The Politics of Big Business in The Gilded Age

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Between 1877 and 1900, the politics of big business took a heavy toll on the U.S society, impacting on the economic, political, and social aspects. Economic factors such as monopolies, trusts, and laissez-faire capitalism formed a crucial part of the society hence creating a culture of inequality, mistrust, and discrimination.

As illustrated in the (Gilded Age Reader), San Francisco established a school in 1885, exclusively for Chinese pupils and the move was not well received since it was discriminating against the rights of citizens. A lady wrote to the Board of Education protesting against the refusal to admit her child to a nearby school, just because she was Chinese. Another legislation enacted due to the politics of big business was meant to keep all Chinese away from America, and those who were already in America faced segregation and did not enjoy the same rights of liberty as the other nationalities. The curtailed rights of Chinese immigrants were proven when a man was arraigned in court as a suspect in the riots of a group of workers who gathered in Chicago to protest against violence. The man was charged with the bombing and rioting, besides being denied the liberty to make a final speech (Gilded Age Reader). The man went further to expose the inequality in the society by claiming that the same defenders of property rights doubled up as thieves but they could not be convicted regardless of their crime.

The existent legislation denied citizens to secure proper homes since all the land was monopolized for unclear uses. Most of the land was held beyond the needs of corporations that claimed ownership, forcing citizens to live in abject poverty as they had no land for cultivation and domestic purposes or for constructing good shelters. Private land monopoly and alien possession were typical due to the form of politics between 1877 and 1900. Laissez-faire capitalism system was common, and it infringed on the people’s rights since private parties conducted transactions which the government could not take part in although such actions were disadvantageous to the citizens. An act such as excessive land grabbing was common, and the government could not intervene hence creating a society run by influential people, where people lived in fear, afraid to voice their concerns (Shi & Tindall, 2016).

Political factors

Patronage system and political machines were typical in the late 19th century and impacted severely on the citizens, creating a society of oppressed individuals who could not fight for their rights. With the lack of populism system to side with the low classes of citizens, the newly-formed Populist Party received many appraisals from the farmers who claimed that they had faced oppression and they were against the political machine, which was the corrupt governing body. The farmers were exploited and overlooked since the issues affecting them directly were not addressed as expected. Hence the party made efforts in trying to restore the rights that had been denied. Power was bestowed upon the few influential individuals, and they exercised patronage whereby they could appoint any individual of interest into leadership without involving the citizens who were the most affected by the system (Gilded Age Reader). The society was ruled by politically hungry individuals who were not elected by the people through direct voting. Additionally, direct system legislation was not available since the initiative referendum was not considered a right that the citizens were entitled to.

Social Factors

According to the 1887 Dawes Act, Congress placed various tribes under the watchful eye of the federal government hence tribes were barred from being separate, independent governments. The act demanded the allocation of land to Indians individually, and the remaining portion was to be sold and the funds used to sponsor Indian education. The primary rationale behind this action portrayed the move within the society to encourage the Indians to take part in farming activities, but due to the absence of rainfall, the land was unable to support farming activities and was also too small to support livestock rearing. Therefore, the Indians lost most of their lands to white buyers as well as its natural resources particularly in Oklahoma, and towards the end of the 19th

century, much of the land belonged to the whites once more, portraying the gravity of inequality within the society.

In 1886, immigration took an unpleasant stand as the U.S society held negative views regarding the Chinese women immigrants as they were denied equal opportunities as other people (Gilded Age Reader). They earned little to nothing hence some opted to do sub-standard jobs such as laundering, housekeeping, and others got into prostitution. When a new African American president, Booker T Washington rose to power in 1895, the period was marked with more segregation as racism diversified, and the majority of southern states set aside public facilities and installed measures to restrain black voting rights, and lynching was common particularly for African Americans. African Americans were even asked to give up their pursuit of equal political and civil rights and far from that; Washington banned all unions and foreign immigration in his public speech. Labor division was unequal since the level of labor prices was unjust as a result of the low volume of circulating medium that could not sufficiently support the demands set by business and the population.


Bartels, L. M. (2016). Unequal democracy: The political economy of the new gilded age. Princeton University Press.

Shi, D. E., & Tindall, G. B. (2016). America: A narrative history. WW Norton & Company.

Gilded Age Reader, Week 1

November 24, 2023


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