The Gilded Age dawned at the end of the Civil War. As railroads raced to connect the country, robber barons amassed fortunes in unregulated industries like oil and steel. Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” in a novel satirizing the corruption that lay behind America’s new prosperity. The name stuck, but the good times didn’t: As Gilded Age mansions like the Breakers in Newport and the Biltmore in Asheville rose, so, too, did discontent over rampant income inequality. The Gilded Age came crashing down with the Panic of 1893, which set off an economic depression that ushered in the sweeping reforms of the Progressive Era. Here are five reasons the Gilded Age came to a close:
1. The Panic of 1893
The Panic of 1893 was a depression set off by the failure of two of the largest employers in the country: The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company. The stock market plummeted as businesses that had borrowed heavily to invest in railroads went bankrupt. The value of crops in the American South and West fell. Unemployment rose as high as 19 percent. The crash threw the power of the wealthy—and the powerlessness of labor—into stark relief. “The Panic of 1893 showed that this notion of a laissez-faire, unregulated economy was not working. It never worked for the poor, but it took the panic for the idea to hit the middle class, who had the most to lose,” says Nancy Unger, Professor of History at Santa Clara University and president of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
2. Muckrakers Expose Corruption
Muckrakers were journalists who exposed corrupt politicians and businesses. In some cases, their work led to reform. Ida Tarbell’s exposé of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company led to a U.S. Supreme court case that found it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel revealing the rotten side of the meat industry in Chicago, led to the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Political cartoons by artists like Thomas Nast skewered Tammany Hall, Crédit Mobilier, and the Whiskey Ring scandal surrounding President Ulysses S. Grant.“Muckarakers sensationalized an already growing discontent with the power that corporations were exercising,” says Joan Waugh, professor of history at UCLA.
3. Populism and The Silverites
Populists advocated for shorter workdays, a graduated income tax, and government ownership of commodities like railroads and telephones. They were largely farmers fed up with government favoritism of big business. “Gilded Age America was a very different nation than the rural, agricultural one prior to the Civil War,” says Unger. During the Second Industrial Revolution, inventions like electricity and the rise of factories and railroads led to an unprecedented migration of goods and people to cities.
By 1900, 30 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. Farmers grew dependent on railroads to transport their wares, meaning railroad executives controlled both access to markets and prices. Many farmers wanted to increase the cost of their goods by basing U.S. currency on not just gold, but silver, which was more abundant. Silverism was a major topic in the Election of 1896, when Republican William McKinley faced off against Democratic rising star William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, nicknamed “The Great Commoner,” was catapulted to the spotlight after a speech at the Democratic Convention denouncing the gold standard as a “Cross of Gold” the working man was forced to bear. While Bryan lost, he gave voice to many who felt left out of Gilded Age prosperity.
4. Progressive Era Reforms
Progressives believed that the task of righting society’s ills lay with the government, not private citizens. “The rise of big business and its power and influence had never been seen before in our country or the world,” says Waugh. “Progressive laws and social reform movements were part of creating a new language to understand and shape it.”
While titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller grew lavish fortunes, 40 percent of industrial laborers in the 1880s had incomes below the poverty line. Progressives pushed for worker’s rights and housing and sanitation reforms. They supported expanding voting rights and women’s suffrage to limit the ability of corporations to buy power through bribes, kickbacks, and graft.
5. Theodore Roosevelt
“The real end of the Gilded Age came with the assassination of William McKinley,” says Waugh. McKinley was a popular two-term president fresh off winning the Spanish-American War when he was assassinated in 1901. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a moderate when he took power, but is often remembered for his progressive legislation and reputation as a “trust buster.” “People were critical of progressives, painting them as weak supporters of a nanny state. Nobody could ever accuse Roosevelt of being weak,” says Unger. Roosevelt cultivated a hyper-masculine image that helped him reach across the political aisle. He met with both big coal and Labor during the 1902 Coal Strike and oversaw such progressive legislation as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of national parks.
Gilded Age technology and wealth transformed America into a world power but left wealth in the hands of a few. Progressive Era reforms expanded the government to ensure, in Roosevelt’s words, a “square deal” for all.