The Gilded Age is a period in American history between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Gilded Age was characterized by large economic growth and social diversity which hid the fact that at the grassroots level not much had improved for the common American citizen. At the national level the Gilded Age saw the development of the American entrepreneur as a powerful figure in society able to influence the economic, social and political conditions of the post-civil war United States of America.
The Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Entrepreneurs such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Morgan and Andrew Carnegie were at one point or another during the Gilded Age, the richest and most powerful men in America, where the Gilded Age was. These men inspired common American citizens to imagine they could achieve the same levels of success but that was not to be. The Gilded Age marked the progress of America in industry, urbanization, monopoly in business, Science and Technology and infrastructure through railroad construction spearheaded by first and foremost Cornelius Vanderbilt among others. However, the Gilded Age was marred by corruption, unfair business practices, and insufficient consumer and worker rights among many more justifiable complaints (Cashman 67). Among the groups of people who were affected by the Gilded Age were American immigrants.
Political machines are among a culture that was developed in the Gilded Age and this is only one point why was the Gilded Age a period of change. The machines involved powerful party bosses giving out bribes, cash handouts and financing of projects in the electorate neighbourhoods so their preferred politicians could find favour in the eyes of the electorate. These actions were not entirely negative in their effects as there were remarkable developments in the American immigrant neighbourhoods. During this period, jobs, mostly government ones, were given on the basis of political affiliation. This practice gave rise to a high percentage of political participation among the American immigrants characterized with high voter registration and voting turnout. Competition was stiff among the contestants of elections and they came so close together in the votes they obtained.
The presidents in power during the Gilded Age in America are often referred to as the forgotten presidents because of the little job they accomplished or/and the infamous decisions and actions they made and did. For instance, William McKinley was known for starting a war and then being shot in the chest, six months into his second term. The presidents of the Gilded Age were surrounded by corrupt individuals whose main objective was their selfish interests. This led to presidential patronage, a case in which powerful individuals supported the presidential candidate who promised them special favours and protection of their interests. Immigrants due to their non-citizen status were easy targets (Tomsich 19). Another major political practice unique to the Gilded Age was the legislation house, the Congress passing little legislation. The Congress during this period passed legislation touching mainly on business.
Civil service reforms were gained when the effects of patronage and giving off government jobs on the basis of political affiliations became notorious. For instance, one Charles Guiteau, a mentally - unstable man, who had actively participated in the campaigns of presidential candidate James Garfield, shot Garfield because he felt he deserved to be appointed ambassador for his role in the campaign, a thing that never happened. Also, some of the individuals appointed to these jobs did not merit the jobs and were therefore incompetent. To this day, it is a law that federal jobs be awarded on merit rather than political affiliation and also that no federal worker be fired because of their political affiliation.
Due to owing high debts to successful businesses of the Gilded Age, farmers who were the majority of the debtors advocated for a change in the monetary system which they felt favoured the rich. These farmers formed secret societies and they often held meetings to discuss mostly their economic plight. There also arose individuals who proposed a graduated tax system. They proposed that individuals be taxed according to their income with those earning more being taxed more. There were individuals who also proposed changes in the political system, especially representation. These individuals suggested a change in the election of senators who at the Gilded Age were being picked by the state legislature to instead demand the direct election of the senators. There were also other individuals who proposed changes in the rail and shipping companies in terms of wages and charges.
There was remarkable urbanization in the Gilded Age. This led to mass migrations of people from the country to urban areas to seek employment because of the opportunities created by industrialization. In the cities, there were high levels of poverty and living standards were generally low for most people. The difference in lifestyle between the few rich business owners and the majority suffering workers prompted a new theological thought. Theologians of this thought were drawn by the injuries sustained by workers who had no insurances and the poor living conditions they were living in; shelter, food and hygiene. Theologians holding on to this belief were evangelical and they felt capitalism promoted inhumanity in that the entrepreneurs were guided by greed for gains while they cared little for the welfare of their workers.
In the later stages of the Gilded Age, specifically the early nineteenth century, there was a remarkable shift in political machines marking an end to patronage of politicians by powerful individuals. There arose a different class of politicians with a progressive mindset. These progressives passed legislation to curb corruption, rein in big businesses of the time that were particularly characterized by monopoly and specifically free the government from individual interests. The progressives were also interested in improving the well-being and living standards of the working class and the poor American immigrants during the Gilded Age.
To conclude, the Gilded Age will remain an important stage in the history of America for the many gains it brought. It was a period characterized by heavy industrialization of America, surpassing that of Europe. This prompted most Europeans to migrate to America in search of jobs and other sources of livelihood bringing with them invaluable skills essential for running the industries. Another point why was the Gilded Age important, that the Gilded Age also led to diversification of the labour market with the rise of industries and the marketing companies. There was also a new class of migrants; the Chinese railroad workers who after building the railroads remained in America. The Gilded Age therefore improved the economy of America, gave America its unique cultural diversity and eventually led to recognition of the importance of workers and human rights. It was not flawless but nevertheless it was an important period in the history of America.
Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age. NYU Press, 1993.
Tomsich, J. (1971). A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age. Stanford University Press.
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