The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era were 50 years in which a large wealth gap between the rich and poor increased dramatically and needed a solution, similar to our nation’s situation today. Big corporations in major cities were able to take advantage of a surplus of those in the working class and technological advancements, leading to a select few holding the majority of fortune.
There were many resolutions to this gap in wealth coming from powerful people, like Andrew Carnegie, William Sumner, and progressive reformers like Alva Belmont, yet even with successes by the progressive trade unionists and socialists, the end result was inadequate. Due to corruption within the political system and disconnect between those trying to help and those in need of it, complete progress could not be obtained, even after the tragedy at the Triangle shirtwaist factory. Andrew Carnegie used vertical integration in the steel industry to become one of the richest men in the country.
As one of the select few who owned a majority of wealth, Carnegie believed the best means for helping the poor was through philanthropy. “The duty of the man of wealth… [is] to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer… to produce the most beneficial results for the community. ” Carnegie states that the best way of bridging the gap comes from the wealthy giving money that they do not need to live well to programs that will help the poor succeed in society.
He strongly notes that money must not go directly to the poor in fear that those in poverty will spend it stupidly and not improve their chances of increasing lifetime success. In response to the major question of what is owed, Carnegie believes the poor do deserve help from the rich, but in a way in which both parties have control in the upgrade of society. William Graham Sumner believed in social Darwinism, where only those who could survive economic competition deserved the ability to have a say in societal advancement. A man who is present as a consumer, yet who does not contribute either by land, labor, or capital to the work of society, is a burden. On no sound political theory ought such a person to share in the political power of the State. ” Sumner felt that those who could not provide for themselves deserved nothing from those who thrived in the economy, and were holding civilization back from improvement. In order for development to continue, he believed, those enjoying the benefits of a free labor system must also contribute to it.
Progressive reformers, like the wealthy women who supported the shirtwaist factory girls, found that the best way to fix the wealth gap problem laid within the need for change. They believed that improving the wealth gap required better working conditions, higher incomes, and respect for the workers. They made “key tactical interventions in the strike of 1909 by adding middle class reformers to the picket line so that scabs and the police could not use violent tactics to prevent the strike due to the publicity that would arouse the public’s sympathy for the cause.
This was a turning point in the strike, showing that the bosses of big business not only had to deal with its workers, but also those with money who had the power to make change happen. These women also tried to make the middle-class feel guilty for what was happening to them. When the factory girls were striking, women with money like Alva Belmont also “seized the chance to turn the labor uprising into a broader feminist revolt. ” She believed that if women had the right to vote, women would not be mistreated and income equality could help this gap in wealth.
With the necessary money to keep strikes afloat, these wealthy women were able to improve the effectiveness of strikes. “The sudden flowering of support from progressive women allowed the strikers to resist extraordinary pressures that began to build against them. ” These middle- and upper-class women felt they owed those in the working class by directly engaging in strikes in order to spark change, and their methods were effective. While the money spent on supporting the strikers was helping the working class gain power, the effects of philanthropy and charity were not always successful at improving the poor’s outlook on society.
Anzia Yezierska, a Polish immigrant, experienced a trip to a charity vacation home in which all of those who were “helping” her, did so in a condescending way. “For why must we always stick in the back, like dogs what have got to be chained in one spot? ” The goal of Carnegie’s philanthropy was to help the poor help themselves, yet in reality, this charity continued to make the poor feel inferior and want to go back to their disadvantaged lifestyle. Jacob Riis, a muckraker, used photographs and literature to publicize poverty in New York City to try to spread political reform.
He found charity was helping the wrong causes and should have more weight in rescuing children. When referring to a boy, he states that “in nine cases out of ten he would make an excellent mechanic, if trained early to work at a trade, for he is neither dull nor slow, but the short-sighted despotism of the trades unions has practically closed that avenue to him. ” Riis shows that although Carnegie’s idea of philanthropy is good for society, the places that receive it should be chosen by those who know the places where it would be most beneficial rather than those sharing the wealth.
This also reveals Riis’ belief that charity itself could not be the only means for change, but instead the youth needs to be trained to properly integrate itself into society. The current conditions were inadequate at giving people the opportunity to improve their lives. Trade unionists, like Samuel Gompers, also believed that improving working conditions was the necessary action to progress society. Gompers “relentlessly focused on the bread-and-butter issues of better wages and shorter hours” as a means of bridging the inequality gap.
Rather than directly giving the poor money or letting social Darwinism keep them at the bottom of society, the rich must let workers earn their place in society with fair treatment. By building unions that could support the working class when owners were unjust, laborers had the opportunity to move up on the social ladder. Socialists wanted to take the unionists’ ideas a step further and dismantle capitalism all together. They “insisted that there is a class struggle and that capitalism can and must be disarmed at the ballot box, where the workers outnumber its cohorts a thousand to one.
They believed the rich owed more than just fairer treatment, rather that everyone should have an equal part in an economy that is not competition-driven. They preferred to focus their energy on ending the entrepreneurial economic system above just the improvement of work conditions. Even in the wake of the Triangle factory fire, socialists and trade unionists could not fully further their cause. The socialist newspaper Call labeled their paper: “HOW LONG WILL THE WORKERS PERMIT THEMSELVES TO BE BURNED AS WELL AS ENSLAVED IN
THEIR SHOPS? ” in their discontent in the lack of development following the fire. Fraud in the political system was a big cause of this problem, with the political machine known as Tammany Hall controlling New York. While Charles Murphy allowed for new fire safety laws in the two years following the tragedy, he “continued to court the ‘money interests. ’” This made it hard for reformers like Frances Perkins to pass the fifty-four-hour bill in 1912.
Although reform was happening, it was not happening at the rate that the unionists and socialists wanted. The hope of prosecuting those responsible for the fire was muted by those associated with Tammany Hall. Judge Crain, the magistrate in the case to prosecute the Triangle factory owners, “was ‘one of the aristocratic stalwarts of Tammany Hall. ’” The justice made important decisions on what he allowed in the case in favor of the owners and “issued jury instructions that essentially made it impossible to convict the owners.
The fact that the owners weren’t convicted shows others in charge of factories that they can get away with unsafe conditions as long as they have the political machine on their side. The unsettling control of government by those in Tammany Hall meant that reform would not happen, unless the bosses wanted it to happen proving that trades unionists and socialists only partially succeeded in their efforts to change the control of politics.
Instead of improving fire safety in buildings that needed it most, many owners pushed the blame onto the workers. In “The Crime of Carelessness 1912”, the National Association of Manufacturers made it seem like workers were at fault for the fires. In order to show the carelessness of laborers, the film shows an owner telling a worker to put out his cigarette, but after the owner walks away, the worker puts another one in his mouth without a second thought.
Although the fire at the Triangle shirtwaist factory led to some development in building safety and working conditions, the change never lived up to its full potential in the eyes of trade unionists and socialists. The eager desire to drive away capitalism failed and Tammany Hall still remained a political machine. The presented solutions for ending inequality from Carnegie, Sumner, and progressives inadequately resolved the problems that the working class faced. At the same time, this reform movement made vital strides in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the enforcement of civil liberties.