Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

End of Semester Thoughts on the Idea of Progress in History

Dear HIS 1000 students,

Thank you all for what has been an interesting and challenging semester. I realize this semester has been a particularly challenging one, not only in terms of the individual challenges many of you have been experiencing in terms of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on your lives and those of your families, but in terms of your adjustment to college life and the expectations of a college course, which many of you are balancing with work and family obligations.

On top of that, the shift from remote to in-person was quite disruptive (although I believe, ultimately beneficial) and the fact that we were all masked during the semester made it harder for me to lecture and had the unfortunate side effect of making it harder for me to get to know you! That said, I want to thank you for your cooperation in sticking to the vaccine and mask mandates, which made our class meetings much safer.

I wanted to leave you with a few words that I hope you will take with you, and remember when confronting your own personal struggles as well as the ongoing struggle against injustice. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’ve been struck over the semester by what I perceive as the pessimism, even cynicism, you’ve expressed at times in class and in some of your writing. To be clear, I think that these are perfectly reasonable responses to reading and learning about some of the aspects of our history we’ve discussed this semester, such as slavery, racial violence and terror, male domination and gendered oppression, religious intolerance, economic and environmental catastrophe, and war—aspects which, for some of you, may have been quite new, and quite disturbing to read about.

But I want to stress that, while some of these phenomena have taken on uniquely American forms, and while they perhaps appear more starkly hypocritical in the light of our country’s historically unique claim to be founded on promises of equality and democracy, none of them are particularly unique to the United States. Rather, the sad reality is that slavery, racism, intolerance, oppression, greed, and war have appeared in different forms in different societies around the world, throughout the course of human history.

When discussing the concept of progress in human history, I often quote Martin Luther King, Jr. to the effect that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In other words, progress does occur over long periods of time, but our limited perspectives make it difficult to see, much like the earth’s horizon appears flat unless viewed from a great height, at which point its curvature becomes clear. King himself may be have been inspired by Theodore Parker, a nineteenth-century minister and abolitionist who expressed a similar idea in a sermon published in 1853.[1]

But as I mentioned before the Final yesterday, I thought a quote from another abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, might be more appropriate for this semester. In a speech given on August 3, 1857, commemorating the anniversary of slave emancipation in the West Indies, Douglass said:

“The whole history of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been borne of earnest struggle… If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Douglass knew of what he spoke, and I hope you will bear his quote in mind as you go forward in life and confront your own personal struggles, as well as the never-ending struggle against various forms of oppression and injustice.

One more quote, since I couldn’t resist adding this from bell hooks, a trailblazing Black feminist and scholar who passed away yesterday (she famously did not capitalize her name, so that rendering is not a mistake):

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”[2]

I can’t think of a better quote that more succinctly states the dangers of succumbing to cynicism, even when faith in progress is difficult to sustain in the light of historical evidence to the contrary.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1850s

[1] Theodore Parker, Ten Sermons by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1853), 84–85. King’s quote is from a speech made at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1968, just a few days before his death.

[2] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003), xiv.

The Many Causes of the Great Depression and the “Unknowables” of Economic History

Like all great events in history, the Great Depression that began with the stock market crash of October, 1929 had many causes. Unlike many events in history, the causes of the Depression are quite difficult to understand, and there is no single consensus, even among economic historians, about what caused it or how to avoid similar crises in the future.

Perhaps this is because of the uniquely complex nature of capitalist economies in a globalized world. Ordinary people, including many historians, avoid the study of economics or economic history because of a feeling that it is beyond the comprehension of non-specialists. Many people seem to believe that elected officials, like the President, have a near-magical power to control things like unemployment levels or the price of gasoline. At the opposite extreme, professional economists often seem attached to ideologies, or to the idea that market forces, which are subject to inherently irrational aspects of human psychology and behavior, can be explained and predicted with scientific precision.

I’m posting the following link to an article from Business Insider, which does a fairly good overview explaining some of the causes and significance of the Great Depression and New Deal, in response to your questions about this topic (among the causes it suggests are over-speculation, overproduction and underconsumption, the Smoot-Hawley tariff, and, yes, mistakes by the Federal Reserve). But I’m also posting it because I’d like you to see that even such a complex web of interconnected and contested historical causes—even when they concern a topic as complex, and sometimes frankly boring, as economics—are not beyond the comprehension of the average educated person.

The article also briefly attempts to assess the effects of the New Deal. In class I asked you to consider how the New Deal Era represented, not only a stark departure from the idea that government should play little or no role in regulating the economy, but as part of an expansion of ideas about democracy, i.e., , that vast inequalities of wealth distort our country’s democracy as well as its economic health, and that people have a right to a certain degree of economic security . Roosevelt outlined the former view in his “Four Freedoms,” which included “freedom from want” as well as more traditional, individual rights like freedom of speech and worship. But in fact these ideas have a much longer lineage, going back to the republican idea of the res publica or “commonwealth,” as well as the Constitution’s assertion that government has a responsibility to “promote the general welfare.”

Recently, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which pledges $550 billion to rebuild bridges, tunnels, and highways, improve the electrical grid and internet access, clean up polluted sites and replace lead pipes, and etc. Observers, including Pres. Biden himself, have compared this bill, along with the not-yet-passed Build Back Better bill, to the investments in infrastructure and public works programs of the New Deal Era. But it is not yet clear whether it will have the same effect—for one thing, the nature of the economy is vastly different from what it was 70 years ago. Pres. Trump also promised to build infrastructure and bring back manufacturing, but, aside from the Border Wall, seemed to be short on specifics.

One of my goals with the class this semester has been to de-mystify the subject of economic history in general, and the history of capitalism in particular. Like many topics this semester, we have not been able to cover this in as much depth or detail as I would have liked. But, perhaps especially as Baruch College students, many of whom will go into business, marketing, or finance, I think it’s important that you try to grapple with the complexities of the economic systems that have shaped our contemporary world. I would also argue that, as citizens in a democratic society, we have a responsibility to try to understand economics and a right to have a say in the economic decisions that affect all of our lives, and not just leave them to the politicians and specialists who claim to know all.

Blog Post #4

The fourth chapter, “Reflation and Relief,” details President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s accession to the presidency and the role he played in regenerating a broken America. FDR has been portrayed as a progressive, ‘for the people’ president, with infrastructure named after him, such as the FDR free highway that passes through Harlem, providing access to an alternate route to a tolled road. 


The reading in this case has supported the portrayal as it mentions the economical growth of “ averaged rates of around 8 to 10 percent a year” (Rauchway 1) which can be a correlation towards FDRs efforts like The New Deal in which allowed for unemployment to dramatically fall from as Rauchway states it as “its unconscionable 1932 peak” (Rauchway 1) in which the Great Depression hit the economic struggle the hardest. The Emergency Banking Act was one of the initial steps toward economic recovery, and it worked as it allowed banks to close and provide accessible money. Unlike other politicians, he spoke to the people and explained his decision via radio, an accessible communicative resource, and made it a habit to it, as he created “”fireside chats” in which he explained how the banks worked, what he had done” (Rauchway 2), allowing people to not be startled but also to fully comprehend. This gesture reveals FDR’s true connection and caring for American citizens since he decided to be a communicative leader rather than merely dictate the order without complete knowledge to a common American.


Corollary, FDR authorized federal economic assistance to states through the passage of the Federal Emergency Relief Act, which authorized “grants, rather than loans, to the states to support relief.” ((Rauchway 6) which allowed for the “sum amounted to an extraordinary 5.9 percent of the American economy’s overall size that year.”(Rauchway 6)  FDR’s accomplishment in reviving the economy and enacting legislation to prevent another Depression can be viewed as a progressive contribution to American society. Due to FDR’s judgments and actions, as indicated in the reading, enable for the picture of a great president to be drawn as he aided the economy as well as the financial state of many afflicted citizens.

Blog Post #4

  In Chapter 4 of “Reflation and Relief,” the author Rauchway explains what President Roosevelt and The United States had to do to prepare for The Great Depression. Roosevelt’s goal was to get the country out of this depression. He began to “repair finance, agriculture, and manufacturing, though he would give less attention to overseas economics affairs.” He created the “New Deal”, which gave the people a ‘fresh start’. The new deal was a success, administration offices got money and credit for the country. Banks were closed because Americans didn’t have money, as they didn’t have jobs. So, They were not spending money or using credit. But eventually, banks began to reopen and the country was improving.  Capitalism was going to be saved because of President Roosevelt. In 1935, the banking act occurred. Federal Reserve Systems appointed governors. But the government was afraid that President Roosevelt’s plan was going to fail, and the country was going to be in-depth again. They didn’t want to owe money to anyone and had to borrow money from other countries. They also didn’t want to raise products. This reading shows how ‘history repeats itself. America has always been a Capitalist country. They need citizens or people to have jobs, to make money, in order to get back money to the country. After the pandemic, products from all businesses were raised after they lost money for over a year and people were getting stimulus checks. The article also states how “… Roosevelt administration did more than its predecessor to revive American banking, and its efforts evidently succeeded. But the New Deal’s financial policies—however plainly Roosevelt explained them over the radio—dealt with matters far removed from ordinary Americans’ experience.” This piece of evidence shows how President Theodore Roosevelt took actions into his own hands during this time and also wanted the people to remain calm. Overall, I think President Roosevelt did a great job saving the country from a financial Depression.

Final Blog Post

“Relation and Relief” by Ruchway details the Great Depression and how the United States managed to get itself out of it. He says the economic policies that President Roosevelt proposed help get the U.S. back on its feet after the depression. Roosevelt polices mirrored his political stance as an isolationist. He didn’t really put any focus on the world outside  of America and overseas trade but instead focused on rebuilding the country. One of the first policies he enacted was the New Deal which was an amalgamation of new policies for banks that would help restore the financial status of America. This included putting a safeguard and new constraints on the banking industry to re-inflate the economy.

Roosevelts plans to dig the country out of this hole turned out to do very well and Ruchway credits him as someone who was not only able to put an end to the depression but also put in failsafe’s to ensure that another financial crisis like the great depression would not happen again. Some of this is due to the Civilian Conservation Corps that would go on to provide many jobs to men across America.

The mot interesting thing about this is not so much the specific matters that it discusses but instead the overall picture. The fact that the Great Depression is something that actually happened in society and had to be dealt with was fascinating. And I wonder if coming out of an era where you have to cherish every cent you can find had any part in furthering the role of the U.S. being a very capitalistic country. Of course America was already capitalistic but I can imagine how much more money and people with money were valued or praised.


Blog Post #4

Within the post war period, American businesses sought out creative advertising  tactics to boost their sales and profits and in turn, America’s then, rehabilitating economy. Lizbeth Cohen in “Culture: Segmenting the Mass” (from her book The Consumers’ Republic) discusses and elaborates on this, stating that  the notion of a “… unified, often referred to as  the “middle-class,” market where the mass consumers shared a consistent set of tastes and desires”(Cohen, 295), was abandoned and instead replaced with the marketing strategy of  Market Segmentation that catered products to the general populace of American  consumers based on their notable social and class differences, in which, ultimately affected their economic interests. This strategy was effective in its task to provide improved and stable profits as it allowed for an expansive range of products to sell. Case in point, being, the family owned cosmetic company, Estee Lauder’s, move to segment their market geared towards men through the introduction of a male line of Aramis toiletries around 1965 that brought them plenty of profit on top of what they were already gaining from cosmetic products for women (Cohen, 296). Specified marketing has now become an integral aspect in the maintaining of the American economy, with it extending into today’s world. The rise of technology brings about new digital inventions such as social media in which, among many other purposes, serves the mass consumption of products and content under our modern economy. Platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok through their use of analytic programs to gather general data on the age, race and gender demographics of their users are able to accurately speculate and determine the content and products  their users are likely to engage with. Such a system generates a constant cycle of mass consumption that either boosts or depletes our economy, depending on whether the outcome of such cycles have to deal with overproduction, (too much supply and little to no demand) or not.

“Culture: Segmenting the Mass” from A Consumers’ Republic by Elizabeth Cohen

In “Culture: Segmenting the Mass” from her book A Consumers’ Republic, Elizabeth Cohen sheds light on the changes of American consumerism after World War II. Prior to the war, no American was fixated on obtaining the newest car model or the newest dress design in the market. Americans were more economically orientated towards just having a dress or a car no matter what it looked like. There was no sense of materialism present. However, the post-war market would give way to obsolescence: the constant “need” to update and modernize. War-time had provided more employment opportunities and thus more money into the pockets of Americans who were now willing to splurge. Cohen begins by explaining the concerns of market analysists and economists such as Wendell Smith (Cohen 295). Although it was great that the economy was booming as a result of this consumerism, how would it be maintained once consumers purchase everything? In addition to this, more markets and producers had come about to supply the growing demand. If more competition was present, how would everyone make a profit? Wouldn’t there be too much supply for the demand? Cohen proceeds to explain how these concerns led to the development of market segmentation. Market segmentation is the concept of appealing to specific smaller groups as opposed to the entire consumerist market. This tactic proved to be efficient in several ways. For example, some products were known for targeting one specific market such as Coors Light and other breweries and liquor companies who mostly targeted men with their advertisement. However, they proceeded to advertise and target other nontypical markets such as women and African Americans to increase their profits (Cohen 297). I think it is interesting to see how the post-World War II consumerism market is similar to our market today and how it has become extremely segmented. In today’s market, you have companies who make products specifically for people with curly hair or sensitive skin. This development is something I can say that I am extremely grateful for considering I’m a consumer who is extremely picky when it comes to purchasing products. I know that if market segmentation didn’t occur and all we had was a Dove soap bar as a shampoo, conditioner, and facial wash, I wouldn’t survive a day in the world.

Blog Post #4 – Great Depression and New Deal


Eric Rauchway’s “Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction” touches on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s agenda to rebuild the American economy due to the Great Depression and the previous president Herbert Hoover’s failure to take a better stance on the economic recession.  Rauchway essentially expresses how this incident made Americans realize that the system in place did not work, and did not fully take into account all Americans. 


I thought this reading was pretty interesting and it raised my interest in how past events in some way, reoccur again.  I related the Great Depression, Hoover, Roosevelt, and the New Deal to the previous election with Trump and Biden.  At the beginning of the COVID – 19 pandemic Trump did not really put much concern or emphasis on how bad COVID – 19 actually was.  This is similar to Herbert Hoover’s downfall in which he followed laissez-faire and thought that the economy would improve on its own.  We see how in both cases, not taking on the problem directly and either ignoring or disregarding it inevitably made the problem worse.  Once Roosevelt and Biden took office their main goals were to take action immediately on the things that weren’t done.  This is why I think both Roosevelt and Biden won their elections.


From the reading, what really caught my interest was the Works Progress Administration.  Despite what the “A1939 Institute of Public Opinion poll” that Rauchway mentions, about “the worst thing the Roosevelt Administration has done,” (Rauchway, 2008).  I felt that the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was the most useful if it had been implemented correctly.  From the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act in 1935, the PWA was created. With the unemployment rate being close to 25% when Roosevelt stepped into office, creating jobs I think, was very important.  Without jobs, people were not spending money or using credit and this affected the banks. With no income, people couldn’t afford to keep their houses which brought the homeless rate up, and things like Hooverville were created, and ultimately deflation occurred.  As Rauchway states, “With WPA, Hopkins once more hired millions, and put them to work building hospitals, schools, playgrounds, and airports.” (Rauchway, 2008).  This led to a large number of buildings and facilities be created that we still use today.  The WPA was created as a quick method to reduce the unemployment rate, despite hiring mainly unskilled workers and “mild political corruption” (Rauchway, 2008), which led to overpriced projects. I think that this was a great idea.  I wonder if the WPA had been correctly implemented, and political corruption did not occur, what would be the outcome, and would that 23% of Americans have a change in opinion about the WPA?


Blog post #4

In the reading of chapter 4 “Reflation and Relief” by Rauchway explains how the economic affairs affected the U.S so the Great Depression came back from being manipulated a couple of times.Frank Delano Roosevelt is the thirty-second president of the United States and he was a good and bad president. The reason why he was a good president was because he has helped many unemployed workers to have jobs again since banks,farms,factories and trade had all failed. In the reading, it says “Frank Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office as a president for the first time on March 4, 1933, every moving part in the machinery of the American economy had evidently broken .” Page 1. Since Roosevelt would give less attention to economic affairs but would try to fix finance, agricultural, and manufacturing, he wouldn’t get anything specific out of it. Since everything was about money, Roosevelt had discretion and manipulated banks for money. “The new deal government frankly and fully entered the business of hiring the American people to end the Great Depression” page 7. This gave Americans hope to get a job instead of unemployed. Another reason how Roosevelt was a good president was because “Roosevelt meant WPA to hire as many people as quickly as possible to reduce unemployment as much as possible” page 7. This quote explains how he wanted many unemployed people to quickly start working again since many people didn’t have money for their families. But at the same time he would take away their jobs to convert new things for money. A lot of people say the things that Roosevelt has done was the worst because even though he was president, he had so much power which he abused political power. Overall Roosevelt has accomplished and hasn’t accomplished many things throughout the Great Depression.

Blog Post #4

The very short introduction, “Reflation and Relief” in chapter 4, written by Rauchway E. revolves around the influential events surrounding the Great Depression. More specifically, this chapter explains the actions former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made during his term to combat the gravity of what was happening in the American economy. To begin, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office as President for the first time on March 4, 1933” and immediately after “every moving part in the machinery of the American economy had evidently broken, Banks, farms, factories, and trade had all failed” (pg.1). Since the Great depression left the economy in turmoil, he had no choice but to act to repair it as soon as possible. On page 1 of the chapter, it says “Roosevelt right away began working to repair finance, agriculture, and manufacturing, though he would give less attention to overseas economic affairs”. Some may argue that this strategy lacked concern for other factors such as Isaiah Berlin, a British Philosopher, who says that Roosevelt’s “great social experiment was conducted with an isolationist disregard of the outside world” (pg.1). Although Roosevelt was acting for what needed to be done, he was ignoring foreign affairs and not interacting with other countries with is incredibly important when maintaining alliances to promote peace. Rauchway’s perspective on this “new deal” that Roosevelt makes is not as effective as it should have been and that it was more of an “experiment”. The new deal did result in some change for the economy and progress from where it was, to begin with. Citizens were eager to support Roosevelt after “unemployment fell dramatically…[and] the American economy grew at averaged rates of around 8 to 10 percent” (pg.1).  The bank holiday is another one of his achievements that helped raise the country from its concerning state. Roosevelt also dealt with the American currency by issuing “an executive order preventing Americans from holding gold, except in small amounts” (pg.5). Not to mention he also made anyone that had gold in their possession turn it into Federal Reserve Banks in exchange for another currency. People viewed this as a strategic move to prevent any conflict in congress and provided the solution himself instead of needing approval from congress.

Overall, this reading did teach me a few things about Roosevelt I didn’t already know. Previously, I knew how important he was because of the context surrounding his presidency and all the major steps he took while in his term, but this chapter went into details on acts and the new deal itself. It demonstrated how some people may have admired Roosevelt for how much change he brought with him in this country, yet others questioned him and his ideals. It is always right to question the intentions of our presidents because they hold so much power over us, but it’s also important to educate ourselves to understand what is really going on in our country and how it affects us.