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Unrestricted Capitalism In The Gilded Age History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

At the turn of the century, stories of the American Dream and the unflawed system of capitalism were spread throughout the, drawing immigrants in large numbers to the United States (Dubofsky & McCartin 94). These stories, however, were often the handpicked, sugar-coated experiences of the select group of men who were given lucky breaks and circumvented the horrors and hardships of surviving the unrestrained capitalist machine of America. In reality, many working people in the United States during the Gilded Age faced starvation, illness, deplorable working conditions, unfair wages, and ultimately a lack of opportunity to create their own success, as represented in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle (Dubofsky & McCartin 113). The harsh realities that these people faced, however, have served to build the United States’ power and wealth today, and were necessary, albeit unfortunate results of the economic system that lead to the overall prosperity of the nation.

While the experiences of working people throughout this time period are represented quite extremely on each end of the spectrum in Sinclair’s The Jungle and Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth,” Sinclair’s negative portrayal more closely represents the lives that the majority of Americans led than Carnegie’s portrayal. In The Jungle, a fictional Lithuanian family, led by a man named Jurgis, travels to America in search of their own version of the American dream. “The Gospel of Wealth” is, in contrast, an autobiographical piece on Carnegie’s own immigrant family’s life in America. In reality, multitudes of immigrant families like Jurgis’ and Carnegie’s emigrated from home countries with hopes of higher wages, higher living standards, longer life expectancies, and an overall larger amount of opportunities to create success through pure determination and hard work.

When Jurgis’ family, and the real families of the early 1900s, arrived in America, they faced immediate culture shock and were put at an initial disadvantage because they were immigrants. For instance, in The Jungle, Jurgis and Ona expect their wedding feast to be paid for by the guests as in Lithuanian tradition, but end up having a large debt to pay back to the owner of the venue all by themselves (Sinclair 21). Capitalism puts a heavy burden on this family right from the start. Immigrants just becoming acquainted with their new surroundings faced ignorance to the culture of America, language barriers, and fierce discrimination at times, adding to their economic troubles (Dubofsky & McCartin 97). In “The Gospel of Wealth, “Carnegie mentions that his family immigrated to America from Scotland, but does not include any suggestion of extra hardships caused by his immigrant status (Carnegie vii). This shows one way in which his portrayal of reality is inferior to Sinclair’s; While Carnegie may not have experienced disadvantages because of his country of origin, the majority of immigrants did to a significant degree because of capitalism. This is an important hardship that should not be forgotten in any credible account of the Gilded Age.

Another harsh reality of America’s capitalist system at the time was the hyper-competitive nature of relationships between people. Capitalism is characterized by an “every man for himself” attitude, and forced people to climb over one another to get to the top. Sinclair reinforces this idea, telling of how Jurgis realized, “It was a war of each against all, and the Devil take the hindmost…You went about with your full of soul suspicion and hatred; you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with (Sinclair 92).” Jurgis and his family had a right to view the world in this way, as they were cheated by many people including the sellers of their house, the man who took one third of Dede Antanas’ paycheck for merely finding him a job, the judge in Jurgis’ “trial”, and the bartender who unfairly gave him 99 cents in change for a $100 bill (Sinclair 85, 73, 206, 300). In reality, the nature of capitalism did motivate people to do whatever they had to in order to increase their personal gains, no matter what the consequences for others in their paths. Carnegie’s experiences, however, include Thomas Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, offering investment advice to the young man, apparently out of the pure kindness of his heart. He even offers to help cover the cost of the investment if Carnegie doesn’t have enough money. Even more peculiar is the fact that Scott has no apparent personal gain from this kind gesture (Carnegie xv). This occurrence essentially sets off the entire chain of success in Carnegie’s career. Acts of kindness and pure selflessness were not characteristic of the time and economic values that the country was based upon. Therefore Carnegie’s representation of reality once again pales in comparison to Sinclair’s in this aspect.

The main difference between The Jungle and “The Gospel of Wealth” is the message the authors attempt to send about the value or insignificance of hard work and determination in the unrestricted capitalist system of the early 1900s. In The Jungle, Jurgis remains unwaveringly determined to work for the good of his family throughout the start of his life in America, even after experiencing multiple deaths in the family, severely injuring his ankle, being forced to work in an extremely healthy and disgusting fertilizer plant, and other many other sources of suffering (Sinclair 96, 142, 159). Despite his hard work and resilience, however, Jurgis and his family can never seem to gain any lasting prosperity or success. They continually lose their jobs, struggle to obtain enough food to live on, are thrown in jail unjustly, and experience yet another death, this one being Jurgis’ son (Sinclair 257). This finally becomes too much for Jurgis to handle and results in him fleeing town and abandoning what is left of his family (Sinclair 259). Sinclair tries to demonstrate here that hard work and determination had no hand in determining a person’s success or quality of life in a capitalist society.

On the other hand, Carnegie uses his transformation from being a fairly poor immigrant boy with no work experience to becoming one of the richest men in the world through the use of “hard work” to argue that any person could achieve success if he or she tried hard enough. He goes on to say that capitalism works under a concept of “survival of the fittest (Carnegie 4).” I argue that Jurgis was the “fittest” a person could humanly be in regard to drive and determination, yet he repeatedly faced failure and no signs of prosperity, which was the case for many real working class people of the 1900s. Carnegie and other rich men of the time were not “the fittest” but rather the luckiest. Unrestricted capitalism, in reality, required many “cogs” in the system to keep it going, and those “cogs” had virtually no way of escaping or creating success for themselves through hard work. The Jungle, in this way, is yet again a more credible and accurate portrayal of the truths of capitalism and life during the Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age’s large gap of inequality among classes of Americans raises various questions of morality. While unrestricted capitalism caused drastic hardships for the majority of Americans, it has also served the future of the country as a whole in a positive way. Though Sinclair’s story represents the early 1900s in America in a more inclusively and accurately, Carnegie does have a point in his belief that the inequality of the time was necessary to the overall success of the nation (Carnegie 3). Unrestricted capitalism and the industrialization of America have caused the nation’s economy to grow exponentially and become, arguably, the most powerful country in the world.

Capitalism does thrive on greed and selfishness, as Sinclair attempts to highlight throughout his novel, but those greedy and selfish acts are necessary to sustain the ultimate wealth and prosperity of the nation. People must react to supply and demand accordingly, and this system leaves no room for selfless, kind acts. As more and more factories were built, technology improved and production rates increased rapidly to produce enough supply for the growing demand. Wages went down while work became more stressful and demanding (Dubofsky & McCartin 45). While Jurgis’ experiences and the experiences of many real-life Americans during the Gilded Age were tragic and can be seen as unfair, those experiences were needed to support the numerous factories and mills that drove the United States toward success.

Had America been run on a system of socialism, as Sinclair wished, it would not have become such a powerhouse in the world economy. Inequality, in this way, was detrimental to the lives of those in the working class at the turn of the century, but was, in the long run, a positive outcome of capitalism for America. The situation can be compared to a war; many individuals suffered and dedicated their lives for the common good of all the people, even if they weren’t working for this purpose consciously. While each loss and tragedy is extremely unfortunate, the eventual economic achievement that the United States attained is a worthy enough prize for the difficulties the working class faced during the early 1900s.

The Gilded Age was a time of varying experiences, levels of prosperity, and viewpoints. Unrestricted capitalism resulted in the majority of Americans supporting the weight of the growing country through hard work and resilience in the face of adversity, while receiving little in return, as portrayed by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The working class became almost a group of martyrs, who scarified themselves, albeit unwillingly, for the good of the country as a whole. The economic system and industrialization in the United States during the early 1900s resulted in many personal losses and hardships, but served as a springboard for American success in the decades that followed.

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