Sage American History Readings – Unit 4

Jim’s Note: Economically, the end of the Civil War essentially ushers in two different, yet parallel, periods in US economic history.  In the North and the West, it brings tremendous growth, industrialization, expansion westward, and the period we call the “Gilded Age”. In the defeated South, it brings the period known as Reconstruction.  Since so much of the tale of Reconstruction involves primarily politics, race, the dynamics of military occupation of the South, and the  beginning of the struggle for civil rights (and the oppression of those rights), I will not require extensive reading about Reconstruction.  I only include those excerpts from Sage that involve the more economic and physical/productive reconstruction of the South.  However, any student who has particular interest in this period, or has an interest in understanding better these roots of today’s civil rights struggles is encouraged to read more at Sage American History here.

The Physical Reconstruction of the South: Much of the South was physically devastated and demoralized after the war. Railroads and factories had been destroyed, farms had gone unattended, and livestock had been killed or driven off in areas occupied by the Union armies. The former plantation owners still had their land but had lost much if not all of their capital. The former slaves comprised a large and experienced labor force but owned neither land nor capital. Many former slaves believed in the precedent set by General Sherman, that the federal government was going to supply them with “forty acres and a mule.” Sherman, however, had exceeded his authority, and the Constitution inhibited the ability of the government to confiscate or claim private property “without due process of law.”

Black leaders in the South who participated in the Reconstruction governments did not always understand the land problem. Many Blacks who gained office had been free before the war, had lived in cities or towns, and had not been directly connected with agriculture. Those who gained public office often came from those groups; they were generally literate and had relatively little in common with plantation field hands. Even among the former slaves themselves there were significant differences in the way they saw their situation; those slaves who had been artisans and had worked at jobs other than simple farming had more opportunities than those who simply needed land on which to live and raise crops.

Some sort of system of production had to be worked out, and what evolved was a combination of various plans that on the surface seemed reasonable: sharecropping, tenant farming and the crop lien system. Sharecropping meant that those working the land would share the profits from their crop sales with landowners; tenant farmers simply rented the land; the crop lien system allowed farmers, in effect, to mortgage their future crops with owners. Each system had as its basis a bargain among laborers, those who had land and those who owned or controlled capital. Each system was potentially beneficial to all parties, but each also contained the possibility of exploitation and fraud, as was shown in practice. Even poor whites became sharecroppers or tenant farmers, so there was nothing inherently discriminatory in any approach. In fact, by 1880 a significant portion of the former slaves had become landowners, and despite exploitation and abuses, the system brought a moderate amount of cooperative self-reliance to the parties involved. Nevertheless, many former slaves still found themselves caught in a system that offered few rewards beyond mere subsistence.

The South also needed capital to rebuild railroads and make other internal improvements, and those needs generated a reawakening of the South in the post-Civil War years that slowly brought new prosperity to the region. It was hard won, however, and many of the losses suffered by the Confederacy were never regained. The economic ups and downs of the industrial era often hit the South especially hard. The South was not always seen as a favorable region for the investment of capital, especially in periods where capital was in short supply. Railroad building tended to be concentrated in the trans-Mississippi area.

Despite attempts at industrialization, the South produced a smaller national portion of manufactures in 1900 than in 1860. The South had 30% of the population, 50% of the farmers. By 1880 the average annual income in South was half that of the national rate. The high occurrence of tenancy resulted in economic slavery for many. The Redeemer regimes, often corrupt, welcomed Northern investment, and Northern control of Southern economy. These governments neglected the problems of small farmers, black or white, who suffered from unpayable debts. Eventually, the small farmers of the South joined in the creation of a new political party, called the Populists, in the 1880s. (Seenext section.) The Redeemers also began the process of legal segregation and invented ways of denying blacks the right to vote. North and South united, but at a heavy cost to the newly freed blacks. (Note: Redeemers is the term applied to Democratic politicians who generally shared the views of majority whites in the prewar South.)

End of the Reconstruction Era: The Compromise of 1877

By 1876 many people both North and South had grown tired of reconstruction and wanted to forget the Civil War altogether. It had become apparent that the problems of the South could not be resolved by tough federal legislation, no matter how well intended. In May 1872, Congress passed a general Amnesty Act, which restored political rights to most remaining confederates. The Democratic Party was restored to control in many Southern states, and black voting rights began to be curtailed by one means or another.

hayes tildenThe election of 1876 was the vehicle by which Reconstruction was finally ended. The candidates were former Union General Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, Republican, and New York Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden. The campaign was carried out by far less than above-board means, with corruption and treason being some of the charges which the parties leveled at each other. Hayes was called to answer for the “crimes” of the Grant administration, while Republicans continued to call the Democrats the party of treason. That charge became known as the “bloody shirt,” so called because of a politician who waved a blood-stained shirt at a convention, blaming the South for the war. White supremacy groups helped spread pro-Democratic propaganda throughout the South. As the campaign drew to a close, Tilden was regarded as the favorite, and on the final night of voting, even Hayes believed that he had lost as he retired for the night. It soon became apparent, however, that the results were unclear.

The winter of 1876-1877 thus became one of confusion and bitterness as the outcome of the election was smothered in doubt. To this day it is not certain who really won. When the electoral votes had been counted, the election returns in three Southern states—South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana—were in question. Because of alleged intimidation and other reasons, charges arose that the election had been stolen in those three states. The apparent results gave those three states to Hayes, which meant that he would have won in the Electoral College by one vote; but if any of those results were overturned, Tilden would have become the victor. The question was: how could the conflict be resolved?

President Grant’s mediation in the affair helped avert a national crisis, but the country still faced a difficult and messy problem. Congress did what it usually does when confronted with a political imbroglio: it formed a committee. Originally the committee was comprised of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent: five Congressmen, five senators and five Supreme Court justices. But when it turned out that the independent had become ineligible, he was replaced by a Republican, and they now had an 8-7 majority on the committee.

When the returns in the three states were examined, the committee decided not to “go behind the returns”—that is, they decided to accept the results as presented to Congress, in each case by a vote of 8 to 7. Thus all three states were given over to Hayes, but not without a fight. Democrats in Congress threatened to refuse to accept the committee recommendations. That action would have thrown the nation into turmoil, with no new president to take office on March 4. Behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms, a deal was hatched: In return for allowing the committee’s recommendations and giving the election over to Hayes, the Democrats exacted three promises. First, reconstruction would be ended and all federal troops would be removed from the South. Second, the South would get a cabinet position in Hayes’s government. Third, money for internal improvements would be provided by the federal government for use in the South.

The irony of the situation is that President Hayes was probably prepared to do those things in any case, but the Compromise of 1877 was accepted. In April of that year federal troops marched out of the South, turning the freedmen over (as Frederick Douglass put it) to the “rage of our infuriated former masters.”

Summary of Reconstruction

The Civil War was the bitterest war in American history by almost any definition. It has been called the “brothers’ war,” the war between the states, or the “War of Northern Aggression.” Strong feelings about the background, causes, fighting and meaning of the Civil War continue to this day. Over 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War and another 400,000 suffered grievous wounds. Millions of dollars’ worth of property were destroyed, families were disrupted, fortunes were made and lost, and the country that emerged from the war in 1865 was very different from the country that had existed in 1860.

In the immediate aftermath of the war its most serious consequence was undoubtedly the rage that swept across the South, manifesting itself in bitterness and hatred of all things associated with the Union—or the North. “Yankee” was a pejorative term, and “damn Yankee” was one of the milder epithets applied to anyone who came from the far side of the Mason-Dixon line. (One of my former students who married a Southerner said that she had lived in the South for twenty years before she knew “damn Yankee” was two words.) The South saw a huge portion of its young male population destroyed, along with homesteads, farms, factories and railroads. After all the sacrifice and suffering that Southerners had endured, they were back in that hated Union.

Naturally the rage and frustration felt by many Southerners needed a target or outlet, and unsurprisingly, that target was the freedmen and women, the former slaves who now walked unfettered in the streets of Charleston, Atlanta, Mobile and New Orleans. Their very presence as free men and women further aggravated feelings of Southerners like salt in a wound, and their wrath was often expressed by bloody and violent means.

Reconciliation of the two sections of the country came at the expense of Southern blacks and poor whites. North and South reconciled after 1877, but only through the compromise that stripped African-Americans of their political gains and turned the South back over to the Redeemer Democratic governments that sought to further legislation restoring white supremacy through Jim Crow laws and other means. The “New South” of the Redeemers would recreate as far as possible the racial conditions of the Old South. The Southern economy was dominated by Northern capital and Southern employers, landlords and creditors. Economic and physical coercion, including hundreds of lynchings, effectively disenfranchised people of color. Some blacks, justifiably bitter at the depth of white racism, supported Black Nationalism and emigration to Africa, but most chose to struggle for improvement within American society. Over time, many migrated north or west in search of better opportunities.

The results of the Civil War included the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that ended slavery, created national citizenship for the first time, amplified the meaning of the Bill of Rights, and attempted to provide access to the democratic process for all adult male Americans. They were, in the short term, only partially successful at best.
As Southerners viewed the history of the prewar years, secession and the war itself, they soon began the process of writing their own history of those terrible events, and came to adopt what is called the “Lost Cause,” the idea that in the end the South had been right in its desire to govern itself and the defend the institution of slavery. The idea—or, as some term it, the “myth”—of the Lost Cause is still present. (See Edward A. Pollard. Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, 1866)

In 1915 movie maker D.W. Griffith produced one of the most famous and controversial films in American history, The Birth of a Nation. In terms of its contributions to the history of cinematography, the film is a masterpiece. With a running time of over three hours, it was long even by today’s standards. A black and white silent film, it nevertheless used color tinting for dramatic effects, employed hundreds of extras, and had elaborate subtitles and other graphic effects. The film, however, was overtly racist. Its theme was the salvation of the reconstruction South by the Ku Klux Klan from rampaging former slaves and northern opportunists. Race riots over the film broke out in some northern cities, and the N.A.A.C.P. protested in cities across the country. Although President Woodrow Wilson showed the film in the White House and proclaimed it good history, in later times critics have condemned the content of the film for its overt racism and historical inaccuracies.

Conclusion. It is hard but not impossible to say good things about reconstruction. In later years, some Blacks looked back on Reconstruction as “the good old days,”—a time when anything seemed possible; two Black men served in the Senate, one in the House, and there were Blacks in most Southern governments. Their goals were land, the ballot and education for Freedmen. Blacks did get the ballot, and education opportunities were provided. Congress could not support land confiscation, however, as it was legally barred. There was no “Marshall Plan” for the South, but on the other hand, the South was not brutalized. Despite the enormous problems of the Reconstruction era, the hope existed among many that further progress could be made. Many honest citizens, both black and white, understood the challenges and worked to solve them; nevertheless, many goals were unrealized, and much of the progress that was made during Reconstruction was reversed later.

Perhaps the greatest irony of reconstruction is that it had to occur at all in a legal sense. For four years a bloody war had been conducted to prove the point that a state could not unilaterally leave the Union. During the years after the war was over, however, the United States Congress dictated terms under which the states would be admitted back into the Union.

Like the Civil War that preceded it, the reconstruction experience changed life in the American South, and to some extent even in the north, permanently. In the first place, the leadership of the old plantation-slave-owning aristocracy was undermined. It was a bitter pill for those who had shaped the fortunes and destinies of most of the southern population. Although it existed in nostalgic memories for some time, the old South was gone. To some extent, the old leadership tried to hold onto power through black codes and other measures. Neither did the Republican radicals in Congress understand the degree to which Southern conservatives could conspire to flout federal laws. Furthermore, leadership at all levels, North and South, was insufficient to meet the extraordinary challenges of reconstruction.

Although the “Black Republican” governments in the South were accused of corruption, dishonesty and shady dealings in government were typical of the time, especially in the northern cities. Political leadership was insufficient to meet the challenges of government, and corruption among politicians was widespread. In terms of how the federal government conducted business during Reconstruction, many historians have decided that the radicals were not radical enough; they left too much undone, and walked away while the readjustments were still far from complete. When Frederick Douglass said, “you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters” he might have said “former masters” Yet with the black codes and other legal and extralegal methods devised to control the population of Freedmen, in a sense he was still correct.

In the end, Blacks after 1877 were in essentially the same situation as in 1865, when slavery was formally ended. With all the violence they had seen, they must have wondered indeed whether their gains had been worth the trouble.  Yet their considerable achievements should be recognized: Former slaves had participated in government in high levels, including the United States Congress. The new constitutions they had helped write were more progressive than many in the North. Many former slaves had managed to become landowners, had voted in elections and pursued educational goals. They had become part of the body politick. But for decades, the hopes of most Southern blacks were not realized.

Reconstruction Reversed: Redeemers in Power

The Clock is Turned Back. Historian Page Smith writes that the Compromise of 1877 which ended Reconstruction “was also a death sentence for the hopes of southern blacks.” Feeling that the North under the radical Republicans in Congress had sought to impose “black rule” on the South, post Reconstruction in the South set about restoring white supremacy. Their assault on Black rights proceeded on both political and economic ground. Once federal troops left the South and the Federal government had turned to other matters, all the advances that had been made for black people during the reconstruction period slowly began to unravel. The Southern governments that took over were dominated by conservative Democrats known as “Redeemers.” Their purpose was to disenfranchise Republicans, black or white, and restore what they viewed as the proper order of things, namely, a society based on white supremacy. The Republican Party soon ceased to exist as a viable political force in the former Confederate states, and Democrats ruled the South into the late twentieth century.

(See Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984, pp. 615-640, passim.)

All across the South in the years between 1880 and 1900 blacks who attempted to exercise their electoral franchise were harassed, intimidated, and even killed to prevent them from voting. Resolutions were passed by groups of white citizens, and editorials appeared in newspapers claiming that Blacks should be excluded from voting because of their political incompetence. Even a brief alliance between Blacks and poor white farmers during the rise of the Populists could not stem the tide of Black disenfranchisement. Some southern leaders took pride in their attempts to prevent Blacks from voting; one South Carolina leader even bragged of having shot blacks for attempting to vote. Black leaders courageous enough to fight the tide of discrimination were unable even through eloquent pleas for fairness to effect a change in the growing attitude of political discrimination.

birth of a nationAs for social equality, during the last quarter of the 19th century, the Southern states passed many “Jim Crow” laws that resulted in segregated public schools and limited black access to public facilities, such as parks, restaurants and hotels. Segregation in the South soon spread to virtually all public entities. As noted above, the Sumner Civil Rights Act of 1875was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protected blacks from discrimination by state action, but not by individuals, thus making “Jim Crow” laws possible and legally acceptable. As a Richmond Times editorial stated, “God Almighty drew the color line and it cannot be obliterated. The Negro must stay on his side of the line, and the white man on his.”

At the same time, the United States Congress was also tired of dealing with Reconstruction because of other political issues that needed attention. The country had undergone a long-lasting financial recession beginning in 1873; Custer’s men were wiped out at Little Bighorn in 1876; the first transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869, but labor discontent was rising; and immigrants were pouring into the country at an ever-increasing rate. Thus the problems of the South had become something of a distraction. Social equality for Blacks was nonexistent, and Congress seemed unconcerned.

Because of the impact of the Ku Klux Klan and a general high level of corruption that attended the democratic process in all parts of America, the electoral process, including presidential elections, was rough at best. In the North political machines told their voters to “vote early and often”; in the South the Reconstruction governments were also touched by corruption, and both black and white leaders found themselves unequal to the task of furthering the rights of freedmen without further enraging whites.

Washington & DuBois. Along with voting restrictions, strenuous attempts were made to limit black economic rights. Although Blacks had demonstrated their ability to work in a variety of traits such as blacksmithing, carpentry and stonemasonry, discriminatory hiring practices and boycotting of black tradesmen tended to limit Blacks to tenant farming and other menial positions. Booker T. Washington fought that trend as he rose to leadership of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. To his fellow African-Americans he preached a doctrine of hard work, clean living and a focus upon the ordinary skills of life that people needed on the road to good health and prosperity. He said, “our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.”

As leader of Tuskegee, Washington saw to it that training focused on skills that would serve Blacks in commercial areas. In his Atlanta Exposition address he said, “there is as much dignity and tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.” Washington’s approach was roundly criticized by other black leaders. Black leaders such as John Hope argued that blacks should indeed strive for full equality, political and social, as well as economic.

The best-known of Washington’s critics was W.E.B. Du Bois. Raised in the North, he was shocked when he first experienced discrimination in the South. Joining the faculty at Atlanta University, the boys began to study social conditions of blacks up close. He began a campaign against “ignorance and its child, stupidity.” He called for intelligent Blacks to provide leadership in developing the intellectual capacities of all African-Americans, calling those of superior intellect the Talented Tenth. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk is an eloquent exposition of the cause of Blacks. He felt that Washington’s approach ignored the realities of American political life, that giving up social and political equality in exchange for commercial excess was ultimately a road to failure.

Facing a wall of white prejudice and discrimination, Booker Washington opted to strive for what was achievable, perhaps at the cost of what was more desirable. Criticism of Washington’s approach has continued into modern times, but as Page Smith notes, “much of the present day discussion about Washington’s educational and racial philosophy fails to take into account that he had no alternative.” ”Admirable as DuBois’s goals were, he was also limited in his vision. A Harvard educated intellectual, he failed to fully appreciate the conditions facing thousands of blacks not only in the South but across America.

One response to the conditions in the South was the beginning of a mass exodus from the South by blacks into the Midwest and to the cities in the northern parts of the United States. As the hopes of the Reconstruction era began to be dashed, thousands of blacks began to realize that their chances for a decent and successful life would be greatly enhanced by moving to parts of the country where discrimination was less rampant. In 1879 and 1880 a group of Blacks headed for Kansas, believing that conditions in the state where John Brown was still famous might be good for them. They became known as the Exodusters. Although that movement was short lived, later migrations to Oklahoma and other regions of the Old West by Blacks continued. Early in the 20th century the Black “great migration” to northern cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York involved millions. For example, between 1910 and 1930, the African-American population of Detroit grew from 6,000 to 120,000.

“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”— William Jennings Bryan, 1896

steel millThe symbol of the Gilded Age was the steel mill, filling the air with noise, the skies with smoke, the lungs with poison. Yet the steel mill was the symbol of progress, a source of national wealth and strength as it provided the necessary material for the railroad, the bridge and the skyscraper. It bespoke the age of great factories, where hundreds labored around the clock, often in appalling conditions and on low pay.

At the other end of the scale were the huge achievements of the “Robber Barons,” who built the great transcontinental railroads, huge factories, fabulous mansions and immense fortunes. Ruthless in their pursuit of business interests, they ran roughshod over their workers and cared little for the small businessmen whom they trampled into the ground. It was the age of “Social Darwinism,”—dog eat dog, no holds barred, hell for leather. At the same time, they did things for which they are remembered to this day—museums, universities, concert halls, hospitals and libraries bear their names.

Off to the side was the worker, the “man with the hoe,” humble, sore oppressed, struggling to keep himself and his family alive. The was the time of the “war between capital and labor,” and for a time it seemed that labor must lose. The period has been called the Age of exploitation, and everything was exploited: humans being and the environment.

The end of that period was “The Reckless Decade,” the 1890s, when, had it not been for the Progressive movement which began around the turn of the century, the country could easily have erupted into serious disturbances if—not outright rebellion—against the excesses of big capital.

the west
map west

America in 1860. In 1860 the settled eastern portion of the United States reached to the region that bordered on the Mississippi River along with Texas. On the far side of the continent lay the states of California and Oregon. The vast area in between included the Great Plains, the Southwestern desert and the Rocky Mountains, soon to become the last frontier of America. Native American tribes populated the region, including the Sioux, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Apache, Navajo, Nez Perce, Cheyenne and many others. Unlike the rich, lush farmland in the eastern part of the United States, the Great Plains stretched for mile upon mile with barely a tree in sight and low annual rainfall that often left the land dry and parched. In the Rockies deposits of silver, copper, gold, lead and other minerals were waiting to be exploited. By the end of the Civil War the state of Kansas poked into the West and Nevada had been admitted in 1864, but the rest of the territory was but sparsely settled. That would soon change.

Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”: In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave an address to the World Congress of Historians in Chicago with the title, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In that important address he put forth what has become known as the “frontier thesis.” His essential idea was that through repeated exposure to the frontier experiences, dating from the time of the arrival of the first English settlers, Americans have been exposed to conditions which encouraged the development and growth of democratic ideas. This contact with what were often primitive conditions also generated certain kinds of traits in Americans—a willingness to take risks, energy, a practical rather than theoretical turn of mind, and a sense of self-reliance and rugged individualism. Having survived these frontier experiences, Americans also developed a high degree of self-confidence and a powerful belief in their own destiny as a people and a nation.

Although critics have dissected Turner’s ideas, which he elaborated in later writings, they may easily be connected with other ideas about the nature of American society. They share much in common with works such as Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and with emerging 19th century philosophies such as “manifest destiny.” By itself the frontier thesis cannot explain “Americanism” in any definitive way; taken together with other historical theories, however, it does make some sense. The vast extent of territory between the Atlantic and Pacific, the natural resources, the constant fighting with Indians and the isolation from most international struggles until the beginning of the 20th century all contributed to what can be defined as the American character. Like most generalizations, though, such terms must be used with caution.

In any case, when the Civil War had ended, Americans did go west in great numbers. They went in search of gold and silver or other mineral riches, of land, space and opportunity. While some travelers came from families who had been here for generations, others were immigrants who passed quickly through teeming eastern cities and found themselves in the Rocky Mountains or the Great Plains, often gathering within close-knit ethnic communities of Germans, Swedes or Poles.

oregon trailThat view of the West has a certain vitality and charm—brave pioneers facing the elements with only what they could carry in a covered wagon; but it also has an ugly side: gross and careless exploitation of resources, or the driving of Indians who had lived in western areas for centuries onto reservations often hundreds of miles from their native soil. That rugged American individualism, which so many have admired, has also led from time to time to less-than-admirable behaviors: a certain degree of lawlessness, a don’t-give-a-damn self-centeredness and a healthy contempt for even legitimate authority.

For good or ill, the pioneers came, they saw and they conquered. They plowed and farmed and built and mined and hunted. They brought millions of acres of what was once thought to be desert land into cultivation. They hammered down thousands of miles of railroad track and discovered passes through the formidable mountain ranges. They constructed villages, towns and cities in areas that had been virtually uninhabited as far back as one could trace. Those settlements provided what some have called a kind of safety valve for the often squalid conditions in the eastern factories and cities. America, it has been said, had only one revolution (unless one counts the Civil War) because a necessary ingredient of revolution is discontent, and Americans who were discontented could always go somewhere else—in most cases without even thinking about leaving their country.

All of those factors outlined above were a powerful force in the late 19th century. Yet they combined with another, perhaps even more powerful force, the second industrial revolution. The two phenomena—the frontier and the boom in industry—complemented and fed off one another. Industry helped build the railroads, tamed the Great Plains for farmers and ranchers and provided the tools they needed to survive in great numbers. The west provided space and resources—space for those who became weary of the drudgery of the factory and resources in the form of raw materials industrial production. Together these elements transformed the country from a rich, vibrant, but in many ways naïve and innocent country into the most powerful industrial force on the planet. The United States has more or less continuously maintained that position into the 21st century.

Cowboys and Farmers: Farming on the frontier was challenging to men and women accustomed to rich land, plentiful rainfall and close-knit communities such as existed in the Ohio, Hudson, Susquehanna, Tennessee, Cumberland and other eastern river valleys. The Plains by contrast were flat, dry, treeless and immense. The wind that blew across the prairies was often seen and felt as a ghostlike thing, a spirit that sometimes drove people mad. Water was as valuable for some as gold, and frequently fought over.

WesternersThe fact of life about farming and ranching in the West was that while land was plentiful, water was scarce, and the competition for resources often degenerated into violence. The value of cattle depended upon the ability of the rancher to get his herd to market, which often meant driving them hundreds of miles over open plains to get to the nearest railhead. Abilene, Kansas, became one of the first towns developed as a center for the shipment of cattle. Its developer, Jesse Chisholm, introduced the enterprise to Abilene and sent scouts out to attract ranchers, thus giving rise to the famous Chisholm Trail.

Farmers seeking to protect their crops against large herds of cattle soon discovered the new invention of barbed wire, which they began stringing across the plains to protect their crops and their water. Cattlemen often found themselves in conflict with farmers as their movements over range lands became more restricted. In addition, cattleman themselves began wiring off their ranges, and the competition for space led to wire cutting, rustling and other practices that often degenerated into violence. The resulting “barbed wire wars” sometimes had to be broken up by United States cavalry.

All the same, the cowboy was an institution in Western life. Thousands of them, many of Mexican or African-American descent, raised herds of cattle on the plains. Instead of being a romantic saga as often depicted in books and films, the life of a cattleman, as well as that of a farmer, was often dull and tedious. Driving a large herd to a railhead in Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas, meant spending days in the saddle. They rode along behind herds of animals that raised dust and had to be constantly controlled, sleeping under the stars and riding through rain and storms. It is little wonder that when the cowboys arrived at their destination and received their payoff they were ready for some excitement in the dance halls and saloons.

Frontier towns like Tombstone or Virginia City were not as wild and wooly nor as romantic as they are often portrayed by Hollywood. Nonetheless, events such as the famous “gunfight at OK Corral” really did happen. In the absence of reliable law enforcement agencies, frontier settlers owned and carried guns, to be sure, and women as well as men knew how to use them. But Saturday nights on the frontier were as likely to be dominated by church socials, dances, or meetings at which political issues were discussed (along with the prospects for rain) as by drunken cowboys rampaging in the streets shooting everything in sight. As soon as they were ready, these western settlements applied for territorial status and then statehood, and by 1912 the “lower 48” were all in the Union. (Hawaii and Alaska became states in 1959.)

Admission of Western States

North Dakota
South Dakota
Montana Washington
New Mexico
October 31, 1864
March 1, 1867
August 1, 1876
November 2, 1889
November 2, 1889
November 8, 1889
November 11, 1889
July 3, 1890
July 10, 1890
January 4, 1896
November 16, 1907
January 6, 1912
February 14, 1912
Admission Politics. When important decisions regarding the state of the country are made, politics always play a part. As with most such issues, the big question regarding admission of new states was the impact new additions would have on the major national parties. Among the issues were the political makeup of territorial populations, their voting tendencies and governments; the impact of silver mining in the mountain states, which would in turn affect national currency issues; the impact of new state electoral votes at a time when the two parties were essentially stalemated; competition for railroad routes; and such additional issues as the fact that western territories had taken the lead in allowing women to vote (Wyoming was the first, in 1869.) The bottom line was that the admission of any new state would likely upset the political balance of power. Looking at the chart, one can readily see that the election of Republican President Benjamin Harrison in 1888 led to the admission of four new (Republican) states in 1889. It is worth noting that although Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote by a narrow margin. Another example shows that in 1912 Republicans attempted to block the admission of Arizona because the territorial legislature was controlled by Democrats.

indian story

Cowboys and Indians. Of all the tragedies that have befallen America, from slavery to debacles in foreign policy, none is perhaps as relentlessly sad as the plight of the Indians. In 1860 the territory west of the Mississippi contained 60% of America’s land but only 4% of the population. Some 250,000 Indians roamed the Great Plains or lived in settled communities in that area. Before the Civil War they were able to stave off some of the advance of the white man, or at least to keep certain areas to themselves; but once the Civil War ended, the great land rush began to overwhelm them.

indian villageThe history of the interaction between Indians and whites began with Columbus. The story is a long, tragic tale of duplicity, greed, relentless shoving, land grabs, insensitivity, xenophobia and ultimately genocide. The Indians were not without their admirers and defenders, but even “humanitarian” plans to assist Indians often backfired by giving them what they did not want or need. The Indians could have defended themselves, and often tried to do so. Yet they were unable to unify because of their cultural diversity, and thus were divided and conquered. Europeans and Americans made many mistakes in dealing with Indians. They never fully understood the Indians, and many whites still don’t to this day.

First, whites never understood the complexity and diversity of Indian life and culture. There were hundreds of tribes in North America. They differed more from each other in many cases than did the various ethnic groups that came to America from Europe. Second, whites never fully understood the Indians’ relationship to the land. For many Indians the concept of land “ownership” was foreign or even profane. Indians felt land was there for use, not abuse (although some tribes practiced “slash and burn” agriculture.) They might fight over the use of a piece of land, but not over permanent ownership. Unlimited right of occupancy is not the same thing as sovereignty, a concept alien to Indian thinking.

The building of the transcontinental railroads and their branches was the beginning of the end for the Indians’ way of life. By 1900 they had been reduced to often pitiful relics of a once free and proud people. What happened was not unavoidable, but there was a certain inevitability about the tragedy stemming from cultural insensitivity. Misunderstanding and error existed on both sides, and although the moral claim against the white settlers and the government is strong and irrefutable, the Indians managed at times to make things worse for themselves. That is not to say in any way that the Indians were responsible for what happened—they were victims by any definition—but if they had been more clever, or perceptive, or if they had put aside inter-tribal animosities and organized themselves, they might have been able to reduce the damage. The Indians have told their own story—sadly and eloquently—but perhaps the best thing that can be said about the history of the American Indian is that it is not yet over. (See Indian Stories, Appendix.)

Indian warfare operated under different rules from those of Europe, and that created further misunderstanding and hatred. Indians were hard fighters who felt that a brave enemy was a worthy opponent, and that those who could withstand pain were the bravest of all. That aspect in Indian fighting often struck the Europeans as torture. Captured enemy warriors were “allowed” to die in painful ways in order to demonstrate their courage. Further, the wearing of enemy clothing was for Indians a sign of respect, but it was seen by American soldiers as a sign of contempt or mockery when Indians donned the uniforms of captured or slain U.S. Army troops or officers.

Capturing enemy women and children was a method Indians sometimes used to increase their own tribes, a practice they felt necessary as a result of losses from warfare or disease. Paradoxically, Indians loved children, but often kidnapped them. Captured women, including whites, were often welcomed into the tribe as brothers or sisters and were generally treated kindly.

The Industrial Revolution in America


Railroad Building: Changing the Landscape

The story of the destruction of Native American cultures is intimately connected with the building of railroads across the western part of the United States. During the period of struggle between Indians and whites in the late 19th century, Indian leaders often traveled east to plead their case before sympathetic audiences. One chief was asked what could be done to help preserve the Indian cultures of the West. His answer: “Stop building the railroads.” He may as well have asked for the sun to stop shining. The building of the transcontinental railroads and all their branches was an inevitable part of the Industrial Revolution that drove America following the Civil War.

The building of the first transcontinental railroad by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad companies was a monumental feat. Whether the men were battling winds and blizzards on the open plains, or tunneling through the Sierra Mountains at the painfully slow rate of eight inches per day, the work was grueling and dangerous. Every mile of track was laid by hand; every spike was driven by strong men with hammers; every wooden tie was lifted into place by railroad workers, sometimes called “Gandy dancers.” The workers who built the railroad came from the ranks of immigrants who flooded the country following the Civil War: They were primarily Italians, Irish, and Chinese. The Chinese especially became very adept at the skills necessary to tunnel through the California Sierra Mountains, using hammers, chisels and black powder to blast through the rock.

promontoryPlans for the first railroad had begun well before the Civil War. In fact, the Central Pacific started building east from Sacramento, California, in 1863. But the Civil War delayed progress until 1865. Then the Union Pacific started out from Omaha, Nebraska, and the two companies worked towards each other to cover almost 2000 miles. In addition to the physical challenges of the mountains, plains, cold and heat, the workers were constantly harassed by Indians who felt that the building of the railroads across reservation lands was a violation of their treaties. Indians also understood that the railroads would bring even more white settlers into their territory, which could hardly bode well for their existence, a condition which had already become tenuous in any case. Indeed, the completion of the first railroad in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, as well as the other transcontinental lines that followed in the ensuing decades, changed the lives of the Plains Indians forever.

In addition to labor and materials, the railroads obviously needed large amounts of capital. Since the federal and state governments saw the railroads as a boon to national and local economic prospects, they were willing to underwrite much of the cost by distributing to the railroads the one commodity which they held in abundance: land. Across the vast open spaces in the West were millions of acres of arable land. That resource, however, could not be converted into profitable farming land without some means for the farmers to get their produce to market. No one would pay a substantial price for land until the prospect existed that a railroad would be constructed to move cattle, grain and other products to urban areas.

Rather than giving funds directly to the railroads in the form of grants or loans, the government divided the land along the railroad rights-of-way into square sections, and alternate sections were given to the railroads. The remaining sections were sold directly to settlers. The government could command a much higher price for land that would be serviced by a railroad, and many settlers willingly paid a premium for the promising sites. Conversely, the lands granted to the railroads could be similarly sold to settlers in order to raise the necessary capital for the actual building. There is no question that this great land giveaway benefited the railroads, the settlers and, indirectly, the workers employed in building the long lines. But the land-grant legislation also provided for the right of federal agencies to use the railroads at discount prices once they were completed. Historians have estimated that the federal government recouped most of its investment during the period of the First World War, when thousands of troops and tons of supplies were moved by rail.

Any time large amounts of money change hands, the opportunity for corruption and misuse of funds is bound to exist, and the building of the railroads proved to be no exception. The owners of the railroad companies formed a construction organization called Credit Mobilier, which was owned and controlled by the same people who owned the railroads. The railroad executives then awarded lucrative contracts to Credit Mobilier, thus lining their own pockets. In order to keep the government from getting too fussy about how this shady business was being transacted, the corporation gave hundreds of shares of stock to congressmen, senators and state legislators. The pretext for such handouts was that the donations would allow government officials to exercise oversight over the roads themselves. In the end, millions of dollars were raised, often changing hands under the table; huge profits were enjoyed, to the benefit of thousands. But in the long run, many miles of railroad track often failed to produce profits and ended up being written off as losses.

What about the farmers who quickly came to depend on railroads for their livelihood? Unfortunately they soon discovered that the railroads, which had a monopoly on the only transportation medium that served their direct needs, could exploit them outrageously. Railroads charged any rate they chose, including fees for storage of farm goods such as grain in railroad-owned silos. They even manipulated railroad rates to take advantage of people in areas on short spur lines who had only one avenue to get their produce where it needed to go. Such exploitation helped to fuel the farmers’ movement which eventually became the core of the Populist movement. It also contributed to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1877.

Like most other technological advances of that industrial era, the railroads did much good and considerable harm. They changed the lives of Americans in ways of which we are scarcely aware, such as altering our concept of time; railroad managers created the four time zones. The phenomenon of the white collar job was generated largely by railroads, who employed thousands of clerks to manage schedules, billing, and myriad other jobs that were part of the operation of any large corporation.

Even today, in the 21st century, railroads move millions of tons of materials and products far more efficiently than they can be moved by any other means. Railroads no longer occupy the romantic imagination of travelers as they once did, but they remain a vital part of the American economy.

Major points of Railroad Construction:

  • The building of the railroads is naturally connected with the settlement of the West and the gradual destruction of Indian cultures.
  • Three natural resources were needed to prosper in new territory: land, water, and timber. Out west two are missing, and railroads carried wood to the plains areas.
  • The Homestead Act of 1862 gave settlers 160 acres of free land, under certain conditions that encouraged settlement.
  • The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 set the wheels of railroad expansion moving. The Land Grant System gave millions of acres to railroad builders.
  • Railroads enhanced the value of the land enormously, but made farmers dependent on railroads.
  • Sale of extra land by railroad companies raised capital to finance railroad building.
  • The race for the connection with the Pacific Coast led in 1869 to completion of the first transcontinental line at Promontory, Utah.
  • Railroad construction led to further settlement of the West, which in turn aggravated conditions for the Indian tribes.

When the golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, poet Bret Harte composed some lines in commemoration. The poem began:

What was it the engines said,
Pilots touching head to head.
Facing on the single track,
Half a world behind each back.

The first through train carrying 500 passengers arrived in Omaha within hours of completion of the link. The event was greeted with parades, fireworks, church bells, speeches, thanksgiving services and general hoopla from coast to coast.

The Industrial Revolution in America

If a farmer living in 1500 had suddenly been transported to the year 1800, he might have noticed some changes, but they would hardly have been startling. Most labor was still accomplished by human muscle and animal power; ships were propelled by wind and sails; and transportation, even over modest distances, was measured in days or weeks, not hours. But if you took a farmer or artisan from 1800 and set him on the ground in 1900, the visible changes would no doubt have overwhelmed him.

Although we cannot imagine life in the year 2100, it must be said that the 19th century was the century of the greatest change in the history of man. True, the airplane, spaceship and atomic bomb were products of the 20th century, but those inventions were not unimaginable in 1900, and they did not have the overwhelming impact of, for example, the train powered by a locomotive that forever changed man’s appreciation of the concept of time. When the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858 and Queen Victoria exchanged a message with the President James Buchanan of the United States, people thought a miracle had been wrought.

The accelerating rate of change between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century was truly astounding. The inventions of Thomas Alva Edison, the entrepreneurial genius of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and the contributions of thousands of other imaginative men and women changed daily life in America. Often the change was for the better, but sometimes it was for the worse. In 1820 the factory had been a small, family-oriented business with perhaps a dozen employees. The textile mills of New England were larger, as were the ship yards along the Atlantic Coast, but in most businesses the owner was also the manager, and he knew the name and something of the life of everyone who worked for him.

By 1880 factories were employing hundreds, even thousands of workers. Owners and upper-level managers rarely saw their workers on a day-to-day basis and had little concept of life in their factories. But the advances were impressive: the light bulb, high-grade steel, mechanical devices of all sorts, mass production, the skyscraper, electric power, internal combustion engines, the transcontinental railroad, canned food and ready-made clothing, indoor plumbing, artificial lighting, and countless other advances transformed the lives of those who could afford to take advantage of such things.

factoryAt the lower end of the economic scale, life did not necessarily get better. As millions of immigrants poured into the country, cheap labor was the norm. While workers attempted to organize themselves for better pay and working conditions, they knew that the hordes of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island and other ports of entry were eager to displace them, even at wages scarcely enough to live on. As machines took over much of the process of manufacturing, workmanlike skills often became irrelevant, eliminating much of the need for skilled labor. A man might stand all day pulling a handle or turning a valve or doing some other mindless, repetitive task, which meant that he could be replaced in minutes should he suffer an injury or illness.

As the cities rose and bridges, rail lines, and port facilities expanded, the progress was visible everywhere, even if thousands were too tired or absorbed in their own misery to notice. Large businesses required clerks, accountants, and other white-collar workers, and the new middle class prospered as never before. The weekend, usually consisting of a free half-day on Saturday and all day Sunday, gave workers a chance to rest. As the workday shortened and leisure time increased, the abundance of cheap newspapers and magazines provided endless sources of information for the literate and curious. Schools and universities expanded dramatically. Among very poor people, however, children were often sent to the factory rather than to school, and truant officers often roamed the halls of the factories, driving students back to the classroom. In many cases, the parents would tell the children to return to their places of work as soon as possible; every family member had to produce income if the poor family was to survive and prosper.

Even in those harsh conditions, reforms were underway. The status of the working man was recognized when the first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. The paid summer vacation became an expectation for many middle-class workers. Although health insurance, unemployment insurance and accident benefits did not evolve fully until the Progressive Era, millions of Americans found life easier and more pleasant than they had during the early 19th century.

Industrialization in America, slow to start because of the Civil War, took off during the last half of the 19th century, so that by the year 1900 American steel production had far outstripped that of the rest of the world. The United States had over 200,000 miles of railroads by 1914, about as many miles as the rest of the world put together. American farm products and manufactured goods were shipped abroad in a growing American fleet of merchant marine vessels, and American travelers toured the globe in search of interesting spectacles.

The “Robber Barons”

Back in the time of Thomas Jefferson, the enemies of freedom included what he and his fellow Republicans called the “aristocracy.” By that he meant monarchists, men of the British upper class (and their American imitators) who wielded unrestrained power. In other words, unbridled government. By the latter part of the 19th century, a new aristocracy had arisen in America—the “great captains of industry.” Those industrialists, bankers, traders, merchants and their ilk were called the robber barons, and the only power sufficient to rein them in was government. So Jefferson’s enemy of freedom—big government—became the means of protecting the people from the monied aristocrats.

robber barons

John D. Rockefeller arose from a position of bookkeeper to create the Standard Oil Company in 1870, becoming in the process the richest man in the world and America’s first billionaire. Ruthless in his business practices, he drove smaller oil companies out of business by accepting short-term losses in the sale of kerosene and other products, undercutting the prices of competitors. By 1904 Standard Oil controlled about 90% of the oil business in the United States and had large investments overseas. (See Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., (New York, 1998.)

Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt started working at age 11 as a deck hand on his father’s ferry boat on the Hudson River. In due course he became owner of his own boat and was soon engaged in the lucrative Hudson River traffic between New York and Albany. With the profits he made from his boat business he began to invest in railroads in the 1830s, eventually owning a number of lines that merged into the Grand Central Railroad, which operated between New York City and Chicago.

Andrew Carnegie started working in a factory at age 13 for twelve hours a day, six days a week, for about two dollars a week. Bright, industrious, and a voracious reader, Carnegie was the epitome of the self-made man. From his job as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, he rose in the company and became more widely engaged in the railroad business. With the capital he accumulated, in the years after the Civil War Civil War he turned his attention to the production of iron goods. By creating profitable partnerships and investing widely and wisely, he eventually saw his Federal Steel Company become the core of the United States steel Corporation, the first billion-dollar industry in the world.

Later in life Carnegie turned to philanthropy, funding educational and cultural facilities, including over 3,000 libraries in 47 states and around the world. He funded the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Hall in New York City. By the time of his death Carnegie had bequeathed several hundred million dollars, the equivalent of over $4 billion in current terms. He also encouraged his fellow millionaires to meet the responsibilities that accompany the accumulation of wealth, suggesting that it was wrong for a person to die rich.

Management of the huge sums of money needed to form and operate the giant corporations of the industrial era required skillful financiers. J. Pierpont Morgan began work in his father’s London bank in 1857. He soon moved to America, where he worked at various investment banks, eventually becoming founder of J.P. Morgan & Company. He was the driving force behind the rise of the House of Morgan, an international entity that became one of the most powerful instruments of commerce and diplomacy in history.

Seen by many observers as arrogant and overbearing, J.P. Morgan orchestrated many of the biggest financial deals of the industrial era, such as the creation of United States Steel. He used his financial power to gain control of railroads and other industries. Morgan also had a huge impact on national and international financial affairs, as the Morgan Bank often served as an adjunct to the United States Treasury. He spent lavishly on works of art, eventually leaving much of his collection to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Although not as wealthy as some of the industrialists of that gage, he nevertheless controlled billions of dollars. (See Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, New York, 1990.)

All those men and dozens of others like them exercised an extraordinary degree of control over the commercial life of the United States. Their interests interlocked; bankers and industrialists frequently shared seats on each other’s boards of directors, so that the interests of the many contributed to the wealth of the individual corporations. They exercised substantial control over governments, often coming to the rescue in times of financial crisis by pumping dollars or gold into the financial arena. Political leaders frequently used institutions like the House of Morgan to finance government operations and perform diplomatic functions, both in peace and war. In many ways the large corporations exerted more power over the state of the nation that did the government, sometimes for good, often for the benefit of none but themselves.

EdisonThomas Alva Edison started work as a telegraph operator. His technological skills eventually led to the award of over 1000 patents for his own inventions. Best known for his incandescent light bulb, recording and motion picture machines, he was also a successful businessman who was instrumental in creating America’s first network of power companies. His famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was frequently the scene of discussions between Edison and other industrialists such as Henry Ford. He is famous for his maxim, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

All those men and dozens of others like them exercised an extraordinary degree of control over the commercial life of the United States. Their interests interlocked; bankers and industrialists frequently shared seats on each other’s boards of directors, so that the interests of the many contributed to the wealth of the individual corporations. They exercised substantial control over governments, often coming to the rescue in times of financial crisis by pumping dollars or gold into the financial arena. Political leaders frequently used institutions like the House of Morgan to finance government operations and perform diplomatic functions, both in peace and war.

Monopolies, Trusts, Pools and Corporate Integration

In an age of fiercely competitive practices, businesses sought means of controlling markets in order to maximize profits. The most obvious way to influence the market was to create a monopoly. When a corporation achieves monopolistic status, it is large enough to dominate the market for the products it makes, thus being able to control prices. A monopoly does not have to control the entire market; economic theory suggests that once a corporation has about a one third share of the market, it has become monopolistic. In modern times, however, the rise of a global economy and international competition has influenced the way individual nations view monopolistic practices. (A close examination of the Microsoft Corporation revels how the issue of monopoly control plays out in more modern times.)

Monopoly control of markets was achieved by the organization of trusts. The standard oil Company offers an example. Between 1868, when the first Standard oil company was founded in Pennsylvania, and 1900, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation brought other companies under its control, some of which were founded by Rockefeller himself. Standard oil companies existed in Ohio, Iowa, New Jersey, California, and elsewhere. Standard also gained control of competing companies such as Atlantic Refining, Acme Oil Company and others. By 1900 the Standard Oil Trust exercised near full control over the oil industry in the United States.

Less formal monopolistic practices included the creation of pools, which consisted of companies that were not legally organized together but nevertheless entered into agreements to control market share, pricing, distribution and so on.

Yet another means by which corporations sought to increase profits was through integration, both horizontal and vertical. Horizontal integration was similar to the formation of trusts, except for the fact that this practice involved the simple takeover of smaller competing companies rather than leaving them technically under separate management. Standard Oil would open new outlets in areas they had not yet reached, sometimes undercutting local companies until they folded or sold out to Standard.

Vertical integration involved a corporation’s expanding its operations both up and down the production chain from the procurement of raw materials to the actual retail sale of products. In the steel industry, vertical integration would involve the acquisition of sources of coal and iron ore, the basic raw materials needed for the creation of steel. A company such as Carnegie Steel also acquired fleets of ore boats to move raw materials on the Great Lakes. Oil and steel companies also built railroad spurs, sometimes to avoid the monopolistic practices of their carriers. In the oil business, vertical integration might involve creating a chain of gas stations or businesses that would sell kerosene and other petroleum products direct to the public.

Until the government was able to organize the means to control such practices, corporations in the steel, oil, tobacco, meatpacking, and other industries struggled to control their respective markets. The only restrictions on their predatory practices came from competitors, and when they were eliminated, the giant corporations were able to dictate conditions for the marketing of their products. (The Interstate Commerce Act and Sherman Antitrust Act will be discussed below.)

Certainly the wealth of men like Carnegie provided the wherewithal for philanthropy, which in turn brought great benefits to the American people in the form of universities, hospitals, libraries, museums, parks, and countless other contributions to American society and culture. Advances in science, medicine and the arts were financed through the generosity of those captains of industry and finance. John D. Rockefeller funded medical research to attack chronic disease that plagued poorer segments of society. He also gave generously to Spelman College in Atlanta, an elite college for Black women named in honor of Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Spelman. Despite their well-publicized public generosity, their callous disregard for the plight of those they exploited made the Robber Barons pariahs in the minds of the public. They built great institutions, amassed great wealth, did much good and much harm. Individually and collectively they have been studied in detail. Among the noteworthy industrialists:

  • Andrew Carnegie: Railroads and Steel
  • John D. Rockefeller: Oil
  • Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt: Shipping and Railroads
  • John Jacob Astor: Real Estate and Fur
  • Henry Clay Frick: Steel
  • Jay Gould and James Fisk: Railroads and Finance
  • Andrew Mellon: Finance
  • Leland Stanford: Railroads
  • John Pierpont Morgan: Finance
  • Collis P. Huntington: Railroads
  • Charles Crocker: railroads
  • George Mortimer Pullman: Railroads
  • Thomas Alva Edison and the Business of Invention: Edison is not generally included in the category of “robber barons,” but his name should be included among the industrial giants of the Gilded Age.

(See Charles R. Morris, The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy, New York, 2005.)

The War between Capital and Labor

Because we live in an age in which workers are protected by federal and state laws as well as by sound business practices, it is hard for us to imagine a time when workers—especially unskilled, often immigrant workers—were completely at the mercy of their employers. (The plight of many illegal immigrant workers today may be comparable; however, without legal status, they have little recourse to assistance in case of unfair practices.) As we mentioned above, before the industrial age factories and workplaces were small enough that the owner knew everyone by name and often worked alongside his or her employees. The age of the modern factory and impersonal management changed all that, and the patent unfairness with which workers were treated became scandalous. For example, if a worker was injured on the job by faulty machinery, there was no mechanism for obtaining compensation. If a worker sued, he or she had to prove that it was not his or her own negligence that caused the accident. It is very difficult to prove a negative in such circumstances.

Historian Page Smith examines the industrial revolution in Volume 6 of his People’s History of the United States and calls the events of that era “The War between Capital and Labor.” It is an apt title: the two sides were indeed at war, with armies of armed men fighting on both sides. The level of human violence and destruction of property did in fact often create warlike conditions, a situation exacerbated by the fact that many workers were Civil War veterans. They declared themselves just as prepared to shoot a corporate hireling as they had been ready to kill a Yankee or a rebel. America’s captains of industry, who themselves often rose from very modest circumstances, saw workers as commodities to be dealt with like any raw material. Cold, ruthless, calculating and impervious to the negative effects of what they were doing, they hired their own armies to deal with recalcitrant laborers. (See Page Smith, A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era: The Rise of Industrial America, New York, 1984, p. xiii.)

The Workers

The worker in the Western World has a troubled history. Thomas Hobbes described life in nature as poor, solitary, nasty, brutish, short—and for many workers that was the case. Various political theories attempted to explain or find solutions for the plight of the working classes. Socialists saw evil as an inevitable result when capitalism was left to its own devices; Liberalism called for freedom from oppression, first from government, then from business; Communism—Marxism and Leninism—saw the history of man as the history of class struggle. Of those theories, Communism was the most attractive to the mass of workers who labored in daily to make America wealthy, but who controlled few of the benefits of that wealth. The ultimate goal of Communism was labor ownership of the means of production and a state run by the proletariat, theoretically in a classless society.

Classical economists saw labor as commodity, to be bought and sold according to market demands, and were pessimists about hopes for the working poor. Adam Smith held government intervention harmful and advocated international division of labor. Thomas Malthus argued that the immediate plight of the working class could only become worse because of population growth. David Ricardo formulated the “Iron Law of Wages”: If wages are raised, more children will be produced; they will go into the market place and reduce the value of labor. The result will be that fewer children will be born, wages will rise, and the cycle will repeat. Thus wages always work toward minimum level. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels posited the theory that class struggles lead to oppression, as they outlined in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Marx’s sister, Eleanor Marx Aveling, and her husband traveled the U.S. and reported on labor conditions. Marx saw slavery in the South as a logical extension of capitalism. (Marx wrote for the New York Tribune during the American Civil War.) Working against the idea of reform was the notion of “social Darwinism.” If survival of the fittest operated successfully in nature, then was it not correct that only the fittest should survive in society? Such ideas served to suppress movements to improve the lives of the working classes. (The concept of Social Darwinism is discussed further below.)

Andrew Carnegie expressed bitterness about the war between capital and labor. He saw the move toward cooperation as opposed to competition as “the destruction of individualism, private property and the law of accumulation.” The wealthy should use their millions to aid the public—“raise the moral and intellectual level of the masses”—and not hand out quarters to the poor. Carnegie claimed that the ideology of capitalism rested on natural and divine laws. “In the long run wealth only comes to the moral man”—material prosperity makes the nation “sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christ like.” Such arrogant capitalistic notions were resisted vigorously by the poor.

Capitalists often failed to understand their workers. Employers sought docile, sober workers who would do their jobs reliably without complaining. By 1880 five million Americans were engaged in manufacturing, construction, and transportation. They were paid employees, not producers and were dependent upon hourly wages and the good will of their employers. The worker was seen as “a mere machine”—he could not make the simplest decisions and had no self-respect. The degradation of the skilled labor class was one of the major grievances of labor. Wages were not enough to support a family—work was marred by inequities and corruption. Working families could survive only by “ruthless under consumption.” Workers were victims of business cycles—the winds of change swept many away. Piece work and lower wages were introduced to reduce labor costs. Whereas workers in earlier times had worked alongside their employers, now they were separated. Managers of large business rarely had personal contact with workers.

children in the factoryWomen and Children in the Labor Force. Many new jobs for women were created during the Industrial Age. From 1880 to 1900 the number of employed women went from 2.6 to 8.6 million. In 1880 4% of clerical workers were women; by 1920 the figure was 50%, but women could not get management positions. Although middle class married women were able to stay at home, among the poor, women—and children—had to work. (Truant officers who patrolled factories to get children into school were thwarted by struggling parents who needed the extra income.) A state of quasi-slavery existed where parents bound children to work, but child labor would not be squarely addressed until the Progressive Era.

Unions were generally hostile to women; men believed women shouldn’t work for wages because they undercut wage levels. Some separate women’s unions did exist, and they sought special legislation for female workers, etc. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union led a massive strike against New York City sweatshops. Union leaders came from the middle class and were not militant, but insistent. In the 19th century no special concern existed over children or women doing hard work—they had always worked within the family on farms or in family businesses. By 1890 18% of the labor force consisted of children between the ages of ten and fifteen.

Labor Conditions. Industrial safety was a large issue: factory work was very dangerous, and it was difficult if not impossible to hold factory owners responsible for deaths and injuries. Around 1900 25-35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries per year occurred on industrial jobs. Many of the deaths occurred on railroad jobs, which were especially dangerous. Fires, machinery accidents, train wrecks and other misfortunes were common. No federal regulation of safety and no enforcement of state or local safety regulations existed. Insurance and pensions were rare, and courts were not sympathetic to worker claims; no liability was seen if the worker was negligent, or if the employer was not. The burden of proof was on the injured party to prove he or she had not been negligent—and it is difficult to prove a negative. Poor English was a problem; many workers could not read safety regulations or instructions on operating machines. Only about two percent of those injured or killed ever recovered on claims.

In all confrontations of the late 19th century, workers were generally losers. Immigrants and blacks were often targets of resentment because they were used as strikebreakers, or “scabs.” In general the union movement was secondary to the general struggle for jobs—in the labor game it was a buyers’ market. The age of industrialization was also the age of exploitation—of people, land, and resources—and while many benefited from the results, many also suffered. As industrialization and urbanization changed the face of America forever, those who took the time to look backward were astounded at how far the nation had come in just a few decades.

chiuld labor
Child Workers in America Lead to New Labor Laws

Early Unions: The Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor were organized in 1869 as a “Noble and Holy Order.” The Knights were a secret, Protestant society of Philadelphia tailors called together by Uriah Stephens. They were reformers who sought “equal pay for equal work.” By 1878 the Knights had become a national labor union. Their goal was to achieve a cooperative society by ending what they saw as the wage/slave system. They foresaw eventual cooperative ownership of mines and factories as well as consumer-producer cooperatives. They believed that every man should be “his own master” and that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The Knights recruited members without regard for race, color, or sex. All workers were eligible for membership, including unskilled laborers as well as farmers and trade unionists. Their membership reached 700,000 by 1886. They called for an 8-hour day to spread out jobs and reduce fatigue that resulted in accidents. They advocated boycotts and arbitration instead of strikes, which they considered barbaric. They supported political reform, a graduated income tax and other measures. The special interests of craft unions eventually broke the Knights, and they were also damaged in the public eye by the activities of radicals and anarchists, as occurred in the Haymarket riot. (See below.)

The American Federation of Labor was a combination of national craft unions. It became known as the “aristocracy” of labor; it did not encourage unskilled workers. Samuel Gompers, former head of the Cigar Makers Union, founded the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) in 1886 and became its president, a position he held for almost 38 years. The AF of L raided the Knights of Labor for members and leaders as it sought more influence. The Federation’s goals were limited to what was achievable within the system that existed: shorter hours, better wages, and the right of collective bargaining. The AF of L did not threaten the capitalist system as the Knights had done. They sought no “pie in the sky” solutions, but rather worked for a smooth transition to a better existence for workers and their families. Always pragmatic, Gompers said the union movement was “of the working people, for the working people, by the working people.”

In February, 1912, Samuel Gompers wrote in McClure’s Magazine:

And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living.

Specific goals of the American Federation of Labor included:

  • “Job ownership”—the right to continue to work without being laid off arbitrarily.
  • Immigration curbs to reduce the amount of cheap labor.
  • Relief from technological unemployment.
  • Labor legislation.
  • Collaboration with employers.

AF of L LogoGompers was opposed to radicals and theorists; he sought practical solutions to issues of wages and working hours, not a socialist state. He pushed for labor legislation, but only as a secondary goal. He used the power of the strike carefully as a weapon to hurt profits and force stockholders to pressure management. He did not use strikes during bad times when scabs were available, but rather in good times, when it hurt owners more directly by cutting into profits.

Gompers was also opposed to creation of a Labor Party; he did not want labor making commitments to political parties. Dues were collected from members for strike funds, worker illnesses, etc., but not for political contributions. The AF of L had over 1 million members by 1901, and by 1917 it had 2.5 million members in 111 unions. Under Gompers’ leadership the AF of L grew to about 3 million members by 1924. Eventually the AF of L became involved with politics and backed friendly candidates.

Labor Militancy: Railroads, Haymarket, Homestead, Pullman

Events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries support Page Smith’s assessment of the differences between working men and business owners as the “war between capital and labor.” The revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848, often accompanied by violence, led to militancy among labor leaders who advocated revolutionary labor reforms. Workers emigrating to the United States after the Civil War, perhaps encouraged by the demise of American slavery, brought radical social ideas with them. When the headquarters of the first Communist International was moved to New York City in 1872, labor movements in the United States became more radicalized. Both the National Labor Reform Party (1872) and the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (1876) were Marxist or Marxist oriented.

strikes in 1877 & 1894The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. An economic depression in Europe in 1873, combined with the turbulence of the post-Civil War years, led to a collapse of the American economy. Banks and businesses failed, unemployment rose to 14% and those who retained their jobs saw wages cut to as little as one dollar per day. The recession continued through the centennial year of 1876, and in July, 1877, a railroad strike broke out in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad cut workers’ wages for the second time in months, and workers refused to let trains move. The governor sent state militia to address the crisis, but the soldiers refused to take action against the workers. The strike soon spread to Cumberland and Baltimore, Maryland. The president of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad refused to meet with or listen to strikers demands, and when the Maryland governor called out two regiments of the National Guard, street fighting broke out in the city of Baltimore.

The strike and then spread to Pittsburgh, where the worst violence occurred. On July 21 Pennsylvania militia engaged in gun battle with armed workers and were driven into a railroad roundhouse. Sixteen men were killed and 39 buildings were set on fire. As the strikers grew bolder, 20 more men were shot the next day. As the strike spread further across the country, other state militias as well as Pinkerton detectives were called out to break the strikes, and the railroads brought in scabs to replace striking workers. In the end over 100 men were killed and the damage to railroad property totaled $100 million. People everywhere feared a revolution, and marches and demonstrations in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities included both men and women. Labor leaders claimed that the great strike showed that capital would justify the use of any means whatsoever to break the power of the Unions.

Haymarket. In May 1866 during a communist-led workers’ meeting in Haymarket Square aimed at the McCormack plant in Chicago, a bomb exploded. It targeted police who had been called in to break up the meeting. Seven policemen were killed and dozens wounded. In the resulting trial a number of radical leaders were convicted and were sentenced to long prison terms; seven of those convicted were sentenced to death. Four convicted men were eventually executed; the others had their sentences commuted. Because of concerns over labor violence, public opinion tended to side against the workers who had precipitated the violence in the first place. The overall impact of the Haymarket massacre was that the union movement was hurt. The riots fed into the common belief that radicals had led American workers astray and that labor unions were a threat to law and order.

Homestead. When a strike broke out at the Carnegie Steel Company plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, company manager Henry Clay Frick sent for Pinkerton detectives to deal with the strike. Workers then fired on two barges being towed up the Monongahela River with the detectives on board, killing seven. The strike was eventually broken when state militia took over. In the aftermath of the violence a Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman, attacked and stabbed Henry Clay Frick, which resulted in his being sentenced to 21 years in prison. The Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers was crushed, and another steel workers union did not arise for decades.

Pullman. Yet another breakout of labor militancy occurred at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman, Chicago. George Pullman organized the Pullman sleeping car company in 1867 and created a company town. Pullman’s paternalism meant that the company controlled everything in the worker’s lives—banks, churches, schools, utilities, and so on. As one worker resident put it, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell”

In 1893 Pullman cut workers’ wages by 25-40% without lowering rents or other living costs in the town. He fired negotiators who tried to work through the situation. The American Railway Union under Eugene Debs called a strike, asking workers not to service trains pulling Pullman cars. Railway managers could have sidelined the Pullman cars until dispute was settled, but they saw an opportunity to break the union. The federal government got involved when United States Attorney General Olney obtained an injunction against the union so as not to “hold up the mails.” President Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to run the railroads, and the strike ended several days later. Criminal charges were brought against the strike organizers, and Eugene Debs was jailed for conspiracy. The Pullman strike expanded the courts’ propensity to intervene in labor disputes.

haywoodProgressive Relief. Once the Progressive movement got underway after the turn of the century, things slowly began to improve. In 1903 the Department of Commerce and Labor was established. It included a Bureau of Corporations to help corporations clean up their acts and avoid antitrust suits. In 1904 a National Child Labor Committee was formed to deal with the oppressive conditions under which children were forced to work. Without schooling they would be bound to a lifetime of dead-end jobs and drudgery.

The year 1905 saw the appearance of the Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W.—a radical Union. Their aims were to achieve worker solidarity, promote strikes and carry out sabotage where peaceful methods failed. Known as the “Wobblies,” they proclaimed that “the final arm of labor is revolution.” They believed workers should seize and operate industrial machinery and transfer ownership of the companies to workers. Many leaders were communist oriented if not outright party members. An I.W.W. leader, William D. “Big Bill” Haywood has been described as “one of the foremost and perhaps most feared of America’s labor radicals.” He was a large man with a resonating voice and had little respect for the law. Haywood organized union activists, intimidated industrial managers and often found himself in trouble with legal authorities.

Labor discontent continued well into the 20th century. During the Lawrence Strike of 1912, hundreds of women from many ethnic backgrounds braved police officers as they picketed a plant where they made coats. With the wages they earned, they could not even afford to buy the coats that they themselves produced. During the early 1920s, the West Virginia Coal Field wars saw violence in the street. In the 1930s the Teamsters Union led by Jimmy Hoffa was often involved in violent confrontations. The United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis struck in 1943 during the height of World War II, which created anger among the American people and led President Roosevelt to take over the mines.

Although industrial unions still have large memberships, most of the largest unions today are the service unions—hotel and restaurant workers, teachers, government employees. Although strikes are rare and violence even less frequent, worker organizations still provide a strong voice in support of laws that protect workers.

Chronology of the Union Movement

Artisan groups form associations based on the idea of guilds hearken back to medieval times. The aim is to protect the integrity of various skilled trades such as blacksmithing, watch-making, and so on.


This decade sees the rise of national trade unions who stress general business objectives. Members are typographers, cigar makers, stone cutters, etc. In the 1850s the cost of living rises 12%, but wages rise only 4%. Many strikes in occur 1860. During the Civil War there are few strikes, but real wages fall, partly due to inflation caused by wartime spending.


The American Emigrant Company is formed by businesses to import laborers. Imported labor contracts are later declared illegal.


The Knights of Labor are formed.


The National Trade Union Movement is an attempt to organize different labor groups and leads to 3-400,000 members in various unions. Employers also organize to guard against what they see as labor monopolies. The movement is rooted labor discontent and Middle Class fear of radicalism and seeks cooperation between capital and labor. Resistance to threats of (foreign) anarchists leads to stronger police forces and associations of businessmen.


A National Labor Union meeting in Baltimore calls for 8-hour day. State labor laws are varied, weak, and often ignored. They have 640,000 members by 1868.


In 1872 the NLU becomes the National Labor Reform Party, whose policies are militant and pro-Marxist. The Party dies quickly.


The Molly Maguires, a secret miners’ organization, grows out of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish group. Their violent tactics lead to the conviction of 24 members, of whom 10 are hanged.


Watershed year—the year of the Great Railroad Strike. Violence spreads across the country.


Strikes become more frequent, larger.


The First Labor Day is celebrated in New York City. The federal Labor Day is holiday is proclaimed in 1894 by Congress, to be held on the 1st Monday in September. Meanwhile European labor movements are begin to spread to the U.S., with many radicals among them, including Marxian Socialists, anarchists and communists.


The American Federation of Labor is founded by Samuel Gompers.


The Haymarket Riots break out in Chicago.


The Homestead Massacre in Pennsylvania occurs at Carnegie Steel..


Federal troops are dispatched to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to put down miner’s strike. Other strikes also occur in that year.


The Pullman Strike in Pullman, Illinois breaks out.


The United Mines Workers Union leads strikes from Pennsylvania to Colorado. The “West Virginia Coal Field Wars” happen during the 1920s. (See the John Sayles film Matewan)

Immigration and Urbanization: The Growth of the Cities

Urbanization is the process of population concentrating in cities. As technology—machinery, irrigation, fertilization—made farming more efficient it became increasingly difficult for farmers to make a living. The new technology required less labor and increased farm output, but the increased supply drove down farm prices. At the same time, in the last half of the 19th-century industrialization saw a huge growth in factories. Their workers produced tools, appliances, household goods, machines, and many other commodities that a growing middle class were prepared to buy. Factories tended to congregate in urban areas, near transportation facilities and financial centers, where ready labor was available. Thus a push-pull phenomenon led to ever larger city populations, as people left farms to seek employment in urban areas. Further, ethnic enclaves were constantly fed by the influx of immigrants seeking people of common background with their own.

American cities in the last half of the last century could be seen in a sense as all things to all people. Certainly the growing population centers were vibrant hubs of activity where, with a little luck, a few skills and plenty of energy, people could prosper economically. Farmers and residents of rural areas, however, saw them as pits of degradation and corruption. All the same, many young people, faced with a lifetime of hard, often unrewarding work, left their family farms in search of other opportunities. Immigrants saw America’s cities as perhaps crowded and dirty but filled with chances for work, education and cultural stimulation. The working poor saw them as prisons, perhaps, or merely places where they could eke out an existence, living from day to day. Many middle class people increasingly found them places from which to escape to the suburbs, just as long as they were able to commute to “downtown” for work via train, trolley or, eventually, automobile.

Despite crowded conditions, cities were marked by splendid museums, theaters, skyscrapers, parks and mansions, but they just as frequently had appalling slums, crime, prostitution, and disease. In those pre-air conditioning times, cities also had horribly malodorous air from poor plumbing, inadequate waste removal and the droppings of thousands of horses. Cities were simply unable to keep up with the influx of immigrants and refugees from the farms. They lacked the wealth and resources to handle the multiplying problems, and their political systems were often tainted by corruption. Yet they were vibrant, lively places, and despite the odds, people were able to survive and even prosper.

new york cityWhen contagious diseases invaded the cities, the fevers spread rapidly. Medical practice was not yet advanced enough to cope with large numbers of sick people. The challenge of providing clean water and some kind of sewage facilities also stretched urban planners and managers to and beyond their limits. The result was that around the turn of the century in 1900, the slums in American cities were among the worst in the history of the world. Families with five or more children were crammed into tiny two-room spaces, often with only a blanket over a cord providing any degree of privacy for the adults. In the absence of adequate heating and air-conditioning, cramped quarters became insufferable in the summer, when insects and vermin thrived. During the winter people huddled under blankets to keep warm as heating was often erratic. Plumbing was often primitive, and the resultant contamination of living areas exacerbated already difficult conditions. Churches, once the refuge of the poor, simply became incapable of meeting the demand, especially as wealthier congregants fled to greener pastures.

In places like New York, more foreign tongues were spoken than English, and many ethnics did not “melt.” In general they got along, and for many, even the worst conditions were far less hopeless than those they had left behind. Between 1870 and 1900, the city became a symbol of a new America to which people flocked, drawn by economic opportunity and the promise of a more exciting life. Cities grew upward and outward on the basis of technological progress. The use of steel beams allowed architects to raise buildings to previously impossible heights, and the streetcar allowed those with sufficient wealth to move from the crowded city centers to the greener suburbs, which produced an increasingly stratified and fragmented society. Skyscrapers and suburbs became the defining characteristics of the American city.

Settlement Houses. Coping with the problems of the cities, especially in poorer areas, was beyond the ability of city governments and of churches. Into the vacuum stepped a new breed of professional social workers, often women, who created what were called settlement houses to alleviate the appalling conditions that existed in the industrialized cities. They offered practical education and English language training. They also dealt with city hall and did their best to cut red tape. In the political arena they worked for reforms in areas such as such as public health and child labor. The settlement house women were spiritual cousins of female reformers working to gain women’s suffrage and reduce prostitution and drunkenness. The most famous of these workers was Jane Addams, whose Hull House in Chicago offered both classical academic and practical education to anyone who lived in the slums.

Jane AddamsFor college educated women around the turn of the century there were few opportunities to put their education experience to practical use. Business management was virtually closed to them, as were professions such law, medicine, the military, the ministry, and higher education, with few exceptions. In general women were confined to clerical work below the executive level, grueling factory labor, domestic employment, missionary work, nursing, and primary and secondary education. The settlement house movement was, therefore, to some extent a product of women’s frustration. Social work as it evolved in the 20th century was not yet a full-blown profession; educated women who saw the terrible needs of poor, often immigrant, women in the cities, developed the profession on their own. Female social workers frequently got financial assistance and moral support from fathers, husbands or businessmen who shared their views.

Perhaps the most famous woman who ever worked in the settlement house movement was Eleanor Roosevelt. Early during her marriage to Franklin Roosevelt she worked with settlement houses in New York City. On one occasion she had to escort a young woman back to her residence in one of the city’s worst slums. Being somewhat uncertain about what she might find there, she asked Franklin to accompany her, and he did. (He was not yet involved in politics but was a practicing attorney in New York City.) When they had delivered the woman to her squalid quarters, he said to Eleanor as they emerged, “My God, I didn’t know people lived like that.” FDR’s biographers mark this as a consciousness-raising event in his political evolution; the remark also demonstrates how oblivious many prosperous people were to the horrifying conditions in which millions of people lived.


The United States is a nation of immigrants, perhaps more so than any other major nation on the planet. Even our Native American ancestors migrated from Asia tens of thousands of years ago and are actually native to North Asia. Between the end of the Civil war and 1910, 25 million people entered the U.S. They joined rural Americans in the cities looking for jobs and other ellis islandopportunities. Compared with those who had immigrated to America before the Civil war, these “new” immigrants came from different parts of Europe: Italy, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Lithuania, Romania. They practiced different religions, including different forms of Christianity, and brought new and strange cultural ideas with them. The new immigrants also frequently ghettoized themselves, settling in ethnically solid neighborhoods that persist to the present day. (Chicago’s Polonia is home to over one million residents of Polish descent. Chicago is considered the largest Polish city besides Warsaw, and in Polonia, where Polish businesses, restaurants, newspapers and churches thrive, Polish is the predominant spoken language.)

The wave of immigrants started schools and churches and generally adapted themselves to American culture while retaining their own individuality, both enriching and being enriched by the interaction. They found much to admire in American democracy and took enthusiastically to politics and education, areas from which they had generally been excluded in their native lands. Immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, some of whom are still alive, often recall with wonder the feelings they had upon entering New York Harbor and seeing the statue with those words inscribed. One man said, “My God, I thought the ship was going to tip over! Everybody rushed to the side to stare at the Statue of Liberty!” (The Ellis Island Museum and web sites have recorded testimonies of immigrants who passed through its gates.)

Even from the beginning, the new arrivals were not welcome in all quarters. In colonial times there was squabbling among early English settlers—Puritans, Anglicans, Quakers, Catholics—as people exhibited the very human tendency to want to be among others who looked and thought and acted just as they themselves did. An early colonist in New Jersey spoke with wonder of what was for him a troubling diversity he experienced at a wedding, where the bride’s mother and father were of different backgrounds, perhaps German and Scottish, and the groom’s parents were a French Huguenot and a Swede.

The first group who found themselves most unwelcome were Irish Catholics. They began to come to the United States in large numbers in the early 19th century as economic conditions, the most terrible of which was the potato famine, plagued the Irish people. They came in what were often called “coffin ships” because of the numbers who died on board. Interestingly, about a third of those immigrants did not speak English but Irish, a Gaelic language that has rarely traveled far outside of Ireland itself. Further, the Irish are ethnically different from the other groups in the British Isles, and those differences were often

xaggerated by people who were unkindly disposed toward the Irish. As immigrants from Ireland began to fill up some of the poorer districts of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, they found their children abused, their churches attacked, and they were greeted with signs such as “Dogs and Irish keep out!” The election of John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, to the presidency of the United States in 1960 was a culminating milestone in the acceptance of Irish people among Americans.

America has always needed cheap labor, which provided much of the impetus for immigration, as it still does. The new immigrants filled up the cities faster than they could be accommodated, and the result of all this was an explosion in the size of American cities. The population of the United States rose from 31 to 92 million between 1860 and 1910. In the same period, the population of New York City rose from 800,000 to nearly 5 million.

The newcomers found themselves jammed into tenements, crowded apartments and shoddy houses with few sanitary facilities. The worst slums in the world were supposed to have existed in Chicago, a situation exacerbated by the stockyards that supplied the meat-packing industry. Yet immigrants continued to come in pursuit of what has been called the American dream. Meanwhile the cities grew both outward and upward. Tenement houses holding hundreds of families sprang up in the poorer sections of cities, and sanitary facilities, utilities, and other sources of domestic comfort were unable to keep up with the demand. Oppressive labor conditions and unsteady employment also caused crime to flourish, and police forces were not yet equipped to keep up with the spreading problem. Disagreements among ethnic minorities led to gang warfare, primarily among Irish, Italian and Jewish communities in New York and Chicago. In 1880 in New York City a majority of the population did not speak English at all.

The immigrants who arrived in the latter decades before 1910 changed the ethnic character of the United States even more profoundly than had the English, Irish and Germans, coming as they did from Southern and Eastern Europe. There are still parts of the United States where one can hear Swedish, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Spanish and many other languages spoken in the streets.

The New Colossus

For much of our history most Americans have been proud of our openness to peoples from other lands. Consider the words of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, “The New Colossus”:

Emma Lazarus’ precocity as a poet brought her works public attention when she was a girl of eighteen, but her interest in her Jewish heritage was slower to develop, and lay dormant until she learned of the 1879-1881 Russian pogroms against the Jews.  When Jewish refugees began arriving in the United States in 1881, Miss Lazarus organized relief programs and published a bitter attack on the pogroms in Century Magazine. The last five lines of her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” were selected for inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, dedicated October 28, 1886.Source Poems, Boston, 1989, Vol. II.

Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

statue of liberty

Since much of the wealth in the nation was consolidated in the hands of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the social tensions that resulted from immigration and the great disparity in wealth between social groups was multiplied. In the 1920s the doors began to close for a time, and severe restrictions were placed upon immigration. A quota system was established whereby those who were admitted to the United States were most likely to gain entry if they were of the ethnic groups already well-established here. When an annual quota of 150,000 for immigration was established (as opposed to years when almost a million had entered) approximately 60% of immigrants had to come from Germany and the British Isles. The rest of the world had to divide up the 40% left over. As World War II approached and international troubles multiplied, immigration slowed once more. It began again after the war when millions of displaced persons, wartime refugees far from their homes, sought new beginnings here and elsewhere.

elis island museum

As the prospering middle class sought to escape the rigors of inner-city life, suburbs began to blossom. Suburban development was aided by streetcars, buses and other mass transportation systems that began to flourish with refinements in the supporting technology. But in cities such as Chicago, with the pall of odors that emanated from the infamous stock yards, life remained barely tolerable. As mentioned above, thousands of people in New York and other cities did not speak English, and in hundreds of communities across the country church services were conducted in Greek, Polish, Italian, and other languages.

Immigrants by the hundreds of thousands continued to flood the country. Somehow the nation was able to absorb them. It was not until the Progressive Era, an age of what has been called “urban socialism,” that conditions began to improve. Progressive politicians, business leaders, social workers and others, spurred on by the growth of journalism, tackled the massive problems hanging over the cities of America.

In recent years the tide of immigration has continued and has been expanded by large numbers of illegal immigrants. Most of them enter by crossing the Mexican-American border, though others have been smuggled in on ships, through Canada and via various other devious routes. The United States is still wrestling with the issue of immigration, especially in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

The fact remains that there are few places in the world that accept large numbers of immigrants. The United States, Canada and Australia are the most open and probably account for the great bulk of international migration. How the United States will continue to deal with immigration issues remains to be seen. Our political leaders recognize the challenges, but no clear-cut solution is in sight. Attitudes are far ranging, starting from those of people such as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City, grandson of Italian immigrants. His openness and praise of our immigrant population is rare in some political circles. On the other end of the spectrum are descendents of a group once known as “Nativists,” people who felt that only those who were born in this country have a legitimate claim to all its opportunities. Opinions range widely in between, and only a full understanding of the history of our immigrant population can lead us to satisfactory solutions.

Chinese Immigration

During the last decades of the 19th century the building of the transcontinental railroads demanded huge numbers of laborers, and it was Irish and Italians and Chinese who did much of that work. When that great building boom subsided, the immigrants remained. The Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western portion of the first line from Sacramento, California, to Promontory, Utah, through the Sierra Mountains, used primarily Chinese laborers. Since most of the Chinese who came to the country to work were males, and few came with families, when the railroads were finished, they found themselves living in ghettos in the western cities with little female companionship. The social problems which arose from that were predictable, and the American response was to pass laws to restrict and discriminate against those of Asian ethnicity.

chinese workersEmigration from China to the United States was driven by many of the same motives that brought Europeans to this country. The Chinese, however, faced problems that were far more pronounced than those that affected Europeans, even those from Southern and Eastern. Chinese immigrants were subject to an obvious racist bias directed towards all peoples of Oriental background. They were attracted to this nation primarily for economic reasons. Having heard of the California gold rush, they hoped to be able to accumulate wealth and return to China. Few Chinese immigrants became rich from gold, but they soon discovered that their labor was a source of steady income if not instant riches. Centered in California, the Chinese immigrant population constituted approximately one quarter of the California workforce by the year 1880.

The most notable contribution of the Chinese immigrants was their work on the first transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific hired approximately 15,000 Chinese laborers to work on the line. During the tunneling through the Sierras, the Chinese became adept in the use of hammers, chisels and black powder as they burrowed through the granite at the agonizingly slow rate of about eight inches per day. During the winter months Chinese workers dug tunnels through the snow from their cabins to the tunnel worksites and might go for weeks without ever seeing sunshine. Yet they labored diligently and contributed significantly to the progress of the great iron railway across America.

Since the great majority of the Chinese immigrants were young single males, once the railroad work was finished, they had difficulty assimilating into American society. They settled into all-male communities in cities such as San Francisco and created businesses operating restaurants and laundries. Without a family-oriented environment, however, those conditions fostered prostitution, gambling and other socially undesirable practices. The depression years of the 1870s contributed to the anti-Chinese feelings, with the result that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act effectively ended Chinese immigration, as only those with family members already in the United States were allowed to enter the country. The preamble to the Act stated: “ [I]n the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof.”

The story of the Chinese in America has been told beautifully by a skilled young historian, Iris Chang, author of a best-selling book, The Rape of Nanking, about the Japanese occupation of that city during World War II. Her most recent work, The Chinese in America, covers 150 years of Chinese immigration to the United States, including anecdotes of Chinese immigrants and their families as they adapted themselves to the changing American culture. She traces the story of the Chinese from the building of the transcontinental railroads to modern times, highlighting the many accomplishments of the Chinese in such areas as science and technology. Iris Chang is a second-generation American, born in Princeton, New Jersey, with a graduate degree in writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Her fascinating book should be read by anyone interested in the Chinese experience in America. (Tragically, Irish Chang died by her own hand in November, 2004. It has been speculated that her work on The Rape of Nanking, the story of the brutal treatment of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers during World War II, may have contributed to her death. She was 36 years old.)


At the outset of the Civil War the federal government had been stretched far beyond its limits to cope with the extraordinary demands of supporting an army of over one million men. That demand ended once the war was over, but new areas of responsibility stretched the resources of government to such an extent that it could not cope with the rapid acceleration of events affecting the American society and economy. After the war the nation returned to peacetime activities—farming, manufacturing, railroad building, and all the advances stimulated by the arrival of the second Industrial Revolution.

The years between the end of the Civil War and the turn-of-the-century saw huge changes in economic and social conditions, which required political attention. The realignment of politics in the decade before the Civil War and the political requirements of reconstruction, however, left the parties and Congress preoccupied with issues that had little to do with the daily affairs of working people. Although there were some notable political figures in this era, a large majority of the national leadership could be considered little more than political mediocrities: the movers and shakers were all in business, though some made good use of their financial power to buy their way into high offices such as state governorships and the United States Senate. Wealthy businessman such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, and others who needed to use the political process for their own ends tended to “purchase” political support rather than getting directly involved.

bosses of the senateDuring the Gilded Age, 1876-1900, Congress was known for being rowdy and inefficient. It was not unusual to find that a quorum could not be achieved because too many members were drunk or otherwise preoccupied with extra-governmental affairs. The halls of Congress were filled with tobacco smoke, and spittoons were everywhere. One disgusted observer noted that not only did the members chew and spit incessantly, but their aim was bad. The atmosphere on the floor was described as an “infernal din.” The Senate, whose seats were often auctioned off to the highest bidder, was known as a “rich man’s club,” where political favors were traded like horses, and the needs of the people in the working classes lay beyond the vision of those exalted legislators. The Senate dominated the federal government during the Gilded Age, often calling the tune to which presidents were required to dance.

The dominant fact concerning the American political parties between 1875 and 1900 was that the parties were evenly divided. It was also an era in which political corruption seemed to be the norm; practices that today would be viewed as scandalous were accepted as a matter of routine. Businessmen wantonly bribed public officials at the local, state and national level, and political machines turned elections into exercises in fraud and manipulation. The narrow division between Republican and Democratic voters made both parties hesitant to take strong stands on any issue for fear of alienating blocs of voters. The result was that little got done.

During this period very little serious legislation was passed; between 1875 and 1896 only five major bills made it through Congress to the president’s desk. Even discussion of the graduated income tax, by any definition a revolutionary measure, failed to arouse much interest or public debate. All the same, there was wide voter participation and interest in the political process; most elections saw about an 80% turnout. Yet the unprecedented dilemmas created by industrialization, urbanization, and the huge influx of immigrants were met with passivity and confusion.

Political Issues of the Gilded Age. The major political issues of the Gilded Age were the tariff, currency reform and civil service reform. The first two issues were of obvious interest to businessmen, and they lobbied and spent freely to gain support for favorable tariff legislation and business-friendly monetary policy. Their efforts were countered vigorously by progressive groups opposed to tight money and high tariffs that raised the cost of consumer goods. Civil service reform was a widespread reaction to the rampant political corruption of the era.

Tariffs. What many Americans failed to understand was that the tariff issue is complex, as there are two kinds of tariffs with two distinctly different purposes. Ordinary revenue tariffs are modest taxes placed on imports to fund agencies responsible for goods and people entering the United States. Customs and immigration services were financed heavily by revenue tariffs. Tariffs can be specific (assessed in dollar amounts) or ad valorem (assessed as a percentage of the cargo’s value).

Protective tariffs, first passed during the second James Madison administration, are quite different, and their purpose is to support American businesses and industries. Those high tariffs enable American producers to compete successfully with foreign competitors as the tariffs are passed along to consumers, thus raising the price of imported goods and making American products more attractive. Today, for example, the government places tariffs on many products such as automobiles imported from Japan and shoes imported from Italy. High tariffs were clearly not beneficial to consumers during the Gilded Age. Yet, the idea of high protective tariffs was sold to industrial workers on the grounds that if American businesses lost out to foreign competition, workers’ jobs would be threatened. On election day management representatives might warn their workers, “If you want your job to be here tomorrow, be sure to vote for the party that supports high tariffs!” High protective tariffs were the norm until the Underwood Tariff if 1913 signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson lowered tariffs significantly for the first time since 1857.

Currency Reform. Another important economic issue was that of currency reform. The basic issue rests upon the premise that the amount of money in circulation determines its worth: the more money in circulation, the lower its value. Combined with that idea is the fact that paper currency not backed by gold or silver tends to lose value rapidly. During the American Revolution, for example, when the United States owned little gold or silver, the paper money in circulation was all but worthless, having a real value at times of about two cents on the dollar.

For most of early American history the country’s money supply was based on a bimetallic system, that is, both gold and silver were considered specie (hard currency.) Once Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury under Washington, had brought government finances under control, the government managed to support itself through a combination of tariffs, land sales, and occasional modest duties or excise taxes. Because of the income generated from those sources, American paper soon began to retain most of its face value.

The creation of the Bank of the United States and various state banks complicated the issue, for state banks had at times offered their own paper notes which circulated as “money,” but their value was unstable. They often issued more paper money than was desirable based on the amount of gold and silver they held. The Bank of the United States tended to stabilize currency, but it was a hot political issue for much of the early 19th century. It was finally disestablished during Andrew Jackson’s second term.

The chief political issue regarding the money supply was whether money was “hard” or “soft.” Hard money advocates, generally bankers and operators of other financial institutions, as well as businessmen, wanted a stable currency that was not subject to inflation. Investors, speculators, and people who tended to be in debt (farmers in particular) favored a loose or soft money policy, because inflation tended to ease their financial burdens. Farmers, for example, were generally obliged to borrow money to purchase land or finance their crops, and in an inflationary environment, the prices of their crops would rise, and repayment of their loans would be easier.

The financial needs of the government during the Civil War led to a variety of taxes, including the first income tax, which was enacted in August, 1861, and called for a 3% tax on incomes over $800. By 1865 the income tax produced 20% of federal receipts, but currency was still short, so the government adopted a “softer” money policy. The treasury issued $500 million in paper money not backed by gold or silver—“greenbacks.” As the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, so did the value of the greenbacks, which occasionally sunk to as low as 35 cents on the dollar.

Eventually the huge debt generated by the Civil War was converted to government bonds, which were paid off over time, and the greenbacks were gradually taken out of circulation. The Fourth Coinage Act of 1873, called the “Crime of ‘73” by soft-money advocates, made gold the sole monetary standard, even though large quantities of silver were being produced by western mines. The resultant tightening the money supply brought deflation of currency, which aroused anger among people who benefited from inflationary policies. Currency reform thus became a hot political issue for several decades. For years many believed that a “gold conspiracy” was behind the issue and that politicians were beholden to those interests.

500 dollar billThe controversy between “silverites” and “gold bugs” continued and was one of the key issues that led to creation of the Populist Party. Farmers in particular were hurt by tight money policies and demanded reform. However, both major parties tended to favor tight or hard money. The formation of the Greenback Labor Party in 1874, which advocated a return to paper money, provided little relief, and the issue would remain contentious for another quarter of a century.

While the discontinuation of silver coinage foreclosed an important method of expanding the currency supply, the actual supply of silver increased. As demand dropped, the price of silver fell, contributing to the deflationary cycle. Thus the silverites gained support from farmers, debtors, and speculators who wanted larger money supply; they demanded “Free Silver,” i.e., unlimited coinage of silver, which would be inflationary.

The admission of six new western states under President Harrison in 1889 and 1890 led to increased Congressional pressure in support of silver, and in 1890 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed. The act required the treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver per month to be converted into coins and silver certificates (paper money backed by and redeemable as silver.) The $500 bill pictured would have been redeemable in gold.

The issue persisted, coming into sharp focus during the 1896 Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago in July. William Jennings Bryan, a populist Democrat from Nebraska, gave a speech which became known as his “Cross of Gold Speech.” It was said that the speech, which repudiated the policies of the Cleveland administration, led to his nomination on the fifth ballot. In that famous oration he said of the gold backers:

They tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

… Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Thus William Jennings Bryan became the Democratic candidate for president in 1896. He was also nominated as presidential candidate by the Populist Party, and their decision to back a Democrat ended their effectiveness as a third party. Despite that support, Republican William McKinley won the 1896 election, and pro-business forces remained in control until the accession of Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who furthered the cause of progressives when he took office in 1901.

Civil Service Reform. President Andrew Jackson had argued that the “spoils system”—the awarding of government positions to loyal political supporters—actually enhanced the democratic process; Jackson believed that any average, intelligent citizen was able to perform the mundane tasks of government clerks and officials. As political machines gained more control over partisan activities, however, the awarding of government jobs was increasingly seen as a source of corruption. Thus the movement for civil service reform was fueled to some extent by a desire to reduce political corruption. In addition, as society grew more complex during the industrial, the ability to perform routine tasks under government employment also became increasingly complex. It was apparent for these reasons that a professional civil service was required, with employees who would no longer be subject to the political winds.

As mentioned earlier, President Hayes’s advocacy of civil service reform put him on a collision course with Congressional bosses. He removed Chester Arthur and Alonzo Cornell from the New York City Customs House for failure to carry out reforms. Both were underlings of New York Senator and Republican political boss Roscoe Conkling, who thought it an attack on him or his machine. Conkling invoked senatorial privilege and got the Senate to withhold consent for replacements for months. President Hayes stuck to his guns, however, and eventually got enough Democratic support to get his appointees approved.

When President James A. Garfield was assassinated four months after assuming office, people were shocked to discover that the assassin was a disgruntled office seeker who had been trying to get a position in Garfield’s administration. Garfield had showed great promise before his assassination, and support for civil service reform grew significantly. The reason behind the assassination attempt, along with evidence of fraud in government, especially in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in railroad supervision, led to the founding of the National Civil Service Reform League in 1881.

The result of the reform agitation was passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883, signed by President Arthur. The act in effect ended the spoils system by classifying certain jobs, which meant they could not be awarded on the basis of patronage. In addition the United States Civil Service Commission was established to construct a system under which people would be hired on merit rather than on the basis of political connections. By 1900 about half of all federal employees were classified, and today virtually all regular civil servants, with the exception of high level policy appointees, are controlled by the civil service system.

Regulating Commerce and Business. In the year 1800 it would scarcely have occurred to founding fathers such as Jefferson, Hamilton, or Madison, to consider that the role of the government was to regulate business. The Constitution, however, assigned responsibility for controlling interstate commerce to the United States Congress. In the case of Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824, Chief Justice John Marshall affirmed that concept when he declared that the federal government had the exclusive right to control commercial transactions between the states. (The case invalidated a New York State law that had granted monopoly privileges to a ferry operating between New York and New Jersey. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution states: The Congress shall have Power … To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.)

The accepted approach to the relationship between government and business for most of American history had been that of laissez-faire,—letting business operate more or less unimpeded by government. People believed government interference with business could have no beneficial effects. Yet as the power of corporations grew, along with their size and numbers of employees, and as sharp competitive business practices rendered the playing field uneven, it became clear that a problem existed. Corporations, especially large ones operated by the so-called robber barons, were responsible for significant amounts of hardship in people’s lives.

During the last half of the 19th century it became apparent that large businesses needed to be regulated. As a result, the tradition of laissez-faire was not only impractical but actually dangerous. Business-labor relations often degenerated into bloody contests fought to the death between business managers and the workers who served them. The inevitable result was that the government had to assume the burden of regulating the workplace. It was the interface between government and the American economy that dominated the political life of the Gilded Age, a nexus that in large measure has continued ever since that time.

Social Darwinism. Working in favor of continuing the laissez-faire approach was the concept of Social Darwinism. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was a controversial work. Its impact soon reached beyond the subject of biological evolution (which had put it at odds with many fundamentalist religious beliefs), and it moved into the social arena. The idea of survival of the fittest, an offshoot of Darwin’s original thesis, was applied to the human environment. The idea was to let people wade in to the morass of life and either get stuck or crawl out under their own power. Survival of the fittest thus became the social (and international) byword. When combined with Adam Smith’s idea of allowing the market to determine success and failure in the business world, it meant that businesses were expected to do whatever was necessary to survive. Only by defeating their competitors could they hope to prosper. Business practice became ruthless and cutthroat; survival went not only to the fittest, but also to the wiliest, the most crooked, and the most corrupt organizations. Something had to be done.

Businesses quickly realized that in order to continue to operate in the laissez-faire environment that had persisted from revolutionary days they would have to fend off attempts by government to become more involved in economic policies. Since businesses required political support, and since politics required healthy injections of money, business-political alliances were forged. Such coalitions did not always serve the public well. Railroads, for example, offered free passage to Congressmen, other government officials and their friends. They even went so far as to give them complimentary shares of stock in building corporations for railroad expansion. When John D. Rockefeller was developing Standard Oil, it was said that he “did everything with the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it.” Practices of that sort, which would today violate Government ethics many times over, were considered a normal part of doing business during the Gilded Age.

In particular, people who depended on railways for business purposes were hurt by the fact that, at least on the local level, railroads had a monopoly on transportation of goods from producer to market. Shipping rates were uneven and often unfair, especially on lines where no competing systems were available. In addition, large corporations such as Carnegie Steel or Standard Oil were able to pressure rail companies to give them favorable rates and rebates (refunds under the table). On top of those special rates, they also forced shippers to pay drawbacks—payments for goods shipped by the giant companies’ competitors. They pulled no punches in defeating competition through discriminatory rates. Farmers in particular were subject to the will of the railroad operators, especially when the roads owned and operated grain silos and other storage facilities, which farmers had no choice but to use.

The Interstate Commerce Act As a result of those questionable practices, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1877. The Act stated:

All charges made for any service rendered or to be rendered in the transportation of passengers or property as aforesaid, or in connection therewith, or for the receiving, delivering, storage, or handling of such property, shall be reasonable and just; and every unjust and unreasonable charge for such service is prohibited and declared to be unlawful.

It further declared that rebates, drawbacks and other under-the-table payments were illegal. Although the Act had to be strengthened by subsequent legislation, the Interstate Commerce Act was the first step in bringing transportation facilities under government oversight.

The Sherman Antitrust Act. The first major break with the concept of laissez-faire came with the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Businesses were prohibited from using monopolistic practices or acting in restraint of trade and taking unfair advantage of competitors. Like the Interstate Commerce Act, the Sherman Act had to be modified and tightened by later legislation, but the mere passage of the act demonstrated that the age of unbridled corporate excess was coming to an end.

Major sections of the Sherman Act were:

SEC. 1. Every Contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal. Every person who shall make any such contract or engage in any such combination or conspiracy, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment not exceeding one year, or by both said punishments, in the discretion of the court.

SEC. 2. Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on Conviction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment not exceeding one year, or by both said punishments, in the discretion of the court.


The Populist movement began in the late 19th century, and its roots lay in the discontent of farmers. As settlers moved from farms in the East with their lush, green settings, where neighbors were within hailing distance of each other, out onto the Great Plains, they had to make substantial changes. They had to learn new kinds of farming, as annual rainfall was much lower than in the East. The soil was often hard and unyielding, and they had to learn what was known as “dry farming.” Because they needed to grow crops such as wheat and corn in large quantities, the size of farms was larger than the East, and the distances between farms was substantial.

Farming life on the Great Plains was thus a lonely existence. Women in particular, sometimes isolated from all but their family for weeks at a time, often suffered from depression brought on by the lack of human contact. It was said on the Great Plains, where the wind blows freely and often unceasingly, that women were often driven mad by the wind. (In the musical play Paint Your Wagon, about homesteading in the West, there is a song “They Call the Wind Mariah.” One line goes, “Mariah makes the mountains sound like folks was up there dyin’.”) Men, of course, were not immune to the challenges of frontier life, and strong women often carried on when husbands or fathers were defeated by the harsh environment. (Willa Cather’s well-known novel, O Pioneers, (1913) movingly depicts frontier life in Nebraska.)

To combat their isolation farmers began to organize into social groups. They would go into the towns on Saturday night and enjoy hot meals, music, dancing and conversation. That conversation often turned to sharing their troubles, such as being beholden to railroads for transporting their goods and renting out the silos and storage facilities where grain was loaded before being shipped. Farmers were chronically in debt—they had to invest in supplies, machinery and labor before their crops were harvested and sold, and thus often had to borrow money to stay in operation. Farmers were therefore economically hampered by the interest rates they had to pay on loans. Many were deeply indebted to mortgage companies.

To make their troubles worse, as farmers got better and better at their jobs, with more efficient farming methods and equipment, they drastically increased the supply of agricultural goods they were producing, including grains, livestock, and other commodities. Furthermore, with increased, faster transportation both on land and on sea, they began to face competition from other parts of the world. Argentinean beef farmers, for example, competed with American beef producers. The increased supply of farm products drove prices ever lower, to the point where farmers found themselves trapped between rising costs and falling prices.

As was discussed above in the section on currency, an additional hardship came from the fact that the tightness of currency tended to cause prices of farms products to remain stable or even decline. (It is a myth is that inflation hurts everybody; people who have fixed debt find that inflation, which brings rising prices, helps them pay off their loans faster.) The actual amount of money in circulation per capita was decreasing during this period. Conservative money interests wanted to retain the gold standard and limit the supply of silver currency, while soft-money advocates wanted not only more silver coins but even greenbacks—paper money with no specie backing—to be circulated.

All these factors, along with discriminatory railroad rates, unfavorable marketing arrangements, and high protective tariffs, were the constant subject of conversations among farmers. High tariffs raised in particular the costs of farm equipment needed by farmers. Their discontent led to the creation of the Granger movement, the “Patrons of Husbandry,” a secret organization designed to promote the interests of farmers. Having begun as a social movement to counter the lonely, hard life of the farmer and his family, the Grangers soon turned to political action. Part of their activities were of the self-help variety. They shared information on farming through education, used cooperative ventures to purchase silos and machinery, and brought pressure on groups they saw as their oppressors, namely railroads and banks. But they sought political solutions as well.

The Grangers were aided by others who faced many of the same problems, such as small businessmen and merchants. They began to sponsor legislation and got laws passed at the local and state level in the 1870s and 80s. Eventually, around 1890 these somewhat diverse groups congealed into a national political party, the People’s Party or Populists. Recognizing that they needed help from the federal government, which had the constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, they entered big-time politics.

The Populists were not outright Socialists, but many of their goals resembled those of the European socialist parties which were flourishing at the same time. The Populists’ goals included more equitable distribution of wealth, and a humanistic social system. The Populists had what was referred to as a “millennial outlook”—a utopian view of the future—and they were often strongly religious people. Populist reformers wanted to be “governed by good men.”

Many conservative interests saw the Populists as a threat to the basic economic system of the United States, but the free market economy had always worked against the farmer. If the free market functions on the laws of supply and demand, and supply vastly outstrips demand, the results are likely to be disastrous for the suppliers; in fact, that condition has been the lot of American farmers for much of our modern history. (In 1922 the price of a loaf of bread compared with other commodities was the lowest it had been in 500 years.)

5The Populists were an enthusiastic lot, and it was said that the atmosphere of Populism was like that of a revival meeting, probably including many shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Amen!”
To get a firm picture of the Populists’ goals and attitudes, read the Populist Party Platform of 1892. (Appendix) In that year they fielded a presidential candidate James B. Weaver, a former Republican, who earned over one million popular votes, almost 10 percent of the total, and 22 electoral votes, one of the most successful third-party efforts in American political history to date.

Despite their successes, however, the Populists had trouble building a national party. They were perhaps too radical for the time, and many of their ideas seemed somewhat akin to the Communist and Socialist parties of Europe. Ultimately the Populist Party failed to survive. They did well in 1892, but they lacked the money, organization and candidates to follow through in 1894. In that year their total vote was up 50%, but they made few electoral gains. Fusion with the Democratic Party seemed to be the only answer, but many Populists didn’t agree with that approach. In 1896 however they endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan for president, and thus virtually gave up their party identity. (Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech gives considerable insight into why the Populists found him so appealing.)
In the end, however, the Populist movement succeeded. If you examine carefully the specific goals of the Populist platform of 1892, and survey the results of the Progressive Era 1900-1916, you will notice that almost every one of the Populist goals was addressed. In some cases they did not get everything they wanted—no political party ever does. Still, the Populists changed the landscape of America. The enduring message of the Populist Party is that third parties are important for the country.

In the early 21st Century there are no viable third parties in United States; although the Libertarian and Green Parties generally manage to field candidates for president, they seldom achieve significant vote totals and thus rarely have an impact on election outcomes. The two major parties are divided roughly evenly as recent elections have shown. Much of the present political rancor comes from dissatisfied citizens over specific issues; there is, however, no third party through which people can vent their grievances.

Summary: By the 1890s the nation is approaching a state of crisis. With increases in industrialization, the workplace is becoming ever more dangerous, and businesses refuse to accept responsibility for injuries to workers. As farmers become more efficient in producing crops, supplies tend to outstrip demand regularly, thus depressing prices. From time to time farm production is severely impeded by droughts, storms, infestations of locusts and other parasites, and it becomes increasingly challenging for farmers to make economic progress. In the mid-1890s a serious depression makes things worse, and the Populist rebellion grows in strength. Historian H. W. Brands characterized the 1890s as The Reckless Decade in his book with that title.

The Gilded Age was a time of enormous progress for the country. Production expanded in unimaginable proportions, living standards rose dramatically as thousands of white collar, middle-management jobs were created. Great fortunes were amassed, millions of immigrants found hope on America’s shores. Furthermore, technology began to supplant human muscle power with machine power, with huge increases in productivity. But all that progress had a price. As reformer Henry George pointed out, the side by side existence of massive progress with appalling poverty is the great paradox of the age. Labor was nearly crushed, and a massive workers’ rebellion might have occurred with no-one-knows-what results. Reform was essential, and it came in the form of the Progressive Movement.

Introduction to the Progressive Years
America Enters the 20th Century: 1896-1920
Copyright © 2012, Henry J. Sage

The United States entered the 20th century in a state of flux. The world was changing, and the nation was changing, and it was about to change even more. The changes in the country—and in the world—since 1800 were by far the most dramatic of any century since ancient times. Communication devices such as the telegraph and telephone; transportation means such as railroads, streetcars and automobiles; ready made clothes and canned foods; electric lighting; indoor plumbing; and myriad other technological wonders were all but unimaginable to Americans in 1800. The population of the United States increased from approximately 5 million to over 75 million people, and the ethnic makeup of the country had shifted, beginning with the great flood of Irish immigrants before the Civil War and continuing thereafter, when more and more immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe arrived on our shores.

Many people around the turn of the century felt that progress was about to level off; indeed, the Director of the United States patent office in that era declared that within a decade or so his office would close, since everything conceivable had already been invented. Even as the Wright brothers were planning their first heavier-than-air flying machine, scientists were beginning to investigate the powers of radiation and the mysteries of the atom. Not only would the rate of change not level off; it would continue to accelerate throughout the 20th century and beyond.

This chapter will focus on the great age of reform: the Progressive Era. The spirit of reform has been an element of the American character for most of the nation’s history. The entire American revolutionary experience was in a sense about reform, as the government that was created by the founding fathers opened up a new era of republicanism, moving inexorably towards greater democracy. The antebellum period saw advances in prison reform, the temperance movement confronted alcoholism, and the first steps were taken towards improving the lots of women in America’s political society. As America entered the industrial age between the Civil War and 1900, however, new challenges faced the American people. Technological change brought great benefits to masses of people; at the same time, it made life infinitely more painful for those in the lower echelons of society. The great economic gains of the 19th century left many Americans in deplorable conditions, as we saw in the chapter on the Gilded Age. By 1900 many could sense a smoldering sense of rebellion that went beyond the protests of the Populist movement. Things were going to change, one way or another, and the Progressive Movement aided in making those changes more constructive than destructive, although the so-called war between capital and labor did not disappear altogether.

Where the focus of the last chapter tended to be on the poor, the downtrodden, and the exploited, this period will see us focused on the changing role of government, both domestically and internationally. From being an almost passive observer of the development of the nation, the government became an active player in facilitating change, generally for the better. The term progressive has always been associated with the political left, and it began with the Progressive Era. Although the most famous Progressive era politican, Theodore Roosevelt, has never been called liberal, his political opponents, mostly in his own Republican Party, were the conservatives. His 1913 Autobiography underscores that point.

During the same era, in the following chapter we will see the United States transformed from a sideline observer in the international world to a major participant in the great events of the 20th century. Whether the latter development was for good or ill is still being debated.

Overview. H.W. Brands, a widely respected historian, formerly at Texas A&M University and now at the University of Texas, wrote The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s in 1995. The decade of the 1890s as filled with tensions and problems that cried out for resolution. In the chapter on the Gilded Age we discussed the exploitation of people and resources and suggested that if actions had not been taken to alleviate the more glaring injustices in American society, the nation might have been headed for rebellion. Indeed, the conflict we described as “the war between capital and labor” was filled with bloody violence and extensive property damage, a situation that continued well into the 20th century. In the some ways the 1990s were much like the 1890s, with major differences, of course. The term “progressive,” however, is still used to describe public figures or policies favoring reform.

New York City StreetIn any case, by 1900 America was a tinderbox. Cities were crowded with millions of poor laborers, working conditions were appalling. From the local level to the highest institutions in the land corruption darkened politics. Something had to be done, and the progressive movement was the nation’s response. Although the progressive reformers did not fix everything, little escaped their attention. Since the political powers were unwilling or unable to address the rapid economic and social changes brought about by the industrial revolution in America, the progressive movement grew outside government and eventually forced government to take stands and deal with the growing problems.

The year 1896 marks the approximate beginning of the Progressive Era, and reform peaked during the period before America’s entry into World War I in 1917. But in a larger sense, the reform impulse in America was present even in colonial times, and it continued into the modern era. Today few Americans would claim that this country provides a level playing field for all citizens and workers, or that our political system is free from corruption of one sort or another. Thus the progressive beat goes on.

During the “reckless decade” of the 1890s the impulse for reform was driven by the Populist Party, which was made up of farmers, small businessmen and reform-minded leaders who were willing to confront the growing problems in the country. The situation was summarized dramatically in the Populist Party platform, issued at its convention in Omaha in 1892, which read in part:

The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation: we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

Even allowing for political hyperbole, the Populist claim was essentially true. The Populist Party, like many American institutions at that time, was divided internally over issues of race, geography, economic orientation, and general political loyalty. Although the Populists elected state and local officials, and affected legislation in local areas, their national impact was restricted by the usual limitations on third parties. But in that platform of 1892 they laid out a program of reform designed to help the small farmer, the small businessman and all others who saw themselves as victims of capitalist power. The party disappeared following the election of 1896, when they endorsed Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had addressed Populist concerns in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. By tying themselves to a major party, the Populists lost their identity and went out of existence.

Nevertheless, by 1917 most of the concerns which the Populists had raised in 1892 had been addressed by the federal government. So the roots of progressivism can be found in the widespread discontent in the nation upon which the Populist Party was founded. Progressive leaders like Robert La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and others, while perhaps not specifically attuned Populist Party itself, were McKinleynevertheless acutely aware of the conditions that demanded reform. We should also keep in mind that the career of Franklin Roosevelt started during the Progressive Era, and the progressive ideas pursued by his cousin Theodore and President Wilson, under whom FDR served. Those ideas formed much of the basis of the New Deal programs which Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated upon becoming president in 1933.

Bryan lost the election of 1896 to William McKinley, former governor of Ohio. His first term included passage of the highest tariff in American history, the Dingley Tariff, which set rates as high as 57%. The nation had faced a serious recession from 1893-1896, and recovery did not really begin until 1897. The Spanish-American War of 1898 was the focal point of McKinley’s first term, and we will discuss that later in the section.

By 1900 Republicans had been in power in Congress since 1894 and in the White House since McKinley’s election in 1896. Republicans campaigned on the issue of the success of the war with Spain, which had added new territory to the United States. The economy had begun to recover, and the Open Door policy with respect to China promised new markets and enhanced trading opportunities. Thus McKinley’s reelection seemed a sure thing, and the major issue at the Republican convention was to select a person to replace Vice-President Garret A. Hobart, who had died the previous year.

The man selected for the job was Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most remarkable characters in American history. He provided the impetus for the progressive movement and oversaw the first phase of America’s rise to world power. Best known for his “walk softly and carry a big stick” approach to foreign policy, he is also remembered a an aggressive reformer who was willing to use presidential influence—the “bully pulpit,” as he called it—to bring about needed change in American society. His place on Mount Rushmore is well deserved.

Theodore Roosevelt: The Republican Progressive

Only the United States could have produced a national leader like Theodore Roosevelt. From his birth in 1858 to his death in 1919, he lived life as fully and vigorously as almost any other human being. He was a man of enormous talents, widespread interests and huge appetites. Physically and intellectually vigorous, he participated in athletic and sporting adventures for most of his days, wrote books and articles throughout his life and claimed to have read a book every day. He dominated political life in New York, the nation and the world, social events both formal and informal, and his family. He was admired and feared, hated and loved, sometimes by the same people at different times. He bored people to tears but also kept them rollicking with laughter. He was kind and gentle but also ferocious and, as some claimed, “completely mad.” He became president by accident, was reelected overwhelmingly, and as a third party candidate in yet another presidential election, he got the highest percentage vote of any third-party candidate in history, out polling the incumbent President of the United States.

t. RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt was born to a wealthy family in New York City and raised in a warm and loving family. Although he adored his father—“the best man I ever knew”—, he later wrote that his father was the only man whom he ever really feared. He explained that it was a good kind of fear based upon respect. As a sickly and myopic youth, Theodore required frequent medical attention and was schooled at home by tutors. But his father suggested a vigorous program of physical activity, exercises and fresh air as a cure for the child’s asthma. Eyeglasses corrected his vision problem, and for the rest of his life, TR, as he was commonly known, was physically robust and fond of exercise..

Roosevelt was educated at Harvard, where he gained a reputation as a diligent scholar with a bold and outgoing personality that for some often bordered on the obnoxious. A vigorous debater and athlete, he was popular with his classmates. During his junior year his father died, leaving him bereft and the head of the family. He adored his mother and did everything in his power to ease her grief. While at Harvard he met a young woman named Alice Hathaway Lee, with whom he fell instantly in love. The first time he saw Alice, he said to a friend, “That’s the woman I’m going to marry.” She became his first wife, the second woman in his life whom he adored.

Roosevelt had planned to become a naturalist, as he was always interested in the great outdoors with its teeming plant and animal life, but he sought a vocation that would be more lively and stimulating.  Although it was not fashionable for wealthy young men, Roosevelt drifted into politics and was soon elected to the New York State legislature.  Always a believer in honesty and integrity in both public and private life, Roosevelt soon made a name for himself as a vigorous reformer.

Tragedy struck during his time in Albany, however, and he was summoned home by his brother Elliot (who, incidentally, would eventually become the father of Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt’s fifth cousin and wife.) Theodore arrived home just in time to witness the death of both his mother and his wife within the same 24-hour period. (The Speaker of the New York House suspended activity for a day, calling it the saddest day in the history of that chamber.) Alice died in childbirth. Theodore, overcome with grief, turned the baby, also named Alice, over to his sister for raising and headed west.

In North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt became a cowboy, and not of the urban variety. Always able to mix with men of modest means and working-class attitudes, Roosevelt proved himself capable of weathering the life of a rancher. Despite his patrician origins and fancy dress, he earned the grudging respect of his fellow cow punchers. When a blizzard wiped out most of his cattle, Roosevelt headed back east to reassess his future. There he encountered a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow, and the two soon married.

Although there is no way to know Theodore Roosevelt’s innermost thoughts, one suspects that he may well have made a deathbed promise to his first love, Alice, never to marry again. But Roosevelt was a passionate and vigorous man, and the thought of a life without female companionship was no doubt a painful state to contemplate. And for a man of Roosevelt’s personal morality, intimate relationships outside marriage would have been unthinkable. Probably arriving at some sort of compromise with himself, he married Edith in England with little fanfare. In the end, Edith was a loving and supportive wife who bore Theodore five children. As Theodore’s cousin Franklin once said, Edith was the only person on earth who could control her rambunctious husband. Theodore’s first daughter, Alice, soon rejoined her father in the new family.

Roosevelt’s progressive impulses were strengthened by his term on the United States Civil Service Commission and as police commissioner of New York City, where he fought against corruption among New York’s finest. As a popular Republican he was invited to join McKinley’s administration in 1897 as assistant secretary of the Navy. He resigned his office to fight with the famous Rough Rider regiment in the Spanish-American War (which he helped to orchestrate.) He returned home a hero and was elected governor of New York.

At the Republican convention of 1900, Roosevelt found himself in a peculiar position. As governor he had rattled the cages of the machine politicians both in Albany and New York City. They were anxious to get him out of the way. Confident that he would be buried in the office of vice president, they planned to plant him there. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, President McKinley’s campaign manager, was appalled at the thought of Theodore Roosevelt being one step from the White House. Hanna considered Roosevelt almost a mad man, but Roosevelt’s general popularity carried the day, and he joined McKinley on the ballot. Far from being buried, however, TR ascended to the presidency within a year when McKinley was killed by an assassin. (Mark Hanna’s response to the news of McKinley’s death: “Oh, my God, that damned cowboy’s in the White House!”)

mt. rushmoreTheodore Roosevelt’s major contribution to American history was his vigorous performance as a Progressive leader. When he became president, the U.S. was at the dawn of the Progressive Era. Capitalism had grown out of control throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and reform was necessary. Workers were treated badly, slums in cities were horrific, and politics were rife with corruption. Roosevelt stepped in and helped to clean up the mess that had been created during the Gilded Age. As a Progressive, one of his major areas of interest was conservation, and he did much to further the cause of protecting America’s natural resources.

TR is equally well known for having made America a major player on the world stage. He pushed the U.S. to get involved in the Cuban revolt from his position as assistant secretary of the Navy. Pursuing an aggressive foreign policy of intervention in the Caribbean and Central America, Roosevelt placed his own imprint on the Monroe Doctrine. Yet he won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Russo-Japanese War. (See below.)

As a devoted husband and father, TR enjoyed life immensely, but he was never so happy as when he was at the center of great events. Even reporters who disagreed with his policies found him eminently newsworthy. He was a great if flawed man, earned his place on Mount Rushmore, and began the transformation of the office of President of the United States into its modern, powerful position.

The Man in the Arena. The following quotation from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910, shows the value he placed on personal leadership:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

We will follow the career of Theodore Roosevelt through his presidency, focusing on both his progressive reform policies and his foreign exploits, which were characterized by his famous remark, “Speak softly and carry and big stick; you will go far.”

The Progressive Era

2The Progressive Era, which lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s, was an age of reform, the nation’s response to the industrial revolution. Its effects touched virtually all Americans and transformed the role of government in American society. Although some areas of American life, namely, racial issues and women’s rights, were neglected during the progressive age, the groundwork was laid for future reforms in those areas and others.

Although the Progressive Era was a hopeful time, following as it did the “Reckless Decade,” or Gay Nineties, a foreboding atmosphere nevertheless overrode much of the optimism of that turn-of-the-century era. Labor violence, industrial accidents, foreign intrigues and cultural disturbances were felt by much of the American population, and big businesses still seemed to be controlling people’s lives. Theodore Roosevelt did much to change the mood of Americans, but it was hard work.

The Progressive Mood. We can get a sense of the oppressive atmosphere felt by many Americans at the start of the Progressive Era in the United States by referring to a famous poem written by Edwin Markham in 1899, The Man with a Hoe. The poem was widely published in newspapers throughout the United States and struck a sympathetic chord with many Americans. Markham’s poem was inspired by a painting, shown at the left, “L’homme à la houe,” by the French artist, Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), which Markham called “the most solemnly impressive of all modern paintings.” French artist, Jean-François Millet, (1814-1875), shown at the left.

The opening lines of the poem define the mood:

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back, the burden of the world.

In the closing stanza the threat to the stability of the nation is vividly expressed:

How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

Markham later reflected on what he meant by the poem. He said that “while all true work is beautiful and holy, it is also a fact that excesses are evil—a fact that joyless, hopeless, endless labor, overwork and under-paid work, tends to break down both men and nations.” The poem thus reflected a feeling among Americans that the appalling conditions under which many people lived were bound to cause trouble if not addressed.

Another work which help to clarify the mood in 1900 was a book by  Henry George, Progress and Poverty. In his introduction George observed:

[I]t is at last becoming evident that the enormous increase in productive power which has marked the present century and is still going on with accelerating ratio, has no tendency to extirpate poverty or to lighten the burdens of those compelled to toil. It simply widens the gulf … and makes the struggle for existence more intense. The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But in factories … little children are at work; wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation; … the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want. The promised land flies before us like the mirage. (See longer excerpt.)

In other words, poverty is, in some ways, produced by progress itself.

America in 1901. The nation Theodore Roosevelt inherited upon President McKinley’s death in 1901 was a vigorous and powerful entity. The Spanish-American War of 1898 freed Cuba from Spanish control and also gained the United States an empire—the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands. As was noted above, Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in guiding the nation toward participation in the conflict. His conduct in the war led to his election as governor of New York and then as vice president. Somewhat like his cousin Franklin, who guided the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is built upon his contributions in both foreign and domestic affairs. In 1901, his attention was fixed firmly on domestic issues.

Apart from the harsh conditions for workers, living standards in 1900 had risen dramatically for the emerging Middle Class since the end of the Civil War. The nation was spanned by railroads from coast to coast; American industry had outstripped virtually every other nation on the planet; agricultural production was stunning (even as farmers found it difficult to prosper); the country was well on its way to mass free public education, except in the most rural areas; and the freedoms of press and religion were understood and accepted by all.

People had more leisure time for reading by 1900, and the press—magazines and newspapers—became a significant force in shaping American life. New forms of advertising and cheap, mass methods of production delivered information about the need for reform far and wide. The Progressives were stimulated by a new breed of journalists, the “muckrakers”—journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens—who wrote books and articles exposing the flaws of America’s capitalist society.

Under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and many other political and business leaders, the nation began to clean up its act. By 1916 hundreds of national, state and local laws had begun to make the cities cleaner and healthier, the workplace safer, and businessmen more considerate of their workers and customers. Progressive reform also touched private institutions such as universities, hospitals, and even charitable or religious groups. Although politics remained a rough-and-tumble sport, steps were taken to clean up the political process, especially at the state and local level, and four constitutional amendments advanced progressive causes.

Ironically the great material progress that had come with industrial advance (and added to poverty) made possible the Progressive Movement. Much progressive reform was built on the basis of what has been called “enlightened self-interest.” Businessmen, for example, discovered that cleaner, healthier workplaces using practices that alleviated tedium led to more contented workers . Worker productivity increased, even though the actual hours of work may have been reduced. For some businessmen such changes meant doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Whatever the motives of the reformers, progress was made, and not a moment too soon. The Progressive Era did not see the end of all social and other problems, nor were labor troubles put to rest, but it was a start.

Goals of the Progressive Movement

The Progressive Movement was a massive assault on the problems that plagued American life at the turn of the century. Their targets included working conditions such as hours, safety, wages and job security. They attacked abuses of the capitalist system in order to preserve it, rather than replace it with socialist alternatives. They addressed moral issues such as prostitution and alcohol abuse, which they saw as contributing to domestic violence. The progressives wanted better management of businesses and political entities such as cities and counties. They wanted fairness in all things, although the progressives were less than aggressive in addressing civil rights for minorities, including Indians. (The specific goals of the Progressives are listed in the summary outline below.)

The Progressive Movement succeeded because it had support from Republicans and Democrats, labor and management as well as American Middle Class. The motives of the working classes were obvious. Workers themselves, sweating in the factories, on construction projects and doing other forms of wearisome labor, were in no position to begin a movement on their own behalf. They had in most cases neither the time nor the vision to be able to see their problems in larger perspective. Those who did understood that their jobs might be threatened if they engaged in union-related activity. Reformers such as Henry George, however, and labor leaders like Eugene Debs, Samuel Gompers and others understood the problems of the working class and moved for reform. To the extent that laborers and workers joined unions, and to the extent that the working classes were able to perceive what was going on in the workplace, they naturally supported the Progressive Movement.

lawrence strikeThe violence that did erupt from time to time, such as in the great railroad strike of 1877, the Homestead strike, and other disruptions, provided an impetus for those at higher levels to work to reform the capitalist system. Although the Progressive Movement did much to ameliorate the conditions under which many working people suffered, it would be wrong to believe that the violence was immediately quelled, or that working conditions improved overnight. The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 led to the deaths of 146 women, most of them immigrants, and was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001.

Link to More Information about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.

In 1912 immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, went on strike when their wages were lowered in response to a law shortening the work week. The courage of the female workers, who were willing to brave frigid weather as well as police and militia in order to march on picket lines, led to the strike being identified as the “bread and roses” strike. The reference came from the poem and song of that name, which was sung by the women who were on strike. (Lines from the poem included: ““Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes/ Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”) I.W.W. leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn moved in and helped organized the strike, which was opposed by the AFL as being revolutionary.

In the early 1920s, coal miners in West Virginia engaged in repeated conflicts with mine owners and their hired detectives in what became known as the West Virginia coal field wars. One incident known as the “Matewan Massacre” has been memorialized in the John Sayles film, Matewan. The violence in West Virginia continued off and on for several years; it was a continuation of the earlier struggles highlighted by Homestead and Haymarket incidents. Despite the best efforts of labor organizers and progressive leaders, the war between capital and labor continued unabated into the 1930s and even beyond.

The Middle Class supported the Progressive Movement for reasons that were also fairly obvious. The Middle Class were prospering; they enjoyed comfortable incomes, lived in reasonably comfortable homes, enjoyed a certain amount of leisure time, and became aware of working conditions in America through newspaper and magazine articles written by muckraking journalists.

Although not always sympathetic to the plight of the working class, from which many Middle Class people had only recently escaped, those comfortable folks nevertheless realized that the system from which they benefited was threatened by the rumbling from below. Thus for some middle-class Americans, the motivation for reform was anxiety, if not outright fear of revolution. Many others in the Middle Class, however, had more altruistic motives. They were often moved by the plight of the working poor, and realized that moral imperatives required reform, not only to protect the system but for the sake of humanity. Although their “better” motives were often genuinely felt, some critics referred to the Progressives as “middle-class moralists,” prone to meddling in affairs which were none of their business. On the other hand, the moralistic goals of the Progressives included such targets as alcoholism and prostitution, both of which were socially damaging and threatening to the stability of middle-class life.

Big, Bad Business

For the wealthy classes, the businessmen, entrepreneurs and those generally referred to as “capitalists” or “robber barons,” the motivation to support progressive reform can be included under the heading of the aforementioned enlightened self interest. They recognized the need for reform partly because of the attention to social and working conditions paid by sociologists and others. These “human engineers” recognized that pushing workers relentlessly was not the path to greater efficiency.

It is a well-known fact of business practice today that providing workers with benefits, rest periods, more comfortable working conditions and amenities leads to greater productivity and thus greater profits in the long term. While those motives may be seen as selfish, they were also enlightened to the extent that they made the lives of the working classes more tolerable. Additionally, the proprietary or ownership class of businessmen also recognized that if reforms were not instituted from the top, they would certainly begin at the bottom, as had been demonstrated during the labor unrest of the late 19th century. Thus businessmen, who wanted most of all to preserve the capitalist system, eventually welcomed progressive reform.

One of the best examples of a businessman reformer was Henry Ford, a millionaire capitalist responsible for the assembly line and other major advances in automobile production. As the first entrepreneur to pay his workers five dollars a day, he led the movement for better conditions for workers. Rather than running the Ford Motor Company from an aloof position, he often wandered through production areas, asking workers how they were doing. Ford was no saint, but he was a leader in improving conditions for the working class.

In more modern times, courses at business schools have regularly addressed methods of keeping up worker morale in order to stimulate efficiency, covering everything from the color of paint on office walls to workplace amenities such as exercise rooms and lounges. Such benefits as day care assistance for working mothers and maternity or family leave for both wives and husbands are still regularly discussed in the media. The computer technology industry has been noted for its generous amenities provided for workers. A large computer manufacturer in Texas, for example, realizing that high-tech workers often like to keep strange hours, holds its cafeteria in the assembly plant open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if only a handful of employees are present. Workers may work on the schedule of their own choosing. In many ways the progressive movement has never ended.

Similar kinds of motives were at work in the political arena. Those in positions of power at all levels saw their power threatened if the people became discontented. With information available through newspapers, magazines and books written by the muckraking journalists of the era, politicians recognized that American democracy was far from fully democratic. Thus Constitutional amendments such as the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage were products of the Progressive Era at the national level. At the state and local levels many kinds of reforms of the political system were instituted to give the people a greater voice in the democratic process.

Investigative Journalism at Work: The Muckrakers

As mentioned above, the “muckrakers”—so named by Theodore Roosevelt—took it upon themselves to enlighten the public about the details of the underside of American life, writing in magazines such as McClure’s and Collier’s Weekly, which achieved wide circulation. Their work, however, was not confined to magazine pieces. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, uncovered unhealthy conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry and led to passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Theodore Dreiser’s novels, The Financier and The Titan, exposed the machinations of big capital. Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of the Cities and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives revealed the depths to which urban life had sunk and spurred people to action.

Although journalists and publishers were sometimes guilty of exaggeration, muckraking, which we now call “investigative journalism,” became a highly respected vocation. (The CBS program 60 Minutes, for years a top-rated show, is a modern incarnation of muckraking journalism.) Writers like Riis, Steffens and Ida Tarbell exposed fraud, waste, corruption and other evils in government and business, and they shined a light on poor social conditions, such as the slums of the cities. They took on bossism, profiteering, child labor, public health and safety, prostitution, alcohol, political corruption and almost every aspect of public and even private life. They achieved some spectacular successes at virtually every level, from supporting child labor laws across the country to four constitutional amendments: direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage, prohibition of alcohol and the income tax. For all the good they did, however, the muckrakers often had more problems to present than they had solutions to solve them.

Ida TarbellIda Tarbell’s target was John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. After graduating from Allegheny College as a biology major and the only woman in her class of 1880, Tarbell became a teacher, but soon turned to her life’s work, writing. While doing graduate work in Paris, where she wrote biographies of historic figures, she was hired as editor for McClure’s. No doubt motivated by her father’s experiences in the oil business, she sought interviews with leaders of the Standard Oil Company.

Assuming that she would write a favorable account, Standard Oil officials gave her free access to their activities and records. The result was a series of articles, eventually published as a book in 1904, The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was a devastating account of the ruthless practices of Rockefeller and his minions that helped lead to the breakup of the company in an antitrust suit in 1911. The work was later cited near the top of the list of the 100 best books of the twentieth century. Later in her career she wrote a number of books about issues of concern to women, which supported the early feminist movement as women struggled for the right to vote.

Even as reputable journalists were doing their best to uncover societal ills, their managers, motivated by competition for profits, often sensationalized the findings of their reporters, contributing to the phenomenon known as “yellow journalism.” Circulation battles between men like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst often encouraged irresponsible reporting. Evidence that the phenomenon is not dead can often be seen at checkout counters in retail establishments today.

Progressive Targets. Progressives attacked a broad range of issues, and many hundreds of local laws and ordinances were passed, changing the social and political landscape of America. Liberals of the Jeffersonian Era saw government as a threat to liberty. By contrast, progressives believed that broadening the role of government would advance the welfare of its citizens by protecting them from business abuses. Government, instead of being the problem, was a major part of the solution.

As the Populists had recognized during the 1880s and 1890s, the problems generated by the industrial era touched virtually every aspect of American life. The scope of the reforms necessary to reverse the degradation of American life, therefore, had to be instituted at all levels of society. The nation had become far too vast and complex for any reform movement that concentrated solely on a single aspect of the social and political structure to remain successful.

Political Reform. In the political arena Progressives wanted good government at all levels, and among their more notable achievements were the aforementioned direct election of Senators and women’s suffrage. But good government meant more than expanded democracy, or honesty in public officials. Progressives wanted aggressive, proactive government that foresaw problems and acted to prevent calamities before they occurred. Thus they demanded safety legislation, closer regulation of public health issues and better management of things like public utilities. They also sought to make government more efficient, so that the taxpayer got what he was paying for. If Americans did not have good government, said the Progressives, then they had only themselves to blame. The Progressives were activists, generally impatient, sometimes overzealous, but rarely satisfied until they had achieved a good portion of their goals.

A recent well-known Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, said famously that all politics in the end are local. Thus reforms had to start at the local level, and the cities came first. In bringing about urban reform, the progressives first attacked “invisible government”—the forces operated by political machines behind the scenes that corrupted the democratic process. Political hacks, previously rewarded with jobs for political activity with no proof of their competence, were replaced by professional civil service workers who made the system run. With this change, administrative officials within city governments were no longer as subject to changes in the political winds. Instead of elected officials running everything, boards of commissioners and professional city and county managers were employed to provide stability and expertise as governing became ever more complicated.

Local governments were also encouraged to adopt scientific management techniques. The “Gospel of Efficiency” was applied to city hall in the form of careful budgeting and accounting practices. The growth of city infrastructures, including public transportation, utilities and sanitation, could not be successfully managed by careless mishandling of funds or wasteful practices. Progressives also maintained that governments at different levels had to learn to cooperate. Officials at the city, county, township and state level needed to agree on the locus of boundaries of overlapping areas of jurisdiction. Shared responsibility was seen as preferable to finger-pointing and time wasting arguments over the limits of one’s jurisdiction.

Recognizing the need for professional guidance and tackling local problems, elected local officials built coalitions, using university professors, engineers and other experts as advisors, and they often reached out to businessmen to cooperate in reform efforts for the public good. The Wisconsin plan of Robert La Follette, discussed below, is an example.
Taxation was made fairer, and the practice of requiring kickbacks from political employees was exposed.

Progressives pushed for greater involvement by government in public affairs. They hoped it would improve public services, build schools, facilitate loans, construct roads, beef up conservation and sanitation efforts, and advance such causes as public health, welfare, care of handicapped, farm aid, regulation or limitation of child labor, mandatory school attendance, and transportation safety.

Advancing Democracy: Progressives and the Political Process

As liberalism, the core of progressive philosophy, moved toward the embrace of government as a protector of individual freedom, progressives wanted to make sure that government faithfully represented the will of the people. In order to give the citizenry more say in government affairs, the processes of initiative, referendum and recall were introduced.

  • Initiative allowed citizens to introduce legislative proposals at the state or local level through petitions which required political bodies to address areas of concern, or place issues directly on the ballot.
  • Referendum was the process of allowing voters to pass judgment on proposed legislation, such as on the issuance of bonds to raise capital for public improvements. (Referenda are common today for such issues as approval for bond issues, amendments to state constitutions, etc.)
  • Recall allowed voters to demand special elections to recall or “un-elect” an official not doing his or her job. (In recent years at least two state governors have been recalled.)

Progressives also called for Direct Primaries—allowing the people to vote in primary elections rather than leaving nominations up to political operatives. Decisions once made behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms were to become more transparent. In the South, where primaries were for whites only, the needs were more sharply defined.

lafollette.jpgThe “Wisconsin Idea.” State governments often provided the nexus between national and local issues, especially since the United States Senate—until the Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913—was still elected by state legislatures. One of the most famous progressives, Robert M. La Follette, nicknamed “Fighting Bob,” was able to identify the corrupting influence of large corporations on both state and national governments.

Having grown up in a farming family, La Follette embraced the populist ideal of agrarian reform and became a champion of farmers, small businessmen, and laborers. His public demands for reform led to his election as governor of Wisconsin in 1900. He included in his campaign platforms such issues as fair taxation, open political primaries, and state regulation of railroads and utilities.

La Follette tapped members of the faculty of the University of Wisconsin to work as nonpartisan civil servants and the state government. He was later elected to the United States Senate and ran for President on the Progressive Party in 1924, gaining approximately 6 million votes out of 30 million cast.

Urban reformers also worked to clean up city governments, which were typically ruled by political machines such as New York City’s famous Tammany Hall, whose origins go back to the post-revolutionary era. (Aaron Burr was once its leader.) In New York, Mayor Seth Low, former president of Columbia University, worked to clean up the political process, with modest success. Mayor Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones in Toledo fostered municipal ownership of utilities, as did San Francisco mayor James D. Phelan and Detroit’s Hazen Pingree.

Constitutional Amendments. At the national level the Progressives’ most visible successes came in the form of four Constitutional amendments. The federal government had enacted an income tax law during the Civil War, taxing incomes over $800 per year at 3%. The law expired in 1872 but was reenacted twice more, then finally declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1895. The result of that history was passage of the Sixteenth Amendment enabling the government to collect Income Taxes, which was ratified in 1913.

The Seventeenth Amendment providing for the direct election of United States Senators was also ratified in 1913. Senators had originally been elected by the state legislatures, and as the state legislatures were known for being beholden to powerful business interests, reformers pushed for and succeeded in getting the amendment passed and ratified..

The Eighteenth Amendment was the culmination of the temperance movement, which had begun well before the Civil War. Americans had been heavy drinkers even in colonial and revolutionary times, and the damage and social disruption caused by excessive drinking could scarcely be denied. Social reformers, often with religious backgrounds, had advocated temperance for decades before deciding that for chronic abusers of alcohol, alcoholics, the only solution was total abstinence. One of a number of moral issues pursued by progressives was prohibition of alcohol. By the time the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, more than 30 states had already gone dry, and many local jurisdictions also restricted or limited drinking altogether. Thus the groundwork had been laid for the Eighteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1919 and began the Prohibition Era. The amendment made the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors illegal in the United States. It was repealed by the Twenty First amendment in 1933.

Regulation of Business

Along with political corruption at all levels of government, the greatest challenge for progressives was getting businesses to behave in an ethical manner. The two issues were intertwined because much of the corruption in government, especially at the state and federal level, had been brought about by the undue influence of powerful business interests. Going back to the time of Jefferson and Jackson, Americans had been skeptical of the power of government as an interfering force in their lives.  But times had changed, and big business and to a large extent supplanted government as the dominant force in American society. The only agency capable of bringing big business to heel was government, which required a thorough rethinking of Americans laissez-faire attitude towards capitalism.

The 1890 Sherman Act was weakened from the outset by what might be called philosophical loopholes, the reluctance to interfere in any business practice that was obviously not directly related to interstate commerce. In the 1895 Supreme Court case of United States v. E.C. Knight Company, a court determined that although the company in question controlled the manufacture of 98% of all the sugar produced in the United States, the Sherman Act did not apply; the manufacture of sugar by itself was not “interstate commerce.” The sole dissenting vote was cast by Justice John Marshall Harlan, who declared that it was the “settled doctrine of this court that interstate commerce embraces something more than the mere physical transportation of articles of property.”

Although President Theodore Roosevelt directed his Attorney General to use the Sherman Act more vigorously in pursuit of monopolistic practices, the act was nevertheless deemed insufficient to control giant corporations, and additional laws were passed to strengthen the government’s authority to regulate business practices.

Under various pieces of progressive legislation, both federal and state, businesses were required to follow equal pricing policies, with no kickbacks or other under-the-table deals to favored customers. As stronger control measures were instituted, the burden of proof of wrongdoing began to shift from government to business. In cases of injury, for example, factory owners were required to prove that the workplace was safe, rather than workers having to prove that injuries were not their fault. President Roosevelt and others sought a reasonable balance between laissez faire capitalism and outright Socialism; although Theodore Roosevelt became known as the trust buster, he was less interested in breaking up large corporations than in making them behave. Strong regulation was the key. Better wages and job protection for workers were also important progressive goals.

Social Justice: Aid to the Urban Poor

The concept of social Darwinism that emerged in the late 19th century was in many ways a pernicious concept, and certainly not in keeping with what Charles Darwin had in mind when he wrote The Origin of Species. The idea of social Darwinism seem to suggest that those who could not survive in a rigorous competitive social environment should be allowed to fall by the wayside; eliminating the weaker members of society would ultimately strengthen the entire group. But gradual evolution over the millennia was a very different phenomenon than the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Progressives rightly understood that people struggling in the lower tiers of existence could hardly be expected to find a means of survival without assistance, especially in the face of predatory business practices.

Private charity was inadequate to address conditions in the inner cities. Wealthier members of the church congregations were tending to migrate to the suburbs, leaving urban parishes short of funds. Despite the growth of settlement houses in slums (discussed in the previous section), those private institutions and inner-city churches could not do it all. Thus various forms of welfare legislation were brought about by progressive activists. Worker’s Compensation laws were passed to make the workplace safer and to provide relief for those who suffered injuries on the job. In some areas employers were mandated to provide accident insurance for their employees. Building codes that mandated safe conditions in the workplace were also established, and procedures for fixing the responsibility for accidents were introduced. Labor laws were passed at the state and local level to protect women and children, and additional laws required that children of school age not be forced to work in lieu of getting a basic education.

In order to ensure that all citizens had equal access to basic living requirements, the concept of “Gas and Water Socialism” began ensuring that utilities were fairly and equally administered and distributed to all citizens at reasonable prices. Consumer issues were also part of the general reform movement, as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 made clear. The act required federal inspection of meat and other products and prohibited the manufacture, sale, or interstate transportation of adulterated food products or poisonous medicines.

One of the targets of the pure food and drug laws was the Coca Cola Company, whose product contained high amounts of caffeine. Interestingly, the miniscule amount of cocaine that the product originally contained, and from which it derived its name, was a lesser concern.

Progressives also vigorously attacked the moral ills of prostitution and abuse of alcohol. The White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, better known as the Mann Act, banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes.” It addressed the issues of prostitution and trafficking of human beings. As mentioned above, the moral crusade of progressives also brought alcohol prohibition through the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.

(See “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.)

Theodore Roosevelt the Progressive: Round One

Although officially saddened by McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt could scarcely contain his glee at being elevated to the highest office in the land. Within days of being sworn in he waded into the business of his office with the firm conviction that many of America’s problems could be solved only on the national level. Along with Progressive leaders such as Wisconsin Senator and later Governor Robert La Follette, Roosevelt pursued reformist goals with passion and vigor. Roosevelt promised the people a “Square Deal,” and set about to provide it. Roosevelt’s approach to the office of the President was a broad departure from past practice. When he decided to set aside land for a nature preserve and was told that he might not have the authority, he simply asked if there was anything in the Constitution that prevented him from taking steps. Told there was not, he forged ahead. Though there was nothing official on the record, TR adopted a policy that said, in effect, “If the Constitution doesn’t prohibit it, I can do it.” (A stricter view of the Constitution might point out that according to the Tenth Amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”)

Never known for a tempered approach to much of anything, Roosevelt was too impatient to wait for the halls of Congress to move with new legislation. In the area of trusts, for example, he was not the least deterred by Supreme Court’s prior interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. He set his attorney general to the task of creating ways to use existing legislation more forcefully. Although he never went after large business combinations or trusts just for the sake of breaking them up, he did vow to make them behave; nevertheless, he was soon known as the “trust buster.” Roosevelt’s Justice Department initiated dozens of cases to bring business into line.

Where authority of the government was not well defined, however, Roosevelt was happy to propose and sign legislation broadening the scope of government power. Bills to regulate the food industry, strengthen the Interstate Commerce Act, and set aside public lands for preservation arrived on his desk and were quickly signed. Not interested in antagonizing business, Roosevelt oversaw creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor with its Bureau of Corporations, designed to assist business to clean up its own act.

Although a Republican, Roosevelt was not a strict party man. If he judged a political figure decent and honest, it was of little concern to him whether the man was a Republican or Democrat. Since the Progressive Movement crossed party lines in any case, Roosevelt was comfortable working with anybody whose view of the world coincided with his in a general way. In his own autobiography, published in 1913, he is quick to point out that some of his most recalcitrant political foes were conservative Republicans, men of his own party. Some business leaders, feeling that Roosevelt in the end would be loyal to people of his own class, approached him via the back door. J.P. Morgan is said to have told the president, “Let me send my man down to see your man and we’ll straighten this all out,” hoping to avoid a legal action. But Morgan and others soon discovered that TR would not abandon his principles for anyone.

Because of his ebullient personality and behavior that often bordered on the eccentric, the press adored TR—he was always the source of a good story. His family added to the fun, and formal White House meetings were often interrupted by the intrusion of the Roosevelt boys, who had “just discovered a bear in the attic!” Whereupon TR would rush out of the room to dispatch the imaginary beast and return minutes later wearing his famous broad grin and rubbing his hands together. “Well, where were we?” he would say. Not all his colleagues were amused; a few truly thought he was indeed mad.

Roosevelt’s eldest daughter, Alice, although back in the family fold, was something of a rebel herself. Such antics as smoking cigarettes on the roof of the White House or driving cars, which proper young ladies did not do, gave Alice a press following of her own. She even had a dress made in a color named for her: ‘Alice Blue.’ When called to answer for one of Alice’s indiscretions, her father fumed: “Look! I can run the government of the United States, or I can take care of Alice, but I can’t do both at the same time!” She later married House speaker Nicholas Longworth, and became the famous Washington hostess, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a feature player in Washington society in her own right.

teddy bear cartoon

Roosevelt’s progressive program and his personal appeal made his reelection in 1904 a sure thing. With 56% of the popular vote and 336 electoral votes, Roosevelt won by a landslide. Although he announced, too early perhaps, that he did not intend to run for another term in 1908, Roosevelt was anything but a lame duck. Charged up by his victory, Roosevelt drifted further to the left politically as he continued to perceive conservatives as his chief foes. In 1906 Congress passed the Hepburn Act, which strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Pure Food and Drug Act. TR’s Justice Department fined the Standard Oil Company of Indiana $29 million and required the American Sugar Refining Company to refund $4 million in illegal payments while also convicting some of its company officials.

Roosevelt also continued to expand conservation programs, increasing timberlands set aside for preservation and parks by millions of acres. He sought to put an end to what he considered wasteful exploitation of natural resources, and he set the government about reclaiming large tracts of neglected land for public use. He also applied systematic efforts to control the outbreak of forest fires and to plant new trees in areas that had been stripped by loggers.

A famous incident occurred while TR was hunting in Mississippi. After a long and fruitless search, his hosts found and treed a bear cub, offering the “trophy” to the president. Roosevelt refused, saying it would not be sporting to shoot the cub. A New York toy manufacturer saw the cartoon by Clifford Berryman and wrote to the president for permission to call his bears “Teddy Bears.” Roosevelt agreed, and the rest is history. Cartoonists had a ball with it (left).

Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor was William Howard Taft, who had served admirably as American governor of the Philippines. Taft, a far less vigorous man than TR, did his best to continue Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. He continued to prosecute trusts, oversaw creation of a postal savings bank, expanded the civil service and supported two constitutional amendments: the 16th Amendment, which authorized a federal income tax; and the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which called for the direct election of senators by the people. But Roosevelt, who had been on safari in Africa during much of his successor’s first two years in office, returned to discover to his dismay that Taft had accepted higher tariffs and grown closer to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

By 1910 the Republicans were divided, and in the off year election the Democrats regained control of Congress. In a speech at Ossowatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt laid out a revised program for reform, which he called “The New Nationalism.” It sounded the keynote of what would become his campaign theme in 1912. He said:

In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.

… [T]his conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of free men to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.

Some have said that the Kansas speech marked Roosevelt’s entry into a campaign to gain the Republican nomination for president in 1912. That was not to be, but it did not mean that TR was out of the race.

Endorsement of Progressivism: The Election of 1912

bull moose cartoon

The election of 1912 has been seen as a strong endorsement of the Progressive Movement by American voters. Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for president, was nominated by the Democratic Party even though he had served only two years in public office as governor of New Jersey. Nevertheless, in that short time he had established his progressive credentials, and had also left a record of progressive reforms at the elite Princeton University, of which he had been president. Since the Democratic Party had evolved as the party that tended to support the working classes, a vote for Wilson was seen as a vote for progressivism.

On the Republican side, Theodore Roosevelt’s break with Taft was complete, and in 1912 he challenged the incumbent president for the Republican nomination. Taft, however, had sufficient control of the Republican Party machinery that he was able to secure the nomination. Frustrated, Roosevelt and his supporters bolted and formed the Progressive Party, with Roosevelt their candidate. When asked how he was feeling during the election campaign, Roosevelt replied, “I feel as fit as a bull moose!” Thus his party became known as the Bull Moose Party. In the election Roosevelt out polled the incumbent president of his previous  party by about one million votes. The political press, always relishing an opportunity to cover the colorful TR, was delighted that he was back in the race. Cartoonists had a ball with the “latest arrival at the political zoo.” (Left)

During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin on his way to deliver a campaign address. The bullet was slowed somewhat by the thick speech manuscript in his jacket pocket. Although the bullet did pierce his body, causing bleeding, the indomitable Roosevelt nevertheless delivered his speech. At the end, he proudly displayed the blood-stained manuscript. “You see,” cried the colonel, holding up the manuscript so that the audience could see the bullet hole through the sheets of paper, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!”

—From the Detroit Free Press.

Thus was named the Bull Moose Party!

1912 Election Results



Popular Vote

Electoral Vote

Woodrow Wilson Democratic 6,293,152 435
Theodore Roosevelt Progressive 4,119,207 88
William Howard Taft Republican 3,486,333 8
Eugene Victor Debs Socialist 900,369 0

Labor leader Eugene Debs ran as a Socialist in 1912. Although the nation was not ready to elect a Socialist president, the fact that Debs got close to one million votes also suggested that people were concerned about the excesses of capitalism. Thus in the election overall, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs won approximately 75% of the popular vote. Because the Republican vote was split between Roosevelt and Taft, Woodrow Wilson was elected in the Electoral College. The presidential election of 1912 was not the first in which a third party helped determined the outcome. No third party has, however, changed an election outcome since that time.

Based on a work at
Sage American History
by Henry J Sage is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.