Written by Robert H. Wiebe in 1967, the book, The Search for Order, is a perfect chronicle of the Americans’ search for economic, political, and social order between 1877 and 1920. The search kicked off immediately after the Reconstruction Era until 1920 just before the vagaries of the Great Depression set in.
The Reconstruction, which was occasioned by the Civil War, failed and people started looking up to themselves and this change was supported by the growing industries. This shift from government dependence to self-actualization was at the center of the controversies that followed including the introduction of the Gold Standard, the agrarians’ fallout, and the bulging need for professionalism in the country among other issues.
Theodore Roosevelt’s triumph to presidency consolidated the calls for professionalism in every aspect of the American livelihoods including politics. The First World War was a shocker to the US, which mistakenly thought it had enough diplomatic ties to control such an occurrence. The key concern in the book is the progressive movement that gripped the Americans, which seemed to be the genesis of the disorder that Wiebe seeks to address via this book.
Conventionally, by exploring the undying spirit for search for order amongst Americans from the late nineteen century, Wiebe, through the law of unintended consequences, highlights the ripe disorder that defined the American society at the time. One of the critical issues that I learnt from the book is the disorder that prevailed after the abortion of the Reconstruction and the subsequent quest for restoring order in the American society.
Wiebe (1967) confesses, “Americans in a basic sense no longer knew who or what they were…The setting had altered beyond their power to understand it and within an alien context they had lost themselves” (42). As aforementioned, Americans embraced professionalism in their dealings and thus they departed from the earlier way of handling issues via moral lenses. Americans embraced officialdom and thus “the heart of progressivism was the ambition of the new middle class to fulfill its destiny through bureaucratic means” (Wiebe 1967, 166).
Unfortunately, while bureaucracy was initially meant to bring order and progression, it soon degenerated to chaos as the changing social, political, and the economic environment introduced new challenges. People wanted accountability from the government; however, this push was not strong enough following the government-engineered Reconstruction Era, which aborted miserably. People had lost faith in the same government that they wanted to be accountable.
Therefore, in the raging confusion, the very ideals highly regarded in society like anticorruption started to wane. Corruption and political persecutions found their way back into the mainstream government. Unfortunately, the masses were too disorganized to voice their issues- they had neither inner push nor reason to champion for reforms. Therefore, “with no purpose beyond disclosure and conviction and very little organized support behind them, they captured the headlines, and then disappeared” (Wiebe 1967, 172).
However, as aforementioned, Wiebe’s purpose of compiling this book was to highlight how Americans realized order in a seemingly hostile and disorderly environment. Therefore, even though the author starts by highlighting a disorder, he quickly moves to the central theme and explores the journey to an ‘orderly America’. By the turn of the twentieth century, the cards were changing as allegiance shifted from politics to professionalism.
In a span of 11 years, Americans had three presidents all of which were progressives. President Theodore Roosevelt in particular was a darling to many Americans due to his liberal stand on governance. He brought order in a hitherto disorderly society grappling with the vagaries of a changing environment.
While William Taft was somehow undecided on liberal issues, by the time he rose to power, the progressives had already been established and they carried on with Roosevelt’s spirit until Wilson Woodrow won the presidency and continued with restoring the order that Theodore had initiated. By 1912-1913, the American society had achieved domestic ‘order’ and so they started pushing for foreign policy and investments overseas.
Unfortunately, as aforementioned, the outbreak of the First World War was a shocker to the Americans as their teething diplomatic ties were thrown into disarray and the disorder moved from domestic to the international arena. However, Wiebe is only concerned with the domestic order and as he closes up the book, he notes that the 1920s brought order in the American society –an order that had been elusive for many years.
Wiebe’s book, In Search for Order, is a masterpiece as it gives an impartial view of the American’s search for order immediately after the abortion of the Reconstruction all through to the 1920s after the First World War.
The book is thematic and Wiebe does not dwell on the disorderly era for long, but he shifts to the theme of his book. He does this by dedicating a larger part of his book to the ‘search for order’ aspect. The book is informative and from it. I learnt of the Americans’ resilient journey towards ‘order’, which they ultimately realized according to Wiebe’s chronicles.
Wiebe, Robert. 1967. The Search for Order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang.