Industrial Era Summary

It was during the three decades after the Civil War that the United States became the world’s leading industrial power. A fortunate combination of sufficient raw materials, a large labor supply, an astonishing list of technological accomplishments, the emergence of modern large-scale business techniques (led by railroads), accessible nationwide markets, and supportive state and national governments helped to boost the United States past its international rivals.

This rapid transformation had a profound impact on the lives of millions. To consumers, mass production offered a wide array of material essentials and comforts at increasingly affordable prices. For workers, mass production resulted in more laborers surrendering their economic independence to become unprotected wage-earners, increasingly dependent and controlled by their employers. For their part, many employers viewed their employees as an inexpensive and easily replaceable element of their corporate structure. As many employers devised new methods to extract as much labor from their workers as possible, a powerful new business philosophy developed which both protected the inequalities of capitalism and offered hope to those who suffered the most from these differences. The widespread belief in this “self-made man” theory of rugged individualism would both mollify a good deal of labor discontent and help put off the development of public welfare and occupational health and safety standards for generations. Critics of business, of course, existed. The abuses of late nineteenth-century American capitalism inspired a growing cadre of reformers who were not themselves workers to offer a series of proposals, including the “single tax” on land. And not all workers accepted the notion that the owners of capital—some of whom had come to monopolize their industries—were the most “fit” to rule business. Some of them turned to socialism; others tried to build labor unions with at least local, if not national, power. Nonetheless, reformers and union organizers faced many difficult problems, not the least of which were divisions among workers and a powerful (and much more united) group of employers. The result was a series of often violent strikes and little by the way of sustained reform or great power in the hands of national unions.

In the late nineteenth century, America’s industrial success resulted in profound changes in working and living conditions for millions of people. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people left the rural areas of America and Europe for industrial jobs in American cities. Fueled mostly by southern and eastern European immigrants, American cities exploded in size and soon became colorful medleys of ethnicity and religions. While traditional values would persist, immigrants were unified by their desire to assimilate. But rapid growth quickly overwhelmed the available city resources: severe problems rapidly grew in housing, transportation, and health.

The search for order would be long and difficult. Underdeveloped or nonexistent public services contributed to soaring rates of poverty, crime, and rampant political corruption characterized by “boss rule.” Private reform groups made some inroads, but could not overcome the scope of the troubles or sometimes their own prejudices.

While the poorest waged life and death struggles to survive, cities also became vibrant centers for profound cultural change. Mass culture grew, whether that be a department store, public park, or a professional baseball team. Work remained an everyday reality for most, but consumption and leisure activities began to claim a share of the city dweller’s money and time. At the same time, some Americans sought higher cultural accomplishments as well. By the end of the century, public libraries, museums, and concert halls proliferated in every large city. The nation’s intellectual status was pushed forward by compulsory public education, the founding of many universities, and new ideas in science and medicine. The problems of America’s new “mass” society would continue but so too would the rewards.

For much of the late nineteenth century, American politics seemed to be less a case of “what you did” and more a case of “who you were.” Both Democrats and Republicans adhered to a practice of small, limited federal activity and authority. The parties themselves had few significant policy distinctions between them. Thus, for many voters, party preferences were considered important but were not usually determined by political platforms.

Instead, party identification was often a matter of geography (the solidly Democratic South), religion (a solidly Irish Catholic Democratic vote), and/or ethnocultural factors (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Republicans and immigrant Democrats.) The result of this was strong party loyalty, high voter participation, and a series of close national elections in which neither party dominated, and the outcome was often determined by the personality considerations of the candidates.

Into the 1880s, however, a number of events led to a disruption of this rather mundane political equilibrium. Hard-pressed farmers, already dismayed by the national shift of people and money to the cities and away from rural living, and rightly believing themselves ignored by both parties, rose up in an agrarian revolt of self-help and grass-roots political activism. Although these movements were not united or always well-organized, they did find initial success in many state elections.

In 1893, an economic panic threw the nation into a severe and prolonged depression. One of every five industrial workers lost their jobs as hundreds of interconnected businesses collapsed on each other. Farmers seized the moment by forming the People’s Party, more commonly known as Populism.

With the desire for lower tariffs, currency inflation, and a return of the silver standard, the election of 1896 shaped up to be critically important in the future direction of national policy. When the Democrats chose as their candidate the dynamic orator and supporter of silver, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, the Populists fused with the Democrats to avoid splitting their vote. The election, in part, came down to a contest between Bryan’s energy and charisma and the prodigious fundraising and spending of the Republicans in support of their candidate, William McKinley.

McKinley’s victory revealed some important points. One, Populism held only regional appeal and by joining with the Democrats, the People’s Party ended any chance it might have had of becoming a major force in American politics. Two, the political power of rural southern and midwest states had been clearly eclipsed by industrial business interests and values. Three, the Republican Party had finally established itself as the majority party in the country.