"America was Promises": The Ideology of Equal Opportunity, 1877-1905
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"`America was Promises': The Ideology of Equal Opportunity, 1877-1905" seeks to untangle one of the enduring ideas in American history--equal economic opportunity--by exploring the varied discourses about its meaning during the upheavals caused by the corporate consolidation of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In so doing, a new framework is proposed through which to comprehend the social and political disruptions wrought by the transition from an entrepreneurial to a corporate society. This framework centers on a series of tensions that have permeated the idea of opportunity in the American context. As an expression of capitalism, the ideology of equal opportunity historically occupies conflicted terrain as it endeavors to promote upward mobility by permitting more people to participate in the economic sphere and emphasizing merit over inherited wealth, while it concurrently acts as a mechanism to maintain economic inequality. This tension allowed the rhetoric of opportunity to animate social dissent among rural and urban workers--the origins of Progressive reform--even as it simultaneously served efforts by business elites to temper this dissent. The dissertation examines the discourses about the ideology of equal opportunity of prominent figures and groups located along a spectrum of political belief. Some grounded opportunity in land ownership (Booker T. Washington); others defined it as control of one's own labor (Knights of Labor); while others connected opportunity to increased leisure and consumption (Samuel Gompers and business elites). As this occurred, the site of opportunity shifted away from entrepreneurship toward competition for advancement and investment within the corporation. Most social activists and reformers stressed the conditions necessary for equal opportunity to thrive. They thus reinforced assumptions about the benefits of economic competition and differentially rewarding individuals, even as they objected to the results of that system. And, certainly, some of these arguments led to progressive changes. But because the necessary outcome of equal opportunity was an inequality of economic result, to move beyond the boundaries of equal opportunity ideology demanded a rare willingness (Edward Bellamy) to question the system of economic competition itself.