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Unit Overview

In the wake of the most devastating conflict in the history of the United States, the rebuilding nation experienced a period of great change. America grew and expanded on many levels. Industrialists developed massive enterprises that had influence both in the United States and around the world. They also brought about developments in labor organization, as workers used various means, including violence, in attempts to improve working conditions.

Corresponding to the rise of industry was the growth of the American city. Immigrants from all over flooded into growing cities. The result was not only cultural diversity, but changes in everyday city-life, including crime and politics. Political machines began competing for control of cities, using tactics that were sometimes of questionable legality.

While people from all over flocked to growing cities, the era was also marked by an expansion of the West. New technologies made the vast lands of the West more desirable, but the evolution of the “Great American Desert” into the “Nation’s Breadbasket” had both positive and negative consequences.

Industrialists or Robber Barons?

One of the major staples of the end of the nineteenth century was the development of powerful industries. Dynamic individuals seized the opportunities of the time to not only form mammoth enterprises, but become powerful forces for change in America and throughout the world. Three such men were Andrew Carnegie in steel, John D. Rockefeller in oil, and J.P. Morgan in banking and electricity. While these men developed enormous levels of wealth and influence, many of them sought to find ways to use their means responsibly.  

The industrial and economic growth brought about by men such as these greatly increased the standard of living for nearly all Americans. These companies launched the United States on its way to becoming the most dominate, powerful, and prosperous nation in history. These industries changed the nation and the world, in overwhelmingly positively ways, but not without negative side effects.

One major consequence of the rise of industry was the development of the labor movement. Workers in the new industries organized and united to fight for better wages and working conditions. Workers often used violent, and at times terroristic, tactics to affect change. Businesses, in turn, often used gangs of thugs, private police, state militia, and even Federal troops to protect property, and even used violence to break strikes and enforce lockouts. Nonetheless, the most effective strategy the labor movement used was working together to market their labor, by forming unions to bargain for wages and benefits with large companies.

New Waves of Immigrants

America has always been a land of immigrants, but before the mid-nineteenth century most immigrants (with the exception of enslaved Africans) were Protestant Christians from northern and western Europe. That changed in the mid 1800s. The first major migration of people from other parts of Europe started in the 1840s. Large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants, fleeing the “Great Hunger” in Ireland, began arriving in the United States. At the same time hundreds of thousands of German Catholics also began moving to America. Even though most of the original Irish did not speak English, it would seem that these white Irish immigrants would not have many serious problems with assimilation because of their familiarity with English law and politics. This was not the case, however. Their extreme poverty and their Catholicism became barriers. It would take generations for mainstream American culture to accept the Irish.

The same was true for the later waves of Catholic immigrants from places like Italy, Portugal and Eastern Europe. Although they did not normally experience the urban violence that Nativist groups inflicted on their Irish, these groups often had difficult times in America. The Catholic religion made the immigrant groups suspect to many Protestant Americans. Even within their own American Catholic church, dominated by an Irish-Catholic hierarchy, newer immigrants had to struggle for equality. It was not just Catholic immigrants who struggled in their new country. Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States had to struggle against the same prejudices that had fueled anti-Semitism in Europe. The struggle and eventual success of these American ethnic groups is an inspiring story and lesson for all Americans today.

Rise of the American City

One of the effects of the rise of the industries was the rapid growth of American cities and the development of new social institutions in those cities. As industry grew and immigrants and people from rural areas moved to the cities seeking work, certain familiar patterns started to emerge. Many urban working communities looked as if they were inhabited by poorer people living in squalid conditions. Nevertheless, immigrants and native migrants continued to flock to these cities in search of better lives and improvements from the lands where they had originally come from. Fortunately, most residents only stayed in these ghettos for no longer than eleven years, after which they were replaced by new waves of immigrants. 

Some of the consequences of the growth of large cities were positive. City-dwellers experienced an amazing growth in leisure and entertainment activities. Large concentrations of people living in the cities, however, often resulted in increases in crime. American cities in the last half of the nineteenth century saw a rise in street gangs, often based on the ethnicity of their members. The increase in crime raised the public’s demand for an effective police force in the local neighborhoods. Police forces and fire departments in American cities were often composed of competing gangs or members of rival political factions. They tended to protect their interests rather than enforcing the law. As public officials became less and less effective, police and fire departments needed to become more professional and more impartial in enforcing the law and protecting the public.

Machine Politics

Industrialization also changed politics in the cities. Corporations used their newfound wealth to influence political leaders, causing an increase in political corruption. This period became notorious for political corruption, though in reality various levels of corruption were always present in American politics (and politics in general). A common joke was that the United States had “the best Congress money could buy.”

The Republican Party, which had its origins in the crusade to eliminate slavery, emerged as the dominant party right after the Civil War. The Democrats, however, quickly recovered from the War. Consequently, control of Congress during the second half of the nineteenth century was nearly evenly divided between the dominant parties. Presidential elections were usually close, though nearly always won by Republicans (9 out of 11 from 1868 to 1908 and 12 out of 16 to 1928).

Democrats controlled the South as well as Northern urban centers. By 1877, the Southern Democrats were able to regain power in the South and “reconstructed” white Democratic governments ignored the political rights African Americans had gained after the Civil War. Meanwhile, Irish Democrats in industrial cities created powerful machines and sought the votes of the workers and newer immigrants who came to America to experience economic upward mobility. 

The predominantly Irish Democratic political machines in major cities allowed recently naturalized immigrants to use their political shrewdness to provide benefits to their working-class constituents. They showed a willingness to bend the law in order to provide their supporters a bigger piece of the pie. They also usually made sure some money returned to their own pockets. New York political boss George Washington Plunkett referred to this sort of aid to the poor as “honest graft.” One of the most notorious of these Democratic machine bosses, William M. “Boss” Tweed, defrauded New York City and the state of New York out of tens of millions of dollars between 1858 and 1871.

Much of the power of the Republican Party was in the Northeast, the Midwest, and in the Far West, especially in small towns and rural farmlands. These tended to be more interested in economic growth, commerce, and business. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the Party experienced divisions. First, liberal Republicans and Radical Republicans disagreed on how to treat the defeated South after the Civil War. Radicals wanted to punish the South for their rebellion that caused the destruction of the war. Liberals and moderates wanted a more conciliatory policy, perhaps similar to the one the late President Lincoln wanted to pursue. Later, the Republicans were divided between the Stalwarts, who favored the machine spoils system and the Half-breeds, who sought a reformed civil service system. During the nineteenth century, parties were usually not formed on ideological lines. People generally belonged to parties to gain political power and the patronage that came with that power.

Westward Expansion

Another aspect of industrialization was the settlement of the West. Since the Homestead Act of 1862, land was available to farmers who were willing to live on and improve it. Modern technology made the Great Plains desirable for millions of farmers from east of the Mississippi. Demand for food and farm products grew in expanding cities, and inventions such as barbed wire and cheap steel for plows and other farming tools made it possible to cultivate the prairie. In addition, the Transcontinental Railroad made travel to the West and transporting crops to Eastern markets much easier. 

The westward migration had dramatic results. American farm productivity skyrocketed as the Plains transformed from the “Great American Desert” to the “Nation's Breadbasket.” Railroads prospered because of government land grants and the increasing freight rates they charged farmers to ship their produce. The increasing supply of wholesome food flowing into the growing cities contributed to improving public health.

Westward expansion, however, was not without its negative consequences. The land settlers were taking became vacant due to the eviction of American Indians from most of their former territory. A series of small, bloody wars forced Indian tribes to relocate to reservations between the 1860s and the 1890s. In addition, many homesteaders failed on their new farms. The sheer productivity of these farms eventually caused a market surplus, falling prices, and a credit crunch for the farmers. To get out of debt, farmers bought more land and machinery to produce more crops to stay ahead of their price declines. This tactic failed. The more they produced, the lower prices fell and the deeper into debt they spiraled. Many factory workers who migrated to the cities for industrial jobs were failed Western farmers.

  • United States Congrssmen who favored the abolition of slavery, citizenship for freed slaves, and punishment for those who had supported the Confederacy as government officials or soldiers during the Civil War
  • “unofficial” government organizations especially common in 19th and 20th century urban politics in immigrant neighborhoods
  • extending or reaching from one side of a continent to the other
  • a political party leader who controls votes and the appointment of officials and has considerable influence in other political possesses
  • hatred toward or discrimination against Jewish people
  • wealthy 19th century businessmen who acquired their wealth through unethical means such as exploiting labor, engaging in questionable stock market exchanges, creating monopolies and acquiring high levels of government influence
  • a practice where a victorious political party fills political offices with friends and supports as a reward for working toward victory
  • a region of vast grasslands in central North America west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada used for cattle ranching and farming
  • impairment of moral principal by unlawful means
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • having to do with factories, the goods made in factories, or factory workers
  • a member of one of the Christian groups that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century
  • a person who favors a republic as the best form of government; a member of the Republican Party
  • the use of knowledge to develop new devices, tools, or techniques intended to solve an existing problem or to improve, in some way, our quality of life
  • a war between the northern United States (known as the Union) and southern slave states (known as the Confederate States of America) over the issue of slavery which was fought from 1861 - 1865
  • the presence of people from a variety of ethnic, cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds within one group, society, or institution
  • affiliation with a group that possess the same traits and characteristics
  • a scientific theory that the genetic makeup of all living things has and continues to change over a very long period of time due to processes such as genetic mutation and natural selection.
  • a home with adjoining farmland occupied by a family; land given to a family as a result of the Homestead Act
  • a person who moves to a new country
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • open defiance of or resistance to authority; a violent uprising against the government
  • all of the land and waters that belong to or are controlled by a particular country; an area of land claimed by the United States, but not officially recognized as a state 
  • the buying and selling of goods between cities or nations
  • a disagreement; opposition
  • the main lawmaking body in the United States that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • to rule over or control; to be much stronger or more skilled than your opponent; to be the most important part of something
  • the production and sale of goods, in general; a group of businesses that make a particular good or provide a particular service (the automobile industry, the tourist industry)
  • a person who favors the policies of nativism; someone who opposes immigration
  • a long-term plan for achieving a particular goal
  • a period of one hundred years
  • a culmination of knowledge, beliefs, and values developed through an individual's experiences in the world
  • a building where workers use machines to make items that will later be sold
  • time to enjoy hobbies or sports free from the restraints of work
  • favoring reform, new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others
  • extremely different; straying from the usual or traditional
  • the legal ownership of one person by another; the condition of a person who is legally owned by another
  • an amount that is more than what is needed; extra
  • the organization and maneuvering of military or naval forces in a battle
  • an area of dry land with very little rainfall or plant life
  • a plan of action intended to achieve a specific goal
  • the amount of a good or service that is available for purchase
  • the amount of a particular good or service that people want and have the ability to buy
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • physical or mental effort; work; a task
  • command; authoritative instruction
  • from, in, or like the city
  • a rule established by custom or authority
  • the point on a compass that is directly opposite from east; the direction of sunset
  • a law
  • a period of time marked by a specific characteristic or event that serves as a basis for chronological time