American manufacturing flourished for many reasons. New natural resources were discovered and exploited steadily, increasing opportunities. These opportunities then attracted the brightest and most energetic of a vigorous and expanding population. The growth of the country added constantly to the size of the national market, and protective tariffs shielded that market from foreign competition. Foreign capital, however, entered the market freely, in part because tariffs kept out so many foreign goods.
The dominant spirit of the time encouraged businessmen to maximum efforts by emphasizing progress, yet is also produced a generation of Robber Barons. The energetic search for wealth led to corrupt business practices such as stock manipulation, bribery and cut-throat competition and ultimately to combinations in restraint of trade. This was something like a monopoly in America. European immigrants provided the additional labor needed by expanding industry. These immigrants saw America as a land of opportunity, and for many, probably most, it was that indeed.
But for others immigrating to the United States meant a constant struggle for survival with dreary often unhealthy living conditions and poverty. It was a period of rapid advance in basic science and technicians created a bountiful harvest of new machines, processes, and power sources that increased productivity in many industries and created new industries as well. In agriculture there were better harvesters and binding machines and combines capable of threshing and bagging 450 pounds of grain a minute.
This of course meant that many farm families were displaced from their homes and livelihoods, and it made farmers dependent on the vagaries of distant markets and powerful economic forces they could not control. The progressives were never a single group seeking a single objective. The movement sprang from many sources. One was the fight against corruption and inefficiency in government, which began with the Liberal Republicans of the Grant era and was continued by the mugwumps of the1880’s.
The struggle for civil service reform was only the first skirmish in this battle, the continuing power of corrupt political machines and the growing influence of large corporations and their lobbyists on municipal and state governments outraged thousands of citizens and led them to seek ways of purifying politics and making the machinery of government at all levels responsive to the majority rather than to special interest groups. Progressivism also had roots in the effort to regulate and control big business, which characterized the Granger and Populist agitation of the 1870’s and 1890’s.
The failure of the Interstate Commerce Act to end railroad abuses and of the Sherman Antitrust Act to check the growth of large corporations became increasingly apparent after 1900. The return of prosperity after the depression of the 1890’s encouraged reformers by removing the inhibiting fear, so influential in the 1896 presidential campaign that an assault on the industrial giants might lead to the collapse of the economy. Between 1897 and 1904 the trend toward concentration in industry accelerated.
Such new giants as concentration in industry accelerated. In 1899 more than 1200 firms were absorbed in mergers. By 1904 there were 318 industrial combinations in the country with an aggregated capital of 7. 5 billion. People who considered bigness inherently evil demanded that the huge new trusts be broken up or at least strictly controlled.
Divine, R. A. , Breen, T. H. , Fredrickson, G. M. , & Williams, R. H. America Past and Present 2nd. Ed. Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company (1987).