The Prevailing Economic Beliefs and Practices of the Gilded Age

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The Prevailing Economic Beliefs And Practices Of The Gilded Age

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Laissez-Faire Economics in the Gilded Age
  • Rise of Labor Unions with Laissez-Fair Policies
  • Populist Party: Direct Attack on Laissez-Faire Capitalism
  • Conclusion

Compare the Objectives and strategies of organized labor (aka unions) and the Populists for challenging the prevailing economic beliefs and practices of the Gilded Age.


Laissez Faire has been ubiquitous throughout the United States of America ever since its birth in the Revolutionary War, where only thirteen colonies fought against the crown to obtain independence. The government kept the economic practices of not interfering with the American economy, and allowed the workings of the free market to take its own course; this ideology lent into the making of big businesses with the rise of industrialism and the implementation of both horizontal and vertical integration. With monopolies feeding the American economy, there was a concentration of wealth with the richest 10% controlling 90% of the wealth as well as growing discontent. This restlessness in the American population led to the rise of organized labor and populists, who had the same fundamental ideas of being for the people, but were completely different in both their strategies and specific objectives.

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Laissez-Faire Economics in the Gilded Age

The laissez faire economics was popular among the United States populace, as it was seen that government interference of the free market tended to hinder the natural economic development. This lead to big businesses being able to work without interference, and the ideology even bled into the court’s rulings of the gilded age, as they ruled it unconstitutional for state laws to regulate working conditions, wages, and child labor. And with laissez faire, there was also the belief of social darwinism, which worked in conjunction with the economic policy, which allowed men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to rise and preach of “survival of the fittest”.

Rise of Labor Unions with Laissez-Fair Policies

With the unjust systems set in place due to the economic handling of America, labor unions grew in numbers. Labor organizations grew steadily with the stance of being for the workers, for the individuals, and they struggled for better working conditions like shorter hours and higher wages, child labor laws that would restrict the use of children for industries and big businesses, as well as collective bargaining with employers. However, there were multiple types unions that were built for different reasons and with different intents. The Knights of Labor were for all individuals, no matter of skin color or gender, and advocated for the abolition of child labor, the destruction of trusts and monopolies, as well as the mediation of disputes in place of strikes. There was also the American Federation of Labor which fought mainly for higher wages and better working conditions. It was these unions that went on strikes, boycotts, and disturbed the efficiency of the businesses to receive recognition. Organized Labor created such agitation that the government became involved in the attempt to cease these organizations as in the Pullman strike, the state government had to come in to interfere with the strike that stopped railroad transportation across the country, something that went directly against the economic policy of Laissez Faire. However, due to the fact that organized labor tended to have major disunity, as some were too extreme and others weren’t able to look over the differences between themselves and others.

Populist Party: Direct Attack on Laissez-Faire Capitalism

The Populists were much more direct in the way they went against the laissez faire economic policy, and were much more organized in their attempt to cut off the concentration of economic power that went directly into the hands of trusts. They were not socially and economically reform based, like the unions, but instead were more political and economic based; so although both organized labor and the populist party were for the people, they were distinctly different. While labor unions called for basic things such as wages and conditions that varied depending on group or individual, the populists demanded change on a more national level that went directly into politics. They demanded the coinage of silver, an income tax, public ownership of the telegraph, telephone, and railroad system, loans for farmers, as well as a six to eight hour day for industrial workers. This was a direct attack on the laissez faire capitalistic government, as it challenged the government to actually get involved. And because of the fact, that the populist was an actual party, their strategies involved running for elections and bringing political attention to their desires. While they weren’t as polarized as the unions in their extremism, there was still sectionalism due to the fact race played a major factor, and even the South stopped trying to get poor whites and blacks to work together in establishing a different economic system, and soon the populist party stopped being a party all together.


Although the Populist party did decline and eventually disappear, it led to a new birth of the Democratic party which is standing in modern day America, and this challenge towards laissez faire policy was developed well into the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to truly go against the policy and use the government to fix the economy of America. With the implementation of the New Deal Plans, Franklin Roosevelt not only touched the economy, but put his hands all over it, and his plans to give relief, recovery, and reform to the American people. And with things like the Works Progress Administration, Roosevelt employed thousands of the unemployed in building schools, bridges, and etc. Roosevelt’s program completely changed the relationship between the people, the market, and the government, creating an active state which provided individuals of the nation measures of security.

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