Standing at Armageddon

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Standing at Armageddon

Nell Irvin Painter. Standing at Armageddon; The United States, 1877-1919. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company. 1987. Pp. xlvi, 390. ISBN 0393305880.


The book looks at the 42 year span between 1877 and 1919 when the United States went through the change from a rural agricultural based nation to one of industry. The themes Painter covers in the book concern power and resistance as the workers and elite management figures of the times struggle over basic issues of economic justice. The workers wanted decent pay and a sense of dignity while the management was more concerned with maintaining the status quo. Painter looks at the era from the bottom up, examining the average American worker in several occupational areas such as farmers, train workers, steel workers, etc. (p.31) In all areas she vividly describes the harsh working and living conditions that produced great wealth for the elite and poverty for the workers. Painter wants the reader to understand how the struggles between labor and management of this era shaped those relationships today. But she wants to avoid narrowly casting this as a series of political wins and losses for either side. She wants people to see the changes as a river fed by political, social and cultural streams.

Painter looks at the events during this critical period of American history through the combined eyes of a political, social and cultural historian. Starting at the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Painter traces how the upper class elite secured dominance over the lower classes. She looks at how the upper class used race, gender and ethnicity to keep labor in its place. For instance, black laborers on trains were only allowed to work as porters, and women were always kept at the bottom of pay scales in factories. Anyone who disagreed or wandered away from the narrow value system of the time had to be punished, whether by layoffs or demotions. Violence, usually in the form of violent strikes, was often the only way for the workers to be heard. (p. 121) Because workers then as now were the mainstay of American society, Painter shows how they influenced the political system and caused change. Painter also traces the rise of new political parties such as the Greenbacks, the Prohibition Party and the Progressive Party that were formed to try and deal with the many different issues of reform that came from the era.

The strength of the book is that Painter looks at those without power at the time in a very egalitarian way. She doesn’t deal with people just on the basis of their race or gender, but rather she examines all these groups as part of the economically dispossessed. Using a wide range of information from available government statistics to newspapers, journals and court records, she shows how events in this period would frame the relationship between labor and management for much of the 20th Century.


Pat Kelly, Fall 2007

This is an era of American history that never held much interest for me and so I never really sought out any books dealing with it. After reading Painter’s book, I now realize how really important it was in the development of labor and the United States. One of the things Painter does well in her narrative is that she clearly explains the important political and social events of the time and how they affected the everyday worker. (p.13) For instance, she describes labor forays into politics that successfully won concessions like the eight-hour workday. One of the best things Painter does is to follow the money trail and clearly show the reader how trusts, taxes and tariffs affected the ordinary man on the street. In ways like this, she succeeds in her goal of weaving the political and social forces that shaped the labor movement of the time.

In a very simple way Painter shows the interdependent economics of both management and labor. Hard times for bankers could drive up interest rates, which made mortgages less affordable for workers. Many people think that the Federal Reserve System sprouted from the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt, when in fact it was something the different farmer alliances had wanted for years to bolster banks against economic downturns. (p. 275) Painter also does a great job at looking at all the different political parties and how they slowly produced changes in labor. She shows how conflicts like the Spanish American War and World War I were used by the elite to help produce social conformity and patriotism. This in turn kept workers and other outside groups in line. She makes a convincing argument that what happened during this period would affect labor management relations into the next century. Lizabeth Cohen in Making the New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 describes how management was still using the same techniques of race, gender and ethnic segregation against workers later in the 20th Century in many of the industrial plants of Chicago.

However, in the chapter dealing with Woodrow Wilson and the entry of the United States into World War I, Painter seems to lose her direction. She doesn’t know what to make of Woodrow Wilson. Instead of looking at how he had the support of labor just before World War I and his background as a reform-minded progressive as the governor of New Jersey, Painter covers him in a more traditional way. She looks at how WWI affected his administration and at Wilson’s view of the Treaty of Versailles peace conference. Painter does a great job, however, covering how the war affected labor, race and class both during and after the war. Painter shows how the war effort brought all the different factions together, because they wanted to show that they were Americans. The war broke down many of the barriers that labor had fought to remove (women and blacks, for instance, started working factory jobs) and brought together classes and races. She, however, does not look at how the war started to fragment the Progressive Party under Wilson. What’s striking about Painter’s book is that at times it does seem like America was close to Armageddon and yet for some reason leaders and different political parties came along and found ways to confront the social, economic and political problems.

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