Politics and Corruption in the Gilded Age

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What role did the government play in defining, protecting, and/or limiting the liberty of American workers during the Gilded Age?

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The Gilded Age, which ran roughly from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the turn of the century, was a time of great industrial growth in the United States and a period in which a few people were able to amass vast fortunes. The federal government during...

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The Gilded Age, which ran roughly from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the turn of the century, was a time of great industrial growth in the United States and a period in which a few people were able to amass vast fortunes. The federal government during this period (and up until the New Deal, which began in 1933) did not define its role as protecting the well-being of the average American worker. There was no minimum wage, no forty-hour work week, no unemployment insurance, no safety standards, no laws to prevent children leaving school to begin work at a very early age, no legal unions—in fact, there was nothing in place to protect the American worker. Further, immigrants were flooding in from poor or persecuted sections of Europe with little understanding of how to shield themselves from exploitation. As you can imagine, with the government providing no protection and the workers unable to protect themselves, workers were not in a good position to enjoy prosperity. One might call them lambs led to the slaughter.

With no labor laws and an uninformed workforce, it is not hard to see how business owners could make a fortune. They used this money, in part, to corrupt the political system and consolidate their power. The very wealthy simply had so much money they could buy politicians outright.

With the politicians beholden largely to the wealthy, they naturally sided with and protected the political interests of the wealthy. As such, they used the power of the government to enforce pro-business policies and refused to enact policies that would have helped the workers—or farmers—have better lives. Though there was much unrest and a call for a better deal for workers, with many innovative ideas floated, the average workers did not have the political leverage until later to bring change to fruition.

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Government did little or nothing to protect workers' liberty during the so-called Gilded Age. Throughout this period, successive governments broadly adhered to a policy of laissez-faire, which meant that they refrained from interfering in how businesses ran their affairs.

Inevitably, this included relations between business and labor. The general consensus among the political elite was that pay and conditions were matters to be negotiated between management and individual workers; they were part of the employment contract and therefore no concern of government. This was a private matter between consenting contractual parties, and so it should remain.

As one can imagine, many businesses abused this freedom to drive down wages and conditions. A prime example would be the Pullman Company, which manufactured railroad cars. In 1894, it drastically reduced the wages of its workforce, precipitating a nationwide wildcat strike that dragged on for over two months, causing massive disruption and leading to the deaths of thirty people in violent protests.

The democratic administration of President Grover Cleveland sided with the Pullman Company, using the powers of the federal government to obtain injunctions against the American Railway Union and its leaders. Cleveland also ordered in the Army to prevent striking workers from obstructing trains. This showed the lengths to which government during the Gilded Age was prepared to go to ensure that businesses retained the upper hand in their dealings with labor.

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During the Gilded Age, the United States was run according to the principles of laissez-faire economics. This was an era without the kind of regulations that are present in the economy today. Thus, wages were very low, conditions were dangerous, and child labor had not yet been made illegal.

As if this was not enough, you should also factor in corruption's role in shaping the relationship between government and business. The Gilded Age coincided with a period of dramatic economic growth, in which business operations grew increasingly larger in scale (and increasingly monopolistic), and businesses were able to use this economic power to gain influence with the government.

Government, during this time period, tended to be anti-unionization (and so too did a significant proportion of the United States population). To a certain extent, there was a degree to which this distrust was shaped by political and ideological concerns. For example, one can point towards the role that the Haymarket Riots played in turning public opinion against organized labor, and, if nothing else, it should be noted that strikes could be extremely damaging to consumers and the economy. As a result, whenever strikes did emerge during this time period, government tended to side with business, to the detriment of workers and union interests.

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To begin, the Gilded Age is a period of American history the spans the period from post-Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century, or roughly 1865–1900.

The American factory system gained traction in this period, and trade unions arose to try to protect workers from exploitation. However, the American government did little to support workers or trade unions, and even Supreme Court rulings rarely went in favor of workers. State governments, as well, often sided with factory owners against union workers. Two notable cases that support this view of history are the Homestead Strike and the Pullman Strike.

Overall, in this period of American history, little was done by state and government officials to protect the rights of American laborers. Factories were often unsafe places to work, hours were long, and wages were low. The capitalists that owned the factories and big businesses did not face much in the way of regulation that looked out for the health, safety, and freedom of unskilled or low-skilled workers. The government, by and large, turned a blind eye as the nation prospered on the backs of working people.

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