Octopus and Jungle (1877-1906). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Octopus and Jungle (1877-1906). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Immigration and opposition to immigration.

Oklahoma land rush.

Labor organization to fight oppression.

Corruption and reform.

 “History,” said the English writer Thomas Carlyle, “is the biographies of great men.” For a long time, most historians thought of their craft in this way. Thus the tale of the last quarter of the 19th century might be told exclusively through the lives of Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller, Ford, and the rest. However, more recent historians have come to realize that these biographies relate only part of the story. History is also an account of ordinary people, the working men and women whose lives were influenced, even shaped, by the actions of politicians, robber barons, and (to use another phrase of Carlyle) the “captains of industry.” While the moneyed elite fought one another for control of more and more capital, the nation’s working people were tossed on the brutal seas of an economic tempest. Fortunes were being made and great inventions created, but for plain folk, the waning century presented plenty of hard times.

The Golden Door. America is a nation of immigrants. During the 17th century, colonial entrepreneurs actively recruited new settlers. Most of the early immigrants spoke English, but by the 18th century, waves of German immigrants arrived as well, causing alarm and resentment among the English-speakers, especially those who had been born on these shores. Yet, gradually, the German immigrants and those of the Anglo-American mainstream came to terms.

The next great wave of immigration began in 1841, when Ireland suffered a great potato famine, which caused untold hardship and even starvation. Millions left the country, most of them bound for the United States. The influx of Irish-Catholics into what was principally an Anglo-Protestant nation prompted many to worry that “their” American culture would crumble. The Irish immigrants were subjected to abuse and prejudice, some of it even backed by local legislation.

Beginning around 1880, the clamoring demands of American industry began to drown out the anti-immigrant chorus. Immigrant labor was cheap labor, and employers looked for unskilled and semiskilled workers to feed newly emerging assembly lines and do the heavy lifting required to build bridges and raise skyscrapers. American employers called not only on the German states and Ireland, but also on southern and eastern Europe, encouraging the immigration of Italians, Greeks, Turks, Russians, and Slavs. For the first time, substantial numbers of Jews came to the United States, adding a new element to the nation’s blend of ethnic identities and religious faiths.

While the cities of the East and the Midwest tended to assimilate the new immigrants readily, resistance to immigration remained strong in the West and Southwest. Not that employers in these regions scrupled against hiring foreigners; they just didn’t want the workers to enjoy citizenship. Asians, prized as hard workers, were barred from attaining U.S. citizenship by naturalization laws. In the Southwest, migrant labor from Mexico provided a scandalously cheap source of temporary farm workers. By 1882, prejudice against Asians resulted in passage of the first of a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts, which blocked the importation of Chinese laborers. However, authorities winked at the continued influx of Mexican migrants, some of whom came lawfully and others not.

By the second decade of the 20th century, most Americans were eager to close the golden door. In 1917, would-be immigrants were required to pass a literacy test, and in 1924, Congress set a strict limit on immigration—154,000 persons annually. Congress also established quotas aimed at reducing immigration from southern and eastern European countries.

How the Other Half Lived. At the end of the 19th century, most large American cities were deeply divided places. Established citizens lived in varying degrees of prosperity, decently clothed, fed, and housed, while many of the newer arrivals languished in overcrowded, dilapidated, and ultimately crime-plagued slums. The middle-class reaction to this “other half” of America was to ignore it—at least until Jacob August Riis (1849-1914), a New York journalist, published an eye-opening study in text and photographs of his city’s slum life. How the Other Half Lives (1890), Theodore Roosevelt declared, came as “an enlightenment and an inspiration.” The book heralded reform movements not only in New York, but across the nation.

Land Rush. If, to easterners, the United States seemed to be turning into a nation of crowded cities with teeming slums, the dream of wide-open western spaces had by no means died. At noon on April 22, 1889, government officials fired signal guns, sending hundreds of homesteaders racing across the border of Indian Territory to stake claims. It was the greatest mass settlement of the West since the Homestead Act of 1862, and the event kindled or rekindled the American dream not only in those who rushed to new lands, but in other Americans who experienced the excitement vicariously.

The kindling of one dream meant that another was extinguished. The government rescinded its agreements to protect and preserve Indian Territory for the Native Americans who were forcibly removed to it by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and subsequent legislation. The great land rush led to statehood for Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma on November 16, 1907, and tribal lands were drastically reduced in the process.

Knights of Labor. The Indians, victimized by U.S. land policy, could do little but appeal (mostly in vain) to the American conscience, The laboring man, victimized by big business operating in the absence of government regulation, began to fight back by organizing unions. The Knights of Labor was founded in 1878 as a national union of skilled as well as unskilled workers. The Knights agitated for the universal adoption of the eight-hour day, and targeting the railroads (the “octopus,” as novelist Frank Norris had called them), the union struck against several lines in 1877. The strike brought rail traffic to a halt and won certain concessions. However, in 1886, after a general strike failed in Chicago and the Haymarket Riot ensued, the Knights of Labor also dissolved.

The Great Strikes. While the courts generally eased restrictions on labor strikes during the 19th century, legislators did not act to protect strikers. As a result, violence between employers and unions was frequent. In 1892, workers struck the Carnegie Steel Company plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, after company manager Henry Clay Frick imposed a wage cut. On June 29, Frick hired some 300 Pinkerton detectives to run the plant, and on July 6, an armed confrontation occurred, resulting in several deaths. The state militia was called in to protect nonunion laborers, who worked the mills from July 12 to November 20, at which point the strike collapsed.

As a result of the Homestead Strike, the nation’s union movement suffered a severe setback, which was compounded two years later during the Pullman Strike of 1894. This violent confrontation between railroad workers and the Pullman Palace Car Company of Illinois tied up rail traffic across the United States from May to July. Workers, who lived in the company-owned town of Pullman (today a part of Chicago’s south side) were protesting wage cuts that had been made without corresponding reductions in company-levied rents and other employee charges. Laborers belonging to the American Railway Union protested—and were summarily fired. Railway union head Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) called a boycott of all Pullman cars, an action to which Pullman lawyers responded by using the newly enacted Sherman anti-trust legislation against the strikers. On July 2, a court injunction was issued to halt the strike. Federal troops were dispatched to enforce the injunction, and a riot broke out, during which several strikers were killed. The strike was crushed by July 10.

AFL. Although the labor movement would not fully recover from these early blows until the 1930s an enduring union did emerge in 1886. The American Federation of Labor was led by a former cigar maker named Samuel Gompers (1850-1924). What set this union apart from the Knights of Labor was that it did not attempt to lump together all trades, skilled and unskilled. Recognizing that working people had certain common interests, but also had differing needs, the AFL existed as a coordinating group for separate trades. The union, which agitated for an eight-hour day, workmen’s compensation, controls on immigrant labor, and protection from “technological unemployment” created by automation, exists today as the AFL-CIO.

I Won’t Work. Although reasonably successful, the AFL did little to address the needs of unskilled labor. So in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed by the Western Federation of Miners and a number of other labor organizations. Eugene Debs was an early force in this, the most radical of American labor unions, but leadership soon passed to William “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928). The “Wobblies,” as IWW members were disparagingly called, vowed permanent class warfare against employers and looked forward to nothing less than a revolution, which would replace capitalism with an “industrial democracy.” The Wobblies’ many opponents simply swore that IWW stood for “I Won’t Work.”

Tweed of Tammany. Where unions fell short of looking after the needs, wishes, and demands of the masses, American city governments spawned “bosses” who operated “political machines.” The big-city boss was characteristically a demagogue, who presented himself as a common man looking out for the interests of the common man. In reality, bosses were corrupt politicians, enriching themselves and their cronies at the expense of their constituents.

Typical of the big-city bosses was William Marcy Tweed (1823-78) of New York, who worked his way up through the city’s political machine (known as Tammany Hall, after the name of a powerful Democratic club). Tweed eventually came to dominate municipal and then state politics. In 1861, Tweed had scarcely a dollar to his name; by 1871, he had amassed a fortune in excess of $2.5 million—all built on influence peddling and kickbacks from the sale of city contracts and franchises. Tweed gathered about himself a band of cronies, called the Tweed Ring, who collectively siphoned off anywhere from $40 million to $200 million in public funds. Tweed was convicted of fraud in 1873, but he fled to Spain. During his heyday, he had been ruthlessly caricatured by the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), and in 1876, Tweed was recognized through a Nast cartoon. As a result, Tweed was arrested and returned to New York, where he died after serving two years in prison.

Urban Reform. The flight and subsequent imprisonment of Boss Tweed did not bring down Tammany Hall; Thomas Croker and “Honest John” Kelly soon took Tweed’s place. Nor was New York unique in being run by a machine and a boss. During the later 19th century, Pittsburgh had its Chris Magee and Bill Finn, Philadelphia its “King Jim” McMahon, Boston its “Czar” Martin Lomansey, and St. Louis its “Colonel” Ed Butler.

The Age of the Machine soon gave rise to an Age of Reform in response to it. The Shame of the Cities, written in 1904 by freelance journalist and passionate reformer Lincoln Steffens, exposed the corruption of St. Louis and showed that it was typical of big-city America. Public outrage flared, making way for such crusading politicians as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert M. La Follette.

Chicago Meat. Talk of corruption and reform was all well and good, but to many, the subject seemed rather abstract and remote. It took a novel, The Jungle, written in 1906 by a socialist writer named Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), to bring corruption and reform—quite literally—to the gut level. Sinclair described the plight of one Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who worked in a Chicago meat-packing plant. Through the eyes of this downtrodden and exploited worker, Sinclair described in sickening detail the horrors of modern meat packing. To fatten the bottom line, packers did not hesitate to use decayed meat, tubercular meat, offal, even rat meat in the manufacture of meat products. Comfortable middle-class Americans may or may not care about the exploitation of a blue-collar Lithuanian immigrant, but the idea of big business poisoning them and their families was truly nauseating. As a result of the indignation stirred by The Jungle, Congress enacted the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act a mere six months after the novel was published.

Muckrakers and Progressivism. Sinclair was one of a group of writers President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a progressive reformer, dubbed “muckrakers.” Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell (author of a landmark expose of Standard Oil), and other journalists, caught up in the Progressive movement sweeping the nation, reported on the corruption and exploitation that seemed rampant in Gilded Age America. The muckrakers exposed child labor practices, slum life, racial persecution, prostitution, sweatshop labor, and the general sins of big business and machine politics.

Government Takes a Hand. The muckrakers succeeded in galvanizing popular opinion and motivating government action. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, antitrust laws were used to break up certain monopolies or trusts. After a long government assault, Standard Oil, most notorious of the trusts, was broken up into 34 companies in 1911. Under Roosevelt, too, public lands were protected from private exploitation, and he is considered a pioneer of the environmental movement. During the Roosevelt era, government also stepped in to establish and enforce standards of purity in food and drugs. The government created safeguards to curb unfair exploitation of workers and restricted child labor. On a local level, cities embarked on programs to clean up slum districts and to educate immigrants and youth.

Three years after Roosevelt left office, Robert M. La Follette, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, led a faction of the most reform-minded Republicans to form a third party, the Progressive Party. The new party drafted an enthusiastic Roosevelt as its standard bearer in the 1912 presidential elections. The Progressives sought a middle road between traditional conservatism on the one hand and populism on the other, without veering toward socialist radicalism. The Progressives advocated programs of moral uplift, such as Chicago’s Hull House, founded in 1889 by social activist Jane Addams. Hull House became a model for providing recreational facilities to slum children, advocating child labor laws, and “Americanizing” immigrants. The Progressives also supported clean government, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. Although many people, contemporaries and historians alike, criticized Progressivism as narrow-minded and ultimately supportive of the status quo, its spirit changed American government, bringing it more intimately and thoroughly into the everyday lives of everyday Americans.

The Least You Need to Know

In 19th-century America, the great fortunes were made on the backs of working men and women, but the labor movement gradually brought a greater degree of democracy to U.S. society.

 The greed and corruption rampant after the Civil War triggered a sweeping reform movement, Progressivism, which encompassed politics, social justice, and general moral “uplift.”

Voice from the Past. Were immigrants welcome in the United States? Not always. Were they exploited and discriminated against? Sometimes. Yet, despite this treatment, America offered the best hope for peoples oppressed, starved, and made desperate in the nations of their birth. The poet Emma Lazarus (1849-87) expressed these sentiments in the poem she composed for inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The statue was created by the sculptor Frederic August Bartholdi and presented to the United States as a gift from the French people. The coolly majestic 151-foot-high female figure (modeled after the artist’s mother), holding aloft a torch and carrying a tablet inscribed with the date of American independence, was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886. Here are the closing lines of the Lazarus sonnet:

      Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Stats. In 1892, the United States Immigration Bureau opened a major central facility for handling the flood of immigration. Ellis Island, within sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, was a place where immigrants could be examined for disease, evaluated as fit or unfit for entry, and either admitted to the mainland, quarantined, or deported. During the 62 years of its operation, from 1892 to 1943, Ellis Island processed immigrants at rates as high as a million people a year.

Main Event. On May 3, 1886, laborers scuffled with police at the McCormick Reaper Company in Chicago after the company had hired nonunion workers during a strike. In the course of the melee, a laborer was killed, and the strikers—among them avowed anarchists—accused the police of brutality. A protest rally was called at the city’s Haymarket Square the next day, May 4. A contingent of 180 police marched in to disperse the rally, and a bomb exploded in their ranks, wounding 66 officers, seven fatally. A riot broke out, and the police fired into the crowd, killing four persons and wounding at least 200.

Travesty followed tragedy, when eight anarchist leaders were convicted as accessories to murder-despite the fact that the actual bomber was never identified. Four of the anarchists were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were jailed. In an act of great moral heroism that destroyed his political career, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld (1847-1902) pardoned the three survivors in 1893.

Word for the Day. A political machine–a group, usually dominated by a political party, that dictates the political life of a city. At the “controls” of the “machine” is the boss, who or may not be an elected official.

Word for the Day. Muckraker was a reference to Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegorical novel by the 17th-century British writer John Bunyan. One of Bunyan’s allegorical characters, used a “muckrake” to clean up the (moral) filth around him, even as he remained oblivious of the celestial beauty above.

Real Life. Theodore Roosevelt feared that Republican party bosses had consigned him to a secondary political role when he was nominated as William McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 presidential election. However, Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th president on September 14, 1901, after McKinley died of a gunshot wound inflicted on September 6 by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Roosevelt proved so dynamic a leader that he was elected to the office in his own right in 1904, serving until 1909. Roosevelt had been born into a moneyed old New York family on October 27, 1858. Weak and asthmatic as a child, Roosevelt was determined to build up his body and engaged in a regimen of exercise, sport, and outdoor activity he proudly dubbed “the strenuous life.” He was, by turns and sometimes simultaneously, an author, politician, and rancher. Appointed assistant secretary of the navy under McKinley in 1897, he advocated preparation for war with Spain over its colonial policies in Cuba. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War the following year, Roosevelt helped organize a volunteer cavalry unit called the Rough Riders, serving in Cuba as its dashing colonel.

His war record and reform reputation propelled Roosevelt to election as governor of New York in 1898. His crusading soon cramped the style of Republican party boss Thomas Collier Platt, who decided to “kick him upstairs” by arranging for his nomination as McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate in 1900.

If the nation mourned McKinley’s assassination the following year, none did so more than Republican conservatives, who had little stomach for Roosevelt’s “Progressivism.” The new president took aim at the big corporate trusts, wielding the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 as a club.

With election to a second term, Roosevelt became even more zealous in his Progressive reforms, doing battle against what he called the “malefactors of wealth.” He strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission’s power to regulate railroads, and he supported the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug bills. In foreign policy, Roosevelt was equally vigorous and (as many saw it) radical. In 1903, when Colombia rejected a treaty giving the United States the right to dig a canal across the isthmus of Panama, “TR” supported the revolution that created an independent Panama. He then struck a canal treaty with the new nation and supervised construction of the Panama Canal.

For better or worse, Roosevelt was an American imperialist, who advocated extending the nation’s sphere of influence—by force, if necessary. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Roosevelt remarked in a September 2, 1901, speech at the Minnesota State Fair. Criticized by some contemporaries and historians alike as a war monger, Roosevelt stepped between Russia and Japan in 1905 to mediate peace in the Russo-Japanese War, an action that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

After he left office in 1909, Roosevelt embarked on various adventures (including African big game hunting), then helped Robert M. La Follette found the Progressive Party—popularly called the Bull Moose Party. As third-party candidate, Roosevelt outpolled Republican William Howard Taft in the 1912 elections, but he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Falling ill in 1918, TR died on January 6, 1919.


Word for the Day. Populism is a political philosophy that supports the rights and power of the people versus the privileged moneyed elite. It was the philosophy of the Populist Party that polled more than a million votes in the presidential election of 1892.


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