This post is my answer to a broad question: How and why did the relationship between American citizens and the federal government change between 1900 and 1975? Which personalities, issues, and events most powerfully shaped that transition?
The word citizen refers to an inhabitant of a political state. But the term also suggests the possession and use of civic rights and privileges. So, then, the question is, How did the relationship between inhabitants of the United States, with legal standing, and their federal government change during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century?
One way of responding would be to ask, Which American citizens? For example, it was not until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution secured for women the most basic right of citizenship, the right to vote. Yet even with that, negative stereotypes of women were slow to fade, and walls preventing achievement were slow to crumble.
Also, as late as 1940, in the eleven states that made up the Confederacy, fewer than five percent of eligible African-Americans were even registered to vote. That remarkable figure becomes even more significant when we note that, at the time, roughly three-quarters of all blacks in the U.S. lived in the South. Consequently, any discussion of this topic must occasionally refer to certain groups as well as to all citizens.
|Signing the 19th Amendment in KY|
My answer will follow the sequence of time. And it will sometimes put a spotlight on specific groups. I will argue that two main ideas characterized the relationship between American citizens and the federal government during the twentieth century: security and belonging.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, most Americans related to the federal government primarily at the post office or perhaps through some involvement with the military. By that time, however, those few connections had already begun to grow stronger and more numerous. The period in U.S. history between 1877 to 1920—that is, from the end of a failed Reconstruction to just beyond the conclusion of the First World War—was characterized by struggles over a seemingly endless number of political and economic issues, almost all of which were related to America’s Industrial Revolution. These included
- woman suffrage
- railroad regulation
- maximum hours of work
- child labor
- workmen’s compensation
- black civil rights
- graduated income taxes
- banking reform
At least some people in every time period imagine that, unlike people in earlier times, they uniquely stand on a precipice. Such anxiety certainly prevailed during the decades immediately following Reconstruction. For example, in an 1890 issue of the reform-minded literary magazine The Arena, Professor Joseph R. Buchanan noted that “the portents of the coming storm gather thick and dark in the sky.” He warned that “unless the power of money to oppress is modified or destroyed very soon, the present generation will witness the crash.”
Over time, in response to what Robert Wiebe called that era's “search for order,” a vision emerged according to which the federal government would serve as arbiter between capital and labor, and between industry and consumers. For example, 1887 witnessed the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Designed to control the rates of railways, the ICC was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland as the very first independent regulatory agency in U.S. history. Its supervision of the railroads was nominal, at least initially. However, coming into the twentieth century, the powers of the ICC expanded.
In much the same way, the antitrust movement began as early as the presidency of Benjamin Harrison (1889-93). Yet, most of the legislation it generated was vague and effectively weak. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 typified all of the early federal antitrust legislation. Attorneys representing business interests often succeeded in overturning its apparent intent.
On September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz, an American-born anarchist, shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. In his book titled Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America, Eric Rauchway relates some of the events that unfolded after the president died and Czolgosz was quickly tried and executed. At least one renowned expert in the science of mental illness sought to determine what had caused Czolgosz to act. Dr. William Channing of Boston sent his assistant, Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, to determine what he could. Upon interviewing dozens of Czolgosz’s family members and associates, Briggs concluded that the assassin had been driven to murderous insanity partly by an environment of social and economic inequity. By contrast, upon reading the evidence that Briggs had gathered, Channing thought otherwise. He concluded that Czolgosz was indeed insane, but only in the sense that no sane person assassinates the President of the United States.
As Rauchway points out, the new president, Teddy Roosevelt, noticed these two conflicting interpretations and used them to great political advantage. At times, Roosevelt sided with Channing’s view, insisting that there were anarchists in the United States who were sane enough to unleash chaos. Therefore, it was imperative that political leaders should protect the social order from radical forms of dissent. At other times, the new president sided with the Briggs interpretation, arguing that the pathologies of the American social and economic order had pushed the assassin towards insanity. Therefore, political leaders had a mandate to use the power of government to make the United States a more humane and just society.
These compelling story lines did much to generate what has come to be known as the Progressive Era in American politics. From the turn of the century to the time of America’s involvement in the Great War, Presidents Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson served as the figureheads of a federal government that was intent on restoring moral values to political and economic life. For example, spurred by such works as Upton Sinclair’s best-selling novel The Jungle, in 1906 federal legislators passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first of many consumer protection laws introduced during the twentieth century. President Wilson advanced a central banking system with the introduction of a Federal Reserve Board, and the Clayton Antitrust Act closed some of the loopholes in its predecessor, the Sherman Act. At the time, there were signals that the federal government’s greater supervision and assistance would come at a greater cost. A would be defender must be strong. Thus, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1913, provided that Congress would have the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.” The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, also adopted in 1913, provides for the direct election of U.S. Senators.
Following the end of the Great War, presidential candidate Warren G. Harding's call for a return to “normalcy” struck a chord with millions of Americans. Campaigning in May 1920, Harding asserted, “The world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation, and that quantity of statutory enactment and excess of government offer no substitute for quality of citizenship.”
Harding's successor, pro-business President Calvin Coolidge, fairly bragged but was hardly exaggerating when he said, “If the Federal Government should go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time.” However, unregulated speculation in securities and an agricultural sector that was desperate to gain a share of America’s economic growth were looming.
The stock market crash of October 1929 and especially the wave of bank failures during the months that followed led to a near-complete economic and social collapse for the United States. What came to be called the Great Depression was accompanied by the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. Decades of soil erosion, combined with drought and high winds, turned the southern great plains into a veritable desert.
The desperation of the times and the weakness of the nation led some analysts to fear that America might be vulnerable to fascist demagoguery. The task of simply trying to survive consumed the time and attention most Americans. As the presidency of the unfortunate Herbert Hoover dragged on, millions of Americans stoically struggled through what they experienced as a shameful, guilt-ridden poverty.
In 1933, the newly-inaugurated president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, immediately responded to the crisis. He promised the American people “a New Deal,” and initiated drastic measures that only such drastic times would permit. On June 16, 1933, as President Roosevelt signed the last of the initial New Deal legislation, he remarked, “[M]ore history is being made today than in [any] one day of our national life.” He was likely right.
The New Deal, consistently promoted with all the power of Roosevelt’s winning personality and contagious confidence, aroused widespread hope in the American people. It was a welcome change. Speaking to Congress on June 8, 1934, Roosevelt pointed to an American past when a person’s family members were nearby, a time when families within a small community could provide security for each other. The emergence of a larger, more mobile society had changed all that:
The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it.At the time and ever since, observers and analysts have questioned the coherence, consistency, and real economic success of Roosevelt’s policies and programs. But for all its real or imagined failings, the New Deal was a tremendous political success. It eased the terrible effects of the Great Depression. Policy intellectuals were brought into the political arena, and Americans became familiar with the idea that their government employed millions of people. The presidency of Franklin Roosevelt changed everything. Its legacy was such that until 1980 all subsequent presidents, even Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, operated in a decidedly-liberal mode.
Nearing the end of the 1930s, the drumbeats of war in Europe, and an island nation with imperial dreams in the Pacific, required the U.S. to turn its attention outward. America’s involvement and eventual victory in the Second World War did much to rebuild the strength and solidify the authority of a nation that was by that time the world’s greatest economic and military power. In the wake of two world wars, the U.S. was now obsessed with national security. Yet, its obsession with real and imagined enemies directly related to its unfinished business at home. In the emerging Cold War, de facto apartheid in postwar America now provided the Soviet Union with plenty of material for its anti-U.S. propaganda machine. It was time for the nation to reckon with what Gary Gerstle has called “a conviction that notions of racial superiority no longer had a place in America.”
During and immediately after the Second World War, at least some blacks, mostly due to their military service, became more visible and significant to white America. With all due respect to black veterans, George Vecsey was correct when he wrote: “Every black politician, every black rap singer, every black athlete of today, every black citizen vaguely getting by, comes through Jackie Robinson.” Professional baseball’s popularity at mid-century meant that Robinson’s ascendancy to the major leagues in 1947 would be nothing short of a sea change in American society. Part of the credit for the Robinson story belongs to Albert B. (Happy) Chandler. A U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Chandler became the baseball commissioner in 1944. Not long afterward, he assured reporters that blacks would soon be welcome to play in the major leagues. Significantly, decades later, as he looked back on the late 1940s, Chandler recalled that he “didn’t think it was right for these fellows to fight at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and then come home and not be allowed to play.”
Professional baseball, still slow to change, was one thing. Ubiquitous public institutions were another. By all accounts, the legal breakthrough that led to dozens of other victories on the racial front in America was the 1954 Supreme Court’s ruling in the case known as Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown decision was ultimately the result of a campaign of litigation launched by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as early as the 1930s. The NAACP sought to abolish “Jim Crow” standards, according to which segregation in public accommodations and schools was legal. The opinion of the Court, penned by Chief Justice Earl Warren, exhibited a “brisk” and “nontechnical” style. The document ran to a mere ten pages, barely a note by Supreme Court standards. Above all, the Court’s ruling was unanimous, a rare occurrence. As James W. Ely Jr. describes the ripple effect of the ruling, the Court’s decision not only struck down “the historical practice of racial segregation in public education,” it thereby “opened a new chapter in the history of equality in America.”
Significantly, 1954 was not only the year of the Brown decision, it was also the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. became minister of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King’s leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by the activities of Rosa Parks in December 1955, catapulted him into the national spotlight. From that time until his assassination in 1968, his efforts as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which inspired allied groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the predominantly white Congress of Racial Equality, created both backlash and subsequent progress. Slowly but steadily the civil rights movement, essentially a prophetic religious movement, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two pieces of federal legislation were the most significant laws passed since the Civil War Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Good feelings did not last for long. Within a seven-year period, from 1968 to 1975, standing at the center of the world’s stage, the United States experienced devastating tragedy and humiliation both at home and abroad. Assassins took the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, broadcast on national TV, was surrounded by mayhem due to violent antiwar protests and a brutal police crackdown. Unrest due to lingering racial tensions and the anti-war movement generated countless demonstrations, protests, and riots. In 1973, American military forces withdrew from Vietnam under an agreement that brought about what President Nixon called “peace with honor.” The next year--only after it became apparent that evidence of corruption and deceit would eventually force him out of office--Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, an unprecedented disgrace. The following year, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to communist troops from North Vietnam, and its name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City. These developments forever changed the United States, and set the stage for the country's immediate future.
 Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “citizen,” accessed January 23, 2018, http://www.oed.com.lib-e2.lib.ttu.edu/view/Entry/33513.
 For a brief overview of the first wave of feminism, see Sara M. Evans, “American Women in the Twentieth Century,” in Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, ed. Harvard Sitkoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 166-67.
 David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18-19. For an evocation of how racism permeated American society in the early twentieth century, see Langston Hughes’s collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (New York: Knopf, 1934). Along the same line, Melton McLaurin describes small-town life in the American South during the 1940s and 1950s in his memoir, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
 Philip Jenkins, A History of the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 148. The story of Reconstruction as a short-lived success with freedmen as the central actors is told by Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988). Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967) described the transition from a United States characterized by “island communities”—small towns where personal relationships and face-to-face interactions were the norm—to a world in which the forces of industrialization and the growth of cities, fueled by massive immigration, impacted everything. Cf. Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States 1877-1919 (New York: Norton, 1987), esp., ix-xliv. Here, I have used the expression “woman suffrage” because that was the phrase people used until sometime around 1900, at which point the modifier “women” or “women’s” was becoming more common.
 Painter, Standing at Armageddon, x.
 See Jenkins, A History of the United States, 188-92; John F. Stover, “Railroads,” in Reader’s Companion to American History, ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 906-910.
 Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).
 Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954) discusses the sweeping reform legislation enacted by Congress from 1913 to 1917.
 Earlier in the same speech, Harding said: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” His presidential administration appears to have been a capitulation to an American political environment friendly to industry and cold to restriction and regulation. Jenkins, A History of the United States, 168.
 Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 30, quoting Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), 57.
 Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). In this work, one of the most significant early contributions to the still relatively-new sub discipline known as environmental history, Worster argues that it was no mere coincidence that the Dust Bowl and Depression occurred in the same decade. “Both events revealed fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of America, the one in ecological terms, the other in economic” (5). The same excessive pursuit according to which financial assets were expected to generate increasingly more money, also pushed industrialized farmers to treat nature itself as capital. Worster insists that this was the origin of the Dust Bowl. See also Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great America Dust Bowl (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Even in those areas hardest hit by the Dust Bowl—parts of six states running from southwest Nebraska to the Texas panhandle—most people stayed. Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, relates their misery and determination by telling the stories of several families.
 An entertaining and revealing primary source along this line is Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl and Depression memoir, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943).
 Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 153.
 Ibid., 245.
 See, for example, Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-40 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989). Nearing the end of the 1980s, Badger set out to provide a synthesis. His aim was not to tell, yet again, the story of the New Deal and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, he wanted to take stock of New Deal historiography, which had been growing at an exponential rate up to the time of writing. The arrangement of the book is thematic rather than chronological. Although Badger tends to assume that New Deal initiatives were the best among difficult options, he concludes with a chapter titled, “Unanticipated Consequences.” Though it is now dated, the 51-page bibliographical essay that rounds out the book is still helpful.
 See H. W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), who presents a full-scale biography of Franklin Roosevelt, a son of privilege who became a “traitor to his class” by appealing to and serving the interests of the American masses. Brands argues that while Roosevelt was not himself a radical, his presidency radically altered the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens. See also the splendid new work by Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century (New York: Basic Books, 2015), esp. 175-279.
 See Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), who persuasively argues that “federal government action on civil rights was an aspect of Cold War policymaking” (15).
 Gerstle, American Crucible, 237.
 George Vecsey, Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 119.
 Ibid., 120-21.
 Dennis J. Hutchinson, “Brown v. Board of Education,” 38.
James W. Ely Jr., “Introduction,” in Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, 2nd ed., eds. Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), vii.
 Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) assumes that the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. “is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” (xii). For obvious reasons, Branch also asserts that any biography of King must relate the story of the civil rights movement. He gives some attention to King’s predecessors, his family of origin, and his early years. However, this lengthy, engaging narrative, the first volume in a series of three, really takes off in 1954, when King became the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. It ends in 1963 with the March on Washington and, finally, the assassination of President Kennedy. Branch’s focus on King has drawn criticism from those who see the leadership of the civil rights movement through a wider lens. David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) persuasively argues that the civil rights movement was a new expression of the biblical prophetic tradition, and was not the result of American political or cultural liberalism, which, on the civil rights front, had been impotent for many years.