United States History from 1865 to the Present: The Rise of Industrialization in the United States
Arguably, the rise and development of the American industrial revolution that changed the economic, foreign and social face of the United States was a consequence of a combination of factors. In particular, the role “robber barons”, technological revolution, labor leaders and the significance of labor movements and the evolution of a new working class that all defined the nature and future of the national economy.
The Rise of the American Industrialization
Nature and Important Components of the American Industrialization
With the end of the American Civil War, the overreliance on agriculture declined significantly, considering the fact that the sector had contributed to the war. Noteworthy, despite the fact that American industrialization occurred almost in all parts of the country, it is evident that much of the revolution was centered mainly in the North.
Most scholars agree that the main components and characteristics of the American industrialization are the factors, causes and consequences of the shift from an agriculturally dependent society to a more robust, knowledge-based economy that heavily relied on manufacturing and service industries, where mechanization and skilled labor played a significant role. According to Zinn, the new nationwide network of railways was one of the major factors during the industrialization. The economic notion of “western” was significant in the US, as the government and policy makers thought that the European example was the best in advancing the economy. In particular, railroads were established to provide connections between states and towns, especially in the north. For instance, the total distance of the American railroad system increased from 14,000 kilometers in 1850 to more than 315,000 kilometers towards 1900. Consequently, industrialists and entrepreneurs found it easy to move goods and labor between cities and towns, making it possible to move raw materials and finished goods.
Another major factor that contributed to the industrialization was the presence of prime sources of raw materials, especially in the form of timber, coal, iron and gas. In fact, America was far ahead of most European nations in terms of raw materials, making it possible to defeat the European economies due to low cost of obtaining raw materials.
Thirdly, the presence of labor played a significant role during the industrial revolution in America. Specifically, the influx of immigrant labor, especially from European nations and a few countries in Asia such as Japan and China was a significant component of the revolution. In fact, Europe provided both skilled and unskilled labor to the American industries, making it possible to drive an economy that was recovering from the war. However, a rather unfortunate aspect of labor during the industrialization era was the presence of child labor in mines and factories. According to Zinn, child labor contributed to the American economic advancement, especially in light industries such as cloth, leather and shoe making as well as in the mines.
Yet another major component of the American industrialization was the rise of corporations and companies. As industrialists saw the need for large-scale production, they established corporations and companies that involved huge investments, where the idea of external investors and shareholders replaced family and small-scale businesses. A major cause of this component, which is also a component of industrialization itself, is the rise of the “free enterprise and Laissez-Faire” system of corporate leadership. With declining role of the state in the control of business, free enterprise became a dominant system of economic system.
The Major Players (the Robber Barons and Captains)
Although the term “robber barons” had been used to describe bandits and nobilities that were common interruptions to trade routes during the middle ages Europe, it became a common term in reference to illegitimate aristocratic individuals in the US between 1870s and early 1900s. In particular, the robber barons and trade captains were largely North American male business individuals accused of using exploitative practices to accumulate excessive wealth from the American industries, especially in transport, manufacturing, mining, communication and trade. They exerted excessive control over the national and regional resources by paying extremely low salaries and wages, amassing great levels of influence on the government and acquiring competitors in order to create monopolies. They would then raise the price of products and services in order to achieve excessive profits while also developing schemes to sell their firm’s stocks at inflated and unreasonably high prices, especially to unsuspecting investors. According to Folsom and McDonald, the major sectors in which the robber barons and trade captains thrived were the same industries that were contributing to the American industrialization, which means that they contributed to the phenomenon. For instance, in the railway industry, robber barons such as Charles Crocker, Jay Gourd, Edward Harriman, Collis Potter and Leland Stanford accumulated massive wealth. In the mining industry, John Rockefeller (oil), Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie (steel) and William Clark (copper) were some of the dominant robber barons and trade captains. In addition, in finance, communication and manufacturing, robber barons controlled the industries. For example, individuals like John Astor (real estate and fur), J. P. Morgan, Jay Cooke and Andrew Dew (finance), James Buchanan Duke (tobacco), John Warns Gates (barbed wire) and others were prominent robber barons.
The Role of Technology in Industrial Development and Establishment of Barons
Technological advancements, new inventions and innovations prevailed as the major factors that drove the industrial revolution. For instance, the invention of faster, efficient and powerful engines contributed to the development of better trains as well as effective manufacturing and processing machines for the factories. Such technological inventions made it easier to obtain raw materials, transport them, convert them into finished products, and take them to the market. Moreover, inventions in finance made it possible to establish corporations and companies based on the idea of stock trading, which made it possible to finance the industries. However, these inventions and technologies were used by robber barons to amass wealth.
The Development of a New, Industrial Working Class
The industrialization process, in theory, requires a reliable and effective source of labor, a crucial factor in the whole process. The American industrialization required an effective source of labor, both skilled and unskilled. A large number of people moved into the industrial towns from rural areas, Europe and Asia. In the north, rural workers from the south and the west also developed an increasing population of workers in industrial cities and towns. With low salaries paid to laborers by corporations and their robber barons, life in these cities was not easy. The working class was mainly composed of low-paid people who worked and toiled in factories, mines, mills and other sectors. They were largely underprivileged, working for more than 60 hours a week and at an average wage rate of 20 cents per hour with no peripheral benefits. The employed individuals had little voice in the production process, were lowly paid and had little to show at the end of a month. Their families heavily relied on the small income, making poverty increase significantly.
The Rise and Importance of Labor Movements
Despite the influence of the robber barons and excessive rates of unemployment, some reforms were achieved between 1900 and 1920, which attempted to improve the lives of the laborers. For instance, the progressive era begun in 1890 and continued to 1917. It included the establishment of several movements of organized laborers as well as farmers. Around mid-1880s, the American federation of labor (AFL) was formed under the leadership of individuals like Samuel Gompers. It attempted to bargain with corporations and other employers for better wages and working conditions. However, corporations and their wealth-oriented leaders often rejected these movements, leading to major conflicts, strikes and unrests. For instance, the Great Southwest Railroad Strike (1886), the Haymarket Square Riot of Chicago (1886) and the Pullman Strike of 1894 were some of the first strikes and unrests in the US, which opened the way for more similar events in between 1900 and 1920s. In fact, historians indicate that more than 37,000 strikes occurred between 1880 and 1906 and involved extrajudicial killings by the police officers who were mainly used by the baron-influenced government to maintain the status quo.
Nevertheless, the labor unions achieved their goals with time, especially due to their role in influencing the government to pass a number of legislations seeking to protect their rights. For instance, Roosevelt forced mine owners to negotiate with laborers on salaries and wages after threatening to use the military to take over the mines.
The Parallels Between the Gilded Age and Modern America
Although the conditions facing employees and employers are different between the Gilded Age and the modern American industrial sector, some few parallels can be drawn. I tend to agree with Stone and Kuznick, in the beginning of their text, where they state that the problems facing the process of writing and telling of history that the concept of dominance of the state and powerful individuals change the way we see ourselves from a historical perspective. For instance, robber barons, though legalized by the modern laws, continue to dominate the corporate world. Social Darwinism seems to be still prevalent in the US, with two classes of people occupying the country- the privileged and the unprivileged. For instance, the Wall Street, technology owners such as Bill Gates, media moguls such as Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch as well as other individuals still use almost similar tactics to amass wealth.