Reconstruction and the Gilded Age Essay

Pages: 10 (3107 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: American History

Gilded Age of the United States

The era immediately following the Civil War has been described as the Gilded Age of United States history. There are several apt reasons for this moniker. Technological and scientific advancements during this time created a tremendous improvement in the nation's standard of living. Transportation innovations brought the people of country much closer together physically. Economically, large companies began to amass great wealth and workers fled the farms for the secure wages of the factories and plants of the cities.

All of this change and progress came with a steep price, however. As wealth accumulated in the hands of a few, as Americans fanned out across the continent, as more and more people of different culture and heritage moved here and as technology and industrialization created unforeseen problems that required innovative solutions, the America of the Gilded Age often proved to be a breeding ground for social issues. Some historians go so far as to argue that the years from 1865-1900 were anything but gilded. One thing historians agree upon is that the Gilded Age was a time of unprecedented change in the United States which gave rise to foundations of modern American Society.

Impact of Reconstruction on the Rise of the Gilded Age

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The Gilded Age is said to have started in 1865 and certainly this was a time of marked and tangible change, especially in the South. No less than four million former slaves had at once become emancipated and the federal government struggled to come up with a strategy for protecting their rights and assimilating them into a free society (Brown, Reconstruction 2). The South, an entire one-half of the nation, was physically, financially and emotionally decimated. Further, it was now being required to adopt a way of life it found repugnant to its basic ideology and which relegated its economic system to a relic of the past. On top of it all, the North was far from certain on how to proceed with the Reconstruction (Ibid).

Essay on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age Assignment

This Reconstruction era (which exists from 1865-1878, a subset within the Gilded Age), helped shape the Gilded Age in several ways. First and foremost, the end of slavery all but ended the ability of the South to rely on planting and picking by human labor as its sole means of income. As a result, the south saw the rise of many commercial magnates and empires throughout the Gilded Age.

A second impact Reconstruction had on society over the next few decades was the use of force and terror-based coercion to prevent the recently freed-blacks from voting, holding public office and otherwise asserting their place as equals in society (Foner 36). Where overt violence, or the threat of it, was not used, the South used legislation to pre-empt the freedmen's hard earned gains of independence. Aside from impacting the rights of the blacks, the early 'Jim Crow' legislation laid a foundation for further persecuting legislation against ethnic groups in the form of exclusion laws.

The final impact that Reconstruction had on the rest of the Gilded Age was its transition to federal intervention into matters that were hitherto considered outside the purview of government and certainly not a matter of federal jurisdiction (Brown, Gilded Age 3). Congress passed a multitude of measures aimed at regulating the personal affairs of citizens of states. In order to have the authority for this, Congress orchestrated the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, whose due process of law made the Bill of Rights applicable regarding the action of all the states. Over the next several decades, government would extend their reach over the affairs of individuals and industry in a manner not previously contemplated.

A Changing Nation

The nature of change in the Gilded Age America was immense and broad. Nearly every facet of life was different in 1900 than in 1860. While America was industrially prominent in 1860, by 1900 she stood atop the world as by far the most industrially productive nation on earth (Gutman 166). The industrial and technological changes fueled change throughout the American fabric. Americans no longer lived sprawled across vast farmland with a handful of industrious cities interspersed. Now Americans cities became the commercial and residential focal point for most of America, with a few remaining farms dotting the countryside (Brown, Gilded Age 2).

Aside from reshaping where Americans lived, the increases in technology gave rise to big business and the business tycoon. Mechanized production, skilled labor, mass distribution and production and the ubiquitous railroads all converged in the Gilded Age. This allowed individuals who had the means and the savvy to tap into brand new markets to amass staggering amounts of wealth by being the sole source supplying a national market. The business tycoon at once became a landmark personality in the U.S. They were hailed for their entrepreneurial spirit and for creating a model for others to aspire to ("the American Dream"), while at the same time they were reviled for their ruthless business practices, exploiting labor, corrupt political practices and thwarting the American Dream for others by establishing consolidated monopolies in their industry (Bridges 10). Society blamed the business tycoon, who midway through the era started being referred to as the "Robber Baron," for creating a plethora of social problems which society at large would have to fix.

Also, the face of America was rapidly changing. The white Protestant with roots from Western Europe was the predominant ethnic group in the Civil War and the certainly the group which yielded the most clout. The Gilded age saw a rapid influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans who were practicing Catholics and Jews, as well as Chinese into California. The influx of different people led to a rise in aggressive attitudes towards the immigrants by Americans (Brown, Gilded Age 5). All of these groups, and Mexicans, Native Americans and others, began to feel a consistent barrage of physical, economic and legislative attacks designed to deprive them a slice of the American Dream pie.

Certainly blacks were included in this aggression. The deterioration of gains by blacks, as discussed above, culminated in the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Court held that 'separate but equal' facilities were constitutional, clearing the way for literacy tests, poll taxes and other obstacles to blacks voting (Brown, Gilded Age 4). The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups perpetrated hundreds of lynchings and bombings in order to terrorize blacks into accepting second class citizen status (Brown, Reconstruction 11).

Perhaps the biggest change in America during the Gilded Age focused on changing values, thoughts and principles. Of the old principles and values, some were embraced with renewed energy and some changed to reflect the times. Still new principles and values emerged. As has already been demonstrated, the notions of racism and white superiority remained essentially unchanged from its status before the Civil War. Racists now added xenophobia to their vocabulary due to the amount of non-Protestant immigrants (Brown, Gilded Age 6).

Another familiar concept that once again took root in the American consciousness was that of Laissez Faire economics. In the Gilded Age, Laissez Faire intonated industry free from government regulation and intrusion. The business men wanted to be able to run their businesses subject only to the rules of the market (Brown, Gilded Age 3). The business men also asked for the help of the government in this process, by way of land-grants and kickbacks. Laissez Faire economics in the Gilded Age was justified by the emerging philosophy of Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism was, as much as any other ideology, the predominate value of the Gilded Age. Social Darwinism merely extends the 'survival of the fittest' portion of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to the all human matters of economics and society. Social Darwinism served as the philosophical and moral justification for the excesses enjoyed by the successful business magnates and the exploitive conditions and abject poverty suffered by the common worker whose toil created the wealth of the magnate (Wyllie 629).

The Gilded Age saw the Protestant values re-emerge as the ideal values for the individual and the family to encompass. American, due mainly to the large number of Protestants, had come to identify itself as a Protestant nation (Brown, Gilded Age 7). The values of prudent morality, hard work, earnestness towards life, work and religion and a strong faith once again took hold as the American values. Not only did the majority Protestant population endorse these values, they feared any dilution of them by way of catholic education. Many protestant groups tried to prevent the establishment of Catholic schools and the state of Ohio pass a law requiring all students to attend public school (Ibid).

As is evident from the above incomplete list of changes in American society during the Golden Age, nary a facet of life was not materially affected for each major ethnic group living in America at the time. The most fundamental change was the shift… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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