Cities and problems multiply
In this new industrial order, the city was the nerve center. Within its borders were focused all the dynamic economic forces: vast accumulations of capital, business and financial institutions, spreading railroad yards, gaunt smoky factories, and armies of manual and clerical workers. With populations recruited from the countryside and from lands across the sea, villages grew into towns and towns sprang into cities almost overnight. In 1830, only one of every fifteen persons lived in communities of 8,000 or over, in 1860 nearly one out of every six, in 1890 three out of ten. No single city had as many as a million inhabitants in 1860, but thirty years later New York had a million and a half, and Chicago and Philadelphia each had over a million. In these three decades, Philadelphia and Baltimore doubled in population; Kansas City and Detroit grew fourfold, Cleveland sixfold, Chicago tenfold. Minneapolis and Omaha and many communities like them which were mere hamlets when the Civil War began, increased fifty times or more in population.
Vital as were these developments, their implications were not sufficiently understood to make a significant impact on the political life of the period. Although there was an abundance of issues before the American people, one distinguished historian has written, "between 1865 and 1897 there were put upon the federal law books not more than two or three acts which need long detain the citizen concerned only with those manifestations of political power that produce essential readjustments in human relations."
Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was elected to the presidency in 1884. He alone of the Presidents following the war had some understanding of the significance and direction of the changes that were transforming the country and made some effort to grapple with the problems resulting from them. In the question of railroads, for instance, many abuses demanded readjustment. Particularly pernicious was discrimination in rates against small shippers in the form of rebates to larger ones. In addition, some railroads charged arbitrarily higher rates to some shippers than to others between certain points, irrespective of distance. While competition held down freight charges between cities having several rail connections, rates were excessive between points served by but one line. As a result therefore, it cost less to ship goods 800 miles from Chicago to New York than to places a few hundred miles cast of Chicago. Railroads also tried plans of joint action to avoid competition. By one of these devices-pooling-rival companies divided the freight business according to a prearranged scheme placing the total earnings in a common fund for distribution. Popular resentment at these railroad practices deepened as time passed, and some efforts at regulation were made by the states. Although these had some salutary effect, the problem was, by its very nature, national in character and therefore demanded Congressional action. The result was the Interstate Commerce Act, which President Cleveland signed in 1887. This statute forbade excessive charges, pools, rebates, and rate discrimination, and created an Interstate Commerce Commission to guard against violations of the act and to regulate railroad charges and practices.
Cleveland was also an energetic champion of tariff reform. Adopted originally as an emergency war measure, the high tariff had come to be accepted as permanent national policy. Cleveland regarded this as unsound and responsible, in large measure, for a burdensome increase in the cost of living and for the rapid development of trusts. For years, the tariff had not even been a political issue. In 1880, however, the Democrats had demanded a "tariff for revenue only," and soon the clamor for reform became insistent. In his annual message in 1887, Cleveland, despite warnings to avoid the explosive subject, startled the nation by denouncing the fantastic extremes to which the principle of protecting American industry from foreign competition had been pushed. This question became the issue of the next presidential election campaign, and the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison, defending the concept of protectionism, won. His administration set about fulfilling its campaign promises by new legislation, and the McKinley tariff bill was passed in 1890. This measure sought not only to protect established industries, but also to foster infant industries and, by prohibitory duties, to create new ones. The generally high rates prescribed by the new tariff were shortly reflected in high retail prices, and before long there was widespread dissatisfaction.
During this period, public concern was increasingly directed at the trusts. Subjected to bitter attack through the eighties by such reformers as Henry George and Edward Bellamy, the gigantic corporations became not only an object of antagonism but also a political issue. In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed. Its primary intention was to break the monopolies; it forbade all combinations in restraint of interstate trade and provided several methods of enforce ment with severe penalties. The law itself accomplished little immediately after its passage, for it was couched in general and indefinite terms. A decade later, however, in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, its effective application earned the President the nickname of "trust-buster."
Despite these significant trends, the political picture of the period from the end of the Civil War until the turn of the century was, generally, a negative one. The vitality of the American people in these years was concentrated elsewhere; its impact was perhaps most clearly reflected in the history of the west. In 1865, the frontier line followed generally the western limits of the states bordering the Mississippi River, bulging outward to include the eastern sections of Kansas and Nebraska. Behind this thin edge of pioneer farms was still much unoccupied land, and beyond that stretched the unfenced prairies, merging finally in the sagebrush plains that extended to the foothills of the Rockies. Then, for nearly a thousand miles loomed the huge bulk of mountain ranges, many richly stored with silver, gold, and other metals. On the Pacific side, new plains and deserts stretched to the wooded coast ranges and the ocean. Apart from the settled districts in California and scattered outposts, the vast inland region was peopled only by Indians.