The answer is no: sometimes it was worse and sometimes it was better. Without going into detail, worse would be the Civil War, the Prohibition Era, two world wars, and the 1960s (daily televised scenes of police dogs and fire hoses used against civil rights and war protesters, daily gore and body counts from Vietnam, multiple assassinations).
And better times? Well, to be clear, the First World War was not a better time, but in terms of unity, what happened across the American homeland was remarkable. Demanding that we stand up to German threats and aggression was one thing, but actually doing it was quite another. We all know the saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.” That’s exactly what average Americans did to win World War One.
There were bitter disagreements over our role in world affairs, but once we entered the war, unity of purpose was critical if we hoped to win. Government leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, knew the quandary America faced: with no funds to support the war effort, how would the money needed — an astronomical sum, for certain — be raised?
In a speech to the nation shortly after we declared war, McAdoo laid it on the line: “We must be willing to give up something of personal convenience, something of personal comfort … to support our noble sons who go out to die for us.” He was asking people to make real sacrifices by giving money to the point where it would, in many cases, reduce a family’s standard of living. On the simplest level, it might mean foregoing meat, a diet staple, for several days, and using the cash savings to aid our troops.
How to achieve that goal across the board, involving rich and poor alike, was perplexing, but McAdoo’s two-part solution was brilliant. Raising taxes was the most obvious and quickest way to increase revenue, but taxing average folks seemed like a bad idea. For one thing, it was unknown how much money was needed, so taxing, distasteful to politicians and citizens alike, might need to be repeated several times. Instead, McAdoo opted to tax those who could most readily bear the burden: the rich, who would face the highest rates, and the middle class (semi-wealthy or very comfortable).
Getting into the pockets of average people, and even poor folks, was the biggest challenge of all. McAdoo’s plan was to educate the public on how bonds could finance the war and also benefit purchasers in the long run. They would be offered the chance to buy Liberty Bonds through transactions called Liberty Loans: the money paid for a bond was a loan to the federal government, which would use it to finance the war effort. Later, when the bond matured, the buyer would be paid back with interest.
To make it work, organizers chose a powerful impetus — patriotism — driven by what the Federal Reserve called, “the greatest advertising effort ever conducted.” Two principal components of the effort appeared unapologetically on posters — fear of the Germans, and peer pressure.
There were four Liberty Loan campaigns during the war, two in 1917 and two in 1918, each of them lasting about a month to six weeks. Efforts surrounding the Third Liberty Loan Act, in April 1918, demonstrated the roles that patriotism and friendly competition played in making the program a success in the North Country.
The Second Federal Reserve District, spanning New York State, played host to an innovative method of getting people involved: The Liberty Ball. Seven feet in diameter, built of steel and rattan truss work covered with canvas, it was “painted in alternate red and white strips, centering to a blue circular field with stars surrounding each pole.” It rolled along on a single golden tire to symbolize the money rolling in from the bond drive. Two men dressed as Uncle Sam guided the ball, which had drag ropes at the axle ends so that anyone could join in. Accompanying the ball was a colorful flag bearing the message, “Help Push the Liberty Ball from Buffalo to New York. Every Bond You Buy is a Push Towards Winning the War. Keep the Ball Rolling.”
Those who purchased bonds were allowed to move the ball forward a certain distance, and with great hoopla it was launched on the 459-mile journey from Buffalo to New York City. Twenty-one counties and more than 80 cities, towns, and villages comprised the itinerary. Each received the ball to great fanfare, with marching bands, celebrities, government officials, and all sorts of organizations taking part, from Boy Scouts to Kiwanis. After crossing central New York, the Liberty Ball would visit Scotia, Schenectady, Albany, Rensselaer, and other regional sites before turning south.
While supporters turned out from the southern Adirondacks, locations farther north participated in their own way. Plattsburgh’s Liberty Loan quota was $422,000, which seemed exorbitant for the city’s size. To achieve that goal, city organizers created their own red, white, and blue Liberty Ball, which was launched with a large parade, a speech by a Canadian war hero, and a performance by Ambrose Wyrick, an internationally famous opera baritone.
On the city’s main path, Margaret Street, the ball would move daily in small increments from the Witherill Hotel to the county courthouse. A friendly competition developed among the city’s wards, dramatically boosting the campaign’s day-to-day results. The names of new subscribers were featured prominently in city newspapers, and to maintain public interest, participants were invited to meet on Margaret Street at five o’clock each afternoon for the ceremonial moving forward of the ball, which was often accompanied by hoots, hollers, and plenty of back-and-forth teasing. Ten days into the competition, a Canadian highlander played the bagpipes and led a parade, after which the mayor and the loan campaign chairman moved the ball past the $200,000 mark.
As the ward competition heated up, driven by heavy newspaper coverage, the dollar total rose quickly, nearing $350,000 just two days later. The purchases by all six wards were published daily, stoking patriotic fervor and attracting more participants. Thirty-six hours before the close of the campaign, Plattsburgh, led by the Fourth Ward, exceeded its quota. In the end, the total raised was $434,500.
A month later, at another large celebration, the trophy — Plattsburgh’s Liberty Ball itself — was presented to the winners. Several speeches were given, honoring not only city residents for such largesse, but each community that pushed donations $50,000 beyond the Clinton County quota of $1.7 million.
Similar scenes played out in communities across the United States, ultimately funding victory overseas and pushing America towards the position of world leader. During a terrible time, our citizens put aside their differences and lived up to the name United States. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another massive crisis to feel united once again.
A passage from Buffalo and Erie County in the World War (1919, edited by Daniel Sweeney) strove to put the Liberty Loan campaigns in perspective: “The financing of the war by the citizens of the United States has left a brilliant record on the pages of American history for all time.”
Modern statistics provided by the Federal Reserve reveal the power of unity back in 1918. “By war’s end, after four drives, twenty million individuals had bought bonds. That is pretty impressive given that there were only twenty-four million households at the time. More than $17 billion had been raised. In addition, the taxes collected amounted to $8.8 billion. Almost exactly two-thirds of the war funds came from bonds, (my italics) and one-third from taxes. This was a time when $17 billion was an almost unthinkably large number. An equal share of gross domestic product today would amount to $6.3 trillion. Most of McAdoo’s bonds were purchased by the public — 62 percent of the value sold by one estimate.”
Photos: The Liberty Ball (Popular Mechanics Magazine, June 1918); posters for 3rd Liberty Loan campaign, 1918 (Library of Congress)