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American Social History Since 1865

Introduction

American history after the Civil War of 1861-1865, which came to be known as the ‘Gilded Age,’ was characterized with rapid population growth, huge economic boom and the creation of a modern industrial economy. Mark Twain and Charles Dudely Warner coined the term ‘Gilded Age’ in their novel “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” where they portrayed this era as a period where government officials did not hesitate in taking bribes to approve and support policies that benefited private and individual interests over the public’s concern.1 At the time, the U.S became a more united and powerful nation, recognized as a fast rising country and a dominant economic giant in the world. Also, adversely this period in American history came with opportunities that corrupted political, social, economic as well as other sectors of existence and was characterized by unwarranted and rampant corruption deals.

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Main body

Apart from just politics there were other fundamental aspects that shaped American history during 1865-1900 such as: economic, social, intellectual and cultural ideologies. However, politics played a very dominant role in shaping the ‘Gilded Age’ period. Edwards in her book, “New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” states that the civil war had more profound impact on changes in history. “Confederate surrender did not so much restore the old nation as create a new one, reshaped by not only the war but by economic and political changes that had began earlier and had helped precipitate the conflict. With the union preserved and slavery ended, most Americans hoped for the “new birth of freedom”.2 Contrary to Mark Twain and Charles Dudely, Edwards offers a different view on the ‘Gilded Age’ on what brought it up. She states that the society in America today is due to the choices that were made during the post-civil war period of the late 1800s to early 1900s.

Despite the traditional view on this period portraying a corrupt and revolting era, Edwards tries to consciously bring about a different translation to events that took place during this period and shaped the U.S. Her views are extensively drawn from Walt Whitman’s conviction that the U.S would be more democratic society due to the new spirit that was rising among Americans. Whitman believed that minorities such as women and African-Americans would be added to the voters list, something that was unheard of before the civil war. He also foresaw the democratization of American culture so that ordinary people could attain college education. By sharing the same views with Whitman, Edwards shows that Americans who felt repulsed by the actions of the ‘Gilded Age’ desired to clean up the system and restore sanity to their society by coming up with reforms based on spiritual values, family life and honesty which were basically traditional values. They thus became known as the progressives.3

American history after 1865 was characterized by three stages that were fundamental to transforming American society and culture, not only the ‘Gilded Age’, but the reconstruction era and the industrial revolution of the late 19th century. The reconstruction era 1865-1877 focused on the nation as a whole just after the civil war and the period between 1863 and 1877, which specifically focused on the southern states. The industrial revolution from about 1865 to 1913 saw factories and machine- powered tools replacing hand tools and small workshops, an increase in population due to the growing economy. Urban centers and towns also realized an increase in population, because of the many factories and industries coming up, for example Chicago’s population grew from 30,000 in 1850 to a tremendous 1.7million by early 1900s. The first revolution focused mainly on factories, from reliance on artisans while the second revolution shifted its focus to coordination of the industries and expanding on organizational methods. All this was made possible by availability of: cheap labor from an influx of immigrants to the U.S of more than 20 million people between 1870 -1920; and land on which to set up factories; natural resources; diversified climate; availability of capital; and faster transport-canals.4

The immigrants who were mainly made up of western Europeans mixed with some northern Europeans settled in the industrial cities. These immigrants were driven from their countries by either poverty, political unrest and were attracted to America by jobs or a bright future and sometimes family connections with those who had immigrated earlier. The U.S east coast and mainly the city of New York became host to a lot of immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Israel while the Midwest was favored by Germans looking for mining jobs in the gold fields. Despite America being open to everyone, Asians were still unwelcome after an 1882 law by congress halting Chinese immigration for a period of about 10 years.5

As seen, the American history and culture underwent a metamorphosis that saw it rise up from a civil war to become an economic giant in the world. This can also be attributed, apart from what has already been mentioned above to other factors such as: the discovery of fossil fuels which replaced human, water and animal power; government policies for example, the Homestead Act (1862) which gave citizens an opportunity to obtain 160 acres land in west America by either living on the land for a period of five years or paying $10 for it. This resulted to close to 430,000 settlers by 1895 filling out claim forms for the land and leading to the west being utilized to its maximum potential. Other factors are transport and especially the railway where companies were given huge subsidies in the form of lands; higher education was also expanded due to high demands of a more educated labor force.6

The defeat of the confederates in the 1861-1865 civil war left a bitter taste in most white southerners who were unwilling to accept former slaves and the ‘new world’ being created around them. White southerners wanted to restore the old order and retain a hold on blacks but the freed slaves themselves wanted to assert their new found freedom from white control thus creating a violent conflict between the two groups. African-Americans now wanted to be able to do what they were banned from before the civil war much to the dismay of white southerners. Blacks could now get married, have jobs, they created their own churches, bought property and commodities from local stores, reunite with lost family members due to sale as slaves, and most important of all get an education which under slavery they could not obtain.7 In contrast, the white southerners had lost property and loved ones and were very bitter about their situation.

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All this in addition to the influx of immigrants into America created tension and resulted to hostilities among themselves. The freed slaves lacked education, better jobs, spiritual nourishment, that they did not enjoy when in slavery and this worried the whites.8 However, during the reconstruction era a mobilized black community keen on having a voice over issues affecting them, joined politics and allied themselves to like-minded whites who were mostly northerners. This marked the beginning of the Republican Party. Black men were given the right to vote and a guarantee of civil rights when congress enacted new laws and introduced the 14th and 15th amendments between 1866 and 1869. Although there was some progress there was still some racial tension. White southerner’s inability to accept emancipation of the blacks caused them to pass legislations (the Black Codes) that completely limited Blacks’ legal rights and economic options, in order to force them back to the plantations. Some even limited their rights to vote.9

1865-1900 was mainly characterized by the conflict between emancipated slaves with allies from the white northerners on one side and the white southerners on the other side. This could be termed as “a state of war” comparable to a second Civil War. 1865 saw the call for abolishment and overthrow of the governments formed under President Johnson in his racial backed reconstruction policies, by radical republicans mainly white northerners. They were calling for equality for all with black men being allowed to vote just as white men and also be incorporated in government institutions. The 1870s saw violent secret societies spring up as soon as blacks gained the right to vote, which were determined to return white supremacy in American society.10

Conclusion

The Democratic Party emerged in the 1790s and consequently the Republican Party emerged as a result of these divergent and conflicting issues between white supremacists from the south and the northern whites who were more inclined to listen to issues that affected the blacks only. The Republican Party was largely an advocacy for freedom from slavery for the blacks and first came to power in 1860 during the civil war. However, earlier democrats’ ideologies leaned a lot towards white southern supremacists’ resentment to emancipation of blacks. Although they have evolved and changed their ideologies over time these two parties still remain the most dominant in American society, even up to date.11

Works cited

Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print.

Twain, Mark. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Charleston, SC: Biblio Bazaar, 2009. Print.

Footnotes

  1. Twain, Mark. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Charleston, SC: Biblio Bazaar, 2009. Print, 9.
  2. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 4-5.
  3. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 277-278.
  4. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print ,13.
  5. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 13.
  6. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 154.
  7. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 65.
  8. Twain, Mark. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Charleston, SC: Biblio Bazaar, 2009. Print, 87.
  9. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 54.
  10. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 132.
  11. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age: 1865-1905. London: Oxford U.P., 2010. Print, 89.

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