19th century comparison with the 2020s | In Focus

Why do we need to know history? Because it’s cyclical.

If you have been watching the news about the state of the U.S. over that past 6-8 years, you might be worried.

But if you go back to the 19th century, you would find strong similarities between the issues of that century and those of the 21st century. Making such a comparison provides a deeper understanding of current events.

Christian nationalism: In the early 19th century, most Christians saw themselves as ancient Israel and Native Americans as Canaanites. North America was the “Promised Land” God had given whites this continent while the Indians were pagans who needed to be obliterated or driven from the land onto reservations. The whole concept of Manifest Destiny was based upon the superiority of the white race over the “inferior” races and America’s clear future of controlling the whole continent.

To reach future U.S. dominance, President Polk provoked a war against newly independent Mexico, invaded its country, and ended up taking half of their nation in a bloody two-year war between 1846-1848.

Slavery and racism: Not only did most Americans view Native Americans and Mexicans as lesser peoples, three million Blacks were enslaved, working under horrible conditions in the South. Rapes and sexual harassment were common. Male slave owners and their sons frequently had sex and produced children by their female slaves. Beatings and abuse were part of the slave culture. Eventually the survival of the nation was put to the test between 1861-1865 by a costly and damaging civil war that killed at least 650,000 people and destroyed the productivity of the South for several generations.

Big Business domination: After the Civil War, millions of acres of land were given to the railroads to build transcontinental rails to link the East with the West. To build those railroads, immigrants from Ireland and China were hired. Later, Chinese were abused, persecuted and banned from becoming U.S. citizens. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which treated Chinese as second-class citizens and largely ended further Asian immigration. In California and even in Washington Territory, Chinese were persecuted, killed and driven from their homes in places like Seattle.

Robber Barons like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan bought members of Congress with the millions of dollars they had made during the era of the Industrial Revolution.

The government’s view toward labor unions was that they were wicked, and made up of mainly low-class immigrants. The philosophy that government held toward business was that of laissez faire — government keeping hands off business — except when the government stepped in, using the U.S. military to break up strikes. It was a bloody and violent time for laborers.

Workdays were 10-12 hours/day six days per week. Many workers lived in company towns, owned by their company. If they complained about their wages or their working conditions, they might not only lose their jobs, but also their homes. There was no health care and no retirement, but that wasn’t as important as it is now because few people lived into their sixties or seventies due to unsafe working conditions and diseases.

Segregation of the races: Jim Crow laws were passed in the South after the Civil War, and the races were segregated. Train cars and terminals, restrooms, restaurants, and even drinking fountains were segregated with “Whites Only” signs. Schools were segregated. Whites went to their schools while Blacks had to attend their far inferior schools. These conditions continued into the 1960s and 1970s. Thousands of Blacks were hanged for demanding their rights or for something as simple as looking at a white woman. They needed to “stay in their place”.

Banking: There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that protected bank customers from losing all their savings. Bank failures were a common occurrence in the 19th century and early 20th centuries. My grandfather lived through both the 1893-1897 Depression and the Great Depression of the 1930s. He felt the Depression of the 1890s was far worse than the Great Depression.

The conditions of women: As a result of what we now call domestic violence, 19th century white Christian women rose up to demand both an end to the manufacture and sale of alcohol — and to gain the right to vote. Those demands were not granted until the early 20th century. Birth control was either non-existent or banned. Death due to pregnancy or disease was common. There were no medicines that we have today and few vaccines.

I could continue, but the comparison between the two centuries makes it clear how far we have come since the 19th century, and how far we need to go. Things always seem bad until we see how life was before. Contrasts make us smarter and give us perspective.

Richard Elfers is a columnist, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.