Rutgers Professor Jackson Lears’ presentation was titled: “Two Gilded Ages: Is History Repeating Itself?” Milton’s seventh Henry R. Heyburn lecturer, Dr. Lears answered that familiar question with a resounding, “No, but… “
“Every historian I know has a big but,” Dr. Lears said, which drew laughs from the audience of Class I and II students in King Theatre. “Even if history doesn’t repeat itself, there are important connections between the past and the present.”
Professor Lears said he preferred Mark Twain’s take: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” He then used this adage to develop the similarities and differences of the period between the Civil War and World War I, which he called the “age of regeneration,” to the United States a century later.
He read two quotations from politicians who, over 100 years ago, represented the populist and progressive movements that changed the cultural and economic direction of the U.S.
The first quotation was from Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota Republican Congressman from 1863 to 1868, who wrote the preamble for the launch of the Populist Party in 1892.
“ … we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized, … The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists, … The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
Dr. Lears said that noting parallels to America today is important, but only to a point. After highlighting some similarities, he named differences such as the massive labor unrest and “social ferment from below demanding justice” during the turn of the century. He compared that to today’s overall public silence. Lears said even when there is a public outcry, it is not reported by the media, which are controlled by corporate interests. He also pointed to a change in political culture—the worship of money has dramatically increased while the practice of paternalism has declined.
The next quotation he read was from Albert Beveridge, a historian and U.S. Senator from Indiana from 1899 to 1911 and a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive views. The quotation was from a 1900 Senate speech titled “In Support of an American Empire” where Beveridge stated his support for the annexation of the Philippines.
At the turn of the century, according to Dr. Lears, the U.S. was going abroad looking for resources and economic opportunities. “It was the beginning of empire as a way of life,” he said, and the belief of “America’s capacity to save the world.
“Today’s overseas adventures are cloaked in similar robes of righteousness,” Professor Lears said, and he referred to both President Bush and President Obama’s speeches as examples.
He mentioned Roosevelt’s progressive views frequently during his talk and cited TDR as an example of wealth paired with a strong sense of public duty. Dr. Lears said it was a time of “cooperative commonwealth” and the notion of noblesse oblige; he said 100 years ago populism meant “economic justice” and social change. “Now it means you’d rather drink Budweiser than a dry white wine,” he said wryly.
Professor Lears stressed that he didn’t want to completely idealize the past and cited today’s rich cultural, religious, and racial diversity as a vast improvement. “However,” he said, “we need to come up with a new language of regeneration,” partly based on the past.
“We are all in this together. It is not every man, woman and child for him or herself,” Dr. Lears said at the close of his talk. “We need the more humane, a regeneration of politics. We need to change that rhyme.”
Dr. Lears, Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University, has a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University and is the editor in chief of Raritan Quarterly Review.