In essence, the Gilded Age is not a new concept especially to America's history and, therefore, refers to a period, between 1870's and 1890's, of rapid economic growth which occurred after the American Civil War. As implied by Mark Twain, this period describes a time when the society would be seen perfectly orderly from outside while issues like corruption, poverty, and crime among others, existed between the rich and poor Americans. The Progressive Era, on the other hand, was a period, between 1890's and 1920's, during which the United States experienced extensive social activism and political reforms. The main drive during this era was to eliminate problems that arose from industrialization, urbanization, and corruption. This paper purposes to explore how the Gilded Age and Progressive era lead the united states into 20th Century and their contributions to today's social structure. The state of the American Society and other societies as well as a result of continuous changes in social organization and behavior that are fuelled by dynamics in cultural, economic and political issues.
The rapid expansion of industrialization and economic growth during the Gilded Age led to the migration of millions of Europeans to the North and West. This era is however associated with abject poverty among the immigrants due to inequality in wealth distribution. The major industrial growth during this age involved railroads while factory system, mining, and finance dominated as areas of importance. Economic growth witnessed during this period was disrupted by the two renowned economic depressions; Panic of 1873 and Panic of 1893 (Rahman, 1338). These two economic depressions led to social and political disturbances. After the Civil War, the South remained economically challenged and they were left to rely on cotton and tobacco production an effect that led them to lose political power and voting rights.
The dominating political issues during this age were culturally related mostly concerning education, prohibition, and racial groups. Powerful business trusts emerged in some industries, while at the same time workers' unions pushed for favorable working conditions, abolishment of child labor, and women suffrage. Public elementary schools were built, and religious dominations, through missionary work, built many colleges, schools, hospitals, and charity organizations. Apparently, various challenges experienced during the Gilded Age led to attempts of reforms during the Progressive Era that followed.
During the Gilded Age, the United State rapidly expanded its economy into major industries like factories, railroads, and mining. The First Transcontinental railroad, for example, opened up the far west ranching and mining areas. It connected these formally isolated areas with large markets, consequently creating a national market. Around 1900, the economic concentration was widespread and trusts dominated markets of oil, steel, farm machinery, and sugar. These trusts ensured that profits made were maximized by controlling access to raw materials hence inhibiting other companies from venturing into the same kind of business. High level of mechanization witnessed during the Gilded Age can be affiliated to search for cheaper methods of production. Additionally, mechanization made some factories a collection of unskilled workers executing simple repetitive tasks guided by skilled personnel. Colleges were set up to meet the demand for expertise. Remarkable inventions during this age included air brakes for trains by George Westinghouse, the first electrical lighting utility by Thomas Edison among others and over ten times patents were registered during this age as compared to the number of patents issued in the preceding 70 years.
Railroad stocks and bonds were used to allow for private financing on railroads since developing them was very expensive, this approach of sourcing funds led to the development of a financial system in America (Rahman, 1339). The British heavily invested in America's railroads and by 1914, the total British investment in American railroads was approximately 3 billion dollars, assets that were later liquidated for the interest of acquiring weapons supplies from America. Another aspect of impacts of development of railroads during the Gilded Age was the invention of modern management systems that could simultaneously handle complex relationships. The new structures allowed invention of career paths in private sector for blue and white collar workers. Workers hired as laborers would grow to mechanics, then to brakemen, then to freight conductors, and finally to passenger conductors. On the other hand, white collar careers would start at clerical and statistical works and be promoted to stations agents at the headquarters. These jobs were highly secure and were managed by central administrators to ensure fairness and reduce conflicts. Also, as stated by Leonard (212), a pension scheme was introduced in 1880's when first career railroaders were retiring.
Primarily, Railroads enabled provision of efficient shipping freight and passenger network. Through the rail system, America was able to integrate a large national market and realized a transformation in sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, retail and wholesale, and financial systems. Commercial farming was made feasible and more profitable as large extents of land were opened for settlement and farming. Moreover, wholesalers bought consumer products from factories and transported them to retailers. Through railroads contributions, the United States gross domestic product (GDP) and industrial production were highest in the world in early 20th Century. Despite the freedom to travel realized through railroads, which had in a big way reduced regional and cultural diversity, the railroad was faced by protests from Western farmers who joined the Granger movement around the 1870s. This movement considered the sole rail carrier to be having too much control on pricing and thus lobbied support from merchants and shippers to push the state legislature to impose maximum prices.
Inefficiency, corruption, and injustices experienced during the Gilded Age motivated the progressives to change all aspects of American society and economy. Sixteenth to Nineteenth amendments were enacted and allowed for changes like introduction of income tax, direct election of senators, election reforms, and women suffrage. Magazines were used to expose social and political ills, raise public awareness on poverty, unfavorable working conditions, political corruption and child labor. Rahman (1347) implies that actors of this era fostered the development of direct democracy by taking down corrupt leaders and sort for regulation of corporations through antitrust laws which were intended to allow equal competition. Major agendas included the prohibition of alcohol, women suffrage and efficiency movement that was anchored on scientific management. Activists worked for reforms in government, public education, medicine, and industry, initially operating locally and then expanded to state and national level with major support drawn from middle-class members of society who strongly supported the application of scientific methods
The progressives viewed education as an element that would close the gap especially in the wasteful society they had then and therefore create a future technologically oriented society. According to Nicholas and Unger, actors of the progressive era believed in the human ability to better their living conditions, and their obligation to intervene in socio-economic matters that affect them. The scientific management paradigm promoted by Winslow Taylor became a key factor towards industrial efficiency through elimination of waste.
Middle-class women during progressive era formed clubs that were coordinated by General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC). They pushed for reforms like prohibition, public health, and women suffrage. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) pursued the goal of the passing of the women suffrage legislation and promoted voting rights for women which were resolved in the Nineteenth Amendment (1920).
American philanthropy grew in early 20th Century where foundations promoted modern, efficient business operations aimed at bettering the society. It is during this time that the American Red Cross was restructured and professionalized.
In politics, the institution of the initiative and referendums allowed laws to be passed without involving the legislature. The recall conversely allowed for removal of underperforming or corrupt officials allowed people to democratically nominate candidates. This initiative was promoted by William U'Ren through his Direct Legislation League to allow Americans to directly introduce or approve laws and amendments to the constitution (HistorySage.com, 8). This positively influenced citizen's participation against the influence of corporations on law-makers and heightened awareness in accountability and oversight (Rahman, 1349). It is through the adoption of this strategy in various states and at the national level that the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) provided that senators be elected by the people.
A coalition of reformers in the 1890s introduced compulsory education and administrative innovations. Municipal reference bureaus were established to study budgets and administrative structures of local governments. The population in rural areas also went through reforms purposed to improving country life. There was an urgent need for the provision of better roads that would facilitate accessibility to railroad consequently improving commerce. A focus was also on modernizing rural schools. Notably, this would enable children to be taught by professional teachers who were certified and would, therefore, be monitored by county superintendents. Across the South, communities initiated their own progressive reforms which involved fighting for larger state budgets, upgrading schools, expanding business ventures, and modernizing churches. Unfortunately, the Progressive Era was a climax of American race relations and attempts to improve conditions for minority groups were faced with conflicts on how they would be achieved. The progressives attempted to solve social problems by segregating races and allowing each to realize their potential and develop on their own. As Hovenkamp (951) concurs, embracement of concepts of cultural relativism and behaviorism potentially placed the progressives at the prospects of eradication racism since the stress would be elevated to cultural influences and not biological inheritance.
Family setup was prioritized as in important element forming the foundation of American Society. Juvenile courts were established to prevent teenagers from being sent to adult prisons. Also, quality of foods and drugs were put into focus and laws enacted to empower efforts that would guarantee the safety of food. This saw the removal of drugs that had not been scientifically tested from the market. Local governments were encouraged to build leisure parks that were considered appropriate for families and for promoting good morals and patriotism. Some actors during progressive era supported birth control with the ideology that parents would be able to focus resources on fewer children although this subject was strongly opposed by some leaders and more so the Catholics.
In conclusion, the contemporary society is no doubt a result of changes in social organization and behavior influenced by dynamics in cultural, economic and political issues. The change of America's economy from agrarian to industrial during the Gilded Age and consequent changes in political awareness in and democracy during the progressive era influenced contributed to the realization of the society that exis...
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