The Good Old Days Weren’t So Good
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: [February 17th, 2003]

When we survey the contemporary American scene, darkened by violence, ignorance, poverty, corruption, and incivility, we may suspect that the prophets of doom are right.  The end must be nigh.


“Prostitution in the United States was so pandemic after the Civil War that in several cities officials talked seriously of legalizing it.”

Before we light out for the hills or, like Hamlet, whip out a bare bodkin, we might recall that America was never the idyllic New Eden ballyhooed by nostalgic patriots.  As a little stroll down memory lane shows, the balmy days of yore were actually pretty blustery.


First, politicians. They have never been squeaky clean.


“In all the frauds and tricks that go to make up the worst form of practical politics,” says Richard Shenkman in Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History, “the men who founded our state and national government were always our equals, and often our masters.”


In Pennsylvania, to get a quorum to approve a measure to ratify the Constitution, federalist legislators dragged anti-federalists out of taverns to the statehouse and then locked the doors so they couldn’t get out.  In 1875, all but one member of the Georgia legislator accepted bribes in exchange for their votes in a giant land scandal


As Gustavus Myers meticulously documents in the classic History of Great American Fortunes, politicians and plutocrats have always colluded to hoodwink, traduce, and plunder the hoi polloi. 


In the 19th century, “Whigs and Democrats elected to the legislature, the courts, or administrative offices considered themselves under obligation to that element  which financed their campaigns.  The masses of the people were simply pawns in these political contests, yet few of them understood that all the excitement, partisan activity and enthusiasm into which they threw themselves, generally had no other significance than to enchain them still faster to a system whose beneficiaries were continuously getting more and more rights and privileges for themselves at the expense of the people, and whose wealth was consequently increasing by precipitate bounds.”


Next, drug abuse.


In the 1800s, big cities were infested by drug addicts.  An Ohio doctor groused that his town had more addicts than alcoholics.  Drug addiction was so rife in Cincinnati that, according to one disgruntled visitor, you couldn’t walk down the sidewalk without tripping over an opium slave.


What about crime?


Between 1860 and 1890 the crime rate was more than twice the rate of population growth.  The Charleston News and Chronicle reported:  “Murder and violence are the distinguishing marks of our civilization.”   In the 1930s, a criminal had a 99 percent chance of escaping punishment.  From 1930 to 1950 Chicago had an estimated 700 hired assassins.  Only eight of the assassins were ever convicted.  A much larger ratio of convicted felons go to prison now than 60 years ago.


Always, politicians have curried favor with an uneasy electorate by bemoaning leniency toward criminals.   In the 1920s, President Hoover complained:  “In our desire to be merciful, the pendulum has swung in favor of the prisoner and far away from the protection of society.”


Next issue: family values.


In the 18th and 19th centuries, clergymen routinely advised parents not to get too close to their children.  Male adolescents were often sent away to live with other families.  Many couples lived in sin.  Today, proportionately more Americans marry than ever before.  In the 1880s, the divorce rate in America exceeded that in all other industrialized countries.  In the 1800s, there was one abortion for every six births.  In the 1920s, one in four pregnancies ended in abortion.


Now, illicit sex.


In A Social History of the American Family, Arthur Calhoun notes that in several colonies between 1650 and 1657 “the extant record of fornication and adultery is appalling.”  In Maryland, an Episcopal rector wrote:  “All notorious vices are committed, so that Maryland is become a Sodom of uncleanness, and a pest house of iniquity.”


In 1697, the governor of the same colony complained that “some of our men have two wives and some of the women two husbands.  Whoring is too much practiced in the country, and seldom are any punished for their sins.”


In Rhode Island in the 1700s, half the newlywed women were pregnant at the time of their marriage.  Prostitution in the United States was so pandemic after the Civil War that in several cities officials talked seriously of legalizing it.


Are schools worse now than before?


In fact, American schools were never any great shakes.


In The Great School Legend, Colin Greer cites studies showing that 100 years ago, students in Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh couldn’t read, write or do arithmetic at their grade levels.


In the 1920s and ‘30s, the high school graduation rate in American schools was 56 percent.  In New York City, only 40 percent graduated.  Less than one-third of nonwhites ever enrolled in school.


Nor were students notably docile—even in colleges.  In a biography of the poet Robert Frost, Jean Gould describes how Frost and his fellow students at Dartmouth dealt with teachers non grata:  “They ‘wooded up’ professors they didn’t like.  A mathematics teacher had assigned so much work that no one could complete it.  During class, the students began to pound their feet on the old floor-boards.  Within a few second the whole roomful of freshmen was stamping out a noisy protest.  Clouds of dust arose along with the rhythmic, insistent clatter, until the red-faced professor, hands over his ears, ran from the room and down the hall to the president’s office, howls of derision echoing at his heels.”


The last issue to muse on: poverty.


Nothing today compares with the degraded conditions of tenement life in the Gilded Age.  It wasn’t uncommon for a family of eight to share a bedroom measuring six by eight feet.


Today, New York City has 20,000 homeless.  In 1884, 43,000 families in the city were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay the rent.  Half the city lived in slums.  In the 1920s, according to a study by the Brookings Iinstitution, over 60 percent of American families didn’t earn enough to satisfy basic human needs.  Forty percent lived on less than $1,500 dollars a year.


If we seem worse off than our forebears, perhaps that is because the present gets more ink than what Shakespeare called the dark and backward abyss of the past.

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