Although social paradigm dictates that the transcontinental railroad was a marvelous innovation and signifier of the American manifest destiny, it is truly a representation of immorality by the wealthy and politically elite of the time. Howard Zinn asserts this accusation by stating, “The first transcontinental railroad was built with blood, sweat, politics and thievery, out of the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.” (235).
With such a big project, fraud was almost inevitable. Millions of dollars in bonds and bribes were paid to politicians and companies in order to build the railroads. Overpayment became the norm and politicians were given shares at dirt low prices to allow this ‘thievery’ and to prevent investigation. Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames avows, “There is no difficulty in getting men to look after their own property.” (235). To make matters worse, thousand of immigrant and black labor was used to create the railroad. Making one to two dollars a day doing backbreaking labor, the workers risked their lives and died by the hundreds from all the risks they were exposed to. Some railroad workers even went on to join the populist workers having similar complaints to those of the farmers.
Zinn rebukes the mistreatment of the workers and the unethical practices of the railroad company/politicians, but doesn’t belittle the all the beneficial and practical uses this new system had. The chapter states that the steel company was inadvertently effected by the building of the railroads, as well as making it easier for people to travel, and allowing goods to be transported long distances (most notably meat products).
“They control the people through the people’s own money.” (p. 256) “I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small…let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.” (p. 262). The early capitalists established the rules in such a way that it would create a never-ending dependence of the rich by the poor. The big banks had the people’s money, who voluntarily contributed to the establishment and continuation of corporate capitalism. Little did they know that they would soon be putting their finances and future in the hands of men like J.P. Morgan, who only wanted power and did whatever he deemed necessary to obtain it, including selling rifles that would shoot off the thumbs of the soldiers using them.
The poor lived in a system of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. They would work for meager wages that would barely sustain their families. They would die doing the dirty work while the rich sat in their mansions, unsoiled. They increased the wealth of bankers by emptying their own pockets and willingly giving them the capital to support the system that oppressed them. This system was created by the rich, but fed by the poor. Unfortunately, once the Carnegies and the Rockefellers of that era claimed dominance of the nation’s wealth and created monopolies, there was little the poor could do to go against it or they would face financial starvation. In the end, both sides are to blame for the system that destroyed the lives of many during industrialization. The rich for creating such a system that deprived the poor and reduced them to mere tools to be thrown away once deemed useless, and the poor for feeding such a system with their blood, sweat, tears, and money.
– The working class vs. Robber Barons
It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure and refinement has been raised; but these gains are not general. In them the lowest class do not share… This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times…
This quote by Henry George basically epitomizes what capitalism in the 19th Century was all about. The Robber Baron class of the United States sought to all kinds of manipulative yet legal practices to fill their pockets. The government could easily be bought and had basically no control to regulate capitalism in the country. From a broader view, America was a country that was revolutionizing; steam, electricity, coal and iron, were just a few of the technological advances that occurred in this time. Farmers were moving to cities, and America was perceived to be a country full of prosperity. However, the reality was much different. Only a few rich people, like J.P Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie etc., were really benefitting from this era of capitalism. They were the ones who were reaping all the profits and their mantra was to gain more and more wealth by using people whose lives were less ‘valuable’. The construction of the first transcontinental railroad was done by thirteen thousand Irish and Chinese immigrants, who were paid only about two dollars a day. Thousands of immigrants died and got injured during the construction of the railroad, and yet their deaths were merely seen as sacrifices that had to be made for the sake of industrialization. It was the lower class that physically worked to industrialize America and yet it was the class of Robber Barons that enjoyed the benefits. I think Zinn tries to establish that the industrial revolution of the 19th century was really not a golden period for the United States, but was in fact a time that depicted the cruelties of unregulated capitalism.
As the farmer’s fell one by one the Industrial age would soon be in full swing. Industry requires workers and “breeding” a work force would be an excellent opportunity to have wage slaves toil without asking questions. The system used to create this new work force was called the Public Education System. Howard Zinn on page 263, paragraph two says, “…the spread of public school education enabled the learning…for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age.” A work force was literally being grown to serve the interests of big business. this didn’t start until the late 19th century, but once it started i quickly ran amok. Certian textbooks were banned for being laced with propaganda, teachers had no control of the content to be taught, and the teachers themselves were now selected based on citizenship. The school system is now successfully indoctrinating the new generation with patriotism and capitalism.
Of course the only children not being controlled by the public school system were the children of the rich. The grand scheme of the school system was aimed at the working class. This is the epitome of how industrialization “screwed” the working class and made the rich richer. At this time education was not a way to better one’s self so much as it was a tool of capitalism to create the new working class; civil, obedient, and patriotic slaves. This generation would have the intelligence necessary to allow the factory owners to reason with them thus preventing any form of “controversies and strikes.” Howard Zinn most likely included this in order to show the crux of the Industrial revolution. The farmers are being replaced by people who only know how to work in factories. Everything is to be industrialized including the public school system. Zinn uses multiple accounts of people to prove this point. Industrialization could not thrive with constant striking holding up production and ruining efficiency. whereas people who were forced to leave their farms would strike soon they wouldn’t be needed. As the industrial revolution headed into full swing, the already gargantuan gulf between the working class and the rich would grow to become astronomical!
The Farmers Alliance-
“The government played its part in helping the bankers and hurting the farmers; it kept the amount of money- based on the gold supply- steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation”
Farmers who were financially unstable lost their land and homes and were forced to become tenants. This happened mainly due to the lack of money in circulation. It made it harder for the farmers to pay back debt. And when they did managed, due to deflation they ended up paying more money than they were given. Bakers profited because the dollars they got were more valuable than when they had given it away. The rising number of tenant farmers and lack of help from the government led to the creation of the Farmers Alliance. It began in Texas and as a result of the brutal crop-lien system that was “little more than a modified form of slavery” (Goodwyn). The Alliance spread like a wildfire and by 1892 it had reached forty three states. Howard Zinn included the Alliance because of the atrocities committed against the farmers. The large corporations, bankers and government gave these people no other option but to riot. The Alliance played an important role in this era because they ended up becoming the People’s party—the Populist Party.
During the second Industrial Era, wealth was dominated by banks and corporations, whereas laborers were exploited at lower wages and many of them died at work by accident. Russell Conwell, the author of Acres of Diamonds justified the rich by saying, “I say you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich … The men get rich because they are honest men … there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcoming.”(262) The Capitalism movement tends to be criticized because of the inequality between rich and poor. Only some people had wealth and authority and the rest of people were exploited as labor. However, the idea of Capitalism was accepted by the public including lower-class people in the American Society and gave opportunities to the poor and improved people’s life certainly.
At that time, the entire society encouraged the Capitalism movement. Indeed, churches, schools and literature taught people the idea of Capitalism the rich is superior to the poor and the poor needed a tremendous effort and extraordinary luck to become wealthy. Furthermore, wealthy people donated their money to education and were called philanthropists. As a result, many colleges were founded and many children became literate. It was like the rich built the factory to produce new generations who are better-educated and trained. It was beneficial to both the public and the corporations. People started having better jobs and salaries. On the other hand, people obtained the opportunity to climb to the upper class by education. These rewards to the poor from the rich formed the obedience to the authority. The poor appreciated the rich people for spending money for the poor and also recognized the fact that the rich people had enough money and power to control the school systems. Hence, the poor people realized they needed to obey the rich people.
I think Howard Zinn mentions these arguments because he thought the Capitalism improved the society a lot although it caused inequality and harsh working environments. Zinn also gives examples of successful people, such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, to emphasize how Capitalism gave people opportunities and luck. In my opinion, Zinn does not say that the rich are generous to the poor. They redistributed their earnings to the poor for their own and the society’s future prosperity. Capitalists are good at manipulating people like easing their complaints and encouraging them to be obedient to the authority. In my opinion, the philosophy of Capitalism is not as simple as “the more money the rich gets, the more the poor suffer,” but also “the more money the rich gets, the more the society is improved” because the rich people enhanced the standard of life of the poor in actuality.