Gilded Age Summary Essay Thesis

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

How did railroads change American society, politics, and economy in the post–Civil War era?

Railroads completely transformed the United States socially, politically, and economically during the Gilded Age. Literally the engine of the new industrialized economy, they facilitated the speedy transportation of raw materials and finished goods from coast to coast. In addition to raw materials, these “iron horses” carried people west to settle the heartland and the frontier. As the railroads grew in power, they exerted increasing influence on local and state governments, eventually prompting Congress and reform-minded presidents to pass laws to regulate the new industry.

After the Civil War, rail tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt capitalized on the conversion of their iron tracks to steel, which allowed them to lay more track for only a fraction of the cost. As a result, by 1900, the United States boasted almost a quarter of a million miles of railroad track. In turn, steel magnates such as Andrew Carnegie benefited from the increased demand for steel and responded by producing more. As consolidation and innovation streamlined costs, it became cheaper and faster to ship raw materials, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and oil via rail than by steamship.

Railroads transported people, too, and contributed, more than any other single factor, to the transformation and development of the West. Although more than a million Americans had moved westward in the days of “manifest destiny” before the Civil War, trains brought millions more throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Railways made it physically and economically feasible for Americans to settle Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in large numbers. At the same time, the decimated population of native grassland bison testified to the negative consequences of this drastic transformation of the Midwest.

As railroad companies grew in power, they exerted more and more influence on local politics and economics. Unscrupulous “robber barons” extorted the public by charging outrageous rates, distributing uncompetitive rebates to preferred customers, accepting bribes and kickbacks, and discriminating against small shippers. Public discontent with the railways emerged in small farming communities throughout the Midwest—a discontent that ultimately helped form the backbone of the populist movement. Populists, like the socialists of the early twentieth century, wanted to curb railroad corruption by nationalizing all lines.

Even though Populism eventually faded, cries for railroad reform did not, prompting the federal government to take action. In 1887, for example, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which supervised railroad companies that operated in more than one state by outlawing unfair rebates and ordering companies to publish fares up front. The Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906 strengthened the ICC by restraining railroad companies further. In addition, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of James Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Railway in 1904.

Railroads thus transformed American society, politics, and economy unlike any other invention during the Gilded Age. They allowed big business to prosper and people to settle the West and Midwest. Ultimately, public reaction against the railroad barons’ uncompetitive business practices formed the backbone of the reform-minded Populist and Progressive movements around the turn of the century.

2.

Many historians believe that the election of 1896 was the most critical election of the post–Civil War years. Do you agree with this assessment? How did the election change American politics?

The election of 1896 was one of the most critical elections of the nineteenth century. William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan brought an end to the Populist movement, ensured financial stability that helped industrialization, and ushered in a new era of Republican conservatism that lasted for nearly forty years. In addition, the election demonstrated the importance of money in national politics and the support of urban voters.

William Jennings Bryan’s decision to incorporate much of the Populist Party platform into the Democratic Party platform effectively put an end to the Populist movement. Particularly important was Bryan’s call for inflationary free silver to help impoverished farmers in the South and Midwest pay off their debts. Populist leaders chose to unite with Bryan and the Democrats rather than try to win with a third party candidate of their own. Although Bryan represented the best choice for winning that particular election, the Populist Party’s support of him deprived them of their own platform and ultimately pushed many farmers permanently in line with the Democratic Party. The Populist Party never recovered and eventually dissolved completely.

However, both Populists and Democrats failed to realize that farmers no longer constituted the bulk of the American population. Even though the United States had been a predominantly agrarian country since the American Revolution, the industrialization and immigration of the Gilded Age shifted the population balance toward the cities. Bryan’s appeal for inflationary silver worried urban residents, who relied on steady wages, and the free silver issue ultimately cost him the election. Consequently, the election of 1896 marked the last time a presidential candidate from a major party tried to win by appealing to agricultural interests. McKinley, on the other hand, appealed to American city dwellers, promising economic stability and a “full dinner pail” for every American. His sound money policies, which kept big business booming and the economy growing, ultimately helped the United States become the greatest industrialized nation in the world.

The election of 1896 also demonstrated the growing importance of money in American politics. With more than $15 million, McKinley had more money to spend on his campaign than any of his predecessors. He also had Mark Hanna, his wily campaign manager, who successfully convinced business tycoons to donate to the campaign. McKinley won the election in part because of his ability to spend more money, prompting many Democrats to accuse the former senator of “buying” his presidency.

Just as significantly, McKinley’s victory ushered in a period in American politics dominated by Republican conservatism. In fact, Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1897 and 1933. Their fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire attitude toward the economy helped the American economy grow even further.

3.

What were the causes of urbanization during the Gilded Age? What consequences did this urban revolution have on politics, the economy, and society?

Rapid immigration, along with the explosion of Americans moving from farms to the cities, caused an urban boom during the Gilded Age. The growth of cities gave rise to powerful political machines, stimulated the economy, and gave birth to an American middle class.

Civil wars and persecution prompted many southern and eastern Europeans to flee their homelands in search of better lives in America between the 1880s and 1920s. During these years, approximately a million immigrants from Italy, Greece, Russia, Poland, and other countries arrived in eastern U.S. cities every year. In addition to the influx of immigrants, millions of country-dwelling Americans moved to the cities to escape poverty.

The urban explosion contributed significantly to the rise of powerful political machines that became synonymous with the Gilded Age. Political bosses like William “Boss” Tweed in New York City accumulated power and wealth by preying on insecure immigrants living in the cities’ poorest slums. In exchange for their votes, bosses promised to provide social services, new public projects, and sometimes even physical protection. These political machines grew incredibly powerful well into the twentieth century and came to dominate local politics and even influence national politics. Nearly every U.S. president between Grant and Truman could trace their roots back to local and state party machines.

The shift in population from the countryside to the cities also changed the way presidential candidates campaigned, as demonstrated by William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896. McKinley was able to secure the urban vote, which led him to victory, whereas Bryan wrongly assumed that the majority of the voting public was still in America’s countryside.

The economy benefited greatly from the influx of immigrants and farmhands to the cities. Factory owners especially benefited from immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who, eager to make a new start in America, often worked inhumane hours for meager wages and rarely threatened to unionize. The availability of such cheap labor contributed to the economic boom during the Gilded Age and throughout the early twentieth century.

The urban explosion, furthermore, contributed to the growth of a distinctive American middle class. Not rich but not poor either, a growing number of Americans could afford to live comfortably and enjoy the modern conveniences of Gilded Age life. The increasing number of middle-class women led to the reform movement of the late nineteenth century. Many of these women strove to eliminate poverty and right other social wrongs, such as drinking, prostitution, and gambling. Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and other women founded settlement houses in urban slums to help immigrants improve their lives in the New World. This early reform movement served as the roots of the broader Progressive movement that dominated American politics after the turn of the century.

The veritable explosion in population between the 1880s and 1920s in eastern cities thus completely transformed American politics, society, and the economy. Politicians began campaigning harder in cities run by political machines, cheap labor fueled economic growth, and a distinctive American middle class emerged that would eventually spearhead the progressive movement.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Why did the Populists gain so much power in the 1880s and 1890s, and why did they disappear soon after that?

2. Compare and contrast Roosevelt’s Square Deal with Wilson’s New Freedom.

3. What were the causes and consequences of Progressivism?

4. Describe how three of the following shaped American politics in the early twentieth century: Ballinger-Pinchot AffairPayne-Aldrich TariffmuckrakersUnderwood TariffSquare DealProgressive Party

The Gilded Age Summary & Analysis

The Golden Points

  • Rapid economic growth generated vast wealth during the Gilded Age.
  • New products and technologies improved middle-class quality of life.
  • Industrial workers and farmers didn't share in the new prosperity, working long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay.
  • Gilded Age politicians were largely corrupt and ineffective.
  • Most Americans during the Gilded Age wanted political and social reforms, but they disagreed strongly on what kind of reform.

Gilded or Gold?

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner were the first to call the years after the Civil War the "gilded age." Struck by what they saw as the rampant greed and speculative frenzy of the marketplace, and the corruption pervading national politics, they satirized a society whose serious problems, they felt, had been veiled by a thin coating of gold.

The label stuck. 

Now usually applied to the period extending from the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 to the elevation of reformer Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency at the turn of the 20th century, the term "Gilded Age" has survived because historians have found a great deal of validity in Twain's and Dudley's characterization of their own time.

During those years, America's economy did grow at an extraordinary rate, generating unprecedented levels of wealth. Railroads and soon, telephone lines, stretched across the country, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs and cheaper goods for consumers. But a nation that had long viewed itself in idyllic terms, as a nation of small farmers and craftsmen, confronted the emergence of a society increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots: a society in which many poor workers struggled just to survive while an emerging industrial and financial aristocracy lived in palatial homes and indulged in opulent amusements. 

Some Americans celebrated the new wealth, and others lamented it. All could agree that profound changes were taking place in the country.

During these years, American politics were dynamic and exciting. Voter participation rates were extraordinarily high and national elections were decided by razor-thin margins. But corruption also plagued American politics. At the national level, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant was a cesspool of graft and maladministration. Succeeding presidential administrations were less corrupt, but the influence of America's rapidly-expanding wealth did leave its mark on public life, as many politicians embraced a governing philosophy rooted in the premise that this economic elite should be allowed to pursue its endeavors with minimal government interference.

At the municipal level, this was the era of the political machine. Urban politics were dominated by powerful organizations that exchanged jobs and contracts for political loyalty—and to the surprise of no one, the politicians running those organizations always managed to skim a little off the top for themselves. 

The most infamous of these machines was New York's Tammany Hall, but corrupt urban politics didn't end at the Hudson River. On the other side of the country, Boss Ruef ran San Francisco, and even in America's heartland, Tom Dennison ran Omaha—cough, Nebraska's version of a big city, cough—in much the same fashion.

While economic and political elites capitalized on America's rapidly expanding wealth, industrial workers struggled to survive the bleak conditions often hidden behind the nation's glittering façade. Industrial wages were low and hours were long in factories that were typically dangerous and unhealthy. But perhaps worse, the restructuring of work—the subdivision of labor into its unskilled parts—left many workers with few marketable skills and little hope for occupational or social mobility. 

One consequence of all this was a budding labor movement, as workers banded together to try to force their collective will upon the industrial giants that had dominated them as individuals. Workers' efforts to organize frequently led to long and violent strikes, rocking the economic landscape and even raising the frightening specter of outright class warfare.

America's farmers also suffered during these years. Initially, they, too capitalized on the new technologies and new markets of America's growing economy. But soon, they faced increased competition, saturated markets, and falling prices for their produce. By the last decades of the century, their share of the national wealth had precipitously declined and their iconic place in the American imagination was at risk.

This was the Gilded Age that Mark Twain lampooned so viciously.

Of course, many of Twain's contemporaries disagreed with his characterization of the period. Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner argued that the turbulence and casualties of economic development were unfortunate but necessary. Development depended on competition; economic and social progress brought failure as well as success. Economic inequalities weren't only inevitable, but they were essential to material progress. And any government interference with the natural course of social and economic development would impede, not advance, progress.

Most modern historians are less willing to accept the period's casualties quite so philosophically, but many have concluded that the economic forces unleashed during these years were crucial to the development of American society. While these historians concede that many suffered through this transitional period, wages were low, farmers' status was precarious, and urban conditions were deplorable, they also acknowledge that American entrepreneurs, large and small, were building a national economy that would deliver better goods, improved lifestyles, and eventually higher wages for the vast majority of Americans.

Yet whether Gilded Age contemporaries condemned or defended the social and economic forces at play, and whether historians find Twain's or Sumner's assessment of the period more compelling, almost all agree that things began to change around the turn of the century. 

A common interpretation of these years suggests that in 1901, industrialists and politicians who had long operated without restraint suddenly faced a new president and an increasingly concerned middle class, anxious to reform the abuses they perceived in American economic and political life. The reform period they ushered in—the Progressive Era—recast the role of government and laid the groundwork for the modern state within an industrial economy.

There's a lot of truth in this interpretation. At the turn of the century, we can detect a shift in the public consensus, a growing sense that earlier confidences that industrial leaders would build a prosperous and equitable society may have been misplaced. As the strikes multiplied and grew more violent, as farmers bolted from the traditional political parties and launched one of their own, and as political machine operatives boldly articulated new governing philosophies that violated traditional conceptions of disinterested public service, America's large middle class did embrace a new understanding of government and its role in society.

But if we look closely at the Gilded Age itself, we can see considerable discomfort with the direction of American life much earlier than 1900. Twain and Warner wrote their satire of the times in 1873, and they weren't alone. Social critics and reform politicians appeared on the scene relatively early, voicing concerns about what they saw as economic exploitation and political corruption surrounding them. 

And well before 1900, labor organizers and agrarian reformers experimented with various organizational and political approaches to increasing their own power.

Perhaps more interesting, many of the most successful players within the new economic order of the Gilded Age revealed their own discomfort with the times as well. John D. Rockefeller, the most powerful industrialist of the era, recognized that he needed to defend his practices and the enormity of his oil empire. Andrew Carnegie realized that he needed to articulate a philosophy that defended the size of the personal fortunes he and his friends were accumulating. 

Both realized that America's republican traditions had to be mollified, not recklessly ignored. So, both sought to soften the roughest edges of the period through philanthropy and philosophy, even though their own firms were thriving in the harshest corners of the marketplace.

The years between 1868 and 1901 can, with some justice, be labeled a "gilded age." A glittering façade did indeed cover a host of social and economic problems. But merely labeling the period a gilded sham—à la Mark Twain—doesn't truly capture all that was going on. These years saw Americans struggling to come to terms with the size, wealth, political needs, and new labor relations of their changing nation. 

Beneath the nation's golden façade—whether we think that façade fairly captured the underlying reality or not—Americans were already at work on the answers to the social and economic challenges of the new era.

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