Hope, not fear, marked end of last century

By Chris McDavid
Staff Writer

Although the arrival of the new millennium has the general public preparing for the worst, the doomsayers were nearly obsolete as people anticipated a much brighter future when the 1900s rolled around.

After suffering through a four-year depression in the mid to late 1890s, Americans had a general sense of optimism about the future during the winding down of the 19th Century.

The depression of 1893 "involved bank failures, bankruptcies, an apparent reduction in money available nationwide, serious labor strikes, mass unemployment and radical political agitation," according to University of Toledo history professor William Longton.

Longton explained that the end of the depression was marked by the presidential election of 1896, which was "one of the most confusing, but important presidential elections of American history."

The election pitted incumbent William Jennings Bryan against William McKinley, who arose victorius and took over the office in 1897 -- the year the economic recovery began.

"The depression was over, after all, and there was a tendency for Americans to wax self-congratulatory about the progress they had made since 1800," the professor said.

The country's geographical growth and staggering increase in the population, which soared from about five million people in 1800 to nearly 76 million by 1900, were among the nation's physical improvements.

But the progress was not only limited to geographical boundaries and the population increase with an onslaught of immigrants pouring into the country in the last few decades of the 19th century.

Aside from its continuous growth, the United States made material advancements, as well, into the new millennium. Media organizations focused on those material improvements in the early 1900s with detailed descriptions of the ad-vances.

Newspapers and magazines compared the then-current times of technologies -- such as the inventions of the telephone, railroads, telegraph, electricity, kerosene, etc... -- with the 1800s, "when cooking-stoves, carpets, window-glass had been luxuries," according to author Mark Sullivan.

"Everything seemed to be getting bigger and better, and not just in the physical or material sense," Longton said. "Democracy was booming, Christianity was flourishing, and America was fulfilling its mission to bring the blessings of both to a benighted world."

Longton noted that there were some uncertain predictions about the future, though. "Optimism about the future based on physical growth and material progress was tempered by a certain nostalgic sense of loss, too," he said, noting that historian Frederick Jackson Turner made it known that the frontier no longer existed.

"In a sense, traditional American expansionism continued because of this disappearance of the frontier," Longton said, "and the United States expanded beyond it contiguous borders to the Philip-pines."

In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain and, as a result, stripped Spain of the last of the empire it had created in the wake of Christopher Columbus' voyages in the 15th and 16th centuries.

"In the United States, a large wave of 'anti-imperialist' sentiment rolled in ferocious opposition to America's taking these far-flung places (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines)," the history professor said, "and the fight over the ratification of the Treaty of Paris indicated that there was a lot of resistance to the direction the United States seemed to be going."

Similarly alarming for a lot of Americans and connected with the "imperialist" issue was the matter of who they saw as inferior -- the non-Anglo inhabitants of American territory, such as Southern and Eastern Europeans, African American, Chi-nese and now the Filipinos.

A Chinese Exclu-sion Act passed Congress in 1882, but it wasn't until the 20th Century that there were any steps taken to resolve other parts of what was perceived to be the immigration problem, Longton said.

"The case of African Americans was different," the history professor noted. "There, segregation and disfranchisement at the state level had, by the 1890s, virtually re-moved African Amer-icans from the citizenry and the Su-preme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision virtually ratified this condition."

Although 19th Century Americans weren't faced with the potential dilemmas forecasted for the arrival of Y2K, which doomsayers have predicted could be a major technological setback that could lead to a complete breakdown in practically every aspect of modern-day living, they were confronted with social and political issues.