You are on page 1of 3

Unit Overview

UNIT 2 of American History 2 examines the Gilded Age and Progressive Era through
the lenses of urbanization, immigration, power and reform.

The Gilded Age: Industrialization and Immigration

By the 1880s, industrialization takes hold of the northern and Midwestern portions
of the United States. Technological innovations helped speed up production in
factories and aided in the growth of cities. Urbanization reaches new heights, both
figuratively and literally. Not only do many Americans migrate to the cities to find
work, but the hope for work and a chance at the American Dream brings millions
of immigrants to the United States.
From 1870 to 1900, approximately twelve million immigrants arrived in the United
States. The majority of these immigrants traveled from Europe and were processed
on the East Coast at Ellis Island, while a smaller number of immigrants, mostly from
Asia, entered the United States through the western processing center at Angel
Island. These huddled masses endured long voyages in hopes of improving their
quality of life. Once through the stressful ordeal of being processed, most of the
immigrants traveled to large cities, settled in neighborhoods that became distinct
ethnic communities, and became factory workers.
The Gilded Age: Political Machines and Captains of Industry
Local and state politicians would use the naivety of immigrants to gain votes and
secure their positions of power. Once in power, a system of patronage and
favoritism was used to maintain their power in the political arena, essentially
creating political machines. Political machines could be found in major cities
around the country, and once in place, they were difficult to dismantle and riddled
with corruption. The politicians in control would use their power to grant favors to
businesses and workers in return for monetary support and votes.
By supporting political machines, industrialists were able ensure a laissez faire
government that would not interfere with business practices. These practices
included a variety of measures to increase the wealth and power of large business
owners, often at the expense of small businesses, workers, and consumers. Robber
Barons and Captains of Industry were able to rise to the top by eliminating
competition through the creation of monopolies. While many defended their
business tactics and treatment of workers by citing Darwins survival of the fittest
theory, others used their money and power to give back to the communities.
Progressivism: Moving Towards Reform
Rapid urbanization presented new obstacles for cities. Sanitation and housing
became major issues as the population in major cities grew. Concerns over fire
safety grew as top floors in buildings became out of reach for longest fire
department ladders. The masses needed a way to decompress and enjoy the little

leisure time they had. Some of these obstacles would be fuel for the Progressive Era
and help change the nature of American entertainment.
Life in urban areas changed as a result of the huge numbers of immigrants. The
mass influx of diverse cultures led to the development of ethnic neighborhoods that
continued the cultural aspects of home. Unfortunately, life in the big city was
filled with hardship. Most immigrants, as well as poor Americans, lived in
overcrowded tenements. The monotony of factory work, along with long hours and
low wages, took their toll on workers morale. Hope waned for labor reform due to
the laissez faire attitude in government.
As a result of the frustration, workers began to unite and form labor unions. People,
like Terrance Powderly, Samuel Gompers, and Eugene Debs, helped workers
organized and fight for better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions.
Through tactics like arbitration and strikes, labor unions hoped to improve the lives
of both skilled and unskilled workers. Though few gains were made by the end of
the 19th Century, the work of labor unions would increase the demand for major
A foreshadowing of serious reform came with the collapse of patronage, which
fueled the political machines. In 1883, the Pendleton Civil Service Act changed the
way in which government positions were granted. No longer could elected officials
pack their offices with friends. Instead, positions had to be filled by those qualified
for the position. The Pendleton Civil Service Act was yet another sign of the reforms
to come.
Progressivism: Reform
The momentum for the Progressive Era grew with the muckraking done by
journalists at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century.
Muckrakers brought to light the living conditions of the urban poor, infiltrated
factories to uncover the horrifying truths of food production and worker hardship,
exposed the corruption in big cities, and reported the abuses of big business. These
actions opened the door for reform. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft,
and Woodrow Wilson answered the call for reform.
The first twenty years of the 20th Century was commanded by Roosevelt, Taft, and
Wilson, commonly referred to as the Progressive Presidents. The laissez-faire
government of the late 19th Century was replaced by a regulatory government
aimed at breaking up monopolies, improving the distribution of wealth, and
protecting workers and consumers. By the start of the 1920s, the federal
government had managed to add four new amendments to the Constitution
including one creating an income tax and one granting women the right to vote.
Additionally, federal policies aimed at regulating business and protecting consumers
were created: the Federal Reserve System, Federal Trade Commission, and Food and
Drug Administration. These major domestic changes paralleled changes in American
foreign policy, which found America involved in imperialism and a world war.
The government was not alone in the Progressive Movement, citizens also worked
for change. People like Jane Addams and Lillian Wald created settlement houses to

help immigrants and the poor. Minority groups worked to protect their civil liberties
and gain certain rights. Although progress was made for some (women were
granted the right to vote) true equality would still be out of reach for some time.