An overarching theme of five primary sources in Chapter 20 of Johnson’s Reading the American Past volume is “Dissent, Depression, and War” in 1890-1900. Yet, the documents included in the chapter provide an insight not only in depression, war, and dissent, but also at the core values of the U.S. society in the period. This paper identifies and explores which unifying values persisted in the American society during the last decade of the 19th century.
One of the most prominent values that can be identified is that of equality. In Mary Lease’s “Women in the Farmers’ Alliance, 1891” speech, one can see the successes of the women’s struggle for gender equality in social, political, and economical spheres. Specifically, Mary Lease, a mother of four and a farmer’s wife, addresses the National Congress of Women of the United States as a representative of the National Farmers’ Alliance. Her speech is the evidence of women’s political activism and their success in their human rights advancement. Her speech also evidences that the society’s view regarding women activism became more favourable in the period. That is why Lease emphasizes that biological differences between sexes do not extend to differences in intelligence, courage, or other qualities in men and women. Specifically, she says, “(…) We are living in a time when the gray old world begins to dimly comprehend that there is no difference between the brain of an intelligent woman and the brain of an intelligent man” (Johnson 79). She also notes that women reached progress in political rights so that “they have become a mighty factor in the politics of this nation” (Johnson 79).

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Another value shared by Americans in those turbulent days was the primacy of law. In
Gunner Jessie Blake’s Narrative of the Wilmington Rebellion of 1898 the white population who rebelled against equality with African Americans seeks justification in the Constitution. For example, they declare: “Believing that the Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by an enlightened people (…) we (…) do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled, by men of African origin” (Johnson 83).

Further, what united Americans in 1890-1900 was the value of social justice and resistance to any forms of oppression. Mary Lease’s speech is the evidence of the farmers’ unity in the name of social justice as they resisted the fierce economic oppression on the part of railroad monopolists. The orator acknowledges that she is “advocating the principles of truth, right, and justice” (Johnson 79). Likewise, social justice was at the core of the Homestead 1892 strike, described in Pinkerton Guard Testimony, 1893. Here one can see how a fair demand for social justice (workers’ right to form unions) turned into armed resistance with Carnegie-hired Pinkerton thugs (Johnson 87). Similarly, calls for social justice permeate Samuel Gompers’ Letter to American Federationist, 1894, where the author reminds that the labour force are humans just as his addressee and that they have the same human concerns, human needs, and human pains, which means they should be supported in their resistance to inhumane working conditions and insufficient pay (Johnson 94).

Finally, Americans were united by their Christian religion and its values. In particular, Lease often mentions God and various Biblical events, and even compares her movement with “an echo of the life of Jesus of Nazareth” (Johnson 79). Besides, Gompers uses Biblical imagery as he says “Great Satanic Majesty” with reference to the school of laissez fair and the ideology of each for himself (Johnson 94).

The values that united Americans over the fissures of race, region, and class were equality, social justice, Christianity, and primacy of law.

  • Johnson, Michael. Reading the American Past: Volume II: From 1865: Selected Historical
    Documents: Volume II.Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2012. Print.