Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 8: The Gilded Age or, “Imagine Newsies… but no one’s dancing.”

Last episode we talked about the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Jim Crow South. But don’t worry! Because today we’re traveling North to see the glitz and glamor of city life in the era of industrialization! Electric lights! Millionnaires! Skyscrapers! Oh yeah, and also poverty, inequality, and corruption. Dang it! Can’t we have one era of American history where just everything is great? I’m being told that’s not how history works.

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The North after the Civil War entered into a time period known as the Gilded Age. Mark Twain coined the term because of course he did. “Gilded” means covered in a thin layer of gold. But in Twain’s novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today beneath that gold surface is much more crude, dirty, and corrupt. This time period would have been amazing to live in if you happened to be one of the few who ascended from “rags to riches.” But I’m not willing to risk it because most people stayed in rags.

Today’s episode is all about the Gilded Age or, “Imagine Newsies… but no one’s dancing”. We’re talking Rockefeller and Carnegie, labor unions and anarchists, immigrants, corruption, and that time that cartoons saved the day! 

Act 1: Robber Barons

The years after the Civil War in the North were dominated by industrialization. Although businesses had been producing industrial goods for decades now, the war jumpstarted large-scale production and businesses just kept going when the war was over. This will be the first in a long line of instances where war is amazing for the American economy.

I’m not going to go into detail about how industrialization happened because I don’t want to. But, basically, it just means that machines started allowing us to produce more things faster. Innovations after the war, like electricity, helped speed up this process. Thomas Edison dedicated his massive laboratory to creating a functional electrical grid throughout the 1870s. And in 1882, rich dude J.P. Morgan became the first person to have his house wired with electricity. 

Electricity didn’t just mean rich dudes could show off, although, we all know that’s why people drive Teslas. But it also meant that factories could effectively run throughout the night. It wasn’t worth it to have kids threading bobbins by lamplight because it was so slow and inaccurate, but now with electric light, those kids can work 24 hours a day! Woohoo!

The other innovation that contributed to our growing industrial economy was the railroad. Again, trains had existed before the Civil War, but afterwards, a guy named George Westinghouse invented the air brake and rail travel became way safer. Not to mention that fancy Pullman sleeping cars allowed passengers to travel comfortably. In 1869, our nation was physically connected from “sea to shining sea” with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

A lot of the industry that will explode during this time period is linked to the growing rail industry. Westerners mined for materials like iron and… ore? Is that a thing or am I just thinking of Settlers of Catan? Anyway, they would mine materials that would be shipped back east – on trains – to fuel the growing steel industry that was used to… build more trains, railways, bridges, etc. Other infrastructure that better connected our national economy. It became a snowball effect and by the end of the century, America was incredibly modern and advanced. By 1929, the US manufacturing output was 28 times greater than it was in 1859, the year before Lincoln was elected. 

Well, the cities were modern and advanced. Keep in mind that as we talk about major changes happening over the next few episodes, that excludes farmers. And southerners. And black people. Anyway, big changes are happening in the cities to mostly white men and women! 

Rich Dudes of the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age is often mostly associated with the so-called “Titans of Industry,” a small group of entrepreneurial men who came of age in just the right time, and used their intelligence and business savvy to ride the wave of industrialization all the way to the top. 

You know these guys. You’ve got your Rockefeller – started in lower class New York; he built up his business as an oil magnate. You’ve got your J.P. Morgan, who was the most effective “business consultant” ever. He would just step in and help “reorganize” railroad and other companies, consolidating smaller businesses until he had built them into conglomerates like General Electric and U.S. Steel. Men like them were known for using cutting edge business practices to make their companies more efficient, like buou ying up all of their supplier’s so that they were in control of every step of their business model. (For example, if you own a meatpacking plant, you would invest in cattle ranching, and the railroads to ship the cattle to you, etc.) Or, instead of “vertically integrating” your business, you could “horizontally integrate.” That’s what Rockefeller did. He basically just invested in and bought up most of his competition so that by the end of the century Standard Oil controlled 90% of the American oil industry. As the businesses got bigger and they controlled more of the industry, their materials and the cost to produce things got cheaper and their profits skyrocketed. This is known as “economies of scale” and it’s why buying 150 rolls of toilet paper at Costco is cheaper than buying one at the hip mom-and-pop store around the corner. 

Now, all of these strategies were legal at the time, and a lot of them are still really effective business practices today. But there were those who the public viewed as less-than-ethical when it came to building their fortune. Enter: Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was the son of a poor boatman (his dad made money ferrying people and produce between Staten Island and Manhattan in a sailboat. Vanderbilt quit school at 11 to go into the business. When the War of 1812 hit, he built up a small fleet and helped the government supply outposts around New York.

He eventually invested in steamships and was so good, and could ship things for significantly lower prices, that other companies literally paid him to move or just stop shipping altogether. For example, after making his first million, he formed a company to ship passengers and goods from New York to San Francisco, via Nicaragua. Fueled by the 1849 gold rush, his company was hugely successful, so much so that his competitors paid him $40,000 a month to stop. Like, he got a salary from his competition to just not do anything. This is the part of his story that made a lot of people think, “That’s not fair.” Basically, Vanderbilt was agreeing to not offer a better service at a lower price, in exchange for more money for himself. Now, let’s be honest. We all would accept $40,000 a month to not work. But still. It didn’t seem fair to a lot of people who had to pay astronomical prices from his competition, especially considering the shipping rates were artificially high because corrupt politicians had pushed up the value for their own benefit.

Vanderbilt eventually turned to railroads, controlling so much of the industry that he could basically raise rates to whatever he wanted, knowing that farmers, ranchers, miners out west had to pay because it was the only way to get their goods back east. Because of this, Vanderbilt was the first to be dubbed a “Robber Baron.” More on that in a second.

While we could talk about these guys for days… do we really need to? Well, kind of. But instead of just listing out rich dudes from the 19th century, let’s look at one rich dude. And the most fascinating rich dude, in my humble opinion, is Andrew Carnegie.

How do we feel about Andrew Carnegie?

Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835. For context, that’s during Andrew Jackson’s presidency and 30 years before the Civil War. His father was a weaver who was put out of work when industrialization took over the local industry and his father became a leader of a local populist labor movement, a precursor to labor unions. That’s ironic. You don’t know why yet, because I haven’t told you. But just trust me that you’ll realize how ironic that is in a few minutes. His family auctioned all of their belongings and went into debt to buy passage to the United States, ending up in Pittsburgh, a rapidly industrializing city described as “hell with the lid off.” 

Carnegie started out working alongside his father in a cotton factory – he worked as a bobbin boy. He was 13 years old. He later got a job as a messenger boy in the city’s telegraph office which helped him meet and make connections with businessmen throughout the city. One of the men often at the telegraph office was beginning an impressive rise in the railroad industry and took on “his boy Andy” as a secretary at $35 a month. Carnegie worked his way up the business and he had enough money by the time the Civil War broke out that he could pay his way out of being drafted. Instead, he helped reorganize the US War telegraph system, giving him insight into the types of infrastructure that could be possible after the war ended. 

Seeing opportunity, at the age of 30, he founded the Keystone Bridge Company which replaced wooden bridges with stronger iron ones. Three years in, at 33, he was worth $400,000 – the equivalent of $5 million today. I want to point out that this is really typical of other Gilded Age “titans of industry.” Although some inherited wealth, like J.P. Morgan, and some would use unscrupulous tactics to get ahead, a lot of them were also just really intelligent, industrious men who were a few steps ahead of the rest of the country. Carnegie recognized that after the war, infrastructure would need to be rebuilt, so he founded a bridge company. Then, he saw railroads getting build and heard about a new process to refine steel invented by Englishman Henry Bessemer, so he used his own money to build a steel plant in Pittsburgh. By 1900, Carnegie Steel produced more steel than all of Great Britain. A few years later, he sold his company to J.P. Morgan. In the deal, he personally made $250 million ($4.5 billion today). When they finalized the deal, Morgan told Carnegie, “Congratulations… you are now the richest man in the world.”

But, he didn’t just get rich by being intelligent and hardworking. He also got rich by being a relatively ruthless business owner. His personal motto was “watch costs, and the profits take care of themselves.” That makes sense, but we have to understand that the “costs” he’s talking about are, you know, like workers’ wages and stuff. 

And now we get back to the irony of his father being an early labor leader back in Scotland. Because Carnegie was ruthless toward organized labor. At his steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, his union was broken violently during a strike. His business manager, Frick, cut wages, then locked the protesting workers out and barricaded the plant before firing all 3,800 workers. 300 private security guards – Pinkerton agents – entered the plant during the night and in the morning, a literal battle ensued. Thousands of workers and their families stormed the plant before dawn and the two sides exchanged fire for 12 hours. The workers won and took control of Carnegie’s steel plant until 8,500 National Guardsmen came down and took control. All of the striking workers were replaced, mostly by African Americans who had been barred from joining the union in the first place. 

So even though he was born into poverty and witnessed his own father getting pushed out of his trade by large companies, he had little sympathy for his workers. And yet… the Carnegie name is also associated with some of the most generous philanthropic acts in American history. Another personal motto was “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” He established over 2,500 public libraries, supported institutions of higher learning, and invested in the arts a la Carnegie Hall. By the time of his death, Carnegie had given away $350 million ($4.4 billion today.) 

“The Gospel of Wealth”

One of his most famous contributions was an essay called “The Gospel of Wealth.” Considered a founding document in the field of philanthropy, Carnegie wrestles with his own misgivings about the inequality present in American society. In essence, here are his basic arguments: 1. Capitalism is good because it has improved everyone’s standard of living. Compared to any other point in history, Carnegie argues that, “The poor enjoy what the rich not before afford… The laborer now has more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago.” And sure, there is inequality, which isn’t great. But, as he puts it, “Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor.” 

This brings us to another main point: Socialism is bad. Attempting to force society to be equal will lead to this “universal squalor.” Carnegie sees capitalism as a way to “separate the drones from the bees.” And why shouldn’t he believe this? He had started out with nothing, worked hard, and made his way up the ladder. But even though he is not super sympathetic to his workers or to ideas of a government redistribution of wealth, he still is uncomfortable with the amount of wealth he has come to possess. 

In his view, there are three options that rich dudes have: 1. They can leave it to their families and descendants. Carnegie’s not down with that. “Beyond providing for the wife and daughters moderate sources of income, and very moderate allowances indeed, if any, for the sons.” He thought that inheritance would be the downfall of a true capitalist society and he advocated for an estate tax. “By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life.”

I think this is the key to understanding Carnegie. Because if our society followed Carnegie’s advice and wealthy men did not pass down all of their wealth to their sons then, in theory, everyone who was rich had become rich in their lifetime and so they “deserved” it.

Now, his second option for rich dudes: They can hoard their money until they die and then leave it to charities or public institutions. That’s fine to Carnegie, but why wait? Because in his view, the answer for rich dudes wondering what to do with all of their piles of cash was to give as much of it away as possible during his life. 

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance. to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds” to be used to better the conditions of as many people as possible.

Andrew Carnegie, “The Gospel of Wealth”

So he ascribes to the “Teach a man to fish” school of philanthropy. Giving his workers higher wages is just charity. It’s throwing money at a problem instead of fixing it. But investing in libraries, and education, and the arts, etc. That will lift society up as a whole. 

So… was Carnegie a good guy or not? Well that’s really for you to decide. In my view, he was a really kind and giving capitalist. So, when it came to his business, he was all business. Why should he pay workers more when he can get away with paying them less? He wasn’t breaking any law and, in theory, the workers had agency and could leave if they didn’t like the job. It seems like, to him, the two worlds – his business and the wider world – were separate. So, he deserved to make all of that money because it was his business, his investment, his risk. But, he shouldn’t keep all of that money to himself. He would keep that money as a “public trust fund” from which he would use it to better society. Again, a true capitalist viewpoint: he doesn’t believe the government should be redistributing that wealth directly to citizens, and who better to decide how to spend that money than the man who was brilliant enough to make it in the first place? Sure, it’s problematic. But it’s also far from the worst idea rich dudes have come up with in history.


So Carnegie gets lumped in with the other rich dudes as part of the “Robber Barons.” The term was based on a German phrase that referenced feudal lords – or barons – who took advantage of travelers by forcing them to pay them money to pass. And, honestly, the phrase is pretty accurate for a lot of them. Leland Stanford, for example, used his position as Governor of California to push for construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Oh yeah, and he was also president of the Central Pacific Railroad at the time. His associates bribed and intimidated politicians to benefit his company and he was so successful that he became a Senator! He died with the equivalent of $18 billion in his pocket.

And the original “Robber Baron,” Vanderbilt’s only act of “charity” in his lifetime was ordering the construction of Grand Central Depot in New York City. Sure, it employed thousands during the Panic of 1873… but it also benefited his railroad company. When Vanderbilt died, he left $1 million to Central University in Nashville (later Vanderbilt University). But, for reference, he left $90 million to his son, $7.5 million to his four grandsons and…. Basically nothing to his wife and eight daughters. Yeah, Vanderbilt hated women. For real.

But, not all of the so-called “Robber Barons” cheated their way to the top. And most of them, to some extent, participated in philanthropy. For example, during his life Rockefeller donated more than $500 million to philanthropic causes ($15 billion today). J.P. Morgan used his financial prowess to help resupply the U.S. Treasury’s gold reserve during the economic depression of 1893 and then rallying the financial community to stop another financial collapse after a stock market panic in 1907. His actions to try to unite the financial industry to better regulate the markets led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

Beyond his philanthropy, Carnegie devoted himself in his later life to an even bigger cause: world peace. Like, literally. He was one of the first to call for a “league of nations” years before World War I and he built a “palace of peace” that would later evolve into the modern World Court. Apparently, when hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914, his “heart was broken.”

Probably the best example of a Gilded Age titan who wasn’t a Robber Baron was Samuel Jones. He used his manufacturing company in Toledo, Ohio to put in place emerging ideas about workplace reforms. Jones paid his employees a living wage (twice what most workers made elsewhere), he implemented an 8-hour workday, paid vacation, revenue-sharing, and subsidized meals in a company cafeteria. He even bought instruments so employees could form a company band. If Carnegie was the Bill Gates of the Gilded Age, then Samuel Jones’ company was the Google. He only posted one rule on the company notice board: “Do unto others as you would do unto yourself,” earning him the nickname Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones.

He became so popular that the was elected Mayor of Toledo and he crushed that, too! He opened free kindergartens, developed a park system years before Teddy did it, instituted an eight-hour workday for city workers, took away truncheons (weapons) from the police, and reformed the city government. Samuel Jones 2020!

Act 2: Everyone Else

So, obviously, just because some dudes were getting rich didn’t mean that everyone was living the high life. Like I already mentioned with Carnegie, many of these men got rich on the backs of workers who were barely able to get by. And at the time, there didn’t seem to be a lot of debate – at least amongst the elite – as to whether or not that was fair. Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” was quite generous toward poor workers relative to the prevailing philosophy of the day: Social Darwinism. For most elites, the poor were poor because they were weak or not as intelligent. The elites were elite because they were “the fittest” and were meant to be in charge. 

Also, keep in mind that workers’ rights wasn’t really a thing that existed up until now. Before the Civil War, the vast majority of Americans were self-employed as farmers or craftsmen. So the Gilded Age is really the first time in American history when most Americans are working for someone else. It was uncharted territory. And the laissez-faire capitalist view at the time was that if you didn’t like where you were working, then leave. The problem is that there weren’t many better options – not everyone could move to Toledo and work for Samuel Jones.

Labor Unions

It became increasingly clear that wealthy business owners had sway over the government. Hell, some of them were the government. In order to compete with the money and influence of their bosses, some workers began to form unions – taking the “strength in numbers” approach – to advocate for their cause. And their causes were all different. Some just wanted increased wages and better working conditions but other union members went further, advocating a socialist system or a Marxist-style overthrow of capitalism. More on that in a second. 

Unions began using strategies like strikes and boycotts to push their demands, although they were rarely very successful. Typically, the government stepped in on the side of business – like when the National Guard was called in to end the Homestead Strike. And there were no protections for workers who were fired because of union activity. In fact, some employers would go farther and created blacklists to prevent active union workers from becoming employed at any company in the industry. Bosses were also able to bring in replacement workers or “scabs,” often from the groups that were banned from joining unions, most notably African Americans. Black men were beginning to move from the South in search of factory jobs and bosses often hired them as a cheap way to replace union men. This only exacerbated growing racial tensions in northern cities and was an easy way to divide and conquer the movement.

But over time, the labor movement gained footing. Various labor unions were founded during this time period, but the most prominent was the American Federation of Labor, or the AFL. Still in existence today as the AFL-CIO, it was founded and led for 40 years by Samuel Gompers. Gompers – great last name, by the way – was a Jewish cigar maker who moved to New York as a young boy from London. The AFL promoted trade unionism, meaning that unions should be local and made up of wage earners working in the same trade, like his Cigar Makers Union that he was a part of. This was a different, and more moderate, approach as opposed to other organizations at the time. The Knights of Labor, for example, wanted larger, community-based organizations that included people from all across the economy, including employers if they chose to join. Even broader, the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW pushed for one organization uniting all laborers.

Even though they disagreed on structure and how broad the movement should be, they were mostly in agreement on the basic goals of the labor movement: better working conditions and a living wage. Unions across the country organized a general strike in support of an eight-hour workday. It occurred on May 1, 1886, which would become an international labor holiday, and 200,000 workers took part in the strike. Throughout the week, protests and strikes in multiple cities brought attention to the labor movement. Unfortunately, many of these events ended in violence, most notably in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.

Haymarket Square Riot

A German anarchist named August Spies – oh my gosh, that’s such a great name for a German anarchist that’s going to be vilified by big business. August Spies? It writes itself. Anyway, he was giving a speech to strikers where he witnessed police firing on workers. He quickly put out a flier denouncing the event and calling “Workingmen, To Arms” in a protest the next day at Haymarket Square. Over 2,000 people showed up, including the mayor of Chicago to ensure the protest remained peaceful.

Toward the end of the rally, police arrived to disperse the crowd. Someone from the crowd threw a bomb at the police, who then opened fire. Seven police officers and one civilian died. We never found out who threw the bomb but the damage was done. This had been the labor union’s big moment but what most Americans saw the next day was reports of bombs and anarchists. Never mind the fact that it’s unclear whether the person who threw the bomb was actually part of the labor movement. Or the irony that the protest had been planned in response to the police killing striking workers the day before. 

And one of the reasons why it was so easy for most Americans to view the labor movement with suspicion was because the labor movement was also largely a product of immigration. And… Americans don’t have the best track record with being super cool about immigrants coming in and shaking up our economy.

“New Immigrants”

So, I did an entire episode last season about immigration and nativism in the U.S. If you want a deep dive check out Season 2 Episode 4. But basically, immigration had been increasing throughout the 19th century and it skyrocketed after the Civil War. 12 million immigrants came to the U.S. between 1870 and 1900. 

But a change was also occurring. For most of American history, immigrants were mostly from Germany, Ireland, and England, known as “Old Immigrants.” But now, thanks to steam ships and some chaos in other parts of the world, during the Gilded Age there was a shift to “New Immigrants” from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Cities on the East Coast were now seeing waves of immigrants from Italy, Russia, and Syria. Fun fact: in the 1880s, just 10 years, 9% of the total population of Norway emigrated to America. What the heck was going on in Norway???

Anyway, from 1800 to 1880, New York City’s population doubled every single year. For 80 years. And as immigration rose, so did American fear of immigrants. You see, these “New Immigrants” were from “less desirable” parts of the world. Meaning, they were not white. (Italians, for example, would not be considered “white” for a long time. They were so mistreated – often subject to Jim Crow laws in the South and discriminated against in the North, that President Benjamin Harrison gave in and made Columbus Day a national holiday – honoring a historic Italian. Italians were like, “I mean, it would have been cool to pass some legislation that would make Italians not so mistreated… but Columbus Day is cool, I guess.”


Nativism, or hatred of immigrants, had been around. The hilariously named Native American Party held 6 governorships and some state legislatures before the Civil War.

But the real nativist stuff hit the fan in the 1880s when Chinese immigrants started coming to the west coast. Remember from season 1: China was struggling. They had been forced open by the British who got them addicted to opium. The Taiping Rebellion had just occurred, the bloodiest civil war in all of human history, and the country was divided over support for the emperor and a desire to overthrow their mandate. As Chinese laborers came to the United States, many Americans freaked out. 

The optimistic explanation of why they freaked out was that the U.S. was going through an economic downturn in the 1880s so they were just unhappy about the influx of any immigrant who might take a job away from them. But, let’s be real. There was a clear racial element to this as well. Many saw the Chinese as an inferior race that sat around and smoked opium all day – first, that’s wrong. But second, the few Chinese who did sit around and smoke opium all day got it from the British! We learned it from watching you!

In 1882, Congress passed its first federal immigration legislation: the Chinese Exclusion Act. Well, at least they were up front about it, I guess? That same year they also passed the Immigration Act of 1882 which set up, for the first time, a formal process for entering the U.S. When they arrived at ports of entry, they were taxed and then inspected. Immigration officials were empowered with the authority to refuse entry to anyone who is found to be “a convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.” It’s like the Statue of Liberty, opened just 4 years after this law was passed, says,

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses… but not your idiots.”

The Statue of Liberty, apparently

Gilded Age Cities

And what did these non-idiot immigrants find when they finally arrived in American cities? Have you ever read a Charles Dickens novel? Or seen child Christian Bale dancing in Newsies? Then you know what Gilded Age cities were like. Sure, you had some cool novelties: the telephone! Baseball! Electricity! Carnegie Hall! Magazines! But that was mostly for the middle and upper classes, who, thanks to electric streetcars could also afford to live in early “suburbs” outside the dense and polluted city center. 

The poor lived in crowded tenements that were built fast without much concern for safety. Houses that had been for single families were divided to pack as many people in as possible. There was no plumbing or ventilation and fires spread quickly. It wasn’t great. Photographer Jacob Riis blew peoples’ minds when he published his book How the Other Half Lives. Full of photos of children sleeping on the street and families of 10 packed into one room, middle and upper-class readers were horrified. I mean, not enough to push for meaningful reforms. But, if there had been a Facebook post about it, they definitely would have shared it on their page. The book did catch the attention of one of Riis’s friends who used his position as New York Police Commissioner to work to improve living conditions in poor immigrant neighborhoods. This friend was named… Theodore Roosevelt! Yes! We’re in Teddy times! I can’t wait to rant about TR in a few episodes… 

And if people complained about life in the cities, there was a simple solution: just listen to the Village People and “Go West!” We’ll talk more about the West in an episode or two, but for now just know that as industry was growing back east, railroads pushed further west, bringing back materials to the factories. And for many who were not achieving the American Dream in New York or Chicago, the West and the freedom of the frontier was an enticing option. But you know this, you’ve seen Fivel Goes West. 

In this way, the frontier had always provided an escape for people who were unhappy or unwanted on the East Coast. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner explained the importance of the frontier in 1893 when he described it as a “safety valve” that could “let off steam” when things were getting tense in the cities. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the labor movement grew more emboldened and relations between the working class and elites escalated right at the time that the U.S. Census announced that there wasn’t a frontier left in the U.S. In 1890, we had manifested our destiny across the continent and while there was still plenty of land and opportunity, the “Wild West” era was over and people back in the cities, stewing about low wages and mistreatment, were stuck there. I’m sure that will end well.

Act 3: The Cartoonist Gets His Day!

During the Gilded Age, the government mostly sided with business interests. For example, when the Pullman Strike disrupted the railroad industry, the federal government issued an injunction ordering the strike to end because it was disrupting the postal service, a federal organization. In exchange, they declared Labor Day a national holiday. It’s like every time a group of people are being oppressed, the federal government is just like, “Well, declaring a national holiday is a lot cheaper than actually fixing the problem.”

And in some ways, it makes sense that the government would side with big business. Because business is booming! But it’s also because politics was super corrupt in the Gilded Age. Not every politician was corrupt, obviously, but enough were (taking bribes, using their office to make money, shutting down strikes or investigations that might slow business) that the corrupt politician became a symbol of this era. And no one epitomizes Gilded Age politics like William “Boss” Tweed.

“Boss” Tweed and Thomas Nast

Cartoon of “Boss” Tweed by Thomas Nast

You know this guy. I guarantee that your U.S. History teacher showed you cartoons of this guy in high school. Boss Tweed was the leader of the Tammany Hall political organization that basically ran New York City in the late 1800s. So-called political “machines” dominated local politics, handpicking nominees, pressuring voters, and reaping the rewards of having “their guys” well positioned around the city. Boss Tweed used his connections to defraud New York City out of up to $200 million (that’s $2.4 billion today.) 

Tammany Hall had their supporters, especially the growing Irish population that was protected by Tweed’s operation. But everyone knew that he was corrupt. He lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and had a massive diamond sewn into his shirt. It’s not subtle.

And then along comes the hero of the day: the cartoonist! A German immigrant named Thomas Nast started drawing cartoons of the most powerful man in New York City… and it worked? Published in Harper’s magazine, Nast drew Boss Tweed as a fat dirtbag, stealing money, or sitting on bags of money, or with a money bag for a head. You know, political cartoon stuff. And even though investigative journalists had been writing scathing articles about Tweed in The New York Times, these cartoons hit Tweed where it hurt: his constituents. Boss Tweed himself complained, “my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

He tried to get Nast out of the country by offering him a (fake) opportunity to study art in Europe. He offered to pay him $100,000 ($1.8 million today) to leave for Europe. Nast was onto him and he dragged his feet. It wasn’t until Tweed upped his offer to $500,000 that Nast was like, “Nah I’m just messing with you. I’m not going anywhere.” I love this guy.

Tweed then went straight to Nast’s boss. They threatened to have their guys in the Board of Elections boycott Harper’s textbooks in city schools – a huge financial loss for the company. But Harper’s stuck with their cartoonist and didn’t give in. Yes! A company supporting one of their employees! How refreshing!

Over time Nast’s cartoons worked. The 1871 election saw many of the Tammany men voted out of office. With less influence and protection from the local government, charges were filed against Tweed and his allies. He was sent to prison for fraud, forgery, and larceny. The state sued him for $6 million and he was put in debtor’s jail until he could put up half as bail. While in jail, he was allowed daily trips to see his family, accompanied by the jailer. On one of these trips he escaped and fled to Spain. Man, it was so easy to commit crimes in the 19th century.

But here’s the best part. He was a fugitive in Spain for a year, working as a sailor on a Spanish ship until a Spanish officer discovered him. And how did he know what Tweed looked like? He had seen the cartoons, of course! Ah, justice. Tweed died in debtor’s prison three years later in 1878.

The Assassination of President Garfield

One other event from the Gilded Age also typifies the problems with government at the time. Just four months into his presidency, former Union general President James Garfield was shot at a train station. We know in hindsight that it wasn’t fatal. The bullet had missed his arteries and vital organs. But doctors at the time weren’t… smart? They just didn’t know what we know now and so they used unsterilized instruments and their bare hands to dig around trying to get the bullet out.

Garfield spent months in the hospital being administered quinine, morphine, and alcohol. His doctor kept trying to get the second bullet but he couldn’t find it. He even asked a guy named Alexander Graham bell – the inventor of the telephone – to use a crude metal detector to try to locate it. Anyway, all of this poking and prodding led to infections and a persistent fever. He died in September 1881 after being president for just 200 days.

Why was he assassinated? Well, his assassin Charles Guiteau was mad that he hadn’t gotten a job. The 39 year old had been a supporter of Garfield’s during the election, but not, like, a helpful supporter. He didn’t donate a bunch of money or work for the campaign. No, he was a drifter who had spent some time at a free love religious commune. He moved from city to city, one step ahead of debt collectors. He published a book on theology that was entirely plagiarized. His father believed his son was “possessed by Satan” but Charles believed he was the next Paul, empowered by God to “preach a new Gospel.” His God complex was helped along by him surviving a shipwreck. I mean, everyone else survived, too. But he interpreted it as being specifically saved by God.

Feeling like he didn’t have any power in the world of plagiarized theology, he turned to politics. He wrote a speech in favor of President Grant as the Republican nominee called “Grant against Hancock.” Then when James Garfield won the nomination instead, he just did a CTRL+F and replaced “Grant” with “Garfield.” Really. He gave the speech twice and had it printed and passed around at the Repubican National Convention and when Garfield was elected president, Guiteau was like, “You’re welcome.”

So when Garfield entered office and starting hiring all of his people (Oh hey, Andrew Jackson’s spoils system! Glad to see you’re still around!), Guiteau was anxiously waiting for his letter to arrive announcing that he had been named Secretary of Raving Madmen, or something. No, he actually moved to Washington D.C., found a way to meet the president, handed him a copy of his speech and then asked Garfield for control of the American Consulate in Paris. And when he didn’t get it, he did what we all do when we don’t get a job we want, he stalked and murdered the President of the United States. He picked out an ivory-handled pistol for the assassination because he thought it would look nice in a museum one day. Man, this guy had such horribly misguided flare. 

So yeah. His guilt was clear, although he did make an interesting argument when he said “I deny the killing [but] admit the shooting.” Meaning, “Yeah I shot the president but his doctors killed him.” Almost one year to the day after he shot the president, Charles Guiteau was executed by hanging. And what about the beautiful pistol? It was given to the Smithsonian, who then lost it. That’s awesome.

Some Changes at the End of the Gilded Age

Anyway, why are we talking about this? Well, it’s because this was a wake-up call that maybe promising government jobs to your supporters isn’t the most stable way to build a bureaucracy. Since Jacksonian days, it was common practice to give out jobs as political patronage but most people agreed that a president getting killed over it wasn’t ideal. Less than two years after Garfield’s death, his successor Chester Arthur passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform. This law mandated that most positions in the federal government should be given based on merit. What a concept. Some government employees would be selected by competitive exams qualifying them for service. Um… Hello Confucian bureaucracy! It took us 2,000 years longer than y’all to figure it out, but we did it!

The point of this is that things were starting to look up. The Gilded Age was dark for most people. And most people felt powerless. But by the end of the 19th century, voices asking for change were getting louder. Politically, a tidal wave of populism spread across the heartland. Farmers, who felt left behind by urban politicians and screwed over by Robber Barons, formed their own political movement and the Populist Party. They gained enough influence that the Democrats led by William Jennings Bryan ended up adopting a lot of their platform: increasing silver as currency to reduce inflation, a graduated income tax and direct election of senators. Some of the more radical populist ideas, like government ownership of the railroad industry, got left behind. And the government did start to step up, in small increments. Beyond the Civil Service Act, they also established the ICC to regulate the railroad industry and passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to prevent massive monopolies. Now… did they actually follow through and enforce these laws? Not really. But hey, baby steps.

And the Populist Movement, and the activities of people like Jacob Riis and Thomas Nast, are just a preview of the next era in American history. While the Gilded Age saw insane economic growth and the rise of Bernie’s 1%, most people had been left behind. By 1900, Americans wanted to see more than just economic development, they wanted social progress. Oh man, I can’t wait to talk about the Progressive Era. 

To be continued.