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American History 2--HIST 2112 (OER): Chapter 16: Capital and Labor

American Yawp Chapter Summary

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 heralded a new era of labor conflict in the United States. That year, mired in the stagnant economy that followed the bursting of the railroads’ financial bubble in 1873, rail lines slashed workers’ wages (even, workers complained, as they reaped enormous government subsidies and paid shareholders lucrative stock dividends). Workers struck from Baltimore to St. Louis, shutting down railroad traffic—the nation’s economic lifeblood—across the country.

Panicked business leaders and friendly political officials reacted quickly. When local police forces were unwilling or incapable of suppressing the strikes, governors called out state militias to break them and restore rail service. Many strikers destroyed rail property rather than allow militias to reopen the rails. The protests approached a class war. The governor of Maryland deployed the state’s militia. In Baltimore the militia fired into a crowd of striking workers, killing eleven and wounding many more. Strikes convulsed towns and cities across Pennsylvania. The head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thomas Andrew Scott, suggested that, if workers were unhappy with their wages, they should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.”1 Law enforcement in Pittsburgh refused to put down the protests, so the governor called out the state militia, who killed twenty strikers with bayonets and rifle fire. A month of chaos erupted. Strikers set fire to the city, destroying dozens of buildings, over a hundred engines, and over a thousand cars. In Reading, strikers destroyed rail property and an angry crowd bombarded militiamen with rocks and bottles. The militia fired into the crowd, killing ten. A general strike erupted in St. Louis, and strikers seized rail depots and declared for the eight-hour day and the abolition of child labor. Federal troops and vigilantes fought their way into the depot, killing eighteen and breaking the strike. Rail lines were shut down all across neighboring Illinois, where coal miners struck in sympathy, tens of thousands gathered to protest under the aegis of the Workingmen’s Party, and twenty protesters were killed in Chicago by special police and militiamen.2 Read more of Chapter 16 from the American Yawp.

Things to Consider

Questions to be thinking about as you move through the content of this chapter

  1. Describe the relationship between the railroad and industrialization.
  2. Who were the “new industrial giants?”  Why were they also called “robber barons?”
  3. How did the Industrial Revolution lead to a new class consciousness for both the middle and working classes?
  4. Discuss the factors leading to labor unrest in the late nineteenth century.
  5. How did the emergence of corporations change the American economy? 
  6. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the nineteenth-century American economy’s reliance on the efficiencies of scale.
  7. How did industrialization lead to the emergence of a new category of worker, typically called “the proletariat”?  To answer this questions, you will need to consider what proletariat means and how industrialization engendered it.
  8. How did the Second Industrial Revolution contribute to income inequality?
  9. What is Social Darwinism?  How was it used to justify the inequality that accompanied the Second Industrial Revolution?
  10. What factors led to the rise of the People’s (Populist) Party?  What factors led to its decline?
  11. What factors led to the rise of the Socialist Party?  What factors led to its decline?

Learning Objectives and Assessment

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between primary and secondary materials and decide when to use each
  • Understand the dynamics of change over time.
  • Explore the complexity of the human experience, across time and space.

Course Objectives

  • The student will be able to explain the social, economic, and political impact of the second Industrial Revolution and global migration of labor at the regional and national level of the late Nineteenth-early Twentieth Centuries.
  • The student will understand the development and impact of main ideologies, reform movements, and growth of international influence in late Nineteenth Century- early Twentieth Century World War I years.
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