December 10, 2020 in History

Gilded Age in The United States


In her work, Standing at Armageddon; The United States, 1877-1919, Nell Painter goes back to the American history during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The former spurned between 1870s and 1900, while the latter came about between 1900 and 1920. The Gilded Age was that age when the United States was moving away from agricultural economy to industrial economy. This led to the creation of disparities among the people, based on economic capabilities and cultural practices. The rich were land and factory owners and had a lot of influence an intimidated the law to ensure that they remained rich and their employees remained poor. During this period, the growth of industries intensified and this drew laborers from all over the world, leading to a labor influx in the country. Black people dominated the workers in the South, while the Irish and Chinese occupied the North, seen as the Northern Blacks. Social and economic inequalities peaked during this period and the white supremacy was rife.

The progressive era was started by President Roosevelt between 1900 and 1909, then by President Taft between 1919 and 1913, and finally by President Woodrow Wilson between 1913 to 1921. The three presidents fronted changes that attempted to bring some equality and harmonize the people. This popular move empowered women and encouraged scientific innovations such as telephone. It was during this period that women were allowed to vote in 1920. The book is a good work of history and a close review would show the greatest problems that Americans faced at the time, and the great vision that Painter saw in a successful nation, in terms of social, political and economical aspects.

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Explain the root cause of the problems and promise of the era

Economic Inequalities

Economic inequalities were at their worst during this period, especially the Gilded Age. Americans were changing from agricultural economy to an industrial economy, which led to a creation of classes. Landowners were the rich in the society and were the employers. They provided labor and were the top cream in the social ladder. As the United States increased its industrial production which eventually became surplus, they needed to increase their market. This led to the indulgence into international market. This new development led to their clash with European capitalists who were already into international trade and provided other countries with industrial goods. This led to the need to the Americans to increase their efficiency in production system, in order to reduce their prices and eventually get competitive in the international market. The main victims o this strategy were the poor workers who did not have any other source of livelihood apart from working for the rich. Their salaries were consequently slashed as the industry and farm owners looked to increase their profits. The American capitalists succeeded in international trade and made high profit margins at the expense of the poor employees. This led to increased gap between the rich and the poor to a point where the poor peoples salaries could not sustain them to a point where even the families of men and women who were still employed suffered. These inequalities led to expansive riots, strikes and bloody confrontations, hurting the production process and eventual profitability of industry and farm owners. Among the most famous incidents was the Haymarket incident where Knights of Labor where demonstrators were assembled in 1886. Though they had previously campaigned against violence, they attacked the police and the demonstration turned bloody. The rich were seen as the right people to rise to leadership positions, and they started to pass laws that oppressed the poor, significantly reducing the chance of success of the striking work force. Striking showed power and white supremacists passed laws illegalizing such strikes, which was a major blow to the underpaid and often overworked workers. After the Pullman strike, the Congress passed a law illegalizing strikes, which they dubbed Contempt of court if workers went on strike again.

This economic difference was among the biggest challenges that faced Americans. Both factions of the rich and the poor had their dreams, the rich seeing their strategies to retain status quo as effective, while the poor saw their liberation reaching them some day. The poor aspired to become land and property owners, with homes, and rights to negotiate their remuneration. The rich on the other hand had a vision of retaining their wealth, increasing their market and their industries, thereby keeping their employees out of their picture, and ensuring them and their generations remained as they were. The emerging trends were disastrous and undesirable as the two groups fought off each other, each trying to achieve their dreams, the poor through violent strikes and demonstrations, and the rich through their oppressive legislation and leadership.

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Social-political inequalities

The period also saw unprecedented inequality on social and political fronts. Racism took another dimension and white people were treated both by their peers and the law as superior. Since the era of slavery had just ended, white Americans had not really seen them as human beings, saw them as workers, and unfit to match them. The freed slaves did not have land of their own and had to work in the same farms they had worked as slaves, only this time they would be employees with rights and not property of the land and industry owners as before.

Chapter seven of the book concentrated on the oppressive whites on black Americans. The law almost permitted lynching and brutal killing of black people in the south, as there was little that the government did after such killings. In her words, Painter says that the one- sided attack by the whites on the unarmed blacks…was one of the worst instances of racial violence in the first years of the century. Whites enforced poll taxes, grandfather clauses and white primary, all that reduced the chances of voting by the black people. It affected the blacks in that they were poor and could not afford it, hence kept off elections.

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Painters vision on Democracy and Hierarchy

Hierarchy refers to the situation where there are several levels of leadership, with the top people taking more responsibility than those in the lower levels. The higher one is in the hierarchy, the higher the responsibility they have. On the other hand, democracy refers to a situation where leaders give equal opportunities to other people to make a decision. The will of many is adopted for leadership. During the Progressive and Gilded Age, hierarchy was the main leadership system and democracy was not popular among the political class. In chapter three, Painter shows the political environment, especially between the Democrats and the Republicans where they were in constant rows over control of states. They however had no interest of the people and their gain preceded those of their subjects. The emergence of the Populist Party was an measure of the unrest between the two factions, and that neither Democrats nor the Republicans gave the people the leadership they needed. She explains the widespread abuse of power and responsibilities at the expense of the poor.

Painter noted that the Gilded Age was more hierarchical and the rules only changed in 1901, when Roosevelt was elected president. Hierarchical leaders were not popular among the people, especially the working class. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was a milestone in defying the will of the leaders in the hierarchical system. The strike did not involve any labor organization thus was not planned but involved over eighty thousand rail workers and non-workers, who felt that they were not getting what they deserved. This was at the end of the Great Depression and it was a sign that people spontaneously were not satisfied with their leaders.

Earlier, there was little federal interference on businesses and local leaders worked with capitalists to oppress the people. The Panic of 1893 was a major center of history where Americans experienced their second great depression. It lead to both political and economical turmoil to the people. Before then, capitalists preferred laissez-faire system, where there was no government interference to trade and industries. However, the depression that lasted until 1897 led to capitalists asking for the government to help offset their economic difficulties. The other depression in 1906, though not as severe as the other two, led to a close communication between the federal government and the business community. The election of a Progressive president in 1901 came with a change of governance, with democracy getting a considerable chance all through the Progressive Era.

The progressive leaders allowed more rule for the people and less for the political class. They allowed people to get involved in making of law and policies for themselves. It was during the progressive era that people started to elect their senators, despite the discriminatory voting process. Woodrow Wilsons election as president in 1912 led to increased economic focus, imposing small income taxes on large income. He spearheaded the creation of Federal Reserve System, a government-business partnership. He was among the three progressive presidents as he led to more democratic thinking and management. Unlike the predecessors, he allowed protestant crusaders to lobby for Prohibition Act and had no opposition to the womens push for suffrage.

These two visions are hard to put together in the same nation. It was hard for President Roosevelt to introduce democratic ways into a system that was hierarchical. Woodrow was successful in this because of his policies to help organizations that may have had financial upheavals. The government asserted their control over business and eventually the social-economic milieu.

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Painters book was an important revelation to the roles played by different people to shape the United States to the great nation it is today. While many historians made little out of the 42-year period that Painter delved in her work, it seems that it formed the main base for the economic advancement and international trade for the United States. It is also a source for the present day inequalities where the rich control policymaking process and eventually the distribution of wealth and resources among Americans. Today, there remains elements of discrimination and racism, though it has considerable been minimized through political activism that followed the period in 1960s. Painter envisioned the different rules in the United States, which involved democracy and hierarchy in equal measures. While these two methods are different, the then leaders adopted them during the 42-year reign and ended up being core in the determination of the present day democratic space. Hierarchy has been pushed out of the national systems and only traces can be found if any. This is a good base to the modern American democracy.

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