After the Civil War, America was still amidst great turmoil and economic instability. During this time period, the ultimate goal for Americans was to seize the “American Dream”. This was defined by most as being able to support their family and live a comfortable life. Although some did achieve this, many faced social, political and economic hardships. Beginning with the unjust treatment of African-Americans, then the struggles of immigrants, and followed by the rise of big businesses, the challenges faced during this time of rebuilding varied among the classes.
Of all the groups, African-Americans, had the most treacherous economic ladder to climb. Immediately following the Civil War they had the freedoms necessary to obtain economic success. They were ready to take advantage of their newly found rights as Americans after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Many African-Americans began to find jobs away from the plantations or even re-negotiate deals with their previous masters. The photograph, “Hampton Institute, 1900”, depicted a painting of blacks working on a stair case.
This is a metaphor to the way the ex-slaves had to start at the bottom and work their way up.
They were complacent with this because they thought if they worked hard, it would be possible for them to seize the “American Dream”. By the turn of the decade, hundreds were elected to office, including two state-lieutenant governors and fifteen into the House of Representatives. However, whites became displeased with the advancement of African-Americans and sought out to limit their ability of being independently successful. Once the reconstruction period ended and the south had control again, the government decided to implement laws that barred African-Americans of exercising their simple rights.
The Grandfather Clause, was one of these laws passed that created new, more extraneous restrictions for voting. It was doctored-in, in order to limit the amount of African-Americans who could vote. Many of them could not pass these simple literacy tests required to register. They also had difficulty paying a poll tax that was just too expensive, while whites were exempted from these laws because their grandfather had previously voted. To further limit their abilities to succeed in America, the Klu Klux Klan was organized to intimidate and kill free blacks This was considerably the worst time in the history of America for African-Americans.
As they realized this the people started to form organizations so they could have formal representation on their behalf. By 1909, a well-educated, Harvard Graduate, W. E. B. Dubois founded the NAACP. The purpose of this organization was to actively seek better civil rights laws pertaining to minorities. Although these new civil rights groups were being formed, African-Americans still had a difficult time becoming successful and would have a long path ahead of them until they could gain full sovereignty. Immigrants, on the other hand, came in huge waves. A diversified group of people, a few became rich, the rest were manipulated by Americans.
The first wave mostly hailed from Northern Europe. These would turn out to be the most prosperous of the immigrants, the big businessmen, which will be touched on in the next topic. The next wave, mixed more with Eastern Europeans and Chinese, who were not quite as buoyant. The supply of laborers flooded the market, which decreased wages dramatically. The high level of competition created difficult times, causing many cut backs on costs in anyway possible. For example, “Tenement Picture 2” depicts seven immigrants crammed in a room who were doing their best to work, ignoring lengthy shifts and dangerous working conditions.
Between 1880 and 1900, more than 35,000 people were killed on the job. Immigrants often offered to work for less than white males because of their needs to work by any means necessary. This instilled the view of white “Nativism” towards immigrants, because many whites lost their jobs. They believed they had a certain rights as America’s first colonists! These “newcomers” did not deserve to come here and steal their jobs. Mike Trudic’s account from his childhood referred to his father’s hunt in America to desperately find work, “At the end of a week he was taken ill and died.
It said he died of a broken heart”(Mike, 188). There were just too many workers and not enough jobs to be filled. Another first hand source provided by Rose Cohen, called Out of the Shadow, depicts the story of a jewish girl in New York and the experiences her family goes through in order to reach a sustainable lifestyle. The struggles included descriptions of harsh working conditions and anti-semitism, which created difficulty for immigrants who were trying to assimilate into the American culture.
The formation of unions helped workers of similar nature band together and demand better wages for their work. Many workers went on-strike, demanding higher wages, but living paycheck to paycheck it was difficult to weather out an entire strike. With the onset of industrialization and the automation of many factory jobs, the amount of jobs available decreased and further dumbed down the jobs, requiring less education to operate effectively, and further increasing the market for competition.
Immigrants just wanted to sustain a good job that can make them enough money to support their family and live comfortably, but had a tough time being affluent in America while working wage-labor shifts in poor working conditions. It seemed like there was no way to break through the glass barrier that seemed to be growing between the social elite and lower-class, which limited immigrants economic success. At the same time these economic struggles are taking place for African-Americans and later immigrants, there were Americans who were financially well-off.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the economy was weak and the market had low barriers-to-entry. This was a result of the governments enforcement of “Laissez-Faire”, meaning “hands-off”, and the lack of government regulations. Few took advantage of this raw economy with few rules, but for those who did it paid off significantly. Through hard work, and fortunate investing, anyone could climb the ladder to success in an unbelievably fast rate. One of the success stories was John Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, and a prominent businessman.
Rockefeller revolutionized the way business was conducted in America. His vision was to obtain full horizontal integration by building a monopoly and destroying his competitors. He was cut-throat in his approach to business, sometimes cutting deals with railroads to run people out of business. In a six-week period he remarkably took over 22 of 26 competitors in a six-week period. He proved Horatio Algers claim that, “through hard-work and a little luck, anyone can climb the ladder to success”. Rockefeller maximized the usage of capitalism, and emulated the “American Dream”.
The lack of government regulation led to an unbalanced distribution of wealth across the different social classes. Ruthless business practices limited the affluence to the social-elite, through social darwinism. Social darwinism expanded on the theory that talented individuals will succeed, due to the high competition, and those who are weaker will be left behind. From this perspective, any form of government regulations would slow down progress. Many industrialist argued that monopolies were good for business.
This was because they eliminated the competition and allowed for one corporation to decide the terms of business, typically unfair towards the lower classes. Compared to the easy barriers-to-entry in the marketplace earlier in the century, there was no free market present at the period. Big businessmen seized most of the opportunities and maximized their wealth. A vivid example of corporate power was the picture of John Rockefeller holding the government in his hand saying, “What a funny little government. Most of the wealth belonged to a small group of people at the top, who had great political influence by buying politicians with their hefty bank accounts. Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, raised the question, “is class inequality inevitable? And if it was America was doomed”. This was an important question that desperately needed to be answered by the American people and government, if America was going to succeed. Otherwise, America would never become what it was meant to be, a land of equality among all peoples.
With this new found wealth big businessmen took it upon themselves to partake in the earliest forms of philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie stated, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced”(Andrew), They began to give back to the community that made them their fortunes by investing in medicinal research, education and other ways to create jobs. Along with governments forming regulations on businesses the class stratification grew significantly. Although there were great stories of success, the impediments standing in the way for most Americans hindered their ability to succeed.
This is important issue in American history because it exposed the difficulty of grasping the “American Dream”. With the harsh treatment of African-Americans and the poor working conditions for immigrants it was an overall difficult beginning to a new union and new era in America. The wealth in America was distributed disproportionally, but through progression, the class stratification began to balance. However, there would still prove to be a long journey ahead towards reaching civil equality for all classes
Cite this History Thesis: Reconstruction Era
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