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The name the “Gilded Age” was coined Mark Twain to represent how the vast wealth and economic prosperity of the period masked the extreme poverty and abuse of the people. From 1870 to the 1900s there were various technological advances, a huge increase in urban populations, and increase in transportation, most notably the railroad. This lead to the rise of big businesses. Although these big businesses lead to cheap and readily available consumer products, the “laissez faire” government economic policy allowed for them to dominate the congress and also abuse the worker. Both organized labor, or labor unions, and the Populist Party sought to challenge these economic practices. Overall the various labor unions pushed for reforms in working conditions and did so through strikes. The populist party pushed for government and economic reforms and did so by forming a political party. Both efforts sought for reasonable working hours and proved that the common men/women could organize and spark change. Both the members of the labor unions, and the Populist Party organized and banded together and pushed for reforms both economically and politically that challenged the big business dominated economic processes of the Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age, 1870-1900 is regarded as a time of economic prosperity. The national wealth increased by 72 billion dollars and the manufacturing sector increased by 10 billion dollars. What lead to such economic prosperity was the advancements in both technology and transportation. On the agricultural front steam tractors, reapers, harvesters, and combines were invented that greatly increased productivity. In the factories both the Bessemer process and the Siemens- Martin process revolutionized the steel industry. Also from 1865-1900 over 200,000 miles of Railroad tracks were laid making access to markets readily available. Advancements made to the railroad were pullman palace sleeping cars, standard rail gauge, and standard time. Also the cities exploded, with 30 million people living in urban cities, and about half of them were immigrants. This provided a stable workforce for the industries. All these advancements contributed to the formation of big businesses. They started informally using pools and cartels and then later formed formal partnerships in the forms of trusts. Such big businesses leaders included Andrew Carnegie with the Steel Industry and Rockefeller with the Standard Oil Company. Carnegie used vertical integration in his business where he controlled every stage of the industrial process. Whereas Rockefeller used horizontal integration where he bought or crushed all of his competitors allowing him to form a monopoly, where he owned 95% of the Oil industry in America. Although these businesses may seem beneficial for their making products cheap and readily available to the people, in doing so they took advantage of and abused the worker. The unskilled worker did not share in the so called prosperity of the period. They worked long hours, with low wages, in dangerous conditions. On average the unskilled industrial worked a 60 hour week and earned 10 cents an hour. Almost 2 million children under 15 were working in the united states in textile mills, factories and coal mines. The families lived in urban slums in cramped, unsanitary tenements. In the slums there was no water or sewage facilities and diseases such as typhoid, tuberculosis, and cholera spread throughout. Not only did big business have complete control of thee worker, they controlled the government too. Many Americans grew fearful of their increasing power. With these economic beliefs and practices harming the people, reforms were needed.
Various labor unions formed. In 1866 the National Labor union formed led by William H. Sylvis. It was the conglomeration of three hundred local union. They sought for an eight hour work day, and to include women and african americans. In 1868 congress passed a bill for government workers mandating an eight hour day. In 1972 they formed a political party, the Labor Reform Party. The party nominated David Davis for the presidential election of 1872. By 1873 the Union failed. In 1869 the Knights of Labor formed and was led by Uriah Stephens. They were organized people instead of unions. They fought for eight hour days, against child and convict labor, for safety laws, and for equal pay for equal work. The prefered to use an arbitrator to settle their disagreements. The later president, Terence Powderly, opened union to immigrants, blacks, women and unskilled workers. He did not believe in strikes, and used meetings and rallies to gain support of the people. In 1877 there was the first nationwide strike. It took place in West Virginia and was striking the Ohio and Baltimore rail lines. They were fighting the wages, the increase in workdays, etc. They managed to blockade the scab workers. President Hayes sent in troops to break up the strike, resulting in the death of 26 people. In 1881 the American Federation of Labor formed and was led by Samuel Gompers. They were made up of skilled workers, and excluded unskilled workers and women and african americans. They supported the political candidate that supported their demands. They used strikes and collective bargaining. The Union collected dues from their employees so they could pay them during strikes. It became the most powerful union in the nation. On May 4th, 1886 the Haymarket Affair took place in the Haymarket Square in Chicago. The McCormick Company went on strike so McCormick hired strikebreakers, replacements for striking workers. The riot turned into a strike because the striking workers clashed with the strikebreakers and the police shot 4 workers. Later, Parson, Spies, and Feldon were speaking out on labor issues and the police arrived and a bomb was set off. The police open fire and in result 7 officers died, 10 laborers were killed and 50 people were wounded. Three radicals were arrested and hung. The knights of labor was blamed for the incident and they broke apart. in 1893 led by Eugene V. Debs the American Railway Union was formed. It included all railway workers. The Unions useds strikes and political party fronts to reform economic and government policies to improve the workers life.
In 1892 the Populist party was formed. Like the unions, they sought economic and government reforms and did so on a political party standpoint. The Farmers Alliance movement in the 1870s paved the way for the forming of the Populist Party. Their goals included: unlimited coinage of silver, To nationalize railroads, telephone, and the telegraph, direct elections of senators, initiative and referendum, graduated income tax, a federal loan program, restrictions on immigration, and an eight hour working day for workers in industry. Their main goal was the unlimited coinage of silver. In his Coin’s Financial School Harvey supported the populist stance on Silver. Also in Minnesota Donnelly was elected three times to congress on the stance of silver. When the Panic of 1893 came around it fueled the Populist Party. Many unemployed called for change and traveled to the district of Columbia. The Commonweal Army marched to DC and called for the a government run public works program, and for and for the government to print $500 million dollars in paper money. They wanted to create inflation so they could easily pay off debts. The army was arrested for walking on grass and it ended. In the 1892 election the Populists nominated James B. Weaver, who won nearly 10% of the votes. The democrat party stole the coinage of silver campaign from the Populists and they joined together in the demo- pop party. When McKinley won the presidency the Populist party fell apart.
Both the Unions and the Populist Party called for economic and political reforms from a political party standpoint. They both proved that the common men could come organize together and spark change. They paved the way for 20th century reform. In the 20th century “muckrakers” sought to point out and change the problems in urban america started in the gilded age. Jacob Riis worked at the New York Tribune assigned to the New York Police Department.He wanted to expose the evil of the city , the overcrowded tenements, crime centers, firetraps and the careless police. Took pictures of the poor and released “How the other half lives.” Lincoln Steffens, In McClure’s magazine, began a series of articles on corruption. He published the Shame of the cities, exposing corruption and leading to the arrest of many monopolie owners. He redeemed cities through beautification campaigns, better city planning, prosecution of corrupt official and increase in city service. Also presidents such at Theodore Roosevelt was a trustbuster, and sought to destroy monopolies and trusts. He felt big businesses took advantage of workers as well as cheating the public by eliminating competition. When coal miners began to strike, he sided with them and told the mine owners that he would send troops to run the mines, therefore the mine owner’s negotiated with the miners. He also signed the pure food and Drug act of 1906 after reading Sinclair’s The Jungle. President Wilson oversaw the Federal Trade Commission of 1914 that gave the power to investigate companies and order them to stop using business practices that destroyed its competitors. Also the Clayton Antitrust Act which strengthened the Sherman Antitrust Act and banned some business practices that limited competition. Stopped antitrust laws from being used against unions.
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