Monday, April 15, 2013
On the Birth of American Environmentalism: In 2009, American filmmaker Ken Burns directed a PBS documentary titled "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The title originated with Wallace Stegner's 1954 book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, which traced the life of John Wesley Powell and his 1869 expedition to explored the interior of the Colorado River watershed. As some historians have argued, most notably Douglas Brinkley in Wilderness Warrior (2009), the Progressive conservationist movement, which centered on the 1906 Antiquities Act, marked the greatest American achievement between the Civil War and World War I. Perhaps President Theodore Roosevelt captured the central ethos of the future National Parks system when he remarked in 1903 about the Grand Canyon in Arizona, "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." Ultimately for Burns (and co-producer Dayton Duncan), the National Parks symbolized a practical application of the Jeffersonian impulse, namely the pursuit of happiness. And what better way to express that impulse than to set aside public lands for the benefit of all.
Monday, April 1, 2013
On the Birth of American Populism: Toward the end of the nineteenth century, bimetallism (or the option to pay for goods in gold and silver) became a major political issue in the United States. In 1873, Congress passed the Fourth Coinage Act, which essentially did away with the silver option and pegged the U.S. dollar to the price of gold. This law heavily favored East Coast urban elites like bankers and had drastic consequences for many Midwestern farmers. After a series of severe droughts in the 1880s, which eroded the livelihoods of many farmers, noted populist writer Mary Elizabeth Lease stated "We need to raise less corn and more Hell!" And by the early 1890s, a Populist Party formed to advocate a bimetallist platform and compete with the Democratic Party for political influence in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the Populist movement's peak occurred during the 1896 presidential election when William Jennings Bryan delivered his famed "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In effect, Bryan was the fusion candidate of the Populist and Democratic parties who offered this scathing proposition to gold-toting Republicans: "Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."