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“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”— William Jennings Bryan, 1896

steel millThe symbol of the Gilded Age was the steel mill, filling the air with noise, the skies with smoke, the lungs with poison. Yet the steel mill was the symbol of progress, a source of national wealth and strength as it provided the necessary material for the railroad, the bridge and the skyscraper. It bespoke the age of great factories, where hundreds labored around the clock, often in appalling conditions and on low pay.

At the other end of the scale were the huge achievements of the “Robber Barons,” who built the great transcontinental railroads, huge factories, fabulous mansions and immense fortunes. Ruthless in their pursuit of business interests, they ran roughshod over their workers and cared little for the small businessmen whom they trampled into the ground. It was the age of “Social Darwinism,”—dog eat dog, no holds barred, hell for leather. At the same time, they did things for which they are remembered to this day—museums, universities, concert halls, hospitals and libraries bear their names.

Off to the side was the worker, the “man with the hoe,” humble, sore oppressed, struggling to keep himself and his family alive. The was the time of the “war between capital and labor,” and for a time it seemed that labor must lose. The period has been called the Age of exploitation, and everything was exploited: humans being and the environment.

The end of that period was “The Reckless Decade,” the 1890s, when, had it not been for the Progressive movement which began around the turn of the century, the country could easily have erupted into serious disturbances if—not outright rebellion—against the excesses of big capital.

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