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Gilded Age

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The late 19th century witnessed the birth of modern America. It saw the closing of the Western frontier. Between 1865 and the 1890s, Americans settled 430 million acres in the Far West--more land than during the preceding 250 years of American history. But to open lands west of the Mississippi River to white settlers, the Plains Indians were pushed in a series of Indian wars onto restricted reservations.

This period also witnessed the creation of a modern industrial economy. A national transportation and communication network was created, the corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States exceeded that of any other country except Britain. Long hours and hazardous working conditions, led many workers to attempt to form labor unions despite strong opposition from industrialists and the courts.

An era of intense political partisanship, the Gilded Age was also an era of reform. The Civil Service Act sought to curb government corruption by requiring applicants for certain governmental jobs to take a competitive examination. The Interstate Commerce Act sought to end discrimination by railroads against small shippers and the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawed business monopolies.

These years also saw the rise of the Populist crusade. Burdened by heavy debts and falling farm prices, many farmers joined the Populist party, which called for an increase in the amount of money in circulation, government assistance to help farmers repay loans, tariff reductions, and a graduated income tax.

Mark Twain called the late nineteenth century the "Gilded Age." By this, he meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. In the popular view, the late nineteenth century was a period of greed and guile: of rapacious Robber Barons, unscrupulous speculators, and corporate buccaneers, of shady business practices, scandal-plagued politics, and vulgar display.

It is easy to caricature the Gilded Age as an era of corruption, conspicuous consumption, and unfettered capitalism. But it is more useful to think of this as modern America's formative period, when an agrarian society of small producers was transformed into an urban society dominated by industrial corporations.

Harrison's administration brought a reversal of the financial policies of Grover Cleveland. Congress disposed of the Treasury surplus by making large appropriations for pensions, naval vessels, lighthouses, coast defenses, and other projects. It also passed the McKinley Tariff Act, which raised the already high protective duties and resulted in higher prices for many household commodities. In order to gain the support of the West for the bill, Congress in 1890 passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, by which the government agreed to buy 4,500,000 oz (130,000 kg) of silver every month and to issue paper money equaling the full amount purchased. Also in 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which declared illegal "every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade." Although the nation favored this measure, it reacted against the higher prices brought about by the McKinley Act by electing a Democratic Congress in 1890. In 1892 former Democratic President Grover Cleveland won his second term. A feature of the campaign was the emergence of a new political party--the People's Party, usually known as the Populist Party--formed principally by western farmers and workers who were members of the Farmers' Alliances or of the American Federation of Labor. The People's Party nominee for president, James Baird Weaver of Iowa, ran on a platform that included demands for the free coinage of silver, government ownership of important utilities, and election of U.S. senators by popular vote.

Cleveland's second administration was marked by increasing conflict between the interests of the agricultural reformers, whose followers lived in the West, and those of the large bankers and manufacturers of the country, the seat of whose enterprises was generally in the East. Those who expected Cleveland and his solidly Democratic Congress to effect the financial and economic reforms demanded by the West suffered disappointment. Although pledged to a tariff for revenue only, Congress yielded to the desires of senators devoted to protecting the interests of large corporations or trusts by passing another high protective tariff. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the income tax law. (The burdens of this tax, which had been much stiffened in 1894, had fallen on the comparatively wealthy.) Besides legislation and judicial decisions that displeased the West, the administration saw a period of industrial depression, high prices, widespread unemployment, lockouts, and strikes.

The most important strike was that in 1894 of the employees of the Pullman Company, who were led by the American Railway Union. The strike was called to protest unfair working conditions at the Chicago-based Pullman Company, a manufacturer of railroad sleeping cars. It resulted in violence, the deaths of workers, and the destruction of property. President Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to restore order, and the federal courts issued an injunction to break the strike. Several of the strike leaders were imprisoned, including labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Among working classes, particularly the Populists and the more radical Democrats, the episode resulted in increasing discontent with the administration. This dissatisfaction was expressed at the Democratic convention of 1896. Dominated by the radical elements of the West, the convention issued a platform demanding, among other things, the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1 (Bimetallism), and an end to government by federal injunction, as in the Pullman strike. The Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for president; the Republicans, William McKinley. The chief issue of the campaign, in which the economic interests of West and East were sharply opposed, was the silver question. After a strenuous contest, McKinley defeated Bryan.

The principal event of McKinley's first administration was the Spanish-American War (1898), fought over the issue of the liberation of Cuba. The United States was victorious in the war, and Spain relinquished Cuba and ceded to the United States the Philippine Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Expansion of the nation to include regions outside of the North American continent was denounced as imperialism by the Democratic Party, and became the principal issue of the 1900 presidential campaign. The nation, however, supported the policy of expansion as carried out



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