The period in the United States from around 1877 to 1895 was one in which American society underwent enormous change. New social and economic processes such as changing political parties, questioning citizenship, and formations of labor unions disrupted older ways of organizing American society, challenged traditional ways of thinking about what it meant to be an American, and led Americans to look for ways to cope with these changes. The Gilded Age proved to be an era which America appeared great on the outside, when in reality the country was internally struggling to deal adapt to the many changes economically and socially. This paper will discuss the ways in which changes disrupted traditional American ideas and structures and how Americans clashed over coping with this massive change by looking at Robert Cherny’s American Politics in the Gilded Age, “The River Ran Red” and the fourteenth amendment.
Cherny discussed many of the changes that occurred during 1877-1895 in his book American Politics in the Gilded Age. Cherny’s focus early in the book on the role of the political parties during the time period. He does not scratch the surface, but tries to dig deep the Gilded Age of politics. Cherny also addresses social and economic changes. He said that progress merely provided a “gleaming surface of the Gilded Age. Just below that golden surface, however, lay twelve-hour workdays in factories, the widespread use of child labor, and large-scale business dealings…” (Cherny 4).
During the gilded age, parties changed their traditional ways of voting and elections. Parties were at war to gain political majority in order to have control in government decisions, so they began tactics to insure victories at the polls. Parties discouraged attendance at primaries by meeting at late hours and dangerous areas, developed bargaining tactics like “logrolling” (trading of influence or votes among legislators to gain passage of certain projects), and voters found it difficult to split a ticket when party organizers left no space to fill in names on the ballot. In Cherny’s book, Richard Jensen said that “Elections were treated like battles in which the two main armies (parties) concentrated on fielding the maximum number of troops (voters) on the battlefield (polls) on election day” (Cherny 12). America was supposedly a country where a man could choose freely who he wanted to represent him, but in reality parties choose the candidates.
In the video “The River Ran Red,” the events of the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 showed the myths of America being destroyed by giants like Andrew Carnegie who tried taking away his workers economic independence. The Union wanted to keep short workdays and good working conditions. Carnegie wanted to gain control of the factory from the Union and then implement lower wages. America struggled to maintain industrial progress and also allow workers to have time outside work. The Union and talks of strike was not welcome in the world of Carnegie, and was not a change the nation was willing to accept. America portrayed a myth of economic independence and boundless opportunity during the industrial progression, when in reality a worker was controlled by executive tyrants below the gilded surface.
The fourteenth amendment centralized on establishing that the federal government was more powerful than the state government, something that American citizens were not going to accept. The amendment gave blacks citizenship, which then also gave them the right to vote. Legally it gave some rights to blacks, but in reality Americans were fearful of losing political power, especially in the southern states. According to the amendment, no “state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” (Fourteenth Amendment, 1868). The amendment targeted southerners, who in turn were unwilling to accept the new given rights to blacks nor the governments power over the state.
Although America on the outside showed gilded signs of progress, the country was battling as political corruption, labor strikes, and southerner’s who continued to cling to their old ways by refusing to comply with the federal government. Political parties mocked the myth that America was a classless/democratic society. The labor union disputes dispelled the myths that America was ideal of economic independence and that it was the land of boundless opportunity. Finally, all men were not equal or have basic citizenship rights, despite the fourteenth amendment. All the problems that America had was covered by a golden surface labeled as progression while its citizens suffered and battled.
Filed Under: American Politics, History
The Gilded Age Summary & Analysis
The Golden Points
- Rapid economic growth generated vast wealth during the Gilded Age.
- New products and technologies improved middle-class quality of life.
- Industrial workers and farmers didn't share in the new prosperity, working long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay.
- Gilded Age politicians were largely corrupt and ineffective.
- Most Americans during the Gilded Age wanted political and social reforms, but they disagreed strongly on what kind of reform.
Gilded or Gold?
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner were the first to call the years after the Civil War the "gilded age." Struck by what they saw as the rampant greed and speculative frenzy of the marketplace, and the corruption pervading national politics, they satirized a society whose serious problems, they felt, had been veiled by a thin coating of gold.
The label stuck.
Now usually applied to the period extending from the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 to the elevation of reformer Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency at the turn of the 20th century, the term "Gilded Age" has survived because historians have found a great deal of validity in Twain's and Dudley's characterization of their own time.
During those years, America's economy did grow at an extraordinary rate, generating unprecedented levels of wealth. Railroads and soon, telephone lines, stretched across the country, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs and cheaper goods for consumers. But a nation that had long viewed itself in idyllic terms, as a nation of small farmers and craftsmen, confronted the emergence of a society increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots: a society in which many poor workers struggled just to survive while an emerging industrial and financial aristocracy lived in palatial homes and indulged in opulent amusements.
Some Americans celebrated the new wealth, and others lamented it. All could agree that profound changes were taking place in the country.
During these years, American politics were dynamic and exciting. Voter participation rates were extraordinarily high and national elections were decided by razor-thin margins. But corruption also plagued American politics. At the national level, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant was a cesspool of graft and maladministration. Succeeding presidential administrations were less corrupt, but the influence of America's rapidly-expanding wealth did leave its mark on public life, as many politicians embraced a governing philosophy rooted in the premise that this economic elite should be allowed to pursue its endeavors with minimal government interference.
At the municipal level, this was the era of the political machine. Urban politics were dominated by powerful organizations that exchanged jobs and contracts for political loyalty—and to the surprise of no one, the politicians running those organizations always managed to skim a little off the top for themselves.
The most infamous of these machines was New York's Tammany Hall, but corrupt urban politics didn't end at the Hudson River. On the other side of the country, Boss Ruef ran San Francisco, and even in America's heartland, Tom Dennison ran Omaha—cough, Nebraska's version of a big city, cough—in much the same fashion.
While economic and political elites capitalized on America's rapidly expanding wealth, industrial workers struggled to survive the bleak conditions often hidden behind the nation's glittering façade. Industrial wages were low and hours were long in factories that were typically dangerous and unhealthy. But perhaps worse, the restructuring of work—the subdivision of labor into its unskilled parts—left many workers with few marketable skills and little hope for occupational or social mobility.
One consequence of all this was a budding labor movement, as workers banded together to try to force their collective will upon the industrial giants that had dominated them as individuals. Workers' efforts to organize frequently led to long and violent strikes, rocking the economic landscape and even raising the frightening specter of outright class warfare.
America's farmers also suffered during these years. Initially, they, too capitalized on the new technologies and new markets of America's growing economy. But soon, they faced increased competition, saturated markets, and falling prices for their produce. By the last decades of the century, their share of the national wealth had precipitously declined and their iconic place in the American imagination was at risk.
This was the Gilded Age that Mark Twain lampooned so viciously.
Of course, many of Twain's contemporaries disagreed with his characterization of the period. Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner argued that the turbulence and casualties of economic development were unfortunate but necessary. Development depended on competition; economic and social progress brought failure as well as success. Economic inequalities weren't only inevitable, but they were essential to material progress. And any government interference with the natural course of social and economic development would impede, not advance, progress.
Most modern historians are less willing to accept the period's casualties quite so philosophically, but many have concluded that the economic forces unleashed during these years were crucial to the development of American society. While these historians concede that many suffered through this transitional period, wages were low, farmers' status was precarious, and urban conditions were deplorable, they also acknowledge that American entrepreneurs, large and small, were building a national economy that would deliver better goods, improved lifestyles, and eventually higher wages for the vast majority of Americans.
Yet whether Gilded Age contemporaries condemned or defended the social and economic forces at play, and whether historians find Twain's or Sumner's assessment of the period more compelling, almost all agree that things began to change around the turn of the century.
A common interpretation of these years suggests that in 1901, industrialists and politicians who had long operated without restraint suddenly faced a new president and an increasingly concerned middle class, anxious to reform the abuses they perceived in American economic and political life. The reform period they ushered in—the Progressive Era—recast the role of government and laid the groundwork for the modern state within an industrial economy.
There's a lot of truth in this interpretation. At the turn of the century, we can detect a shift in the public consensus, a growing sense that earlier confidences that industrial leaders would build a prosperous and equitable society may have been misplaced. As the strikes multiplied and grew more violent, as farmers bolted from the traditional political parties and launched one of their own, and as political machine operatives boldly articulated new governing philosophies that violated traditional conceptions of disinterested public service, America's large middle class did embrace a new understanding of government and its role in society.
But if we look closely at the Gilded Age itself, we can see considerable discomfort with the direction of American life much earlier than 1900. Twain and Warner wrote their satire of the times in 1873, and they weren't alone. Social critics and reform politicians appeared on the scene relatively early, voicing concerns about what they saw as economic exploitation and political corruption surrounding them.
And well before 1900, labor organizers and agrarian reformers experimented with various organizational and political approaches to increasing their own power.
Perhaps more interesting, many of the most successful players within the new economic order of the Gilded Age revealed their own discomfort with the times as well. John D. Rockefeller, the most powerful industrialist of the era, recognized that he needed to defend his practices and the enormity of his oil empire. Andrew Carnegie realized that he needed to articulate a philosophy that defended the size of the personal fortunes he and his friends were accumulating.
Both realized that America's republican traditions had to be mollified, not recklessly ignored. So, both sought to soften the roughest edges of the period through philanthropy and philosophy, even though their own firms were thriving in the harshest corners of the marketplace.
The years between 1868 and 1901 can, with some justice, be labeled a "gilded age." A glittering façade did indeed cover a host of social and economic problems. But merely labeling the period a gilded sham—à la Mark Twain—doesn't truly capture all that was going on. These years saw Americans struggling to come to terms with the size, wealth, political needs, and new labor relations of their changing nation.
Beneath the nation's golden façade—whether we think that façade fairly captured the underlying reality or not—Americans were already at work on the answers to the social and economic challenges of the new era.