1877 was a bad year for the people of the United States: blacks found that the federal government was no longer willing to protect them, and workers learned that they weren’t organized enough to fight railway companies. For the rest of the century, the elites of the North and South organized “the greatest march of economic growth in human history.” Elites orchestrated this march, however, with the help of cheap labor. Between 1865 and 1900, steam and electricity became the key forms of power, and urban centers grew exponentially. While some historians have characterized the late 19th century as a time when anyone could go from “rags to riches,” the data simply don’t support such an argument: of the three hundred most powerful business executives of the 1870s, ninety percent came from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. Furthermore, much of the growth that the U.S. underwent in the 19th century was unethical or illegal. Railroad companies joined the East and West Coasts together, but only by underpaying laborers and overvaluing their own services.
Much as the expansion of the Western, industrialized world hinged upon the subjugation of the Native American population, Zinn argues that the expansion of the American industrial state in the second half of the 19th century hinged upon the subjugation and exploitation of the working class. The divide between rich and poor widened during this period—on one hand, industry generated tremendous wealth for the richest Americans; on the other, it forced poor Americans to take lower wages for exhausting work. Zinn suggests that the media (and, today, historians) emphasized the “American dream”—i.e., the idea that anybody could become rich and successful in America—to mask the fact that American society was rapidly developing into a caste system.
The 19th century was an age of “robber barons” such as J. P. Morgan and John Rockefeller. In 1895, with the government’s gold reserves decreasing quickly, President Grover Cleveland was forced to buy gold from Morgan in exchange for bonds, which Morgan promptly resold at a huge profit. Morgan began his career by selling rifles to Union soldiers for a big profit—despite the fact that the rifles were defectives. Rockefeller put his competitors out of business by making illegal agreements with railroad companies.
The people who became wealthy and powerful during the second half of the 19th century were often highly unethical people, who made their fortunes by deceiving and, in some cases, hurting other people. The “pillars of society” during the era were, beneath all their money and fame, criminals—hence the nickname, “robber baron.”
In the late 19th century, the U.S government behaved almost exactly as Karl Marx predicted: it claimed to protect the rights of the common man, when, in fact, it favored the interests of the wealthy. Under the leadership of Grover Cleveland, for example, the government bought steel at artificially high prices from Andrew Carnegie, the most powerful steel baron of the era. Cleveland vetoed bills intended to help struggling farmers, claiming that he opposed federal aid; yet, the same year, he paid federal bondholders a bonus of 45 million dollars.
Karl Marx was a philosopher and social critic who wrote most of his books in the mid-19th century. In his magnum opus, Capital, Marx argued that the main purpose of government in a capitalist society was to ensure that the rich and powerful maintained their wealth and power. The government’s cooperation with robber barons like Carnegie seems to confirm everything Marx predicted.
It was also during the Cleveland administration that Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which supposedly regulated railroads in order to protect consumer interests. As journalists observed at the time, the Act was “almost entirely nominal,” its only purpose to satisfy the “popular clamor” for government supervision. Other reforms of the era, such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which ostensibly prevented the existence of large monopolies, were billed as measures intended to protect American consumers against monopoly. However, in 1895, the Supreme Court interpreted the Act to mean that it had no power to break up manufacturing monopolies—meaning that the Court did nothing to break up the monopolistic organizations of Rockefeller, Carnegie, or Morgan. The Court also interpreted the 14th Amendment to provide protection for corporations, beginning the idea that “corporations are people, too.”
While preserving the interests of the business elite, such as Rockefeller and Carnegie, the federal government continued to feign neutrality and impartiality, passing a series of impressive-sounding, but, in practice, insubstantial pieces of legislation that seemed to put checks and balances on the power of the business community but really preserved elite wealth. As Zinn sees it, the overall purpose of the federal government and the court system is to preserve property, meaning that most policy had the overall effect of protecting the fortunes of robber barons, at the expense of the American people.
The Supreme Court justices of the era hailed from upper-class backgrounds and were committed to the idea that the law should protect private property, even if doing so hurts the community. Many Supreme Court justices of the era (like those of the present day) attended schools founded by robber barons. Zinn argues that wealthy people funded such schools not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they wanted to create places that “trained the middlemen in the American system … those who would be paid to keep the system going, to be loyal buffers against trouble.” Indeed, much of the educational system as it existed in the 19th century was intended, quite explicitly, as a means of training people to enter the industrial system.
In this passage, Zinn poses the implicit question, “In the 19th century, why did so many different people work together to protect corporate interests at the expense of the American worker? Were they just bad people?” In response, Zinn suggests that the university system—along with many other American institutions—is an important entity for indoctrinating middle-class people to work on behalf of the Establishment. In effect, the Supreme Court justices may have ruled in favor of big business because their educations had trained them, in many subtle ways, to accept the status quo and be skeptical of change.
In response to the growing uniformity of the education system, there arose a tradition of dissent and unorthodoxy. Figures like Henry George, a self-educated worker from Philadelphia, argued that land was the basis of all wealth, and that it should be monopolized to prevent the growth of inequality in America. Other intellectuals supported Socialism as a means of correcting corruption and inequality.
Henry George’s ideas haven’t aged particularly well (the societies in which the government monopolized land ownership, such as Soviet Russia, didn’t turn out to be particularly enlightened or well-organized), but his writings are indicative of an important trend: the growing resistance to capitalist ideology in the intellectual community.
The late 19th century also saw an increase in immigration and the fragmentation of the working class. Immigrants of different ethnicities competed for many of the same jobs, which drove wages down and led different groups to resent one another. Immigrant family members often worked long hours in order to make ends meet, meaning that they “became strangers to one another.” Life was particularly difficult for poor immigrant women, a large number of whom were forced to become factory workers, servants, or even prostitutes in order to feed themselves.
At the same time that the corporate world was becoming more powerful, the working classes were becoming more internally divided. Instead of directing their hatred at the Establishment that conspired to keep them powerless, immigrant populations hated each other for driving down wages. As Zinn has already shown, racism and prejudice usually have the effect of strengthening the elite.
As the situation of the working class became increasingly bleak, unions became increasingly radical in the solutions they proposed. The Socialist Labor party, founded in 1877, gained a lot of attention from eastern European immigrants, and the International Working People’s Association quickly expanded to more than five thousand members. Two other important unions of the era were the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1886, the AFL organized a series of strikes across the nation in support of the eight-hour work day. It’s estimated that as many as a third of a million people went on strike that year.
The growing radicalism and energy of the American labor movement reflects the dire economic conditions of the country in the late 19th century. Immigrants and poor people gravitated towards Socialism, Communism, and Anarchism because these ideologies represented alternatives to capitalist exploitation.
The military and police responded brutally to the labor movement. During a demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone (it’s never been clear who) threw a bomb that wounded sixty-six policemen. Afterwards, four anarchists were blamed for the crime and executed. The executions outraged many workers—some said that the anarchists were innocent, while others alleged that the bomb had been thrown by an agent provocateur working for the police. To this day, the truth remains unknown.
Notice that Zinn himself never argues that police agents detonated the bomb as an excuse to persecute anarchists. His point, rather, is that, whether or not anarchists were guilty of killing people in Chicago, anarchists’ crimes pale in comparison to the crimes of the Establishment and the American military—in a single riot in New York City in the 1860s, for example, troops killed at least 400 Americans and never faced punishment for their actions.
Another milestone of the labor movement of the 19th century was the electoral campaign for mayor of New York City in 1886. Henry George campaigned for the job on a platform of equal pay for women, police reform, and business reform. In the end, George came in second to an establishment Democratic candidate.
Henry George’s campaign for the mayor of New York in 1886 is another good example of what Zinn means by “brief flashes” of resistance. On a literal level, George failed to achieve his goals because he lost the election—however, he succeeded insofar as he brought attention to populist causes and proved that the American people were tired of the capitalist consensus.
For the remainder of the 1880s, labor unions organized more riots and strikes. In 1892, Henry Clay Frick, a manager working for Andrew Carnegie, cut wages, fortified Carnegie buildings against strikes, and hired detectives from the Pinkerton agency to protect Carnegie employees from strikers. In July, fights broke out between Pinkerton employees and Carnegie strikers, and several strikers and detectives were killed. Later, strike leaders were charged with murder, though they were acquitted. The strike continued for four months, but Frick was able to hire strikebreakers, so that, in the end, the strike failed. Afterwards, an anarchist tried to assassinate Frick, but misfired.
The brutality of the strikes at Carnegie factories illustrated the desperation of the American worker and the greed of the American capitalist. The fact that the strike continued even after Pinkerton detectives killed some of the strikers further confirms that these factory employees were fighting to survive. They were making so little money as workers, and were so close to starvation, that they had nothing to lose by striking for four months.
In 1893, the country entered another recession. In the midst of the recession, a socialist organizer named Eugene Debs began mobilizing workers. In 1844, Debs organized a large group of employees of the Pullman railway company to go on strike. Debs was also able to convince members of the American Railway Union not to handle Pullman railway cars—meaning that, in essence, he orchestrated a national railroad strike. In response, President Grover Cleveland sent troops to Chicago, where troops killed thirteen people. Debs was arrested, and the strike “was crushed.”
Debs’s role in the Pullman Strike was to organize, with the force of his charisma and intelligence, a national strike on all Pullman railway cars. However, notice that Zinn, unlike many history textbooks, doesn't praise Debs at the expense of the American people. Even when he’s writing about Debs, a man he clearly admires greatly, Zinn’s focus remains on the common man, the “real hero” of the Pullman Strike.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was meant to incentivize people living in the eastern United States to “go west” by offering them land; in this way, Congressmen thought that it would mitigate the congestion and discontent in eastern cities. But the Homestead Act didn’t improve congestion or discontent at all; the three decades following the Homestead Act were some of the most “bitter” in the history of labor. Furthermore, the Homestead Act didn’t provide economic freedom for the people who moved west; many of the people who did so ended up badly in debt because, in order to make their free farmland financially viable, they had to borrow money to pay for industrial machinery.
Zinn argues that the Homestead Act was a typical act of Establishment reform, designed to placate the masses without doing anything to change their lives in a profound way. On paper, the Homestead Act may sound like an act of pure generosity, but in fact, it reflected Congress’s fear that East Coast Americans would strike, riot, and challenge the status quo in their cities. However, Zinn doesn’t address the strong possibility that at least some members of Congress were sincere in their desires to help starving American workers.
The political system of the 19th century was biased against farmers’ interests and toward the interests of urban capitalists. In the western U.S., farmers had to purchase machinery from industrialists and merchants, and, if they couldn’t pay off their debts in time, they often had to surrender their land to their moneylenders. The Populist movement of the late 1800s developed as a reaction to the growing inequality of the U.S., which threatened the financial independence of farmers. The Farmers Alliance, essentially an agricultural union, emerged in the 1880s and quickly gained a large membership. The Alliance sometimes boycotted businesses that sold farming machinery at inflated prices. However, the union could do nothing to cancel out existing debts on machinery.
For the rest of the chapter, Zinn will focus on the lack of cooperation between two working-class groups: western farmers and eastern laborers (indeed, this is one of the only chapters in the book in which Zinn emphasizes the differences, more than the commonalities, between two sectors of the proletariat).
In 1890, Farmers Alliance leaders met in Topeka, Kansas and formed the Populist political party. The party’s platform was simple: the U.S. had come under the control of urban capitalists who didn’t have the people’s interests in mind. In many ways, Zinn acknowledges, the Populist party was racist: it didn’t extend a warm welcome to independent black farmers, and it regarded landless black workers as a threat to their own economic survival. However, some farmers in the Populist party “saw the need for racial unity.” Indeed, in Texas, a branch of the populist movement elected black farmers to the party’s state executive committee. Other Populist leaders in Georgia pleaded for racial unity, and criticized the segregation and intimidation that prevented most blacks from voting.
The Populist movement has been very controversial for American historians, especially left-wing historians. Richard Hofstadter, one of the most important American historians of the 20th century, argued that Midwestern Populism was racist and anti-Semitic (its attacks on East-Coast capitalism had a particularly strong anti-Semitic flavor). Zinn suggests that Populism was less racist than some historians have claimed, though he largely ignores the suggestion that it was anti-Semitic. Some have argued that Zinn is being disingenuous in his defense of Populism, downplaying the racism of the movement in order to make Populism (and the American people in general) seem more enlightened and unified than it really was.
Perhaps the key failure of the various “people’s movements” of the late 19th century was that they couldn’t find ways to work together. Farmers’ unions were regional, and, for the most part, made little effort to unite with the eastern labor movement. By the same token, eastern urban labor movements didn’t try to unite with farmers in the west. Both eastern and western labor movements were divided on the question of racial inclusion.
Ultimately, Zinn concludes that populist movements of the 19th century failed to achieve their goals because, at a time when new technology could have united them, they remained regional, isolated, localized, and overly concerned with their own agendas. Thus, Midwestern farmers didn’t reach out to factory workers, and vice-versa (whereas the American power elite, Zinn argues, had sophisticated strategies for working together, opposing populist movements as “one front”).
In 1896, the Populist Party faced a difficult choice. Some Populists supported the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee. Populist officials made deals with their Democratic counterparts, promising to support moderate policies in order to ensure Bryan’s election. By compromising, the Populist party locked itself into a “lose-lose” scenario: if Bryan won, the Populist Party would be absorbed into the Democratic party, and if Bryan lost, the Party would “disintegrate.” There were many radical populists who argued that the Populist party needed to remain independent from the Democratic party. In the end, Bryan lost the election to William McKinley—the election is often regarded as the “first massive use of money in an election campaign.” Afterwards, the Populist party splintered and faded away.
Like so many people’s movements in American history, the Populist party “faded away” because its agenda was partly absorbed into that of a mainstream political party. Zinn’s conclusion is that radical, left-wing political groups need to remain independent from the mainstream, lest their agenda be corrupted and twisted by mainstream Establishment interests. However, one could also argue that Populism’s incorporation into the Democratic party was a victory for Populism, since it made the Democratic party more equitable in its outlook, and more sympathetic to Populist ideas.