The Gilded Age & the Progressive Era (1877–1917)

by: History SparkNotes

Key People

Jane Addams

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.

Andrew Carnegie

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 1892Homestead 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.

Grover Cleveland

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.

Benjamin Harrison

Twenty-third U.S. president, elected in 1888, and the grandson of ninth U.S. president William Henry Harrison.

William McKinley

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.

Theodore Roosevelt

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.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

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.

Woodrow Wilson

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.)