The Search for Order, 1877-1920
Robert H. Wiebe, 1967

Robert Wiebe (1930-2000) was a historian of American Business who spent most of his career at Northwestern University. Wiebe began what was probably his most famous book with the declaration, “America during the nineteenth century was a society of island communities.” Wiebe’s argument (like that of many contemporary historians) depended on this prior condition. America had to be pre-commercial, traditional, and parochial in the nineteenth century, or it could not have
changed into the market-oriented, modern, cosmopolitan place it became. And without this change, there would have been no displacement and anxiety, and no middle-class search for order.  Ah, periodization.

It may seem like I’m being a little harsh. But I have serious reservations about not only what the author of this highly influential history said, but how he said it. I think this book can tell us a lot about how history used to be done
and should not be done anymore. Wiebe said of the late nineteenth century, “Small-town life was America’s norm in the mid-seventies.” Presumably this changed? But 60% of the American population was still rural in 1900. So, when and how did it change?

The issue for me isn’t only the antiquated, magisterial tone of the text, which seemed to say to the reader, “this is the way it was, because I say so.” It would be one thing if the author had been simply presenting uncontroversial facts in an excessively authoritative way. It’s something completely different to try to float an
interpretation on nothing but a claim to superior but unshared knowledge. For example, consider this paragraph:

Currency posed a knottier problem of morals, with greenbacks, the paper currency issued in quantity as a war measure, creating the major complication. Silver, too scarce, had been quietly demonetized in 1873. In the boom times before the panic [of 1873], greenbacks had offered some relief from an insufficient gold currency, some encouragement to expansionists little and big who feared deflation and tight credit. More important, gold was already acquiring a vague association with fat, parasitic bondholders. Nevertheless, the impulse to recapture fundamentals proved too strong, and throughout the countryside waverers selected currency with a feel and a ring that crinkly paper could never match. In 1875 Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act. Although it was a compromise in that it did not actually retire the greenbacks, the law still represented a moral commitment to currency that citizens could recognize as safe, sound, and honorable.

I think Wiebe was taking a big step, to argue that the money controversies of the 1870s were essentially a moral battle. It’s an interesting assertion and it would have been fascinating to see the point argued with evidence from political debates, newspapers, pamphlets, letters, etc. But Wiebe didn’t really support the claim. And the facts he did cite in the paragraph were problematic. Was silver really “too scarce?” Gold and silver had been discovered in the Comstock District of Nevada in 1859. Production peaked in 1877, when the Comstock mines produced $14 million in gold and $21 million in silver. And was the “Crime of 1873” a “quiet demonetization” of silver? It only seemed quiet because Wiebe said it was and the average reader doesn’t know any better. How often do we suspend our disbelief and trust the author, when we really shouldn’t?

Wiebe was vague to the point of misleading, about who exactly were the “expansionists little and big?” Country people who wanted the money supply expanded were generally farmers and small businessmen. Their interest was not ideological; they needed easier access to cash and credit in order to do business. Their fear was not a philosophical one. Deflation meant they couldn’t get a fair price for their products that reflected what they’d put into them, and tight credit meant financial embarrassment or bankruptcy. There was nothing vague about their association of gold with bondholders, who insisted on being paid in specie while everyone else was forced to deal in depreciating paper; or about their feelings regarding this. When Wiebe claimed country people were driven by an “impulse to recover fundamentals” or that they were motivated by their belief that gold coins felt more like money than “crinkly paper,” he was suggesting that they were either fanatics or fools. Again, this denigration of country people wasn’t a claim Wiebe supported with evidence. He just stated it as if it was a fact.

Finally, in presenting specie resumption as a “moral commitment” and a victory for “honorable” money, Wiebe was not only ignoring the large proportion of Americans who opposed resumption (or why was a compromise over greenbacks necessary?), but he was not even trying to get at the real issues that motivated people on both sides of the debate. He was just paraphrasing the political rhetoric the winning side used to rationalize its position and pretending their propaganda told the whole story of what really happened.

There’s probably much more to say, but I think I’ve captured the gist of my reaction to this book. I think Wiebe’s thesis that the changes of the Progressive Era were based partly on a middle-class search for rational principles of social order (or social control) was interesting and suggestive. Maybe my response to the book indicates a change in our (or maybe only my) standards of argument and evidence in history since 1967.  Wiebe did not
demonstrate anything, he didn’t cite any sources, and in a key section where he made a key cultural argument, he quoted a fictional character (Dr. Leete from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) more extensively than any real person.  Bellamy’s book is very interesting and has been on my “read someday” radar for a while now. It’s interesting that Wiebe apparently thought it was so influential that its characters were archetypes who could speak for nineteenth-century people. But I’d have been much more comfortable with that train of thought, if he would have showed some contemporary responses to the book, or even identified its popularity in terms of copies sold.