People: Gilded Age


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William Jennings Bryan was born in Illinois and moved to Nebraska in 1887 where he practiced law. Running on a populist platform, he was the first Democrat elected from Nebraska to the House of Representatives. He lost his bid for the Senate in 1894 and became editor of the Democratic newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald.

Bryan became an advocate of “Free Silver” policy, delivering his “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. His charisma impressed many of the delegates. He ran unsuccessfully for president 3 times, taking progressive and anti-imperialist stances. He supported President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed Bryan Secretary of State. He served for 2 years but resigned in protest when Wilson led the country into World War I.

In his later life, Bryan worked to secure prohibition and women’s suffrage. He became concerned about the teaching of evolution, calling it “consummately dangerous.” He argued for a literal interpretation of the Bible and in opposition to the teaching of evolution against Clarence Darrow in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. He died five days after that trial ended.

Andrew Carnegie’s rags-to-riches story is one of perseverance, initiative, and resourcefulness. Born in 1835 to a working-class Scottish family, Carnegie came to the US with his family when he was thirteen years old. In 1853 he took a job at a railroad corporation. He quickly advanced at the company. In 1889, he founded the Carnegie Steel Company. This business combined with others to create US Steel. US Steel helped meet the country’s great demand for steel—used in railroads, skyscrapers, and other examples of great technological achievements.

Concerned with the growing power of monopolies and their impact on economic rights, the federal government tried to break up the US Steel Company under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. At the time, US Steel provided two-thirds of all steel produced in the country. However, the government was unable to show any misconduct on the part of the company and the case was dismissed.

Later in life, Andrew Carnegie dedicated his life to philanthropy, and he advocated an idea he called the Gospel of Wealth in which he encouraged the wealthy to give away their fortunes to worthy causes. He used his fortune to found the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Born in Ohio in 1847, Edison had little schooling, and was completely deaf in one ear from a young age. Despite these circumstances, he saw every obstacle as an opportunity. He pursued his interests with industry and passion. He loved science and mechanics and was driven to invent. By 1868, Edison had improved the telegraph and the typewriter. He made an electric vote recorder and a stock ticker. Two years later at the age of twenty-three, he had enough money to open his first “invention factory.”

He and his team of engineers and scientists prided themselves on their perseverance, thinking of every failed experiment as one that would bring them closer to success. They also cherished their economic rights, protecting their hard work by registering patents with the federal government. Within five years, he and his team had perfected the telephone and created the phonograph. Next, they became famous for the incandescent light bulb. Later, they worked on the motion picture camera, “talking” movies, a car battery, and an x-ray machine. In his lifetime, Edison registered 1,093 patents.

Even though he was born on a farm, Henry Ford showed more interest in mechanical things than in agricultural work. Early on, he alternated from working as an apprentice on steam engines to working on his father’s farm tools to occasionally working in the fields. By 1891, he decided to become an engineer full time. Even though he was not the first to build a self-propelled vehicle with a gasoline engine, he became the most significant person in the development of the U.S. automobile industry, creating Ford Motor Company in 1903. In 1908 the Model-T was introduced as an affordable, reliable, and efficient auto for everyone. By 1918, half of the cars in the United States were Model-T's. To meet the demand, Ford installed a mass production system using standardized and interchangeable parts, a division of labor, and assembly lines. This totally revolutionized the industry and made his company the largest automobile manufacturer in the world during his lifetime. In 1918 he lost a bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Frances Willard, born in 1839, was an influential reformer in the early part of the 19th century. She was the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a group concerned about the destructive effects of alcohol. During this time, women would meet in churches and then march to saloons to try to get owners to close their establishments. In 1882, she was instrumental in organizing the Prohibition Party. This party advocated the passage of the 18th amendment which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. As a writer, she would become the first woman dean at Northwestern University and the first woman to be represented in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s industry and perseverance changed a nation—and the world. Many had tried but no one had been able to perfect a machine that could be controlled in flight. The Wright brothers observed birds, studied wings and engines, physics and dynamics. They conducted wind tunnel tests on more than 200 kinds of wings. They continued in their research and experiments over several years, during which time they suffered some disappointing failures. In 1900, they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a location they selected after extensive study of weather data. Its ocean breezes and soft landing sites would be perfect. On December 17, 1903, they succeeded. Their engine-powered airplane flew 120 feet, landing twelve seconds after takeoff.

The Wright brothers knew that citizens had the ability to protect their inventions through patents. They patented their invention as a “flying machine,” and almost immediately had to begin defending their work from rival inventors. Wilbur spent much of the last years of his life in this endeavor, traveling to consult with lawyers and testifying in court. He saw it as his responsibility to defend not only his own economic rights, but those of other citizens. Orville persevered in the legal battle until the case was decided in the Wrights’ favor in 1914.