239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
100
 | 
July 19, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

1912: A Year Supreme With Possibilities

‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ COULD HARDLY have picked a better time than 1912 to join the conversation about America. “Nineteen twelve,” said Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, “is a year supreme with possibilities.” That year marked the highpoint of a flurry of new social movements that had begun two decades earlier.

.

The ingenuity and growing industrial power of the United States had been on show at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The palaces of the White City symbolized the economic transformation of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” into a global industrial power that was prepared to extend its influence across the world. But on January 8, 1894, just three months after the fair closed, flames swept through the monuments in Jackson Park.

The roof of the Manufactures Building collapsed in a mass of molten glass. The eastern end of the Court of Honor was now a blackened heap. The Electricity Building went up in smoke, while thousands of bystanders watched a barrage of light that dwarfed the pyrotechnics that twenty-seven million visitors had come to the Fair the previous summer to see. “Athens has crumbled; the chief attraction of the White City has resolved itself into ashes.”

The neoclassical palaces had been grand, but they had been lies: they were constructed from plaster of Paris supported on shoddy wooden frames to project grandiosity at minimal cost. Such, too, was the country Americans of the era found themselves living in. By the time the fair ended, the Panic of 1893 was in full swing. The Pullman railroad car works had laid off more than eighty percent of its workers; the Illinois Steel Company went bankrupt, as did 350 banks. Farm prices plummeted. The national unemployment rate stood at twenty-five percent.

It was more than just a downturn: the very fabric of the American Dream was at stake. Middle-class Americans felt they had lost control of their lives to a few men named Morgan, Rockefeller, or Carnegie. Their fate was now determined largely by distant managers: impersonal forces they could neither see, nor understand, nor control. Meanwhile, they watched as conglomerates bought members of Congress and used federal power to enforce the status quo. When a strike against the Pullman Car Company reached Chicago in the summer of 1894, President Cleveland sent in federal troops to squash it. “Men became economic slaves,” wrote Benjamin Parke De Witt. “Slowly, Americans realized they were not free.”

Their response: a multifaceted approach to national reform that became known as the Progressive Movement. Settlement houses like Jane Addams’s Hull House sprang up to help solve the problems of the urban poor. Reformers enlisted the new sciences of statistics, economics, sociology, and psychology to investigate the laws that governed human behavior. Advocates of the Social Gospel lined up Protestant churches on the side of the poor. Muckraking journalists shaped a new social force — public opinion — by exposing the injustices of industrial capitalism. Progressive politicians fought the status quo by campaigning for government intervention in the laissez-faire economy on behalf of The People.

As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá crossed the country in 1912, the national debate around the Presidential election crystallized the forces of change that had been brimming for twenty years. Woodrow Wilson summed up the challenge facing the American people:

“Now this is nothing short of a new social age,” he said, “a new era of human relationships, a new stage-setting for the drama of life.”

ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Kathy Hogenson

    Well done!

    Kathryn Jewett Hogenson

  • Linasmithson

    I nterestingly written

  • Claudette

    We do indeed live in a day just like the one described above.
    What brings me solace during these times is a prayer by Baha’u'llah:
    “Dominion is God’s; the Lord of the seen and the unseen, the Lord of creation”.

  • Karridine

     …but I think of that Young Man who turned to Hand of the Cause Ruhiyyih Khanum in the mid-1930′s and told her, (paraphrasing) ‘The American system of government is corrupted. Swallow this, it may be bitter, but it is good medicine!’

    It seems very clear, when calmly surveying the governmental scene in America today, that there are, indeed, ‘supreme … possibilities’

    The extent of the shadows marks the reach of corruption, immoderation, hubris, arrogance and disdain for rule of law…  this year is a cross-roads, in very truth…

  • http://www.facebook.com/caitlin.s.jones Caitlin Shayda Jones

    I like what Woodrow Wilson said about it being “a new era of human relationships.” It seems that the relationships between individuals and the institutions of society have been in turmoil for (at least) the last hundred years. Many governments have promoted tyranny and control and in response individuals tend to protest, mistrust, and cheat. By 1912 it seems like there was much more accountability in America than before, and people relied on the government to make changes that would benefit all. I think now people are realizing that the government should be just, but change won’t come about through government action alone. There has been an upsurge of initiatives since 1912 aimed at bettering society, and many of them are on a global scale. 

    • Karridine

      I agree with Caitlin… our problems are only SECONDARILY legal or policy (political) problems. The humans who seek laws or government by law CANNOT PASS LAWS to force humans to be honest, forthright, compassionate, just or courteous… these are problems of the Human Spirit…

      So there are NO political solutions to these spiritual problems… and we see around us today blatant, obvious and frequent examples of people trying almost *everything* except investigation of and submission to the Will of God… as THAT would necessitate giving up some manipulative, selfish and egotistical habits and replacing them with humility, honor, decency, trustworthiness and justice…

      Still, humankind makes MATERIAL progress… I wholeheartedly endorse ‘Abundance’ by Peter Diamantis and Steven Kotler… the digital communication device which was publicly unveiled the very DAY of the beginning of this New Day (May 22-23, 1844) has created devices for the betterment of humankind’s ordered life, and ‘Abundance’ explores, documents and shares examples of the powerful, clean, healthy developments that are happening NOW, in many cases DESPITE antagonistic, ignorant or bankrupt ‘governments’…

  • http://www.facebook.com/estherbill Esther Bradley-deTally

    excellent piece!- I fb daily passing this on

  • Lena

    We have so many problems, and so many people fighting over how to solve these problems!  It’s exhausting.  What’s lacking in America is any kind of love and unity.  If we had that, I think this country’s problems could be solved much easier and quicker.  The lack of love and unity in America (and I mean the country in general, not the Baha’i community) is a problem ‘Abdu’l-Baha identified over a hundred years ago. 

  • Barbara Mclellan

    We absolutely live in an era fraught with so many problems, yet “supreme with possibilities”. We have all the instruments for world peace with the exception of an understanding of the importance of spiritual values and spiritual actions in our daily inner and outer lives.

  • Willobee

    Cling to truth, justice and love.  With a clear and firm vision the exciting experiment which is human consciousness and will shall eventually create new and fuller realities,

    • Karridine

       Truth, justice, courtesy… and love! Willobee, you speak a rushing torrent in but a few words… :D

  • pascal molineaux

    There is no doubt in my mind that we indeed live in such an age.  The challenges we face as a global community of nations are unprecedented and will testto the utmost our willlingeness to welcome change and live up to the exigencies of our time, in coming together and strive to overcome our ingrained prejudices.  Increasing income disparity, global climate change, increasing lawlesness in disfunctional countries, drug-related violence, all challenges that require a collective response.  On the other hand the potential of human civilization as greater than ever before as our knowledge and scientific understanding has so greatly increased.  As never before, the choice is ours, and the Teachings of Bahá’u'lláh are no doubt a great source of inspiration as we search for solutions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/janmcgrth Jan Mc Grath

    “It was more than just a downturn: the very fabric of the American Dream
    was at stake. Middle-class Americans felt they had lost control of their
    lives to a few men named Morgan, Rockefeller, or Carnegie. Their fate
    was now determined largely by distant managers: impersonal forces they
    could neither see, nor understand, nor control. Meanwhile, they watched
    as conglomerates bought members of Congress and used federal power to
    enforce the status quo.” That sound just like today………