Skip to main content Skip to main content

A Biography of America

Capital and Labor

The making of money pits laborers against the forces of capital as the twentieth century opens. Professor Miller introduces the miner as the quintessential laborer of the period -- working under grinding conditions, organizing into unions, and making a stand against the reigning money man of the day, J. Pierpont Morgan.

View Transcript

Enhanced Transcript Page 1

Program 17: Capital and Labor

Donald L. Miller


Miller: America at the end of the century. The world seemed to agree, the 20th century would be the American century. This one Frenchman goes into a packing plant, and he looks around. And he comes out, and he says to his fellow passengers when he comes out–he keeps a diary; this is the 1880s, and he’s in Chicago–and he says, “You know, these people are going to capture the world.”

These observers saw this country as different. They didn’t actually like it. The guy I was quoting from is Paul Voiget. He’s a conservative, and he has great trepidation about what’s happening, the same kind of trepidation that Jefferson had. He said, “This is coming.” He even uses the words, “The next century will be the American century, and I don’t want to live in it, because I don’t want to live in a world with these gigantic corporations, and I don’t want to live in a world where capitalists are heroes.”

They’re not heroes to everyone, not to John Mitchell and the coal miners, who took on the mightiest capitalist in the world, J. P. Morgan. Today, on A Biography of America, the making of things gives rise to the making of money, and to bloody conflicts between capital and labor.

Enhanced Transcript Page 2

New York Becomes the Capital of Capitalism

Miller: In the year 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana gave a toast to the new century. “The 20th century will be American. American thought will dominate it. American progress will give it color and direction. American deeds will make it illustrious.”

But the question was: which America would dominate the new century? In the decade leading up to 1900, Capital and Labor clashed in enormous struggles for the soul of the nation. In 1894 alone there were 1,400 industrial strikes.

As these struggles were taking place, American capitalism was undergoing a seismic transformation.

Industry-dominating combinations, trusts and holding companies, were forming in every sector of the economy: in oil, sugar, tobacco, meatpacking, lumber, and more. At the same time, power was shifting from smokestack cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago to New York City, the new capital of American capitalism.

There’s where American banking was centered. There’s where the money was to finance the creation of these giant monopolies. And there’s where J. Pierpont Morgan was, the new colossus of capitalism.

Unlike Carnegie or Rockefeller, producers of iron and oil, Morgan made nothing, nothing except money. He had and controlled so much of it that people called him Jupiter, after the supreme Roman god. And almost alone, he changed the balance of power in the American economy from hard-edged industrial moguls to well-tailored New York bankers.

The novelist Theodore Dreiser had thought Chicago would be the great capitalist city of the 20th century. That’s before he’d seen New York. When he arrived there for the first time in 1894, he was overwhelmed.

New York was bigger, more powerful, and vastly more impersonal than Chicago. And the entire city had what he called a “cruel, mechanical look.” Dreiser had grown up a poor kid, but wanted to be rich. So one of the first places he went was Wall Street. There he found what he described as “a seething sea of financial trickery, a realm crowded with shark-like geniuses of finance.”

The Street, like the city itself, made him feel small, insignificant. Later, writing about his experience, he spoke for ordinary Americans of that time. “How could the average person,” he said, “confront these wizards or contend with them? They were like ogres,” who in his words “ate the labor and stores of little men.”

Then he went to upper Fifth Avenue. There were the gaudy palaces of the Vanderbilts and the Astors. The whole neighborhood, Dreiser thought, “smacked of travel, the sea, European capitals, yachts, great financial institutions, and industries.” Here was the home of capitalist arrogance, as well as self-indulgence.

Dreiser found this world thrilling and alluring, but he wanted to know both the best and the worst of New York City. And this took him into run-down neighborhoods, where as a struggling writer he was forced to live. He would describe this other New York in Sister Carrie, where we watch the slow unmaking of Carrie’s lover, Hurstwood, a big man in Chicago but a sinking stone in New York.

Jacob Riis and the Slums

But the real slums in New York were on the Lower East Side. Over a million people lived in dark, airless tenements. In his novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane captured these cankerous slums with almost painful accuracy. But it took the invention of flash photography and the crusading spirit of Jacob Riis, to expose this human hell to a national audience.

Riis came to America from Denmark in 1870, at the age of 21, and seven years later landed a job as a New York police reporter. His beat included Mulberry Bend, the worst neighborhood in New York.

Riis couldn’t reconcile America as a land of opportunity with what he saw in the Bend, and he wanted to show comfortable people what they preferred to ignore. He was able to shock people, truly unsettle them, because he recorded this dispiriting place in pictures, as well as words, in a book he published in 1890 called How the Other Half Lives.

Riis made his readers feel as if they were there, right at his elbow, as he took his flash photographs with his hand-held detective camera. The flash powder exploded with such sudden force that it left many of his subjects with looks of fright and surprise on their faces. They were shocked because Riis had come at them almost like a mugger. It was called flash-and-run photography.

Riis would go on all-night tours with the cops. He’d burst into the haunts of the poor, explode the flash in their faces, and then race off. But, as we see here, some of his most heart-stabbing photographs were carefully posed shots of street kids and struggling families. Riis was a better photographer than he was a writer, but some of his prose passages have a gripping “you are there” quality.

Here’s Riis: “Here’s a door. Listen! That short, hacking cough, that thin, helpless wail. What do they mean? It’s the sound of another child dying. With half a chance, it might have lived, but that dark bedroom killed it.”

But Riis wasn’t free of the prejudices of his time. Jews, to him, were greedy and materialistic; Blacks were best fit for menial jobs, and the Chinese, who he loathed, were, as he put it, a “menace to society.” As for beggars, they should be left to starve if they wouldn’t work.

Riis’ work lead to tenement house reform. But like Jane Addams, he tried too hard to Americanize immigrants, to get them to give up what he called their “ethnic clannishness.” That’s why he hated the Chinese. They held on too strongly to what they were.

Riis also tried to steer immigrants from corrupt political bosses. It’s true: almost every precinct captain of Tammany Hall, New York’s Democratic political machine, was out to enrich himself. But these political thieves provided jobs and services immigrants desperately needed. And they didn’t ask those they helped to change who they were.

Enhanced Transcript Page 3

John Pierpont Morgan and the American Corporation

By 1900, tough-minded journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell were waking up to the fact that politicians no longer ran America; big business did. Tammany’s power was nothing compared to that of Morgan’s.

Morgan was physically imposing: a massive man, with a ferocious glare and a purple, hideously disfigured nose, the result of a childhood skin disease. He smoked Havana cigars so big they were called Hercules’ Clubs. And he had a tremendous physical effect on people. One man said that a visit from Morgan left him feeling “as if a gale had blown through the house.”

Unlike Carnegie, Morgan was born rich. He grew up in a prominent banking family and got his start in his father’s London business at the age of 19. After the Civil War, Morgan began investing in railroads and soon ruled the transportation empire. He didn’t build roads; he took over or consolidated, under his control, railroads that had run into financial trouble, a process that came to be called Morganization.

Morgan was a different type of capitalist than Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie built a business and loved competition. Morgan took over other people’s businesses and hated competition. Morgan wanted to stabilize the boom and bust American economy, to prevent price wars between business rivals from destroying big corporations and unhinging the economy.

Morgan’s program was compatible with many corporate titans, who wanted to absorb their competition by forming giant trusts and monopolies. John D. Rockefeller had done this by creating the greatest monopoly of them all, the Standard Oil Company, which brought order to a wildly chaotic industry. But no other capitalists in the country, except Carnegie, had money to form such gigantic combinations.

So empire-building industrialists were drawn into the arms of Morgan and other formidable Wall Street bankers. This began the great corporate drift to New York. Powerful capitalists like Philip Armour, the meat king, and Collis Huntington, the railroad king, moved to New York in the 1890s to be near big investment houses like Morgan and Company, Lehman Brothers, and Kuhn, Loeb.

By 1895, New York was the headquarter city for American corporations. Almost half the American millionaires lived in the New York metropolitan region. And Morgan controlled a Wall Street syndicate that the financial writer John Moody called “the greatest financial power in the history of the world.”

At the peak of his powers, in the early 1900s, Morgan dominated a hundred corporations with more than $22 billion in assets. Among them was the first billion dollar corporation in history, U.S. Steel. Morgan had formed this giant steel trust in 1901 out of mills he’d purchased from Carnegie in a colossal cash deal. This transaction marked the high tide of banker power in America.

Morgan’s defenders said he never abused his power. But the question was: should any person in a democracy have this much power? Morgan saw himself as a force for the good. His banks, he thought, had helped to transform America into the world’s most powerful nation; and privately, secretly, he gave money to the urban poor.

His partners claimed he could have made a lot more money than he did. Well that’s true, but only because he lived a life of self-indulgence, spending time collecting paintings, rare books, tapestries, tremendous houses, ocean-going yachts, and high-spirited mistresses. When Morgan died in 1913, he had an estate of $80 million, that’s $1.2 billion today, as compared to Rockefeller’s worth of nearly a billion, that’s $l90 billion today. When Rockefeller read this in the papers he supposedly said, “And to think, he wasn’t even a rich man.”

But Rockefeller’s remark misses the point. Morgan’s power wasn’t in the number of his millions, but in the billions he controlled. Senator Beveridge called Morgan “the greatest constructive financier” in the history of mankind. But not everybody agreed.

In 1900, the greatest opponent of corporate consolidation was Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was preparing for another run for the presidency against the Republican incumbent William McKinley, whose 1896 campaign Morgan had bankrolled. To Bryan, Morgan was a predator whose banks and corporations were destroying competition, manipulating prices, buying and selling politicians. While several hundred millionaires lived in luxury, 80% of American families earned less than $500 a year.

In no other country in the world was such power held by men of wealth. In his campaign, Bryan hit hard on this theme of corporate injustice, but his message reached very few people in the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania. There, miners and their families lived like serfs in an industrial fiefdom that Morgan had helped create.

Enhanced Transcript Page 4

The Coal Mining Industry

The coal barons controlled politics and the press and had their own police force and company-owned towns. And they smashed every attempt by the workers, going back half a century, to form a labor union. The American Constitution wasn’t a fact of life in the coal towns of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Here, coal was king. A single industry, hard coal, anthracite, dominated the region, and here the industrializing process assumed its most nakedly brutal form. In less than a generation, an unspoiled wilderness was made over into a wasteland of acid-polluted streams and smoke-scarred towns.

Workers were treated even worse than the land. Deep in the coal seams, men and boys worked in total darkness, at the most dangerous job of the day. Accidents were almost a way of life, and few miners past the age of 40 failed to contract “black lung” from inhaling the dust of the mines. Black lung was — still is — incurable and slowly kills its victims.

No other American industry inflicted more destruction on man and the environment than anthracite mining. Yet clean-burning anthracite was indispensable to the industrializing process. It was used to make iron, to power factories, to run locomotives; and it was the Northeast’s chief domestic heating fuel. And almost all of this coal, almost all this anthracite, was located in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Deprived of anthracite, entire areas of the country would be paralyzed or thrown into chaos, particularly in wintertime. Maybe the miners had more power than they thought? The anthracite industry had evolved in the classic capitalist pattern, from small firms operated by individual entrepreneurs, through big family-owned companies, to giant conglomerates. After the Civil War, the owners of the major coal-hauling railroads began buying up huge amounts of coal lands merging into industry-wide combinations under Morgan’s guidance and Morgan’s money.

By 1900, Morgan’s railroad cartel controlled almost the entire region. Meanwhile, mining went on much the way it had for almost a century. There’s never been a more perilous occupation.

The miners were sometimes a thousand feet and more underground; and there were deadly gases there that could kill in a minute or set off tremendous explosions and fires. There were rats all over the place. The timber that helped hold up the roofs of the tunnels was creaking constantly under the tremendous weight — a thousand feet of earth and rock right above the miners. And every day these miners were dynamiting underneath that mountain of rock.

Sometimes, that mountain collapsed and trapped men underground, or flattened them into the ground like pancakes, so that their bodies had to be scraped up with shovels. On average, three anthracite miners were killed every two days. When a miner was killed, his broken body was deposited, by the company, unceremoniously on the front porch of his house. The remains of men annihilated in mine blasts were brought home in coffee cans.

Mining was unlike other industrial work, and miners considered themselves a special breed, distinct from factory workers. Anthracite mining was a craft or cottage industry, requiring hand labor and skilled workers. Miners worked in crews of two or four men, and these crews worked on their own. Close supervision was impossible because of the tight underground passages and tunnels.

This kind of work bred what’s called the “miner’s freedom.” Miners were fiercely independent. They were their own bosses and they didn’t take orders well. Yet, their independence was balanced by a strong sense of worker solidarity, because underground they had to depend on one another.

Because anthracite seams are sharply pitched, men usually had to climb to their work through narrow, 90 degree passages, carrying caps and powder, picks and shovels, axes and lumber for shoring up the roof. As they inched ahead, they checked for deadly gases with their safety lamps, and by the time they reached the coal face, they were often on the downside of their shift. At the face, they drilled holes in the wall of coal, filled them with blasting power, ran a fuse to a fire box, and blew the coal away from the seam. Then they loaded it on cars, and mules would pull the cars to the surface.

The average miner made about $400 a year; not enough to support a family. So his wife had to take in boarders, and his sons had to leave school at the age of eight or nine to work in a place called a “breaker,” a huge factory for processing coal. The boys would work, sitting down, in step-like chutes. The coal would come roaring down and they’d pick out the slate and rock with their bare hands, for 45 cents a day.

The noise was earsplitting, and the whole building would shake with the movement of the coal. The dust was so thick the boys could hardly breathe; and they’d wear handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths and chewed tobacco to keep from choking. Behind them, supervising the work, were foremen with clubs and leather whips.

At age ten or eleven, the breaker boys graduated from the breaker and went into the earth with their fathers. There they worked until they died a natural death, were injured or killed, or contracted Black Lung. When their lungs filled up with coal dirt, they went back to where they’d started, to the breaker. As the miners used to say: “Twice a boy and once a man is a poor miner’s lot.”

A Melting Pot Prompts Intolerance

The only hope for change was a union. In the fall of 1899, John Mitchell, the new 29-year-old president of the United Mine Workers, entered anthracite country with a group of organizers. Mitchell’s union was preparing for an all-out labor war, a struggle that would set the country’s largest labor union against the mightiest financial combination of American capitalism.

The core issue was the right of miners to organize. Mitchell knew what he was in for. In the past, one union drive after the other had failed because of company opposition, but also because workers themselves were bitterly divided along ethnic lines.

Earlier in the century, it was the Irish against the Welsh and the English. Now it was English-speaking miners, mostly Irish, Welsh, and Germans, against new immigrants, some of them Italian, but most of them Slavs, an all-embracing term used by other miners to include Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Croatians, Serbs, and other Easter European Catholics. The English-speaking miners believed that these new immigrants had been brought by the companies to depress wages. And some of Mitchell’s organizers believed they wouldn’t join a union because they were so docile and easily led.

So when trainloads of Slavs arrived in the region, they were given a great American welcome. They were stoned by Irish miners. To protect themselves, Slavs developed an intense communalism, banding together for mutual protection and comfort.

They organized mutual aid societies to bury their dead in dignity, youth organizations to instill ethnic pride in their kids, and savings and loans societies to help one anther purchase property. And on Sundays they gathered together as a community at ethnic feasts and picnics, letting off steam with a wild drink they called polinki, that’s beer laced with whiskey and hot peppers. Catholic priests in the anthracite region said mass in the national languages of their parishioners. And church organizations helped preserve Slavic culture, getting these people to act and think together as a group, the only way to break down paternalism.

When they were strong together, these miners were ready to take on the bosses. An incident in 1897 at a town called Lattimer showed what they were made of. The Slavs in that part of the region took the lead in a small strike against coal owners. Three hundred striking workers marching from mine to mine shut them down.

They walked peacefully, behind a miner carrying an American flag. But when they got to Lattimer, they were met by the local sheriff and 150 deputies armed with Winchesters, with steel-piercing bullets. We’ll never know who gave the order to fire. But it was a massacre.

At least l9 miners were killed and 32 wounded. Deputies were heard shouting, “Shoot the sons of bitches.” Then these deputies boarded trolleys laughing and bragging about how many so-called Hunkies they’d taken down. In a highly prejudiced trial, a jury declared all the deputies innocent.

The Lattimer Massacre sparked a new level of militancy, among the women, especially. One Slavic woman, Big Mary Septak, organized a band of 150 women and tried to keep the strike going after the men started back to work. Armed with rolling pins and fire pokers, and carrying their children in their arms, Big Mary’s “army of amazons,” as they were called by the press, battled coal police and sheriff’s deputies before they were broken up by the state militia.

These people, the men as well as the women, were conservatives, but it was their conservatism that fueled their insurgency, ironically, their desire to hold onto what they had. Slavic militancy gave Mitchell hope. His organizers also noticed that mining itself was bringing the men together.

A Coal Strike and an Election

If there was a melting pot in America, it was at the bottom of a thousand-foot mine shaft, where 26 nationalities worked in what was a democracy of misery. Mitchell skillfully built on this. As his men went through the region, they had one message: If you’re Irish, you don’t have to drink with Slovaks, but you work with them.

And to get any improvements at the mine site, you’ve got to bury your hatred and join with these people in a common effort. Otherwise, you’re just cannon fodder for the capitalists. Everywhere Mitchell went he had the same message. “The coal you mine isn’t Slovak coal. It’s not Irish coal. It’s not Italian coal. It’s coal.”

Mitchell wore a jeweled ring and a Prince Albert suit, but the miners liked him and trusted him. He was one of them, a former miner from Illinois. To Catholic miners, Mitchell looked like a priest with his long frock coat, buttoned up to the top, and his high white collar. Johnny d’Mitch, they called him affectionately.

Mitchell’s organizers started to make progress, but the owners refused to deal with him or his union. So he rolled the dice and called for a strike on September 17, 1900. At that time, only 9,000 of more than 140,000 anthracite miners had joined the union.

On the morning of the strike, when the work whistle blew, no one knew what the miners would do. Then, amazingly, workers began to drift from their homes, not in their miner’s boots but in their Sunday best. 90,000 men stayed out of the mines that first day. Within a week only 9,000 were still working.

By the middle of October, factories and homes across the country began running low of coal, and prices shot up. With the election and cold winter coming, the strike became a national issue. McKinley and his running mate, the New York governor, Theodore Roosevelt, were running on the theme of American prosperity. Their slogan was “A Full Dinner Pail” for the American worker.

This strike could trigger a depression and swing the election to Bryan. Bryan began hitting on the underlying issue of the strike: Who owns America? The people or the plutocrats? Then, when the press started to report the strike sympathetically, McKinley had to do something.

So he sent his friend and political manager, Mark Hanna, to meet with the mine owners. When they refused to budge, he went over their heads to J.P. Morgan, and Morgan got them to agree to a 10% wage increase. But they would not accept union recognition. That’s about all Mitchell thought he could get however, for the miners were starving and soon would be forced to return to work.

The strike was over. McKinley won the election. Morgan was pleased. Mitchell knew that a bigger battle was ahead, as the company began stockpiling coal in preparation for the coming fight over union recognition.

But as he left anthracite country that fall, he was a hero. His union had won what he described as “the most remarkable contest between labor and capital in the industrial history of our nation.” As he rode out of the town of Hazelton, his carriage was accompanied by thousands of cheering breaker boys.

Less than a year later, President McKinley was dead, shot by a demented anarchist. McKinley had offered no opposition to the consolidation of American capital. But his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had his own ideas about this. And he’d be tested by both capital and labor in one of the first crises of his presidency, another and even more bitterly fought anthracite strike.

Interactive Map: Elections of 1896 and 1900

What can you discover in the geographical patterns that emerged in the elections of 1896 and 1900?

1896 and 1900 saw the same presidential candidates, Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, but different campaign issues.

Compare the party strengths of Republicans and Democrats by state and region in these two presidential and congressional elections. What similarities do you see in the patterns of presidential and congressional preference? How much did regional patterns change between the two elections?

The Election of 1896
The election of 1896, according to Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson, was “the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes.” Currency was the key national issue. Democrats and Populists favored coinage of silver to gold at a ratio of 16 to 1, which would be a boon to western states where silver mining was an important industry.

Republicans supported high tariffs to help American industry and favored the gold standard as the basis of the U. S. monetary system. “Silver Republicans” in the West bolted their party over the silver issue and supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president. Democrats who opposed the coinage of silver, especially in eastern states, nominated their own presidential candidate, John M. Palmer of Illinois, and called themselves “Gold Democrats.”

The Populist Party, which had been growing in strength in the West, suddenly found that William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats had taken most of their issues. The Populists ended up supporting Bryan for president. Republican William McKinley was lambasted by Democrats as a tool of big capitalists. Democrat-Populist Bryan was attacked by Republicans as a radical and a socialist.

The Presidential Election of 1896
McKinley won the election with 51% of the popular vote as opposed to Bryan’s 47%. In the Electoral Vote, McKinley won 23 states to Bryan’s 22. But McKinley won the most populated industrial states of the East and North, while Bryan was strong in the South and West. The Electoral Vote was 271 for McKinley and 176 for Bryan.

The Congressional Election of 1896
In 1896, Republicans continued their majority, but Democrats and two minor parties gained representation in the House. Republicans lost 40 seats, from 244 to 204 of 357. Democrats increased from 105 to 113. But a surprising 40 seats were won by neither of the major parties: 22 Populists, one Silver Party, and 17 others who generally sided with the Democrats or the Populists.

The Election of 1900
The election of 1900 was a rematch of the two major party candidates, Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The silver coinage issue, which had dominated the election four years earlier, was pushed to the background by new discoveries of gold in Alaska that eased the monetary crisis of the 1890s. Bryan insisted that the silver issue remain in the Democratic platform in 1900, which it did, but the issue was not as important as it was four years earlier.

McKinley’s first term had seen the nation emerge from the depression of the 1890s into a state of prosperity. McKinley’s campaign called for four more years of the “Full Dinner Pail,” a reference to the prosperity of the nation in 1900.

William Jennings Bryan attacked McKinley and the Republicans as imperialist in their acquisition of new territory, including the Philippine Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, as a result of the Spanish American War. Bryan wanted to see the former Spanish colonies, especially the Philippines, become independent nations rather than territories of the United States.

The Presidential Election of 1900
Republican McKinley won by a larger margin than he had four years earlier, garnering 52% of the popular vote to Democrat Bryan’s 46%. In the electoral vote McKinley won 28 states to Bryan’s 17.

The forces of American capitalism and American territorial expansion triumphed.

The Congressional Election of 1900
In the House, Republicans benefited from President McKinley’s good showing and gained 12 seats to bring their majority over the previous Congress to 197 of 257 seats. Democrats won 131 seats, and 9 seats were won by other parties, including 5 for the Populists, who were fading as an important third party movement in the United States.

More about the Presidential Elections
In 1896 and 1900 there were 45 states in the United States.

The winner in a presidential election is the candidate who gets the most votes in the Electoral College, a count that is weighted according to the total number of Congressional representatives and senators from each state. Generally, the victor of the popular vote from each state gets the entire electoral count, but the electors can split their vote according to local results.

More about the Congressional Elections
In 1896 and 1900 there were 45 states in the United States.

Members of the House are elected from congressional districts within each state. There were 357 districts in Congress in the elections of 1896 and 1900 (Today there are 435 Congressional districts).

Note: Each state has two senators. In the elections of 1896 and 1900, senators were elected by the state legislatures. Direct election of senators by the voters in each state did not begin until after the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913.

The Elections of 1896 - 1900

Regionalism in Voting Patterns

Republican William McKinley’s political support came from the industrial states and the urbanized states of the East and North. Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s strength came from the non-industrialized South and the Western States, where Populism and opposition to control by eastern bankers and industrialists was strong.

Voting patterns in congressional and presidential elections often reveal strong trends based on the region of the country and the economic interests of the different regions. In the elections of 1896 and 1900, Republicans were strong in the North and Northeast, while Democrats were strong in the South and West. The industrialized, urbanized Northeast and Midwest often voted as a block in U.S. elections. The South, mainly the eleven former Confederate States, was rural and agricultural and represented another block. The West, the newest region of the nation, frequently sided with the South.

These patterns were fairly stable throughout much of the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. Expressions like the “Solid South” emerged to describe the South’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. These “traditional” patterns began to break down in the 1960s, as new issues and changing demographics eroded Democratic Party strength in the South and West. Since the 1960s Democratic strength has come from industrialized regions of the North and Midwest that used to be Republican, while Republican strength has come from the South and West, which formerly was the stronghold of Democrats. Both congressional and presidential elections have reflected these trends, but it is too simple to say that congressional elections and presidential elections follow the exact same patterns.

The Populist Party

The Populist Party, more formally known as the National People’s Party, was formed in 1892 to represent the interests of southern and western farmers who were particularly stressed in the 1890s by high interest rates on loans, severe drought in the Midwest, a high rate of foreclosure of farm mortgages, and unfair railroad shipping rates for their products. Many of those who supported the Populist Party blamed their economic plight on a conspiracy of eastern bankers and railroad millionaires who were out to ruin them in order to maximize their own profits. In many ways the Populists represented the growing antagonism between labor and industry that marked the 1890s and the early decades of the twentieth century.

The Populist platform included such issues as the free and unlimited coinage of silver, lower interest rates, national ownership of the railroads, labor reforms, and a graduated income tax. The first Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, garnered more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes in the election of 1892. In 1896, the fiery young Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan adopted much of the Populist platform, and the Populists supported Bryan. Eventually the Democratic/Populist alliance weakened the Populist movement, although the party survived until 1912. Many of the issues raised by the Populists would continue to echo in American political history during the Progressive Era and the New Deal.

What is a Gold Bug?

“Gold Bug” was the popular name given to Democrats who split with their party over the silver issue in 1896 and supported the gold standard as the basis of U.S. monetary policy. The Gold Bugs, or Gold Democrats, called themselves the National Democratic party, held their own convention, and nominated their own presidential candidate in 1896, John M. Palmer, a 79-year-old Kentuckian. In their platform, the Gold Democrats criticized William Jennings Bryan and the regular Democrats as being reckless radicals. “They advocate a reckless attempt to increase the price of silver by legislation to the debasement of our monetary standard, and threaten unlimited issues of paper money by Government.”

The Cross of Gold Speech

At the Democratic Convention of 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year-old former congressman from Nebraska, electrified the convention when he gave a powerful speech attacking some members of his party for failing to rally behind the silver issue. Bryan thought the gold standard was so detrimental to the welfare of the working people of the nation that he compared the burden to the crucifixion of Christ. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” Bryan thundered, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The Full Dinner Pail

William McKinley’s style of campaigning in 1900 was generally to stay in the White House and let his energetic running mate, vice-presidential nominee Theodore Roosevelt, do all the campaigning. McKinley’s campaign slogan, “The Full Dinner Pail” implied that America was prosperous, everyone had plenty to eat, and that re-electing him would result in continued prosperity. It worked. McKinley was re-elected by even larger margins than he had been in 1896. Unfortunately, less than a year later, while visiting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by an assassin and died of his wounds on September 14, 1901.

Who Was Eugene V. Debs?

Eugene Debs made his debut as a presidential candidate in the election of 1900 running on the Social Democratic ticket. Debs, from Terre Haute, Indiana, was a railroad worker from age 14 who rose in prominence as a labor organizer and Indiana state legislator. He became president of the American Railway Union in 1893 and led the massive railroad strike against the Pullman Company in 1894. For his part in the strike, he served six months in jail. Debs saw American politics as a class struggle between labor and capitalists. He was popular with many native-born workers, immigrants, and farmers who felt dispossessed by rising corporate power in America. Debs subsequently became a socialist and ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. The last time he ran for president was from his cell in a federal prison, having been sentenced to ten years for sedition, for protesting United States involvement in World War I.

Questions to Ponder

The elections of 1896 and 1900 both featured a race between presidential candidates McKinley and Bryan. In 1896, the big issue was the monetary standard, while by 1900, imperialism had taken over as the key national issue.

1. What might cause a region to vote differently in the presidential election than it does in the congressional race?

2. In recent elections, voters have seemed to split their ticket between their presidential and congressional candidates. Why might they favor a presidential candidate of one party and a congressional candidate of another?

3. In the elections of 1896 and 1900, Democrats had strength in the South and West, while Republicans were strong in the North. How does this pattern compare with recent elections?


Ginger, Ray. Eugene V. Debs: A Biography. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan and the People. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1964

Glad, Paul W. The Trumpet Soundeth: William Jennings Bryan and His Democracy, 1896-1912. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960.

Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981.

May, Ernest R. American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Miller, Donald L. (with Richard E. Sharpless). The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985; paperback, 1985.

Sproat, John G. The Best Men: Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.


J. Pierpont Morgan

The American Experience | America 1900 | People & Events
A brief profile and a small photo of Morgan.

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser
A biography.

Jacob Riis

Biography of Jacob Riis
A brief biography of Jacob Riis.

The Richmond Hill Historical Society – About Jacob Riis
A biography and photos of Jacob Riis.

Riis Photos/Text, How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half Lives
The text and illustrations of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York.

William Jennings Bryan

1896: William Jennings Bryan
An illustrated biography of William Jennings Bryan with related links.

Today in History: March 19
An illustrated biography of William Jennings Bryan with related links.

William Jennings Bryan, The American Presidency
A brief synopsis Bryan’s life and achievements.

The American Experience | America 1900 | The Film & More
An account of William Jennings Bryan’s 1886 campaign strategy.

The American Experience | America 1900 | People & Events
A biography and a photo of Bryan.

William McKinley

William McKinley
A biography and a photo of McKinley.

The Era of William McKinley
A photo of McKinley and McKinley related links.

1896: William McKinley
A biography of McKinley with a photo of him and related links.

Biography of William McKinley
A biography of McKinley.

John Mitchell

A Brief History of the UMWA 


A brief history of the United Mine Workers of America.

The Mine Worker’s Life and Aims
The text of John Mitchell’s The Mine Worker’s Life and Aims, with accompanying photos.

Today in History: October 3
An illustrated history of the anthracite coal strike with related links.

The American Experience | America 1900 | Enhanced Transcript
An enhanced transcript of the presidential campaign of 1900, with a reference to John Mitchell and the coal strike, and a link to a brief Mitchell biography.

The Progress of the World A detailed account of the coal strikes, J.P. Morgan’s involvement, how the presidential campaigns were affected, etc. Includes photos and a paragraph on Mitchell as a strike leader.

The American Experience | America 1900 | The Film & More
A John Mitchell profile.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-202-7