THE years immediately following the Civil War opened a new era in American life. During the period of "reconstruction" the forces of industrial revolution, stimulated by the demands of the great conflict, swept triumphantly to victory over the agricultural economy that remained from the nation's youth. By 1880 a vigorous capitalism had laid the foundations of modern America in an industrial order that was rapidly transforming the rural United States of Lincoln and Lee into a closely knit nation of swarming cities.
Mark Twain satirized the unique society that emerged from the crucible of war and from the new iron furnaces of Pittsburgh as the "gilded age." A "welter of crude new energy," this "chromo civilization" satisfied its elemental desires by raping a virgin continent and ignoring its illegitimate offspring. The scramble for possession of the country's boundless resources was nothing less than the "Great Barbecue" at which the common man was handed a farm, while the "Iron Buccaneers" of railroad, industry, and finance carved for themselves empires whose vastness and power -- and whose rulers' methods -- Caesar might have envied.
The postwar moral reaction severely strained certain traditional ethical and social standards. Corruption in local, state, and national government was widespread and in many places unashamed, and business ethics suffered a similar decline. In an atmosphere of optimism and moral laxity speculation flourished until the panic of 1873 brought the sobering realization that progress could not be built on watered stocks or blueprints. The lesson was made painfully clear to the working classes by unprecedented unemployment and desperate poverty. Bread lines appeared in the city streets of a nation rapidly becoming the richest country in the world. But the kings of industry and finance paid little heed and an exaggerated individualism continued to ride roughshod over human rights. Even the volcanic eruption of working-class discontent in 1877 hardly checked them.
This violent birth of a new world called forth heroic efforts