Historical Challenge Jacob Riis and Tenement Housing worksheet 1

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Jacob Riis and Tenement Housing

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Jacob Riis and Tenement Housing

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NAME:Chapter 16 Historical Challenge QuestionsWhat does each photograph suggest about what life was like in the tenements of New York City in the late 19th century?Document A  :Document B  :Document C  :What other evidence might you want to see if you wanted to determine whether these photographs were an accurate representation of life in the tenements?When evaluating whether a historical photograph is useful as evidence, historians consider various questions, including:When and where was the photograph was taken?Who took the photograph? What was their perspective on the events or people being photographed, and how might that have influenced what they chose to shoot?Why was the photograph taken? Might the photographer have wanted to portray a scene in a particular way?Under what circumstances was the photograph taken? How might these circumstances have limited or enabled what the photographer captured?What technology did the photographer use, and how might that have influenced the image created?3a. Considering the questions above, why might Riis’s photographs be useful evidence about life in New York’s tenements?3b. Considering the questions above, what about the photographs might cause you to question whether they are useful evidence about life in New York’s tenements?Riis used the image in Document B in his popular slideshow presentation. In his lecture notes, Riis wrote, “On one of my visits to ‘the Bend’ I came across this fellow sitting . . . and he struck me as being such a typical tramp that I asked him to sit still for a minute and I would give him ten cents. That was probably the first and only ten cents that man had earned by honest labor in the course of his life and that was by sitting down at which he was an undoubted expert.”4a. What was Riis’s attitude toward the man in the picture?4b. Does this affect whether Document B is good evidence of life in the tenements? Why or why not?5a. What does Document D reveal about Riis’s attitudes towards Italian immigrants?5b. Does this passage affect whether Riis’s photographs are good evidence of life in the tenements? Why or why not?

1 8 7 0–1 8 9 0

A M E R I C A ’ S G I L D E D A G E

★ C H A P T E R   1 6 ★

F O C U S Q U E S T I O N S • What factors combined to make the United States a mature industrial society

after the Civil War?

• How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

• Was the Gilded Age political system effective in meeting its goals?

• How did the economic development of the Gilded Age affect American freedom?

• How did reformers of the period approach the problems of an industrial society?

An immense crowd gathered in New York harbor on October 28, 1886, for the dedication of Liberty Enlightening the World, a fitting symbol for a nation now wholly free. The idea for the statue originated in 1865 with Édouard de Laboulaye, a French educator and the author of sev- eral books on the United States, as a response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The statue, de Laboulaye hoped, would celebrate both the historic friendship between France and the United States and the triumph, through the Union’s victory in the Civil War, of American freedom. Measuring more than 150 feet from torch to toe and standing atop a huge pedestal, the edifice was the tallest man- made structure in the Western Hemisphere. It exceeded

★ 603

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604 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

• C H R O N O L O G Y •

1872 Crédit Mobilier scandal

1873 Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s Gilded Age

1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn

1877 Reconstruction ends

Munn v. Illinois

Great Railroad Strike

1879 Henry George’s Progress and Poverty

1883 Civil Service Act

Railroads create time zones

William Graham Sumner’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other

1884 Elk v. Wilkins

1886 Haymarket affair

Wabash v. Illinois

Standard national railroad gauge

1887 Interstate Commerce Commission created

Dawes Act

1888 Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward

1890 Sherman Antitrust Act

Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives

Massacre at Wounded Knee

1894 Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth against Commonwealth

1895 United States v. E. C. Knight Co.

in height, newspapers noted with pride, the Colossus of Rhodes, a wonder of the ancient world.

In time, the Statue of Liberty, as it came to be called, would become Americans’ most re- vered national icon. For over a century it has stood as a symbol of freedom. The statue has offered welcome to millions of immigrants— the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” celebrated in a poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on its base in 1903. In the years since its dedication, the statue’s familiar im- age has been reproduced by folk artists in ev- ery conceivable medium and has been used by advertisers to promote everything from cigarettes and lawn mowers to war bonds. As its use by Chinese students demanding de- mocracy in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 showed, it has become a powerful in- ternational symbol as well.

The year of the statue’s dedication, 1886, also witnessed the “great upheaval,” a wave of strikes and labor protests that touched every part of the nation. The 600 dignitaries (598 of them men) who gathered on what is now called Liberty Island for the dedication hoped the Statue of Liberty would inspire re- newed devotion to the nation’s political and economic system. But for all its grandeur, the statue could not conceal the deep social divisions and fears about the future of Amer- ican freedom that accompanied the country’s emergence as the world’s leading industrial power. Nor did the celebrations address the crucial questions that moved to the center stage of American public life during the 1870s and 1880s and remained there for decades to come: What are the social conditions that make freedom possible, and what role should the national government play in defining and protecting the liberty of its citizens?

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T H E S E C O N D I N D U S T R I A L R E V O L U T I O N Between the end of the Civil War and the early twentieth century, the United States under- went one of the most rapid and profound economic revolutions any country has ever experienced. There were numerous causes for this explosive economic growth. The country enjoyed abundant natural resources, a growing supply of labor, an expanding market for manufactured goods, and the availability of capital for investment. In addition, the federal government actively promoted industrial and agricul- tural development. It enacted high tariffs that protected American industry from foreign competition, granted land to railroad companies to encourage construction, and used the army to remove Indians from western lands desired by farmers and mining companies.

The Industrial Economy

The rapid expansion of factory production, mining, and railroad construction in all parts of the country except the South signaled the transition from Lincoln’s America— a world centered on the small farm and artisan workshop— to a mature industrial society. Americans of the late nineteenth century marveled at the tri- umph of the new economy. “One can hardly believe,” wrote the philosopher John Dewey, “there has been a revolution in history so rapid, so extensive, so complete.”

By 1913, the United States produced one- third of the world’s industrial output— more than the total of Great Britain, France, and Germany com- bined. Half of all industrial workers now labored in plants with more than 250 employees. On the eve of the Civil War, the first industrial revolution, centered on the textile industry, had transformed New England into a center of manu- facturing. But otherwise, the United States was still primarily an agricultural nation. By 1880, for the first time, the Census Bureau found a majority of the workforce engaged in non- farming jobs. The traditional dream of economic independence seemed obsolete. By 1890, two- thirds of Americans worked for wages, rather than owning a farm, business, or craft shop. Drawn to factories by the promise of employment, a new working class emerged in these years. Between 1870 and 1920, almost 11 million Americans moved from farm to city, and another 25 million immigrants arrived from overseas.

Most manufacturing now took place in industrial cities. New York, with its new skyscrapers and hundreds of thousands of workers in all sorts of

1896 Utah gains statehood

1899 Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class

1905 Lochner v. New York

• •

What factors combined to make the United States a mature industrial society after the Civil War?

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manufacturing establishments, symbolized dynamic urban growth. After merg- ing with Brooklyn in 1898, its population exceeded 3.4 million. The city financed industrialization and westward expansion, its banks and stock exchange fun- neling capital to railroads, mines, and factories. But the heartland of the second industrial revolution was the region around the Great Lakes, with its factories producing iron and steel, machinery, chemicals, and packaged foods. Pittsburgh had become the world’s center of iron and steel manufacturing. Chicago, by 1900 the nation’s second- largest city, with 1.7 million inhabitants, was home to facto- ries producing steel and farm machinery and giant stockyards where cattle were processed into meat products for shipment east in refrigerated rail cars. Smaller industrial cities also proliferated, often concentrating on a single industry— cast- iron stoves in Troy, New York, furniture in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Railroads and the National Market

The railroad made possible what is sometimes called the “second industrial revolution.” Spurred by private investment and massive grants of land and money by federal, state, and local governments, the number of miles of rail- road track in the United States tripled between 1860 and 1880 and tripled again

Table 16.1 Indicators of Economic Change, 1870–1920

1870 1900 1920

Farms (millions) Land in farms (million acres) Wheat grown (million bushels)

2.7 408 254

5.7 841 599

6.4 956 843

Employment (millions) In manufacturing (millions)

14 2.5

28.5 5.9

44.5 11.2

Percentage in workforcea Agricultural Industryb Trade, service, administrationc

52 29 20

38 31 31

27 44 27

Railroad track (thousands of miles) Steel produced (thousands of tons)

53 0.8

258 11.2

407 46

GNP (billions of dollars) Per capita (in 1920 dollars)

7.4 371

18.7 707

91.5 920

Life expectancy at birth (years) 42 47 54

a Percentages are rounded and do not total 100. b Includes manufacturing, transportation, mining, and construction. c Includes trade, finance, and public administration.

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by 1920, opening vast new areas to commercial farming and creating a truly national market for manufactured goods. In 1886, the railroads adopted a stan- dard national gauge (the distance separating the two rails), making it possible for the first time for trains of one company to travel on any other company’s track. By the 1890s, five transcontinental lines transported the products of western mines, farms, ranches, and forests to eastern markets and carried man- ufactured goods to the West. The railroads reorganized time itself. In 1883, the major companies divided the nation into the four time zones still in use today.

The growing population formed an ever- expanding market for the mass production, mass distribution, and mass marketing of goods, essential elements of a modern industrial economy. The spread of national brands like Ivory soap and Quaker Oats symbolized the continuing integration of the economy. So did the growth of national chains, most prominently the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as A & P grocery stores. Based in Chicago, the national mail- order firms Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold clothing, jewelry, farm equipment, and numerous other goods to rural families through- out the country.

New OrleansHouston


El Paso Dallas


New York Philadelphia



Detroit ClevelandChicago

St. Louis

Memphis Atlanta



Washington, D.C.

St. Paul


Kansas City Denver

Santa FePhoenix Los Angeles

Salt Lake City Reno

San Francisco





Pacific Time Zone

Mountain Time Zone Central

Time Zone Eastern Time Zone Atlantic

Time Zone

Southern Pacific

Central P acific

Union Pacific

Northern Pacific

New York Central Pennsylvania

Baltimore and Ohio

Illinois Central


MEXICO Gulf of Mexico

Atlantic Ocean

Pa c i f ic Oce an 0




500 miles

500 kilometers Major railroads in 1880 Time-zone boundaries

T H E R A I L R O A D N E T W O R K , 1 8 8 0

By 1880, the transnational rail network made possible the creation of a truly national market for goods.

What factors combined to make the United States a mature industrial society after the Civil War?

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The Spirit of Innovation

A remarkable series of technological innovations spurred rapid communica- tion and economic growth. The opening of the Atlantic cable in 1866 made it possible to send electronic telegraph messages instantaneously between the United States and Europe. During the 1870s and 1880s, the telephone, type- writer, and handheld camera came into use.

Scientific breakthroughs poured forth from research laboratories in Menlo Park and West Orange, New Jersey, created by the era’s greatest inventor, Thomas A. Edison. During the course of his life, Edison helped to establish entirely new industries that transformed private life, public entertainment, and economic activity, including the phonograph, lightbulb, motion picture, and a system for generating and distributing electric power. He opened the first electric generating station in Manhattan in 1882 to provide power to street- cars, factories, and private homes, and he established, among other companies, the forerunner of General Electric to market electrical equipment. The spread of electricity was essential to industrial and urban growth, providing a more reliable and flexible source of power than water or steam. However, it was not Edison but another inventor, Nikola Tesla, an ethnic Serb born in modern- day Croatia who emigrated to the United States at the age of twenty- eight, who developed an electric motor using the system of alternating current that over- came many of the challenges of using electricity for commercial and industrial purposes.

Competition and Consolidation

Economic growth was dramatic but highly volatile. The combination of a mar- ket flooded with goods and the federal monetary policies (discussed later) that removed money from the national economy led to a relentless fall in prices. The world economy suffered prolonged downturns in the 1870s and 1890s. Indeed, before the 1930s, the years from 1873 to 1897 were known throughout the world as the Great Depression.

Businesses engaged in ruthless competition. Railroads and other compa nies tried various means of bringing order to the chaotic marketplace. They formed “pools” that divided up markets between supposedly competing firms and fixed prices. They established trusts— legal devices whereby the affairs of sev eral rival companies were managed by a single director. Such efforts to coordinate the economic activities of independent companies generally proved short- lived, disintegrating as individual firms continued their intense pursuit of profits.

To avoid cutthroat competition, more and more corporations battled to control entire industries. Many companies fell by the wayside or were gobbled up by others. The process of economic concentration culminated between

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1897 and 1904, when some 4,000 firms vanished into larger corporations that served national markets and exercised an unprecedented degree of control over the marketplace. By the time the wave of mergers had been completed, giant corporations like U.S. Steel (created by financier J. P. Morgan in 1901 by combining eight large steel companies into the first billion- dollar economic enterprise), Standard Oil, and International Harvester (a manufacturer of agri- cultural machinery) dominated major parts of the economy.

The Rise of Andrew Carnegie

In an era without personal or corporate income taxes, some business leaders accumulated enormous fortunes and economic power. Under the aggressive leadership of Thomas A. Scott, the Pennsylvania Railroad— for a time the nation’s largest corporation— forged an economic empire that stretched across the continent and included coal mines and oceangoing steamships. With an army of professional managers to oversee its far- flung activities, the railroad pioneered modern techniques of business organization.

Another industrial giant was Andrew Carnegie, who emigrated with his family from his native Scotland at the age of thirteen and as a teenager worked in a Pennsylvania textile factory. During the depression that began in 1873, Carnegie set out to establish a steel company that incorporated vertical integration— that is, one that controlled every phase of the business from raw materials to transportation, manufacturing, and distribution. By the 1890s, he dominated the steel industry and had accumulated a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Carnegie’s complex of steel factories at Homestead, Penn- sylvania, were the most technologically advanced in the world.

Carnegie’s father, an immigrant Scottish weaver who had taken part in pop- ular efforts to open the British political system to working- class participation, had instilled in his son a commitment to democracy and social equality. From his mother, Carnegie learned that life was a ceaseless struggle in which one must strive to get ahead or sink beneath the waves. His life reflected the tension between these elements of his upbringing. Believing that the rich had a moral obligation to promote the advancement of society, Carnegie denounced the “worship of money” and distributed much of his wealth to various philanthro- pies, especially the creation of public libraries in towns throughout the country. But he ran his companies with a dictatorial hand. His factories operated non- stop, with two twelve- hour shifts every day of the year except the Fourth of July.

The Triumph of John D. Rockefeller

If any single name became a byword for enormous wealth, it was John D. Roc kefeller, who began his working career as a clerk for a Cleveland merchant

What factors combined to make the United States a mature industrial society after the Civil War?

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and rose to dominate the oil industry. He drove out rival firms through cutthroat competition, arranging secret deals with railroad companies, and fixing prices and production quotas. Rockefeller began with horizontal expansion— buying out competing oil refineries. But like Carnegie, he soon established a vertically integrated monopoly, which controlled the drilling, refining, storage, and dis- tribution of oil. By the 1880s, his Standard Oil Company controlled 90 percent of the nation’s oil industry. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller gave much of his fortune away, establishing foundations to promote education and medical research. And like Carnegie, he bitterly fought his employees’ efforts to organize unions.

These and other industrial leaders inspired among ordinary Americans a combination of awe, admiration, and hostility. Depending on one’s point of view,

Cleveland (see inset)

Pittsburgh (see inset)






























La ke

M ic

hi ga


Lake H uron

Lak e Er


Lake Ontario

Gulf of Mexico

Atlantic Ocean

Lake Erie


Pittsburgh Monroeville


New Kensington





200 miles

200 kilometers

Firms Incorporated into U.S. Steel: Type of plant: Blast furnace Rolling mill, steel work Bridge-building plant Companies: The Carnegie Co. Federal Steel Co. National Steel Co. National Tube Co. American Tin Plate Co. American Steel Hoop Co. American Sheet Steel Co. American Bridge Co. Lake Superior Iron Mines American Steel and Wire Co. of New Jersey

U . S .   S T E E L : A V E RT I C A L LY I N T E G R AT E D C O R P O R AT I O N

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they were “captains of industry,” whose energy and vision pushed the economy forward, or “robber barons,” who wielded power without any accountability in an unregulated marketplace. Most rose from modest backgrounds and seemed examples of how inventive genius and business sense enabled Americans to seize opportunities for success. But their dictatorial attitudes, unscrupulous methods, repressive labor policies, and exercise of power without any demo- cratic control led to fears that they were undermining political and economic freedom. Concentrated wealth degraded the political process, declared Henry Demarest Lloyd in Wealth against Commonwealth (1894), an exposé of how Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company made a mockery of economic competition and political democracy by manipulating the market and bribing legislators. “Liberty and monopoly,” Lloyd concluded, “cannot live together.”

Workers’ Freedom in an Industrial Age

Remarkable as it was, the country’s economic growth distributed its benefits very unevenly. For a minority of workers, the rapidly expanding industrial system created new forms of freedom. In some industries, skilled workers commanded high wages and exercised considerable control over the produc- tion process. A worker’s economic independence now rested on technical skill rather than ownership of one’s own shop and tools as in earlier times. What was known as “the miner’s freedom” consisted of elaborate work rules that left skilled underground workers free of managerial supervision on the job. Through their union, skilled iron- and steelworkers fixed output quotas and controlled the training of apprentices in the technique of iron rolling. These workers often knew more about the details of production than their employers did.

Such “freedom,” however, applied only to a tiny portion of the industrial labor force and had little bearing on the lives of the growing army of semi- skilled workers who tended machines in the new factories. For most workers, economic insecurity remained a basic fact of life. During the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s, millions of workers lost their jobs or were forced to accept reductions of pay. The “tramp” became a familiar figure on the social landscape as thousands of men took to the roads in search of work. Many industrial work- ers labored sixty- hour weeks with no pensions, compensation for injuries, or protections against unemployment. Although American workers received higher wages than their counterparts in Europe, they also experienced more dangerous working conditions. Between 1880 and 1900, an average of 35,000 workers perished each year in factory and mine accidents, the highest rate in the industrial world.

Much of the working class remained desperately poor and to survive needed income from all family members. In 1888, the Chicago Times published a series

What factors combined to make the United States a mature industrial society after the Civil War?

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of articles by reporter Nell Cusack under the title “City Slave Girls,” exposing wretched conditions among the growing number of women working for wages in the city’s homes, factories, and sweatshops. The articles unleashed a flood of letters to the editor from women workers. One woman singled out domestic service— still the largest employment category for women— as “a slave’s life,” with “long hours, late and early, seven days in the week, bossed and ordered about as before the war.”

Sunshine and Shadow: Increasing Wealth and Poverty

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the era witnessed an unprecedented accumulation of wealth. Class divisions became more and more visible. In frontier days, all classes in San Francisco, for example, lived near the waterfront. In the late nineteenth century, upper- class families built mansions on Nob Hill and Van Ness Avenue (known as “millionaire’s row”). In eastern cities as well, the rich increasingly resided in their own exclusive neighborhoods and vacationed among members of their own class at exclusive resorts like Newport, Rhode Island. The growing urban middle class of professionals, office workers, and small businessmen moved to new urban and suburban neighborhoods linked to central business districts by streetcars and commuter railways. “Passion for money,” wrote the novelist Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth (1905), domi- nated society. Wharton’s book traced the difficulties of Lily Bart, a young woman of modest means pressured by her mother and New York high society to “bar- ter” her beauty for marriage to a rich husband in a world where “to be poor . . . amounted to disgrace.”

By 1890, the richest 1 percent of Americans received the same total income as the bottom half of the population and owned more property than the remaining 99 percent. Many of the wealthiest Americans consciously pursued an aristocratic lifestyle, building palatial homes, attending exclusive social clubs, schools, and colleges, holding fancy- dress balls, and marrying into each other’s families. In 1899, the economist and social historian Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, a devastating critique of an upper- class culture focused on “conspicuous consumption”—that is, spending money not on needed or even desired goods, but simply to demonstrate the possession of wealth. One of the era’s most widely publicized spectacles was an elaborate cos- tume ball organized in 1897 by Mrs. Bradley Martin, the daughter of a New York railroad financier. The theme was the royal court of prerevolutionary France. The Waldorf- Astoria Hotel was decorated to look like the palace of Versailles, the guests wore the dress of the French nobility, and the hostess bedecked her- self with the actual jewels of Queen Marie Antoinette.

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Not that far from the Waldorf, much of the working class lived in desperate conditions. Matthew Smith’s 1868 best- seller Sunshine and Shadow in New York opened with an engraving that con- trasted department store magnate Alex- ander T. Stewart’s two- million- dollar mansion with housing in the city’s slums. Two decades later, Jacob Riis, in How the Other Half Lives (1890), offered a shocking account of living conditions among the urban poor, complete with photographs of apartments in dark, air- less, overcrowded tenement houses.

T H E T R A N S F O R M A T I O N O F T H E W E S T Nowhere did capitalism penetrate more rapidly or dramatically than in the trans- Mississippi West, whose “vast, trackless spaces,” as the poet Walt Whitman called them, were now absorbed into the expanding economy. At the close of the Civil War, the frontier of continuous white settlement did not extend very far beyond the Mississippi River. To the west lay millions of acres of fertile and mineral- rich land roamed by giant herds of buffalo whose meat and hides provided food, clothing, and shelter for a population of more than 250,000 Indians.

In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave a celebrated lecture, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in which he argued that on the western frontier the distinctive qualities of American culture were forged: individual freedom, political democracy, and economic mobility. The West, he added, acted as a “safety valve,” drawing off those dissatisfied with their situation in the East and therefore counteracting the threat of social unrest. Turner’s was one of the most influential interpretations of American history ever developed. But his lecture summarized attitudes toward the West that had been widely shared among Americans long before 1893. Ever since the beginning of colonial settlement in British North America, the West— a region whose definition shifted as the population expanded— had been seen as a place of opportunity for those seeking to improve their condition in life.

Baxter Street Court, 1890, one of numerous photographs by Jacob Riis depicting living conditions in New York City’s slums.

How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

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Many Americans did indeed experience the westward movement in the way Turner described it. From farmers moving into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in the decades after the American Revolution to prospectors who struck it rich in the California gold rush of the mid- nineteenth century, millions of Americans and immigrants from abroad found in the westward movement a path to economic opportunity. But Turner seemed to portray the West as an empty space before the coming of white settlers. In fact, of course, it was already inhabited by Native Americans, whose dispossession was essential to the opening of land for settle- ment by others. Moreover, the West was hardly a uniform paradise of small, independent farmers. Landlords, railroads, and mining companies in the West also utilized Mexican migrant and indentured labor, Chinese working on long- term contracts, and, until the end of the Civil War, African- American slaves.

A Diverse Region

The West, of course, was hardly a single area. West of the Mississippi River lay a variety of regions, all marked by remarkable physical beauty— the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the desert of the Southwest, the Sierra Nevada, and the valleys and coastline of California and the Pacific Northwest. It would take many decades before individual settlers and corporate business enterprises penetrated all these areas. But the process was far advanced by the end of the nineteenth century.

The political and economic incorporation of the American West was part of a global process. In many parts of the world, indigenous inhabitants— the Mapuche in Chile, the Zulu in South Africa, Aboriginal peoples in Australia, American Indians— were pushed aside (often after fierce resistance) as cen- tralizing governments brought large interior regions under their control. In the United States, the incorporation of the West required the active interven- tion of the federal government, which acquired Indian land by war and treaty, administered land sales, regulated territorial politics, and distributed land and money to farmers, railroads, and mining companies. Western states used land donated by the federal government, in accordance with the Morrill Land- Grant Act passed during the Civil War, to establish public universities. And, of course, the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment decided the long contest over whether the West would be a society based on free or slave labor.

Newly created western territories such as Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas remained under federal control far longer than had been the pat- tern in the East. Eastern territories had taken an average of thirteen years to achieve statehood; it took New Mexico sixty- two years to do so, Arizona forty- nine, and Utah forty- six. Many easterners were wary of granting statehood to

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the territories until white and non- Mormon settlers counterbalanced the large Latino and Mormon populations.

In the twentieth century, the con- struction of federally financed irriga- tion systems and dams would open large areas to commercial farming. Ironically, the West would become known (not least to its own inhabi- tants) as a place of rugged individu- alism and sturdy independence. But without active governmental assis- tance, the region could never have been settled and developed.

Farming on the Middle Border

Even as sporadic Indian wars raged, set- tlers poured into the West. Territorial and state governments eager for popu- lation, and railroad companies anxious to sell land they had acquired from the government, flooded European coun- tries and eastern cities with promo- tional literature promising easy access to land. More land came into cultivation in the thirty years after the Civil War than in the previous two and a half cen- turies of American history. Hundreds of thousands of families acquired farms under the Homestead Act, and even more purchased land from speculators and from railroad companies that had been granted immense tracts of public land by the federal government. A new agricultural empire producing wheat and corn for national and international markets arose on the Middle Border (Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas), whose population rose from 300,000 in 1860 to 5 million in 1900. The farmers were a diverse group, includ- ing native- born easterners, blacks escaping the post- Reconstruction South, and immigrants from Canada, Germany, Scandinavia, and Great Britain. Although ethnic diversity is generally associated with eastern cities, in the late nine- teenth century the most multicultural state in the Union was North Dakota.

Despite the promises of promotional pamphlets, farming on the Great Plains was not an easy task. Difficulties came in many forms— from the poisonous rat- tlesnakes that lived in the tall prairie grass to the blizzards and droughts that

Having been granted millions of acres of land by the federal and state governments, railroads sought to encourage emigration to the West so they could sell real estate to settlers. This is a post– Civil War advertisement by a Texas railroad.

How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

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periodically afflicted the region. Much of the burden fell on women. Farm families generally invested in the kinds of labor- saving machinery that would bring in cash, not machines that would ease women’s burdens in the household (like the backbreaking task of doing laundry). While husbands and sons tended to devote their labor to cash crops, farm wives cared for animals, grew crops for food, and cooked and cleaned. A farm woman in Arizona described her morning chores in her diary: “Get up, turn out my chickens, draw a pail of water . . . make a fire, put potatoes to cook, brush and sweep half inch of dust off floor, feed three litters of chickens, then mix biscuits, get breakfast, milk, besides work in the house, and this morning had to go half mile after calves.” On far- flung homesteads, many miles from schools, medical care, and sources of entertainment, farm families suffered from loneliness and isolation— a problem especially severe for women when their husbands left, sometimes for weeks at a time, to market their crops.

Bonanza Farms

John Wesley Powell, the explorer and geologist who surveyed the Middle Bor- der in the 1870s, warned that because of the region’s arid land and limited rain- fall, development there required large- scale irrigation projects. The model of family farming envisioned by the Homestead Act of 1862 could not apply: no single family could do all the work required on irrigated farms— only coopera- tive, communal farming could succeed, Powell maintained.

Despite the emergence of a few bonanza farms that covered thousands of acres and employed large numbers of agricultural wage workers, family farms still dominated the trans- Mississippi West. Even small farmers, however, became increasingly oriented to national and international markets, special- izing in the production of single crops for sale in faraway places. At the same time, railroads brought factory- made goods to rural people, replacing items previously produced in farmers’ homes. Farm families became more and more dependent on loans to purchase land, machinery, and industrial products, and more and more vulnerable to the ups and downs of prices for agricultural goods in the world market. Agriculture reflected how the international economy was becoming more integrated. The combination of economic depressions and expanding agricultural production in places like Argentina, Australia, and the American West pushed prices of farm products steadily downward. From Italy and Ireland to China, India, and the American South, small farmers throughout the world suffered severe difficulties in the last quarter of the nineteenth cen- tury. Many joined the migration to cities within their countries or the increas- ing international migration of labor.

The future of western farming ultimately lay with giant agricultural enter- prises relying heavily on irrigation, chemicals, and machinery— investments far beyond the means of family farmers. A preview of the agricultural future

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was already evident in California, where, as far back as Spanish and Mexican days, landownership had been concentrated in large units. In the late nine- teenth century, California’s giant fruit and vegetable farms, owned by corpora- tions like the Southern Pacific Railroad, were tilled not by agricultural laborers who could expect to acquire land of their own, but by migrant laborers from China, the Philippines, Japan, and Mexico, who tramped from place to place following the ripening crops.

In the 1870s, California’s “wheat barons,” who owned ranches of 30,000 or more acres, shipped their grain from San Francisco all the way to Great Britain, while large- scale growers in the new “Orange Empire” of the southern part of the state sent fruit east by rail, packaged in crates bedecked with images of an Edenic landscape filled with lush orchards.

The Cowboy and the Corporate West

The two decades following the Civil War also witnessed the golden age of the cattle kingdom. The Kansas Pacific Railroad’s stations at Abilene, Dodge City, and Wichita, Kansas, became destinations for the fabled drives of mil- lions of cattle from Texas. A collection of white, Mexican, and black men who conducted the cattle drives, the cowboys became symbols of a life of freedom on the open range. Their exploits would later serve as the theme of many a Hollywood movie, and their clothing inspired fashions that remain popular today. But there was nothing romantic about the life of the cowboys, most of whom were low- paid wage workers. (Texas cowboys even went on strike for higher pay in 1883.) The days of the long- distance cattle drive ended in the mid- 1880s, as farmers enclosed more and more of the open range with barbed- wire fences, making it difficult to graze cattle on the grasslands of the Great Plains, and two terrible winters destroyed millions of cattle. When the industry recuperated, it was reorganized in large, enclosed ranches close to rail connections.

The West was more than a farming empire. By 1890, a higher percentage of its population lived in cities than was the case in other regions. The economic focus of California’s economy remained San Francisco, a major manufactur- ing center and one of the world’s great trading ports. The explosive growth of southern California began in the 1880s, first with tourism, heavily promoted by railroad companies, followed by the discovery of oil in Los Angeles in 1892. Large corporate enterprises appeared throughout the West. The lumber indus- try, dominated by small- scale producers in 1860, came under the control of cor- porations that acquired large tracts of forest and employed armies of loggers. Lumbermen had cut trees in the Far West’s vast forests since the days of Span- ish and Mexican rule. Now, with rising demand for wood for buildings in urban centers and with new railroads making it possible to send timber quickly to the

How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

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618 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

East, production expanded rapidly. Sawmills sprang up near rail lines, and lum- ber companies acquired thousands of acres of timber land. Loggers who had migrated from the East and Midwest and were used to cutting pine trees had to develop new techniques for felling the far larger giant redwoods of northern California. Once they did, coastal forests were decimated, with the high- quality wood being used to construct many of the buildings in San Francisco and other communities. In the early twentieth century, the desire to save the remaining redwoods would become one inspiration for the conservation movement.

Western mining, from Michigan iron ore and copper to gold and silver in California, Nevada, and Colorado, fell under the sway of companies that mobi- lized eastern and European investment to introduce advanced technology. Gold and silver rushes took place in the Dakotas in 1876, Idaho in 1883, Col- orado in the 1890s, and Alaska at the end of the century. Railroad hubs like Albuquerque, Denver, El Paso, and Tucson flourished as gateways to the new mineral regions. But as in California after 1848, the independent prospector working a surface mine with his pick and shovel quickly gave way to deep- shaft corporate mining employing wage workers. As with other western indus- tries, the coming of the railroad greatly expanded the possibilities for mining, making it possible to ship minerals from previously inaccessible places. More- over, professionally trained engineers from the East and Europe introduced new scientific techniques of mining and smelting ore. For example, the town of Leadville, Colorado, which did not exist before the mid- 1870s, became one of the world’s great centers of lead production after August R. Meyer, a Euro- pean mining engineer, analyzed the precise content of silver and lead in the area’s minerals. The economic crosscurrents at work in post– Civil War min- ing were illustrated at Butte, Montana. In the 1880s, absentee owners from San Francisco poured millions of dollars into what they thought was a silver mine, only to learn that they had acquired one of the world’s richest deposits of cop- per. A new town, Anaconda, quickly arose, with a population of 2,000 miners, smelters, engineers, and others, from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. In the early twentieth century, the company would be acquired by bankers and other investors from the East.

A similar process occurred in New Mexico, where traditional life based on sheep farming on land owned in common by Mexican villagers had continued more or less unchanged after the United States acquired the area in the Mexican War. The existence of these Spanish and Mexican communal landholdings may have influenced John Wesley Powell’s recommendations concerning commu- nal farming. Railroads reached the area in the 1870s, bringing with them east- ern mining companies and commercial ranchers and farmers. Because courts only recognized Mexican- era land titles to individual plots of land, communal landholdings were increasingly made available for sale to newcomers. By 1880,

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three- quarters of New Mexico’s sheep belonged to just twenty families. Unable to continue as sheep raisers, more and more Hispanic residents went to work for the new mines and railroads.

The Chinese Presence

Chinese immigration, which had begun at the time of the California gold rush, continued in the postwar years. Before the Civil War, nearly all Chinese newcomers had been unattached men, brought in by labor contractors to

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How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

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620 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

work in western gold fields, railroad construction, and factories. In the early 1870s, entire Chinese families began to immigrate. By 1880, 105,000 persons of Chinese descent lived in the United States. Three- quarters lived in Califor- nia, where Chinese made up over half of the state’s farm workers. But Chinese immigrants were present throughout the West and in all sorts of jobs. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, many worked in con- struction on other railroad lines that sprang up throughout the region. Chinese could be found in mines in Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada, as domestic workers in urban households, and in factories producing cigars, clothing, and shoes in western cities. They built levees, drained agricultural fields, and worked on fishing boats. Many men had wives and children in China, and like members of other immigrant groups, they kept in touch by sending letters and money to their families at home and reading magazines aimed at emigrants that reported on local events in China. As will be related in the next chapter, their growing presence sparked an outpouring of anti- Chinese sentiment, leading to laws excluding virtually all Chinese from entering the country.

Conflict on the Mormon Frontier

The Mormons had moved to the Great Salt Lake Valley in the 1840s, hoping to practice their religion free of the persecution that they had encountered in the East. They envisioned their community in Utah as the foundation of a great empire they called Deseret. Given the widespread unpopularity of Mormon polygamy and the close connection of church and state in Mormon theology, conflict with both the federal government and the growing numbers of non- Mormons moving west became inevitable. In 1857, after receiving reports that the work of federal judges in Utah was being obstructed by the territorial gov- ernor, the Mormon leader Brigham Young, President James Buchanan removed Young and appointed a non- Mormon to replace him. Young refused to comply, and federal troops entered the Salt Lake Valley, where they remained until the beginning of the Civil War. During this time of tension, a group of Mormons attacked a wagon train of non- Mormon settlers traveling through Utah and intending to settle in California. What came to be called the Mountain Mead- ows Massacre resulted in the death of all the adults and older children in the wagon train— over 100 persons. Only a handful of young children survived. Nearly twenty years later, one leader of the assault was convicted of murder and executed.

After the Civil War, Mormon leaders sought to avoid further antagonizing the federal government. In the 1880s, Utah banned the practice of polygamy, a prohibition written into the state constitution as a requirement before Utah gained admission as a state in 1896.

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The Subjugation of the Plains Indians

The transcontinental railroad, a symbol of the reunited nation, brought tens of thousands of newcomers to the West and stimulated the expansion of farming, mining, and other enterprises. The incorporation of the West into the national economy spelled the doom of the Plains Indians and their world. Their lives had already undergone profound transformations. In the eighteenth century, the spread of horses, originally introduced by the Spanish, led to a wholesale shift from farming and hunting on foot to mounted hunting of buffalo. New Indian groups migrated to the Great Plains to take advantage of the horse, coalescing into the great tribes of the nineteenth century— the Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Kiowa, and Sioux. Persistent warfare took place between the more established tribes and newcomers, including Indians removed from the East, who sought access to their hunting grounds.

Most migrants on the Oregon and California Trails before the Civil War encountered little hostility from Indians, often trading with them for food and supplies. But as settlers encroached on Indian lands, bloody conflict between the army and Plains tribes began in the 1850s and continued for decades.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant announced a new “peace policy” in the West, but warfare soon resumed. Drawing on methods used to defeat the Confederacy, Civil War generals like Philip H. Sheridan set out to destroy the foundations of the Indian economy— villages, horses, and especially the buffalo. Hunting by mounted Indians had already reduced the buffalo population— estimated at 30 million in 1800—but it was army campaigns and the depredations of hunters seeking buffalo hides that rendered the vast herds all but extinct. By 1886, an expedition from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington had difficulty finding twenty- five “good specimens.” “A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell,” said the Sioux leader Sitting Bull, “a death- wind for my people.”

“Let Me Be a Free Man”

The army’s relentless attacks broke the power of one tribe after another. In 1877, troops commanded by former Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner O. O. Howard pursued the Nez Percé Indians on a 1,700-mile chase across the Far West. The Nez Percé (whose name was given them by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and means “pierced nose” in French) were seeking to escape to Canada after fights with settlers who had encroached on tribal lands in Oregon and Idaho. After four months, Howard forced the Indians to surrender, and they were removed to Oklahoma.

Two years later, the Nez Percé leader, Chief Joseph, delivered a speech in Washington to a distinguished audience that included President

How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

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622 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

From Speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé Indians, in Washington, D.C. (1879)

Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Percé Indians, led his people on a 1,700-mile trek through the Far West in 1877 in an unsuccessful effort to escape to Canada. Two years later, he addressed an audience in Washington, D.C., that included President Ruther- ford B. Hayes, appealing for the freedom and equal rights enshrined in the law after the Civil War.

I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. . . . Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the . . . broken promises. . . .

If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. . . .

When I think of our condition my heart is heavy. I see men of my race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals. I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. . . .

Let me be a free man— free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself— and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.

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From Letter by Saum Song Bo, American Missionary (October 1885)

During the 1880s, Chinese- Americans were subjected to discrimination in every phase of their lives. In 1882, Congress temporarily barred further immigration from China. In 1885, when funds were being raised to build a pedestal for the Statue of Lib- erty, Saum Song Bo, a Chinese- American writer, contrasted the celebration of liberty with the treatment of the Chinese.

A paper was presented to me yesterday for inspection, and I found it to be specially drawn up for subscription among my countrymen toward the Pedestal Fund of the . . . Statue of Liberty. . . . But the word liberty makes me think of the fact that this country is the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese. I consider it as an insult to us Chinese to call on us to contribute toward building in this land a pedestal for a statue of Liberty. That statue represents Liberty holding a torch which lights the passage of those of all nations who come into this country. But are the Chinese allowed to come? As for the Chinese who are here, are they allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it? Are they allowed to go about everywhere free from the insults, abuses, assaults, wrongs, and injuries from which men of other nationalities are free? . . .

And this statue of Liberty is a gift from another people who do not love liberty for the Chinese. [To] the Annamese and Tonquinese Chinese [colonial subjects of the French empire in Indochina], . . . liberty is as dear as to the French. What right have the French to deprive them of their liberty?

Whether this statute against the Chi- nese or the statue to Liberty will be the most lasting monument to tell future ages of the liberty and greatness of this country, will be known only to future generations.


1. What are Chief Joseph’s complaints about the treatment of his people?

2. Why does Saum Song Bo believe that the Chi- nese do not enjoy liberty in the United States?

3. What are the similarities and differences in the definition of freedom in the two documents?

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624 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

Rutherford B. Hayes. Condemning the policy of confining Indians to reserva- tions, Joseph adopted the language of freedom and equal rights before the law so powerfully reinforced by the Civil War and Reconstruction. “Treat all men alike,” he pleaded. “Give them the same law. . . . Let me be a free man— free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to . . . think and talk and act for myself.” The government eventually transported the sur- viving Nez Percé to another reservation in Washington Territory. Until his death in 1904, Joseph would unsuccessfully petition successive presidents for his people’s right to return to their beloved Oregon homeland.

Indians occasionally managed to inflict costly delay and even defeat on army units. The most famous Indian victory took place in June 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, when General George A. Custer and his entire command of 250 men perished. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Sit- ting Bull and Crazy Horse, were defending tribal land in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Reserved for them in an 1868 treaty “for as long as the grass shall grow,” their lands had been invaded by whites after the discovery of gold. Eventually the Sioux were worn down, partly because of the decimation of the buffalo, and relinquished their claim to the Black Hills. In the Southwest, Cochise, Geronimo, and other leaders of the Apache, who had been relocated by the government a number of times, led bands that crossed and recrossed the border with Mexico, evading the army and occasionally killing civilians. They would not surrender until the mid- 1880s.

Another casualty was the Comanche empire, centered in modern- day New Mexico and Colorado. Beginning in the mid- eighteenth century, the Comanche dominated much of the Great Plains and Southwest. The Comanche subordi- nated local Indian groups to their power, imposed a toll on trade routes like the Santa Fe Trail, and dealt for a time as an equal with the Spanish, French, and American governments. Their power was not finally broken until the 1870s.

Remaking Indian Life

“The life my people want is a life of freedom,” Sitting Bull declared. The Indian idea of freedom, however, which centered on preserving their cultural and polit- ical autonomy and control of ancestral lands, conflicted with the interests and values of most white Americans. Nearly all officials believed that the federal gov- ernment should persuade or force the Plains Indians to surrender most of their land and to exchange their religion, communal property, nomadic way of life, and gender relations for Christian worship, private ownership, and small farm- ing on reservations with men tilling the fields and women working in the home.

In 1871, Congress eliminated the treaty system that dated back to the rev- olutionary era, by which the federal government negotiated agreements with

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Indians as if they were independent nations. This step was supported by rail- road companies that found tribal sovereignty an obstacle to construction and by Republicans who believed that it contradicted the national unity born of the Civil War. The federal government pressed forward with its assault on Indian culture. The Bureau of Indian Affairs established boarding schools where Indian children, removed from the “negative” influences of their parents and tribes, were dressed in non- Indian clothes, given new names, and educated in white ways.

The Dawes Act

The crucial step in attacking “tribalism” came in 1887 with the passage of the Dawes Act, named for Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, chair of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee. The Act broke up the land of nearly all tribes into small parcels to be distributed to Indian families, with the remainder auc- tioned off to white purchasers. Indians who accepted the farms and “adopted the habits of civilized life” would become full- fledged American citizens. The policy proved to be a disaster, leading to the loss of much tribal land and the erosion of Indian cultural traditions. Whites, however, benefited enormously. When the government made 2 million acres of Indian land available in Oklahoma, 50,000 white settlers poured into the territory to claim farms on the single day of April 22, 1889. Further land rushes followed in the 1890s. In the half century after the passage of the Dawes Act, Indians lost 86 million of the 138 million acres of land in their possession in 1887. Overall, according to one estimate, between 1776 and today, via the “right of discovery,” treaties, executive orders, court decisions, and outright theft, the United States has acquired over 1.5 bil- lion acres of land from Native Americans, an area twenty- five times as large as Great Britain.

How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

This pencil- and- crayon drawing by a Cheyenne Indian from the 1880s depicts a Native American fighting two black members of the U.S. military. After the Civil War, black soldiers, whose presence was resented by many whites, in the North as well as the South, were reassigned to the West.

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Indian Citizenship

Many laws and treaties in the nineteenth century offered Indians the right to become American citizens if they left the tribal setting and assimilated into American society. But tribal identity was the one thing nearly every Indian wished to maintain, and very few took advantage of these offers. Thus, few Indians were recognized as American citizens. Western courts ruled that the rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not apply to them, and in Elk v. Wilkins (1884) the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, even though John Elk had left his tribe in Oklahoma and lived among white set- tlers in Nebraska. The Court questioned whether any Indian had achieved the degree of “civilization” required of American citizens.

By 1900, roughly 53,000 Indians had become American citizens by accept- ing land allotments under the Dawes Act. The following year, Congress granted citizenship to 100,000 residents of Indian Territory (in present- day Oklahoma). The remainder would have to wait until 1919 (for those who fought in World War I) and 1924, when Congress made all Indians American citizens.











































































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By 1890, the vast majority of the remaining Indian population had been removed to reservations scattered across the western states.

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The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

Some Indians sought solace in the Ghost Dance, a religious revitalization campaign reminiscent of the pan- Indian movements led by earlier prophets like Neolin and Tenskwatawa (discussed in Chapters 4 and 8). Its leaders fore- told a day when whites would disappear, the buffalo would return, and Indians could once again practice their ancestral customs “free from misery, death, and disease.” Large numbers of Indians gathered for days of singing, dancing, and religious observances. Fearing a general uprising, the government sent troops to the reservations. On December 29, 1890, soldiers opened fire on Ghost Danc- ers encamped near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, killing between 150 and 200 Indians, mostly women and children.

The Wounded Knee massacre was widely applauded in the press. An Army Court of Inquiry essentially exonerated the troops and their commander, and twenty soldiers were later awarded the Medal of Honor, a recognition of exceptional heroism in battle, for their actions at Wounded Knee. Like federal efforts to exert control over the Mormons in Utah, the suppression of the Ghost Dance revealed the limits on Americans’ efforts to seek in the West the freedom to practice nonmainstream religions.

The Wounded Knee massacre marked the end of four centuries of armed conflict between the continent’s native population and European settlers and their descendants. By 1900, the Indian population had fallen to 250,000, the lowest point in American history. A children’s book about Indians published around this time stated flatly, “The Indian pictured in these pages no longer exists.” Yet despite everything, Indians survived, and in the twentieth century their numbers once again would begin to grow.

Settler Societies and Global Wests

The conquest of the American West was part of a global process whereby settlers moved boldly into the interior of regions in temperate climates around the world, bringing their familiar crops and livestock and establishing mining and other industries. Countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, as well as the United States, are often called “settler societies,” because immigrants from overseas quickly outnumbered and displaced the original inhabitants— unlike in India and most parts of colonial Africa, where fewer Europeans ven- tured and those who did relied on the labor of the indigenous inhabitants.

In the late nineteenth century, even as the population of the American West grew dramatically, Canada marked the completion of its first transcontinental railroad, although the more severe climate limited the number of western set- tlers to a much smaller population than in the American West (and as a result, the displacement of Indians did not produce as much conflict and bloodshed).

How was the West transformed economically and socially in this period?

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In many settler societies, native peoples were subjected to cultural reconstruc- tion similar to policies in the United States. In Australia, the government gath- ered the Aboriginal populations— their numbers devastated by disease— in “reserves” reminiscent of American Indian reservations. Australia went further than the United States in the forced assimilation of surviving Aboriginal peo- ples. The government removed large numbers of children from their families to be adopted by whites— a policy only abandoned in the 1970s and for which the prime minister formally apologized in 2008 in a national moment of recon- ciliation called Sorry Day.

Myth, Reality, and the Wild West

The West has long played many roles in Americans’ national self- consciousness. It has been imagined as a place of individual freedom and unbridled opportu- nity for those dissatisfied with their lives in the East and as a future empire that would dominate the continent and the world. Even as farms, mines, and cities spread over the landscape in the post– Civil War years, a new image of the West began to circulate— the Wild West, a lawless place ruled by cowboys and

Boys from the Lakota tribe on their arrival (left) and during their stay at Carlisle, a boarding school that aimed to “civilize” Indians, by J. N. Choate, a local photographer.

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Indians (two groups by this time vastly outnumbered by other westerners), and marked by gunfights, cattle drives, and stagecoach robberies.

This image of a violent yet romantic frontier world would later become a staple of Hollywood movies. In the late nineteenth century, it was disseminated in vaudeville shows that achieved immense popularity. Although not the first, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the most important popularizer of this idea of the West. A former hunter and scout for the U.S. Army, Cody developed an elab- orate theatrical presentation that toured for decades across the United States and Europe. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show included reenactments of battles with Indians (including Custer’s Last Stand), buffalo hunts, Indian rituals, and feats by the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Along with Cody, other persons who had actually participated in these events appeared in the show, including the Indian warrior Sitting Bull and a group of Sioux fighters. The image of the Wild West also circulated in cheap popular books known as dime novels and sensa- tional journalistic accounts.

Theater audiences and readers found fantasies of adventure in observing western violence from a safe distance and marveled at the skills of horseback riding, roping, and shooting on display. They imagined the West as a timeless place immune to the corruptions of civilization, which offered a striking con- trast to the increasingly sedentary lives of men in eastern cities. Indeed, despite the inclusion of Oakley, this West of the imagination was emphatically a male preserve. The real West— for example, the struggles of farm families— played no role in this depiction. Nor did pervasive labor conflict in mining centers, or the role of the federal government and eastern capital in the region’s devel- opment. The West’s multiracial, multiethnic population also disappeared, although different groups added their own elements to the mythical west. Mexican- Americans, for example, made a folk hero of Gregorio Cortez, a Texas outlaw renowned for his ability to outwit pursuers. The West Coast also had no place in the picture— the imagined West seemed to stop at the Rocky Mountains.

P O L I T I C S I N A G I L D E D A G E The era from 1870 to 1890 is the only period of American history commonly known by a derogatory name— the Gilded Age, after the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. “Gilded” means covered with a layer of gold, but it also suggests that the glittering surface masks a core of little real value and is therefore deceptive. Twain and Warner were referring not only to the remarkable expansion of the economy in this period but also to the corruption caused by corporate dominance of politics and to the oppressive

Was the Gilded Age political system effective in meeting its goals?

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treatment of those left behind in the scramble for wealth. “Get rich, dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must,” was the era’s slogan, according to The Gilded Age.

The Corruption of Politics

As they had earlier in the nineteenth century, Americans during the Gilded Age saw their nation as an island of political democracy in a world still domi- nated by undemocratic governments. In Europe, only France and Switzerland enjoyed universal male suffrage. Even in Britain, which prided itself on its tra- dition of political liberty, most of the working class could not vote until the passage of the Reform Act of 1884.

Nonetheless, the power of the new corporations, seemingly immune to democratic control, raised disturbing questions for the American understand- ing of political freedom as popular self- government. Political corruption was rife. “The galleries and lobbies of every legislature,” observed an Illinois Repub- lican leader, “are thronged with men seeking to procure an advantage” for one corporation or another. In Pennsylvania’s legislature, the “third house” of rail- road lobbyists was said to enjoy as much influence as the elected chambers. In the West, many lawmakers held stock or directorships in lumber companies and railroads that received public aid.

Urban politics fell under the sway of corrupt political machines like New York’s Tweed Ring, which plundered the city of tens of millions of dollars. “Boss” William M. Tweed’s organization reached into every neighborhood. He forged close ties with railroad men and labor unions, and he won support from the city’s immigrant poor by fashioning a kind of private welfare system that provided food, fuel, and jobs in hard times. A combination of political reform- ers and businessmen tired of paying tribute to the ring ousted Tweed in the early 1870s, although he remained popular among the city’s poor, who consid- ered him an urban Robin Hood.

At the national level, many lawmakers supported bills aiding companies in which they had invested money or from which they received stock or sal- aries. The most notorious example of corruption came to light during Grant’s presidency. This was Crédit Mobilier, a corporation formed by an inner ring of Union Pacific Railroad stockholders to oversee the line’s government- assisted construction. Essentially, it enabled the participants to sign contracts with themselves, at an exorbitant profit, to build the new line. The arrangement was protected by the distribution of stock to influential politicians, including Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, who was elected vice president in 1868. In another example of corruption, the Whiskey Ring of the Grant administra- tion united Republican officials, tax collectors, and whiskey manufacturers in a massive scheme that defrauded the federal government of millions of tax dollars.

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The Politics of Dead Center

In national elections, party politics bore the powerful imprint of the Civil War. Republicans controlled the industrial North and Midwest and the agrarian West and were particularly strong among members of revival- ist churches, Protestant immigrants, and blacks. Organizations of Union veterans formed a bulwark of Repub- lican support. Every Republican can- didate for president from 1868 to 1900 except James G. Blaine had fought in the Union army. (In the 1880 cam- paign, all four candidates— Republican James A. Garfield, Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, Prohibitionist Neal Dow, and James B. Weaver of the Greenback- Labor Party, discussed later— had been Union generals during the war.) By 1893, a lavish system of pensions for Union soldiers and their widows and children consumed more than 40 percent of the federal budget. Democrats, after 1877, dominated the South and did well among Catholic voters, especially Irish- Americans, in the nation’s cities.

The parties were closely divided. In three of the five presidential elections between 1876 and 1892, the margin separating the major candidates was less than 1 percent of the popular vote. Twice, in 1876 and 1888, the candidate with an electoral- college majority trailed in the popular vote. The congressional elections of 1874, when Democrats won control of the House of Representa- tives, ushered in two decades of political stalemate. A succession of one- term presidencies followed: Rutherford B. Hayes (elected in 1876), James A. Garfield (succeeded, after his assassination in 1881, by Chester A. Arthur), Grover Cleve- land in 1884, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and Cleveland, elected for the sec- ond time, in 1892. Only for brief periods did the same party control the White House and both houses of Congress. More than once, Congress found itself paralyzed as important bills shuttled back and forth between the House and Senate, and special sessions to complete legislation became necessary. Gilded Age presidents made little effort to mobilize public opinion or exert executive leadership. Their staffs were quite small. Grover Cleveland himself answered the White House doorbell.

In some ways, American democracy in the Gilded Age seemed remark- ably healthy. Elections were closely contested, party loyalty was intense, and 80 percent or more of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots. It was an era of massive party rallies and spellbinding political oratory. James G. Blaine was

Was the Gilded Age political system effective in meeting its goals?

Voted Democrat 4–5 times Voted Republican 4–5 times Voted more irregularly

Elections of 1876–1892

Non-voting territory

P O L I T I C A L S TA L E M AT E , 1 8 7 6 – 1 8 9 2

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632 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

among the members of Congress tainted by the Crédit Mobilier scandal, but Robert G. Ingersoll’s speech before the Republican national convention of 1876 nearly secured Blaine’s nomination for president by depicting him as a “plumed knight” who had raised his “shining lance” against the country’s enemies.

Government and the Economy

The nation’s political structure, however, proved ill equipped to deal with the problems created by the economy’s rapid growth. Despite its expanded scope and powers arising from the Civil War, the federal government remained remarkably small by modern standards. Activities from education to medical care, business regulation, civil and criminal prosecutions, and many others were almost entirely under the control of local and state governments or pri- vate institutions. The federal workforce in 1880 numbered 100,000 (today, it exceeds 2.5 million).

Nationally, both parties came under the control of powerful political man- agers with close ties to business interests. Republicans strongly supported a high tariff to protect American industry, and throughout the 1870s they pur- sued a fiscal policy based on reducing federal spending, repaying much of the national debt, and withdrawing greenbacks— the paper money issued by the Union during the Civil War— from circulation. Democrats opposed the high tariff, but the party’s national leadership remained closely linked to New York bankers and financiers and resisted demands from debt- ridden agricultural areas for an increase in the money supply. In 1879, for the first time since the war, the United States returned to the gold standard— that is, paper currency became exchangeable for gold at a fixed rate.

By reducing competition from foreign manufactured goods and leaving the banks, not the government, in control of issuing money, Republican economic policies strongly favored the interests of eastern industrialists and bankers. These policies worked to the disadvantage of southern and western farmers, who had to pay a premium for manufactured goods while the prices they received for their produce steadily declined.

Reform Legislation

Gilded Age national politics did not entirely lack accomplishments. Inspired in part by President Garfield’s assassination by a disappointed office seeker, the Civil Service Act of 1883 created a merit system for federal employees, with appointment via competitive examinations rather than political influence. Although it applied at first to only 10 percent of government workers, the act marked the first step in establishing a professional civil service and removing

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officeholding from the hands of political machines. (However, since funds raised from political appointees had helped to finance the political parties, civil service reform had the unintended result of increasing politicians’ dependence on donations from business interests.)

In 1887, in response to public outcries against railroad practices, Congress established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to ensure that the rates railroads charged farmers and merchants to transport their goods were “reasonable” and did not offer more favorable treatment to some shippers. The ICC was the first federal agency intended to regulate economic activity, but since it lacked the power to establish rates on its own— it could only sue com- panies in court— it had little impact on railroad practices. Three years later, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which banned all combinations and practices that restrained free trade. The measure posed a significant threat to corporate efforts to dominate sectors of the economy. But the courts primar- ily used it as a way to suppress labor unions. Nonetheless, these laws helped to establish the precedent that the national government could regulate the econ- omy to promote the public good.

Political Conflict in the States

The nation had to weather the effects of drastic economic change and periodic economic crises without leadership from Washington. At the state and local levels, however, the Gilded Age was an era of political ferment and conflict over the proper uses of governmental authority. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, state governments in the North, like those in the Reconstruc- tion South, greatly expanded their responsibility for public health, welfare, and education, and cities invested heavily in public works such as park con- struction and improved water and gas services. Those who suffered from eco- nomic change called on the activist state created by the war to redress their own grievances.

Third parties enjoyed significant if short- lived success in local elec- tions. The Greenback- Labor Party proposed that the federal government stop taking “greenback” money out of circulation. This, it argued, would make more funds available for investment and give the government, not private bankers, control of the money supply. It also condemned the use of militias and private police against strikes. In the late 1870s, the party controlled local government in a number of industrial and mining communities and contributed to the election of twenty- one members of Congress independent of the two major parties.

The policies of railroad companies produced a growing chorus of protest, especially in the West. Farmers and local merchants complained of excessively

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high freight rates, discrimination in favor of large producers and shippers, and high fees charged by railroad- controlled grain warehouses. Critics of the railroads came together in the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, which moved to establish cooperatives for storing and marketing farm output in the hope of forcing the carriers “to take our produce at a fair price.” Founded in 1867, the Grange claimed more than 700,000 members by the mid- 1870s. Its mem- bers called on state governments to establish fair freight rates and warehouse charges. In several states, the Grange succeeded in having commissions estab- lished to investigate— and, in some cases, regulate— railroad practices.

At the same time, the labor movement, revitalized during the Civil War, demanded laws establishing eight hours as a legal day’s work. Seven northern legislatures passed such laws, but since most lacked strong means of enforce- ment they remained dead letters. But the efforts of farmers and workers to use the power of the state to counteract the inequalities of the Gilded Age inspired a far- reaching debate on the relationship between political and economic free- dom in an industrial society.


The Social Problem

As the United States matured into an industrial economy, Americans struggled to make sense of the new social order. Debates over political economy engaged the attention of millions, reaching far beyond the tiny academic world into the public sphere inhabited by self- educated workingmen and farmers, reformers of all kinds, newspaper editors, and politicians. This broad public discussion produced thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles on such technical issues as land taxation and currency reform, as well as widespread debate over the social and ethical implications of economic change.

Many Americans sensed that something had gone wrong in the nation’s social development. Talk of “better classes,” “respectable classes,” and “danger- ous classes” dominated public discussion, and bitter labor strife seemed to have become the rule. During the Gilded Age, Congress and a number of states estab- lished investigating committees to inquire into the relations between labor and capital. Their hearings produced powerful evidence of distrust between employees and employers. In 1881, the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Sta- tistics reported that virtually every worker it interviewed in Fall River, the nation’s largest center of textile production, complained of overwork, poor housing, and tyrannical employers.

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Freedom, Inequality, and Democracy

The appearance of what Massachusetts cotton manufacturer Edward Atkinson called “a permanent factory population” living on the edge of poverty alongside a growing class of millionaires posed a sharp challenge to traditional defini- tions of freedom. “The great curse of the Old World— the division of society into classes,” declared The Nation, had come to America. It became increasingly difficult to view wage labor as a temporary resting place on the road to eco- nomic independence.

Given the vast expansion of the nation’s productive capacity, many Amer- icans viewed the concentration of wealth as inevitable, natural, and justified by progress. By the turn of the century, advanced economics taught that wages were determined by the iron law of supply and demand and that wealth rightly flowed not to those who worked the hardest but to men with business skills and access to money. The close link between freedom and equality, forged in the Revolution and reinforced during the Civil War, appeared increasingly out of date. The task of social science, wrote iron manufacturer Abram Hewitt, was to devise ways of making “men who are equal in liberty” content with the “inequality in . . . distribution” inevitable in modern society.

Among the first to take up this challenge were the self- styled “liberal” reformers. (Their beliefs were quite different from those called liberals in mod- ern America, who advocate that an activist government try to address social needs.) This group of editors and professionals broke with the Republican Party in 1872 and helped to bring about a change in northern opinion regard- ing Reconstruction. But their program was not confined to the South. Gilded Age liberals feared that with lower- class groups seeking to use government to advance their own interests, democracy was becoming a threat to individual liberty and the rights of property. Some urged a return to the long- abandoned principle that voting should be limited to property owners. During the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville had reported that opponents of democracy “hide their heads.” By the 1870s, wrote one observer, “expressions of doubt and distrust in regard to universal suffrage are heard constantly . . . [at] the top of our society.”

Social Darwinism in America

The idea of the natural superiority of some groups to others, which before the Civil War had been invoked to justify slavery in an otherwise free society, now reemerged in the vocabulary of modern science to explain the success and failure of individuals and social classes. In 1859, the British scientist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. One of the most influential works of science ever to appear, it expounded the theory of evolution whereby plant

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and animal species best suited to their environment took the place of those less able to adapt.

In a highly oversimplified form, language borrowed from Darwin or devel- oped by his followers, such as “natural selection,” “the struggle for existence,” and “the survival of the fittest,” entered public discussion of social problems in the Gilded Age. According to what came to be called Social Darwinism, evolu- tion was as natural a process in human society as in nature, and government must not interfere. Especially misguided, in this view, were efforts to uplift those at the bottom of the social order, such as laws regulating conditions of work or public assistance to the poor. The giant industrial corporation, Social Darwinists believed, had emerged because it was better adapted to its environ- ment than earlier forms of enterprise. To restrict its operations by legislation would reduce society to a more primitive level.

Even the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s did not shake the widespread view that the poor were essentially responsible for their own fate. Charity workers and local governments spent much time and energy distinguish- ing the “deserving” poor (those, like widows and orphans, destitute through no fault of their own) from the “undeserving,” a far larger number. Failure to advance in society was widely thought to indicate a lack of character, an absence of self- reliance and determination in the face of adversity. As late as 1900, half the nation’s largest cities offered virtually no public relief, except to persons living in poorhouses. To improve their lot, according to the philosophy of Social Darwinism, workers should practice personal economy, keep out of debt, and educate their children in the principles of the marketplace, not look to the government for aid.

The era’s most influential Social Darwinist was Yale professor William Graham Sumner. For Sumner, freedom meant “the security given to each man” that he can acquire, enjoy, and dispose of property “exclusively as he chooses,” without interference from other persons or from government. Freedom thus defined required frank acceptance of inequality. Society faced two and only two alternatives: “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not- liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest.” In 1883, Sumner published What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. His answer, essentially, was nothing: “In a free state,” no one was entitled to claim “help from, and cannot be charged to [offer] help to, another.” Government, Sumner believed, existed only to protect “the property of men and the honor of women,” not to upset social arrangements decreed by nature.

Liberty of Contract

The growing influence of Social Darwinism helped to popularize an idea that would be embraced by the business and professional classes in the last quarter

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of the nineteenth century— a “negative” definition of freedom as limited gov- ernment and an unrestrained free market. Central to this social vision was the idea of contract. “The laws of contract,” wrote one reformer, “are the foundation of civilization.” Labor contracts reconciled freedom and authority in the work- place. So long as labor relations were governed by contracts freely arrived at by independent individuals, neither the government nor unions had a right to interfere with working conditions, and Americans had no grounds to complain of a loss of freedom.

Demands by workers that the government enforce an eight- hour day, pro- vide relief to the unemployed, or in other ways intervene in the economy struck liberals as an example of how the misuse of political power posed a threat to liberty. “The right of each man to labor as much or as little as he chooses, and to enjoy his own earnings, is the very foundation stone of . . . freedom,” wrote Chicago newspaper editor Horace White. The principle of free labor, which originated as a celebration of the independent small producer in a society of broad equality and social harmony, was transformed into a defense of the unre- strained operations of the capitalist marketplace.

The Ironworkers’ Noontime, painted in 1880–1881 by Thomas Anshutz, an artist born in West Virginia, whose family owned iron factories. Unlike artists who depicted factories and work- ers earlier in the century, Anshutz does not try to reconcile nature and industry (there are no reminders of the natural environment). Nor does he emphasize the dignity of labor. The work- ers seem dwarfed by the factory, and some seem exhausted.

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The Courts and Freedom

In elevating liberty of contract from one element of freedom to its very essence, the courts played a significant role. The Fourteenth Amendment had empow- ered the federal government to overturn state laws that violated citizens’ rights. By the 1880s, liberty of contract, not equality before the law for former slaves, came to be defined as the amendment’s true meaning. State and federal courts regularly struck down state laws regulating economic enterprise as an interfer- ence with the right of the free laborer to choose his employment and working conditions, and of the entrepreneur to utilize his property as he saw fit. For decades, the courts viewed state regulation of business— especially laws estab- lishing maximum hours of work and safe working conditions— as an insult to free labor.

At first, the Supreme Court was willing to accept laws regulating enterprises that represented a significant “public interest.” In Munn v. Illinois, an 1877 deci- sion, it upheld the constitutionality of an Illinois law that established a state board empowered to eliminate railroad rate discrimination and set maximum charges. Nine years later, however, in Wabash v. Illinois, the Court essentially reversed itself, ruling that only the federal government, not the states, could regulate railroads engaged in interstate commerce, as all important lines were. The decision led directly to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. But on virtually every occasion when cases brought by the ICC against rail- roads made their way to the Supreme Court, the company emerged victorious.

The courts generally sided with business enterprises that complained of a loss of economic freedom. In 1885, the New York Court of Appeals invalidated a state law that prohibited the manufacture of cigars in tenement dwellings on the grounds that such legislation deprived the worker of the “liberty” to work “where he will.” Although women still lacked political rights, they were increas- ingly understood to possess the same economic “liberty,” defined in this way, as men. On the grounds that it violated women’s freedom, the Illinois Supreme Court in 1895 declared unconstitutional a state law that outlawed the produc- tion of garments in sweatshops and established a forty- eight- hour work week for women and children. In the same year, in United States v. E. C. Knight Co., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which barred combinations in restraint of trade, could not be used to break up a sugar refining monopoly, since the Constitution empowered Congress to regulate commerce, but not manufacturing. Their unwillingness to allow regulation of the economy, however, did not prevent the courts from acting to impede labor organization. The Sherman Act, intended to prevent business mergers that sti- fled competition, was used by judges primarily to issue injunctions prohibiting strikes on the grounds that they illegally interfered with the freedom of trade.

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In a 1905 case that became almost as notorious as Dred Scott and gave the name “Lochnerism” to the entire body of liberty of contract decisions, the Supreme Court in Lochner v. New York voided a state law establishing ten hours per day or sixty per week as the maximum hours of work for bakers. The law, wrote Associate Justice Rufus Peckham for the 5-4 majority, “interfered with the right of contract between employer and employee” and therefore infringed upon individual freedom. By this time, the Court was invoking “liberty” in ways that could easily seem absurd. In one case, it overturned as a violation of “personal liberty” a Kansas law prohibiting “ yellow- dog” contracts, which made nonmembership in a union a condition of employment. In another, it struck down state laws requiring payment of coal miners in money rather than paper usable only at company- owned stores. Workers, observed mine union leader John P. Mitchell, could not but feel that “they are being guaranteed the liberties they do not want and denied the liberty that is of real value to them.”

L A B O R A N D T H E R E P U B L I C “The Overwhelming Labor Question”

As Mitchell’s remark suggests, public debate in the late nineteenth century more than at almost any other moment in American history divided along class lines. The shift from the slavery controversy to what one politician called “the overwhelming labor question” was dramatically illustrated in 1877, the year of both the end of Reconstruction and the first national labor walkout— the Great Railroad Strike. When workers protesting a pay cut paralyzed rail traffic in much of the country, militia units tried to force them back to work. After troops fired on strikers in Pittsburgh, killing twenty people, workers responded by burning the city’s railroad yards, destroying millions of dollars in property. General strikes paralyzed Chicago and St. Louis. The strike revealed both a strong sense of solidarity among workers and the close ties between the Repub- lican Party and the new class of industrialists. President Rutherford B. Hayes, who a few months earlier had ordered federal troops in the South to end their involvement in local politics, ordered the army into the North. The workers, the president wrote in his diary, were “put down by force.”

“The days are over,” declared the New York Times, “in which this country could rejoice in its freedom from the elements of social strife which have long abounded in the old countries.” In the aftermath of 1877, the federal government constructed armories in major cities to ensure that troops would be on hand in the event of further labor difficulties. Henceforth, national power would be used not to protect beleaguered former slaves, but to guarantee the rights of property.

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The Knights of Labor and the “Conditions Essential to Liberty”

The 1880s witnessed a new wave of labor organizing. At its center stood the Knights of Labor. The Knights were the first group to try to organize unskilled workers as well as skilled, women alongside men, and blacks as well as whites (although even the Knights excluded the despised Asian immigrants on the West Coast). The group reached a peak membership of nearly 800,000 in 1886 (making it the largest labor organization of the nineteenth century) and involved millions of workers in strikes, boycotts, political action, and educa- tional and social activities.

Labor reformers of the Gilded Age put forward a wide array of programs, from the eight- hour day to public employment in hard times, currency reform, anarchism, socialism, and the creation of a vaguely defined “cooperative com- monwealth.” All these ideas arose from the conviction that the social conditions of the 1880s needed drastic change. Americans, declared Terence V. Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, were not “the free people that we imagine we are.”

The Strike, an 1886 painting by the German-born artist Robert Koehler, who had grown up in a working-class family in Milwaukee. Koehler depicts a confrontation between a factory owner, dressed in a silk top hat, and angry workers. A woman and her children, presum- ably members of a striker’s family, watch from the side while another woman, at the center, appears to plead for restraint. The threat of violence hangs in the air, and a striker in the lower right-hand corner reaches for a stone. The painting was inspired by events in Pitts- burgh during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

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The labor movement launched a sustained assault on the understanding of freedom grounded in Social Darwinism and liberty of contract. Because of unrestrained economic growth and political corruption, the Knights charged, ordinary Americans had lost control of their economic livelihoods and their own government. Reaching back across the divide of the Civil War, labor defined employers as a new “slave power.” Concentrated capital, warned George E. McNeill, a shoemaker and factory worker who became one of the movement’s most eloquent writers, was now “a greater power than that of the state.” “Extremes of wealth and poverty,” he warned, threatened the very existence of democratic government. The remedy was to “engraft republican principles into our industrial system” by guaranteeing a basic set of economic rights for all Americans.

Labor raised the question whether meaningful freedom could exist in a sit- uation of extreme economic inequality. On July 4, 1886, the Federated Trades of the Pacific Coast rewrote the Declaration of Independence. Workers, the new Declaration claimed, had been subjected not to oppressive government but to “the unjust domination of a special class.” It went on to list among mankind’s inalienable rights, “Life and the means of living, Liberty and the conditions essential to liberty.”

Middle- Class Reformers

Dissatisfaction with social conditions in the Gilded Age extended well beyond aggrieved workers. Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan in the late 1880s spoke of a “deep feeling of unease,” a widespread fear that the country “was in real danger of another kind of slavery that would result from the aggre- gation of capital in the hands of a few individuals.” Alarmed by fear of class warfare and the growing power of concentrated capital, social thinkers offered numerous plans for change. In the last quarter of the century, more than 150 utopian or cataclysmic novels appeared, predicting that social conflict would end either in a new, harmonious social order or in total catastrophe. One pop- ular novel of the era, Caesar’s Column (1891) by Ignatius Donnelly, ended with civilized society destroyed in a savage civil war between labor and capital.

Of the many books proposing more optimistic remedies for the unequal distribution of wealth, the most popular were Progress and Poverty (1879) by Henry George, The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884) by Laurence Gronlund, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). All three were among the century’s greatest best- sellers, their extraordinary success testifying to what George called “a wide- spread consciousness . . . that there is something radi- cally wrong in the present social organization.” All three writers, though in very different ways, sought to reclaim an imagined golden age of social harmony and American freedom.

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Progress and Poverty Although it had no direct impact on government policy, Progress and Poverty probably commanded more public attention than any book on economics in American history. An antislavery newspaper editor in California in the 1850s and 1860s, Henry George had witnessed firsthand the rapid monopolization of land in the state. His book began with a famous statement of “the problem” suggested by its title— the growth of “squalor and misery” alongside material progress. His solution was the single tax, which would replace other taxes with a levy on increases in the value of real estate. The single tax would be so high that it would prevent speculation in both urban and rural land. No one knows how many of Henry George’s readers actually believed in this way of solving the nation’s ills. But millions responded to his clear explanation of economic relationships and his stirring account of how the “social distress” long thought to be confined to the Old World had made its appearance in the New.

Freedom lay at the heart of George’s analysis. The “proper name” for the political movement spawned by his book, he once wrote, was “freedom men,” who would “do for the question of industrial slavery” what the Republican Party had done for the slavery of blacks. George rejected the traditional equa- tion of liberty with ownership of land (since the single tax in effect made land the “common property” of the entire society). In other ways, however, his definition of freedom was thoroughly in keeping with mainstream thought. Despite calling for a single massive public intervention in the economy, George saw government as a “repressive power,” whose functions in the “ co- operative society” of the future would be limited to enhancing the quality of life— building “public baths, museums, libraries, gardens,” and the like.

The Cooperative Commonwealth Quite different in outlook was The Cooperative Commonwealth, the first book to popularize socialist ideas for an American audience. Its author, Laurence Gron- lund, was a lawyer who had emigrated from Denmark in 1867. Socialism— the belief that private control of economic enterprises should be replaced by gov- ernment ownership in order to ensure a fairer distribution of the benefits of the wealth produced— became a major political force in western Europe in the late nineteenth century. In the United States, however, where access to pri- vate property was widely considered essential to individual freedom, socialist beliefs were largely confined to immigrants, whose writings, frequently in for- eign languages, attracted little attention.

Gronlund began the process of socialism’s Americanization. While Karl Marx, the nineteenth century’s most influential socialist theorist, had pre- dicted that socialism would come into being via a working- class revolution, Gronlund portrayed it as the end result of a process of peaceful evolution, not

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violent upheaval. He thus made socialism seem more acceptable to middle- class Americans who desired an end to class conflict and the restoration of social harmony.

Bellamy’s Utopia

Not until the early twentieth century would socialism become a significant presence in American public life. As Gronlund himself noted, the most import- ant result of The Cooperative Commonwealth was to prepare an audience for Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which promoted socialist ideas while “ignoring that name” (Bellamy wrote of nationalism, not socialism). Bellamy lived virtually his entire life in the small industrial city of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. In Looking Backward, his main character falls asleep in the late nineteenth century only to awaken in the year 2000, in a world where coopera- tion has replaced class strife, “excessive individualism,” and cutthroat competi- tion. Inequality has been banished and with it the idea of liberty as a condition to be achieved through individual striving free of governmental restraint. Free- dom, Bellamy insisted, was a social condition, resting on interdependence, not autonomy.

From today’s vantage point, Bellamy’s utopia— with citizens obligated to labor for years in an Industrial Army controlled by a single Great Trust— seems a chilling social blueprint. Yet the book inspired the creation of hundreds of nation- alist clubs devoted to bringing into existence the world of 2000 and left a profound mark on a generation of reformers and intellectuals. Bellamy held out the hope of retaining the material abundance made possible by industrial capitalism while eliminating inequality. In proposing that the state guarantee economic security to all, Bellamy offered a far- reaching expansion of the idea of freedom.

Protestants and Moral Reform

Mainstream Protestants played a major role in seeking to stamp out sin during the Gilded Age. What one historian calls a “Christian lobby” promoted political solutions to what it saw as the moral problems raised by labor conflict and the growth of cities, and threats to religious faith by Darwinism and other scien- tific advances.

Unlike the pre– Civil War period, when “moral suasion” was the preferred approach of many reformers, powerful national organizations like the Wom- en’s Christian Temperance Union, National Reform Association, and Reform Bureau now campaigned for federal legislation that would “Christianize the government” by outlawing sinful behavior. Among the proposed targets were the consumption of alcohol, gambling, prostitution, polygamy, and birth con- trol. Most of these groups spoke less about improving society than stamping out the sins of individuals. In a striking departure from the prewar situation,

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644 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

southerners joined in the campaign for federal regulation of individual behav- ior, something whites in the region had previously strongly opposed, fearing it could lead to action against slavery. The key role played by the white South in the campaign for moral legislation helped earn the region a reputation as the Bible Belt— a place where political action revolved around religious principles. Although efforts to enact a national law requiring businesses to close on Sun- day failed, the Christian lobby’s efforts in the 1880s and 1890s set the stage for later legislation such as the Mann Act of 1910, banning the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes (an effort to suppress prostitu- tion), and Prohibition.

A Social Gospel

Most of the era’s Protestant preachers concentrated on attacking individual sins like drinking and Sabbath- breaking and saw nothing immoral about the pursuit of riches. But the outlines of what came to be called the Social Gospel were taking shape in the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minis- ter in New York City, Washington Gladden, a Congregational clergyman in Columbus, Ohio, and others. They insisted that freedom and spiritual self- development required an equalization of wealth and power and that unbridled competition mocked the Christian ideal of brotherhood.

The Social Gospel movement originated as an effort to reform Protestant churches by expanding their appeal in poor urban neighborhoods and making them more attentive to the era’s social ills. The movement’s adherents estab- lished missions and relief programs in urban areas that attempted to alleviate poverty, combat child labor, and encourage the construction of better working- class housing. They worked with the Knights of Labor and other groups demanding health and safety laws. Some suggested that a more cooperative organization of the economy should replace competitive capitalism. Within American Catholicism, as well, a group of priests and bishops emerged who attempted to alter the church’s traditional hostility to movements for social reform and its isolation from contemporary currents of social thought. With most of its parishioners working men and women, they argued, the church should lend its support to the labor movement. These developments suggested the existence of widespread dissatisfaction with the “liberty of contract” under- standing of freedom.

The Haymarket Affair

The year of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, 1886, also witnessed an unprecedented upsurge in labor activity. Inspired by a successful strike by western railroad unions against lines controlled by the powerful financier Jay

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Gould, workers flooded into the Knights of Labor. Its membership, only 100,000 in 1885, rose more than sevenfold in the following year. On May 1, 1886, some 350,000 workers in cities across the country demonstrated for an eight- hour day. Having originated in the United States, May 1, or May Day as it came to be called, soon became an annual date of parades, picnics, and protests, celebrated around the world by organized labor.

The most dramatic events of 1886 took place in Chicago, a city with a large and vibrant labor movement that brought together native- born and immigrant workers, whose outlooks ranged from immigrant socialism and anarchism to American traditions of equality and anti- monopoly. In 1885, the iron moulders union— one of the most powerful organizations of skilled industrial workers in the country— had organized a strike against a wage reduction at the great McCormick plant that produced agricultural machin- ery. The company brought in strikebreakers and private police, who battled in the streets with the strikers. Fearing chaos, the mayor and prominent business leaders persuaded the company to settle on the union’s terms. But in Febru- ary 1886, after the company installed new machinery that reduced its depen- dence on the iron moulders’ traditional skills, it announced that henceforth the factory would operate on a nonunion basis. The result was a bitter, pro- longed strike.

This time, Chicago’s city government sided with the company. On May 3, 1886, four strikers were killed by police when they attempted to prevent strike- breakers from entering the factory. The next day, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the killings. Near the end of the speeches, someone— whose identity has never been determined— threw a bomb into the crowd, killing a policeman. The panicked police opened fire, shooting several bystanders and a number of their own force. Soon after, police raided the offices of labor and radical groups and arrested their leaders. Employers took the opportunity pre- sented by the Haymarket Affair to paint the labor movement as a dangerous and un- American force, prone to violence and controlled by foreign- born radi- cals. Eight anarchists were charged with plotting and carrying out the bombing. Even though the evidence against them was extremely weak, a jury convicted the “Haymarket martyrs.” Four were hanged, one committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were imprisoned until John Peter Altgeld, a pro- labor governor of Illinois, commuted their sentences in 1893.

Seven of the eight men accused of plotting the Haymarket bombing were foreign- born— six Germans and an English immigrant. The last was Albert Parsons, a native of Alabama who had served in the Confederate army in the Civil War and edited a Republican newspaper in Texas during Reconstruction. Fearing violence because of his political views and the fact that his wife, Lucy Parsons, was black, Albert Parsons moved to Chicago during the 1870s. Having

How did reformers of the period approach the problems of an industrial society?

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646 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

survived the Ku Klux Klan in Recon- struction Texas, Parsons perished on the Illinois gallows for a crime that he, like the other “Haymarket martyrs,” did not commit.

Labor and Politics

The Haymarket affair took place amid an outburst of independent labor polit- ical activity. One study has identified more than 100 local political tickets associated with the Knights of Labor between 1886 and 1888, from Annis- ton, Alabama, to Whitewater, Wis- consin. Their major aim was to end the use of public and private police forces and court injunctions against strikes and labor organizations. At least sixty achieved some kind of electoral success. In Kansas City, a coalition of black and Irish- American workers and middle- class voters elected Tom Hanna as mayor. He proceeded to side with

unions rather than employers in industrial disputes. The most celebrated labor campaign took place in New York City, where

in 1886, somewhat to his own surprise, Henry George found himself thrust into the role of labor’s candidate for mayor. George’s aim in running was to bring attention to the single tax on land. The labor leaders who organized the United Labor Party had more immediate goals in mind, especially stop- ping the courts from barring strikes and jailing unionists for conspiracy. George ran a spirited campaign, speaking at factories, immigrant associations, and labor parades and rallies. A few days after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, New Yorkers flocked to the polls to elect their mayor. Nearly 70,000 voted for George, who finished second, eclipsing the total of the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, and coming close to defeating Democrat Abram Hewitt.

In a political system that within living memory had witnessed the disap- pearance of the Whig Party, the rise and fall of the Know- Nothings, and the emergence of the Republicans, the events of 1886 suggested that labor might be on the verge of establishing itself as a permanent political force. In fact,

In a political cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Weekly, November 13, 1886, Uncle Sam congratulates a workingman for the defeat of Henry George’s candidacy for mayor of New York City on the United Labor Party ticket. A disappointed anar- chist fulminates in the background. Local labor parties did win many local victories in 1886.

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that year marked the high point of the Knights of Labor. Facing increasing employer hostility and linked by employers and the press to the violence and radicalism associated with the Haymarket events, the Knights soon declined. The major parties, moreover, proved remarkably resourceful in appealing to labor voters.

Thus, America’s Gilded Age witnessed deep and sometimes violent divi- sions over the definition of freedom in a rapidly industrializing society. The battle between upholders of Social Darwinism and laissez- faire, who saw free- dom as the right of individuals to pursue their economic interests without out- side restraint, and those who believed in collective efforts to create “industrial freedom” for ordinary Americans, would continue for many decades. In the early twentieth century, reformers would turn to new ways of addressing the social conditions of freedom and new means of increasing ordinary Americans’ political and economic liberty. But before this, in the 1890s, the nation would face its gravest crisis since the Civil War, and the boundaries of freedom would once again be redrawn.



1. The American economy thrived because of federal involvement, not the lack of it. How did the federal government actively promote industrial and agricultural development in this period?

2. Why were railroads so important to America’s second industrial revolution? What events demonstrate their influence on society and politics as well as the economy?

3. Why did organized efforts of farmers, workers, and local reformers largely fail to achieve substantive change in the Gilded Age?

4. Describe the involvement of American family farmers in the global economy after 1870 and its effects on their independence.

5. According to The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the era’s slo- gan was “Get rich, dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must.” Explain how this was true of the politics of the era.

6. How did American political leaders seek to remake Indians and change the ways they lived?

7. Explain how social thinkers misapplied Charles Darwin’s ideas to justify massive disparities in wealth and power and to deny government a role in equalizing opportunity.

How did reformers of the period approach the problems of an industrial society?

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648 ★ CHAPTER 16 America’s Gilded Age

8. How did social reformers such as Edward Bellamy, Henry George, and advocates of the social gospel conceive of liberty and freedom differently than the proponents of the liberty of contract ideal and laissez faire?

9. In what ways did the West provide a “safety valve” for the problems in the industrial East? In what ways did it reveal some of the same problems?

trusts (p. 608)

vertical integration (p. 609)

horizontal expansion (p. 610)

robber barons (p. 611)

bonanza farms (p. 616)

Battle of the Little Bighorn (p. 624)

Dawes Act (p. 625)

Ghost Dance (p. 627)

Wounded Knee massacre (p. 627)

the Gilded Age (p. 629)

gold standard (p. 632)

Civil Service Act of 1883 (p. 632)

Interstate Commerce Commission (p. 633)

Sherman Antitrust Act (p. 633)

Social Darwinism (p. 636)

liberty of contract (p. 638)

Great Railroad Strike (p. 639)

Knights of Labor (p. 640)

single tax (p. 642)

Social Gospel (p. 644)

Haymarket Affair (p. 645)


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