How Gilded Age Corruption Led to the Progressive Era

How Gilded Age Corruption Led to the Progressive Era
The United States rose from the ashes of the Civil War to become one of the world’s leading economic powers by the turn of the twentieth century, propelled by a Second Industrial Revolution. Corporate titans such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan amassed massive fortunes and indulged in extravagant spending. However, beneath this golden veneer, American society was marred by poverty and corruption, prompting this period of American history to be dubbed the “Gilded Age,” after the title of an 1873 novel co-authored by Mark Twain.

With high tariffs protecting them from foreign competition, American industrialists conspired to drive competitors out of business by establishing monopolies and trusts in which groups of companies were controlled by single corporate boards. During the Gilded Age, political corruption was rampant as corporations bribed politicians to ensure that government policies favored big businesses over workers. Graft fueled urban political machines like New York’s Tammany Hall, and the Whiskey Ring and Crédit Mobilier scandals exposed public officials and business leaders colluding to defraud the federal government.

During the Gilded Age, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. The “robber barons'” vast wealth was amassed at the expense of the masses. By 1890, the richest 1% of American families owned 51% of the country’s real and personal property, while the bottom 44% owned only 1.2 percent.

Many Gilded Age workers toiled in hazardous jobs for pitiful wages. In the 1880s, approximately 40% of industrial laborers earned less than $500 per year. With such a wide disparity between “haves” and “have-nots,” workers fought back by forming labor unions. Following the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, industrial strikes became more common—and more violent. There were nearly 10,000 labor strikes and lockouts in the 1880s alone.

The belief that large corporations wielded too much power in the United States sparked a backlash. The Tariff Act of 1890, which increased import duties to nearly 50% and raised consumer prices, sparked an agrarian political rebellion, giving rise to the People’s Party, also known as the “Populists.” The party advocated for government ownership of railroads and telephone companies, a graduated income tax, shorter workdays, and direct senatorial election. Populist candidate James Weaver received 22 electoral votes in the 1892 presidential election.
When the Panic of 1893 caused the worst economic downturn in American history, President Grover Cleveland was forced to borrow $65 million in gold from financiers such as Morgan to keep the federal government afloat, emphasizing corporate power in American society even further.

“It is no longer a government of, by, and for the people,” declared Populist leader Mary Elizabeth Lease, “but a government of, by, and for Wall Street.” The election of Tariff Act of 1890 sponsor William McKinley as president in 1896 effectively ended the People’s Party, but it foreshadowed the Progressive Era to come.
Some historians consider the 1890s to be the beginning of the Progressive Era, but Theodore Roosevelt’s election to the presidency following McKinley’s assassination marked its definitive arrival. Progressives, like Populists, advocated democratic reforms and increased government regulation of the economy to temper the Gilded Age’s capitalistic excesses. The Progressive movement sought to “restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was widely believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the great corporation and the corrupt political machine,” according to historian Richard Hofstadter.

In contrast to previous presidents, Roosevelt vigorously enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act in order to dismantle industrial behemoths. In a 1902 coal miners’ strike, the “trust buster” was also the first president to threaten to use the army on labor’s behalf. Roosevelt was easily re-elected in 1904, campaigning on a “Square Deal” platform of corporate control, conservation of natural resources, and consumer protection.

By exposing corporate malfeasance and social injustice, investigative journalists, writers, and photographers aided Progressive reforms. Among these “muckrakers” was Ida Tarbell, whose investigation of Rockefeller resulted in the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company monopoly. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about working conditions in the meatpacking industry, inspired the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act to be passed in 1906.
Progressives across the country advocated for greater democratization of government and expanded voting rights in order to reduce the power of political machines.

Wisconsin became the first state to implement direct primary elections in 1903, and the state’s governor, Robert La Follette, was among Progressives who advocated for the passage of initiatives and referendums, which allowed citizens to propose and vote on legislation directly.

Progressive reforms were carried on by Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, who supported the 16th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established a federal income tax. Despite defeating both Taft and Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election, Democrat Woodrow Wilson implemented a Progressive agenda that included the establishment of the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which further limited companies’ ability to form monopolies.

The 17th Amendment, which required direct election of senators, and the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, ushered in additional democratic reforms. Many Progressives also supported the temperance movement and pushed for Prohibition, which became law with the 18th Amendment. World War I marked the end of the Progressive Era, which began with the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. – history dissertation writers

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