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America’s Gilded Age, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

In the “Voices of Freedom”, Eric Foner addresses the historical context of America’s Gilded Age, 1870-1890.  Looking at the political, cultural, economic, and social environment as it related to the pertinent historical events during this time period provides a better understanding of this movement.  As a historian, Foner digs deep into the events that transcribed during this period and addressed the relevance to American history.  The Gilded Age is an extremely important because it was controlled my large corporations, limitations on opportunity and freedom, misdistribution of wealth, and the growing social gaps.  The political businessman controlled virtually every industry, silencing the voice of the working class, the laborers, and minorities. This threatened what democracy and freedom stood for as well as economic opportunities.  The significant events of history that occurred during this time period set the stage for America’s future.  It was America’s Gilded Ages that most Americans realize there was a need for social and political reform, however most of them disagreed with what that reform should consist of.

Chief Joseph, “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs” (1879)

            Inequality is not a new concept it has been a battle for centuries. Even in current society, there are race issues that arise on a daily basis.  During this time period the battle was between the whites and the Indians.  In this example, Chief Joseph was betrayed and he decided to surrender to the whites.  The other alternative was to endanger his people to a bloody battle.  As he addressed the whites, he explained that not all Indians were “savages”.  Their tribe lived by the laws that were passed down from their fathers who learned from their fathers as well.  “These laws were good.  They told us to treat all men as they treat us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that is was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth; that is was a shame for one man to take from another his wife, or property without paying for it.”[1] The white people came to their land with new things that these Indians never saw.  They used these things to barter and trade for land.  Then more white people showed up and the process changed.

They worked with the Indians originally trying to be fair, however as they became outnumbered their say in their land became nonexistent.  Treaties were made to “protect” the interest of the Indians; however, these treaties were continually being changed.  The interest of the Indians quickly became nonexistent.  The Indian’s land was being taken and they were being corralled in a little area to meet the needs of the whites.  When the Indians pushed back, there became threat of war.  It was this point that these Indians were changed to be seen as violent and savages.  To meet the social need of the whites, they had to present it to society in a twisted manner.  War was inevitable, and it was bloody.  The Indians came to the conclusion that when the whites began to treat them as equals, the war would end.

The events that took place with the Indians showed the limitations of economic opportunity as well as the very meaning of democracy and freedom being distorted.  In this situation the industrial leaders, the white political masses were above what democracy stood for.   They were untouchable and against unionization, allowing them to maintain control of what was going on between them and the Indians.  Chief Joseph shows how the gap has continued to grow and how class, race, and social standing have responded by fighting; in this case it was defending their land. Outside of the Indians, other oppressed groups were laborers, blacks, and women. All of these exploited groups had to pull together to protect their freedoms that were being taken away from them.  Using politics, the people’s party, or the advancement of populists, they were able to speak and be heard in efforts of expanding their freedoms that currently existed.

William Graham Sumner on Social Darwinism (ca. 1880)

In understanding the significance of Social Darwinism, William Graham Sumner was a historical force that helped shaped it.  During the gilded age, there were many limitations placed due to the ideals of Social Darwinism.  According to Charles Darwin, the idea of this is that a group based on collective factors holds an idea of “natural superiority”. “Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Social Darwinism provided a powerful defense for the status quo, but toward the end of the century, its influence on domestic policy waned as dissatisfaction with the effects of unlimited economic and social laissez-faire began to spread through American society.”[2]    During this period, the white males were the individuals who were dominating or superior groups.  Race and gender held the inequality values associated with control.  The social issues of this age could be considered survival of the fittest.  William Graham Sumner believed that there was no alternative to survival of the fittest.  The individual rights were not governmentally equal in any capacity, so they had to find their own means of survival.  Social Darwinism also spreads the belief that the normal and natural ability to succeed are directed to certain groups and classes versus those of others.

The government at this time did not have the idea of equality, so being ran by white males their own interest was for their own well-being.  Their historical belief was that the government was not responsible for lifting the social classes that were at the bottom of communal order, in turn prying on the natural process.  All individuals have to battle for their existence, therefore are responsible for their own fate.  The weaker of the classes would be considered the blacks, women, and labor.  They could have utilized the idea of superiority simply by fighting for their own existence.  This is their opportunity to be involved and prosper in a successful society. This would eliminate their own limitations and ensure their personal rights through the ideology of survival of the fittest.

Within the ideals of survival of the fittest, a big obstacle that labor, blacks, and women faced were the prejudices and social equality that existed during this point in history.  Even though America has been a racial society, during this time period is could be better seen as a class society. Society had to yield to the respectability and superiority of certain classes over others.  For example, white men had far more input than a black man, therefore the white man has the ultimate power.  The Gilded Age clearly focused on money and wealth, while dividing society according to class. It kept inequality dominating in a society that was supposed to be equal.  This was a point in time when the Civil War was over blacks were given their freedom not only from slavery, but as equal citizens. The racism that existed did not subside in any manner.  Blacks were kept from participating in any type of role in society or as citizens.  Along the same line were the laborers. They were held down in low positions and often considered the forgotten men.

The spreading of ideologies associated with Social Darwinism contributed to the limitations placed on these minority groups.  Reverting back to the theory of natural superiority, this advocated the ideals of some groups being over others.  The intentions were to explain the ideas of natural tendencies that certain class groups will ultimately succeed over others. It also institutes the mentality that the government has no role in changing the natural process.  Those who are on the bottom of the social order essentially need to stay there. Each individual, whites, black, laborers, Indians, and women are on different rungs of the metaphoric social ladder.  They are all ultimately responsible for their own destiny they have to fight for their own existence.  If any of these members of society wants to change their ideology, they have to fight for their rights within the workings of the society that exists.  This would ultimately eliminate the limitations for forcing their desired position within society.

A Second Declaration of Independence (1879)

This was the point where it became essential to address the lack of regulation associated in the work force.  Ira Steward was the primary advocate for the second Declaration of Independence. “In 1879, Ira Steward, a prominent union leader, drafted a revised version of the Declaration of Independence for a Fourth of July labor picnic in Chicago.  He insisted that higher wages and greater leisure time would enable workers to develop new desires, thereby increasing demand for goods and benefiting manufacturers, laborers, and society at large. Stewards’ program illustrates how in the aftermath of the Civil War, reformers of all kinds increasingly look to the government to bring about social change.  It also reveals a new sense of identification between American workers and their counterparts oversee.”[3]  The union leader was working towards establishing an eight hour work day as the legal standard. His belief was the beginning of a historical change for society.  Steward believed that increasing wages and allowing more time for leisure would create a better attitude and desire for the employees.  In turn, the company would benefit from the increased demands for goods, creating a positive outcome for society.

Prior to the second Declaration of Independence, there has been no real attempt to regulate the worker’s rights.  However, there came a point where there was a need to address the current situations.  The Civil War was the pivotal point where the people looked to the government for a much needed change in society.  The historical significance of this period in time is not just relevant to the United States.  Many other countries benefited from this because labor issues are present everywhere, not just in the United States.  Consider the important factor as well, that many immigrants come to America because they are living and working in such horrible conditions.

Uniting white and black workers, especially in the farming industry proved to be a challenge.  Since many blacks did not own farms, they did not have the opportunity to find jobs in this industry.  Because of this Farmers Alliance unions did not accept black farmers.  The very essence of a union was to protect the workers not discriminate against them. Angered by the blatant attempt to keep them down, the blacks organized the Colored Farmers’ Alliance.  The intention was have the cotton pickers strike. Protecting the working class and the Second Declaration of Independence did not benefit the minorities in many cases.  It still showed the slant that was implemented to protect the higher classes.

There were many unions that would not include blacks.  Because of this exclusion and the limited opportunities for employment, the south remained segregated.  The proposed change for equality and reform was smothered by the guidelines and restrictions set as well.  For example requiring the ability to read for voting rights ultimately prevents the majority of the blacks from participating because of their pre Civil War status.  It ultimately prevented the black population from being protected by the change in the second Declaration of Independence and excluded them from citizenship.  The labor force and producing class helped with shifting the controversy of slavery to focus on the labor questions that were present.  Much like the black population, these other groups were being manipulated and dominated by the superior groups, limiting their freedoms.  This is when the unions were formed, as a means to fight unfair treatment and demand the needed changes.  One of their first demonstrations was to strike.

History has continued on to modern day society, that working individuals who oppose what they feel in inappropriate or unfair treatment utilize their right to strike.  The railway system cut pay and the employees fought back.  The Great Railroad Strike essentially stopped the ability for rail traffic to continue operating as normal, and the Pullman Strike which paralyzed the railroad production industry in its entirety.  The government put down the strikes, but they a historical monument for what individual worker can do when they join together to fight for their rights.  This turning point was the realization that there was no need to accept the limitations in labor and the workers could unite to fight back.

Henry George, Progress and Poverty (1879)

            Henry George was an American economist who was for land reform.  He proposed both single tax and property tax.  The Progress and Poverty of 1879 proposed the single tax, tax all economic rents and the income that was gained from bare land.   “Henry George was an influential nineteenth-century intellectual, but he is by no means the only person who has advanced the idea that speculating on land or other goods are undeserving of profit. There are two main errors at play in this analysis of speculation. The first is the labor theory of value, and the second is ignorance of the element of time in the market process.”[4] This weighed into the class segregation as well.  The possibility of working class making money and changing their social standing was not a favorable idea.  The ability of big businesses and class leaders to control the environment that prevents individuals from getting ahead in essence would be challenged is labor, black, Indian, or women were to make a profit off of land.

George’s main argument with progress and poverty is that man should not make money by doing nothing.  Buying land and sitting on it for a decade making money is not an honest means of making money.   So he should have to pay for the land as a result.  Profit and loss is not specific to one man who sits on land for a decade making money.  If another man tries the same thing in a different town and loses everything as a result, should he be liable for the taxes imposed as well?  The issues still revert back to the potential of individuals being able to control or alter their social-class standing.  By imposing the suggested taxes, the government and leaders have the ability to maintain a profit at the expense of the working class.  This historical move is still a great debate in current times as well.  The ability for others to profit at the expense of taxation of the working-class individual, and these taxes has taken all different shapes and sizes.  They still favor the upper-class which has been an ongoing battle for centuries as well.  This historical event was the starting point for the governmental right to impose taxes.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888)

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy inspired nationalism movement in the United States.  This piece of historical writing reflects Julian West falling asleep during 1887 and does not wake up until 2000.  During his sleep, Boston, Massachusetts was radically transformed.  The state no longer has class struggle, crime wars or any other social ailments.  The states now

“guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave”.  His ideals in writing this historical document were to weigh on the Nationalist movement. Showing that production, distribution and central communication would have beneficial effects.  Social inequality has been banished, so now human nature is good.  Mankind is no longer segregated, but unified for the common good of all.

Bellamy made an important point of society advancing with moral principles. “In the millennial Boston of Looking Backward, a heightened emphasis on the ideal pole of the Utopian dialectic results in the achievement of an altruistic and communal morality that is ultimately informed by the novel’s prophetic eschatological underpinning. More broadly, this reading of Looking Backward as a Rational Utopia has shown how a dialectical and typological approach makes possible a new understanding of the importance of religion to the Utopian project in literature.”[5] Looking Backward is an example of Rational Utopia.  Within this writing, the historian was able to present the valid concern for moral action and the hope for reform for social order that will evolve in the future.
Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (1912)

Walter Rauschenbusch was a preacher who fought for “Christianizing the social order”.   At this point the belief was to implement gospel into society for the much sought after change the nature was seeking.  Missionaries were influences to take on imperial policies to implement in terms of races and nations.  He believed that the said missionaries needed to focus on human life and go beyond saving souls and churches, but more importantly to put Christianity in institutions and social customs.  The overall strategy was to implant the importance of spiritual life within society and life during this time period.  The revolution of this new theology was created from a missionary standpoint to be implemented into society and the culture as they knew it.  At this point in history it was not about the church and its betterment, it was about the entire community, the people, and the society that they were living in.  Corruption is no new idea it has been a historical battle since the beginning of documentation.  The society was controlled and manipulated by money, greed, power, and the desire for more.  This is where Rauschenbusch pushed to instill Christian values into areas other than the existing church.  It was not enough to preach to the handful of community members that attended, that same message had to be spread outside of the walls of their sanctuary.  By doing this, what is right, moral, and God honoring will be implemented in businesses, governments, and society that has been operating without such standards prior.

Rauschenbusch encouraged the church to stand up for the big issues of that day and age as if it was full of stored energy.  Theology will slowly shift to mythology when the church encloses itself in the Bible without seeing the bigger need and mission for humanity.  He reverted back to the challenges of the church and the moral dilemmas and move beyond concern over the moral issues of the family-drunkenness, sexual immorality, profanity-into issues of “the justice of holding land idle in crowded cities, of appropriating the unearned increment in land values, of paying wages fixed by the hunger of the laborers and taking the surplus of their output as ‘profits,’ or of cornering the market in the necessities of life.”[6] His impact on society was apparent and has continued on for more involvement in social issue currently.  This was an important part of this period in history because it was a much needed solution to a rapidly growing problem.  Religion and government have been two separate entities for a long time, but this period represented when, in history, it was ok for the two to be intertwined.

It was America’s Gilded Ages that most Americans realize there was a need for social and political reform, however most of them disagreed with what that reform should consist of.  When Americans began to focus primarily on expansion and profit, the empire and imperial powers dominated.  The battle of classes and inequality for many different groups was a long growing problem that needed to be addressed.  Many events that transpired during this period were mere attempts to implement a reform.  Some had success however there were no sure fire solution to the problems that arose. The superiority, injustice, and limitations of freedoms were prevalent during the Gilded Age, and in essence still being battled to date.  The democracy, freedom and economic advancement were challenged when the people decided to fight for their own individual rights to make a better life for themselves.  There is no doubt that the Gilded Age in history is a monumental turning point in the fight for equality for all citizens, not just the ones with money.

Notes:

  1. Eric Foner. “Chief Joseph, An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs (1879)”Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History Volume two, Third Edition. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, (2005).
  2. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (1991). Social Darwinism. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. Eric Foner. “Philip S. Foner, we the other people (urbana, 1976)” Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History Volume two, Third Edition. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
  4. M. I. Morehouse (2012, May 01). The Economic Value of Time Travel. Freeman, (4), 38.
  5. Mark Errara (2007, January 01). A Religion of Solidarity: Looking Backward as A Rational Utopia. Renascence, (2), 83.
  6. A. B. Lundsten (2004, April 01). The Legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch: A Life Informed by Mission. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, (2), 75.

References:

Errara Mark (2007, January 01). A Religion of Solidarity: Looking Backward as A Rational Utopia. Renascence, (2), 83.

Foner, Eric. “Chief Joseph, An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs (1879).”Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History Volume two, Third Edition. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, (2005).

Foner, Eric. “Philip S. Foner, we the other people (urbana, 1976)” Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History Volume two, Third Edition. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Foner, Eric and John A. Garraty (1991). “Social Darwinism.” The Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Lundsten, A, B. (2004, April 01). The Legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch: A Life Informed by Mission. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, (2), 75.

Morehouse, M, I. (2012, May 01). The Economic Value of Time Travel. Freeman, (4), 38,

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