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The Gilded Age of Industry

The Gilded Age - immediately following Reconstruction in the South – was an era in which some seemed to possess unlimited wealth, while others merely possessed endless misery. During this period, America increasingly industrialized, leading to many questions over workers rights and related issues. The Gilded Age was an era in America’s history in which industry flourished while social issues were largely skirted, risking a period of class conflict, and resulting in extensive suffering, exploitation, and widespread fear.

Industrialization

During the Gilded Age, industrialization was of chief importance to the government, while critical social issues took the backseat, resulting in growing disquiet among lower classes. The dominant economic values of the era were laissez-faire, meaning that the government largely refused to interfere with business ventures, supporting free market economics. Unfortunately for many workers, this system allowed business owners to regulate their own wages and working hours free of government intervention, leading to excessively long work weeks and almost intolerably low wages. When workers attempted to protest these issues by holding strikes, such as the Pullman or Homestead strikes, local governments sided with management, calling in armed forces to suppress these uprisings, and – at least in the case of the Homestead strike – replacing the striking workers with lower paid, largely African-American “scabs”, much to the displeasure of the bellicose workers.

Governments could have intervened on the side of the workers had theychosen to (and as they occasionally attempted to do with certain not enforced 8-hour work day plans), but they instead permitted such practices, justifying them with social theories such as social Darwinism, or economic premises such as the iron law of wages (which supposedly mandated a need for barely livable wages to maximize efficiency of the producer). In all, the Gilded Age led to many large advances in industry, but at the same time it led to many social issues, in that the poor working class got poorer while the rich robber-barons got richer. The government willingly chose to avoid addressing these issues, favoring big business over the individual, resulting in unrest and occasional violent outbursts between rich and poor, and leading to a culture of exploitation and fear.

Violence

Violence between working-class citizens and richer management members during the Gilded Age illustrated what was at the time a growing fear of a widespread class conflict. It was the very avoidance of social issues that led to a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, which, in turn, led to violence between the classes. The upper class feared a loss of the basis of their economic power, and they especially feared a class conflict as terrible as that of the Paris Commune in France. The poorer workers feared the further loss of their rights at the hands of their capitalist overseers, and many of them wished to destroy the system of laissez-faire economics, especially the anarchists (who perpetuated violence between management and workers, such has when they attempted to assassinate Henry Frick during the Homestead strike).

The system was one which was brutal to the lower classes, often leading them to violent acts, increasing the fear of an oncoming class war, which often seemed to by the result of such a gap in wealth over the course of history. This culture of fear which dominated the Gilded Age perpetuated conflicts of interest between the two main classes of the time, and was what eventually led to the end of the era, as many realized that without reform, a class conflict was all but inevitable, and that such a conflict could quite possibly destroy many of the recent industrial advances of the age, not to mention tear the country apart.

Conclusions

Questions of workers rights had to be addressed at some point during the continued growth of industrialization in the United States, but during the Gilded Age, these questions were by-and-large avoided by the government, which favored big businesses over individual workers, justifying such views with social theorems such as that of Social Darwinism. As such, the Gilded Age was a time in which countless workers suffered at the hands of the wealthy robber-barons without government intervention, leading to violent sparring between the two classes, resulting in general fear of a class conflict – a fear often echoed in American History. This fear is what eventually led to the end of the Gilded Age, as even conservatives could see the imminent class revolution should nothing be done to help those who most suffered as a result of the American government of the Gilded Age’s apathy towards social problems.


History | United States


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