The Effects of Industrialization on American Democracy

In part two of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy, author Jack Kelly discusses the ways the Industrial Revolution changed American technology and manufacturing forever. 

Jack Kelly
4-minute read
Episode #66

All of these changes brought immense improvements to people’s lives. Manufacturing output in the United States in the early 1900s was more than twenty times what it had been before the Civil War. In 1850, only 15 percent of Americans lived in cities; by the end of the century almost half did.

There were, of course, drawbacks. Because coal provided much of the power for homes and factories, pollution became a deadly problem. And although factories gave us cheaper goods, they required a kind of regimentation and repetitive work that people weren’t used to.

One element of industrial cruelty was the widespread use of child labor. Children as young as six or seven were put to work in mills, factories, and sweatshops. In Chicago during the 1880s, social workers organized a Christmas party for poor immigrant children. The boys and girls would not touch the candy that was offered to them. The reason, they explained, was that they worked in a candy factory. Six days a week, they started work at seven in the morning and finished at nine at night, with only one half-hour break for lunch. They were sick of candy.

In America, the effects of industrialization challenged democracy itself.

There were other dark corners of industrialization. Workers were forced to live in urban tenements. Most had to take in boarders to meet the rent. The crowded rooms destroyed family privacy and were unhealthy. There was no indoor plumbing. Residents of an entire apartment building had to use a few privies in the alley and get water from a single pump or faucet.

Corporations, which had become the dominant form of enterprise, were efficient at organizing capital. But they were also impersonal, autocratic, and in the end, inhumane. During this era, corporate power burst beyond the control of government.

Chicago reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd summed up the problem: “Corporations are grown greater than the State,” he wrote. “The naked issue of our time is with property becoming master instead of servant.”

In America, the effects of industrialization challenged democracy itself. The American experiment had begun in a country that was overwhelmingly agricultural and offered endless cheap land. Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s still believed in an economy where a penniless beginner worked for wages, saved a surplus to buy tools or land, started his own business or farm, worked for himself a while, then hired another new beginner. By the post-Civil War era, this early vision of the American Dream was pure nostalgia. By the 1890s, industrial employees had few options. They earned less than $10 a week, barely enough to survive. They had little hope of accumulating a surplus or starting a business.