The United States underwent a period of enormous growth in the period between the Civil War and World War I. Between 1870 and 1900 alone, the population doubled from 38.6 million people to 76 million people. Much of this growth came from immigrants from Europe, and to make room for them, the country adopted the most liberal land policy in its history. America, which had been primarily a rural nation, was rapidly becoming urbanized, and the motor force behind all this change was the industrialization of the country's economy. In the same three decades that the population doubled, the nation's factories and mills quadrupled their output. Thanks to new technologies and new products, Americans lived better and lived longer, and even common workers came to enjoy the highest standard of living in the industrializing world.

But there was a price to be paid for all this progress. Factories polluted the air and water, and working conditions in mines and factories were frequently unsafe. The intimate labor relations of small stores and workshops gave way to the impersonalization of plants in which thousands of workers toiled twelve hours a day or more for bare subsistence wages.

What worried many Americans most, however, was the effect this new industrialization would have on the body politic. Prior to the Civil War, money played a relatively small part in national politics. (In fact, America had only one millionaire in this era, John Jacob Astor.) In towns and villages, and even in the small cities, local elites played a central role in political life, but politics at the state and national levels were truly democratic. What would happen if very rich individuals entered the political arena? How would the individual who wanted to participate in the nation's political life fare against such concentrations of wealth?

Reformers in this era worried constantly about the corruption of democracy, and sought a variety of measures to keep the political system not only honest, but open to everyone. Few of the reformers were anti-industry; there was no movement in the United States comparable to the Luddites in England. Nor were all of the reformers even anti-bigness, since many of them accepted as inevitable the growth of large industries.

But whatever their economic views, they shared the desire to keep the United States an open and democratic society, and as we see in this section, that commitment took a variety of forms.

For further reading: Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (1967); Morton Keller, Affairs of State (1977); John W. Chambers, The Tyranny of Change (1980); and Richard Abrams, The Burdens of Progress (1978).

  1. Morrill Act (1862)
  2. Pendleton Act (1883)
  3. People's Party Platform (1896)
  4. Muller v. Oregon (1908)
  5. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism (1910)
  6. Woodrow Wilson, First Inaugural (1913)

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