Unit 6: America Transformed - Period Review
From the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century, Americans headed west and the population of the western states and territories exploded. The federal government encouraged this migration by practically giving away land (Homestead Act), building the Transcontinental Railroad, and subduing the Plains Indians. While some people who headed west took up mining and ranching, for million of setters farming remained the American Dream. However, these farmers faced a world far different from the agrarian conditions that existed before the war. They specialized in a cash crop, marketed their produce by railroad, bought costly planting and harvesting equipment, and borrowed heavily. By the 1890s, many farmers were demoralized and alienated by overproduction, falling prices, crushing debt, and exploitations by the railroads.
The Plains Indians were seen as the greatest obstacle to westward expansion. The United States government took measures to eliminate this barrier by forcing Native Americans onto reservations. From 1865 to 1890, the two groups engaged in intermittent warfare highlighted by Custer’s Last Stand, Chief Joseph’s odyssey, and the battle at Wounded Knee. The government realized that the key to controlling Native Americans was destroying the buffalo, and over 15 million bison were slaughtered between 1865 and 1890. When the buffalo vanished, Indians were forced onto reservations, where, under the Dawes Act, tribal land ownership was abolished and a further erosion of Indian culture occurred.
The years after the Civil War witnessed explosive industrial growth as well. In 1869, there were 2 million factory workers; by 1899 that number more than doubled to 4.7 million. Moreover, the nation, which produced 20,000 tons of steel in 1867, was generating ten million tons a year by 1900. John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie created vast monopolies known as trusts. By 1900, just 1 percent of American corporations controlled 33 percent of all manufacturing output. With this power, these “robber barons” amassed great fortunes. For example, 1 percent of American families controlled 88 percent of the nation’s assets in 1900.
These powerful businessmen subscribed to Social Darwinism. They explained their wealth by applying Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” to their business activities. Rockefeller and others said the natural order of competition rewarded them with power and wealth. They warned that labor unions and government regulations were disruptive to this ordering of human affairs and should be avoided at all costs.
Industrialization produced a growing urban working class. Fueled by the arrival of 25 million immigrants from 1865 to 1915, factory and service workers grew to 51 percent of the labor force by the turn of the century. This “new immigration” flooded into the cities, and by 1900, some 40 percent of the U.S. population lived in an urban area. These workers toiled long hours for low pay and faced hazardous working conditions. Among their ranks were many women (17 percent of the labor force by 1900) and children (1.7 million child workers in 1900). Increasingly, workers realized their need to organize to improve their lives and future.
Unions faced many challenges, however, and by 1900, only 4 percent of workers were organized. Unions such as the Knights of Labor were labeled radical because they advocated abolishing the wage system. The American Federation of Labor was criticized as elitist because it only accepted skilled workers. In addition, the violence of the national railway strike (1877), the Haymarket Riot (1886), the Homestead Strike (1892), and the Pullman Strike (1894) reinforced the public perception that unions disrupted the domestic tranquility. Governments, at all levels, sided with management against labor. Officials issued injunctions to force workers back to work, arrested their leaders (Eugene v. Debs), and sent troops to break their strikes.
Farmers and the Populists
From 1868 to 1896, the two political parties were evenly divided. Although the Republicans dominated the White House, the elections were closely contested. The Republicans counted on northern Protestants, prairie farmers, African Americans, and Union army veterans for support. Their platform included waving the Bloody Shirt and supporting high tariffs, railroad construction, the spoils system, and the gold standard. The Democrats, trying to recover from their association with the Civil War, elected Grover Cleveland to non-consecutive terms as president during this era. They depended on the Solid South, immigrants, Catholics, and urban dwellers for their votes. Their platform defended states’ rights, low tariffs, the gold standard, and the spoils system.
The Credit Mobilier and other scandals in Ulysses Grant’s second term soured the nation on politicians and made honesty in government the dominant issue for a generation after the war. Finally, with the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which struck a blow against the spoils system. After Grant, every presidential candidate was scrutinized for his political and personal integrity. In addition, the nation debated “free silver,” tariff reduction, and government regulations of trusts. The two parties agreed in general on what to do—or not to do—about these issues, with the exception of President Cleveland’s attempt to lower the tariff in 1887.
Farmers grew increasingly disillusioned with the major parties. They suffered as food prices fell by 33 percent from 1865 to 1898. Farmers blamed their hardships on the gold standard, which both parties supported. They also saw no political will to confront the power of the railroads and bankers. This growing resentment against the political establishment gave rise to the Granger Movement (1870s), the Farmers’ Alliance (1880s), and the Populist Party (1890s). The Populists called for free silver, regulation of railroads, a graduated income tax, immigration restrictions, and direct election of the United States Senate. Their candidate for president in 1892, James Weaver, garnered over one million votes and twenty-two electoral votes in six states.
The 1890s were a tumultuous decade, with the Populists providing the political sparks and the nation suffering through its deepest depression of the century. The economic problems gave ominous meaning to the Populists’ rising power, and Coxey’s Army frightened many people into believing the country was on the verge of social disintegration. The Democrats were discredited by the Depression of 1893, and in 1896, the western wing of the party nominated William Jennings Bryan on a “free silver” platform. Although the Populists joined the Democrats, Bryan went down to defeat under the weight of his economic ideas and the well-financed campaign of William McKinley.
Driven by the Compromise of 1877, the death of most Radical Republicans, and a conservative Supreme Court, the promise of equality for African Americans melted into the inequality of the South’s Jim Crow laws. Redeemers gained control throughout the South and created the myth of “separate but equal” for race relations. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court endorsed the Jim Crow system and made “separate but equal” the law of the land for the next fifty-eight years.