The land of opportunities – a title that America prides herself today with hasn’t always fitted the bill. The mid to late nineteenth century saw a period where poverty, inequality and hopelessness gripped the entire nation. The gap between the haves and have nots had never been wider than it had been during this span of time. Post Civil War, the country voyaged towards the path of growth and industrialization that no other country had ever witnessed. People like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan laid the foundation of modern America by making huge gains in railway, oil, steel, electric and banking industries. The today’s big giants, be it Standard Oil, US Steel or General Motors were all a product of this time frame. Th US economy experienced a full blown boom and emerged as a formidable force on the map of the earth.
On paper, this all seems as if the American Dream is all too real for the common. The truth, however, is in wide contrast from reality. The business magnates of that time took full and to be quite frank, unjust advantage of the capitalistic ideology that formed the basis of this great nation. The complete absence of checks and balances on the businesses by the Federal government corrupted the very soul of the pioneers of industries. Greed and lust for money made them ruthless capitalists who wouldn’t stop at anything to maximize their profits and to stuff their bank accounts.
The labour that was completely at mercy of the owners worked in sickening conditions. Their shifts lasting as long as twelve hours while earning less than dollar a day, well below poverty line. The labour unions were non-existent. Those who voiced their frustration against the large businesses were simply put out of work. At one instance, when the labour force at Homestead Steel Works went on strike in 1892 due to dreadful working conditions, the management of the steel mill hired Pinkerton Army, a private army with more ammunition at disposal than the entire federal army. This hire for money militia opened fire on the unarmed workers resulting in the death of nine laborers. This event didn’t even make a small dent in the steely practices of such businesses and they escaped without any consequences. On the contrary, the government became more sympathetic to such mammoth corporations thus banning any such strikes in the future.
The laissez-faire policy of government was no less than a nightmare for ordinary hardworking Americans. No one but no one dared speak against it. The politicians were far too indebted to question their practices. J.P. Morgan alone loaned $65 million to U.S. government in times of crisis. This amounts to billions of dollars in today’s age. When a democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan rose his voice against the large syndicates, the trio (Rockefeller, Carnegie & J.P. Morgan) silenced him by mega funding of his rival, the Republican nominee William McKinley. Not just that, they bribed the print media in publishing against Jennings and threatened their workers that if Jennings wins the election, they better not turn up for work. Such was the power of these legends of American history that even the president was on their pay roll.
This era was rightly termed as ‘The Gilded Age’ taken from novel of Mark Twain titled ‘The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today’. It showcased any era where America embarked on a journey of rapid development masked with unprecedented financial inequality and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The unchecked capitalism during this era made the rich richer and poor poorer. Exploitation and monopolization dug its roots deep in the American society during this time. John D. Rockefeller, while expressing his belief in ruthless capitalism said during antitrust hearing of Standard Oil Company v. U.S. Government, “You call it monopoly, I call it enterprise.” Such a statement showcases that the top brass of industries of that time wholly believed that their business tactics were in line with their beliefs. They didn’t feel even an ounce of remorse and regret for exploiting the less fortunate.
But the truth remains, had these men not done what they did, the transformation of America from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation would have taken far longer. Ruthless capitalism was the need of the hour. The professional rivalry between these tycoons ensured America’s road towards growth to be a smooth one. Perhaps they weren’t as selfish as the history portrays them to be. Had it not been the case, why would the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller donate millions of dollars for philanthropic endeavors?
Today, however, is an absolutely different ballgame. Ruthless capitalism isn’t a necessity of the time. America is already a super power. Be it its soft power or the hard one, it is leading the chart in all formats. Yet, the recent tax cuts given to the top one percent by the Trump administration makes very little sense. The amplifying concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is indeed a reality. Even today, those who oppose such moves are kept out of the corridors of power by either huge donations by wall street to their opponents or by simply outnumbering them through super pacs- a reality which has stained the entire electoral process of United States. It seems as if America is again on the path of the very same practices that it adopted in the nineteenth century- for better or for worse.