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Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island, with the skyscrapers of New York in the background The second series of America charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 2 - 19 January - 27 February 2009

Watch the rise of the skyscrapers (audio-video slideshow).

Week 9 - Capital & Labour

Big Business

Steel and rail were the fundamentals of America's industrial revolution. In the 30 years after the Civil War, the country developed a national rail network and by 1900 had more track than Europe. And this track was made from steel.

Andrew Carnegie from Pittsburgh was the king of steel and he, along with men like John D. Rockefeller in oil and Cornelius Vanderbilt in railroads, were known as the 'Robber Barons'. Ruthless capitalists in their business dealings, they were also generous philanthropists in later life.

The lasting legacy of this industrial revolution was not big businessmen but big business. Through corporations like General Electric and Du Pont America pioneered the pattern of corporate capitalism which Europe followed. By 1900, half of US workers were employed for salaries or wages. Many regarded this as an alarming erosion of the independent middle-class cherished by Thomas Jefferson as the backbone of the republic and the merits and drawbacks of big business became a big issue for Americans around 1900.

Made in America

The post-Civil War railroad boom unified the United States into a single market for people and goods. Mergers produced a handful of big railroad companies and imposed a nation-wide uniform track gauge. The railroads also introduced standard time zones. This single market, and political unity after 1865, enabled the country to capitalize on its abundant natural resources, particularly wood, coal, iron and oil. New technologies were also important - the lack of labour in a vast country with plenty of cheap land provided the incentive to develop labour-saving devices.

By 1900 the United States had leapfrogged Britain - 'the workshop of the world' - to produce a third of the world's manufactured goods. American entrepreneurs such as Heinz and Woolworth were even penetrating the British domestic market, while financially challenged British aristocrats were eager for mergers with America's plutocrats - between 1870 and 1914 one-sixth of the peerage secured American wives.

The Cities: America's Pride and Shame

In cities like Chicago and New York, where land was limited and costly, the 1890s saw the dawn of the skyscraper era. In the quarter-century before World War One, the New York skyline was transformed. These spectacular urban developments contrasted with appalling slums, as European immigrants and migrant rural workers flocked to cities that could not provide them with decent, affordable housing.

The Farmers and Workers Revolt

The 1890s saw the worst depression in America's history. Agriculture had actually been in decline for years and by 1900 a third of America's farmers were tenants. Many blamed their falling incomes on freight rates and bank charges set by greedy capitalists on the east coast. They formed Farmers' Alliances to cut out middlemen and boost profits; these also became a tool of political education for rural America.

By 1890 the National Farmers Alliance had over a million members, mainly in the south and west, and its own political party, the People's (or Populist) Party which gained over one million votes in the 1892 election The Populists' advocacy of a currency with silver coins as readily available as gold came to be its defining policy. The party was buried by a Republican landslide in the 1896 election, ending its potential as a radical third-party alternative.

These were the years when socialism swept Germany and France and the Labour Party was established in Britain. This never took hold in the United States, for a variety of reasons:

*The struggle for the vote was a primary goal for European workers, but in the United States white adult males had the vote, so they did not need a new class party to advance their goals;
* Samuel Gompers, who led the largest American union the American Federation of Labour (AFL), believed unions were an integral part of American business and not a subversive force, so the AFL worked within the system rather than against it;
* Social mobility meant many Americans could and did rise into the middle class;
* Geographical mobility undermined the sense of local working-class community so evident in Britain and Germany;
* Perhaps most significantly, large scale immigration prevented a sense of class consciousness developing amongst a new working class fractured by huge differences of language, religion and lifestyle.

Huddled Masses, Savage Hordes

For much of the nineteenth century, the majority of migrants to America came from northern and western Europe - from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia. By the turn of the century, most came from southern and eastern Europe - Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans, and Russia. The numbers were unprecedented - fifteen million between 1890 and 1914, with nearly 1.3 million arriving in the peak year of 1907.

The depression of the 1890s revived anti-immigrant stereotypes, casting newcomers as an alien, non 'Anglo-Saxon' threat to American values. The language was Darwinian, the fear that world history would turn on the survival of the fittest race, and so America must keep itself 'pure'.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.

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