The period in the United States from around 1877 to 1895 was one in which American society underwent enormous change. New social and economic processes such as changing political parties, questioning citizenship, and formations of labor unions disrupted older ways of organizing American society, challenged traditional ways of thinking about what it meant to be an American, and led Americans to look for ways to cope with these changes. The Gilded Age proved to be an era which America appeared great on the outside, when in reality the country was internally struggling to deal adapt to the many changes economically and socially. This paper will discuss the ways in which changes disrupted traditional American ideas and structures and how Americans clashed over coping with this massive change by looking at Robert Cherny’s American Politics in the Gilded Age, “The River Ran Red” and the fourteenth amendment.
Cherny discussed many of the changes that occurred during 1877-1895 in his book American Politics in the Gilded Age. Cherny’s focus early in the book on the role of the political parties during the time period. He does not scratch the surface, but tries to dig deep the Gilded Age of politics. Cherny also addresses social and economic changes. He said that progress merely provided a “gleaming surface of the Gilded Age. Just below that golden surface, however, lay twelve-hour workdays in factories, the widespread use of child labor, and large-scale business dealings…” (Cherny 4).
During the gilded age, parties changed their traditional ways of voting and elections. Parties were at war to gain political majority in order to have control in government decisions, so they began tactics to insure victories at the polls. Parties discouraged attendance at primaries by meeting at late hours and dangerous areas, developed bargaining tactics like “logrolling” (trading of influence or votes among legislators to gain passage of certain projects), and voters found it difficult to split a ticket when party organizers left no space to fill in names on the ballot. In Cherny’s book, Richard Jensen said that “Elections were treated like battles in which the two main armies (parties) concentrated on fielding the maximum number of troops (voters) on the battlefield (polls) on election day” (Cherny 12). America was supposedly a country where a man could choose freely who he wanted to represent him, but in reality parties choose the candidates.
In the video “The River Ran Red,” the events of the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 showed the myths of America being destroyed by giants like Andrew Carnegie who tried taking away his workers economic independence. The Union wanted to keep short workdays and good working conditions. Carnegie wanted to gain control of the factory from the Union and then implement lower wages. America struggled to maintain industrial progress and also allow workers to have time outside work. The Union and talks of strike was not welcome in the world of Carnegie, and was not a change the nation was willing to accept. America portrayed a myth of economic independence and boundless opportunity during the industrial progression, when in reality a worker was controlled by executive tyrants below the gilded surface.
The fourteenth amendment centralized on establishing that the federal government was more powerful than the state government, something that American citizens were not going to accept. The amendment gave blacks citizenship, which then also gave them the right to vote. Legally it gave some rights to blacks, but in reality Americans were fearful of losing political power, especially in the southern states. According to the amendment, no “state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” (Fourteenth Amendment, 1868). The amendment targeted southerners, who in turn were unwilling to accept the new given rights to blacks nor the governments power over the state.
Although America on the outside showed gilded signs of progress, the country was battling as political corruption, labor strikes, and southerner’s who continued to cling to their old ways by refusing to comply with the federal government. Political parties mocked the myth that America was a classless/democratic society. The labor union disputes dispelled the myths that America was ideal of economic independence and that it was the land of boundless opportunity. Finally, all men were not equal or have basic citizenship rights, despite the fourteenth amendment. All the problems that America had was covered by a golden surface labeled as progression while its citizens suffered and battled.