Industrialization, Urbanization, and Immigration
Industrialization, Urbanization, and Immigration
Business and industrialization centered on the cities. The ever increasing number of factories created an intense need for labor, convincing people in rural areas to move to the city, and drawing immigrants from Europe to the United States. As a result, the United States transformed from an agrarian to an urban nation, and the demographics of the country shifted dramatically.
Immigration
Roughly 10 million European immigrants settled in the U.S. between 1860 and 1890. Nearly all of these immigrants were from northern and western Europe, which was the traditional point of origin for European immigrants to the United States. During the 1890s, though, new immigrants began to come to the United States: Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, and Jews from various countries. Most of these “new” European immigrants settled in the Northeast, dominated by Irish and Italians, and the Midwest, dominated by Germans. While the West also experienced an influx of European immigrants, it mostly attracted immigrants from China. Lured by the prospect of earning money by working on the expanding western railroad system, many Chinese immigrants settled in California.
Many immigrants found the transition to American life difficult, despite their efforts to ease the transition by founding churches and charity organizations. Often poor, immigrants lived in dirty, crowded conditions and worked unskilled jobs in potentially dangerous factories. More than 500,000 injuries to workers were reported each year in the 1880s and 1890s. Immigrants, especially “new” immigrants, also faced extreme discrimination in the workplace from native workers who resented the immigrants’ willingness to accept lower wages and work in worse conditions. In the presidential election of 1880, both major party platforms included anti-immigration measures, and in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, placing a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration.
The Development of Urban Life
The growth of U.S. cities gave rise to a number of features of urban life not before seen in American history. One such feature was the spread of tenements, which were narrow four- or five-story buildings with few windows, limited plumbing and electricity, and tiny rooms often packed with people, mostly blacks and immigrants. Tenements were the main housing available in slums and ghettos, the segregated communities into which blacks and immigrants were forced by poverty, prejudice, even law. These ghettos fostered disease, high infant mortality, and horrific levels of pollution, and were often the site of racial and ethnic strife.
While tenements housed the poor, plush areas arose to house the rich. During the 1870s and 1880s, the cities’ rich inhabitants moved outside the city center to escape the overcrowded conditions. Developments sprung up around many of the major cities, their cleanliness and preservation of green spaces a sharp contrast to the cities they abutted. Electric streetcars, commuter trains, and trolleys ferried these inhabitants to and from their city jobs.
Machine Politics
Local politics during this era were marked by machine politics, so called because the system and the party, rather than individuals, held power. In virtually every region of the U.S., local officials, or “machines,” controlled voter loyalty by distributing political and economic benefits such as offices, jobs, and city contracts. “Machines” were presided over by “party bosses,” professional politicians who dominated city government. These bosses often controlled the jobs of thousands of city workers and influenced the activities of schools, hospitals, and other city-run services. Machine politics thrived on corruption, which contributed to the system’s collapse around the turn of the twentieth century.
U.S. Presidents
The presidents of this period were generally weak, pro-business, and never served more than one term in office (with the exception of Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms). None of these presidents are terribly important in terms of the test, though it is helpful to have a general sense of the politics of the nation during the period. We have included a quick overview of each administration so you can keep track of all the political turnover.
  • James Garfield, elected in 1880, was fatally shot four months after taking office.
  • Chester Arthur, Garfield’s vice president, served as president from 1881 to 1885. Congress, spurred on by Arthur’s reputation as a corrupt politician and a supporter of machine politics, passed the Pendleton Act in efforts to create a meritocratic and professional civil service.
  • Grover Cleveland served as president from 1885 to 1889. He pushed for a reduction of tariffs, and, in 1887, he signed the Interstate Commerce Act into law.
  • Benjamin Harrison was president from 1889 to 1893. A pro-business Republican, he supported high protective tariffs, and brought about a severe economic depression beginning in 1893.
  • Grover Cleveland won a second term from 1893 to 1897. He is the only president to serve two terms out of sequence. His second term was dominated by efforts to deal with the economic depression that started in 1893, under Benjamin Harrison.
The Struggles of Farmers
Farmers found themselves on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder after the Civil War. They struggled to pay off mounting debts as land prices rose but crop prices plummeted. Struggling farmers demanded help from state and federal governments. When this relief did not come, Midwestern farmers banded together to form the Grange in 1867. By 1875, the Grange had more than 800,000 members. The Grange offered farmers education and fellowship through biweekly social functions, at which farmers shared their grievances and discussed agricultural and political reforms. To increase farm profits, Grangers negotiated deals with machinery companies and set up cooperatives and grain storage facilities. They also fought against railroad companies for hiking prices for short-distance shipment. The efforts of the Grange played a big role in the passage of the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act.
By 1880, the Grange had faded and was replaced by the Farmers’ Alliance. Beginning as a local phenomenon in Texas in the late 1870s, alliances spread throughout the South and Northwest, and by 1890, boasted a membership of 1.5 million nationwide. The alliances proved to be powerful political forces. Alliance-supported candidates did well throughout the Great Plains and South in the elections of 1890. In 1892 Alliance members were central actors in the founding of the People’s Party of the United States, or Populist Party, discussed below.
Political Activism: Farmers and Labor Unite
The Populist Party, founded by members of the Farmer’s Alliance, also drew support from urban laborers. The Populist Party supported policies that would create inflation, making debts easier to pay off and raising crop prices. The party’s candidate in the 1892 election did not do well.
However, the Panic of 1893 gave the Populists new life. In the three years after 1893, unemployment soared, worker strikes spread, and support for the Populist Party grew. Already opposed to President Cleveland, the Populists were further enraged by Cleveland’s deals with J.P. Morgan and other powerful industrialists to bail out the U.S. government: the bankers lent $62 million to the government in return for U.S. bonds. The Populists portrayed Cleveland as a pro-business Republican who neglected the poor, and they began rallying for the next election.
In the 1896 election, the Populists joined with the Democratic Party in supporting William Jennings Bryan. Republicans backed William McKinley, who ran on a pro-business platform and supported high protective tariffs. Six years earlier, as a Representative in Congress, McKinley had engineered the passage of the McKinley Tariff (1890), a protective tariff that raised the price of imports by nearly 50 percent. By doing so, he gained the support of business interests. Boosted by this business backing and the enormous contributions from the industrialists J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, McKinley won the election against Bryan.
During McKinley’s two terms as president, the depression eased and prosperity began to return. This turnaround, combined with Bryan’s defeat, broke up the Populist Party and pushed the Democratic Party back to its minority position in the South.
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