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The Struggle for America's Promise

Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital

Claire Goldstene

Publication Year: 2014

In The Struggle for America's Promise, Claire Goldstene seeks to untangle one of the enduring ideals in American history, that of economic opportunity. She explores the varied discourses about its meaning during the upheavals and corporate consolidations of the Gilded Age. Some proponents of equal opportunity seek to promote upward financial mobility by permitting more people to participate in the economic sphere thereby rewarding merit over inherited wealth. Others use opportunity as a mechanism to maintain economic inequality. This tension, embedded with the idea of equal opportunity itself and continually reaffirmed by immigrant populations, animated social dissent among urban workers while simultaneously serving efforts by business elites to counter such dissent.

Goldstene uses a biographical approach to focus on key figures along a spectrum of political belief as they struggled to reconcile the inherent contradictions of equal opportunity. She considers the efforts of Booker T. Washington in a post-Civil War South to ground opportunity in landownership as an attempt to confront the intersection of race and class. She also explores the determination of the Knights of Labor to define opportunity in terms of controlling one's own labor. She looks at the attempts by Samuel Gompers through the American Federation of Labor as well as by business elites through the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Civic Federation to shift the focus of opportunity to leisure and consumption. The Struggle for America's Promise also includes such radical figures as Edward Bellamy and Emma Goldman, who were more willing to step beyond the boundaries of the discourse about opportunity and question economic competition itself.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication, Quote

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Research and writing, though tasks that often demand solitude, are also pleasurably collaborative, and I am delighted to acknowledge the many people who assisted in the crafting of what follows. The numerous archivists and librarians who determinedly and good-naturedly...

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pp. xiii-2

Equal economic opportunity, what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “the charm of anticipated success,” is an idea essential to America’s national self-definition: an equal chance, a level playing field, a fair race.1 Upon reflection, however, equal opportunity is more complex...

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Chapter One: “This Haven of Equal Opportunity to All”

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pp. 3-20

To celebrate the nation’s centennial in 1876, Harper & Brothers Publishers compiled a series of essays to assess the country’s progress over the past one hundred years and to point the way toward the next one hundred. Written by well-known social commentators, whom the editors...

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Chapter Two: Equal Opportunity as Landownership

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pp. 21-44

As tensions mounted in the Northeast and Midwest between the expectations of upward mobility embedded in the promise of opportunity and concentrations of wealth amid the transition to an industrial economy that seemed to circumscribe that chance, similar tensions...

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Chapter Three: Equal Opportunity in Labor

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pp. 45-68

In a series of reports compiled by the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics that documented the daily life of industrial workers during the late nineteenth century one reads of a shoemaker with a wife and three young children, who earned $700 per year with $797 in expenses...

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Chapter Four: Anarchism and Equal Opportunity

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pp. 69-98

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” On May 1, 1886, thousands of workers gathered in Chicago, the nation’s industrial crossroads, to demand the eight-hour workday. Two days later, workers from the McCormick Harvesting Machine...

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Chapter Five: Equal Opportunity Remade I

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pp. 99-122

In his autobiography Samuel Gompers related fondly that his political and economic education began when as a teenager he worked alongside fellow cigar makers in New York’s Lower East Side and listened to coworkers read aloud from newspapers, magazines, and books. A...

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Chapter Six: Equal Opportunity Remade II

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pp. 123-152

In the midst of the contentious 1894 Pullman Strike, precipitated by a decision during yet another economic downturn to cut wages with no corresponding reduction in rents for company housing, the Chicago Civic Federation, founded the previous year, offered to mediate...

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Chapter Seven: Edward Bellamy and the Reimagining of Equal Opportunity

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pp. 153-182

In 1887, Julian West, a wealthy Boston businessman and the protagonist of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 bestselling novel Looking Backward, falls into a hypnotic slumber in a sound- and fireproof chamber in the lower level of his home to alleviate his chronic insomnia. Shortly after, West’s...


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pp. 183-228


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pp. 229-242


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pp. 243-248

E-ISBN-13: 9781626740242
E-ISBN-10: 1626740240
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617039898
Print-ISBN-10: 1617039896

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 863854654
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Struggle for America's Promise

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Economic conditions -- 1865-1918.
  • Income distribution -- United States -- History.
  • Wealth -- United States -- History.
  • Opportunity -- Economic aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Labor movement -- United States -- History.
  • Industrial relations -- United States -- History.
  • Washington, Booker T., 1856-1915.
  • Gompers, Samuel, 1850-1924.
  • Goldman, Emma, 1869-1940.
  • Bellamy, Edward, 1850-1898.
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