The Gilded Age was a period that took place during the late nineteenth century, particularly in the Northern and the Western parts of the United States. During this defining moment in history, many events took place; events that had a profound impact on the future of the United States. This Gilded Age was characterized by its many technological advances, prosperity, rapid industrialization, and exponential economic growth but unfortunately all the prosperity of the country mainly benefited and gave privileges to the wealthy part of society. It was obvious that only the rich had the rights to enjoy such affluence. The disadvantage, inequality, and the lack of the government support toward the working class was evident during the Gilded Age. It was a time of turmoil, uncertainty, and injustice in the United States.
There were some influential figures that dominated industrialization during the Gilded Age. Whether they were good “captains of industry” or bad “robber barons”, what is undeniable is that one way or another they played a pivotal role in the industrialization and the rapid financial growth of the United States and its economy by creating flourishing new industries. Opinions are subject to interpretation, some citizens who felt they conned to get their fortune and lorded it around the ordinary people labeled tycoons such as oilman John D. Rockefeller, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, banker J. P. Morgan, and railroad operator Cornelius Vanderbilt among others as “robber barons.” The term was applied to powerful nineteenth-century industrialists who were perceived as having used questionable practices to amass their wealth. However, their supporters claimed that they were “captains of industry,” businessmen who amassed their fortune by founding their own business while also becoming the core for American Industry, men who used their fortune and their philanthropist lifestyle to give back to the people through charity.
During the Gilded Age, the working class was oppressed by a government that supported and benefited the rich. It was a time in history where the dreams of the working class and the constant struggle of the poor to acquire a better life did not matter, where the rich became richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor remained poor. As the Baltimore Sun journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1907. “There must be complete surrender to the law of natural selection,” “All growth must occur at the top. The strong must grow stronger, and that they may do so, they must waste no strength in the vain task of trying to uplift the weak.”
While the progress of the American Industrialization was moving forward, monopolized industries were getting more powerful through money and property. The United States was perceived as a prosperous land where any one person could seize an opportunity and succeed, but the working-class citizens continued suffering, both living and working in unsafe and inhumane conditions. “Long hours, dangerous working conditions, and the difficulty of supporting a family on meager and unpredictable wages compelled armies of labor to organize and battle against the power of capital.” Due to the lack of labor laws that protected workers, laborers found it more difficult to better their lives through the amassment of wealth from work. Throughout this time, the inequality of benefits and privileges was clear. Industrial operations and factories operated without and outside of government regulation.
At that time, it was almost impossible for the workers to organize a union. In times of economic slump, layoffs and pay cuts were not uncommon. Many, if not all laborers were enraged, leading to brutal labor conflicts in 1877 and 1894. Such the Great Railroad Strike in 1877, where the railroad workers throughout the country went on strike in reaction to a 10 percent wage cut. Efforts to stop the strike triggered bloody disturbances in numerous cities. Also, in 1886 the Haymarket Affair was another effort of the workers to get the government’s attention.
Worker’s strikes were at its peak and to obtain what they felt they were entitled to; workers organized many more strikes throughout the country. Unfortunately, many of their efforts were unsuccessful and time after time they were openly subjected to violence and suppression by a government which supported industrialists, using their power to intimidate and brutally attacked the workers. The head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thomas Andrew Scott, suggested that if workers were unhappy with their wages, they should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.”
For some, the Gilded Age brought wealth, fortune, and power, the rich became richer. For others, the struggles to get out of misery and poverty continued. Some lost their lives seeking for a way to better their way of living. This period was indeed a remarkable moment in history that was marked by many events that changed and shaped the future of the United States.