(Editor’s note: This is the first segment in a two part series, introducing readers to the Industrial Revolution and the underpinnings of modern times.)
What were the key ingredients to "make"
Industrial Revolution? What,
if any, was the government’s role? Why were
the times seen as a Gilded Age, when style points both
in politics and culture triumphed over substance? America's
In truth, the
was “ready” for the Industrial Revolution long before it actually arrived, but
divisiveness on the slavery question held back progress. Compromise after compromise had put off
resolution of the most basic of civil rights issues, until it could be put off
no longer. When the Civil War ended, and
the states were reconstructed, the US could return to the matter of
industrial progress and prowess at the turn of the 20th century.
Some say the birth of the Industrial Revolution was a precipitous event, transitioning
from a promised land into a crusader state, to capture and protect the wealth
of foreign markets for its own citizens. In this way America was said to mimic every
great empire which had come --- and gone --- before.
The Industrial Revolution was the great free for all,
government “guided” by principles of Social Darwinism. Basically, it was a game of survival of the
fittest, most adaptable, Darwin’s
theory of evolution as applied to society.
Those individuals who had figured out how to amass
great personal wealth were viewed as being in the best position to make
leadership decisions for the good of the masses.
Government’s role was either to support these individuals and their industries or avoid meddlesome interference (laissez-faire acceptance of supply and demand theory). Industrial ventures operated through large, capital massing business organizations, called “trusts.” But the relationship of these trusts to their government was to test severely the lawmaker’s role as the impartial umpire in the people’s pursuit of happiness.
The so-called titans of capitalism were bolstered by the collective success of the nation occasioned by explosive economic growth brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The early capitalists featured names like Rockefeller in the business of oil, Morgan in banking, Carnegie in steel, and Vanderbilt in railroads. They were firm believers in a free, unregulated market promoted by competition, with a new consumer class, a thriving force in the industrial economy. With the incentive to reap great profits, these titans consolidated operations into large mega-corporations, streamlined the various systems of production, eliminated redundancies and maximized efficiencies. While consolidation permitted them to control their industries, a primary goal was still to give the customer the best product at the lowest price.
It is perhaps helpful to think of the process of “making” an Industrial Revolution as similar to baking a wedding cake. There were several key ingredients. Among them were natural resources, such as oil, copper, land and water; a capital supply serving as “fertilizer.” Government support was in the form of protective tariffs for the new, fledgling American industries, the birth of the modern corporation, low interest loans and adherence to the monetary gold standard. Entrepreneurs took risks, mastered the art of vertical integration, business re-organization, and buying low and selling high. Technological developments, such as electricity, steel, glass and the internal combustion engine, permitted innovations in rail transit, and the invention of the telephone and canned food. A work force/consumer class was fueled mostly by an abundant flow of previously uneducated and unskilled laborers comprised mainly of a seismic inflow of new immigrants. They had migrated to the cities in search of opportunities, filling the abundance of new industrial jobs.
For sure, there were many positives to consider. In the span of a mere generation, the US became the #1 industrial power in the world, during which time a modern industrial economy emerged. Skyscrapers were constructed, soon began to overtake the urban landscape, and our modern, industrial, steel and glass cities were born. Immigrants comprised a new economic unit, a powerhouse called the “middle” class, a new term for the era. With rising income, industrial workers doubled as what became known as consumers. Their collective purchasing power permitted them to achieve a raised standard of material existence previously unknown. It also kept the economy humming.
While the titans of industry were champions of competition, ironically, their goal was to eliminate competition. Specifically, they sought to accomplish this by creating and then maintaining a hierarchy with themselves at the top. Many had arrived there through superior intellect or other legitimate means. But some used questionable or even illegal business practices. Bribes, kickbacks and other monopolistic trade practices were all utilized to destroy competitors.
The times were regarded in negative terms as the Gilded Age, with great wealth flashed to the masses but accessible only to a precious few. Those precious few were sometimes referred to not so nicely as robber barons. Style points both in politics and culture triumphed over substance. Consider the image of sunglasses attached to a bright, smiling face.
((Editor’s note: The second and concluding segment in this two part series introduces readers to Andrew Carnegie, the Gospel of Wealth and the third lesson of US History.)