Webisode 10. Segment 6
Muckrakers, we said, wrote about wrongs. And the Gilded Age had many. It was that age of extremes, of huge wealth and great poverty. In 1893, the distance between those extremes widened when the nation was hit by a terrible depression. It started partly because the Treasury had been spending a lot of the gold it kept in reserve. In those days, you could exchange paper money for gold or silver whenever you wanted. When Americans realized the gold supply was going down, they panicked and began turning in their paper money for gold, and that made the gold supply drop even further. And that upset the economic world. George Herron, a Congregationalist minister, had this to say: "This richest nation of the world suddenly finds a vast population face to face with famine."
The country's farmers were already doing badly. Since they had little money, they stopped buying goods. That hurt the manufacturers. Soon the banks were in trouble, too. They took over farms whose owners couldn't pay their mortgages and tried to sell thembut no one wanted to buy farms then, so the banks lost their money. We were having a depression. In the first nine months of 1893, 172 state banks, 177 private banks, and 47 savings-and-loan associations closed. More than 15,000 businesses failed. Railroads started closing156 of them before it was over. Mines were shut down, steamers stayed in port, factories closed, and companies went bankrupt. Many of the people who had worked in those banks, railroads, and factories were out of work, which made the depression more frightening. A journalist described life in the Appanoose County mining camp near Cincinnati: "The 500 mine families in this locality have little to eat, and their clothing is in utter tatters. All have a sickly appearance. Many have been confined to bed with illness."
One out of four people in Pennsylvania was reported out of work. In Michigan the figure was 43.6 percent. In Chicago, 100,000 men were sleeping on the streets. Newspaper editor and activist John Swinton wrote this: "In our land that offers welcome to all mankind, we see the growth of a horde of paupers, beggars, and tramps."
Eighteen ninety-three was an awful year; 1894 was worse. Some 1,400 strikes were called. Workers were protesting low wages and poor working conditions. Then along came Jacob Coxey. He was a Civil War veteran, a farmer, a quarry owner, and a devout Christian. He thought the government should help its out-of-work citizens find jobs. So, in 1894when things had gotten really badhe marched an army of unemployed men from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. Democratic President Grover Cleveland refused to see them. The police arrested Coxey for walking on the grass outside the Capitol. The President ordered the National Guard to disperse the men who had led the nation's first protest march on Washington. An outraged newspaper, the Topeka Advocate, had this to say: "These men have as much right to go to Washington and demand justice at the hands of Congress as bankers, railroad magnates, and corporation lawyers have to go and lobby for measures by which to plunder the public."
That summer, the highly profitable Pullman Car Company cut workers' wages for the fifth time. George Pullman's company made railroad sleeping cars in a town near Chicago. When the company cut wages, it didn't cut the fees it charged workers for rent, heat, and lights, or to use the company church. The workers were angry, and went on strike. Soon the strike spread to 50,000 workers throughout the railroad industry. Federal troops were sent to take action against the workers and the union, which led to violence, death, and arrests.
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