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A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States



Industrialization set the American people into new patterns of motion.  The Civil War was over, but the war between “labor and capital” (as it was then called) was about to begin. Farmers would soon join the fray. And this  chapter of social conflict in our history was also set against the dramatic backdrop of yet another titanic saga, the arrival on these shores of millions of new immigrants.

            The intertwining of these stories would carry America, like a flash flood, to the end of the century, but not before the country was plunged into one of the greatest national crises in its history. The resolution of of this crisis would change America forever, leading to a search for empire abroad and to reform at home. Indeed, the issues generated by that crisis are still debated, in slightly different language, today.

The “Other Civil War”

            American history may be, as many textbook titles suggest, the story of unbroken progress toward a more perfect society. But it was not a story without conflict and violence. On the surface, the conflicts that characterized the last quarter of the 19th Century  appeared to involve a clash of classes or races. More fundamentally, however, they involved different interpretations of fundamental American ideals. What constituted “justice” and “equality”? The American people did not agree. Indeed, they violently disagreed.

            Between 1870 and the eve of WWI (1914), an “other Civil War” raged in America, pitting workers against industrialists. Once again Americans were killing their fellow countrymen, though the issues now were very different. The numbers below help to tell the tale:

            • In 1888, 100 workers died each day in industrial accidents or 35,000 a year;

            • Between 1888 and 1908, 700,000 Americans died in  industrial accidents;

            • During this period, the average life-span of a worker in Lawrence, Ma., was 22 years less than the lifespan of the owners of the textile mills.

            Apart from unsafe working conditions, there were also 12-hour days, 6-day weeks, company spies, low pay (no minimum wage then!), repetitive, mind-numbing work, and child labor. This was everyday life for tens of millions of Americans (and for millions in the Third World today).

            In 1873, the country was hit by economic depression. Over the next four years, the economy bottomed out, and bad went to worse. In 1877, railroad companies responded to these prolonged hard times by cutting wages 10%. Railroad workers, already living on the margins and pressed to the wall, fought back. They went on “wildcat strikes” (that is, spontaneous strikes not planned or organized by unions) that spread along the railroad lines. By June, the United States was experiencing its first nationwide railroad strike--the so-called “Great RR Strike of 1877.” More frightening to the American people, armed clashes occurred between strikers and the U.S. Army . The army had been ordered to protect railroad equipment, open rail yards, and, in effect, break the strike by protecting “scabs” (strikebreakers) who were willing to run the trains. By the end of the summer, 100 Americans had been killed in a dozen states. The “Other Civil War” had begun.
            There would be many more battlefields. There are three others you should be familiar with, because their impact was large.

            The year 1886 does not evoke any immediate associations today, but it became known then as the “Year of the Great Uprising of Labor,”  a time when hundreds of thousands went on strike demanding the “8-Hour Day” (“Eight hours for work/ Eight hours for rest/ Eight hours for what you will”). In addition to strikes, mass marches were held in a number of cities, including Boston. (See picture in front of the room).

            The most famous event of this momentous year occurred in Chicago, on May 4th, at an outdoor meeting in Haymarket Square, in support of the 8-hour movement and in protest against police brutality at a local strike. As speaker followed speaker at this peaceful rally, a contingent of Chicago police appeared and ordered the crowd to disperse. As the police began to advance, a bomb was thrown into their ranks, and two policemen died.

            In the famous trial that followed the “Haymarket Riot,” eight anarchists--none of them accused of being the bomb thrower--were convicted of having entered into a “conspiracy” to murder the police officers. Four of the convicted were hanged. The rest were later pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who, in one of the most famous “state papers” written in America, denounced the trial as unfair.  Newspapers railed against the governor’s action, and his political career was effectively ended. But for many, the Haymarket defendants were remembered as martyrs, victims of an unjust, ruthless frame up intended to discredit and crush the labor movement. [The court speeches of the accused anarchists follow this reading].

            Six years later, another major battle in the labor wars was fought at the Homestead (Pa.) Iron & Steel Co. which was owned by Andrew Carnegie. Workers did not go on strike at Homestead to win higher wages, but rather to have their union recognized as their bargaining agent. Carnegie refused, and decided that the time was right to take a trip to his ancestral home in Scotland. He turned control of the steel mill over to manager Henry Clay Frick, who proceeded to “lockout” the employees, to build a wall around the mill to protect it, and to bring in “scabs” (now called “permanent replacement workers”) to break the union once and for all.

            The workers surrounded the mill to prevent the “scabs” from entering. Frick brought boatloads of private police (Pinkertons) up the Monongahela River to break the blockade. When they landed, a pitched battle broke out and several workers were killed. After a long struggle, the union was broken. (The anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, reading about the fate of workers at Homestead, conspired to assassinate Frick. Berkman managed to gain entrance to Frick’s office, and stabbed him. Frick lived, Berkman went to jail, Goldman escaped serious punishment).

            Finally , two years later, in 1894, the spotlight fell on Pullman, a town just outside of Chicago. Pullman was a company town, wholly owned (from housing to stores to churches) by George Pullman, owner of Pullman Co., the firm that manufactured the Pullman (railroad) sleeping car. Here too the union (Debs’ American Railway Union) went on strike in response to a wage cut and to price increases at the company stores. Other railroad workers joined in out of sympathy and a second national railroad strike was looming when President Grover Cleveland dispatched the army to break the strike.

            Using as a pretext the claim that the strikers were preventing the passage of mail trains (not true), Cleveland bellowed, “If I have to mobilize the entire U.S. army to deliver one postcard to Chicago, I will.” The strike was ultimately broken, and Debs was sent to jail for violating a court order. (He went into jail a traditional AFL-type trade unionist, and came out a socialist). As the perennial Socialist Party candidate for President, he would play an important role in American politics for another two decades

The Other New Class: Captains of Industry or Robber Barons?

            Aside from a permanent class of factory workers, industrialization created another new class: the industrialists. Those who thought them great men called them the “Captains of Industry”; those who despised them called them “Robber Barons.” What is undisputed is that these were men of organizational genius who came to control vast industrial empires with thousands of employees and to enjoy a degree of personal wealth previously unknown in American history. (You will see their mansions in Newport). Here are some of the best known, and the industries they dominated.

                        JP Morgan/ Banking; Philip Armour/ Meat Packing
                        Andrew Carnegie/ Steel; Cornelius Vanderbilt/ Transportation
                                               John Rockefeller/ Oil

            As suggested, historians do not entirely agree about how these men accumulated their fortunes. A common belief is that these were men of humble origin who worked hard and became millionaires. This is true of some (Carnegie), but not of others (JP Morgan). Most of these men escaped the sad fate of three-quarters of a million of their fellow Americans: they paid $300 to the government to avoid service in the Union army during the Civil War. Some of them, such as Armour and Vanderbilt, actually made money out of the war by selling supplies to the Federal army (rotten meat and leaky boats, respectively). Some, like Carnegie, worked hard and had the good luck of meeting the right people at the right time. Clearly, there was no one way.

            There is also an irony to appreciate here. Though the spectacular rise of these industrialists is often taken to be be an outstanding example of how well the free market (laissez-faire) capitalist economy works, the government actually played an important role in their success. The railroad industry stimulated the growth of the entire economy between 1870 and 1900 with the construction of new rail lines. The government understood that railroads would help develop and settle the country. For this reason the government gave railroad companies $48,000 and 10 square miles of public land for every mile of track laid down. By 1872, railroads companies had received public subsidies totalling $700 million and 200 million acres--an area larger than all of New England.

            With all of this public money sloshing around, there were immense opportunities for corruption. Railroads were built where none were needed just to get the subsidies, and lines were built out of substandard materials that couldn’t bear the weight of locomotives. In 1873, the Credit Mobilier scandal broke. It turned out that the Union Pacific Railroad--prime contractor on the transcontinental railroad--had asked the government for $20 million dollars because of cost overruns incurred by the Credit Mobilier construction company. Then it turned out that the UP owned Credit Mobilier.

            All of this corruption inspired some historians to call this period (1870-1900) “the Great Barbecue” when greedy entrepreneurs stuffed themselves at public expense. Capitalism was very dynamic during this time and there were many opportunities for energetic, enterprising individuals, but sometimes ethics took a back seat  (Consider the controversies going on now in the new “Global Economy” concerning the use of child labor in the production of soccer balls, and various Gap and Nike products).

            How could it be that a relatively few extravagantly wealthy individuals could effectively dominate so many millions of poor workers and their families? Whenever a minority controls a majority, you can be sure there is an effective system of social control operating. The industrial capitalists had a number of instruments of control, some of which have already been mentioned in passing: court injunctions against strikes (in many states, strikes were illegal), the availability of private police forces like the Pinkertons, as well as the National Guard and the U.S. Army, and the presence of company stores and towns. In addition, industrialists used “blacklists” to punish union activists and prevent them from gaining new employment and “Yellow Dog Contracts” (also called “Iron Clad Oaths”) in which new employees had to swear that they would not join unions. In the political realm, laws which kept immigration unrestricted benefitted employers by creating a large labor surplus which diminished the bargaining power of individual workers.

            Most interesting was the use of ideology to stabilize American society and create a way of thinking favorable to the dominant class. “Ideologies”   are systems of interrelated ideas and they shape the way we see and understand the world. Believing in this or that ideology is like choosing to wear this or that pair of glasses, each ground to a different prescription and encouraging us to see reality in a different way. Incidentally, ideologies may be true--or not. (To help you understand all this better, you can think of religions--”theologies”--as particular kinds of ideologies that express different ways of understanding God and His/ Her creation).

            What ideologies--that is, ways of thinking, seeing, and understanding-- were encouraged by the wealthy and powerful in late 19th century America? Most prominent among them was the ideology known as “Social Darwinism.” This idea-system was formulated by two intellectuals, the British scholar Herbert Spencer and his American protege, Yale Professor William Graham Sumner, both of whom had wealthy patrons. In order to explain--and justify--the vast inequality between classes that industrialization and capitalism created, they applied Darwin’s theories about evolution to realities in human society.
            Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Origin of Species (1859), had an enormous impact on how people understood the origin and development of different life forms. Concepts such as Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest became well-established. According to Spencer and Sumner, the fabulously wealthy class of industrialists gained their riches and power through the struggle for survival in the jungle of society (critics would charge that society was created precisely to eliminate the jungle). Simply, the industrialists had proved themselves most superior --or “fit”-- in this struggle. And as with Natural Selection, their rise to the top served the interests of progress and improved the quality of society. The corollary, of course, was that workers were poor , not because they were treated unfairly, but because they were “unfit.”

            A slight variation on this ideology (do people still see/understand the world in this way?) added a religious twist: it might be called the “Divine Origin Theory.” Here the rich had received their wealthy as a result of the blessings of God. This view was espoused by a Lexington (Ma.) minister named Richard Conwell. In his famous sermon “Acres of Diamonds” (given an estimated 6000 times to 13 million listeners and earning its author $8 million) Conwell told Christians that God wanted them to be rich, and rewarded those most deserving. The poor, it was implied, didn’t need strikes and unions, but simply a more pious life. They needed to get right with God. (Andrew Carnegie in his piece called “The Gospel of Wealth” did add the thought that those favored by God--the wealthy--needed to act as trustees of society, and use their wealth to improve life for all. In fact, Carnegie did give away millions to philanthropies, though these mainly benefited the middle class).
            Finally, another ideology--less scientific in its pretenses than Social Darwinism and less religious than “Divine Origin”--was created by a very popular novelist called Horatio Alger. Alger wrote hundreds of dime-store novels (his critics said he wrote the same book 100 times) in which the hero, usually a poor kid, rose to great wealth as a result of “pluck and luck.” Alger’s novels popularized the so-called “American Dream,” the notion that with hard work anyone in this country could go “from rags to riches.” (Alger’s realization that considerable luck was also required somehow fell by the wayside).  Again, the implicit message to the poor here was that poverty was their own fault, and if they wished to escape it, they didn’t need revolution, they just needed to work harder.

            Ideologies, “Ironclad Oaths,” the National Guard, blacklists, company stores --all of these modes of control bore witness to the new tensions of an industrial age and the growing instability in American society. Control tends to become an issue when those in-control sense it might be slip-sliding away.

            How did it all turn out? Stay tuned! This story reaches its exciting climax in the next chapter!     


All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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