The adjective that best describes the Gilded Age is “predatory”. This is due mostly to the
pervasive infringement upon the rights of the women and working class of America, but also
because the predator/prey dynamic that plagued society was widely believed to be the “natural
order” of life. In this case, the apex predators were the select group of incredibly wealthy men
who ran the country, known as the “Robber Barons”. Their prey is harder to label, however,
because much of the time it was quite literally everyone else. The most influential and infamous
Robber Barons were John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt,
and William Randolph Hearst. These five men dominated the oil, steel, media, shipping, and
railway industries along with many others. Although often shamed for their cheap business
tactics, “Most of the fortune building was done legally, with the collaboration of the government
and the courts,” (A People’s History of The United States, 254). The Robber Barons were
untouchable for a long time because they weren’t breaking the law; they were making it.
During the nineteenth century, cheap and unregulated labor was one of the robber
barons’ biggest keys to success. The average American worked nearly 100 hours a week and
yet most still lived well below the poverty line. Almost all children who weren’t born into wealthy
families worked right alongside the millions of adult immigrants and poor that crowded the
factories or farms during the day and the dirty tenements or cramped farm lodgings at night.
America was undergoing a revolution, one that needed “a huge supply of human beings to do
the back-breaking, unhealthful, and dangerous work,” (254). On the railways, workers “died by
the hundreds in the heat, the cold, and the battles with Indians opposing invasion of their
territory,” (255). For many years, these hardworking and hopeful laborers chased desperately
after the “American Dream” or their chance at the next big break. This was fueled by the
obvious wage gap between the ever-richer elite and the still poorer laborers. In order to keep
the peace, the small percentage of “rags to riches” stories that were actually true were greatly
celebrated and acclaimed. Though a small number were real, these tales were mostly “a useful
myth for control,” (254) and useful they were. Everywhere they looked, American workers were
“taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure,” and the
only way out was through “...extraordinary effort and extrordinary luck,” (262). It was reinforced
time and time again that all their suffering was due to their own shortcomings, rather than their
being preyed upon by the most powerful men in the world. This ideology was coined “Social
Darwinism” and employed by many moguls to justify the inequality between classes; it blamed
poor work ethic and lack of skills on the misfortune of the lower classes.
Another example of prey during the Gilded...