How did railroads change American society, politics, and economy in the post–Civil War era?
Railroads completely transformed the United States socially, politically, and economically during the Gilded Age. Literally the engine of the new industrialized economy, they facilitated the speedy transportation of raw materials and finished goods from coast to coast. In addition to raw materials, these “iron horses” carried people west to settle the heartland and the frontier. As the railroads grew in power, they exerted increasing influence on local and state governments, eventually prompting Congress and reform-minded presidents to pass laws to regulate the new industry.
After the Civil War, rail tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt capitalized on the conversion of their iron tracks to steel, which allowed them to lay more track for only a fraction of the cost. As a result, by 1900, the United States boasted almost a quarter of a million miles of railroad track. In turn, steel magnates such as Andrew Carnegie benefited from the increased demand for steel and responded by producing more. As consolidation and innovation streamlined costs, it became cheaper and faster to ship raw materials, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and oil via rail than by steamship.
Railroads transported people, too, and contributed, more than any other single factor, to the transformation and development of the West. Although more than a million Americans had moved westward in the days of “manifest destiny” before the Civil War, trains brought millions more throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Railways made it physically and economically feasible for Americans to settle Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in large numbers. At the same time, the decimated population of native grassland bison testified to the negative consequences of this drastic transformation of the Midwest.
As railroad companies grew in power, they exerted more and more influence on local politics and economics. Unscrupulous “robber barons” extorted the public by charging outrageous rates, distributing uncompetitive rebates to preferred customers, accepting bribes and kickbacks, and discriminating against small shippers. Public discontent with the railways emerged in small farming communities throughout the Midwest—a discontent that ultimately helped form the backbone of the populist movement. Populists, like the socialists of the early twentieth century, wanted to curb railroad corruption by nationalizing all lines.
Even though Populism eventually faded, cries for railroad reform did not, prompting the federal government to take action. In 1887, for example, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which supervised railroad companies that operated in more than one state by outlawing unfair rebates and ordering companies to publish fares up front. The Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906 strengthened the ICC by restraining railroad companies further. In addition, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of James Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Railway in 1904.
Railroads thus transformed American society, politics, and economy unlike any other invention during the Gilded Age. They allowed big business to prosper and people to settle the West and Midwest. Ultimately, public reaction against the railroad barons’ uncompetitive business practices formed the backbone of the reform-minded Populist and Progressive movements around the turn of the century.
Many historians believe that the election of 1896 was the most critical election of the post–Civil War years. Do you agree with this assessment? How did the election change American politics?
The election of 1896 was one of the most critical elections of the nineteenth century. William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan brought an end to the Populist movement, ensured financial stability that helped industrialization, and ushered in a new era of Republican conservatism that lasted for nearly forty years. In addition, the election demonstrated the importance of money in national politics and the support of urban voters.
William Jennings Bryan’s decision to incorporate much of the Populist Party platform into the Democratic Party platform effectively put an end to the Populist movement. Particularly important was Bryan’s call for inflationary free silver to help impoverished farmers in the South and Midwest pay off their debts. Populist leaders chose to unite with Bryan and the Democrats rather than try to win with a third party candidate of their own. Although Bryan represented the best choice for winning that particular election, the Populist Party’s support of him deprived them of their own platform and ultimately pushed many farmers permanently in line with the Democratic Party. The Populist Party never recovered and eventually dissolved completely.
However, both Populists and Democrats failed to realize that farmers no longer constituted the bulk of the American population. Even though the United States had been a predominantly agrarian country since the American Revolution, the industrialization and immigration of the Gilded Age shifted the population balance toward the cities. Bryan’s appeal for inflationary silver worried urban residents, who relied on steady wages, and the free silver issue ultimately cost him the election. Consequently, the election of 1896 marked the last time a presidential candidate from a major party tried to win by appealing to agricultural interests. McKinley, on the other hand, appealed to American city dwellers, promising economic stability and a “full dinner pail” for every American. His sound money policies, which kept big business booming and the economy growing, ultimately helped the United States become the greatest industrialized nation in the world.
The election of 1896 also demonstrated the growing importance of money in American politics. With more than $15 million, McKinley had more money to spend on his campaign than any of his predecessors. He also had Mark Hanna, his wily campaign manager, who successfully convinced business tycoons to donate to the campaign. McKinley won the election in part because of his ability to spend more money, prompting many Democrats to accuse the former senator of “buying” his presidency.
Just as significantly, McKinley’s victory ushered in a period in American politics dominated by Republican conservatism. In fact, Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1897 and 1933. Their fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire attitude toward the economy helped the American economy grow even further.
What were the causes of urbanization during the Gilded Age? What consequences did this urban revolution have on politics, the economy, and society?
Rapid immigration, along with the explosion of Americans moving from farms to the cities, caused an urban boom during the Gilded Age. The growth of cities gave rise to powerful political machines, stimulated the economy, and gave birth to an American middle class.
Civil wars and persecution prompted many southern and eastern Europeans to flee their homelands in search of better lives in America between the 1880s and 1920s. During these years, approximately a million immigrants from Italy, Greece, Russia, Poland, and other countries arrived in eastern U.S. cities every year. In addition to the influx of immigrants, millions of country-dwelling Americans moved to the cities to escape poverty.
The urban explosion contributed significantly to the rise of powerful political machines that became synonymous with the Gilded Age. Political bosses like William “Boss” Tweed in New York City accumulated power and wealth by preying on insecure immigrants living in the cities’ poorest slums. In exchange for their votes, bosses promised to provide social services, new public projects, and sometimes even physical protection. These political machines grew incredibly powerful well into the twentieth century and came to dominate local politics and even influence national politics. Nearly every U.S. president between Grant and Truman could trace their roots back to local and state party machines.
The shift in population from the countryside to the cities also changed the way presidential candidates campaigned, as demonstrated by William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896. McKinley was able to secure the urban vote, which led him to victory, whereas Bryan wrongly assumed that the majority of the voting public was still in America’s countryside.
The economy benefited greatly from the influx of immigrants and farmhands to the cities. Factory owners especially benefited from immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who, eager to make a new start in America, often worked inhumane hours for meager wages and rarely threatened to unionize. The availability of such cheap labor contributed to the economic boom during the Gilded Age and throughout the early twentieth century.
The urban explosion, furthermore, contributed to the growth of a distinctive American middle class. Not rich but not poor either, a growing number of Americans could afford to live comfortably and enjoy the modern conveniences of Gilded Age life. The increasing number of middle-class women led to the reform movement of the late nineteenth century. Many of these women strove to eliminate poverty and right other social wrongs, such as drinking, prostitution, and gambling. Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and other women founded settlement houses in urban slums to help immigrants improve their lives in the New World. This early reform movement served as the roots of the broader Progressive movement that dominated American politics after the turn of the century.
The veritable explosion in population between the 1880s and 1920s in eastern cities thus completely transformed American politics, society, and the economy. Politicians began campaigning harder in cities run by political machines, cheap labor fueled economic growth, and a distinctive American middle class emerged that would eventually spearhead the progressive movement.
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