Jackson Lears on Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America 1877-1920

Aired: September 25, 2010
Award-winning author and historian Jackson Lears discusses the profound changes affecting the United States in the tumultuous half-century between the end of Reconstruction and World War I, as explored in his book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. In this interview, Lears argues that this era was characterized by an intense yearning for renewal, which fundamentally shaped the development of a modern American nation. From beneficial social change such as the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and labor laws to American imperialism and eugenics, Lears astutely explores the relationship between a culture of rebirth, militarism, morality, and foreign conquest.

America’s Republican ideals came into question during its emergence as an incipient world power at the turn of the 20th century, an age of unprecedented foreign expansion. Exploring the sense of renewal central to U.S. policy abroad by citing the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, Lears explicates the commercial and capitalistic motives that were at the heart of American growth.

The year 1877 saw not only the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, but also began an important movement toward reconciliation for a reunified United States. However, “the resolution of cultural and racial anxieties” (as Lears terms the problem) offered accord not between Whites and Blacks, but between white Northerners and white Southerners. In this clip, Lears discusses the persistent and ingrained racist ideology that permeated the post-Civil War era, producing the notion of “the white man’s burden”.

In this segment, Lears discusses the progressive social contributions that were a product of this era’s yearning for renewal and reinvention. He explains how the secularization of Protestant ethics influenced the creation of revolutionary government institutions and policies, eventually leading to such wide-ranging changes as women’s suffrage and an 8-hour workday.


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