CHAPTER XIV. THE RISE OF THE WAGE EARNER

In their handling of the labor problem, the governments of the states and the nation showed greater ignorance and less foresight than characterized their treatment of any of the other issues of the quarter century following the Civil War. Yet the building of the railroads and their consolidation into great systems, the development of manufacturing and its concentration into large concerns, and the growth of an army of wage earners brought about a problem of such size and complexity as to demand all the information and vision that the country could muster.

The phenomenal accumulation of wealth in the fields of mining, transportation and manufacturing which characterized the new industrial America formed the basis of a powerful propertied class. Some of the wealth was amassed by such unscrupulous methods as those which caused the popular demand for government regulation of the railroads and trusts. The prizes of success were big. The men who made their way to the top - men like Gould, Fisk, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie - were pioneers whose courage, foresight, and daring were combined with sufficient ruthlessness to enable them to triumph where others failed. A few of them, like Carnegie, had some slight conception of the meaning of the labor problem; most of them did not. Linked to the industrial pioneer by community of interest was the holder of the war bonds of the federal government. These securities were purchased with depreciated paper currency but increased very greatly in value after the successful outcome of the struggle, and formed an investment whose value it is extremely difficult to estimate. The owners of the stocks and bonds of the railroads and manufacturing combinations further swelled the ranks of the propertied class. Stability, continuous business and large earnings were the immediate considerations to this group. Anything which interfered was, naturally, a thing to be fought. Never before, unless in the South in slavery days, had a more powerful social class existed in the United States. A large fraction of the group was composed of men who had risen from poverty to wealth in a short time. From one point of view such a man is a "self-made" man, industrious, frugal, able, energetic, bold. From another point of view he is a parvenu, narrow, overbearing, ostentatious, proud, conceited, uncultivated. The relatively small size of the propertied class and an obvious community of interest tended to make its members reach a class consciousness even during the Civil War. The success of the group in preventing all tariff reduction after 1865 was a striking example of the solidarity of its membership and its readiness for action.

Class consciousness among the wage earners developed much more slowly, and in the nature of things was much less definite. Nevertheless the history of the industrial turmoil of the quarter century after the Civil War is the history of a class groping for political, social and economic recognition.

At the close of the war the labor situation was confused and complicated. A million and a half of men in the North and South had to be readmitted to the ranks of industry. Approximately another million had died or been more or less disabled during the conflict. A stream of immigrants, already large and constantly increasing, was pouring into the North and seeking a means of livelihood. As has been seen, most of these settled in the manufacturing and mining sections of the northern and eastern states, helped to crowd the cities, and overflowed into the fertile, free lands of the mid-West. Nearly 800,000 of them reached the United States in one year, 1882. Most of them were men - an overwhelming portion of them men of working age, unskilled, frequently illiterate and hence compelled to seek employment in a relatively small number of occupations. Both the chances of unemployment and the danger of a lowered standard of living were increased by the immigrants.