory fire like the person who was there. History is, partly, one long string of stories that teach us, entertain us, and even deepen our walk with God.

While the Regency still remains my favorite historical time period, the early twentieth century is becoming another favorite … I really enjoy aspects of the Victorian era in England, too … and then there’s pioneer America during the same decades …. What about you?! I’d love to know what your favorite time periods are!

No comments:

Post a Comment