The United States Of
America, Part Five
This is the story of how the American Republic
developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European
explorers arrived, until modern times.
History of the United States:
Continued, Page Five
In the 1870s Republican rule in the South faltered. After 1872, membership in
the Republican Party fell, as terrorist groups used violence and intimidation to
diminish black votes and curb Republican support. Mobilizing white votes,
Democrats sought to regain control of state governments. "Redemption," the
Democrats' term for their return to power, followed swiftly, as the Republican
Once in office, Democrats dismantled the changes that Republicans had imposed.
They rewrote state constitutions, cut state budgets and social programs, and
lowered taxes. They also imposed laws to curb the rights of sharecroppers and
tenants and to ensure a powerless black labor force. One such law forced debtors
to work the land until their debts were paid.
By the fall of 1876, Democrats
had returned to power in all Southern states except South Carolina, Florida, and
Louisiana. The presidential election that year ended in a dispute over the
electoral votes of these three states. Each party claimed victory. A special
electoral commission gave the contest to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. But the
commission’s decision had to be ratified by Congress. To secure the election of
their candidate, Republican Party leaders struck a bargain with Southern
Democrats. Republicans vowed, among other promises, to remove federal troops
from Southern states. Democrats promised to accept Hayes and treat blacks
fairly. Under the Compromise of 1877, Hayes became president, the last federal
troops left the South, and the era of Reconstruction ended.
The 1877 bargain ended federal
occupation of the South and Northerners’ efforts to ensure the rights of
Southern blacks. "Today…the Government of the United States abandoned you," the
Republican governor of South Carolina told his African American supporters, as
the last federal soldiers departed. The Southern Republican Party virtually
vanished. Black voting was not completely extinguished, but violence and
intimidation caused it to decline.
Southern Democrats had triumphed.
They remained in firm control of Southern states without Northern interference.
Ex-Confederates, although humiliated by defeat in the Civil War, regained power.
But the South was now tied to racial oppression and economic backwardness.
The Republicans’ ambitious plan
for Reconstruction failed, although it did leave two positive legacies: The 14th
and 15th Amendments ensured black rights and gave the vote to black men. To
maintain the rights of Southern blacks, however, would have meant a far longer
period of military rule—which both Republicans and Democrats of the 1870s wished
to avoid—and postponed any hope of national reunion. Only in the 1960s would the
nation begin to confront the consequences of failing to protect the rights of
black citizens. In the last third of the 19th century, Americans turned to their
economic future—to developing the nation's vast resources, to wrestling profit
from industry, and to the settlement of the trans-Mississippi West.
THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI WEST
After the Civil War, hope of economic opportunity lured migrants and immigrants
west to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region (see American Westward
Movement). Settlers battled Native Americans for desirable lands, carved out
farms, and built mines and ranches. By the end of the century, the Western
territories had turned into states, and their residents had become part of a
rapidly industrializing economy.
Native Americans Living on the
The Native Americans of the Great Plains included diverse tribes—among them the
Blackfoot, Sioux, Dakota, Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho, Navajo, and Apache. After
the Civil War, the Native Americans confronted a growing stream of
settlers—prospectors, ranchers, and farm families. The newcomers brought with
them new diseases that ravaged the tribes. The settlers also killed off the
buffalo and thus damaged the Native American economy.
The Plains peoples defended their
land and their way of life from the oncoming settlers. Fierce battles took place
in the 1860s and 1870s between the Plains peoples and federal troops.
Ultimately, disease and conflict reduced the population and power of the tribes.
Displacement by settlers and concentration on Indian reservations, mainly in
Oklahoma, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, challenged the traditional Native American
way of life.
In the late 19th century,
Congress developed a new policy toward Native Americans. Instead of isolating
them on reservations, as had been done in the mid-1800s, the new policy sought
to assimilate Native Americans into the cultural mainstream. Congressional
policymakers responded to pressure from two different groups. First, some people
sought to suppress Native American culture by converting Native Americans to
Christianity and turning them into farmers. Second, land-hungry settlers and
speculators wanted the Native Americans removed from desirable land in the
The Dawes Severalty Act, passed
by Congress in 1887, addressed both concerns. The law broke up reservations and
encouraged private farms. Native Americans families received individual plots of
land, carved from reservations, as well as farm equipment. These families were
to give up their communal way of life on the reservations and become independent
farmers. But few Native Americans profited from the Dawes Act; the greatest
beneficiaries were land speculators, who under the law were able to buy the best
pieces of reservation land.
In 1890 at the Battle of Wounded
Knee federal troops fired on a group of Sioux and massacred from 150 to 370 men,
women, and children. The Battle of Wounded Knee marked the end of Native
American resistance to settlement. For more information, see Native
The building of the railroads spurred western settlement. In 1862 Congress
authorized construction of two railroads to link the Midwest and the West Coast.
The Union Pacific Railroad extended westward from Nebraska; the Central Pacific
Railroad went eastward from the Pacific Ocean. The meeting of the two railroads
at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869 signified a new era in Western history.
Federal and state governments had
long encouraged the growth of railroads. When Congress authorized building the
transcontinental railroad in 1862, it agreed to loan hundreds of millions of
dollars to the two corporations to construct it. Congress also gave the railroad
companies millions of acres of Western land, which the railroads sold to repay
their loans. In effect, major railroad companies, with federal support, became
colonizers of the West.
To attract settlers who would
establish farms and become paying customers, the railroads advertised in the
East and in Europe. They provided free trips west and offered long-term loans to
settlers. Once the settlers had set up farms, they depended on the railroads to
ship their produce. Farmers often became deeply in debt to the railroads, and to
repay these debts they frequently relied on a single cash crop—typically wheat.
Reliance on a single crop made their incomes dependent on fluctuating world
markets and thus precarious.
The railroads became very
powerful. They established monopolies in specific locales, cut off service,
fixed prices, and discriminated among customers. A railroad might offer rebates
to favored customers or charge more for a short haul than a long one. Aggrieved
by such practices, farmers soon tried to curb the power of railroad
Federal land policy attracted settlers and land speculators. The Homestead Act
of 1862 provided land, originally 160 acres, at no cost if the settler agreed to
cultivate the land for at least five years. As settlers moved into arid areas
farther west, however, the 160-acre plots proved insufficient, so the size of
land grants increased.
As farmers settled more western
land from 1870 to 1900, the nation's agricultural production doubled. Several
factors increased productivity. New farm machinery included the steel plow,
which could slice through the heavy soil of the plains, and the twine-binder,
which gathered bundles of wheat and tied them with string. New varieties of
grain, such as drought-resistant sorghum, enlarged harvests. Barbed wire,
patented in 1874, enabled farmers to protect their property from roaming
livestock. Finally, the railroads made it possible for Western farm produce to
be sold in Eastern cities.
However, pioneers who established
farms in the plains—in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and the
Dakotas—faced difficult and isolated lives. They also lost much of their
independence. By the late 19th century, farmers had grown increasingly dependent
on large businesses. Railroads transported their crops, banks loaned them money,
manufacturers sold them farm machinery, and unstable international markets for
wheat and corn determined their income. Overproduction, meanwhile, drove prices
down. Farmers were frustrated by sagging prices, rising debt, high interest
rates, and such railroad practices, as fixed prices or discrimination among
customers. Farmers no longer felt in charge of their own fates.
To try to address some of their
problems, farmers joined together in 1867 and founded the National Grange of the
Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange, which established cooperative stores and
urged laws to curb railroad abuses. In a number of states, including Illinois,
Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California, the Grangers supported the passage
of laws that regulated railroad rates and practices (see Granger
In 1887 Congress passed the
Interstate Commerce Act, which sought to deal with some of these problems. The
law required railroad companies that transported passengers or goods to
establish reasonable rates, to publish those rates, and to adhere to them. It
also banned unfair practices, such as rebates to favored customers. Finally, it
created a new agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), to supervise
railroad operations. The new law, however, did little to curb railroad power.
Railroads gained control of the ICC, evaded the law, and won repeal of the
Granger laws that regulated rates; farmers’ protests grew.
Miners and Ranchers
Starting with the California Gold Rush of 1849, a series of mining booms spurred
settlement in the West. When gold prospects in California dimmed, thousands of
prospectors moved eastward into the Rocky Mountains, seeking gold, silver,
copper, and other minerals. Spectacular gold rushes of the late 19th century
drew prospectors to mining camps in Boise, Idaho; Helena, Montana; and the Black
Hills of South Dakota. Some mining towns became cities, such as Denver. Others,
such as Virginia City in the Sierra Nevada mountains, boomed while prospectors
worked the mines, only to become ghost towns when the prospectors left. The era
of individual prospectors was limited; by the end of the century, they had been
replaced by large mining companies in the Western states.
In the 1860s and 1870s the
railroads transformed the cattle industry, just as they had transformed
farming—by transporting cattle to urban markets in the East. When a rail line
reached Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, Texas ranchers began to drive their cattle
north to Abilene. The cattle then traveled east, destined for packing houses.
The cattle industry began to grow rapidly as railroads made the business more
Large-scale ranchers profited
though the cowboys who drove the herds contended with dull lives and difficult
jobs. By the 1880s, the open-range cattle industry extended from Texas to the
Dakotas. Then the cattle boom peaked. The disastrous winter of 1886-1887, which
followed an unusually dry summer, wiped out herds and forced ranchers into
bankruptcy. Those ranchers who remained in business raised smaller herds of
high-grade cattle, grew crops to feed them, and to conserve this food supply,
fenced in their livestock with barbed wire. The open range, in which cattle
grazed freely, ended. Some ranchers moved further west, to Wyoming and Montana.
Races and ethnicities mingled in the late 19th-century West. Immigrants from
Scandinavia and ethnic Germans from Russia settled farms in Minnesota and
Wisconsin. Irish, Cornish, and Slovak miners moved to the mountain states. Other
Europeans went west as speculators, adventurers, and prospectors, and some
remained as residents. Chinese immigrants, over 90 percent men, arrived in
California in the 1850s. They formed communities in Western cities, labored on
the transcontinental railroad, and moved eastward with the railroad and mining
booms. Japanese immigrants reached California in the 1890s and settled mainly in
rural areas in the Pacific Northwest. Among African Americans who migrated to
the West, a small number worked as cowboys; some founded all-black communities
such as Langston, Oklahoma, and Nicodemus, Kansas. When the United States
acquired Texas, New Mexico, and California at the end of the Mexican War in
1848, it incorporated many Mexicans who lived in what had been the northern
border area of Mexico. Clusters of Native Americans lived everywhere.
The mixture of peoples in the
West spurred competition and antagonism more than harmony. Virulent anti-Chinese
sentiment in California pitted native-born workers against immigrants. The
growth of the cattle industry affected land ownership in the southwest, to the
detriment of Mexican Americans. The United States had promised Mexico to protect
the freedom and property of Mexicans who remained in the area ceded to the
United States, but American ranchers and other settlers took control of
territorial governments and forced Hispanic settlers off their land.
Antipathy and violence, moreover,
pervaded much of Western life. Hostilities flared not only between settlers and
Native Americans, but also between ranchers and farmers, sheepherders and cattle
ranchers, Mormons and non-Mormons (in Utah), and labor and management. Yet
despite all these tensions, Americans and new immigrants poured into the West.
By the 1890s, the western half of
the continent was linked firmly to the nation's industrial economy. Huge
meat-packing plants in Chicago and big corporations determined the profits of
ranchers. Indebted farmers on the plains, who felt oppressed by railroads and
dependent on distant markets, voiced their grievances through farmers'
alliances. Mining became a big business. Finally, cities arose from mining
towns, from cattle depots, and as "gateways" on the borders of the plains. West
or east, the nation was becoming more urban and industrial.
From 1870 to 1900, the United States became the world's foremost industrial
nation. It emerged as the leader in meatpacking, in production of timber and
steel, and in the mining of coal, iron, gold, and silver. Overall, the nation
experienced a stunning explosion in the scale of industry and in the pace of
production. By the turn of the century, industrialization had transformed
commerce, business organization, the environment, the workplace, the home, and
Many factors fueled industrial growth in the late 19th century: abundant
resources, new technology, cheap energy, fast transport, and the availability of
capital and labor. Mines, forests, and livestock in the west provided raw
materials for major industries, as did iron in Ohio and oil in Pennsylvania.
Railroad expansion enabled businesses to move raw materials to factories and to
send products to urban markets. A steady stream of immigrants arrived to work in
America's mines and factories.
transformed production. The new machine tool industry, which turned out
drilling, cutting, and milling machines, sped up manufacturing. A trail of
inventions, including the telephone, typewriter, linotype, phonograph, electric
light, cash register, air brake, refrigerator car, and automobile, led to new
industries. Finally, business leaders learned how to operate and coordinate many
different economic activities across broad geographic areas. Businesses were
thus able to become larger, and the modern corporation became an important form
of business organization. For more information, see Industrial
Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in the United States.
Corporations and Consolidation
In the 19th century, states reduced the requirements for businesses to
incorporate. A corporation is a form of business partnership; it is a legal
entity that is distinct from the individuals who control it. The corporation
(not the individual partners) is responsible for repaying the corporation’s
debts; this is known as limited liability. The corporate form of business
organization made it possible for entrepreneurs to finance large-scale
enterprises because corporations issue stock, certificates representing shares
of ownership in a corporation. By issuing stock, a corporation can enable
thousands of individuals to pool financial resources and invest in a new
Businesses also grew by combining
into trusts. In a trust, a small group of business people, called trustees,
acquire enough shares in several competing firms to control those companies. The
trustees are then able to manage and direct a group of companies in a unified
way, in effect, creating a single firm out of competing firms. The trustees
could prevent competition among the firms that were part of the trust. A leading
example was the Standard Oil Trust, formed in Ohio in 1882 by John D.
Rockefeller and his associates. Within a decade, trusts dominated many
States tried to regulate trusts,
but big businesses eluded state control. Afraid that trusts would destroy
competition, Congress in 1890 passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. The act banned
businesses from joining together in ways that controlled markets, as trusts had
been doing. It also outlawed monopoly, in which only a single seller or producer
supplies a commodity or a service. But the law defined neither trust nor
monopoly and was poorly enforced. The courts threw out cases against the trusts
and used the law mainly to declare unions illegal combinations in restraint of
trade. For instance, the court declared unions that organized boycotts or
strikes impeded the flow of commerce and thus violated federal law. Standard
Oil, however, continued without interference. In 1892, to avoid Ohio laws,
Standard Oil incorporated in New Jersey as a holding company, a corporation with
only one purpose: to buy out the stock of other companies.
Corporations introduced new
styles of management, or business organization. The railroads, which needed to
manage crews, fuel, repairs, and train schedules over large areas, were the
first to develop new management techniques. The railroads also developed
standard time, which the United States adopted in 1883. Steel industry tycoon
Andrew Carnegie, who continually sought less costly ways to make steel, also
introduced new management techniques. The Carnegie Steel Company used precise
accounting systems to track the costs of all processes and materials involved in
making steel. To do this work, Carnegie hired middle managers and encouraged
them to compete with one another.
New business practices led to
larger corporations. Andrew Carnegie practiced vertical integration; he bought
companies that sold supplies to the steel industry, including coal and iron
mines and a railroad line. Carnegie thereby controlled every stage of the
productive process from raw materials to marketing. Finally, he engaged in
horizontal consolidation by acquiring his competitors. He priced his products so
low that competitors could not compete and make a profit. Then he bought them
out. By 1899 Carnegie's company was the world's biggest industrial corporation
and produced one-fourth of the nation's steel. However, vertical integration and
horizontal consolidation helped concentrate power in a few giant corporations
and limited competition.
According to business magnates
such as Rockefeller and Carnegie, their huge enterprises provided new products
at lower costs and enriched the nation, as well as themselves. Stressing the
value of competition, captains of industry argued that it ensured the survival
of the most competent. Business leaders also endorsed a policy of
laissez-faire. Government, they believed, should leave business alone. In
fact, the federal government adopted policies to benefit big business. Congress
passed high tariffs (taxes on imported products) that impeded foreign
competition; federal subsidies to railroads enriched investors; and courts
penalized labor more often than business.
The trend toward large-scale production changed the structure of the labor force
and the nature of work. From 1870 to 1900, as the industrial work force
expanded, the unskilled worker replaced the artisan or autonomous craftsperson.
The typical workplace was more likely to be a large factory than a small
workshop. Striving for efficiency, employers replaced skilled labor with
machines and low-paid workers. Factory tasks became specialized, repetitive, and
monotonous. The need for unskilled labor drew women and children into the
industrial work force. Some performed piecework, work paid for according to the
amount produced rather than the hours worked, in crowded tenements; others
operated machinery in textile mills and garment plants. Industrial labor in the
late 19th century was often hazardous. Workers lacked protection against
industrial accidents, long hours, wage cuts, layoffs, and sudden bouts of
As the industrial work force
grew, tensions increased between labor and management. They disagreed over
issues such as wages, length of the working day, and working conditions. Labor
unions emerged to protect the rights of workers and to represent them in
negotiations with management. Most employers vigorously opposed trade union
activity, and struggles between workers and employers often became violent.
The first national labor
organization, the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869, tried to include all
workers. The Knights reached their greatest strength between 1884 and 1885, when
railroad strikes raged, and then declined. As the Knights of Labor faded, a new
federation of local and craft unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was
organized in 1886. Led from 1886 to 1924 by Samuel Gompers, an immigrant cigar
maker from England, the AFL welcomed skilled workers, almost all of them men.
The AFL focused on hours, wages, working conditions, and union recognition by
management. It also favored use of economic weapons such as strikes and
Late 19th-century unions
attracted only a small portion, perhaps 5 percent, of the work force, but
strikes involved far more workers. In the last quarter of the century, thousands
of strikes aroused public concern, and several large, violent events evoked
fear. The great railroad strike of 1877 was a wildcat strike (a strike by
a union local without consent of the national union to which it belongs) set off
by wage cuts on a single railroad line. It became a nationwide protest that
almost ended rail traffic and led to scores of deaths. Only the arrival of
federal troops ended the strike.
In the 1880s, a decade of 10,000
strikes and lockouts, workers often succeeded in averting wage reductions and
winning shorter hours. Most strikes concerned local grievances but some closed
down entire industries and incurred reprisals. The Haymarket Square Riot in
Chicago in 1886 grew out of a strike against a company that built agricultural
machinery. Union leaders called a protest meeting at which police intervened and
a bomb exploded, causing many deaths. Eight people were convicted of murder, and
four hanged. Repelled by the violence, the public blamed the labor movement for
the casualties at Haymarket Square, and the Knights of Labor lost influence.
At the end of the 19th century,
business often defeated workers’ demands. In the 1890s, at employers’ requests,
federal troops crushed strikes at Idaho silver mines, Carnegie’s steel plants,
and Pullman railway works. The Pullman strike began when workers for the Pullman
Palace Car Company protested wage cuts. The protest led thousands of workers to
join the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs. But employers, who
united to break the union, called for an injunction, a court order for workers
to return to work, and attained it under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
Federal troops arrived to enforce the injunction against the union, riots
ensued, the strike was crushed, and Debs was arrested, convicted, and
imprisoned. The injunction was a powerful tool for business to use against
Besides the injunction, union
organizers faced other obstacles, such as blacklists (lists of union activists
circulated among employers) and attacks by Pinkerton detectives (agents of a
private detective firm that guarded factories, protected railroads, and battled
labor). In some instances, employers forced workers to sign "yellow dog
contracts," in which they promised not to join unions. Management retained the
Industrial workers of the late 19th century were often foreign-born. From 1865
to 1885, immigrants arrived mainly from northern and western Europe, as they had
before the Civil War; the largest groups came from England, Ireland, Germany,
and Scandinavia. From the mid-1880s until World War I began in 1914, the number
of newcomers from southern, eastern, and central Europe increased. Many new
immigrants were Slavs—Poles, Czechs, Russians, Ukrainians, Croatians—and others,
including Jews, from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Among the new
immigrants were also Greeks, Romanians, and Italians, mainly from southern Italy
or Sicily. Record numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States, some 9
million from 1880 to 1900, and 13 million from 1900 to 1914. For more
information, see United States (People): Growth through Immigration
and Immigration: From 1840 to 1900.
Late 19th-century immigrants left
their European homes to escape economic problems—scarce land, growing
populations, and the decline of subsistence farming. They came to the United
States in hope of economic gain. Most settled in the United States permanently,
but others came only to amass some capital and then return home. Immigration
dropped off during depressions, as in the 1870s and 1890s, and again during
World War I, with smaller downturns in between. Immigration was encouraged by
new technology such as steamships, which reduced the time needed to cross the
Atlantic from three months to two weeks or less.
Where immigrants settled depended
on their ethnicity and on when they arrived. In the post-Civil War decade, for
instance, Scandinavian immigrants used the Homestead Act to start Midwestern
farms. Two decades later, immigrants usually moved to industrial towns and
cities, where they became unskilled laborers in steel mills, meatpacking plants,
and the garment trade. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where population increased
tenfold from 1850 to 1890, large numbers of Poles and Eastern Europeans found
work in rolling mills and blast furnaces. By 1910 immigrants and their families
constituted over half the total population of 18 major cities; in Chicago, eight
out of ten residents were immigrants or children of immigrants.
Immigrants’ lives changed
dramatically after they arrived. Uprooted, usually from rural areas in Europe,
immigrants had to adjust to industrial labor, unfamiliar languages, and city
life. Clinging to their national identities and religions, immigrants prepared
ethnic foods, read foreign language newspapers, and celebrated ethnic holidays.
At the same time, they patronized urban amusements, found community support in
local political machines, and adapted to the new environment. Men outnumbered
women in new immigrant communities because men often preceded their wives and
Immigrants' huge numbers, high
concentrations in cities, and non-Protestant faiths evoked nativist or
anti-immigrant sentiments. To native-born Americans, the newcomers often seemed
more alien and more transient, less skilled and less literate than earlier
groups of immigrants. Some strains of nativism rested on belief in the
superiority of Anglo-Americans or Nordic peoples over all others. Other types of
nativism reflected economic self-interest: Native-born workers feared
competition for jobs from new immigrants; they feared also that immigrants would
work for lower wages, which might mean less pay or even unemployment for them.
Both types of nativism arose on
the West Coast, where immigration from China had been heavy since the 1850s.
Responding to anti-Chinese sentiment, especially among California workers,
Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The law curbed Chinese
immigration for ten years, a period that was subsequently extended indefinitely.
A small number of immigrants from China continued to arrive, but the number of
Chinese entrants slowed to a trickle. In the 1890s, meanwhile, Congress
tightened immigration laws to exclude polygamists, contract laborers, and people
with diseases. Nativist groups such as the American Protective Association
(1887) urged immigration restriction.
Growth of Cities
As immigration exploded, urban populations surged from 6 million in 1860 to 42
million in 1910. Big cities got bigger: Chicago tripled in size in the 1880s and
1890s. By 1900 three cities contained more than a million people: New York (3.5
million), Chicago (1.7 million), and Philadelphia (1.3 million).
In the late 19th century,
industry invaded the cities. Previously, cities had served as commercial centers
for rural hinterlands and were frequently located on rivers, lakes, or oceans.
Manufacturing occurred outside their limits—usually near power sources, such as
streams, or natural resources, such as coal. As industry grew, cities changed.
Chicago, for instance, had been a railroad center that served the upper Midwest
as a shipping hub for lumber, meat, and grain; by 1870 it had taken the lead in
steel production as well as meatpacking. Post-Civil War Atlanta, another
railroad hub and commercial center, also developed a diverse manufacturing
sector. Cities quickly became identified with what they produced—Troy, New York,
made shirt collars; Birmingham, Alabama, manufactured steel; Minneapolis,
Minnesota, produced lumber; Paterson, New Jersey, wove silk; Toledo, Ohio, made
glass; Tulsa, Oklahoma, harbored the oil industry; and Houston, Texas, produced
Population changes also
transformed the city. Urban growth reflected the geographic mobility of the
industrial age; people moved from city to city as well as within them. The new
transience led to diverse populations. Migrants from rural areas and newcomers
from abroad mingled with wealthy long-time residents and the middle class.
Immigrants constituted the fastest growing populations in big cities, where
industry offered work. Urban political machines helped immigrant communities by
providing services in exchange for votes. For immigrants, boss politics eased
the way to jobs and citizenship. Most, but not all, city machines were
Just as industrialization and
immigration transformed the city, new technology reshaped it. Taller buildings
became possible with the introduction of elevators and construction using
cast-iron supports, and later, steel girders. The first steel-frame skyscraper,
ten stories high, arose in Chicago in 1885. In 1913 New York's Woolworth tower
soared to a height of 60 stories. Taller buildings caused land values in city
centers to increase.
New forms of transportation
stretched cities out. First, trolleys veered over bumpy rails, and steam-powered
cable cars lugged passengers around. Then cities had electric streetcars,
powered by overhead wires. Electric streetcars and elevated railroads enabled
cities to expand, absorbing nearby towns and linking central cities with
once-distant suburbs. For intercity transport, huge railroad terminals—built
like palaces, with columns, arches, and towers—arose near crowded business hubs.
Late 19th-century cities were
cauldrons of change. In commerce, they became centers of merchandising with
large department stores, which developed in the 1860s and 1870s. As city
populations grew, the need for safe water, sanitation, fire control, and crime
control also grew. These needs led to new urban services—water reservoirs, sewer
systems, fire and police departments. Reformers attempted to enhance urban
environments with parks and to improve poor neighborhoods with urban missions.
Urban religious leaders of the 1880s promoted the Social Gospel, under which
churches concerned themselves with social problems such as poverty, vice, and
The New South Industrialization
and urbanization also affected the South. Southern merchants, manufacturers, and
newspaper editors of the 1880s led the campaign for a "New South," where
Southern industrialism would break the cycle of rural poverty. States provided
special breaks for new businesses and promised cheap labor. Birmingham, Alabama,
became a railroad and steel center where mills hired black workers.
Southern textile mills opened in
the 1880s in the Piedmont region from central Virginia to Alabama. Mill owners
depended on low-skilled, low-paid white labor, and their mills attracted workers
from rural areas. Workers settled in company towns where entire families worked
for the mill. The South replaced New England as the nation's leading locale for
Overall, however, the campaign to
industrialize the South faltered. As late as 1900, only 5 percent of the
Southern labor force, most of it white, worked in industry. Furthermore,
Southern industry did not enrich the South. Except for the American Tobacco
Company, located in North Carolina, Southern industry was owned mainly by
For African Americans, the New
South of the late 19th century meant increased oppression; race relations
deteriorated. Black voting was not quickly extinguished; in the 1880s, some
African Americans continued to vote in the upper South and in pockets elsewhere,
but black officeholders and voting majorities vanished, fraud and intimidation
were common, and black votes often fell under conservative control. Between 1890
and 1908, starting in Mississippi, Southern states held constitutional
conventions to impose new voting regulations, such as literacy
testing—regulations that registrars could impose at will on blacks and not on
whites. Southern states also introduced a "grandfather clause," which exempted
from literacy testing all those entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, (before
Congress gave black men the right to vote) and their male descendents. This
enabled most illiterate whites to go to the polls but stopped illiterate blacks
from voting. Some states imposed stringent property qualifications for voting or
poll taxes, which meant that each voter had to pay a tax in order to vote.
Increasingly, Southern blacks
(the vast majority of the nation's African Americans) were relegated to
subordinate roles and segregated lives. Segregation laws, or Jim Crow laws as
they were known, kept blacks and whites apart in public places such as trains,
stations, streetcars, schools, parks, and cemeteries. The Supreme Court
confirmed the legitimacy of Jim Crow practices in Plessy v. Ferguson
(1896), which upheld segregation in railroad cars. In the 1890s, finally, the
number of lynchings of African Americans rose markedly. Between 1890 and 1900,
more than 1,200 lynchings occurred, mainly in the Deep South. At the end of the
century, the New South remained an impoverished and racist region, with the
nation's lowest income and educational levels.
Farmers’ Protests and Populism
Beset by crop failures in the 1880s, Midwestern farmers dealt with falling
prices, scarce money, and debt. To cope with these problems, farmers began
forming farmers’ alliances, which multiplied in the Great Plains and spread to
the South, where white and black farmers formed separate alliances. Working
together in these cooperative organizations, farmers hoped to lower costs by
buying supplies at reduced prices, obtaining loans at rates below those charged
by banks, and building warehouses to store crops until prices became favorable.
In 1889 the Southern and
Northwestern alliances merged and in 1890 became politically active. In the
early 1890s, alliance delegates formed a national party, the People’s Party,
whose members were called Populists, and decided to wage a third-party campaign.
The delegates nominated James B. Weaver as the party’s candidate for president
in 1892. Although he lost, the party won several governorships and legislative
seats. Populism inspired colorful leaders, such as lawyer Mary E. Lease of
Kansas, a powerful orator, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who urged cooperation
among black and white farmers.
Populists supported a slate of
reforms. These included calls for the government to issue more silver coins and
paper currency; such inflationary measures, Populists hoped, would raise farm
prices and enable farmers to pay off their debts. They wanted the government to
regulate closely or even to take over the railroads in the hope of lowering
farmers’ transportation costs. The Populists also supported a graduated income
tax to more equitably distribute the costs of government as well as tariff
reduction, abolition of national banks, direct popular elections of U.S.
senators, and an eight-hour workday for wage earners.
Economic collapse in the 1890s
increased agrarian woes. The panic of 1893 was followed by a depression that
lasted until 1897. Businesses went bankrupt, railroads failed, industrial
unemployment rose, and farm prices fell. The depression increased doubts about
laissez-faire economic policies.
The money question, an issue
since the 1870s, dominated the election of 1896. Populists supported the
Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who called for free silver, or
free and unlimited coinage of silver. Bryan electrified the Democratic
convention with a powerful denunciation of the gold standard. But Republican
William McKinley, with a huge campaign chest and business support, won the
election. With McKinley, Republicans gained a majority of the electorate that
lasted, with only one interruption, until the New Deal in the 1930s.
The corporate elite was now
empowered in national politics. The influence of the Populist Party declined
after the election, but the massive protest stirred by Populists did not
completely fail. Many of the reforms that agrarian protesters endorsed were
eventually enacted in the Progressive Era. But Populists had been unable to turn
back the clock to a time when farmers had more autonomy, or to remedy the
economic problems of the new industrial society.
The Impact of Industrialization
Three decades of industrial progress transformed American life. By 1900 the
United States had an advanced industrial economy, dominated by big corporations.
The corporation harnessed ingenuity, created unprecedented wealth, and spurred
the growth of new cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas. It
increased foreign trade. The value of exports doubled from 1877 to 1900; imports
rose, too, but less rapidly. Industrial progress revolutionized the marketing of
goods and transformed the office world, now filled with clerical workers,
bureaucrats, and middle managers. It also transformed homes by introducing
indoor plumbing, electric lights, and household appliances. Overall,
industrialization made available labor-saving products, lower prices for
manufactured goods, advances in transportation, and higher living standards.
Industrialization had liabilities
as well. It brought about vast disparities of wealth and unreliable business
cycles, in which overproduction and depression alternated. The economy lurched
between boom and panic, as in the 1870s and 1890s; bankruptcy became a common
event, especially among indebted railroads that had overbuilt. For laborers,
industrialization meant competition for jobs, subsistence wages, insecurity, and
danger. Children worked in coal mines and cotton mills; women labored in
tenement sweatshops; workers faced the prospect of industrial accidents and
illnesses such as respiratory diseases.
Industrialization also exploited
natural resources and damaged the environment. Refiners and steel mills spewed
oil into rivers and smoke into the atmosphere. Finally, industrialization
brought a relentless drive for efficiency and profit that led to ever larger,
more powerful businesses and gave the corporate elite undue power in national
politics. In the 1890s business leaders’ need for yet larger markets led to
pressure on the United States to expand overseas.
The United States had a long tradition of territorial expansion. Gains of
adjacent territory in the 19th century—the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the areas
won from Mexico in 1848, and U.S. expansion across the continent—all enhanced
American stature. More recently, the defeat and removal of Native American
tribes by federal troops had opened the West to farms and ranches, speculators
In the 1890s, several motives
combined to build pressure for expansion overseas. First, business leaders
wanted overseas markets. Products basic to the American economy—including
cotton, wheat, iron, steel, and agricultural equipment—already depended heavily
on foreign sales. Business leaders feared that if the United States failed to
gain new markets abroad, other nations would claim them, and these markets would
be lost to U.S. enterprise. Second, national prestige required the United Sates
to join the great European nations and Japan as imperial powers (nations with
overseas colonies). Alfred Thayer Mahan presented this position in The
Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890). In order to enter the
race for influence, Mahan contended, the United States had to expand its
depleted merchant marine, acquire overseas naval bases, build up a large navy,
and find markets abroad. Third, religious leaders supported efforts to spread
Christianity to foreign peoples. Finally, the United States seemed to be falling
behind in the race for empire; it had not acquired non-contiguous territory
since the secretary of state bought Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Imperial designs evoked
criticism, too. Some Americans opposed U.S. expansion and challenged the drive
for an overseas empire. The Anti-Imperialist League—a coalition of editors,
academics, reformers, and labor leaders—contended that the United States had no
right to impose its will on other people and that imperialism would lead to
further conflict. Foes of imperialism also protested that overseas territories
would bring nonwhite citizens into the United States. Still the economic crisis
of the 1890s made overseas expansion seem imperative, especially to the business
community. At the century's end, the United States began to send American forces
to Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and East Asia.
Annexation of Hawaii
In the 1880s a monarchy governed the Hawaiian Islands, but western powers,
including the United States, Britain, and Germany, had significant influence in
Hawaii’s economy and government. American business interests dominated the
lucrative sugar business. Angered by U.S. domination, Hawaiian islanders in 1891
welcomed a native Hawaiian, Liliuokalani, as queen. Liliuokalani attempted to
impose a new constitution that strengthened her power. American planters
responded by deposing the queen in 1893. Proclaiming Hawaii independent, the
Americans requested U.S. annexation. President Grover Cleveland stalled on the
annexation treaty; his representative on the islands reported that native
Hawaiians objected to it. Under President William McKinley, however, in 1898,
Congress voted to annex the Hawaiian Islands. In 1900 Hawaii became American
The Spanish-American War: Cuba
and the Philippines
United States involvement in Cuba began in 1895 when the Cubans rebelled against
Spanish rule. The Cuban revolution of 1895 was savage on both sides. Americans
learned of Spanish atrocities through sensational press reports as well as from
Cuban exiles who supported the rebels. Humanitarians urged the United States to
intervene in the revolution, and U.S. businesses voiced concern about their
large investments on the island. However, President Cleveland sought to avoid
entanglement in Cuba, as did President McKinley, at first.
A well-publicized incident drew
the United States into the conflict. On February 15, 1898, an American
battleship, the Maine, exploded in Havana harbor, killing 266 people.
Most Americans blamed the Spanish, and "Remember the Maine" became a call
to arms. McKinley began negotiations with Spain for a settlement with Cuba.
McKinley then sent a message to Congress, which adopted a resolution recognizing
Cuban independence and renouncing any intent to annex the island, but Spain
refused to withdraw. In April 1898 Congress declared war on Spain, and the
Spanish-American War began.
The four-month war ended in
August with a victory for the United States. The first action occurred thousands
of miles away from Cuba in the Philippines, another Spanish colony. There
Commodore George Dewey surprised the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and sank every
vessel in it.
Next, the United States sent an
expeditionary force to Cuba. The U.S. Navy blockaded the Spanish fleet, and the
Americans landed unopposed. After a bloody battle, in which a regiment of
soldiers called Rough Riders were led by Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, the
Americans captured San Juan Hill outside the strategic city of Santiago de Cuba,
and Spanish land forces surrendered. American troops also occupied Puerto Rico
and Manila Harbor. In August 1898 the United States signed an armistice, and
later that year, a peace settlement.
The Senate narrowly ratified the
peace treaty with Spain in February 1899. The treaty provided that Spain would
cede the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States; the United
States would pay Spain $20 million. In addition, Spain would surrender all
claims to Cuba and assume Cuba’s debt. No wonder the Spanish-American War struck
Secretary of State John Hay as a "splendid little war." In a few months, the
United States had become a major world power with an overseas empire.
But the story of the "splendid
little war" was not yet complete. In February 1899 the Filipinos, led by Emilio
Aguinaldo, declared themselves independent and began a three-year struggle
against 120,000 U.S. troops. About 20,000 Filipinos were killed in combat.
However, more than 200,000 Filipinos died during the insurrection primarily due
to a cholera outbreak from 1897 to 1903. Barbarities and atrocities occurred on
both sides before the United States captured Aguinaldo and suppressed the
The U.S. Army remained in Cuba
until 1901, when the Cubans adopted a constitution that included the Platt
Amendment. The amendment pledged Cubans to allow the United States to intervene
in Cuban affairs when events threatened property, liberty, or Cuban
independence. Cuba accepted the amendment and became in effect a protectorate of
the United States. In the election of 1900, William Jennings Bryan again
challenged McKinley, this time on an unsuccessful anti-imperialist platform.
Open Door Policy in China
American trade with China increased in the 1890s. The United States had long
demanded an Open Door Policy for trading in China, which was weak, in order to
prevent other powers from carving up China among them. But France, Russia,
England, and Japan bit off pieces for themselves by annexation or by
establishing spheres of influence, where they exercised economic privileges.
As its rivals made gains, the
United States feared it would be excluded from all trade in China. In 1899
Secretary of State John Hay sent the European powers and Japan a series of "Open
Door Notes," requesting agreement on three points. First, each power would
respect the trading rights of the others within each nation’s sphere of
influence; second, Chinese officials would collect import duties; and third, no
nation would discriminate against the others in matters of harbor duties or
railroad rates within each sphere of influence. Hay declared the principles
accepted, inaccurately, since Russia and later Japan disagreed.
Not all the Chinese welcomed
western penetration of their culture. In 1900 the Boxer Uprising broke out in
China. The Boxers—a sect of Chinese nationalists who opposed foreign influence
in China—rose up against foreign traders, officials, and missionaries, and
massacred many of them. The United States and the European powers intervened
with troops and put down the insurrection. The European powers seemed eager to
carve up China, but Hay persuaded them to accept compensation to cover their
losses. The United States returned part of its compensation to China. The
McKinley administration had stopped Europe from carving up China.
The quest for an overseas empire
in the late 1890s thus led to substantial American gains. The United States
annexed Hawaii in 1898, conquered the Philippines and Guam from Spain in 1899,
turned Cuba in effect into an American protectorate in 1901, and kept China
opened to American traders and missionaries.
Meanwhile, in September 1901, an
anarchist shot President McKinley, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt assumed
the presidency. The United States now entered the 20th century and an era of
PROGRESSIVISM AND REFORM
The growth of industry and cities created problems. A small number of people
held a large proportion of the nation’s wealth while others fell into poverty.
Workers faced long hours, dangerous conditions, poor pay, and an uncertain
future. Big business became closely allied with government, and political
machines, which offered services in return for votes, controlled some city
governments. As the United States entered the 20th century, demand arose to
combat these ills.
Progressive reformers sought to
remedy the problems created by industrialization and urbanization. To
progressives, economic privilege and corrupt politics threatened democracy.
Never a cohesive movement, progressivism embraced many types of reform.
Progressives strove, variously, to curb corporate power, to end business
monopolies, and to wipe out political corruption. They also wanted to
democratize electoral procedures, protect working people, and bridge the gap
between social classes. Progressives turned to government to achieve their
goals. National in scope, progressivism included both Democrats and Republicans.
From the 1890s to the 1910s, progressive efforts affected local, state, and
national politics. They also left a mark on journalism, academic life, cultural
life, and social justice movements.
Crusading journalists helped
shape a climate favorable to reform. Known as muckrakers, these journalists
revealed to middle class readers the evils of economic privilege, political
corruption, and social injustice. Their articles appeared in McClure’s
Magazine and other reform periodicals. Some muckrakers focused on corporate
abuses. Ida Tarbell, for instance, exposed the activities of the Standard Oil
Company. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens dissected
corruption in city government. In Following the Color Line (1908), Ray
Stannard Baker criticized race relations. Other muckrakers assailed the Senate,
railroad practices, insurance companies, and fraud in patent medicine.
Novelists, too, revealed
corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of
ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914).
In The Jungle (1906) Socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with
descriptions of Chicago's meatpacking plants, and his work led to support for
remedial legislation. Leading intellectuals also shaped the progressive
mentality. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen
attacked the "conspicuous consumption" of the wealthy. Educator John Dewey
emphasized a child-centered philosophy of pedagogy, known as progressive
education, which affected schoolrooms for three generations.
World History Center