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American society experienced a change that moved concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. During the Gilded Age, America’s industrial economy exploded, giving the chance to individuals to gain incredible amounts of wealth. This wealth wasn’t equally distributed unfortunately as farmers and workers were would barely survive. Industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller revolutionized business in the modern corporate economy, but also purposely destroyed free-market economic competition in the process of expanding their power and domination. During this time a large number of citizens voted in national elections, but the politicians they voted for often overlooked the public interest and just wanted to only grow wealthy together with big corporators. In the post-Civil War time, big business in the United States extended drastically and quickly. This extension prompted a drastic increase in the creation of American unskilled workers, and in the amount of wealth in the nation, while simultaneously disposing of rivalry. Additionally, the development of big business caused exceptional vast scale corruption in the political framework. The American people reacted to these effects through both an expanded cooperation in consumerism and the arrangement of both political and monetary associations that tried to control the massive effect of large commercial enterprise on American society.
During the Gilded Age, the western part of the United States was transformed greatly both economically and socially. The government continued to follow a laissez-faire economic policy which encouraged businesses to expand with very minimal government interference. Railroads, continued their construction West and then began to branch in the North and South. “The railroad president is a railroad king, whose whom is law” (Doc. B). Railroad presidents are similar to kings because they can discharge workers without cause and withhold wages. Their power and wealth allows them to control both the government and the people through manipulation and corruption. This meant that they controlled prices and monopolized food and fuel industries. While, simultaneously corrupting communities and controlling the press. Railroads dictated government policy since the Senate was controlled by wealthy business owners and not popularly elected leading to the legal system favoring the interest of big business owners. Document D shows these “corrupt bosses” as “The Bosses of the Senate”. The document portrays a political cartoon which implies the incredible power of corporation leaders and that due to their power, they influenced the senators and bribed them. Because they were in control, the American people had no input because monopolies and trusts corrupted society. Additionally the political figures are also depicted with a “money bag” shaped stomach to imply their wealth, as corporation leaders look down at the senators showing their superiority.
John D. Rockefeller was a Gilded Age industrialist and the founder of Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller’s strategy of establishing, horizontal integration, which was also labeled as a way of having total domination over a specific product was a form of action which many other big business owners followed. To eliminate his competitors, Rockefeller used his superior size in wealth and company popularity to alter prices making it nearly impossible for his competitors to stay in business. “I sought for the reason and found that the railroads were in league with the Standard Oil concern at every point, giving it discriminating rates and privileges of all kinds as against myself and all outside competitors” (Doc. H). This evidence shows how monopolists used ruthless tactics to put competitors out of business. Railroads gave big businesses such as the Standard Oil Company rebates that helped them undercut their competition. When a company can achieve horizontal integration, the company can expand its products, sell those products to a larger market which benefits them, and eventually reduce the costs to produce its newly diversified products. Nevertheless, Rockefeller paid low wages to his workers. Workers were taught to do one thing – “to perform one and generally a simple operation; and when there is no more of that kind of work to do, they are in a measure helpless” (Doc. C). Thus, when the workers protested or went on strike, Rockefeller would close a worksite, rather than pay higher wages because unskilled labor were relatively easy to replace. Working at these factories produced economic changes, as the modern manufacturing system brought about homogeneity (equality) and individualism was destroyed as noted by David A. Wells. Specialization of labor decreased workers’ pride in their craft and left them largely unskilled.
In 1901, Andrew Carnegie made an incredible change in his life as he sold his business to another big corporator J.P. Morgan. The sale earned him more than $200 million. At the age of 65, Carnegie decided to spend the rest all of his remaining wealth helping others. While he had begun his philanthropic work years earlier by building libraries and making donations, Carnegie expanded his efforts in the early 20th century (Doc. E). Carnegie believed in the popular idea of Social Darwinism and that wealthy people should lead a modest existence and their revenues should be used as a fund for the poor in order to create happier communities. The wealthy are trustees and because of this the wealthy will lead to better decisions than the poor would make for themselves.
At the time, new immigrants turned to big corporation bosses for jobs and money, which only increased the wealth and power of their businesses. Jane Addams opened one of the first settlements, Chicago: Hull House, in which services for the immigrant and poor population living in the Chicago area were made a priority. Famous photographer, Jacob Riis (muckraker) published “How The Other Side Lives” in order to draw attention to the poor and these terrifying images influenced the creation of labor unions.
Most Americans living in the Gilded Age could never imagine the amount of wealth people such as Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan had gathered in only a couple of years. While, they worked 10 hour shifts, for wages barely support their families and survive. Soon laborers realized that they must unite to demand change. Even though they lacked money, education, or political power, they knew one critical thing. There were simply more workers than there were owners and that the majority can have the upperhand. Bosses took extreme measures, including violence, to prevent a union from taking hold. Workers often chose violence as well when peaceful measures failed. In Document G, Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, expressed the grievances of the workers, adequate wages, people didn’t want to be considered property, and shorter hours would reduce jail and almshouse populations. Organized labor brought tremendous positive change to working Americans. Today, many workers enjoy higher wages, better hours, and safer working conditions because of these men and women who lost their lives for something that we cherish in today’s world.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the nation’s farmers began to organize to defend their interests. The late 1860s saw the birth of the Grange, an organization dedicated to the social and political uplift of farmers. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, farmers organized the Farmers Alliance, an organization that promoted economic reform to protect the interests of farmers whom they believed should be the main focus of the American government. Both of these movements helped to create the Populist Party. In Document F, the Populist Party seeked to restore government to plain people and power of the people (government) should be expanded while bringing an end to oppression, injustice, and poverty. The Populists would reach their political power in 1896, when the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan as its candidate for President of the United States. In the 1890s, the choice was between a gold standard and a silver standard. Because silver was considered a relatively cheap metal, it was believed that a silver currency would benefit debtors by allowing them to reduce their debts at relatively modest costs. Silver was also believed to benefit farmers and manufacturers whose products, priced in cheap silver money, would appeal to foreign customers. In contrast, importers, individuals and businesses who saved, and others, held an opposing opinion, preferring a gold monetary standard. The “Cross of Gold” speech by William J. Bryan was viewed as populist because of the belief that farmers, small businessmen and debtors would suffer under a gold standard. As Populists challenged the increasing power of the big business interests in the national economy, they paved the way for a movement of broad social reform.
The Gilded Age saw rapid economic and industrial growth, driven by technical advances in transportation and manufacturing, and causing an expansion of personal wealth, philanthropy, and immigration. Politics during this time not only experienced corruption, but also increased participation. Although America on the outside showed gilded signs of progress, the country was battling political corruption, labor strikes, and southerner’s who continued to cling to their old ways by refusing to comply with the federal government.
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