While some of the wealthy were philanthropic and socially conscious, most of the business magnates believed their financial success proved them to be the most capable and entitled to the spoils of the success. This created a system of social and economic inequity which created a reaction to the Gilded Age well before the Age itself closed.
Impact of and Reaction to the Gilded Age of Big Business
The Progressive era is the period people generally associate with pro-labor reforms, slum clearing and equal rights. However, all of these movements generally started in earnest before the close of the Gilded Age in 1900. This paper has already set forth the changes in Society and the challenges presented by these changes. The rest of this paper will seek to identify the impact of the changes on those that felt the impact most, the working class, women and minorities.
History has not looked back upon Gilded Age Politics favorably. In fact, it has been said that the Gilded Age politicians accomplished nothing of significance and stood for nothing sincere (De Santis 78). Its lasting legacy on the national scale was aiding and abetting big business to establish monopolies and trusts and the spoils system. Entire national campaigns were conducted on the strength of the other party's level corruption. At the local level, political machines and bosses tended to control entire cities and often operated a very high level of corruption (Brown, Gilded Age 4).
This period in American politics has a greater significance attached to it than just being the era of corruption and ineffectiveness. As early as the election of 1880, the eradication of the spoils system was the focus of national campaigns. Beginning with the campaign of William Jennings Bryan on 1896, many American historians believe that an air of legitimacy returned to American politics (De Santis 97). Certainly, a review of the accomplishments of Bryans' opponents, William McKinley and his running mate Theodore Roosevelt, show that as of the end of the Gilded Age, politicians had once again addressed difficult and sensitive national issues in a manner befitting a public servant.
The next most significant issue to be addressed in the Gilded Age was the position of big business vis-a-vie labor. This was a two step process, the first of which was for labor to organize and to assert itself and protect its rights. The second half of the Gilded Age saw the formation of the American labor union, specifically the American Federation of labor, led by Samuel Gompers was founded in 1886. Early attempts by labor unions to make a difference were often met with violently by management's private militia or the Government (Brown, Gilded Age 3). As the Gilded Age closed, laborers were yet to receive the benefits of an eight hour work day or worker's compensation.
Public sentiment was strong enough, however, to make Congress take action twice- first with the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and again with the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 (Brown, Gilded Age 4). This was the second step in the process, governmental regulation of business. Regulation and government intrusion was seen by the leaders of industry to defy the nature of capitalism, free enterprise and Social Darwinism, all philosophies embraced and championed by the business during the Gilded Age. However, these philosophies were often times used in a self-serving way by business leaders, as evidenced by their lack of dedication to the principles. Examples of this include big business accepting loans, protective tariffs and political support during any conflict with the labor class (Brown, Gilded Age 3). Into the Progressive era, the government would break up John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil and make extended use of the Commerce clause and the ICC to continue to regulate business interests for the protection of consumers and workers.
There is substantial intersection between the workers' struggle for better conditions and the social causes advance by women at the end of the Gilded Age. As more and more young single women sought employment in the factories and garment shops of the cities, the too came to work under oppressive conditions (Brown, Gilded Age 9). Working class women rallied together to demand, like working men, better education, many went to college, women regularly campaigned against social injustices, some of which directly impacted themselves, like women suffrage. Susan B. Anthony started the National Woman's Suffrage Association in 1868. Woman's suffrage would continue to dominate the agenda of socially minded women throughout the Gilded Age (Ibid). Women also advocate regarding situations which only indirectly impacted them, like temperance from alcohol. Women saw temperance as a crucial issue in the late 19th century even though they were not big drinkers. Men, and especially certain groups of immigrant men, were.
Immigrants began pouring into the United States after the end of the Civil War. By 1900 there were some 25 million immigrants already living in the United States. Some of them came here to escape political persecution, but the vast majority emigrated in the pursuit of economic opportunity. In many instances the immigrants experiences did not meet their expectations (Brown, Gilded Age 6). Most immigrants settled in larger cities on the east coast and represented unskilled labor. As a result, they often competed with other immigrants and Americans for poor paying jobs. The Americans resented having to compete with newly arrived foreigners for employment, and they especially resented having to compete with people they perceived as racially and ethnically inferior to themselves (Ibid).
Two separate developments of the Gilded Age era combined to place the fate of immigration to American in danger. The two developments were federal legislation and an intense bias against any people not Anglo-Saxon Protestant. As previously stated, many of the Gilded Age immigrants were Catholic and Jewish, or Chinese. Protestant Americans began to promulgate legislation which proscribed immigration of the Chinese and attempted to do the same for Catholic immigration (Brown, Gilded Age 7). The ultimate conclusion to be drawn is that in the Gilded Age, this was very much a protestant nation and the Protestants insisted on keeping it that way.
The Gilded Age truly represents the best and worst of American society in one self-contained 35-year period. The backdrop of the period was nothing less than the Reconstruction of the Union, far from ideal for launching the most dramatic and comprehensive industrial and economical expansion in modern history. Nonetheless, this is exactly what happened. History tells us that a number of forces came into being at once, which together allowed this ascendancy of American ability: Technological advances in manufacturing and distributing, a well orchestrated and functioning rail system, an ample supply of cheap labor, an abundance of domestic and international markets for selling the products and a half of a continent of mostly inhabitable and arable land to grow into as the need arose and the means allowed.
Several individuals emerged from this phase of growth and prosperity who would become known as the captains of industry. These name still inspire austere respect to this day: JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Flagler and Carnegie are only a few of the moguls whose success defined what would become known as the American Dream. Much of the world marveled at the striking recovery from a nation, not yet 100 years old and on the heels of bloody and prolonged Civil War.
But the Gilded Age has very dark underlining to its illustrious appearance. These same captains of industries are also considered Robber Barons in light of their ruthless business practices, including fomenting political graft and exploitation of labor. Worse still, the Barons sought to defend their avarice with a self-serving distortion of one of the intellectual triumphs of the modern age, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest in the animal world. After hiding behind the protections of the government, the Barons then sought to avoid any government regulation by claiming that Laissez Faire capitalism should allow them to engage in any behavior the market allows them to.
Common workers were introduced to depressed wages and 60-hour weeks in dangerous conditions for the sake of somebody else's fortune. Many of these workers were black who also faced terrifying and deadly acts of violence, often times under the tacit approval of the local governments. Immigration led to calls for exclusionary laws as those Native to the country were massacred or rounded and relocated to reservations in remote Western locations. Politicians regularly were exposed as corrupt and involved in various and sundry scandals.
The balance of the information available indicates more problems and scandals associated with the Gilded Era than the success of a rebuilt economy and a reborn nation. The period between 1865 and 1900…
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