The Rise of Wage Labor

Chicago in the Late 1800s.

During the Gilded Age, millions of Americans saw their work lives transform: no longer would it be so common for the working man or woman to survive based on what he or she produced; rather, that worker would receive payment—from an employer or a contractor—for the time worked. That change allowed for the possibility during the Gilded Age for the older generation to reflect on their younger years, before the Civil War, and how they had sold most of what they had grown or made (and how they had then needed a wide variety of skills to not only grow or make those goods but to bring those goods to market and actually sell them). During the Gilded Age, that same generation could have been working the last years of their working lives reporting to a factory for work; work that likely had a significant element of danger and that may have required them to use a fraction of the skills that had served as their saving grace during their younger years. For the generations of Americans that have come after the Gilded Age, the system of wage labor has been no oddity. It became a substantial part of the modern way of life and not only in America. What would have struck and should strike subsequent generations, however, were the mechanics of the American economy in which wage labor was born and how the wage labor system in its rawest form did not extend even some of the most basic protections to workers.

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The Election of 1860

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The United States Capitol in 1860. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Every presidential election is consequential, but the Election of 1860 would play a significant role in whether the United States would remain one nation. The division of the North and South on the issue of slavery threatened to cause a secession of the South. The result of the election would determine whether that threat would materialize and cause a Second American Revolution. Read more

Halting Manifest Destiny

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Map of America in 1850.

During 1854, while the Kansas-Nebraska Act was making its way through Congress and to President Franklin Pierce’s desk, there were significant developments throughout the country that would have lessen the manifest destiny fever that had captured the nation’s attention up to that point. One of the hallmarks of American progress was nearing its end. Read more

The Compromise of 1850

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“United States Senate, A.D. 1850.” By: Peter F. Rothermel.

Upon President Zachary Taylor taking office, he sent a message to Congress deploring the sectionalism that was pervading the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91. He looked to George Washington’s warnings against “characterizing parties by geographical discriminations,” which appeared by 1849 to be a prescient warning. Id. citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. President Taylor offered hope for northerners and those Americans who wanted to preserve the Union with his vow: “Whatever dangers may threaten it [the Union] I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91 citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. Read more

A Deadlocked and Destructive Congress

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The United States Capitol in 1848. Unknown Photographer, credit Library of Congress.

During President James Polk’s administration, Congress grappled with resolving sectional tension arising out of whether slavery would be extended to newly acquired land from Mexico as well as the Oregon territory. Congress did not resolve that sectional tension but exacerbated it in what may have been one of the most deadlocked and destructive Congresses in American history. Read more

The Gold Rush of 1849

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Gold Miners During the California Gold Rush. Photographer Unknown.

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall and Johann Sutter made a discovery that would transform the territory of California and bring about pandemonium in American society. The specks of gold that they discovered, while they may have hoped to keep secret, were anything but a secret.

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The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

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The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

With the execution of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Mexican-American War had come to an end. The territory that Mexico relinquished to America held “some ninety thousand Hispanics and a considerably larger number of tribal Indians,” despite President James Polk characterizing the territory as “almost unoccupied.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 809.

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The Taking of New Mexico

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Stephen Watts Kearny. Engraving By: Y.B. Welch.

Upon America’s declaring war with Mexico in May 1846, President James Polk sent “the Army of the West” to New Mexico. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 758. This army was sent for the sole purpose of conquest, and it was led by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny. Id.

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The Fight for California

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John Fremont. Photograph: Mathew Brady. Engraving: J.C. Bottre.

President James Polk, prior to the beginning of the Mexican-American War, had an idea for how to gain new territory for America. He was not going to limit the acquisitions solely to what could be gained with Mexico through military conflict south of Texas. He had his eyes on California and New Mexico, and he had a plan for how to get those two territories.

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