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(The UNITED STATES to 1914 – continued)

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The UNITED STATES to 1914 (5 of 11)

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Hope for a Better Life

At the turn of the century, science and medicine were benefiting from the increase in communications between scientists of the world, and science was bringing a better understanding of diseases and greater prevention. It had recently been discovered that beriberi was caused by dietary deficiency, and it was learned that a proper diet was a defense against disease in general. In the area of preventative medicine – as old as Hypocrites – a New York woman, Lillian Wald, acting alone, convinced the city of New York to hire nurses for its public schools for health maintenance and health education, and this kind of nursing began spreading across the nation. By 1900, water supplies were being tested periodically to guard against water-borne infections.

Government funding of medical research was almost non-existent, and most medical research was being funded by wealthy philanthropists, such as John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, who established the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and donated millions of dollars for research on tuberculosis. The one area of research financed by tax dollars was the US Army's work against yellow fever and malaria. The connection between malaria and mosquitoes had been recently discovered, and a program by the army was able to control malaria and yellow fever in Havana and in Central America along the world's most notorious "fever coast" – enough to allow the stationing of American troops there with only minor incidents of these diseases.

Many of those living in misery were optimistic enough to fight to improve their lives. By the turn of the century, blacks had reduced their illiteracy to 44.5 percent, down from forced illiteracy during slavery and the 95 percent illiteracy rate at the end of the Civil War. Among those who were optimistic was Booker T. Washington. He was a former slave who had worked in a coal mine, struggled in his spare time to acquire an education and had graduated in 1875 from an agricultural institute in Virginia. He worked as a teacher and founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He advocated blacks advancing themselves through hard work. Another who was hopeful was W.E.B. du Bois, half-black, half-white, who had graduated from Harvard in 1895 and in 1900 founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He had grown up around whites and, unlike Booker T. Washington, he advocated integration.

The NAACP in 1911 would be joined by three whites: the journalist William E. Walling and social workers Mary White Ovington and Henry Moskowitz.

White immigrant labor also fought for improvements – against the belief among businessmen that wages should be determined by the marketplace. Employers believed that they should be free to pay their workers as little as possible – in other words, according to market forces. There was no minimum wage law, nor laws that prevented poor working conditions. And with the cost of labor determined partly by the supply of workers, employers had been skewing down the market price for labor by importing large numbers of immigrants. Laborers wanted to organize against their wages being bid down. They wished to force an improvement in working conditions. And the labor movement had succeeded in establishing itself in many industries.

The union movement in the form of trade unions was as old as the nation, and at the turn of the century it was dominated by about one hundred craft unions – crafts such as printing, carpentry and shoemaking. The trade union movement was led by the American Federation of Labor, whose leader at the turn of the century was Samuel Gompers. Gompers favored collective bargaining and cooperating with the industrialists. He opposed the failed attempts of the past to form one great union of all workers, the skilled and unskilled, and he opposed any attempt to form a labor party. He was opposed to the notion of class struggle and to what he saw as the utopianism of some intellectuals who sided with the labor movement.

To the left of Gompers were the socialists. Foremost among them was Eugene Debs, who had risen from treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and had organized the American Railway union. Debs believed that industrial unions were better than trade unions at meeting the power of the industrialists. He favored a unified socialist movement of working whites – both native born and immigrants. He advocated government intervention in the economic life of the nation in order to promote social justice. He was for a shortened workweek, unemployment relief and abolishing child labor. He favored voting reform, including women's suffrage, giving people more influence through referendums, and more proportional representation. Debs believed that big business and labor had opposing interests that could never be resolved. His socialism derived from a belief in doing right for working people and replacing the existing system of private ownership of the means of production with public ownership. He urged people to join the labor movement to better themselves economically and to join the Socialist Party to give political power to the working class.

And there was imagination and the utopians. Among the optimistic were enthusiastic readers of a book titled Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, first published in 1888 and translated into twenty languages. Between 1890 and 1891 across the US, one hundred and sixty-five "Bellamy Clubs" had formed. These clubs were devoted to the discussion and propagation of the aims expressed in Looking Backward. After Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur, Looking Backward was the most popular book at the turn of the century. The Bellamy dream was that finance, industry and commerce would no longer be conducted by "irresponsible" corporations. Rather than government regulation of industry, Bellamy foresaw the economy governed by a single syndicate for the common interest of "the people." The story of his book takes place in Boston, Massachusetts, and the book describes Boston in the year 2000 as a city with many parks and fountains and everyone devoted to group values.

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