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AS THE HOLDER OF THE HIGHEST POLITICAL OFFICE in the land, President Grover Cleveland gained due praise for his integrity, honesty, and a commitment for self-reliance. He struggled mightily against political corruption in an era where it was all too prevalent. He was liked across party lines. Yet his pro-business stance sustained a system where the free market found little to inhibit it. The increasing pressure to reform capitalism before it consumed the social wealth of the nation went largely ignored by Cleveland.  At one point he said, “The factory is the temple and the workers worship at the temple.”  The economy took a severe downturn by the end of his term.

The period just prior to the end of the 1800s also felt massive migrations from the country into the city as the manufacturing industry successfully shifted the nation’s economic system from agrarian to urban. Many became dislocated in the process and the cry was continually raised by millions for a more receptive federal government that put an emphasis on some kind of social/economic compact that would respect the importance of cities.

And then something remarkable happened. Between 1880 and 1910, a civil society movement grew out of the subtle rebellion that changed and humanized almost every level of American society. As the government grew remote and the free market became the dominant force, and explosion of some of the nation’s great civic institutions erupted that would eventually modify capitalism itself and prepare it for years of unprecedented growth and success. Founded in that period, they line up as a “Whos-Who” of citizen organizations:

  • Red Cross
  • YWCA
  • Boy Scouts
  • Urban League
  • Labour unions
  • Parent-teacher associations
  • Rotary Clubs
  • Legions
  • Knights of Columbus
  • Sierra Club

Soon enough municipal charters were developed by citizen groups that oversaw the supply of transportation, water, gas, and electricity. Christian organizations joined together to fight for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Numerous groups joined forces to fight promote labour laws and to strive for an 8-hour workday.

There had been a social capital deficit in America created by great economic and technological change aided and abetted by a government that refused to consider the fallout of such dislocation. When the political powers refused to listen concerning the growth of poverty, the lack of equality, and the ignoring of communities, it was citizens and not their corporations or governments that pushed back. Great reformers like Jane Adams pressed for political action to alleviate the direct conditions that cities were facing.

The result of all these efforts was nothing less than transforming. Most understood the importance of capitalism and markets, just not at the expense of people and hope, and they worked to develop a more balanced system between the free market and the freedom of opportunity for citizens. They worked with government over three decades rather than abandoning it. And from those efforts came the Federal Reserve Bank, regulation of food and drugs, the establishment of the Department of Labour, the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, and the preservation of more than 170 million acres of land through a vast network of national parks.

Virtually all of the groups mentioned above sought for balance, not dominance, and their efforts were ultimately rewarded a short while later in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Capitalism, reminded of its responsibility to the communities in which it functioned, nevertheless was unleashed in ways unimaginable three decades earlier, rewarding citizens with decades of unprecedented wealth.  And civil society, rooted as it was in local communities, brought citizenship to entirely new levels.

Canada followed a similar, though not as diversified, course, but the results were equally remarkable. The free market generated wealth and employment, and civil society produced people of value, industriousness, education, health, and responsibility. It was the beginning of the remarkable age that unleashed the creativity and dedication of citizens and businesses.

The parallels with our own times hardly need to be raised at this point. We are a people struggling with how to bring that balance of economy and humanity back into alignment. And it leads us to wonder whether we can do it again, whether we can pull ourselves out of our disillusionment with all the prevalent powers that march to a drummer not our own?

Andy Warhol observed that people, “Always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Perhaps it’s time we put that to the test – again.