A Gilded Age Is A Second Industrial Revolution

In the decades following the Civil War, the U.S became the wealthiest and most industrialized country in the world. The abundance of raw materials contributed to this success given that the United States contained tremendous natural resources that industries in the 1800s depended on. These included vast amounts of coal, iron, copper, timber, and petroleum. This meant that American companies did not have to import them from other countries and could get them cheaply. The Second Industrial Revolution also wouldn’t have been possible without the massive internal migration of workers (especially from rural areas) to fill the labor force and in turn caused the emergence of grand city centers, like New York City and Boston. In addition to the tremendous influx of immigrants, came the rise of social Darwinism in which social darwinists applied the idea of survival of the fittest to laissez faire capitalism. This theory was fully embraced by the economic elite that controlled the marketplace, however it produced a far greater blue collar working class. During the late nineteenth century, despite attempts to regulate unfair business practices, the federal government largely promoted industrial development by enacting high tariffs, removing Indians from lands, and granting land to railroad companies.

During the Gilded Age, in an effort to eliminate monopolies with exclusive control of an industry, the federal government passed laws to regulate unfair business. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act to prohibit trusts and promote economic competition. This Act was passed due to mounting public pressure about the ruthless business tactics employed by Rockefeller to eliminate competitors. The growing resentment for America's robber barons coupled with the belief that big business controlled the national government further intensified calls for regulation. This statute was thus intended to restrict the concentration of power in large corporations and help workers and small businessmen. However, this legislation largely failed. Due to its interpretation by a pro-business judiciary and the relatively loose wording of the Act, it was very difficult to enforce and thus was quite ineffective. After its passage, the Sherman Antitrust Act was only ever invoked against industrial monopolies a few times and with no success. This is evident in the case of United States v. E. C. Knight Company in 1895 in which despite controlling nearly all sugar refining in the nation, the American Sugar Refining Company did not violate the statue given that manufacturing was not commerce. This case truly displays the use of laissez faire economics that the government used in regards to regulating big businesses. Congress, the President, and the Courts were favorable of this industrial growth, which meant true leadership was held by the wealthy industrialists that dominated the Gilded Age despite a growing class of those in poverty. Politicians wanted these companies to prosper because then they would get their desired cut. This corruption ran rampant on the political level as politicians used covert tactics towards economic prosperity. Ultimately, though there was much later success with this Act in actually dissolving trusts, during the late nineteenth century, the federal government had failed to regulate industrial development and market capitalism because large corporations had infiltrated the government and were really the ones behind any action that politicians did take. The new economic elite were secretly in charge, pulling the strings of the government and they wouldn’t have allowed this Act to pass if they ever thought it would legitimately be enforced.

The government often went beyond laissez-faire economics and took an active role in promoting industrial development as Congress enacted extensive federal changes. Following the Civil War, the government adopted friendly industry policies such as enacting high tariffs. The Morrill Tariff Act in 1861 was implemented to vastly increase the duty on imports. This was enacted to encourage the establishment of domestic industries. The government believed that high tariffs were necessary especially given that much of Western Europe had largely industrialized. Many thought that unless tariffs were put in place to protect them, the new American industries would not compete with the well-established European factories. In addition to eliminating foreign competition, the high tariffs also increased the labor force in new factories as Farmers could no longer sell their products to Europe since Europe had also begun raising duties on American goods. Despite some problems tariffs had on trade, many American industries became prosperous and highly competitive by the late nineteenth century.

The national government further encouraged economic growth by issuing land grants to railroad companies. The land grant system was made possible through the passage of the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864. These opportunities prompted railroad companies to open up the West, and caused the amount of railroads in the United States to triple between 1860 and 1880. This expansion allowed new vast areas to be open to commercial farming and a national market was able to be established for manufactured goods. The growth of the market with the railroads allowed the economy to flourish, further showing the integration of the federal government and its industries. Ultimately, due to the massive grants of land and money by the federal government, an expanding market formed for the mass production, mass distribution and mass marketing of goods, essential elements of a modern industrial economy.

The national government further promoted Industrial Development and market capitalism by removing Indians from their land. During the Gilded Age, in an effort to transform the West’s economic landscape, the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed to give small family farmers the opportunity to own land. While this did help those interested in becoming farmers, the land offered by the government was abundant with untapped mining, timber and water resources that individuals sought to access and exploit. By 1900, millions acres of land was given through the Homestead Act. In response to this, the federal government forcibly removed Native Americans off their lands and onto reservations to pave way for mining companies and new American citizens to produce goods. The Homestead Act was part of the extensive changes enacted by Congress during this time to fulfill the vision of an industrial nation.

In the end, the small nation that seemed to be behind in industrial development surpassed all European empires as the American economy grew stronger and stronger. However, this prosperity was only experienced by few. Corruption plagued the Gilded Age throughout all levels of government with greedy politicians. The late nineteenth century witnessed an administration no longer for the people but run by the hungry, ruthless industrialists of the time, causing Americans to form new attitudes towards wealth. It was a time where wealth could be gained rapidly by those who took advantage of the incentives by the national government.         

29 April 2022
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