The Gilded Age Essay Questions

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Study Questions


How did railroads change American society, politics, and economy in the post–Civil War era?

Railroads completely transformed the United States socially, politically, and economically during the Gilded Age. Literally the engine of the new industrialized economy, they facilitated the speedy transportation of raw materials and finished goods from coast to coast. In addition to raw materials, these “iron horses” carried people west to settle the heartland and the frontier. As the railroads grew in power, they exerted increasing influence on local and state governments, eventually prompting Congress and reform-minded presidents to pass laws to regulate the new industry.

After the Civil War, rail tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt capitalized on the conversion of their iron tracks to steel, which allowed them to lay more track for only a fraction of the cost. As a result, by 1900, the United States boasted almost a quarter of a million miles of railroad track. In turn, steel magnates such as Andrew Carnegie benefited from the increased demand for steel and responded by producing more. As consolidation and innovation streamlined costs, it became cheaper and faster to ship raw materials, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and oil via rail than by steamship.

Railroads transported people, too, and contributed, more than any other single factor, to the transformation and development of the West. Although more than a million Americans had moved westward in the days of “manifest destiny” before the Civil War, trains brought millions more throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Railways made it physically and economically feasible for Americans to settle Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in large numbers. At the same time, the decimated population of native grassland bison testified to the negative consequences of this drastic transformation of the Midwest.

As railroad companies grew in power, they exerted more and more influence on local politics and economics. Unscrupulous “robber barons” extorted the public by charging outrageous rates, distributing uncompetitive rebates to preferred customers, accepting bribes and kickbacks, and discriminating against small shippers. Public discontent with the railways emerged in small farming communities throughout the Midwest—a discontent that ultimately helped form the backbone of the populist movement. Populists, like the socialists of the early twentieth century, wanted to curb railroad corruption by nationalizing all lines.

Even though Populism eventually faded, cries for railroad reform did not, prompting the federal government to take action. In 1887, for example, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which supervised railroad companies that operated in more than one state by outlawing unfair rebates and ordering companies to publish fares up front. The Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906 strengthened the ICC by restraining railroad companies further. In addition, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of James Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Railway in 1904.

Railroads thus transformed American society, politics, and economy unlike any other invention during the Gilded Age. They allowed big business to prosper and people to settle the West and Midwest. Ultimately, public reaction against the railroad barons’ uncompetitive business practices formed the backbone of the reform-minded Populist and Progressive movements around the turn of the century.


Many historians believe that the election of 1896 was the most critical election of the post–Civil War years. Do you agree with this assessment? How did the election change American politics?

The election of 1896 was one of the most critical elections of the nineteenth century. William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan brought an end to the Populist movement, ensured financial stability that helped industrialization, and ushered in a new era of Republican conservatism that lasted for nearly forty years. In addition, the election demonstrated the importance of money in national politics and the support of urban voters.

William Jennings Bryan’s decision to incorporate much of the Populist Party platform into the Democratic Party platform effectively put an end to the Populist movement. Particularly important was Bryan’s call for inflationary free silver to help impoverished farmers in the South and Midwest pay off their debts. Populist leaders chose to unite with Bryan and the Democrats rather than try to win with a third party candidate of their own. Although Bryan represented the best choice for winning that particular election, the Populist Party’s support of him deprived them of their own platform and ultimately pushed many farmers permanently in line with the Democratic Party. The Populist Party never recovered and eventually dissolved completely.

However, both Populists and Democrats failed to realize that farmers no longer constituted the bulk of the American population. Even though the United States had been a predominantly agrarian country since the American Revolution, the industrialization and immigration of the Gilded Age shifted the population balance toward the cities. Bryan’s appeal for inflationary silver worried urban residents, who relied on steady wages, and the free silver issue ultimately cost him the election. Consequently, the election of 1896 marked the last time a presidential candidate from a major party tried to win by appealing to agricultural interests. McKinley, on the other hand, appealed to American city dwellers, promising economic stability and a “full dinner pail” for every American. His sound money policies, which kept big business booming and the economy growing, ultimately helped the United States become the greatest industrialized nation in the world.

The election of 1896 also demonstrated the growing importance of money in American politics. With more than $15 million, McKinley had more money to spend on his campaign than any of his predecessors. He also had Mark Hanna, his wily campaign manager, who successfully convinced business tycoons to donate to the campaign. McKinley won the election in part because of his ability to spend more money, prompting many Democrats to accuse the former senator of “buying” his presidency.

Just as significantly, McKinley’s victory ushered in a period in American politics dominated by Republican conservatism. In fact, Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1897 and 1933. Their fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire attitude toward the economy helped the American economy grow even further.


What were the causes of urbanization during the Gilded Age? What consequences did this urban revolution have on politics, the economy, and society?

Rapid immigration, along with the explosion of Americans moving from farms to the cities, caused an urban boom during the Gilded Age. The growth of cities gave rise to powerful political machines, stimulated the economy, and gave birth to an American middle class.

Civil wars and persecution prompted many southern and eastern Europeans to flee their homelands in search of better lives in America between the 1880s and 1920s. During these years, approximately a million immigrants from Italy, Greece, Russia, Poland, and other countries arrived in eastern U.S. cities every year. In addition to the influx of immigrants, millions of country-dwelling Americans moved to the cities to escape poverty.

The urban explosion contributed significantly to the rise of powerful political machines that became synonymous with the Gilded Age. Political bosses like William “Boss” Tweed in New York City accumulated power and wealth by preying on insecure immigrants living in the cities’ poorest slums. In exchange for their votes, bosses promised to provide social services, new public projects, and sometimes even physical protection. These political machines grew incredibly powerful well into the twentieth century and came to dominate local politics and even influence national politics. Nearly every U.S. president between Grant and Truman could trace their roots back to local and state party machines.

The shift in population from the countryside to the cities also changed the way presidential candidates campaigned, as demonstrated by William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896. McKinley was able to secure the urban vote, which led him to victory, whereas Bryan wrongly assumed that the majority of the voting public was still in America’s countryside.

The economy benefited greatly from the influx of immigrants and farmhands to the cities. Factory owners especially benefited from immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who, eager to make a new start in America, often worked inhumane hours for meager wages and rarely threatened to unionize. The availability of such cheap labor contributed to the economic boom during the Gilded Age and throughout the early twentieth century.

The urban explosion, furthermore, contributed to the growth of a distinctive American middle class. Not rich but not poor either, a growing number of Americans could afford to live comfortably and enjoy the modern conveniences of Gilded Age life. The increasing number of middle-class women led to the reform movement of the late nineteenth century. Many of these women strove to eliminate poverty and right other social wrongs, such as drinking, prostitution, and gambling. Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and other women founded settlement houses in urban slums to help immigrants improve their lives in the New World. This early reform movement served as the roots of the broader Progressive movement that dominated American politics after the turn of the century.

The veritable explosion in population between the 1880s and 1920s in eastern cities thus completely transformed American politics, society, and the economy. Politicians began campaigning harder in cities run by political machines, cheap labor fueled economic growth, and a distinctive American middle class emerged that would eventually spearhead the progressive movement.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Why did the Populists gain so much power in the 1880s and 1890s, and why did they disappear soon after that?

2. Compare and contrast Roosevelt’s Square Deal with Wilson’s New Freedom.

3. What were the causes and consequences of Progressivism?

4. Describe how three of the following shaped American politics in the early twentieth century: Ballinger-Pinchot AffairPayne-Aldrich TariffmuckrakersUnderwood TariffSquare DealProgressive Party

The Gilded Age

Remembered as an era in American history characterized by great prosperity and industrial growth, the three decades following the Civil War have often been referred to as “The Gilded Age,” so called in part because of the 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner entitled The Gilded Age. The satirical novel, written in just a few months and intended as a caricature of the era, describes what the authors viewed as the greed and hypocrisy of American society and the folly of countless numbers of ordinary citizens who firmly believed that some magical scheme would lead them to riches. As articulated by Twain and Warner, the term “Gilded Age” refers primarily to the middle-class experience of the time, an experience typified by what author Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”—of dress, home décor, and all material goods which were considered signs of “good taste.” Along with the increased aestheticism of the age, and perhaps in direct response to it, developed more self-conscious literary criticism and realism.

The Gilded Age was characterized most significantly by the rapid industrialization that transformed the country from a primarily rural and agriculturally-based republic whose citizens for the most part shared a belief in God, into an industrial and urbanized nation whose values were changing rapidly due, in part, to increased wealth and to the ramifications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie—both of whom virtually monopolized their respective industries—symbolized both the “self-made man” and the spirit of acquisition that dominated the late nineteenth century. This “spirit” is what Twain and Warner criticized in The Gilded Age, drawing attention to the artificial standards of taste attributed to the growing American bourgeoisie. As individual income levels increased due to such factors as improved communications resulting from the introduction of the telephone, technological innovations such as electricity, and rapid transportation via the new transcontinental railroads, many individuals—the “new rich”—could afford to indulge in finer clothing (which had become cheaper and more accessible), home decorations (which were mass-produced), and leisure activities that would previously have been considered impractical. The steam engine, the railroads, and the industrial boom following the Civil War years produced the country's first moguls and monopolies and created a collective dream both at home and abroad of self-made fortunes and streets “lined with gold.”

But all that glittered was not gold. Economic change came unpredictably. In 1873-78, 1883-85, and again in 1893-97, the nation experienced serious economic depressions. African-Americans, betrayed by the false promises of Reconstruction, were subjugated in new and more subtle ways. Black Americans in the South were subject to Jim Crow laws (legal segregation sanctioned by the Supreme Court). These laws were often enforced with violent methods involving torture and lynchings. The North, too, was not entirely committed to racial equality: blacks there were typically relegated to subservient and subordinate roles. Critic James H. Dormon, studying the “coon song craze” of the late nineteenth century, has found that these immensely popular songs, which depicted stereotypical caricatures of black Americans, reflected the nationwide feeling that blacks should be held in subordinate and segregated positions in society. According to Dormon, these songs rationalized white America's perception of blacks not only as silly buffoons, but also as dangers to the existing social structure. Black Americans were not the only ones to suffer hardships during this period; many farmers lost their holdings as railroads and new machinery lowered their crop prices. Cities became crowded with immigrants eager to succeed but whose only real opportunity was to provide an endless supply of cheap labor. In short, the chasm between rich and poor seemed greater and more visible than ever.

The development of literature at the time reflects this division. Both “low-brow” and “high-brow” forms thrived, and so did artistic snobbery. For the first time in American history, art received critical attention for art's sake. Largely due to the support and example of William Dean Howells, one of the most influential writers of the late nineteenth century, authors like Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Stephen Crane, and Henry James turned their attention to realistically depicting human behavior and social experience. Crane and Twain often went further in focusing on a new and more “realistic” subject matter—the experience of those who were not part of the middle class that so defined the standards of their age. The era also saw the emergence of regional literature, typified by the New England fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett and the vernacular dialect in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories and George Washington Cable's Creole tales. Several critics have suggested that this type of literature flourished during the latter part of the nineteenth century in part because these “local colorists” sought to preserve these distinctive modes of life before they were swallowed up by industrialization.

America experienced an industrial revolution later than England but more rapidly. The concentrated shift from homogenous, rural populations to diversified, urban ones created crowding and poverty, yet the industrial elites enjoyed a new wealth and urbane lifestyle that allowed for increased cultivation of the arts. Advances in machinery and transportation destroyed the old dream of agrarian self-sufficiency yet allowed for the mass production and accessibility of both necessities and luxuries. It was a time of great division, as well as a time of significant instability and anxiety, as many saw and lamented the replacement of religious and moral values with materialistic ones. Critic Paulette D. Kilmer, examining the “rags-to-riches” model in late nineteenth-century literature, has suggested that a great portion of Gilded Age literature is still closely tied to religious values. In these tales, as Kilmer has stated, a young protagonist often aids a wealthy benefactor, whose gratitude in turn enables the youngster to rise to the middle class. The tales offer evidence of benevolence—rather than a “quick fix”—as the source of a young man's success. Howells, though, beginning with the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and continuing with the novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), addressed what he saw as the dangerous relationship between the economic growth of the United States and the corresponding decline of moral values under capitalism.

Modern critics have continued to debate this perception of the era. While many stress the negative influences of politics, industry, and technology on the society as a whole, others object to the emphasis on greed and corruption so often connected with the era, and instead focus on the dramatic and rapid transformation of the entire nation.

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