No Freedom for the Oppressed from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age


The second half of the 1800s witnessed vast social, economic, and political developments in America. The Reconstruction period began in 1865 and ended in 1877, while the Gilded Age started in the 1870s and concluded in the 1900. After the Civil War, blacks in the Reconstruction held on to the beautiful promise of racial equality which occurred through vital Constitutional amendments; however, actual socioeconomic and political changes did not prosper due to President Andrew Johnson’s sponsorship of the white Southern agenda and the rise of Southern racism against African Americans and the white North. Reconstruction and the Gilded Age both struggled in defining and attaining freedom for the oppressed minorities of the nation although the Reconstruction focused more on African American men while excluding women and American Indians and the Gilded Age illustrated workers’ freedoms in the context of a rapidly industrializing society and the plight of Native Americans.

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Reconstruction showed the importance of defining and experiencing freedom with emphasis on the lives of freed blacks. Former black slaves asserted that freedom meant being given the right to vote and to have their own land. As a result, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order 15 which provided 40-acre plots of land and mules to black families. Around 40,000 slaves decided to live on Sherman’s land. However, since President Johnson replaced Lincoln, he enacted new laws including reversing Special Field Order 15 which returned Sherman’s Land to its erstwhile white landowners. In the Petition of Committee in Behalf of the Freedmen to Johnson in 1865, freed blacks asked for their right to maintain their lands. They subtly reminded President Johnson of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which declared all slaves who live in the territory of the South’s rebellion against the federal government as free. The committee stressed the horrors of the past when the whites treated them as cattle. By having land, they were able to experience freedom. In addition, the freedmen emphasized that they received the land in return for their loyalty during the Civil War. As a result, they must have the same rights as other residents in the Union including buying and preserving their land. Moreover, the freed blacks underlined how land monopoly hindered freedom. They ended the petition by asking President Johnson to protect equal rights including buying their homestead in South Carolina. The document shows how oppression remained during Reconstruction because lands were being taken away from freedmen. Property ownership was indispensable to being free per se and being free from poverty too. Reconstruction only provided the 13th Amendment to ban slavery, the 14th Amendment to grant citizenship to black men, and the 15th Amendment to guarantee suffrage for men yet they could not have their own lands and homes. In another document, a Sharecropping Contract in 1866, blacks remained essentially slaves in their social and economic conditions. In the first place, racist white landowners believed that blacks may be considered free only because they were paid for their labor. The sharecropping contract illustrated how the landowner worked each sharecropper hard with the demands of at least 10 hours of work, complete obedience to the owner, and to pay for their own living expenses. For each day that they were also absent, they paid a dollar for the lost time. In addition, sharecroppers got 50% of the total yield only after all the expenses were subtracted. Evidently, the owner would reduce the net profit so greatly that the freedmen remained poor and unable to accumulate wealth. The two documents prove that while legislative changes occurred, black people remained slaves as sharecroppers and due to lack of access to land.

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The Gilded Age illustrated the continued fight for freedom but with emphasis on the plight of workers. The industrialization created the working class as well as rich monopolies headed by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Some would say they were Captains of the Industry while others would stress they were Robber Barons of the Gilded Age due to their oppressive labor policies and practices. Ira Steward wrote the Second Declaration of Independence in 1879. Like freed blacks, freedom was important to him and the working class. Dissimilar to African Americans who equated freedom with suffrage and land, Steward defined freedom as the means to resolving the gap between wealth and poverty. He argued that universal freedom is the best means to universal wealth. To attain freedom, Steward proposed 8 hours of work only as it resulted in more time for leisure, rest, and reflection that for him produced habits, practices and expenses that demanded higher wages. Furthermore, unlike freed blacks who asked support from the government only, Steward called for help from other countries who had the same freedom and labor problems. Carnegie expressed a different idea of resolving poverty in his article, “Wealth.”Carnegie also believed that managing wealth is important to resolving poverty like Steward. Carnegie recognized the gap of differences between the rich and the poor which were not present in the past. However, he thought that such social status differences were acceptable and good because the house of the most cultured was different from those who are not. Instead of giving workers higher pay, Carnegie saw the wealthy as responsible for charity. He aimed to help only those who helped themselves. Like Ira, he wanted more recreation for the poor including parks and arts so their public taste would be improved as this would enhance the general condition of the masses. Finally, Carnegie wants individualism while Ira called for collectivism across the nation and the world. The documents showed how oppressed workers were during the Gilded Age in the same way that blacks experienced undue repression.

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Besides worker issues, the Gilded Age depicted the worsened oppression of Native Americans particularly through land dispossession and eroding the American Indian Identity. First, the Indian’s West was transformed into the White man’s West that killed buffalos to near extinction. The death of the buffalo affected the Native Americans deeply because the animals were basic staple for them while the act of hunting together influenced their cultural habits and social relationships. Second, the Dawes Act in 1887 shrank Indian Territory from 136 m acres to 86 m acres. Lands are communal to the Indians while whites saw land as an individual property. Giving them less land and forcing them to see land as a personal properly greatly impinged on Indian culture. The Dawes Act can be compared to what Johnson did when he took away Sherman’s land from the blacks. Apart from dispossessing the blacks, the white government displaced Native Americans from their own lands. Both cases demonstrated the absence of true racial equality from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age. What is different in terms of land ownership is that Native Americans owned the lands in the first place as the settlers before the whites came to America. Third, as the 1800s ended, the government systematically killed Indians such as what happened in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry approached the band of Ghost Dancers under the Sioux Chief Big Foot at the Wounded Knee Creek. A fight broke though it was unlikely that the Ghost Dancers started it especially when most were women and children. The army opened fire on the Indians killing probably around 200 of them or even more with most of them women and children. Murdering the Indians which can be compared to genocide indicated one of the differences between Reformation and the Gilded Age. Blacks were able to pursue their own religions since they affirmed existing religious beliefs while Indians were suppressed for they had a different spiritual system. At the same time, though whites also killed blacks because of racism, whites murdered Indians due to their desire for the latter’s lands. Thus, Native Americans experienced great discrimination and subjugation during the Gilded Age, perhaps even worse than what blacks went through in Reconstruction.

Another difference between blacks in Reformation and Indians in the Gilded Age is the forced assimilation of the Indians. While it can be argued that the blacks were also assimilated by the white society since many were shipped from Africa and other nations, they already assimilated by the time it was Reformation. As a result, the freed blacks had the same Christian religion as whites although they were attracted more to Baptist and Methodist organizations, while many whites were Protestants. Native Americans, on the opposite, did not have the same freedom in practicing their religious and cultural practices and beliefs. The white society tried hard to eradicate all of their cultural beliefs including their languages. They forced young Indian children to attend boarding schools and to forget their native languages and spiritual customs. In other words, the white society intended to destroy the essence of the Native American identity by dividing them and through intense cultural assimilation.

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Besides assimilation, Reconstruction and Gilded Age differed in the rights granted to the minorities. The Constitutional Amendments applied only to black men. Women and American Indians were not considered as free and equal; they did not have the right to vote and access to other basic rights. As a result, they experienced worse kinds of prejudice and discrimination. American Indians were discriminated by their race and lack of rights, while black women experienced double discrimination as a woman and as a member of their race. Thus, the Gilded Age did not grant equal rights to Native Americans and women.

From Reconstruction to the Gilded Age, oppression continued and even worsened for Native Americans. Workers underwent repressive conditions as well which compelled them to demand better work conditions. Essentially, blacks and Native Americans were similarly dispossessed of their lands and assimilated into the white American society. Unlike blacks, Native Americans encountered genocide including the annihilation of their local cultural identities and languages. Thus, freedom became a failed promise for blacks, workers, women, and Native Americans for the remaining last decades of the 1800s.

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