The decades following the conclusion of the Civil War were a time of great change and socioeconomic upheaval in the United States. With the Industrial Revolution in full-swing, the advancement of technology was exploding at an unprecedented rate, and the American society was struggling to keep up while at the same time mending national rifts left in the wake of the war. This created an atmosphere rife with social inequality, as a few profited monumentally from the industrial boom, while others wallowed and starved in city slums.Despite the societal hardships created by immigration, poverty, labor disputes and corporate greed, this equally dismal and ostentatious period of history was a turning point for America that would define her place in the world as a wealthy industrial power.
Following the war, a massive trend began involving a shift of population from rural areas to the cities. Much of this was a direct result of the increasing industrialization of the country, as more and more factories were built in what would become the nation’s major manufacturing hubs.With these factories came the promise of jobs, an appealing lure to rural families uprooted by the war as well as immigrants from Europe and Asia. Immigration to the US skyrocketed following the war, as the demand for unskilled labor increased exponentially on the wave of industrialization. Between this new influx of immigrants and natural population growth, America’s population boomed from an estimated 31 million in 1860 to nearly triple that, 106 million, in the next fifty years.This massive growth in population flooding America’s cities resulted in a steep decline in living conditions for the lower class.
Large numbers of poor laborers flooded into New York, Chicago, St. Louis and other industrial centers on a daily basis, crowding into slums already packed to capacity. This unstable congestion resulted in highly unsanitary conditions and frequent outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever.Amongst this group, the average annual income was only $380 in 1890, an amount distinctly below the poverty line. This rampant epidemic of poverty eventually gave rise to labor unions and inner-city political machines, many of which would give rise to organized crime.
Workers attempted to protest low wages and poor living conditions by going on strike, and there were an estimated ten thousand strikes during the 1880s. These strikes frequently turned violent, as in the case of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.During this nationwide strike in response to the B&O Railroad company slashing wages, violence broke out in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries amongst strikers, police and government militias. The rich industrialists, who held the reins of economic and political power during this period, turned a blind eye to the suffering of their laborers and were often ruthless in crushing labor uprisings.
Companies wasted no time in summoning support from state and federal troops, taking every opportunity to imprison labor leaders and stamp out labor demands. Meanwhile these leaders of industry lived in conditions of extreme wealth and opulence such as the United States had never before witnessed. Families like the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Astors constructed ostentatious palaces in New York and other major cities, and paraded their new found wealth, oblivious to the fact it was gained through the suffering of millions.Despite the inequality and violence of the time, the late 19th Century was a turning point for the United States. Advancements made in industrialization and technology would propel America toward being a true imperial power.
Given this understanding, one must conclude that the ends justify the means- the common man may have suffered during this period in history, but his contribution to the future of his country and generations to come was monumental.