Politics at the turn of the 19th century in America consisted of the country slowly pulling itself up with the use of unions for fair pay, safe work environments, and dwindling child labor.
Both the massive influx of populations moving from the rural areas to the cities for work and the constant influx of immigrants from other countries, the cities of America were more than filled to capacity. Health standards deteriorated, crime rose, and income for the foreign born was too low to support a family. The low income caused women and children to work in conditions they had never previously worked. Housing in the tenement building consisted of 2-3 rooms poorly lit and with poor ventilation.
Many immigrants found work through the “Boss” who was the head of the political machine for their particular area.(Keene, 508) Oftentimes the “Boss” was portrayed as the benevolent boss, who would have assistance doled out to his patrons. He then would have the expectation that the immigrants would vote for him when the time was right. In an era of white male suffrage, every white male had a vote to cast, which was easily swayed through the use of the political machine and it was predominantly democratic.
With the advent of the true middle class, women were finding themselves with additional leisure time. Up to 20% of these women were college educated and well traveled. These women spent their time in social clubs devoted to charity and social reform. Soon settlement houses appeared which were where the urban poor could get assistance in the form of educational and vocational training. Within a decade, the heads of these houses were prodding local governments into action by way of expanding building codes, education for children, and encouraging public sanitation.(Keene, 512)
During this time in American history, the rich always had to have one eye on politics, due to the strikes and government interference. Strikes and government interference were uncontrollable aspects of their business, especially after they attained either a vertical or horizontal integration of their companies. This made it easier to control costs and maximize on profits.
Leisure time for the rich included what was referred to as “conspicuous consumption”. This was the way the ultra rich competed by throwing the greatest and grandest parties to show up one another. These parties cost anywhere from $250,000-$400,000 for an evening of entertainment. All this in a period where the average income for a laborer was $700/year. The appearance of the wealthy spending so opulently was not wasted on the average American.(Keene, 520)
The average worker of America had enough. The People’s Party was formed. Initially created by the alliance of farmers, once formed the realization that political power was necessary to advance their agenda they included not only farmers but also industrial workers. Their platform included eliminating monopolies, protecting small businesses and producers, promoting a fair tax system through the graduated tax system, and strengthening democracy. Though eventually failing, the People’s Party threatened to split the vote, at which point the leaders of both the democratic and republican parties took notice. The people had found their voice and the political parties took notice.(Keene, 523)
- Keene, Jennifer D, et al. Visions Of America: A History of the United States. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Boston, Pearson, 2015.