Gilded Age and Why It Was a Violent Time - Free Essay Example

Published: 2022-12-08
Gilded Age and Why It Was a Violent Time - Free Essay Example
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Violence American history Social issue
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1362 words
12 min read


The Gilded Age is one of the most told issues in the history of the United States. Fundamentally, it refers to a brief period in American history after the Civil War restoration time. Notably, the name Gilded age is derived from the vast fortunes that were created during this period. During this time, America experienced a population and economic boom that led to the creation of an incredibly upper class. The United States entered into the period of rapid industrialization from the period the 1870s to 1890s, and this was characterized by an agrarian economy to an industrial economy prompting the majority of the Americans began moving to urban areas. In the view of Mark Twain, the gilded age was a time when greed and corruption took centre stage in the United States. As part of the development during this period, the industrialization tremendously increased the need for workers in America's factories. Ideally, the job availability that required limited or no skills contributed to significant immigration from European nations to the United States. While it is evident that the gilded age brought about a considerable amount of transformation to the American economy, this period is regarded as one which was characterized by massive violence among different groups of people who had vested interest on the ongoing economic issues. Various factors such as income inequality and the need to solve such disparity brought tensions among the wealthy entrepreneurs who owned factories and who represented a small fraction of the Americans - the few wealthy controlled majority of the wealth in the US at this time. The economic disparities between the laborers and the big business owners grew steadily leading to increased tension and violence.

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Problems that Created Tensions and Violence

Inequality of Income

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the gilded age was the inequality of income characterized by a tremendous unequal distribution of wealth. From 1860 to 1800, the wealthiest 2 per cent of America's household owned more than 60 per cent of the total wealth in the United States. Also, the top 10 per cent of the American households owned more than 75 per cent of the whole wealth. This situation tremendously brought about the unequal distribution of income among the Americans. According to historian Brands, the income disparity along with poor working and living conditions for working classes led to the rose of the populist, anarchist, and socialist movements. The majority of economists around this time such as Willford King were more concerned that the country was transforming itself into in-egalitarian to the point of resembling an old Europe. As such, the workers repeatedly attempted to defend or improve their living and working conditions through a collective refusal to work until specific demands we met (Brands, 136-141). Some of these demands included the need to reduce disparity that existed, improved working and living conditions (Example#1).

The Rise in Labour Unions

The labour union were mainly formed in response to the working conditions that people were experiencing at that time. For instance, the formation of labour unions increased the frequency of violence that people experienced during the gilded age. Notably, the craft-oriented labour unions such as the carpenters, printers, shoemakers, and the cigar makers grew exponentially within the industrial cities after the 1870s. These adopted the short strikes as the mechanism to gain control over the labour markets, and outdo the rival unions. They generally blocked women, black Americans and the Chinese from the union membership but welcomed the European immigrants (Example#2).

It is important to note that the railroads had their separate unions. Civil unrest comprising of more than 80,000 railroad employees and several hundred thousand American consisting of both the employed and unemployed emerged during the economic depression of the 1870s and became regarded as the Great Railroad strike of 1877. According to the historian Jack Beatty, it was the most significant strike anywhere in the history of the world because it lasted for about 45 days even though it did not involve the labour unions but uncoordinated outbursts across many cities. This violence resulted in massive loss of life with an estimated several hundred deaths and injuries which included both the civilians, police and soldiers.

Pullman strike was another example of strike that increased tensions and constituted the most significant strike in 1884, which was mainly a coordinated effort to destabilize and close the national railroad systems (Example#3). It was led by the upstart American Railway Union masterminded by Eugene Debs and was never reinforced by the already formed brotherhoods. The circumstances that surrounded the political climate at that time prompted the union to defy the federal court orders to cease blocking the main trains. As a response, President Cleveland used the U.S Army to get the trains moving again.

From the beginning of the mid-1880s, a new group known as the Knights of Labour was established and began to grow tremendously. However, it spun out of control and was unable to control the Great Southwest Railroad strike of 1886. The Knights mostly avoided the violence. However, they had their reputation collapse in the wake of the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago in 1886. In this event, the anarchists allegedly bombed the policemen who were dispersing the gathering. It prompted the police officer to start firing randomly into the crowd leading to injury of some people including the police and other arbitrarily rounded anarchists.

African Americans in the Gilded Age

The plight of the African Americans in the gilded age significantly increased the tension and violence during this period. Notably, this is the period that was regarded as the "nadir of American relations" as it characterized a general and worst kind of racism in the history of the United States. For example, during this period, African Americans lost many civil rights gained during the reconstruction period (Example#4). The issues such as the poor working and living conditions, harsh treatment and murder compounded with racism facilitated anti-black violence, lynching, segregations, legal racial discrimination and the expression of the white supremacy. As such, the blacks not only faced exclusion but forbidden to attend and use social facilities such as the restrooms, lunchrooms, and fitting rooms. Those who were economically successful were subjected to reprisals or sanctions. The white therefore barred the people from the African community from advancing through violence.

The Successfulness of the Strikes and Violence

It is important to note that the strikes initiated by the labour union became routine events by 1880s prompted by the increased gap between the wealthy and the poor. Historians document a total of 37,000 strikes between 1881 and 1905. The primary objective was to control the working conditions and settling which rival union was in control. Most of the strikes and violence were however unsuccessful because of the disorganization and the sharp repulsion and counter-attacks mechanism employed by the police officers. In the times of depression, the strikes were most violent but less successful. This is because most companies were losing money and therefore could not consider the demands placed by the striking workers anyway as this would lead to further financial losses. However, they were only successful, and the laborers could benefit in the times of prosperity when the company was undergoing financial losses and wanted to settle quickly.


In sum, the gilded age is a period that was characterized by massive violence from the labourers and labour unions who demanded better wages, good working conditions and the reduction of disparity. Issues such as the inequality of income, plight of the African American and other minority groups, and the rise of labour unions played critical roles in increasing the tensions across the United States. While it is evident that the tension formed an essential part of the period, the gilded age had a more significant impact upon the United States than the Progressive Era. Undeniably, it gave rise to new industries, established transportation, and communication and networks which offered the infrastructure for further technological development in the Progressive Era. The construction of the railroad including the transcontinental railroad, which linked the United States from New York to California is a significant example of the significances.


Brands, H. W. 2011. American colossus: the triumph of capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Anchor Books.

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