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The Gap Between the Haves and the Have Nots

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  The cartoon on page 472 depicts Cornelius Vanderbilt and his perceived manipulation of politicians to control his large empire of railroads is representative of how many Americans felt about capitalism during the late 19th and early 20th century.  While many Americans clung to the idea of “the self made man”, Vanderbilt embodied all that could be corrupted in this economic system.  The monopolies of the early 20th century ensured that the great leaders of industry would maintain their hold over most of the fortune of the United States.

   The photograph on page 499 shows in stark detail the living conditions of some immigrant families.  The woman is shown working over a bucket of laundry while one child looks on and another sleeps in a nearby crib.  This clearly shows that the woman is working in her home to supplement her family’s income by providing laundry services for others.  The contrast between these two images is stark in that Vanderbilt employs a great control over his existence while the immigrant woman has very little control over hers.

   While the giants of industry were busy amassing a wealth that could not be imagined today, immigrants were facing a very different America.  Finding it impossible to live on one person’s wages in the factories it became necessary for children and women to enter into labor and contribute to the household.  “Only by calling upon the earnings of more than one of its members could the immigrant household make ends meet.”(Hoffman 78) This disparity of wealth contributed to the efforts of some to unionize workers and obtain control over the wages and conditions of workers.

   While the gap between the lives of immigrant workers and the great tycoons of the era spread further and further apart, there were some great achievements that benefited many.  For example, if it were not for the railroads need for scheduling the rails across the entire nation we might not have a standard time zone system today.  “Although not until 1918 did the federal government make these time zones standard for all purposes, the action by the railroads very quickly solidified the idea of ‘standard time’ through most of the United States.” (Brinkley 468)  There were also great advancements in the way goods were manufactured such as the moving assembly line introduced by Henry Ford.

   Many of the titans of industry defended their great wealth through an idea called Social Darwinism.  They argued that like Darwin’s theory of evolution taught survival of the fittest, Social Darwinism taught that the poor had only themselves to blame for their lack of wealth.  This theory gained in popularity during the late 19th century.  “The English philosopher Herbert Spencer was the first and most important proponent of this theory.  Society, he argued, benefited from the elimination of the unfit and the survival of the strong and talented.” (Brinkley 473)  This theory, however, did not seem to take into consideration the fact that many industry leaders were born into money while many immigrants arrived in the United States penniless.  It is certainly true that the economy of the United States was best suited to obtaining great wealth, but the monopolies actually squashed free market competition instead of encouraging it.

   Andrew Carnegie, a great industrialist, espoused a different view in his book The Gospel of Wealth.  He argued that with great wealth came great responsibility.  Carnegie lived up to his philosophy by donating most of his great wealth to philanthropic endeavors.

   It was from this period of time that the American Socialist Party was formed.  It was certainly a reaction to the great gap between the workers of the country and the industrialists.  This belief that it was the government’s role to step in and close the gap between the rich and poor was not shared by most Americans of the time.  Most Americans believed in the ability of everyone to obtain great wealth through hard work, luck and ingenuity.  However, most did not agree with the growth of monopolies.  It was argued that monopolies eliminated the free market concept of competition.  With no other choice but to buy the goods and services of the large monopolies they were able to charge whatever they deemed fit.  Not only did they object to unfair pricing but also it went against the very idea of a free market capitalist society by limiting the ability to move ahead.

   The rapid growth experienced in the industrial period led to great advancements for society but also produced considerable pain and suffering.  It is through this suffering that the United States was able to grow and learn from the mistakes of it’s past.  No longer are titans of industry able to gain monopolistic control over entire markets.  That is perhaps the greatest achievement of this era.  Americans have learned through the hardships of the past that we must consider all segments of the population including the poorest of the poor.  Only when all persons are considered can we restore the notion of the self made man.


Brinkley, Alan. American History: A Survey, VolumeII.

Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobb, and Gjerde, Jon. Major Problems in American History, Since

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