The Gilded Age

36e. New Attitudes Toward Wealth

Early social worker
Social Darwinism fueled the popularity of "Friendly visitors" in the field of social work. These upper class women believed it was their Christian duty to help the poor by providing positive moral role models.

Not everybody was getting rich. The new wealthy class, although more prominent, larger, and richer than any class in American history, was still rather small.

People soon began to ask fundamental questions. How did one get rich in America? Was it because of a combination of hard work and intelligence? Was it because of inheritance? Did education and skill play a role? Or was it simply luck?

Old attitudes about the importance of inheritance were still prevalent, but new ideas also emerged. Among the most popular were Social Darwinism, the Gospel of Wealth, and Algerism.

Surivival of the Fittest

When a popular conception of "survival of the fittest" grew from Charles Darwin's idea of the process of natural selection in the wild, the world was forever changed. Church leaders condemned him as a heretic, and ordinary people everywhere cringed at the idea that humans may have evolved from apes. It was inevitable that intellectuals would soon point Darwin's concepts at human society.

These Social Darwinists, led by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, believed that the humans who were the most fit became the most successful. Whatever people had the necessary skills to prosper — perhaps talent, brains, or hard work — would be the ones who would rise to the top. Why were some people poor? To the Social Darwinist, the answer was obvious. They simply did not have the required skills.

Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina

Social Darwinists went further in their application of Darwin. Darwin stated that the weaker members of a species in nature would die and that over time only the stronger genes would be passed on. Social Darwinists believed the same should happen with humans. They opposed government handouts, or safety regulations, or laws restricting child labor. Such actions would coddle the weak, and the unfit would be allowed to survive.

Gospel of Wealth

Some Americans tried to reconcile their Christian beliefs with Social Darwinism. Because the Church had been such an opponent of Darwin's ideas, it was difficult for religious folks to accept Social Darwinism.

Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller both agreed that the most successful people were the ones with the necessary skills. But they each believed that God played a role in deciding who got the skills.

Because God granted a select few with the talent to be successful, Christian virtue demanded that some of that money be shared. This is where the difference lies between the hardcore Social Darwinist and the proponent of the Gospel of Wealth. Carnegie and Rockefeller became philanthropists — wealthy citizens who donated large sums of money for the public good.

Horatio Alger's most famous novel
Horatio Alger wrote popular rags-to-riches novels, such as Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York. Many of these books were written as an example to young boys, teaching that the virtues of hard work would eventually pay off.

Horatio Alger's American Dream

A third influence American thinking was Horatio Alger. Alger was not an intellectual; rather, he wrote dime novels for the hordes of immigrant masses rushing to America's shores. Although he penned many stories, each book answered the question of how to get rich in America. Alger believed that a combination of hard work and good fortune — pluck and luck, in his words — was the key.

A typical Alger story would revolve around a hardworking immigrant who served on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, perhaps as a stock boy. One day he would be walking down the street and see a safe falling from a tall building. Our hero would bravely push aside the hapless young woman walking below and save her life. Of course, she was the boss's daughter. The two would get married, and he would become vice-president of the corporation.

This is what the masses wished to believe. Success would not come to a select few based on nature or divine intervention. Anyone who worked hard could make it in America if they caught a lucky break. This idea is the basis for the "American Dream."

Is Alger's dream a reality or just folklore? There simply is no answer. Thousands of Americans have found this idyllic path, but as many or more have not.

On the Web
Wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie maintained that the management of riches was the biggest problem facing society, and he wrote "Wealth" in 1889 to advance what he called "the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined some day to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring 'Peace on earth, among men Good-Will.'" Here is the full text.
William Graham Sumner
The American Sociological Association offers this brief biographical sketch of William Graham Sumner, one of America's leading social Darwinists.
World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath
This master's thesis provides an in-depth look at the last and largest World's Fair of the 19th century which, according to the author, was the first major expression and celebration of a consumer-based society. Students of culture will enjoy reading about the history and legacy of the Exposition; everyone will enjoy the dozens of high-quality images.
Horatio Alger, Jr.
Horatio Alger was the get rich quick guru of the Gilded Age. His tales of rags to riches inspired and entertained millions of Americans. All told, he wrote more than 500 novels and short stories.
The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many in shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence." -Herbert Spencer, 1851
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Over 27 million visited the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, some traveling on Pullman coaches at 80 mph, all to see the greatest cultural and entertainment event in the history of the world.
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Mark Twain parodied Horatio Alger's formulaic rags-to-riches stories in his short story "The Story of the Good Little Boy." In the end, the goody-goody hero doesn't marry the boss's daughter; he gets blown to smithereens.
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