Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893. – Review

Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893. – Review – book review

Gene Clayton

Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893. By Douglas Steeples and David O. Whitten. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 261. $59.95.)

The authors of this volume tell us this study was written “to fill” a critical void: the lack of any “adequate account of the causes” of the 1890s depression and the crisis precipitated by that economic debacle. Douglas Steeples and David O. Whitten are both editors of Business Library Review the former is a historian and the latter is an economist. Despite these disparate academic backgrounds, the study hangs together well. By means of judicious probing, primarily of secondary sources, Steeples and Whitten have in fact produced an intelligent synthesis that rises above that variety of academic partisanship once denigrated in some scholarly circles as the frame of reference of the “Harvard Business School.”

Central to the authors’ interpretation is Henry Steele Commager’s well-known conclusion of nearly half a century ago that the decade of the 1890s was “the watershed of American history.” Their focus, however, is primarily on the years 1893-1897, the panic and depression years, to make the case for it having been that kind of seminal divide. One chapter, entitled “Prologue to Panic,” lays out the broad outlines of changes that took place within American society between the Civil War and 1893. The transformation of the economy, as we know, was nothing short of spectacular. What is missing from the discussion is a full explanation of how fundamentally challenged many of these changes were to the received culture deeply rooted in a preindustrial, agrarian society.

Subsequent chapters give the reader a good insight into the financial panic of 1893 and the depression that lasted until 1897. That discussion is followed by a consideration of the recovery. All this is prior to a discussion of “the social, intellectual, and political consequences” engendered thereby. The strength of the study is to be found in the chapters that comprise the second half of the book. This reviewer deems especially noteworthy one entitled “Social Repercussions,” another called “Contemporary Reactions,” and a third, entitled “Economic Crisis and Culture.”

On the negative side, the authors fall into a common language trap: using the word “inflationary” when counter- deflationary or reflationary would be more accurate. At one point the reader is told that “as late as 1860, 60 percent of the population had agrarian ties” Surely, 1890 was the intended date. Surprisingly, the authors have not consulted a few of the more pertinent secondary studies, even on the conservative financial reform movement of the 1890s. An unpublished dissertation by Lawrence Stark, which treats banking and monetary reform during the Populist and Progressive years, would have been helpful. Steeples and Whitten have also overlooked several key studies on the subject of the money question and Populism. Like many others, they have accepted uncritically the old story about the author of The Wizard of Oz being a supporter of William Jennings Bryan and bimetallism during the 1896 campaign. The most important oversight, however, pertains to their failure even to touch on the great debate question that culminated the decade and ushered in the new century–ironically, one that undoubtedly played a crucial role in fashioning Commager’s judgment about the decade being “the watershed in American history”–the debate over America’s emergence as an imperialistic nation. Withal, this is an impressive study and a significant contribution to our understanding of a vital, but still poorly understood, period in American history.

Gene Clayton

Washington State University

COPYRIGHT 2000 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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