The Gilded Age & the Progressive Era (1877–1917)
Key People & Terms
Social activist who founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889 to help immigrants improve their lives in the city’s slums. Addams won the Nobel Prize for Peace for her efforts, which raised awareness of the plight of the poor and opened up new opportunities for the advancement of American women.
Chester A. Arthur
Vice president under James A. Garfield who became the twenty-first U.S. president in September 1881 after Garfield was assassinated. As president, Arthur refused to award Stalwarts federal posts and helped legislate civil service reform by signing the Pendleton Act in 1883.
William Jennings Bryan
Nebraska congressman who gave the famous “Cross of Gold” speech and was the Democratic Party nominee for president in the election of 1896. Known as the “Boy Orator,” Bryan was the greatest champion of inflationary “free silver” around the turn of the century. Although he never left the Democratic Party, he was closely affiliated with the grassroots Populist movement. The Populist Party later chose to back him in the election of 1900. Bryan ran for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908 but lost every time.
Scottish immigrant who built a steel empire in Pittsburgh through hard work and ruthless business tactics such as vertical integration. Carnegie hated organized labor and sent in 300 Pinkerton agents to end the 1892 Homestead Strike at one of his steel plants. He eventually sold his company to Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan, who used it to form the U.S. Steel Corporation trust in 1901. Around the turn of the century, Carnegie became one of the nation’s first large-scale philanthropists by donating more than $300 million to charities, hospitals, libraries, and universities.
Former Democratic governor of New York and both the twenty-second and twenty-fourth U.S. president—the only U.S. president ever elected to two nonconsecutive terms. During his rocky second term, Cleveland unsuccessfully battled the Depression of 1893 , sent federal troops to break up the Pullman Strike in 1894, and had to ask J. P. Morgan to loan the nearly bankrupt federal government more than $60 million in 1895. Cleveland’s inability to end the depression helped give rise to the Populist movement in the mid-1890s.
Eugene V. Debs
Labor supporter who helped organize the Pullman Strike in 1894. Debs later formed the Socialist Party in the early 1900s and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1908 against William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan.
James A. Garfield
Twentieth U.S. president, elected in 1880, who spent less than a year in office before he was assassinated. The assassin was a Republican Stalwart who wanted Garfield’s vice president, Chester A. Arthur, to become president. Garfield’s death compelled Congress to pass the Pendleton Act in 1883 to reform civil service.
Twenty-third U.S. president, elected in 1888, and the grandson of ninth U.S. president William Henry Harrison.
Powerful Ohio congressman and twenty-fifth U.S. president. As a member of Congress, McKinley managed to pass the McKinley Tariff in 1890, which raised the protective tariff rates on foreign goods to an all-time high. In 1896, he ran for president on a pro–gold standard platform against Democrat William Jennings Bryan; McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, and wealthy plutocrats ensured that McKinley won the presidency. Although McKinley personally opposed the Spanish-American War, he asked Congress to declare war against Spain in 1898, fearing that the Democrats would unseat him in the next presidential election. He signed the Gold Standard Act in 1900 and was reelected later that year, but an anarchist assassinated him in 1901.
J. P. Morgan
A wealthy Wall Street banker who saved the nearly bankrupt federal government in 1895 by loaning the Treasury more than $60 million. Morgan later purchased Andrew Carnegie’s steel company for nearly $400 million and used it to form the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1901.
John D. Rockefeller
Industrialist who founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870. An incredibly ruthless businessman, Rockefeller employed horizontal integration to make Standard Oil one of the nation’s first monopolistic trusts.
Twenty-sixth U.S. president, who took office after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Roosevelt, already famous for his aggressive policies, continued them as president both at home and abroad. His domestic policies, collectively known as the Square Deal, sought to protect American consumers, regulate big business, conserve natural resources, and help organized labor. His Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine asserted American influence and power in Latin America. Although Roosevelt endorsed William Howard Taft in 1908, he split the Republican Party by running against Taft in 1912 on the Progressive Party, or Bull Moose Party, ticket.
William Howard Taft
Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor and the twenty-seventh U.S. president. Taft, elected in 1908 on a Progressive platform, ultimately alienated himself from his fellow Republicans by supporting the Payne-Aldrich Tariff and firing conservationist Gifford Pinchot. He and Roosevelt split the Republican Party in the election of 1912, giving Democrat Woodrow Wilson an easy victory.
A wealthy, corrupt railroad tycoon and innovator. Vanderbilt was one of the first in the industry to make rails out of steel instead of iron and also established a standard gauge for his railroads. Despite these innovations that led to the improvement of the railroad industry, he and his son were notorious “robber barons” who issued unfair rebates, hiked rates arbitrarily, and cared little for American consumers.
Twenty-eighth U.S. president of the United States. Wilson entered the White House in 1913 after defeating Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson’s New Freedom domestic policies called for lowering the protective tariff and taming big business. (For information on Wilson and U.S. involvement in World War I, see the History SparkNote World War I.)
American Federation of Labor (AFL)
An umbrella organization for smaller independent unions founded and headed by labor organizer Samuel Gompers. The AFL protected only skilled workers and had a limited membership of a half a million workers around the turn of the century. It fought businesses for higher wages, shorter workdays, and improvements in the work environment.
“Cross of Gold” Speech
Speech delivered by William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic presidential nominating convention in 1896. In the speech, Bryan railed against the gold standard and proposed to issue paper money that would be backed by silver. Though he lost the election, his speech is regarded as one of the finest speeches ever delivered in American politics.
Depression of 1893
A depression caused by overspeculation, depressed agricultural prices, and weakened American credit abroad. The worst depression in America since the 1870s, the Depression of 1893 hit farmers hard and left millions in the cities without work. President Grover Cleveland’s inability to end the depression caused social unrest and helped strengthen the Populist Party’s following.
Gospel of Wealth
A social doctrine espoused by many wealthy businessmen during the Gilded Age that justified the growing income gap between rich and poor by arguing that God blessed the industrious with riches.
A faction within the Republican Party during the 1870s and 1880s that exploited the spoils system. The Half-Breeds, led by congressman James G. Blaine of Maine, engaged in a rivalry with the Stalwarts that weakened the Republican Party and ultimately played a part in the assassination of President James A. Garfield.
Haymarket Square Bombing
An explosion in the middle of a labor strike in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886. Although investigators later concluded that anarchists had detonated the bomb, the American people quickly placed blame on the strikers. The bombing brought an end to the union group the Knights of Labor.
A business tactic, often employed by Gilded Age businessmen, that seeks to put competitors out of business by selling one type of product in various markets. Another way to accomplish horizontal integration is to buy these competing companies and limit consumer access to a particular commodity, thereby creating a monopoly.
A social settlement founded by Jane Addams in the slums of Chicago in 1889. Hull House attempted to improve life for the city’s impoverished immigrants by offering them classes, counseling, and day-care services.
Interstate Commerce Act
A bill passed in 1887 to restrict corrupt practices in the railroad industry. The act outlawed uncompetitive rebates and forced railroad companies to publish their prices outright. Congress passed the bill in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Wabash case. The act also created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to ensure that the railroad companies adhered to the new law.
Knights of Labor
An all-inclusive union founded in 1869 for skilled and unskilled American laborers, men and women, black and white. The Knights of Labor replaced the National Labor Union. When the union was falsely implicated in the 1886 Haymarket Square Bombing in Chicago, it ended up losing thousands of its members.
A U.S. Navy ship that exploded mysteriously in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in 1898. Although historians have since concluded that a boiler accident caused the ship to explode, yellow journalists published sensationalist stories about the incident that quickly led the American public to believe that agents from Spain had sabotaged the ship. The destruction of the Maine pushed the United States and Spain closer to the Spanish-American War.
A bill passed in 1890 that was one of the highest tariffs in U.S. history, increasing the tax on foreign goods to approximately 50 percent. The tariff was highly unpopular among farmers in the Midwest and South, who over the next few years voted out many Republicans who had supported the bill, including President Benjamin Harrison. The tariff’s unpopularity also helped widen the influence of the Populist Party.
Exposé writers who informed the public about many corporate evils and social injustices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many muckraker articles and books, such as Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle , pushed the U.S. government to launch reform campaigns and contributed to the Progressive movement.
President Woodrow Wilson’s comprehensive package of domestic policies that sought to lower tariffs, regulate trusts, and protect organized labor.
Open Door Notes
A group of notes sent by Secretary of State John Hay to Japan and several European powers, requesting that they respect Chinese rights and the policy of free trade. Hay sent the First Open Door Note in 1899, fearing that the United States would be excluded from lucrative trade rights in Asia. He drafted the Second Open Door Note in 1900, partly to ensure that the major European powers would recognize China’s territorial integrity, and partly because he feared that Europe would use the violence of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion as a justification for colonizing China.
Bill passed after President James A. Garfield’s assassination in 1881 that created the Civil Service Commission. The commission administered competitive examinations to civil service workers to reform the spoils system.
Political party founded in 1891 by farmers in the Midwest who were suffering from the ill effects of high, pro–big-business tariffs. The Populists campaigned for shorter workdays, nationalization of public utilities, direct election of senators, the recall and referendum, a one-term limit for presidents, and cheap paper money backed by silver (at a ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold). Although William Jennings Bryan’s loss in the election of 1896 broke up the party, Populist ideals endured and later coalesced into the Progressive movement.
Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine
President Theodore Roosevelt’s addendum to the Monroe Doctrine, which effectively declared that only the United States could intervene in the affairs of Latin America. Roosevelt made the declaration in 1904 to prevent Britain, Germany, Italy, and other European nations from forcibly collecting unpaid debts in Latin America.
Sherman Anti-Trust Act
A bill passed by Congress in 1890 that was intended to ban big business monopolies. Ironically, lawmakers used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to prosecute more labor unions than corporate monopolies during the 1890s. Roosevelt and Taft later used the act to prosecute dozens of trusts like Standard Oil and the U.S. Steel Corporation. In 1914, the tougher Clayton Anti-Trust Act replaced the Sherman Act, eliminating many of the older act’s loopholes.
The application of Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to a business-oriented society. Beginning in the 1880s, a growing number of scholars and business leaders began to view social problems through the lens of Darwin’s theories. These Social Darwinists argued that the new self-made captains of industry were wealthy because they had proven themselves to be the best among men. Conversely, the theory also implied that the poor remained poor because of their own inferiority.
The collective term for Theodore Roosevelt’s set of progressive domestic policies, which aimed to regulate big business, help organized labor, protect consumers, and conserve the country’s dwindling natural resources.
A faction within the Republican Party during the 1870s and 1880s that exploited the spoils system. The leader of the Stalwart faction was Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. The Stalwarts’ rivalry with the Half-Breeds, another Republican faction during this time period, weakened the Republican Party significantly.
A business strategy, often used by Gilded Age tycoons, that attempts to insulate a company from competition by integrating every aspect of production into a single company, thus eliminating middlemen. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie, for example, owned coal and iron fields, railroads, shipping companies, and marketing interests that were involved in the transportation and sale of his steel. By eliminating expensive middlemen, businessmen like Carnegie could secure more profit for themselves.
An 1886 Supreme Court ruling that declared that only the federal government could regulate interstate commerce. The case prompted Congress to pass the Interstate Commerce Act a year later.