The American Centennial Exposition was one of key events of the year, with a “world’s fair” in Philadelphia made up of dozens of buildings and pavilions that extolled the progress of the nation –its growth in size and industrial, its population, its social and economic development.
“In our arts, labors and victories, we find scope for all our energies, rewards for all our ambitions, renown enough for all our love of fame.”
Speech at Exposition opening, July 4, 1876
After seeing the electric generator that would power the entire exposition, Henry Adams (great-grandson of former President John Adams) said that the “dynamo” would fundamentally change all society into a “new civilization.”
An “Age of Excess”
The Exposition celebrated the unprecedented economic growth of America, showing new inventions, new patents, new devices, and the new prosperity that followed. Farmers by then were producing food, miners so many raw materials, and workers so many goods that prices were dropping for many necessities.
The major parties differed on many issues but generally agreed on a policy in which the Federal government encouraged economic development by placing few restrictions on business, trade, or investment. Newspaper cartoonists popularized the elephant symbol with the Republican Party and the donkey symbol with the Democratic Party.
Power of the Press
The Press had become powerful in its own right – major newspapers and popular magazines (like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News) could change national policies. Much as the politicians disliked the press, they also patronized it, to obtain public recognition and support.
End of Reconstruction
The 1876 election was so close that a special Federal elections commission had to decide who won the Presidency. When the commission awarded the victory to Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes, the Democrats demanded concessions to accept the result – Federal appointments and the withdrawal of troops from former Confederate states, ending the “reconstruction” of the Civil War.
Without Federal Government protection, freed Black slaves were again denied any real rights or freedoms. Hundreds of thousands were given no greater opportunities than to be sharecroppers on cotton farms – paying rents on land that were often higher than the prices they received for the cotton they grew.
Jim Crow Segregation
“Black Codes” that the southern states had enforced before the Civil War were reintroduced in the 1870s as laws that segregated Blacks from White society, forbade most Black-White interactions, and harshly punished Blacks who violated these “Jim Crow Laws.”
Groups like the Ku Klux Klan enforced segregation with lynching, etc. – southern courts seldom punished such violence.
The Closing Frontier
In 1890, the Department of the Interior announced that there was no longer a discernible “Frontier Line” in the west. Many took this to mean that opportunities to settle new lands under the Homestead Act were gone.
The “closing of the frontier” meant that immigrants were more likely to become workers in urban industries than to live on farms. The labor movement grew as a result of the “labor surplus.”
The 1862 Homestead Act was intended to help families settle Federal land and farm it. Under the Act a person could claim up to 160 acres and gain the title for the land by living on it for five years, improving the land and paying the fees for the title. Some 270 million acres were settled in this manner, but many failed to hold the land for long.
Aid to Railroad Growth
Similar legislation encouraged railroad growth by giving railroads one square mile for every mile of track laid.
In this 1893 may of an Arkansas county, the dark squares indicate the land given to the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railway Co. for extending its tracks into new areas.
I return for the land, the US government received free passage on the railroads for Federal employees, which was useful in moving troops, etc.
Railroads Promote Lands
Having received millions of acres of land for their track-laying, the railroads offered land for sale. Pamphlets describing lands and their potential for agriculture were prepared (in dozens of languages) and distributed in the US and Europe.
Some rail companies (like the Northern Pacific RR) created “model farms” to show how well the potential farmer could do.
“Clearing” the Plains
The advance of the railroad accelerated the wars between the US Cavalry and the Plains Indians. George Custer (left) was among the most famous “Indian fighters.” Custer was confident that his 7th Cavalry Regiment could defeat any number of Sioux warriors and set out to prove it in the 1876 campaign in Montana territory.
After Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, most news illustrations depicted the event in a noble manner.
The Sioux View
A depiction of the battle by a Lakota warrior better illustrates the confused and disorganized nature of the fighting in this Native American victory.
End of the Buffalo
The greatest blow to the Native Americans was the destruction of the buffalo, as suggested in this photograph of buffalo skulls.
The Wild West
The press again played a part in creating the legend of the “wild west,” by publishing numerous articles about the Indian Wars and advertising the many “dime novels” about such western characters as Wild Bill Hickok (left), Buffalo Bill, and Wyatt Earp. In reality western development was mostly about land development, water resources, raw materials for industry, and farming.
Labor and Industry
According to statistics gathered at Princeton University, wages for industrial workers rose 31% from 1860 to 1881, while prices rose 41%. This meant that workers had a harder time paying for things as time went on.
The massive numbers of immigrants, particularly from eastern and southern Europe, provided industry with a large labor force, but made wages even lower and unions difficult to organize.
Many cities had long been controlled by political machines that delivered votes to selected candidates in return for special favors. But reform groups (and some labor groups who wanted higher wages) blamed immigrant voters as the source of the machines’ power, and so sought to restrict immigration. The only result of this was in the 1870s, when the Congress yielded to public pressure and banned Chinese immigration for a number of years.
Strikes in 1877
A major collapse of credit in 1872 brought on a financial “panic” – a depression that slowed the pace of growth (the Northern Pacific Railroad stopped work on its route through Dakota Territory to the west). Many businesses began to cut wages in order to save money. This sparked strikes and violence in American industries.
“Year of Violence”
Workers struck for higher wages on many of the railroads and violent clashes ensued between strikers and “scab labor.” By sending Federal troops into one strike (to make certain that mail was delivered), President Hayes brought the Federal government into the labor-management dispute.
Unions and Political Issues
Both the strikers and business owners referred to the “Paris Commune” of 1871, when French workers called for a revolution against the state.
Owners warned that unions would “bring communism” to American society. Some strikers hoped that this would happen, but most union leaders condemned the idea of revolution.
The Knights of Labor was the largest union in the nation, with about 700,000 members by 1879. But its leaders were old reformers who disliked strikes, promoted the organizing of skilled labor with unskilled labor and wanted to “harmonize”labor with management.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was organized in 1886 and limited membership to skilled workers. They used strikes to attain specific goals: higher wages, safer working conditions, the 8 hour work day.
The Panacea of Inflation
Several workers groups wanted the American money supply inflated, either by the issuing of more paper money (Greenbacks) or by coining more silver. They hoped that inflation would raise wages.
A “Greenback Party” was established to advocate this inflationary policy and the Democratic Party also called for inflation. The Republican Party preferred policies that would keep prices and interest rates low.
Economies of Scale
Immigrants made up much of the labor in the construction of the railroads. This photograph shows three Chinese workers, a Black American, and a foreman who was likely an Irishman.
By 1890, the United States had more miles of rails than most of all Europe.
The railroad industry fueled the industrial revolution. Rails and locomotives required steel and wood, rail cars needed many materials, the telegraph lines along the rails required copper and rubber, and all the system needed lubricants – provided by oil.
A New Wealthy Class
Cornelius Vanderbilt made his first fortune in shipping and trade with China. He then began to build railroads in New York. By the 1870s he was one of the wealthiest men in America.
He was also a tough businessman, never hesitating to ruin his competition if it would gain him a greater profit.
The Public Be Damned
When Vanderbilt competed with Jim Fisk for control of rail shipping in the northeast, they both employed bribery, coercion, and violence to gain an edge. When newspapers complained that the battle was hurting “public interests,” Vanderbilt replied “the public be damned.”
Railroads were the first industry to be widely accused of “subverting democracy” by dominating the shipping of raw materials and having enormous power over the costs of shipping. By the early 1870s, several Congressmen had introduced bills to create a Federal organization to regulate railroads. Other groups, including the Grange, the Farmers Alliances, and some workers parties, wanted the government to take over ownership of the railroads.
Living Like Kings
Breakers, the enormous Vanderbilt summer house, designed from an Italian palace and built with imported marble by craftsmen brought over from Europe.
The industrial millionaires lived lavishly, building homes like European palaces and spending enormous sums for parties, while their employees worked 10-12 hour days, 6 or 7 days each week. Many industries employed children as young as seven years old; factories made few provisions for safety.
The Steel Magnate
Andrew Carnegie was a Scots immigrant who built the larger steel industry in America. He made as much as forty million dollars a year, wrote essays and books about competition and said that the “bigger system [of production and profit] grows bigger men, and it is by the big men that the standard of the race is raised.”
Robber Baron or Philanthropist?
Carnegie gave away millions of dollars to build libraries and other public buildings. Critics charged he would have helped more by paying better wages.
Creating a Civil Service
The assassination of President James Garfield in 1883 by an angry office-seeker convinced the Federal government to establish a civil service system for hiring government employees. Reformers hoped this would also reduce corrupt influence in government.
Harper’s magazine charged that huge industries were becoming “trusts” (monopolies) that had greater power than the United States government, able to bribe Congressmen by giving them free rides on the railroads, paying for their campaign costs, and in effect buying their votes.
The Oil Trust
John D. Rockefeller built and oil empire by owning oil wells, the pipelines that distributed the oil, and rail cars that carried the barrels of oil to industry. Before the gasoline engine was perfected, oil was still essential – as lubricant for machines, and as the raw material for kerosene - which illuminated the nation before Edison invented the workable light bulb.
Inventions That Benefited All
Most major innovations helped all of the nation. Thomas Edison’s perfection of his light bulb made him rich and revolutionized productivity, making it possible to run factories longer. But electric lights also revolutionized education and changed American home life and leisure.
The first power generator at Edison’s home, built in
1881 to illuminate his
In May 1886, a series of strikes for the 8-hour day culminated in tragedy when a bomb exploded at a labor rally in Chicago, killing eight policemen and injuring dozens of others. Four anarchists were convicted and hanged for the crime. Public opinion condemned such violence but also favored making some concessions to the labor movement.
Artist’s conception of Haymarket bombing in Chicago, May 1886, published in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
Concessions to Labor
President Harrison and Congress responded to the Haymarket violence by making concessions to labor: --Created the Interstate Commerce Commission to oversee rail rates. --The Sherman Anti-Trust Act which could prohibit trade monopolies (but not manufacturing monopolies). -- The Sherman Silver Purchase Act to inflate the economy by issuing more silver coins. -- Raising tariffs on foreign trade by passing the McKinley Tariff.
The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Society mounted numerous campaigns to persuade workers to abandon “demon rum.” Prominent local businessmen on how people could save and invest money saved from buying alcohol. Municipal leagues urged cities to build parks for “family entertainment,” and some industries built alcohol-free “model communities” for their workers.
Henry George, a journalist, wrote Progress and Poverty which argued that the “unequal distribution of wealth” was destroying the promise of modern industrial growth. He urged that some method be found to redistribute the wealth of the nation before the American civilization collapsed in class divisions and violence.
George suggested that a “single tax” on land would allow the government to take wealth from the rich and provide it to the poor in services and public projects. Socialists and many workers loved George’s proposal and the “single tax” was raised in several elections.
In 1888, Edward Bellamy published his utopian novel Looking Backward, a detailed description of Boston in 2000 AD, when a fairly authoritarian hierarchy ruled over a society that was free of class divisions, poverty, and major problems. How this was brought about is not explained, but the book was very popular and Bellamy became a welcome speaker at workers meetings.
Depression in the 1890s
Strikers at Homestead Steel Plant in Pennsylvania attack Pinkerton Agency guards, 1892. The violence at Homestead convinced the governor of Pennsylvania to send militia to Homestead and try to prosecute strikers for murder and treason against the state.
The onset of another financial depression in the 1890s led to new strikes and violence. Labor blamed the hard times on the McKinley tariff, while business blamed a drop in productivity and the need to expand credit.
A New Weapon Against Strikes
When the American Railway Union struck the Pullman rail car plant in 1894, the US Attorney gained an injunction against the strikers under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and ordered them back to work.
The Injunction became business’s major weapon against strikes. If a judge agreed that a strike was a “conspiracy that retrained trade” then the injunction could be used to order them back to work – refusal meant jail.
When the President of the American Railway Union, Eugene Debs, urged strikers to ignore an injunction he was jailed because his remarks encouraged a “restraint of trade.”
In the 1890s the various farmers alliances unified into the Populist Movement, which called for reforms to help agriculture – regulation of banks and railroads, and low-cost loans for farmers. It also contained a strong Americanist streak, calling for limits on immigration and citizenship. By the middle of the decade the Populists were a well-organized third party.
Populist Platform in 1896
Major Platform demands
We demand free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1.
We demand that the amount of circulating medium be speedily increased to not less than $50 per capita.
We demand a graduated income tax.
We believe that the money of the country should be kept as much as possible in the hands of the people, and hence we demand that all State and national revenues shall be limited to the necessary expenses of the government, economically and honestly administered.
We demand that postal savings banks be established by the government for the safe deposit of the earnings of the people and to facilitate exchange.
TRANSPORTATION—Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people. The telegraph, telephone, like the post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people.
LAND—The land, including all the natural sources of wealth, is the heritage of the people, and should not be monopolized for speculative purposes, and alien ownership of land should be prohibited. All land now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs, and all lands now owned by aliens should be reclaimed by the government and held for actual settlers only.
William Jennings Bryan
With a dramatic speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination for president. Because his speech showed great sympathy for farmers, the Populists nominated him for president as well. Despite a well-publicized campaign, as Bryan engaged a speaking campaign across the nation, the Republican candidate William McKinley won the election.
Money and Politics
Critics of the late 19th century political system charged that money was becoming the determining factor in elections. Mark Hanna (left) raised funds for the McKinley campaigns, and was credited with “paying” for McKinley’s victories. While this was not the first time that an election result was credited to money, “money and politics” was becoming a major issue.
A unifying element of the decade was the Columbian exposition, a world’s fair-celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
Entry Into World Power
The American press and leadership used the Columbian exposition to commend the economic growth of the nation – its industry now out-produced that of any other country and much of Europe combined
War With Spain
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain after the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor. The purpose of the war was to put and end to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean.
The “Yellow Press”
Modern newspapers helped encourage popularity for the war by printing emotional articles coupled with editorials to influence public opinion. One argument for the war was to expand the Monroe Doctrine, another was to “bring civilization to the benighted natives of Cuba, and a third was for America to secure its economic growth with colonies.
Opponents of the War
A number of prominent political leaders and intellectuals opposed the war because colonies would undermine the national commitment to democratic development (some did not want more ‘Latins’ added to the American population. Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed (right) spoke out against the war and threw away a chance for the presidency as a result.
Invasion of Cuba
The war was fairly one-sided from the start. A large American army (which had many officers from the old Confederate armies) landed in Cuba and prepared to drive out the Spanish troops on the island.
As the US Army drove across Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt, a prominent Republican in New York, became a hero for the assault on San Juan Hill.
Acquisitions in the Pacific
In the Pacific an American fleet destroyed the Spanish forces in the Philippines. The conquest of the Philippines provided expanded possibilities for trade in Asia, which the US reinforced by annexing the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).
These acquisitions further worried critics of the war, who argued that the US was becoming a ‘colonial empire’ like those of Europe.
Results of the War
Under the treaty ending the war, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States.
To satisfy war critics, the Congress added the Platt Amendment to the treaty, which promised the U.S. would grant independence to Cuba.
The U.S. also found that the people of the Philippines did not universally welcome the Americans – a war with “insurrectionists” took place for several years.
Return of Prosperity
In 1900, McKinley and his new running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, won the election by a landslide, arguing that economic recovery was the result of the strong tariff and increased tread in Asia.
The New Century Begins
America was more confident as McKinley was sworn in for his second term. But there were many issues still be to dealt with.