The American Civil War served as the world’s first great industrial war. The north, which had the industrial infrastructure, ultimately prevailed. Industry and transportation grew massively in the several decades following the war. Big business as a political force became extremely powerful, rarely suffering much interference from government. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the age of the “robber barons,” the great trusts, cartels and monopolies in every important industry. The railroad, steel, oil and electrical industries grew at a phenomenal pace between 1865 and 1914. At the same time, the combination of rich agricultural lands with industrialized, mechanized farming techniques turned the United States into the world’s greatest and most efficient producer of food.
For many Americans, even though a small oligarchy of industrialists wielded both political and economic power, the quality of everyday life steadily improved. Food supplies became more reliable, as did transportation. Consumer goods made life more interesting and comfortable. Nevertheless, with industrialization came the beginnings of an organized labor movement, and significant labor unrest. Violent strikes and civil disturbances occurred with some regularity.
In the very early 1900s, reform oriented journalists called “muckrakers” spent much time and energy exposing social abuses. One example is Jacob Riis, whose stark photographs of poverty in New York City attracted national attention. Writer Ida Tarbell’s works exposed the big business monopolies and trusts. Lincoln Steffens profiled political corruption. Upton’s Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed shocking practices in the meat packing industry and led to the enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Within government itself, President Theodore Roosevelt, against the wishes of his own political supporters, successfully fought to break up the big trusts.
By the start of the great European war in 1914, the United States had become the most important industrial power on the planet. As in the Civil War, the American social and political fabric again proved its resiliency. Despite political and financial corruption, labor strife, and exposure of a vast array of social ills, the nation continued to build itself.
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