Driven by a second industrial revolution, the United States rose from the ashes of civil war to become one of the world’s leading economic powers at the turn of the 20th century. Corporate giants such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and JP Morgan have amassed spectacular fortunes and engaged in the most remarkable consumptions. Under this gold plating, however, American society has been tarnished by poverty and corruption, which has resulted in this period of American history being called the “Golden Age,” derived from the title of ‘an 1873 novel co-written by Mark Twain.
Protected from foreign competition by high tariffs, American industrialists agreed to drive competitors out of business by creating monopolies and trusts in which groups of companies were controlled by single boards of directors. Political corruption was rampant during the Golden Age as companies bribed politicians to ensure government policies favored big companies over workers. The transplant fueled urban political machines, such as New York’s Tammany Hall, and the Whiskey Ring and Credit Mobilier scandals exposed the collusion of officials and business leaders to defraud the federal government.
As the rich got richer during the Golden Age, the poor got poorer. The great wealth accumulated by the “robber barons” is at the expense of the masses. In 1890, the top 1% of American families owned 51% of the country’s real and personal property, while the bottom 44% owned only 1.2%.
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The populist party pushes for reforms
Many workers in the golden years worked hard in dangerous jobs for low pay. About 40% of industrial workers in the 1880s earned below the poverty line of $ 500 a year. With such a yawning gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” workers fought against inequality by forming unions. Labor strikes occurred with greater frequency – and greater violence – after the great railroad strike of 1877. In the 1880s alone, there were nearly 10,000 strikes and lockouts. .
The belief that big business had too much power in the United States caused a backlash. The passage of the Tariff Act of 1890, which raised import duties to nearly 50 percent and raised consumer prices, sparked an agrarian political rebellion that gave rise to the People’s Party, known as of “populists”. The party advocated for government ownership of railroad and telephone companies, a progressive income tax, shorter working days and the direct election of senators. In the 1892 presidential election, populist candidate James Weaver won 22 electoral votes.
When the panic of 1893 launched what was then the worst economic downturn in American history, President Grover Cleveland was forced to borrow $ 65 million in gold from financiers, including Morgan, to keep the federal government afloat, further emphasizing corporate power in American society.
“This is no longer a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” proclaimed populist leader Mary Elizabeth Lease, “but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.” The victory of William McKinley, sponsor of the Tariff Act of 1890, in the presidential election of 1896, marked the effective end of the People’s Party, but it foreshadowed the progressive era to come.
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Theodore Roosevelt ushers in the era of progress
Some historians consider the 1890s to be the start of the progressive era, but Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination marked his final arrival. Like the populists, the progressives advocated democratic reforms and greater government regulation of the economy to temper the capitalist excesses of the golden age. Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that the progressive movement sought to “restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was widely believed to have existed earlier in America and destroyed by big business and the corrupt political machine.”
Unlike previous presidents, Roosevelt vigorously enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act to break down industrial behemoths. The “Defender of Confidence” was also the first president to threaten to use the military on behalf of workers during a coal miners’ strike in 1902. Roosevelt was easily re-elected in 1904 while campaigning on a platform. -form “Square Deal” to control businesses, conserve natural resources and protect consumers.
Investigative journalists, writers and photographers have encouraged progressive reform by exposing corporate wrongdoing and social injustice. These “muckrakers” included Ida Tarbell, whose investigation into Rockefeller led to the break-up of the Standard Oil Company monopoly. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The jungle on working conditions in the meat packaging industry sparked the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Foods and Medicines Act in 1906.
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Gradual political reforms expand voting rights
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In states across the country, progressives pushed for greater democratization of government and expansion of voting rights in order to reduce the power of political machines.
In 1903, Wisconsin became the first state to implement direct primary elections, and state governor Robert La Follette was among the progressives defending the promulgation of initiatives and referendums, which allowed citizens to propose and vote directly on the legislation.
Progressive reforms continued under Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, who combined tariff reduction legislation with 16th Amendment support to the U.S. Constitution, which established a federal income tax. Even though Democrat Woodrow Wilson defeated Taft and Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election, he enacted a progressive agenda that included the creation of the Federal Reserve Board and Federal Trade Commission as well as the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which further limited the ability of companies to form monopolies.
Additional democratic reforms came into effect with the 17th Amendment, which required the direct election of senators, and the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Many progressives also supported the temperance movement and pushed for the enactment of Prohibition, which came into effect with the 18th Amendment. World War I marked the decline of the progressive era, which ended with the start of the Roaring Twenties.
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