In 1877 many of the tensions underlying American economic
and political development in the Gilded Age came to a head. Where
individual proprietors had once retained labor, increasingly large
corporations now hired workers for wages. These businesses faced straitened
circumstances during the depression of the 1870s. Many had overextended
themselves during the railroad building boom that followed the Civil War.
Now their boards and managers laid off employees or
cut wages, and many workers had nowhere else to go.
While prevailing community values, namely an antebellum
belief in individual conscience and humanitarianism, had once prevented
employers from extracting the lowest possible wages from their employees,
workers now faced a marketplace that treated labor as a simple commodity.
Organized workers had responded to the rise of national business concerns
like railroads by replacing their locally oriented groups with new national
craft unions. But in the early 1870s these groups still represented fewer
than five percent of all non-farm workers in America.
The accelerating pace of mechanization also undermined the positions of
many workers by allowing unskilled labor to produce the same products that
once required the command of special techniques.
The depression undermined the position of many workers and
trades unions. With so many unemployed workers available, stronger
employers no longer feared strikes. If a worker disliked or feared his
working conditions, another hungry man would surely step forward to take
his place. By 1877, craft unions represented fewer
than one percent of all non-farm workers.
Workers in this period faced a bevy of challenges and
potential threats. Many employers pressed their advantage by requiring
their employees to receive pay in company scrip rather than United
States currency or bank notes. This
scrip could only be redeemed at company stores, which often charged
considerably more than shops on the open market. Others required workers to
live in company housing. Many workers labored ten or more hours per day,
six days per week. Unsafe machines presented a threat to workers' health
and safety, but courts consistently ruled that a worker accepted the risks
of any job he accepted.
In this period many Americans, and particularly
industrialists and the emerging middle class who managed their corporations
and bought their bonds, came to embrace the doctrine of laissez faire,
or the untrammeled free market. The poor were so because they lacked
ability and determination. The rich were comfortable because of their
superior talents and thrift, argued the exponents of a new ideology that
turned Charles Darwin's theory of evolution into a grim new vision of
society's "survival of the fittest."1
Among American businesses, the depression especially
undermined the positions of railroads. Slow economic times, combined with a
huge surplus in railroad capacity, brought the major carriers to a
remorseless struggle for survival. Each in turn slashed its rates in order
to attract passengers and freight traffic. Passenger rates fell by one-half, and freight rates by two-thirds along some
In March of 1877 the Supreme Court upheld the Granger Laws
in the case of Munn v. Illinois. In response to the Grange's
persistent lobbying on behalf of farmers and other rural interests, the
state of Illinois had begun
to regulate rates charged by railroads and grain elevators. The laws
prevented the carriers from extracting high profits on those routes where
they faced little competition from water transportation or other railroads.
Many railroads believed that they depended upon these profitable routes for
their survival. The laws also precluded the operators of grain elevators
from taking advantage of their monopoly positions and virtually dictating
crop prices to farmers.2
Outraged, a partner in a Chicago grain warehouse had sued to
overturn the legislation, and the case had wound its way through the
federal courts. The railroads quickly came to see the fate of the case as a
key to their future profitability. But in Munn v. Illinois, the High
Court established the constitutional principle of public regulation of
private businesses involved in serving the public interest.
Facing declining revenues, the railroads cut their remaining
workers' wages. In the summer of 1877 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad
precipitated what became the nation's largest and most violent industrial
strike to date with a ten percent wage reduction. Several months earlier,
the gigantic Pennsylvania Railroad had announced a similar wage cut. Now
the B & O, another of the nation's four largest roads, had made its
Workers suspected that the railroads were coordinating their
actions, blunting the effectiveness of a potential strike against one road
by agreeing to take up its lost traffic until the strike ended. If a struck
road did not face the prospect of lost customers, organized workers could
not influence it. If the railroads agreed to help each other in order to
defeat their workers, then simple strikes were futile.
When workers walked out on the B & O, their patience was
short. Strikes began in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and spread to St. Louis
and Chicago. The railroad called in the usual strikebreakers, further
enraging workers. But strikers not only refused to work, they took to
preventing strikebreakers from operating trains as well. Strikers and their
sympathizers clashed with militias and regular army troops in violent
confrontations in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other B & O cities.
The strike continued to spread and brought railroad traffic
to a near standstill across the North. On July 21 workers blocked freight
traffic in East St. Louis. Three days later, mobs effectively closed the
Baltimore and Ohio and Illinois Central railroad yards in Chicago, while
strikers halted railroad traffic at Bloomington, Aurora, Peoria, Decatur,
Carbondale, and other railroad junctions throughout the state. 3
Coal miners also began strikes at mines near Braidwood,
LaSalle, Springfield, and Carbondale. Like railroads, mining companies
sought to cut their expenses in hard times and repeatedly cut miners' pay.
Miners labored twelve to fourteen hours a day, six hours a week, in
hazardous conditions. Most were paid in company scrip. In winter miners did
not see daylight from one Sunday to the next. Those who protested were fired
At Braidwood, coal operators brought in 400 African-American
strikebreakers to replace striking miners. When strikers forced their
replacements to leave town, the National Guard reinstated them, and
eventually broke the strike. In the summer of 1877 the National Guard put
down other disturbances in Peoria, Galesburg, Decatur, East St. Louis, and
The mayor of Chicago
summoned 5000 vigilantes to help restore order there, and received the
assistance of National Guard and regular Army units as well. The Chicago
Times reported that "TERRORS REIGN, THE STREETS OF CHICAGO GIVEN OVER
TO HOWLING MOBS OF THIEVES AND CUTTHROATS." Police clashed with crowds
on July 24, but events reached their culmination the next day. Bloody
encounters between police and enraged mobs occurred on Halted Street at
12th and 16th streets, on the Halted Street viaduct, and on Canal Street.
Colonel Sheridan's cavalry, newly recalled from the South, restored order
after killing 30 Chicagoans and wounding many more. 5
The Great Strike of 1877 exerted a profound effect upon
American business, as well as political and intellectual life. Many
employers' organizations concluded that wage cuts had reached their rock
bottom. The men would stand for no more. The strikes also jolted an
increasingly complacent middle class, many of whom had no knowledge of the
conditions that laborers faced every day. In the summer of 1877, these
conditions came to light.
The shibboleths of Social Darwinism now appeared in a new
light as well, and intellectuals began a struggle to resolve a dilemma
alternately known as "the labor question," and "the social
question." In a society increasingly populated by workers dependent
upon large corporations for wages, cut and dried individualism could not
provide a reliable guide to future growth. Instead, many Americans came to
believe that they would have to fashion a new order that mitigated the
effects of a market economy and allowed workers to live meaningful, healthy
lives. The Granger laws upheld in the case of Munn v. Illinois
pointed to the potential growth of government policies able to protect
citizens through regulation in the public interest. But many Illinoisians, as well as other Americans, turned to the
promise of voluntary private action as well. 6
Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955 (originally published 1944).
2. Miller, George H. Railroads and the Granger Laws. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
3. Bruce. Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.
4. Bogart, Ernest Ludlow. The Centennial History of Illinois: Industrial State, 1871-1893. Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1920.
5. Quotation from "The Great Railroad Strike of 1877" (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/ibex/archive/vignettes/1877_rr_strike.htm)
6. Ross, Dorothy. Origins of American Social Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.