Just as the Copernican Revolution several centuries earlier had displaced the earth and its inhabitants from the center of the universe, so the Darwinism of the nineteenth century unseated man from the throne he had claimed for himself. With the earth removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus and man removed from the zenith of the created order by Darwin, the old understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos was overthrown. The task taken up by thinkers of the generation after Darwin was to understand the implications of Darwin’s theory for humanity and to formulate a cohesive philosophy capable of imbuing human life with meaning while taking the new scientific discoveries into account. In the words of historian Ruth C. Crocker, as in European thought, “American intellectual life in the Gilded Age is often viewed primarily in terms of a response to Darwinism.”1
Perhaps the most ubiquitous element of this response was a newfound impetus for the idea of progress. Westerners, particularly Americans, had made the idea of progress a central aspect of their self-understanding since the Enlightenment. In fact, Darwin himself was one of the inheritors of this idea and his theories in large part presuppose and depend upon it. In short, “the idea of evolution gets some of its moral, social, and even cosmic significance from its implication that the general motion in the world of living things, perhaps in the universe, is a progress from lower to higher forms.”2 All of the various Gilded Age responses to Darwin’s ideas, no matter how much they may differ from each other on their particulars, share in this belief in and focus upon progress. In their beliefs about what constituted progress and precisely what man and the cosmos were progressing toward, however, the various responses differed radically from one another.
European responses to Darwinism were often attempts at a synthesis with Hegelianism, another philosophy, very popular and influential throughout Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on the idea of progress. According to historian Richard Tarnas, “metaphysically inclined scientists such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to conjoin the scientific picture of evolution with philosophies similar to Hegel.”3 These philosophies tended to see the process of evolution as oriented toward a divinely-directed goal and a point of unity between God, the cosmos, and man in the future. American responses, however, as well as later European responses, tended in the opposite direction of denying the possibility of formulating any “metaphysical system claiming the existence of a universal order accessible to human awareness” and emphasizing the disunity, and even enmity, between human beings and between all creatures.
The philosophy of pragmatism, the product of the thought of American philosophers and psychologists William James and John Dewey, which “question[ed] whether there was such a thing as universal truth,” is one example of the former type of response to Darwinism.4 According to James, Dewey, and the other pragmatists, ideas and beliefs were similar to the biological components of a species. There were none that were true in an absolute sense, or at least discernible as such as by biological beings such as humans, but some were “true” in a contingent sense in that they had demonstrated value for the current state of the species. This idea cast all ideas, as well as the very concept of and search for truth, into question.
Social Darwinism is perhaps the greatest example of the latter type of American response to Darwinism in its emphasis on the competition between individual men as well as between races and social classes. One of the most extreme proponents of a philosophy of pure Social Darwinism was the sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner spent a large portion of his career defending the thesis that social policy should adhere to the concept of survival of the fittest. To this end, Sumner attacked any program which attempted to aid the poor through charity or to redistribute wealth as contrary to nature and detrimental to the future of humanity. He believed that “feeding the hungry and unemployed” impeded the progress of human evolution and that “unfit people” should be allowed “to die, or at least not reproduce.”5 Although Sumner was one of the most outspoken and extreme advocates of Social Darwinism, the philosophy itself was popular throughout the American elite and was used by such figures as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to justify their tenacious pursuit of financial success to the detriment of others.
The various reactions to and extensions of Darwinism during the Gilded Age, including in the European attempts at a synthesis between Darwin and Hegel, as well as in American pragmatism and Social Darwinism, all demonstrate the disorienting effect Darwinism had on Western thought at the close of the 19th century. For some, as with the pragmatists, this displacement in ideas was impetus to abandon the very search for truth. For many, such as the Social Darwinists, this displacement prompted a kind of conservative synthesis, in which older ideas were combined with Darwinism in order to present a firmer ideological basis for the status quo. For all, Darwinism forever changed the nature of Western thought.
Calhoun, Charles W. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.
Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Editor. The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II. Chicago: William Benton, 1952.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
The Gilded Age saw the rise of a culture of leisure and mass consumerism unprecedented in history.1 By the beginning of the 20th century, the cultural scene of the United States was dominated by sports such as baseball, publicly accessible events such as vaudeville shows, and the consumer goods now widely available in the department stores springing up across the country. Americans had more time and more access to diversion than ever before and they took advantage of this leisure and access. This is especially true of young Americans, who flocked to the new amusement parks, stores, and shows, and took up the new sports and dance crazes of the era.2
In the Gilded Age, as now, the youth were the biggest consumers of popular culture and in large part determined its contents. Also as now, members of the previous generations saw youth culture as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.3 Ragtime, for instance, was a popular form of music and dance for young people of the Gilded Age that received a great deal of condemnation from elders who saw the associated dances, which involved close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, as lascivious.
One source of the criticism leveled at popular culture was the origin of many of its elements, including especially music and dance, in black culture. Older generations saw this influence of black culture, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.4 Ironically, however, in spite of these origins in black culture, American popular culture was often used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and continue the culture of racism, subjugation and marginalization. One popular song, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike To Me.”5 While the influence of blacks on later popular music and dance, including rock and especially hip hop, would allow African-Americans to enter the mainstream of American culture and society and, arguably, serve to undermine and eliminate racism among young Americans, ragtime and related elements of popular culture more often served the opposite purpose and instead acted as a vehicle for the propagation of racism during the Gilded Age.
Aspects of popular culture which did not derive from black culture also, similarly, served the ends of racism. Sports, for instance, were intended to cultivate and convey a sense of the importance of masculinity, from which concept black men were explicitly excluded.6 This exclusion was made tangible through the segregation of sports fans in the audience at sporting events as well as through the ban on participation of blacks in popular sports like baseball.7 When blacks were allowed to participate in popular cultural events, such as the popular theater of the era, it was generally for the purpose of reinforcing stereotypes.8 As a result, they were generally placed in demeaning roles and expected to act in accordance with white expectations.
American popular culture of the Gilded Age also served to reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans. Popular Wild West shows, such as the famous one run by Buffalo Bill, depicted Native Americans as warlike savages.9 While, as Litwicki points out, depictions of Indians and the stereotypes attached to them “were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within” Native Americans were nonetheless subject to the same disfiguring American consciousness as blacks.10 Both groups were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified their continued marginalization.
The racism depicted in and reinforced by American popular culture served to justify the continued oppression of blacks and Native Americans in reality. The stereotypes of blacks as a comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous “other,” for instance, justified continuing their separation from the white mainstream of American society. This marginalization and perpetual status as the ontological “other” was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.11 Similarly, the depiction of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate native ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units, such as was attempted with the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which law sought to force Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural whites.12
The increased leisure time of Americans coupled with the new commodification of culture in the Gilded Age to create the United States’ first true popular culture. Through the popularization of stereotypes, American popular culture of the Gilded Age served to justify the continued marginalization and subjugation of oppressed groups such as Native Americans and blacks. One great irony of this new youth culture is that much of its content derived from the culture of the very groups whose oppression it sanctioned.
1 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 117.
2 Ibid., 118.
4 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.
5 Ibid., 196.
6 Edwards, 114.
7 Litwicki, 200.
8 Ibid., 191-2.
9 Ibid., 202.
11 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.
12 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.
During times of significant change and upheaval, humans tend to retreat into a tribal mindset that seeks protection in groups and places special emphasis on developing closeness with other people with whom they seem to have some obvious natural affinity. For example, according to The Barna Group, a California-based research organization, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, church attendance in the United States “increased by perhaps 25%” before returning to “normal levels.”1 Similarly, according to Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has studied extremist groups extensively, involvement with racist organizations and ideologies tends to be tied to the lack of a stable home, family life, and career.2 The Gilded Age was undoubtedly a time of massive economic and social upheaval. With the advent of industrialization, rural Americans flocked to the new and increasingly large industrial centers in America’s major cities. While 19.8% of the population of the United States lived in urban areas (defined as any area with a population greater than 2500) and 80.2% lived in rural areas in 1860, 39.7% lived in urban areas and only 60.3% lived in rural areas by 1900.3 Simultaneously, these same growing urban areas experienced a massive influx of immigrants, including a total of 13 million from the end of the Civil War in 1866 to the dawn of the twentieth century in 1900.4 As a result of these and other drastic changes in the American landscape and way of life, race and religion exercised an important role in the lives of Americans of the Gilded Age.
Race and religion are often intimately linked as both tend to be inherited. Although the very idea of “race is biologically incoherent,” the sets of phenotypes generally identified under that heading are heritable and readily recognizable differences between groups of people.5 Similarly, as with other elements of culture, children generally adopt the religion of their parents. This link between race and religion was readily evident during the Gilded Age which saw a significant uptick in the number of people coming to the United States from places such as Ireland, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, whose populations differed both ethnically and religiously from the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant mainstream of the United States.6 These ethnic and religious differences in combination triggered a backlash on the part of many native-born Americans. Prescott F. Hall, for instance, a leader of a group which sought to limit immigration to the United States to only Anglo-Saxons, insisted that America should “be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive” peoples rather than “Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”7 Similarly and simultaneously, many Protestants protested against the changing religious landscape of America caused by the Catholicism many of these immigrants were bringing with them.8
As a result, many Catholic immigrants to America retreated into ethnic and religious enclaves where they could be around those of the same or similar language, culture, and religion. Rather than send their children to American public schools, in many of which teachers still read frequently from the Protestant King James Version of the Bible and led classes in prayers that reflected Protestant beliefs and practices, for example, many communities of Catholic immigrants chose to create parochial schools based around their local parish churches. In addition to the use of a curriculum which reflected the contents of their Catholic faith, many of these schools also taught in the languages of the immigrant communities which populated them in the belief that “language saves faith.”9
For their part, Catholics, including both immigrants and the subsequent generations born to them in the United States, also developed and engaged in actions motivated by their own sets of prejudices. This is particularly evident in the leading role that Catholics of the working class played in excluding Chinese immigrants, whom they saw as a threat to their economic wellbeing, from unions and in supporting anti-Chinese legislation by the federal government. The Knights of Labor, for instance, was at one point the largest labor organization in the United States and was headed during its heyday by a Catholic, Terence Powderly.10 In spite of its relatively welcoming membership policies, which allowed blacks and women to join, a rarity among labor unions, the Chinese were explicitly targeted for exclusion from its ranks and, in fact, the Knights advocated banning further Chinese immigration.11 The anti-Chinese movement in the West was also led by Catholic workers such as Dennis Kearney, whose followers adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must GO!”12
Nearly all groups, Protestant or Catholic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, held prejudices and fostered discrimination against blacks. While the Knights of Labor allowed blacks to join their ranks, most labor unions did not. Blacks, most of whom were freed slaves from the American South, were seen by others not only as economic and social threats but even as existential threats to white dominance and to the white race itself. Historian Richard L. Hughes has pointed out, for example, that the development of a concept of “blackness” that attached to those of African descent and that more often than not consisted of little more than caricatures and stereotypes, “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”13 In comparison with the idea, mostly imaginary, of an existential “other” in the black who differed substantially, comically, and seemingly in over-the-top and essential ways from anyone of European descent, the differences between a person of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and another of Italian or Polish ancestry seemed to recede into insignificance.
During the Gilded Age, people from all over the world converged in the new urban and industrial centers of the United States. The differences they encountered in others in both appearance and thought along with the separation from family, from traditional ways of life, and from homelands were often bewildering and frightening. As a result, many Americans entered into a defensive posture in which they clung fervently to their race and their religion as defining features of their selfhood, often going on the offensive against perceived threats. Only after the period of crisis and upheaval had passed did America finally begin to become comfortable with and embracing of its new diversity, a process that continues still today.
Notes1 The Barna Group, (26 November 2001) http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/63-how-americas-faith-has-changed-since-9-11 (accessed 23 March 2013).
2 Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 233.
3 Robert G. Barrows, “Urbanizing America,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 102-3.
4 Roger Daniels, “The Immigrant Experience in the Gilded Age,” in ibid., 76.
5 Atran, 246.
6 From 1866 to 1900, Irish made up 13% of immigrants to the United States and Italians and Austro-Hungarians made up 7.7% each. (Daniels, 78-9).
7 Prescott F. Hall, quoted in Daniels, 93.
8 Daniels, 89.
9 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 172.
10 Kevin Schmiesing, “Brothers and Sisters of Charity: The Catholic Response to a Transformed World,” Christian History 104, 2013, 17.
11 Eric Arnesen, “American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, 61.
12 Daniels, 90.
13 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.