When I teach the second half of the U.S. history survey, I often gloss the period between Reconstruction and the Spanish-American War as one in which industrialists ruled the country, and presidents did little other than stay out of big business’ way. Simplistic? Yes, but when you have thirty years to cover in three hours, sometimes you paint in broad brushstrokes. However, a post by Heather Cox Richardson on Grover Cleveland over at The Historical Society has made me think differently about how I’ll teach the early Progressive Era in the future. She describes how Cleveland’s anti-tariff stance threatened the robber barons, who bankrolled Benjamin Harrison’s campaign to turn the president out of office, only to have him return four years later on a wave of populist fury. Hence, Grover Cleveland became the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. It’s a good way to connect the historical trivia that some students love to larger political and economic shifts, and Cleveland’s 1888 State of the Union, in which he warned, “corporations . . . are fast becoming the people’s masters,” would be a great primary source for teaching.
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