2 Feb 2006
THE HORATIO ALGER ESSAY
“There is not a single man in the United States who is poor for any reason other than his own lack of ability.” This paraphrased quote from a Reverend preaching the Gospel of Wealth reflects the mindset of the rich during the Gilded Age (1865-1900) – a time remembered for its excesses and rampant corruption. After the Civil War, technology (such as the railroad and steel) as well as attitude (the government’s laissez-faire approach to business) combined to create unique opportunities for those with the ingenuity to seek them. The opportunities seized upon in this time would never again be available, and led to the creation of great social disparity. The wealthy practice philanthropy, which benefited the downtrodden class they helped to create. Even minority groups found a new chance to become a bigger piece of the social milieu. It was opportunity, seized upon by the few but felt by the man, that had the most impact on people’s lives throughout America in this epochal time period.
The severe economic disparity attached to this era was itself a result of opportunity. While America had had millionaires before, they had been few and far between. For the first time in American history, a whole class of millionaires existed, with luminaries such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and the Vanderbeldts at the top of the heap. These men (sometimes rising to their wealth from veritable poverty, as Carnegie had) fueled the industrialization of America. Their factories attracted farmers and immigrants alike to the cities, further entrenching wage slaves and implicitly, disparity, into the fabric of American culture. Their railroads funneled people to the West, where many tried (and failed) to strike it rich, requiring these people to also become wage slaves. Towards the end of the Gilded Age, Patronage fell out of favor, leaving a vacuum of power filled by these entrepreneurial titans – a wedding of business and government that would last well beyond the era being discussed, and one that helped ensure the rich would stay that way. Business would provide campaign funds and politicians would provide favorable legislation – even the Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1890 (supposedly designed to crush monopolies) was used as an anti-labor union tool by businesses. And while disparity had existed prior to the Gilded Age, it was no where near the extent to which it was widened during these short 35 years.
In part perhaps to soothe their guilt, the wealthy aided the poor they helped create through philanthropy. In this way, the money made by the few was infused back into the public schools, libraries, universities and other public institutions. Fueled by a paradoxical Gospel of Wealth (that at once stated ability was God-given and blamed the poor for being too lazy to make themselves rich), millionaires sought to depart with their money before they should “die in disgrace.” Carnegie, for example, gave away about $350 million of his total $400 million before dying. One could even argue that political bosses (who seized opportunity via graft) practiced philanthropy to a degree – they brought necessities such as plumbing to poor immigrant neighborhoods in exchange for votes. This was during a time when most – including the government (e.g. Chinese Exclusion Act) – were outwardly racist and contemptuous of the New Immigrants (Irish, Itallian…) that flocked to America during this period.
Minority groups, such as the New Immigrants, found many new opportunities in this era as well. While many bemoan the New Immigrant’s squalid living conditions in cities (especially New York), few recall that these conditions, and the wages these people earned, were better than those found in their home countries. Women were the ones to see the most improvement in this time. Inventions such as the telephone and typewriter greatly expanded the amount of jobs women could take. While it may true that working women were predominantly single due to lingering prejudices, women from all walks of life could become leaders of reform movements. A forerunner of the Populist party, Mary E. Lewis, urged Kansas to “raise less corn and more hell.” Expanded opportunities for African Americans (living in the North – Southern blacks were still largely disenfranchised thanks to the Black Codes and the court decision Plessey v Ferguson which legalized segregation) was reflected in W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. From Harvard.
The Gilded Age was not a period dominated by disparity, but one ripe with opportunity. Disparity was actually a result of the seizure of this opportunity by business tycoons like Andrew Carnegie. Philanthropy helped spread the wealth, and minorities continued to gain new opportunities – a trend that would extend beyond the Gilded Age itself.