THE GILDED AGE AND THE PROGRESSIVE ERA
Mark Twain called
the late 19th Century the Gilded Age because it was apparently a great
time for America. The nation was making incredible advancements in
industry, science, and the settlement of the frontier. America was
rich and growing richer, life was better and getting better every day for
many people, and, indeed, there were more people to enjoy these benefits
as the population boomed. However, beneath that gilded surface of
expansion and success were problems. The labourers in the factories
of America worked under terrible conditions and lived in crowded tenements
in slums and ghettoes. Science and technology changed life for the
better in many ways, but it made things more complex, made many jobs obsolete,
and seemed strange and terrifying to many people. Even the expanding
west had stopped expanding, it was merely filling in the empty spaces,
and as it did so it was finding itself beset by economic problems.
The social and economic troubles of the late 19th century gave rise to new political movements, and re-invigourated old ones. Throughout the countryside, especially in the West, farmers calling themselves Populists organized politically and economically to help one another and enlist the aid of the government in solving their growing economic hardships. In the cities, factory workers joined labour unions and some even turned to socialism, the idea that the wealth of society ought to be redistributed to benefit everyone equally, which terrified property-owners worldwide. These socialists ranged from those who simply wanted the government to provide some form of welfare to rabid anarchists who wanted to completely overthrow the existing government and replace it with a society free of hierarchy or authoritarian power. Throughout the country, although especially in the cities among the upper middle class, old private efforts at charity grew into a new movement for reform and progress. These Progressives also wanted a powerful but responsible government, one that took an active role in improving society. This led to waves of new laws regulating industry, business, and government, and providing forms of social welfare for those perceived to be the deserving needy.
As America entered the 20th century, she did so with a feeling of great optimism, that science, technology, and perhaps even the government could, despite their flaws, make the world a better place. Things were looking up in America at the turn of the century, and a sense of optimism, self-assurance, and even destiny filled the nation as the Gilded Age grew into the Progressive Era.
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This page last updated 22 October, 2003.