The Gilded Age in America Assignment One of our course objectives is to connect past and present. What similarities do you see during The Gilded Age that e

The Gilded Age in America Assignment One of our course objectives is to connect past and present. What similarities do you see during The Gilded Age that echo today? In your answer, consider the big themes: business, politics, and/or culture. Unit 16: America’s Gilded Age, 1870–1890
In 1886, the Statue of Liberty, meant to celebrate the friendship between France and
the United States and the triumph of freedom in the Civil War, was dedicated in New
York harbor. The statue, which welcomed generations of immigrants to the United
States, came to symbolize American freedom. But 1886 also saw one of the greatest
waves of strikes and labor protests and violence in the nation’s history, events
which exposed deep social divisions in an industrializing society. The questions of
what social conditions enabled freedom and what role the government should play
in defining and protecting the rights of citizens took center stage
In the late nineteenth century, the United States experienced perhaps the fastest and
most far-reaching economic revolution in history. Abundant natural resources, a
growing labor supply and market for manufactured goods, and new capital for
investment all fostered massive economic expansion. The federal government also
spurred industrial and agricultural development by enacting tariffs protecting U.S.
industry from foreign competition, giving land to railroads, and using the army to
remove Indians from western lands wanted by farmers and mining companies.
Every region except the South saw a rapid expansion of manufacturing, mining, and
railroad construction, ending an earlier America based on small farms and artisan
workshops. By 1913, the United States produced a third of the world’s entire
industrial output. Half of all industrial workers labored in plants with more than
250 employees. By 1890, two-thirds of Americans worked for wages, making
dreams of economic independence—owning a farm or workshop—unattainable for
most. Between 1870 and 1920, a new working class developed, with 11 million
Americans moving from farm to city and 25 million immigrating from overseas.
Most new jobs were in industrial cities, whose rapid growth was best symbolized by
New York, a city whose banks and stock exchange financed railroads, mines, and
factories, thus sponsoring industrialization and westward expansion. The Great
Lakes region was the center of industrialization, with iron, steel, machinery,
chemicals, and food production in large cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago and
countless smaller cities.
Railroads enabled the “second industrial revolution.” Private investment and huge
grants of land and money by federal, state, and local governments tripled the
number of miles of rail between 1860 and 1880 and tripled it again over the next
forty years. This opened vast new areas to commercial farming and created a
national market for manufactured goods. By the 1890s, five transcontinental
railroad lines carried western mine, farm, ranch, and forest products to markets in
the East, which in turn made factory goods for the West. Railroads were so critical to
economic growth and the national market that financial crisis in the rail industry
directly shocked the entire national economy.
An expanding population became an ever-larger market for mass production, mass
distribution, and mass marketing of goods, all of which are the basis of a modern
industrial economy. National brands, national stores, and mail-order firms, such as
Sears, Roebuck & Co., emerged for the first time.
Extraordinary technological innovations helped quicken communications and
economic expansion. Telegraph lines crossed the Atlantic to Europe, and the
telephone, typewriter, and handheld camera began to be used in the 1870s and
1880s. Thomas A. Edison’s inventions, such as the phonograph, light bulb, and
motion picture, revolutionized private life, public entertainment, and economic
activity. Edison also created systems for distributing electric power, and soon entire
cities had electricity for homes, factories, and streetcars. Electricity enabled
industrial and urban growth by providing a more dependable and useful source pf
power than water or steam. The newly invented electric motor harnessed the power
of this innovation for industry and households.
Economic growth was remarkable but quite volatile. With markets inundated by
goods and federal monetary policies that removed money from the national
economy and reduced prices, a series of severe economic recessions and
depressions occurred, notably in the 1870s and 1890s. Businesses competed
ruthlessly. To stabilize prices and profits, railroads and other companies formed
“pools” to divide markets and fix prices and “trusts” that allowed a single director to
manage the affairs of several competing companies. But the drive to compete often
quickly disintegrated such schemes. Competition led some firms to control their
entire industry by buying out the competition. Economic concentration culminated
in the great merger wave from 1897 to 1904, in which 4,000 companies were
incorporated into larger corporations that served national markets and thus
wielded immense power. Giant corporations appeared, such as Standard Oil,
International Harvester, and U.S. Steel, which was formed in 1901 by financier J. P.
Morgan out of eight large steel firms.
With no personal or corporate income taxes, some businessmen accumulated
massive wealth and economic power. One such “captain of industry” was Andrew
Carnegie, who emigrated from Scotland as a teenager and labored as a factory
worker and telegraph operator before he used a position with the Pennsylvania
Railroad to build a steel empire. During the 1870’s depression, Carnegie built a
“vertically integrated” steel company—one that controlled every stage of
production, from raw materials to transportation, manufacturing, and distribution.
By the 1890s, Carnegie dominated the steel industry and amassed a fortune of
hundreds of millions of dollars. His steel factories at Homestead, Pennsylvania, were
the most technologically advanced in the world. Although Carnegie’s upbringing
instilled in him a commitment to democracy, social equality, and charity, he ran his
factories ruthlessly.
More associated with extraordinary wealth was John D. Rockefeller, who rose from
being a merchant clerk to oil industry titan. Through cutthroat competition he
ruined rival oil companies, arranged deals with railroads, and fixed prices and
production. He mastered “horizontal integration,” in which one firm acquires
competing firms, but soon established a vertically integrated company, too, a
monopoly that controlled the drilling, refining, storage, and distribution of oil. By
the 1880s, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company controlled 90 percent of America’s
oil industry.
Such figures and their wealth attracted the admiration and resentment of many
Americans. While many rose from modest circumstances, their wealth, and their
methods for treating workers and conducting business alienated many Americans,
who thought their unregulated actions eroded political and economic freedom and
damaging democracy. In Wealth against Commonwealth, his 1894 exposé of
Standard Oil’s manipulation of markets and bribery of legislators, Henry Demarest
Lloyd wrote that “liberty and monopoly cannot live together.”
The benefits of economic expansion were distributed highly unevenly. For a few
workers, including skilled workers with some control over production processes
such as miners and iron and steel workers, high wages were the norm. Most
industrial workers, however, had semi-skilled jobs that required only managing a
machine. These workers had no control over production and were easily replaced
and dismissed during a strike or economic downturn. Regular and prolonged
unemployment became widespread for these workers, some of whom became
“tramps,” taking to roads and rail to search for employment. Though American
workers earned more than their European counterparts, work was more dangerous
in the United States. And because of the high unemployment and use of public and
private police, most strikes in America failed. Many workers were extremely poor
and relied on family to survive.
Class divisions became more visible in this period as more Americans became
middle class and very wealthy. The rich began to retreat to their own
neighborhoods and built fantastic mansions and estates in the cities and
countryside. A growing number of urban middle-class professionals, office workers,
and small businessmen moved to urban and suburban neighborhoods and used new
streetcars and commuter railways to get to central business districts. By 1890, the
richest 1 percent of Americans received the same total income as the bottom half of
the population and owned more property than the remaining 99 percent. Many
wealthy Americans conspicuously consumed an aristocratic lifestyle of luxury
goods, exclusive clubs, colleges, and social events. Not far from the homes of the
wealthy were the slums of the urban poor. The difference between the two worlds
was captured in Matthew Smith’s 1868 best-seller, Sunshine and Shadow in New
York, which began with an engraving contrasting a $2 million dollar mansion with
the slums. Two decades later, Jacob Riis published a book of photographs, How the
Other Half Lives, documenting the poor’s wretched existence in New York City.
Capitalism advanced most quickly and dramatically in the trans-Mississippi West,
whose lands now became absorbed by white settlement and whose resources
became available for exploitation. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner
delivered a lecture, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” in which
he argued that the frontier had forged American culture’s distinctive qualities:
individual freedom, political democracy, and economic mobility. Turner argued that
the frontier had been a “safety valve,” which drew away the dissatisfied in the East,
and therefore mitigated social unrest. Very influential at the time, Turner’s idea
drew on long-standing notions that the West offered economic opportunity and
freedom to newcomers. Many farmers, gold rush miners, and immigrants did find
economic opportunity in the West, but there the accuracy of Turner’s interpretation
ended. Migrants to the West moved in groups, usually families, not as individuals;
the West was not an empty space but rather was inhabited by Indians, who had to
be dispossessed by whites for the frontier to be settled; and the West was not a
paradise of small farms, but an area with industrial mining and agriculture,
landlords, railroads, Chinese contract laborers, and, until the Civil War, AfricanAmerican slaves.
The West was also not a single area but rather was incredibly diverse, ranging from
the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, the desert Southwest, the Sierra Nevada,
and the verdant coasts and valleys of California and the Pacific Northwest. Its
incorporation into the United States required the federal government’s intervention.
The government acquired Indian land by purchase or force, regulated territories,
and gave land and money to farmers, railroads, and mining companies. Despite the
myth of the West’s rugged individualism, the area became part of the nation only by
massive government activity.
More land came into cultivation in the thirty years after the Civil War than in the
previous two and a half centuries of American history. Settlers acquired farmlands
through the Homestead Ac, and more bought land from speculators and railroad
companies that had been given public lands by the federal government. A vast
agricultural belt growing wheat and corn for national and international markets
emerged in the Middle Border (Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas), with
a diverse population of farmers who migrated from the East, South, and Europe.
Farming in this region was difficult, and much of the burden fell on women, who
faced severe isolation.
The Middle Border’s arid land required irrigation and thus made family farming
difficult, but despite the emergence of a few large “bonanza farms” with thousands
of acres and many agricultural wage workers, family farms prevailed. These farms
increasingly grew for national and international markets and specialized in one
crop. Railroads brought factory goods to rural farmers, who became more
dependent on banks for loans, machinery, and products and subject to the ups and
downs of international agricultural prices. American farms thus became part of a
world market, in which farmers across the globe faced ongoing crisis as competition
increased and prices declined.
Western farming’s future was bound up with agricultural enterprises using
irrigation, chemicals, and machines, all of which required capital investments
beyond the means of most family farmers. This future was on display in California,
where huge fruit and vegetable farms, owned by large corporations, were worked
by migrant workers from China, the Philippines, Japan, and Mexico who never
themselves expected to own land.
The decades after the Civil War also saw the golden age of cattle ranching and
cowboys. Railroad stations at Abilene, Dodge City, and Wichita, Kansas, became
destinations for now-legendary cattle drives from Texas. The cowboys who worked
the drives, a diverse group of white, Mexican, and black men, became icons of
freedom and were immortalized in fiction and film. But their life was far from
romantic. They were mostly low-paid wage workers, and the long-distance cattle
drives ended by the 1880s, when farmers fenced in lands with barbed wire and
severe winters killed millions of cattle. The cattle industry that reappeared was
dominated by large ranches close to railroads.
The West was also urban, with large cities such as San Francisco, and the growth of
other cities, like Los Angeles, due to oil. Large corporate enterprises dominated the
West, and particularly in industries such as lumber and mining and as sheep
farming in New Mexico, independent owners and operators gave way to large,
corporate firms.
The West’s incorporation in the American economy sealed the doom of the Plains
Indians and their world. Their lives had already been changed by the horse, and
Indian migrants to the West helped form the nineteenth-century’s great tribes: the
Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Kiowa, and Sioux. Incessant warfare engulfed the tribes
and newcomers. Most whites moving to the Pacific Coast experienced little hostility
from the Plains Indians, but the settlement of lands there in the 1850s and later
brought bloody conflict. Although President Grant declared a “peace policy” in 1869,
warfare soon resumed. Civil War generals like Philip Sheridan attacked the basis of
the Indian economy, destroying villages, horses, and the buffalo to end Indian
resistance. By the 1880s, army campaigns and buffalo hunters had nearly eradicated
the buffalo in the West.
The army subjugated one tribe after another. In 1877, U.S. troops under former
Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner O. O. Howard forced the Nez Percé to surrender
and relocate from Oregon to an Oklahoma reservation. Two years later, Chief Joseph,
that tribe’s leader, delivered a speech in Washington to president Rutherford B.
Hayes and other notables that protested the reservation policy and used the
language of freedom strengthened by the Civil War and Reconstruction: “Let me be a
free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free
to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think
and talk and act for myself . . .”
Indians sometimes inflicted great costs on American forces, most notably in 1876 at
Little Bighorn, where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy
Horse killed General George A. Custer and 250 of his men. In the Southwest, the
Apache leaders Cochise and Geronimo attacked white settlers and resisted army
units well into the 1880s, when they surrendered. The Comanche, who had
dominated other Indians in New Mexico and Colorado, also fell to American power
in the 1870s. This resistance only temporarily delayed the advance of white
soldiers, settlers, and miners. Between the end of the Civil War and 1890, eight new
western states joined the Union (Nebraska, Colorado, North and South Dakota,
Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming). The Indians were removed to
reservations throughout the West, where they lived in poverty and were taken
advantage of by traders and government agents.
Indians’ idea of freedom, resting on preserving their cultural and political autonomy
and control of ancestral lands, clashed with the values and interests of most white
Americans. Nearly all believed that the federal government should persuade or force
the Plains Indians to give up their land, religion, communal property, nomadic way
of life, and gender relations and adopt Christianity, private property, and small
farming on reservations, where men would work the fields and women would work
in the home. In 1871, Congress ended the treaty system, in which the government
had negotiated agreements in which Indian tribes were regarded as independent
nations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs established boarding schools where Indian
children, removed from their parents and tribes, were given new names and
educated in white ways.
In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed, which fragmented the lands of nearly all tribes
into small parcels to be given to Indian families, with the rest of the land to be sold
to white buyers. Indians who accepted the farms and “adopted the habits of civilized
life” would be offered American citizenship. Though the policy led to the loss of
much tribal land and the erosion of Indian cultural traditions, whites benefited
enormously, taking much of the best Indian lands, including much of Oklahoma. In
the fifty years after the Dawes Act’s passage, Indians lost 86 million of the 138
million acres they had possessed in 1887. While many nineteenth-century laws and
treaties offered Indians the right to become citizens, few accepted, as most Indians
wanted to retain their tribal identity. Western courts and later the Supreme Court
ruled that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not apply to Native
Americans. By 1900, about 53,000 Indians had become citizens by accepting land
allotments. Most Indians would not be granted citizenship until 1919, after they
served in World War I, or in 1924, when Congress made all Indians citizens.
In the late 1880s, some Indians practiced the Ghost Dance, a religious movement to
revitalize Indian life. Ghost Dance leaders predicted that one day whites would
disappear, the buffalo would return, and Indians would resume their cultural
practices free from the ills introduced by whites. Large numbers of Indians gathered
for singing, dancing, and religious ceremonies. When the government, fearing a
revolt, sent troops to the reservations, soldiers opened fire on Ghost Dancers at
Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, killing as many as 200 Indians, mostly
women and children. The massacre at Wounded Knee ended four centuries of
armed conflict between native Americans and European settlers and their
descendants. By 1900, the Indian population had reached a nadir of 250,000. But
Indians survived and their numbers grew in the twentieth century.
The conquest of the West was part of a worldwide phenomenon in which settlers
moved into the interior of regions in temperate climates all over the globe, bringing
familiar crops and livestock and starting mining and other industries. Argentina,
Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States are thus called “settler
societies” because immigrants from overseas rapidly outnumbered and displaced
original inhabitants, unlike in India and much of colonial Africa, where only a few
Europeans managed to dominate entire societies.
The period between 1870 and 1890 is the only time in American history described
in a derogatory way—as the Gilded Age, after the title of an 1873 novel co-authored
by Mark Twain. �…
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