In the late years of the Antebellum Era, the Second Industrial Revolution began to take root in America. By the 1870s, mass production and other efficient manufacturing methods allowed industry and big business to emerge and define an age referred to as the Gilded Age. Although the wealth of the businesses of the time cast an outward appearance of goodness and prosperity on the United States, in reality, big business was responsible for increasing social stratification as new depths of poverty and heights of affluence were defined.
Although some Americans saw the growth of big business and industry of the Gilded Age in a positive light, most Americans approached the changes they caused in economics and politics hesitantly, seeing them as a change for the worse and attempted to slow their advances. While most people were adversely affected by the economic and political changes brought about by big business, some people profited from and reacted positively to them.
As industrialism prospered, more frugal methods of assembly such as the assembly line, variations on division of labor, and mass production were able to make food, fuel, lighting, and even the cost of living decrease over time (Document A). This would allow average Americans to live life with less economic hardships and prompt an agreeable response from them. Industrialism led to urbanization and a mass migration into the cities of America which were soon burgeoning with new population.
Many former farmers migrated to the cities, pushed out of the farming life by industrial tools and their ability to turn other farms into agricultural powerhouses and put smaller farm owners out of business. These farmers transitioned from a largely independent lifestyle to the city life which became marked by consumerism as time and big business molded it into something new to the world. Department stores were popular, especially among the middle-class. These stores served as a “showplace of dazzling interest and attraction,” luring the attention of customers as they transformed the economic basis of American shopping.
The American public was bedazzled by the wonders of the department store and seemed to delight in an age of consumerism and economic and social revolution (Document I). Likewise, the age of big business opened up new positions for women to fill. The ideal of the Gibson Girl, an athletic, independent American woman, took over as women began to fill jobs created by the expanding businesses and technological innovations. Women commonly took jobs as typists, stenographers, phone operators, and department store employees.
Big business prompted females to join the economic sphere along with their husbands, garnering a revolutionary social change alongside the economic transformations (Doc]). Women worked diligently in the workforce as a response to changes caused by big business and an economic necessity to work for wages. American women became more independent, no longer totally reliant on a husband for economic prosperity, and increasingly responsible for providing collateral for their families’ financial security. This would eventually help women gain a greater political independence and have a voice in government dealings.
Andrew Carnegie, a self-made steel industrialist and businessman, believed in an idea he called the “Gospel of Wealth. ” Carnegie believed that all Americans had the capacity to pull themselves out from the depths into economic prosperity by the bootstraps as he himself had done. If they were not able to accomplish such a great feat, it was either because they lacked the will, drive, or the opportunities to do so. Carnegie believed that it was the rich man’s duty to ensure that the latter of these three impediments was not an issue for the aspiring American.
Carnegie practiced munificent and lavish philanthropy. Unlike charity which directly helps the needy, Carnegie’s philanthropy provided funds for non-profit organizations designed to give Americans the tools required to create for themselves the rags-to-riches dream they desired and were a way for businessmen who made their profit from society to give back to it, helping others to follow a similar path to opulence. Andrew Carnegie also adopts the idea of the successful businessman’s obligation to live life as an example for other Americans.
This resembles John Winthrop’s message to the Massachusetts Bay Colony over two centuries prior as both Winthrop and Carnegie preach that one must live an example of a life, one that others around them can look up to and model. Winthrop’s preaching aims to make the Massachusetts Bay Colony a Christian example for the rest of the world, while Carnegie intends to convince the wealthy that they must serve as an example for the financially inferior, offering them an example of a modest life which they can mirror (Document E).
Carnegie, clearly benefitting from big business and its economic impacts, represents a positive reaction in the way that he uses his wealth to further the human race and the bridge economic, social, and educational gaps that plagued society. While some groups of people responded positively to the political and economic changes, most Americans detested the changes being made and felt oppressed economically and politically, abused by business owners and corporations, and unheeded by the government.
The Gilded Age introduced many jobs to the American economy and attracted many immigrants and other groups of people to move to cities to seek industrial jobs. Owners of large businesses and corporations were met with an abundance of workers to choose from. If a certain individual worker did not meet specifications, substitutes could easily be found. To keep costs down, business owners often decided to decrease wages, replacing any dissenting workers with others, often immigrants, who were willing to work the same jobs for less.
Likewise, businesses that were large enough o hold an influence over the whole of America held the reins on the press and the government, both of which often bent to the will of the titans of industry in exchange for money (Document B). Most workers saw the powers of big business as oppressive. They believed that big business had overtaken the people as power-holders in the economic and political spheres of America, able to dictate terms for practically all of America. The public did not react well to this and often complained. Corporations had so much power over their workers that workers essentially became like robots or soldiers, existing only to perform one task.
The workplace became impersonal as the old master/apprentice system was replaced. Workers became increasingly dependent upon their employers for their well-being. They were forced to bend to market fluctuations and the whims of their employers as they lost their self-dependence and individuality (Document B). Americans felt pushed around and beleaguered by big business, both economically and politically. Big business held virtually held the American Senate as a puppet. In fact, it was said that roughly 75% of senators were actually serving as representatives of the railroad companies and trusts and not the people who voted them into office.
Corruption was fairly common among congressmen and scandalously intimate relations were uncovered between representatives and corporations (Document D). This overwhelming political power that big business held in the political realms of America was protested by the public as shown by this political cartoon. The Populist Party, or the People’s Party, was created in response to the huge economic and political advantages big business gave over American farmers (and would eventually grow into the Progressive Movement once the attention of industrial workers was gained).
This party sought to correct the situation of laborers everywhere by passing legislation that would protect them against big business. Oppression and poverty ran rampant, and Populists wished to end the injustice imposed upon the working class by big business and unscrupulous corporate interests. With the help of government expansion, the People’s Party endeavored to end American suffering (Document F). The People’s Party hoped to make a change for the better in America.
The reason they hoped for this is because of less beneficial previous changes, that is big business and the ripples it sent through the political and economic world. The People’s Party clearly saw business’s impacts on American life in a negative light and strove to correct the situation. As corporations grew, more workers were needed to keep up with market demands. In order to maximize profit, companies often snipped expenditures on their employees. Wages were lowered; working hours augmented; working conditions uncared for and allowed to grow dangerous and messy.
In response to this, wage workers cried out for their rights. Led by individuals such as Samuel Gompers and organized into labor unions, workers united to secure economic security from their bosses (Document G). Laborers were adversely affected by the economic changes brought on by big business and were not hesitant to express their views, striking, boycotting, and using other measures to elicit the changes they so desired. Big business was an issue that grew at exponential rates. Power begot more power. Once enterprises had grown enough in power, they were able to buy out their market.
Horizontal and vertical integration was popular at the time, controlling an entire industry and controlling all parts of production from raw material to finished product and shipping, respectively, enabled enterprises to cut costs. This cost cutting allowed them to be able to sell their product for less than competition and still turn a profit. Rockefeller’s partnership with the railroad industry allowed Standard Oil to transport their products cheaply and outsell their competition. This led to the competition being put out of business quite easily and the horizontal integration of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company (Document H).
For reasons expressed by George Rice in this document, some practices of big business were seen as unfair to smaller, up-and-coming businesses that could not compete on such a large scale. It is for intention that horizontal integration is largely illegal in the business world today. Americans protested business’s free reins on the economic and commercial world and were eventually able to score some kinds of business regulation policies from the government which, though minor at the time, would become more pronounced and would level the playing field between employers and employees.
Though some argue that big business was beneficial to America economically and politically during the Gilded Age, most other occupants of the era would say otherwise, pointing out the oppression and heartless authority of commercial leaders of the time. Although favored by some who formed a minority, big business and its influence over economics and politics in the post-Civil War United States revolted most people upon whom the idea of having their political and economic freedom and voice drowned out by commercial interests was unpopular.
Businesses exploited their workers, providing meager wages and below satisfactory work conditions, in order to maximize the profit margin and cut costs. Businesses that grew large enough to influence national matters found themselves in a position to bargain with government officials and acts of corruption were not uncommon. American politics was a realm into which big business cast a puppeteering arm into. In response, laborers often organized themselves into labor unions to protest the vast economic and political privileges commercial leaders had granted themselves.