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The factors that go into the creation of America as a worldwide industrial leader are numerous and deeply interwoven, but a prime sources are the development and implantation of new technology, and the exploitation of workers. If there was an ethos that defined American industrialism, it was “make it faster”. In the early half of the 19th century, this had been experienced with the creation of steamboats, then canals, and then railroads, creating the ability to devote large areas of the country to farming, while local subsistence farms died out. As a way to make more efficient use of land, buildings were being built increasingly higher, eventually leading to the creation of the modern skyscraper. Industrialists were deeply competitive, and so everything had to be built as efficiently as possible. Competitors who failed at this would be wiped out, or swallowed up by larger corporations. In this ruthless efficiency, achievements were a point of pride for Americans, but at the same time, built on their exploitation.
The explosion of industrial capitalism was praised because of what it had shown could be accomplished in productivity and technology. The creation of the transcontinental railroad was an impressive achievement: it made commerce possible on a vast scale, and by 1880, it was moving $50 million worth of freight every year, transporting raw materials from the West, and manufactured products from the East (Paul). However, the mechanisms that lead to it were shady and poorly-devised, such as the passing of the Pacific Railway Act of 1864, wherein railroad magnates conned the U.S. Government into giving them $50 million worth of government bonds, and landmasses the size of states (Cobbs, 80). These accomplishments in technology contributed to the mythic quality of America that travelled overseas, but the transcontinental railroad recreated the American monopoly, and the consolidation of wealth allowed these captains of industry to corrupt American politics (Cobbs, 82). Politicians praised the new growth, as corporate leaders emerged as the true leaders of America.
Improved technology and high productivity were accomplished on the backs of the American worker. Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty asks for, “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and with all public installations at the time, one must assume the economic benefit of its creation. Immigrants were enticed to come to America, which was billed as a golden opportunity for them, but they were more easily exploited than naturalized citizens. In turn, American-born workers had greater difficulty finding employment (Cobbs, 66). Americans of all stripes were affected by the corporate preference of exploitation, and even attempts to curb this were done at the expense of immigrants, most notably the Chinese (Cobbs, 85). Immigrants, often vilified by white American workers, were too trapped in debt and easily forgotten. Illustrated in Sinclair Upton’s The Jungle, a novel that reveals the horror of efficiency, as putrid meat is cleaned up and distributed without concern, and offers a bleak image of people being taken advantage of and their dreams crushed under the weight of hungry capitalists (Cobbs, 73). Yet people are hungrier, and still want better lives. In an early example of this dichotomy comes from a Lowell mill girl who writes to her father in 1845. She begins her letter by saying, “My life and health are spared while others are cut off,” and then describes the death and injuries that have occurred at her mill in the past week, but later in the letter says, “I think that the factory is the best place for me and if any girl wants employment I advise them to come to Lowell.” (MaryPaulLetters) Although this is decades earlier than the so-called “Gilded Age”, the sentiment remains the same: Americans need to work, and are willing to work, and so American workers have been in a constant fight to get better treatment.
In a speech to other laborers, unionist Samuel Gompers responds to the business leaders’ cry that the working American is always asking for more, and says, “We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more… And we shall never cease to demand more until we have received the results of our labor” (Cobbs, 72). With the captains of industry identified as the true leaders of America, it was clear that the system was not going to correct itself, prompting the efforts of outside forces. It was these forces that formed antimonopolist coalitions, and attempted to pass legislation that would clearly demonstrate state authority over railroads, which had been abusing their power as a vital tool for Americans, and would force them to pay back taxes (Cobbs, 84). These attempts, however, did not succeed. What was successful, from a legislative standpoint, was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese from entering the country, and prevented Chinese living in America from being granted citizenship, in an attempt to curb the use of cheap labor (Cobbs, 85). From a practical standpoint, this was circumvented through the use of migration from Canada and Mexico, until 1904, after Canada adopted an almost identical Exclusion Act, and the drastic increase of mounted inspectors along the Mexican border (Cobbs, 93-94).
Since the first slave ship arrived in 1684, The United States is and always has been a country built on exploitation. After the Civil War made slavery technically illegal, corporate leaders had to find a new way to maintain their rigorous standard of productivity, and so turned to exploiting American citizens. In doing so, they created wonders of technology that drew in immigrants from all over the world. The drive to create something new and better revolutionized every aspect of American life, from politics, to business, to home life, for better or worse.
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