The history of American economy has been a long battle since the time of the Gilded Age through the Progressive era and into the Great Crash or Depression of October 1929. During these years, from 1877 to 1929, class conflict was largely observed. The Gilded Age and the Great Crash were the notorious periods in which poverty and economic inequality skyrocketed reaching all-time highs in the American economy. The Gilded Age came at a time when there was widespread greed, corruption in the political systems, and speculative elements of the market. Of great interest is the absence of government restriction in this era. In the popular view, the Gilded Age was a period filled with greed and guile, dishonest speculators, and vague business practices. There was a great gap between the rich and the poor as the rich took the myriad opportunities that existed to create disharmony in the overall American economy. At this time, a few individuals took the chance to accumulate massive wealth and fortunes, leaving the disadvantaged lot merely hanging by the thread of survival. In the class of the disadvantaged were the farmers (populists), African Americans, women, and the industrial workers. Industrial heavy weights like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller had amassed greater wealth and fortunes and were actually one of the fore fathers of modern corporate American economy as it now stands.
The Gilded Age presented itself with massive opportunities for Americans, considering that major technological innovations happened at this time, though unprecedented. There were widespread conflicts on issues such as currency tariffs, political corruption, and patronage. The industrialists took advantage of this social disorder to amass great fortunes, leaving the workers and farmers little to live by. This created tensions as well as revolts by these workers in an attempt to bring social order in the economy that had by now left a huge gap between them and the rich. The result of the tensions was the formation of labor unions. However, these labor unions met great opposition from the industrialists and the courts. The most significant conflict of the late 19th century happened when the farmers staged a revolt. At this time, the farmers had faced huge losses due to the plummeting prices of their produce.
There were also rising costs of inputs as well as high interest rates. Most of the farmers put the blame on the railroad owners, land monopolists, bankers, and mortgage companies for the problems that they were facing. In response to this, the farmers organized Farmers’ Alliances, Granges, and the Populist Party. Although these Alliances failed to make it to the epitome of political power, they created an atmosphere of reforms. This came later when the government introduced the Civil Service Act. This Act sought to eliminate corruption in the government by dictating that applicants who had applied for governmental jobs had to pass through a process of competitive investigation. The Interstate Commerce Act was also introduced so as to end discrimination of small shippers by railroad owners. Ultimately, the Sherman Antitrust Act was introduced to outlaw monopoly in businesses. This was at the heart of reforms that the Gilded Age brought with it.
The Progressive Era happened in the 20th century, a time that featured far-reaching economic and social transformations in the American economy. Some of these transformations included massive innovations in science and technology, health and living standards, gender roles, perceptions of freedom, and economic progressiveness. This is why the era came to be known as the Progressive Era. It carried a wide range of political, moral, economic, and social reforms. Major reforms included such things as the outlawing of alcohol sale, child labor regulations, and management of scientific resources. The reforms observed during this period were majorly supported by population from the urban who were college-educated middle class. The reforms were mainly targeted at eliminating corruption in the political circles, regulation of business practices, addressing hazards in health, and improvement of the working conditions. The reforms were also geared at giving the public further direct control over government in the nomination of candidates for public offices. The public was also empowered in the direct voting in senatorial elections, referendum, and also in gender equality (women’s equality).
The institutionalization of accident insurance in industries came about as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City. This still stands as the deadliest disaster to happen in the industries in New York City and the United States of America. The accident happened on 25th March, 1911 at a time when the Progressive Era was in full throttle. The fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, 123 being women and 23 men. Majority of the victims of the fire were recent immigrants of Italian and Jewish origin. The reason for such a large number of deaths was that the owners of the factory had locked doors to the staircases as well as exits. This was done to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized rests. As a result, the workers could not escape, and many died from inhaling smoke fumes or from falling to the streets below the building from as high as the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. This disaster led to the institutionalization of laws requiring the improvement of safety standards in factories as well as working conditions for sweatshop workers. The legislation and institutionalization of these laws was followed immediately by the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union which advocated for better working conditions. Congress was responsible for the passing of laws at the national level. It passed laws that established - for the first time - regulation practices for drugs, meat packing, and railroad industries. It also made the anti-trust laws stronger than before. During the Progressive Era, the Congress adopted four amendments in the constitution. These were: authorization of income tax, provision for the election of senators, extension of vote to the women, and prohibition of the production and vending of alcohol.
One of the most deep-seated struggles in the history of America involved the struggle of women for the recognition of their full equality. Prior to the Progressive Era, women were not allowed to own property, take suits, sit on juries or even make contracts. There were provisions that allowed for their beating by their husbands. They were thus required to surrender to their husbands’ sexual needs and demands. In the early 19th century, however, an increasing number of women were persuaded by circumstances to act on the impurity that was so widespread in the American society. Indeed, women became the pioneers of such reforms as the abolishing of slavery, establishment of public schools, and regulation of drinking. Though they met opposition and utmost discrimination, especially on issues of slavery, the women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton staged the first ever Women’s Rights Convention which was organized in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
After the Progressive Era came the Great Crash of October 1929. This period had a lot of political consequences that were far-reaching. The Great Depression or Crash as it is known, gave rise to the thinking that there was need for the federal government to provide a buffer for the needy (poor), the elderly, the disabled, and the jobless. It also introduced the philosophy that made the federal government responsible in America’s economic health and the welfare of the citizenry. This was after the stock market crashed; bringing an end to all the economic prosperity that had been witnessed in the 1920s. Four years into the Great Crash, unemployment skyrocketed to 25 percent, up from 3.2 percent in the year the Crash occurred. The production in the industries plummeted by over 50 percent while international trade came to a low 30 percent. Overall, the Great Depression caused a 98 percent fall in the levels of investment. Among the causes of the Depression were: a fall in the prices of crops and commodities before the Depression; stock’s market heavy dependence on debts; biased government policies; and low purchasing power among the working and middle classes (and thus a failure to maintain production levels that were high).
The Great Crash provided various opportunities for the transformation of the American economic and political atmosphere. First, the Crash came with a major re-alignment politically, creating such coalitions such as African Americans, Southern Democrats, organized labor, and ethnics in the big cities. The federal presence was strengthened further in the lives of the Americans, coming up with innovations such as national pensions; aid disbursement to dependent children; subsidization of school lunches; establishment of minimum wages; insured bank deposits; unemployment compensation funds; and regulation of the stock market. This created a more robust labor movement and labor policies that protected collective bargaining agreements. The farm economies were also supported since there was the introduction of federal price support limits. Ultimately, the federal achieved its full approval by the Americans as a channel of reforms and action as well as a shield of public well-being.
In summary, every stage in the development of the American economy had myriad lessons. The lessons were mainly based on reform agenda as the development process acted as a measurement tool of the level of fullness in the reforms made. From the Gilded Age through the Progressive Era to the Great Depression era, reforms are seen as a continuous process in the refining of the American dream and economy. From an era of little reforms to an era where the federal government wins trust amongst the Americans as their protector, the foundations of the American economy are unearthed. In each stage or era, the reforms are driven by certain reformists who are on course to establish a more efficient and effective society that is close to equality and transparency at every level.