Friday, January 23, 2009

Industrialization of the West and South - A Positive Development for all Americans?

The late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century marked a period of thorough transformation for the United States. Industrialization significantly altered the economic life of the Western and the Southern United States. While economic development in these regions benefitted many citizens, other population groups such as working class men and minorities faced increasing competition, or were driven out of their occupations entirely. The dynamics of American society throughout this era are reflective of these economic pressures.

The Homestead Act of 1861 influenced the development of the West. The act, designed to promote the settlement of Western land, provided 160 acres of land to every person over the age of 21. The land would become his or her property after a 5-year period in which the owner had inhabited or in some form cultivated the land. While this act proved an opportunity for many landless people with the necessary capital to finance these improvements, it left behind minorities and the less privileged class. Hispanics or African Americans could often not afford the costly materials to improve the soil, while Chinese immigrants were excluded from the eligibility of land entirely. Corruption further made it difficult for the less privileged class to obtain land, which generally fell to large industrialists from the North, or to railroad conglomerates.

In addition to the prospect of free land, many were pulled to the West by the promising returns of the mining business. The California Gold Rush attracted men from all over the world, including the Chinese, who – facing difficult economic conditions at home – were attracted by the economic promise of the American west. However, it soon became evident that the gold resources were quickly depleting. This resulted in increased competition in the mining towns of the West, a sentiment that White miners generally expressed through dislike of their Chinese counterparts, who they believed, were taking away their profits. These anti-Chinese sentiments would soon result in exclusion of Chinese immigrants, which came into law with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, excluding all Chinese, except for merchants, to enter the US for ten years.

Before exclusion, the Chinese, along with the Irish, had played a significant role in the construction of the continental railroad. The railroad was the essential feature to the industrialization of the West because it allowed goods to be moved over long distances, and therefore allowed the West to cater to a market of consumers in the North. As meat was in popular demand, the West developed a strong cattle industry. However, not all settlers of the West profited from the inter-locking of the railroad and the cattle industries. Hispanics had to fear for their livelihood as the railroad replaced their role of hauling goods from one place to another, and large-scale cattle corporations took away their job of grazing cattle. Native Americans, for example, were also driven from their land with the construction of the railroad and further settlement of the West.

Following the industrialization of the West, the Southern states of the United States made significant economic advances as well. Even though the South remained largely agricultural, it now attracted large amounts of investment of Northern industrialists. The economy of the New South was based on crops like cotton and tobacco, trade of which was facilitated by the extension of the railroad system into the South.

However, as the Southern agricultural economy operated under the crop-lien and sharecropping system, few of the farmers actually felt the economic prosperity associated with this new economic boom. In addition, overproduction stifled the prices for cotton and other cash crops. Struggling with their economic conditions, many white Southerners advocated a return to the old plantation system and expressed their racism through lynching or organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy. These sentiments also ultimately made their way into state legislatures, which passed the so-called Jim Crow laws, which instituted segregation. Segregation was further institutionalized in the US by the Supreme Court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, that held the doctrine “separate but equal” as constitutional. Already facing significant economic struggle, African Americans in the South also had to face open racism and outright discrimination.

The industrialization of the West and the South was therefore a transformation that brought prosperity to the many that were allowed to or could afford to take part in this economic development. Many more, however, found themselves left out on grounds of ethnicity or class standing.

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