The Gilded Age, the period in American History directly following the Civil War was a departure from other earlier periods in the young country’s history. Mark Twain in the book by the same name tries to make this abundantly clear, the new age was one that was driven not by military expansion nor for the need for land but for the need for investment and goods. TWealthy Eastern families and tycoons made their fortunes in the Gilded Age by joining in the spirit of the age which was a call to the great wide open frontier. The spirit of the Gilded Age was characterized simply by two primary impulses that fed on each other: the desire by wealthy Eastern capitalists to profit from America’s newly opened Western lands; second was the federal government’s unwillingness or inability to properly regulate these new enterprises while actively encouraging these industrial interests. The Gilded Age was defined by a new economic model one which used technologies primarily the railroad to unify the country and the economies which was naturally fraught with problems.
In large part this is a story of how Eastern moneyed interests and the federal government worked together in the years after the Civil War to integrate and exploit the American West’s lands and resources. The primary focus is on the influence of the railroad interest and how the federal government paved the way for the expansion of the railroad industry into the West although this is not the only way the Gilded Age changed American society it is a notable enough to explore at some length within these pages.
The deepest change in post-Civil War America was the impetus for Western expansion sponsored by the Federal government in laws like the Homestead Act worked not to actually settle the trans-Mississippi west but instead worked with the help of the Republican Congress to integrate “Western lands into the Eastern industrial system” (Trachtenberg, 2007, p.20). This was done by the congress giving so-called “land grants” to large railroad companies operating west of the Mississippi. These land grants according to Trachtenberg, (2007) made these railroad companies into “colonizers in their own right, selling off large sections of their grants to individuals and companies (p. 20) this practice of the Federal government ceding large tracts of land to corporations was soon expanded to mining and timber interests. (Trachtenberg, 2007, p.20) This is representative of the Gilded Age because it shows how the US Government and industrial interests were interested first with making money and creating a new economic mode and willingly put all other worries aside in order to do so.
This impetus towards integration and centralization that the railroad industry put on the US economy is also a very important fact about the Gilded Age. This can best be explained by the connection of the building of railroads and how the changed the economic face of the American West. John Murray Forbes, a powerful railroad magnate believed that progress and the centralizing force of the railroad was inevitable however “few merchants and farmers at the local level in the West were prepared to embrace all the changes wrought by the transportation revolution” (Larson, 1984, p.114). Residents of the American West saw this change as corruption and a threatening to their way of life (Larson, 1984, p.114). Corruption was actually a fact of how the railroad came to be with White (2003) arguing that the corruption especially in the form of lobbying and the use of corporate influence for funding their projects was key to how the transcontinental railroads were actually built (pp.17-24).
The argument that the Gilded Age was defined by wildly unregulated economic expansion, technological change, economic opportunity and corruption is largely true and supported by the works cited above. The growth of the railroads and the economic integration of the West into the US economy made a lot of corrupt government rich and a few railroad magnates fantastically wealthy in the process.
Larson, J. L. (1984). Bonds of enterprise: John Murray Forbes and western development in America's railway age. Boston, Mass: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.
Trachtenberg, A. (2007). The incorporation of America: Culture and society in the gilded age. New York: Hill and Wang.
White, R. (June 01, 2003). Information, Markets, and Corruption: Transcontinental Railroads in the Gilded Age. The Journal of American History, 90, 1, 19-43.