Chapters 23-26 The Gilded Age
In A Nutshell
The Gilded Age lasted from 1870-1900
The name came from the title of a Mark Twain book
"Gilded" means covered with gold on the outside, but not really golden on the inside
The Gilded Age was a period of rapid economic growth but also much social conflict. The Gilded Age, which spanned the final three decades of the nineteenth century, was one of the most dynamic, contentious, and volatile periods in American history. America's industrial economy exploded, generating unprecedented opportunities for individuals to build great fortunes but also leaving many farmers and workers struggling merely for survival. Overall national wealth increased more than fivefold, a staggering increase, but one that was accompanied by what many saw as an equally staggering disparity between the rich and the poor. Industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller revolutionized business and ushered in the modern corporate economy, but also, ironically, sometimes destroyed free-market economic competition in the process. Record numbers of citizens voted in national elections, but the politicians they voted for were often lackluster figures who turned a blind eye to the public interest.
It was, as Dickens might have said, the best of times and the worst of times.
But even that Dickensian understanding of the Gilded Age isn't quite right. It's not enough to say that the Gilded Age was a time of high highs and low lows; the highs and lows were actually often deeply intertwined parts of the exact same developments. In other words, the highs often were the lows, and vice versa. In the Gilded Age, every dark cloud had its silver lining… and every silver lining had its dark cloud. For more than a hundred years, critics have been ripping the business strategies that allowed big industrialists to build powerful monopolies—but those much-maligned monopolies brought desperately needed order to America's immature economic system. Many have also long resented the immense fortunes of personal wealth that a handful of big businessmen were able to acquire—but that wealth paid for a huge surge in philanthropy, building hundreds of libraries, schools, museums, and other public facilities still enjoyed by the American people even today. Reformers decried the way urban politicians turned corruption into a way of life—but those same crooked politicians also provided vital services to working-class and immigrant neighborhoods.
The Gilded Age was a dynamic age of incredible economic opportunity, just as it was a harsh era of incredible economic exploitation. Any version of this tale that includes only the exploitation but not the dynamism—or vice versa—is missing half the story.
The Gilded Age has been often portrayed as one of those dark periods in American history—a period of greed and corruption, of brutal industrial competition and harsh exploitation of labor. But buried beneath this one-dimensional portrait is a much more complex set of facts. For starters, even the harshest aspects of the period possessed their more positive elements. Monopolies brought order and efficiency, and wealth allowed philanthropy. But perhaps even more important, oppression itself inspired creative responses that helped to build modern America. Industrial workers were exploited, but they responded by forming the organizations that would gradually improve their wages and working conditions. Farmers lost money and much of their traditional influence on national affairs, but they too worked to establish the organizations and methods that would preserve their place in American life. Businessmen faced devastating competitive forces and financial chaos in the marketplace, but they developed the new structures and strategies that would allow modern American corporate capitalism to flourish. And citizens endured antidemocratic rule by corrupt machine politicians, but they began to push for the reforms that would soon restore a measure of democracy to urban politics.
The Gilded Age, therefore, may be educative—especially since many people believe that we have been living in something like our own "gilded age" in recent decades. Over the past thirty years, national wealth has grown exponentially, as has the opportunity for successful entrepreneurs to achieve stratospheric wealth. That very real opportunity to strike it rich has driven a stunning amount of technological and cultural innovation, transforming the way all of us—rich and poor alike—live our lives. At the same time, however, wages and incomes at the middle and lower ends of the socio-economic scale have remained flat for decades, with many ordinary people feeling now less and less secure in their ability to keep their jobs, pay their mortgages, afford their retirements, or even see their doctor when they're sick or injured. In our own era's simultaneous growth in both opportunity and insecurity, many see have seen echoes of the late nineteenth century.
Eventually the pervasive insecurity of the original Gilded Age inspired a major period of reform known as the Progressive Era. Many of the solutions earlier advanced by workers and farmers were adopted by middle-class activists and reform-minded leaders within business and government, all of them anxious to correct what they saw as troubling inequities in America's economic and political order. (Of course, the Progressives' solutions often created entirely new problems of their own—but that's a different story, one you can read here.)
More to the point: as we examine the complexity of the late nineteenth century, we might consider whether there is a creative subtext to our own "gilded age," if indeed we are living in one. Are we on the verge of another "progressive era"? If so, how should we define "progress"?
PERIOD 6: 1865–1898 (13%)
The transformation of the United States from an agricultural to an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society brought about significant economic, political, diplomatic, social, environmental, and cultural changes.
Key Concept 6.1: The rise of big business in the United States encouraged massive migrations and urbanization, sparked government and popular efforts to reshape the U.S. economy and environment, and renewed debates over U.S. national identity.
I. Large-scale production — accompanied by massive technological change, expanding international communication networks, and pro-growth government policies — fueled the development of a “Gilded Age” marked by an emphasis on consumption, marketing, and business consolidation.
C. Business leaders consolidated corporations into trusts and holding companies and defended their resulting status and privilege through theories such as Social Darwinism.
II. …[L]eaders of big business and their allies in government [faced significant challenges as they] aimed to create a unified industrialized nation….
C. Despite the industrialization of segments of the southern economy, a change promoted by southern leaders who called for a “New South,” agrarian sharecropping, and tenant farming systems continued to dominate.
III. Westward migration, new systems of farming and transportation, and economic instability led to political and popular conflicts.
C. The growth of corporate power in agriculture and economic instability in the farming sector inspired activists to create the People’s (Populist) Party, which called for political reform and a stronger governmental role in the American economic system.
Key Concept 6.2: The emergence of an industrial culture in the United States led to both greater opportunities for, and restrictions on, immigrants, minorities, and women.
I. International and internal migrations increased both urban and rural populations, but gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic inequalities abounded, inspiring some reformers to attempt to address these inequities.
B. Cities dramatically reflected divided social conditions among classes, races, ethnicities, and cultures, but presented economic opportunities as factories and new businesses proliferated.
D. In a urban atmosphere where access to power was unequally distributed, political machines provided social services in exchange for political support, settlement houses helped immigrants adapt to the new language and customs, and women’s clubs and self-help groups targeted intellectual development and social and political reform.
II. As transcontinental railroads were completed, bringing more settlers west, U.S. military actions, the destruction of the buffalo, the confinement of American Indians to reservations, and assimilationist policies reduced the number of American Indians and threatened native culture and identity.
A. Post–Civil War migration to the American West, encouraged by economic opportunities and government policies, caused the federal government to violate treaties with American Indian nations in order to expand the amount of land available to settlers.
Key Concept 6.3: The “Gilded Age” witnessed new cultural and intellectual movements in tandem with political debates over economic and social policies.
I. Gilded Age politics were intimately tied to big business and focused nationally on economic issues — tariffs, currency, corporate expansion, and laissez-faire economic policy — that engendered numerous calls for reform.
A. Corruption in government — especially as it related to big business — energized the public to demand increased popular control and reform of local, state, and national governments, ranging from minor changes to major overhauls of the capitalist system.
B. Increasingly prominent racist and nativist theories, along with Supreme Court decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson, were used to justify violence, as well as local and national policies of discrimination and segregation.
II. New cultural and intellectual movements both buttressed and challenged the social order of the Gilded Age.
B. A number of critics challenged the dominant corporate ethic in the United States and sometimes capitalism itself, offering alternate visions of the good society through utopianism and the Social Gospel.
C. Challenging their prescribed “place,” women and African American activists articulated alternative visions of political, social, and economic equality.Midterm Review Guide (note: Question #1 should be J)Great overview notes of the time period (worth checking out!)