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Burns's sweeping vision illuminates US industrial era

By Joseph G. Harrison / September 24, 1985



The Workshop of Democracy, by James MacGregor Burns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 640 pp. $24.95. May we not logically divide the past 210 years of American independence into three distinct periods? The first, stretching from the American Revolution to the Civil War, was an era in which the new nation was getting its feet under it, so to speak, conquering new territory, testing its newfound freedom, slowly but surely determining the ideals under which it wished to live.

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The second epoch lasted from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression and the advent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. This was the period of the country's mammoth expansion of material power and its transformation from a basically simple to an extremely complex society.

The final span, some half-century in length, has been characterized by what we might call a maturing of America: the assumption of a role of world leadership, the establishment of a ``caring society,'' the diminution of racial and religious prejudices, and an increasing concern for the environment and the quality of life.

Professor Burns turned his attention to the first of these three periods in his much-praised work ``The Vineyard of Liberty.'' He now turns to the second epoch in ``The Workshop of Democracy.'' The title is well chosen, for in this massive work of some quarter-million words, the author demonstrates how, under the freedom of thought and action which popular democracy conferred, the United States developed that industrial and social life style that still captures the imagination of so much of the world. I t is doubtful if any other country -- even the Soviet Union -- has seen comparable change in virtually all aspects of human life.

As this study opens, America is emerging from its most profound moral crisis: the war to make all men free. As it ends, the country is plunged up to its neck in its gravest economic extremity: the Great Depression. In the intervening decades the US had quadrupled in population, swung from being a heavily rural to a predominantly urban and industrial society, become ``the Golden Shore'' to tens of millions of immigrants, had fought with Spain and in World War I, saw the heyday of capitalism, experienced determinative changes in its moral and social outlook, and so on.

The facets and facts of such enormous changes in a land so vast are enough to swamp any effort at historical perspective. Yet Professor Burns succeeds in being both comprehensive and readable. True, there is hardly anything strikingly new in his presentation, given the innumerable volumes which have dealt with these years. But few historians have integrated this crushing mass of material so well. Industrial progress is interwoven with social change; cultural innovation is presented against the backgroun d of the nation's emerging international role; religion and education are viewed in conjunction with ``the business mentality''; and so on. The author never forgets that life cannot be compartmentalized but must be viewed as an integrated whole.

Particularly valuable is Burns's treatment of ``the power of ideas'' and ``women: the progressive cadre,'' both subjects of immediate interest today. He is correct when he writes, ``The brilliant political leaders who attracted international attention during the Progressive era tended to obscure the remarkable array of women who emerged around the turn of the century, a group committed to an expansive view of women's social, economic, political, and sexual rights -- and to action.'' This chapter should be of particular import today, since following that female florescence in the first decade of this century, it seemed to diminish from World War I until well after World War II.

From almost every viewpoint, ``The Workshop of Democracy'' is a brilliantly written and highly recommendable study of a determinative age in the US.

Joseph Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.