The period of time just after Reconstruction ended to the beginning of World War I was full of change. From the “robber barons” of big business to the massive number of immigrants, many aspects of American life were changing, in both positive and negative ways. The greedy businessmen shut down competition against them and formed monopolies allowing them to set high prices and the large amount of labor allowed them to pay low wages. The immigrants worried the upper class whites because they thought the immigrants would revolt against them, and they would be outnumbered. All throughout America economic, social, and political change was occurring. The railroads were a large reason for economic change. Before them, foods and goods were generally sold on a local market (Lecture, January 13). With railroads, products could more easily be moved around the United States, or even shipped overseas. This was a problem for many of the skilled workers who used to determine how much of a good they wanted to produce and how much they wanted to sell that good for; they were now opened up to competition. Also, they were replaced by unskilled laborers who worked in factories. This change made the skilled artisans equal to the unskilled workers, and they could not compete with the output of the factories. They were therefore put out of jobs and were forced to work elsewhere, such as one skilled iron molder who could not even afford to pay his rent and would not be paid for at least a month even if he took another job (Interpretations, 55). Before the Civil War, the Southern economy was largely based on large plantations with slave labor. However, after the war slaves were no longer a source of labor, so the white plantation owners had to find a new source of labor. The newly freed slaves, who were unskilled workers and had little, if any, wealth, were then forced to sign labor contracts. This was done through Black Codes, which stated that any freedperson who did not sign a yearly labor contract could be arrested and hired out to a white landowner (Foner, 6). Also, vagrancy laws imposed a fine of no more than fifty dollars on any “freedmen, freed negroes, and mulattoes” over the age of eighteen who do not have a job or business (Foner, 7). These laws kept black workers on the farms and in essence kept slavery, just under a different name (Discussion, January 8).
The Northern economy was changed as well. Industrialization caused machines to replace or assist factory workers in many cases, but this also increased production. In fact by 1870 America had the largest world economy (lecture, January 13), and in 1894 America’s output equaled that of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany combined. By World War I more than one third of the world’s industrial goods were produced by the United States (Interpretations, 76). The commercial economy of the North was largely replaced by factories filled with either human or machine labor.
With the introduction of these large corporations and eventually monopolies, people were being limited with their jobs. People were less likely to be self-employed because they could not compete with the big businesses. They would then have to work for the big businesses and no longer were able to set their own hours of work. This was said to undermine the better way of life in America and made the American dream harder to obtain (Interpretations, 167). The Populists even described the growing gap between rich and poor as there only being two classes, tramps and millionaires (Discussion, January 22). This was a big difference from the pre-industrialization era when goods were mainly sold on domestic markets.
Racial tensions during this time period were also heightened. Because slavery was no longer allowed, the former slaves could now be citizens, and males could vote, poor whites were no longer socially better off than the poor blacks. Also, many African Americans had migrated to the North and West from the South...
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