Gilded Age and Progressive Era Freedom Challenges Essay

The abolition of slavery was a tremendous success and a giant step in the emancipatory struggle in the United States. However, this change in the legal framework of the country did not bring about full emancipation of all its citizens. Indeed, it created new forms of oppression and revealed that economic inequality was the central problem that prevented full emancipation.

Foner (308) writes, “by 1840, the mass democratic politics of the Age of Jackson had absorbed the logic of the marketplace. Selling candidates and their images was as important as the positions for which they stood”. In other words, it became clear that political life was dominated by the rich and all the challenges for emancipation of all citizens stemmed from that fact. The shift from a pre-capitalist society to a capitalist one that took place with the end of the Civil War created the basis for severe exploitation of workers, women, immigrants and other vulnerable groups.

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First, when discussing new forms of oppression after the abolition of slavery, one should start with the discussion of the oppression of workers as they were certainly the most numerous oppressed group. It is important to recognize that the abolition of slavery was abolished primarily in order to make room for wage labor. Foner (387) writes, “Slavery, Republicans insisted, must be kept out of the territories so that free labor could flourish”. In this sense, if wage labor was to produce even harsher conditions than slavery in some cases, then its emancipatory potential was virtually non-existent.

When we analyze the position of workers during the Gilded Age and Progressive era we can immediately conclude that there was little to be gained for former slaves if they had to join the labor force because the conditions of work were unbearable. During that period an average number of 35 000 workers died each year in various accidents in mines of factories (Foner 482). Furthermore, large corporations used their monopolistic power to reduce workers’ wages and prolong working hours, which led to violent clashes and strikes.

The Homestead strike escalated into a major confrontation in which the police had to fire at the workers (Foner 509). Incidents like the great fire in New York in 1911 in which 500 women lost their lives in a factory illustrate the dreadful treatment of workers (Foner 544). In this sense, Southern pro-slavery advocates were right when they pointed out that slavery protected workers from suffering terrible conditions – “Slavery for blacks, they declared, was the surest guarantee of “perfect equality” among whites, liberating them from the “low, menial” jobs such as factory labor and domestic service performed by wage laborers in the North” (Foner 319).

Secondly, the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era were periods of oppression of immigrants. Despite the fact that millions of people hurled to the United States in search for better opportunities, they came to a country where they faced severe oppression. For most immigrants, there were very few opportunities for social advancement and they were locked in a cycle of poverty (Foner 547). Most well-paying positions were occupied by Americans while the immigrants had to survive by toiling for meager wages. Foner (548) quotes one immigrant priest who said, “My people are no in America … they are under it”.

Those who were not fit for capitalist production were seen as completely superfluous and freedom was just an abstract notion for them. The disabled and mentally-ill were locked inside newly-build institutions under the pretext of humanism but the effects were mere social exclusion.

Foner (347-348) writes, “Prisons and asylums would eventually become overcrowded places where rehabilitating the inmates seemed less important than simply holding them at bay, away from society”. In addition, all those who were not willing to toil in mines and factories were simply incarcerated – “new law authorized arrest of virtually any person without employment and greatly increased penalties for petty crimes” (Foner 517). In other words, the only kind of freedom that was truly practiced was the “freedom” to be exploited for miserable wages.

Finally, the emancipation of African-Americans did not mean that all group in the American society had at least formal freedom because women were still seen as men’s property. Indeed, Southern advocates of slavery capitalized on the fact that the subjugation of women to men was accepted as natural by virtually every member of the American society. They used that fact in their attempt to argue that the slavery of African Americans was natural as well and that it should not be abolished. Foner (362) writes, “The analogy between free women and slaves gained prominence as it was swept up in the accelerating debate over slavery”. The struggle for women’s suffrage took place during this era and it was a militant and bloody battle in which countless women and activists lost their lives (Foner 563).

In conclusion, the emancipation of slaves was by no means the end of oppression in the American society. The workers suffered immensely as capitalists abused their power and made them toil in dreadful conditions for starvation wages. Women were seen as men’s property and were denied basic rights. The dictatorship of capital over human lives meant that those who are not useful for capital accumulation were simply looked away. Finally, immigrants were brutally exploited, and they saw themselves as living in a completely different country – one with few economic opportunities.

Works Cited

Foner, Eric. Give me liberty!: an American history. Seagull 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014. Print.

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