GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Gilded Age & the Second Industrial Revolution

The Gilded Age, 1877-1896

The period from the 1870s to the mid-1890s, sometimes called “The Gilded Age” (to gild is to coat with gold or a shiny powder, concealing the cheaper material underneath). It was marked by political corruption, a string of weak presidents, and shifting demographics.

During this period, the last of the Indian Wars were fought, and Native Americans were herded into Reservations in the Western states. Farmers, oppressed by falling prices for their crops, attempted to organize farmers’ movements, but these were largely unsuccessful.

On the national level, the major issue was patronage (giving government jobs to friends and supporters). Presidents, Congressmen, and other officials rewarded their financial and political supporters with plum positions.

Graft and kickbacks were common among politicians. The problems that were arising from the explosive growth of industry and increasing immigration were largely ignored by the national and state governments. Eventually, civil service reform — meant to insure that government jobs were insulated from political pressure and patronage — was enacted.


The Age of Big Business

If the first Industrial Revolution in the United States (in the first half of the 1800s), concerned mainly textiles and light manufacturing, the decades after the Civil War saw the size and complexity of businesses grow at an astronomical rate. A transcontinental railroad — linking the East and West coasts, was completed in 1869, and the federal government encouraged railroad expansion through land grants and subsidies (cash awards). Rails seemed to bind the enormous nation together.

The steel industry was a major force in American life. Andrew Carnegie used new techniques to make better steel, and his company, United States Steel, was the first business organization worth over $1 billion. John D. Rockefeller, using a variety of unscrupulous methods, cornered the oil industry, controlling all aspects from drilling, refining, and distribution. His Standard Oil Company became one of the largest industrial enterprises in the U.S. The growth of corporations (business entities that limited investors’ losses) seemed endless.

“Captains of Industry” were often known as “robber barons” for their hard-knuckle ways. Under the federal government’s laissez-faire (“leave it alone”) economic policies, the heads of big businesses put smaller competitors out of business, gave preferential treatment to large-volume customers, and systematically discriminated against farmers and small businesses. They believed in “survival of the fittest” (a term used in Social Darwinism) and reveled in their wealth. Eventually, reform movements would attempt to curb the worst practices of big business.

Both Carnegie and Rockefeller were masters of horizontal integration (buying up all of your competitors’ firms) and vertical integration (owning every aspect of the manufacturing process, from raw materials and transportation to finished product). Other industries formed trusts (associations) to control markets, such as the sugar trust, the railroad trust, and the copper trust). In this way, they divided the market among themselves, controlled prices, and kept out non-trust competitors.


The “New Immigration”

In the 1890s, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe — especially Italy, Greece, Russia, and the Balkan states — began emigrating to America in large numbers. They were fleeing poverty and oppression at home and believed America was “the golden land.”

In the decades before this, going back to colonial times, the “old immigrants” came from Northern and Western Europe — especially Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Unlike the “old immigrants,” the “new immigrants” rarely knew English and did not assimilate (blend into a culture). There were plenty of jobs for them; the new industries needed vast numbers of unskilled laborers. New immigrants settled in ethnic neighborhoods of the big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Despite the idea of an American “melting pot,” they often did not learn English or participate in civic life. Many people looked down on them as “undesirables.”

In 1883, the United States banned further immigration from China (many Chinese had come to work on the railroads, and they settled on the Pacific Coast). Anti-immigrant sentiment, known as Nativism, grew, with many people calling for limits on all immigration. There was particular dislike of Roman Catholics and Jews. In 1907, the government banned further emigration from Japan.


The Growth of the Labor Movement

Workers (many of them immigrants) toiled in almost unbearable conditions: long hours, no protection from layoffs, lack of safety measures and protection, and low wages). The infant labor movement scored few successes in the age of big business, and strikes almost always led to defeat for newly formed unions. Violence was often employed by business leaders to break up strikes and labor disputes.

The first labor unions were open to all workers — black and white — and sought a number of labor reforms, including an 8-hour workday. They were generally unsuccessful. One union that did succeed and grow, however, limited itself to admitted only skilled workers and craftsmen, the American Federation of Labor. While it opposed political and social involvement, it was willing to use strikes to force factory owners to grant better working conditions. However, limitations on working hours did not occur; those would come in succeeding decade.

Strikes were frequent in all industries, and in the manufacturing sector, were often broken up by violence. During the great railroad Strike of 1877, the national government sent in troops to break up the strike (since the U.S. mail was carried by railroads). Especially in the steel industry, violence against workers was common. Management — with its money and political influence — always won.


The U.S. Acquires an Empire in 1898

Since the founding of the nation, expansionism was both a philosophy and a plan of action. By the end of the 1800s, all of the land between Canada and Mexico became part of the U.S. (by purchase or conquest). At the end of the century, Americans began to look outward. U.S. industrial production was so enormous that the nation needed new markets for its goods and new sources of raw materials. In addition, the U.S. looked on as European nations acquired colonies in Africa and Asia.

In addition, the U.S. believed God had favored the nation, making it rich and prosperous, and its people were superior to others (Social Darwinism). The U.S. believed it had a “duty” to “civilize” other peoples and bring them the “blessings of American liberty.” This feeling of imperialism exerted a strong force on many Americans.

The first land to become part of what would emerge as an American empire, was Hawaii. The island kingdom’s monarchy had been overthrown by a group of American planters (who grew sugar and pineapple) on the islands. In 1893, the islands of Hawaii became an American territory.

In the late 1890s, the U.S. attempted to help Cubans overthrow their oppressive colonial master, the Spanish. Cuba, only 90 miles from the coast of the United States, had been engaged in a civil war, on and off, since the 1860s. The fertile island was a source of American sugar, and American capitalists had millions invested in the island. A belief that American ideals were superior to all others — fueled by a sensationalistic (and often inaccurate) press — led to war fever.


The Spanish-American War

The U.S. sent a warship, the U.S.S. Maine, to the harbor of Havana, Cuba’s capital, in the spring of 1898. The ship was there, it was said, to evacuate Americans if the need arose. Actually, the U.S. was “showing the flag” and threatening the Spanish. The calls for war were reaching a fever pitch. The U.S. claimed it wanted to help the Cubans, not seize the island.

President William McKinley demanded that Spain quit Cuba. Then, the U.S.S. Maine exploded while in Havana Harbor. Although there was no evidence of sabotage, the cry quickly went up, “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” President McKinley felt he had no choice but to ask Congress to declare war.


The Fighting

The U.S. Army was small and ill-equipped, but the country had a first-rate navy as a result of a build-up in the 1890s. The Navy quickly conquered the Philippine Islands, which had belonged to Spain since the 1500s. When the U.S. Army finally did send troops to Cuba and Puerto Rico, they found themselves unprepared (they were given wool uniforms to wear in the tropical heat!) and suffered greatly from malaria and Yellow Fever (which is borne by mosquitoes). Most of the American deaths in the war were due to disease; only a few hundred soldiers died in combat.

Seizing the island of Cuba was relatively easy. One of the war heroes was a young officer named Theodore Roosevelt, who in just three years would become president.

After only 10 weeks of war, the U.S. found itself in possession of the Philippines and the islands of Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. It immediately granted Cuba its independence, but made the other territories into colonies. Many people were opposed to the idea of the U.S. becoming a colonial power, but a great many more were proud of the “splendid little war” (in the words of one official) and the fact that the U.S. was now a world power.


The Progressive Movement, 1901-1918

The Progressive movement attempted to address the abuses and horrors of industrialization, immigration, and the problems of urbanization. It had its roots in the limited state reforms of the 1890s, but became a national movement only when Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. Under three presidents — Roosevelt (1901 -1909), William Howard Taft (1909-1913) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), great progress was made. The end of the Progressive era actually came in 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I and the national turned its attention to national affairs.


What were its Goals?

The Progressive movement did not seek to replace capitalism with socialism. Its main goal was to make industrial society fairer and “level the playing field.” It also sought protections for workers, consumer protections (before the Progressive movement, there was no regulation of foods and medicines), and addressing the wretched lives of most immigrants in the big cities. The Progressive movement, however, did little to address the horrific racial injustices in the nation — Jim Crow laws, systematic racism, and lynchings.


What did the Progressive Movement Accomplish?

Food and Drug Safety Laws: After the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a book chronicling unsanitary and dangerous practices in the meat industry, President Theodore Roosevelt urged Congress to enact food and drug safety laws. The Food and Drug Administration was established to set regulations — and inspect — meat, other foods and drugs.

Working Hours and Labor Reforms: While the record is mixed, the Progressives were able to make progress in the fields of limiting working hours for industrial workers and bringing management and labor to the bargaining table when troubles arose. In some industries, working hours were reduced from 12-hour days to 10 hours or 8 hours.

Trust-Busting: The largest business organizations were abusive and monopolistic. Under all three Progressive presidents, “trust-busting” was a policy to break up the largest corporations. For example, John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was broken up into 40 smaller companies. Railroad trusts were also attacked and broken up.

Conservation: Decades of rapid industrialization had resulted in massive deforestation, pollution of rivers and lakes, and encroachment on virgin territories. The Progressives believed in conservation, that is, setting aside public lands for future generations to enjoy. New laws put millions of acres of virgin forests, pristine lakes and rivers, and natural resources off-limits to development and exploitation.

The Federal Reserve System: A national banking system, composed of 12 regional banks, known as the Federal Reserve, became the issuer of paper money and, today, helps govern the economy by regulating the amount of currency in circulation.

Prohibition: Under the terms of the 18th Amendment, passed in 1918, the sale of all liquor would be prohibited starting in 1920. This policy, known as Prohibition, would last until 1933, when another constitutional amendment repealed it.

Women’s Suffrage: Women were finally given the right to vote, starting in 1920, under the terms of the 19th Amendment, enacted in 1918.


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