Power of the Printed Word
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 1776
The Declaration of Independence, written largely by Thomas Jefferson, announced the colonies’ separation from Britain and justified independence on the grounds of British violations of the colonists’ natural rights. The statement that “all men are created equal” has served since 1776 as a standard by which to judge America’s progress toward the ideal of equality.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
Paine’s influential pamphlet, Common Sense, attacked monarchy and inherited privilege. In a brilliant statement of the colonists’ cause, he demanded complete independence from England and establishment of a republican government. Both influential leaders and thousands of ordinary colonists were converted to the cause of independence by Common Sense.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776
The Wealth of Nations, published in England the year the colonists declared their independence, launched an assault on the principles of mercantilism. Smith’s contention that enlightened self-interest, competition, and a laissez-faire approach to government provided the best basis for a prosperous economy suited conditions in America and became the foundation of the new U.S. economy.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, 1787
Originally published as newspaper editorials in conjunction with the fight over ratification of the Constitution in New York, The Federalist Papers are generally considered a significant source of insight into the framers’ understanding of the Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton, The Report on Manufactures, 1791
In this report to Congress, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton argued the advantages of a diversified economy with both industry and agriculture to insure the country’s economic as well as political independence. He called, in particular, for a high tariff to protect young American industry from foreign competition. The U.S. first implemented a protective tariff in 1816, and has repeatedly used them since.
William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, 1831
The Liberator, which began publication in 1831, became the leading abolitionist newspaper and helped create the climate of public opinion necessary for success in the antislavery movement.
Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience, 1849
Thoreau’s essay, based on his own protest against paying taxes to support the war in Mexico, became an inspiration to others, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852
Stowe’s book, a best seller, served as an indictment of the evils of slavery and the laws that supported it. Lincoln once reportedly referred to Stowe as “the lady who started this great war” and termed the novel the most powerful argument offered for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
George proposed a “single tax” on the unearned increment in land values (the increase in value not due to improvements to or development of the land) to break up landholding monopolies and finance a better life for all. George’s faith in the people’s ability to effect change created a climate for reform efforts rather than inaction later during the Progressive and New Deal periods.
Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor, 1881
Jackson’s expose of the government’s treatment of Indians detailed a long list of broken promise and treaties with Indians and led to the Dawes Act, often called the Indian Emancipation Act, giving the President to distribute Native lands among the tribes.
Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 1888
Bellamy’s utopian novel predicted how class divisions and relentless competition would give way to a caring, cooperative, classless, socialistic state by the year 2000. This manifesto for social and economic reform won many adherents and helped set the stage for new philosophies in the Progressive and New Deal eras.
Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth, 1889
Drawing on the philosophy of Social Darwinism, Carnegie argued that unbridled competition had brought order and efficiency to chaos in the business world, but the wealth it created obligated the rich to spend some of their wealth to help their “poorer brethren.” His own large-scale philanthropy created a model for others to follow although some questioned whether his philanthropy (which primarily benefited the upper and middle classes) justified his continued exploitation of workers.
Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 1890
Riis, a reform-minded photojournalist, included grim pictures of New York City tenements along with his accounts of life in the poorer neighborhoods. His work led to the first housing reforms and other education, social welfare, and health care legislation during the Progressive Era.
Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1890
Mahan’s study of sea power, especially that of England, convinced him that a country’s strength on the sea largely determined its prosperity and position in the world. The book prompted many countries, including the U.S., Germany, and Japan, to begin naval expansion in the pre-World War I years.
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 1893
Turner’s famous essay, published just after the Census Bureau announced the end of the frontier, outlined how the frontier experience had shaped American development and focused historians’ attention on a previously overlooked factor in explaining America’s past.
Booker T. Washington, The Atlanta Compromise, 1895
The Atlanta Compromise, a speech given by Booker T. Washington, aimed to cement relations between the black and white races by suggesting that African Americans should work their way up by starting with vocational training and proving their worth before striving for social integration. This gradualist (or accommodationist) approach was popular among many whites but may have set the Civil Rights Movement back several decades.
W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
DuBois predicted that race relations would be the critical issue of the twentieth century. Unlike Booker T. Washington, DuBois advocated an immediate end to segregation and prompt steps to introduce quality education and voting for African Americans. His impassioned plea for unconditional equality set the agenda for the Civil Rights Movement.
Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities, 1904
Steffen’s muckraking expose of municipal corruption (bad city government under bosses) in many cities led to a variety of changes in the form of urban government and other municipal reforms during the Progressive Era.
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906
Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle exposed the evils of early twentieth-century Chicago meat-packing plants and led to the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, one of the first pieces of Progressive legislation to regulate industries.
Herbert Croly, The Promises of American Life, 1909
The Promise of American Life outlined a “New Nationalism,” a philosophy on which Teddy Roosevelt based his 1912 campaign (as the Bull Moose, or Progressive, candidate) for the presidency. According to the philosophy, a strong government would act as “steward of the public welfare” to guarantee the rights of the people.
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House, 1910
Twenty Years at Hull House describes Addams’s settlement house experiences in early twentieth-century Chicago. Her work provided a model for the kind of services settlement houses everywhere could offer the urban poor.
Frederick Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, 1911
Taylor showed factory managers how to use efficient plant organization and time-motion studies to lower production costs per unit and increase production per worker. “Taylorism.”
Alain Locke, The New Negro, 1925
Locke’s New Negro focused on black contributions to American culture and civilization. The book made him the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance,” that movement of the 1920s that contributed to African Americans’ sense of self esteem and whites’ recognition of the value of African American culture for both races.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning novel chronicled the plight of migrant workers during the Depression. The popular social-protest novel suggested the perfectibility of humanity and the possibility of improved conditions.
Rachel Carson, Silent Sprint, 1961
Rachel Carson’s book revealed the depletion and pollution of America’s resources, both by government actions and by the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides (such as DDT). The book raised environmental consciousness and inspired the ecology movement.
Michael Harrington, The Other America, 1962
Harrington’s moving expose of rampant poverty, particularly among the “invisible poor” – the elderly, uneducated, and low-paid workers – inspired LBJ’s “war on poverty.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
King’s response to white leaders who criticized his willingness to go to jail rather than obey an unjust segregation law became the classis interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement. It prompted President Kennedy to make an important television address supporting civil rights legislation.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963
Friedan’s book argued that society had convinced American women that they could be completely fulfilled through a life as a wife and mother. Women’s lives can be more than that! The book launched the modern women’s rights movement (Are any of you thinking about the 1838 writings of the Grimke sisters? Or about the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments articulated by the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention?) and led to the establishment of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Daniel Ellsberg, The Pentagon Papers, 1971
Defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times a secret account of American involvement in Vietnam. The papers allowed Americans to read the lies and faulty assumptions that led to this country’s increasing involvement in the war. The Supreme Court denied the Nixon administration an injunction to halt publication. Thus the public’s right to know took precedence over the Defense Department’s claim of secrecy in the name of public security. As a result, protests over American involvement in Vietnam increased until the government promised to end the war without fighting on to victory.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men, 1974
Woodward and Bernstein, reporters for the Washington Post, painstakingly tracked leads to unravel the story of the Watergate cover up. Their book was a major factor in forcing the resignation of President Nixon.