Why Did the Gilded Age End?
The Gilded Age began at the conclusion of the Civil War. Robber barons amassed fortunes in unregulated industries such as oil and steel as railroads raced to connect the country. In a novel satirizing the corruption that lay behind America’s new prosperity, Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age.” The name stuck, but the good times did not: as Gilded Age mansions like the Breakers in Newport and the Biltmore in Asheville grew in popularity, so did discontent with rampant income inequality. The Panic of 1893 brought the Gilded Age to an end, triggering an economic depression that ushered in the Progressive Era’s sweeping reforms. Here are five reasons why the Gilded Age ended:
1. The 1893 Panic
The failure of two of the country’s largest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, precipitated the 1893 Panic. As businesses that had borrowed heavily to invest in railroads went bankrupt, the stock market plummeted. Crop prices in the American South and West fell. Unemployment reached as high as 19%. The crash highlighted the wealthy’s power—as well as labor’s powerlessness. “The Panic of 1893 demonstrated that the laissez-faire, unregulated economy was not working.” “It never worked for the poor, but it took the panic to reach the middle class, who had the most to lose,” says Nancy Unger, Professor of History at Santa Clara University and president of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
2. Muckrakers Bring Corruption to Light
American novelist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), circa 1915.
American novelist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), circa 1915.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Muckrakers were investigative journalists who exposed corrupt politicians and corporations. In some cases, their efforts resulted in reform. Ida Tarbell’s exposé of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court case ruling that the company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed the shady side of Chicago’s meat industry, prompted the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Political cartoonists such as Thomas Nast mocked Tammany Hall, Crédit Mobilier, and the Whiskey Ring scandal that engulfed President Ulysses S. Grant. “Muckarakers sensationalized an already growing dissatisfaction with the power that corporations were exercising,” says Joan Waugh, a UCLA history professor.
3. The Silverites and Populism
Populists argued for shorter workdays, a graduated income tax, and government ownership of commodities such as railroads and telephone companies. They were mostly farmers who were fed up with the government’s favoritism of big business. “Gilded Age America was a very different country than rural, agricultural America prior to the Civil War,” Unger says. During the Second Industrial Revolution, inventions such as electricity, as well as the rise of factories and railroads, resulted in a previously unheard-of migration of goods and people to cities.
By 1900, urban areas housed 30% of the US population. Farmers became increasingly reliant on railroads to transport their goods, which meant railroad executives controlled both market access and prices. Many farmers wished to raise the cost of their goods by basing US currency on silver rather than gold, which was more plentiful. When Republican William McKinley faced Democratic rising star William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election, silverism was a major topic. Bryan, dubbed “The Great Commoner,” shot to prominence after delivering a speech at the Democratic National Convention denouncing the gold standard as a “Cross of Gold” that the working man was forced to bear. While Bryan was defeated, he gave voice to many who felt excluded from Gilded Age prosperity.
4. Reforms of the Progressive Era
Progressives believed that it was the government’s responsibility, not private citizens, to correct society’s ills. “The rise of big business, its power and influence had never been seen before in our country or around the world,” Waugh says. “Progressive legislation and social reform movements contributed to the development of a new language in order to comprehend and shape it.”
While industrial titans such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller amassed vast fortunes, 40 percent of industrial laborers in the 1880s lived below the poverty line. Progressives advocated for worker rights, as well as housing and sanitation reforms. They advocated for expanding voting rights and women’s suffrage in order to limit corporations’ ability to buy power through bribes, kickbacks, and graft.
Theodore Roosevelt was number five.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), America’s youngest president, succeeded William McKinley after his assassination. Roosevelt was a popular leader and the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in mediating the Russo-Japanese war.
After William McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) took over as President. When Teddy Roosevelt took office at the age of 42, he was the country’s youngest president.
“The assassination of William McKinley marked the true end of the Gilded Age,” writes Waugh. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he was a popular two-term president who had just won the Spanish-American War. When he took office, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a moderate, but he is best known for his progressive legislation and reputation as a “trust buster.” “People criticized progressives, portraying them as weak supporters of the nanny state.” “No one could ever accuse Roosevelt of being weak,” Unger says. Roosevelt cultivated a hyper-masculine image that helped him bridge political divides. During the 1902 Coal Strike, he met with both big coal and labor and oversaw progressive legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act and the establishment of national parks.
The Gilded Age’s wealth and technology transformed America into a world power, but it concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. Progressive Era reforms expanded the government to ensure a “square deal” for all, in Roosevelt’s words. – cheap history dissertation writers