Gilded Age

From Academic Kids

The term Gilded Age refers to the political and economic nature situation of the United States from approximately 1876 to 1900. The expansion of commerce and heavy industry, mercantilist economic policies, and federal railway subsidies created a number of immensely successful businessmen as public figures; these were often referred to pejoratively as the robber barons. The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.


American history: The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age was the era from 1870 to 1890 that is considered the time of the greatest economic, territorial, industrial, and population expansion in American history. The term "gilded" connotes a gold-covered but still harsh reality. The Gilded Age saw a drastic increase in the diversity of the United States due to immigration, but accompanying this diversity came an increase in prejudice and racial discrimination.

The American West

The Gilded Age was rooted in heavy American industrialization, the construction of railroads and the expansion of the American West. The American West was thought to be the independent exploration of adjacent territory by frontiersmen, but in reality, it was a government-backed plan of expansion. This perception of individualism was the result of (or was expressed in) the political theories of Frederick Jackson Turner, who theorized that the strong development of democracy in the United States was the result of an open frontier. A feeling of independence was created, attracting citizens in proximity to the central government (those on the East Coast, in other words).

The government issued 400 acre (1.6 km²) land grants to families moving to the west under the Homestead Act. The expansion into the West created a need for workers in the area to build railroads and facilitate trade. When Americans began to move west, the Native Americans offered resistance. Land conflicts arose, and eventually, the U.S. government stipulated that the Native Americans settle in a fixed area to allow the region around them to progress and fill with American citizens. However, the Native Americans followed the buffalo and, being an inherently nomadic civilization, had no interest in settling. In response the American government declared "war" on the buffalo.

The Chinese Exclusion

As civilization began to sprout in the West, a growing number of Chinese immigrants began to pour into California via the Pacific Ocean. By the turn of the century, there were about 300,000 Chinese immigrants in the West. Most of the Chinese got jobs working for the Union Pacific & Central Pacific Railroad companies (the two railroads that would join at Promontory, Utah to form the First Transcontinental Railroad). A large number of Chinese immigrants returned to their countries (a greater proportion than most other immigrant groups); however, most of them did stay in the United States. Those who stayed often created "Chinatowns." Such separation by ethnic group was common – it provided comfort and familiarity to the immigrants, while most of the "native" citizens of the U.S. were apathetic to this separation.

However, most Chinatowns enjoyed a larger sense of community and familiarity than other pockets of immigrant groups. The success of the Chinese despite harsh and often unfair labor conditions was essentially the reason why many people found reasons to dislike them. Unions were especially opposed to the influx of Chinese labor because it caused competition between the immigrants and the original citizens. Because of this, many Chinese businesses were shut down by locals. Many cases were brought through the judicial system; one of the more prominent cases was Yick Wo vs. Hopkins. Hopkins was a San Francisco sheriff who began closing Chinese businesses citing that the Chinese, most of whom were not American citizens, did not enjoy rights provided to citizens. However, Hopkins's case was defeated, as the Supreme Court concluded that all people on American soil are entitled to American rights and liberties regardless of their status. Unfortunately, this decision caused Congress to ban further Chinese immigration through the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Labor unions

Modern labor unions were born when wage labor became prevalent. The unions were started in order to maintain the dignity of American laborers. Pullman (a maker of luxury railcars) created a factory with a town surrounding it in order to bring workers closer to the factories; however, workers soon became dissatisfied with working conditions and revolted. Pullman brought in the (in)famous Pinkerton Detective Agency to defend the factory and subdue the riots. In response, Eugene Debs told railroad workers (all members or the American Railroad Union) to stop handling Pullman railcars, effectively halting the movement of trains with Pullman cars.

Pullman's staff pored over federal laws and regulations, eventually discovering that if they attached a federally owned post-car to Pullman trains, it would be a federal offense to stop them. Naturally, a lawsuit followed when workers and union members halted federal cars. A significant court opinion was issued called In Re Debs (essentially meaning "regarding Debs, a prominent figure in politics and labor unions). This opinion essentially stated that the unions were companies and that under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, companies could not conspire to constrain or control trade. It was concluded that Debs's attempt to stop the movement of Pullman's trains was a conspiracy to constrain trade. Debs was put in jail and received no support from Samuel Gompers (head of the AFL). He spent six months in jail and the ARU (the American Railway Union, which was headed by Debs) was in shambles. Employees of Pullman were forced to sign anti-union low-paying contracts and the situation only worsened. Debs went on to found the Socialist Party of America, an offshoot of Debs's Social Democratic Party, which advocated socialist ideals without the sometimes militant views of the Communist Party USA.

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