The Political Impacts of the American Industrial Revolution

Industrialization and the rise of big business played a crucial role in American politics during the Industrial Revolution, which led to more government involvement in business and foreign relations.

Oct 15, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
new england cotton mill american industrial revolution
Women working at a cotton mill in New England by Bain News Service, 1900, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The American Industrial Revolution began just a decade before the Civil War. Disagreements that pinned the South against the North created a split nation just shy of a century after Colonial America won its independence from Great Britain. During the 19th century, the North and Midwest were urbanizing rapidly in response to industrialization. A lot of change ensued in such a short period of time, and the Industrial Revolution heavily influenced the political state of the US.


Post-War American Industrial Revolution

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Union soldiers standing by cannons inside a fort, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War set the political stage for the American Industrial Revolution. The South was forced to succumb to new ideas supported by the industrial North. Although slavery was one of the main causes of the Civil War, concerns over states’ rights by the South were partially influenced by industrialization. Southern farmers were against industrialization of the South because they believed that the institution of slavery was most beneficial to its economy.


Cotton plantations were doing especially well in the 19th century. As the textile industry grew, more than half of the cotton produced in the South was exported to the North and overseas. Upon the defeat of the Confederacy, the South was restricted from certain rights and privileges during the Reconstruction Era that followed. The Union government gained more political control over the South while it organized to readmit the seceded states. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 set forth a plan for rebel state readmission and included amendments regarding the rights of African Americans.


The American Industrial Revolution was just kicking off right before the Civil War. After the southern states were readmitted, a major shift in focus on industrialization occurred. The South experienced very little industrialization before the war. The abolishment of slavery played a significant role in how the South would begin to industrialize as it attempted to recover its economy post-war.


Becoming a World Power

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Rough Riders aboard the SS Yucatan on their way to Cuba by Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1898, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

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Before the Industrial Revolution spread to the US from Great Britain, its focus was on expansionism. In the first half of the 19th century, settlers traveled westward to expand the current boundaries of the new nation. By the late 19th century, railroad expansion across the nation created a network of connections between resources, factories, and consumers. Goods were transported at a faster rate than ever before. The booming economy following the Civil War allowed the American nation to experience immense growth, which greatly impacted the rise of big business. It created a stronger and more stable nation as a result. This later led to the US making foreign connections and establishing agreements with other countries, further expanding the market for goods.


The US began establishing itself as a power by seeking its interests in foreign lands. A peace agreement was established in 1898 between the US and Spain, known as the treaty of Paris, following the Spanish-American War. The United States’ victory allowed the nation to gain Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as new territories. Tensions between America and Japan in the early 20th century were high. Each country was threatened by the other’s interests, especially for certain territories. Immigrant laws that worked to protect jobs for US citizens also contributed to these rising tensions.


A series of agreements between Japan and the US took place, but it failed to hash out all the issues that had developed. President Theodore Roosevelt managed to help the Russo-Japanese War end with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth. However, peace between the two wouldn’t come until the Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed in 1951, which led to Japan’s entry into the United Nations a year later. The growing strength of the post-war American economy, with the help of the American Industrial Revolution and its dabbling in foreign affairs, helped the nation rise to a world power position.


Hazardous Working Conditions Called for New Reforms

triangle shirtwaist factory fire american industrial revolution
Interior of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the fire in 1911, via US Department of Labor


Working conditions during the Industrial Revolution were very poor. Safety regulations in factories and mines were nonexistent. Factory equipment often caused injuries and, in some instances, even death. Improper mining practices and other hazards led to the collapse of mines, exposure to harmful gasses, and mine explosions. These hazardous conditions amounted to more than 70,000 deaths between 1880 and 1923. Winter was often deemed the “explosion season” for coal mining because the dry weather conditions increased the risk of mine explosions.


The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City was one of the most disastrous events caused by a lack of health and safety regulations. The Triangle Waist Company caught fire on March 25, 1911 on the top floor of the Asch Building. The fire quickly spread, and workers were trapped inside as the doors were locked. Many workers, mainly women, were trapped inside, and some decided to jump out of the windows of the top story to escape. The event led to 146 deaths and caused outrage among city residents, demanding that proper fire inspections and safety precautions be implemented.


The Factory Investigating Committee was created as a result of the incident to investigate the health and safety conditions of manufacturing facilities. Factories creating products for the chemical industry were among the most dangerous in terms of working conditions. Industrial workers in the chemical industry were exposed to a number of toxic elements, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. Stricter factory safety and health laws were implemented after a series of investigations took place. More than half of the bills introduced by the Factory Investigating Committee were signed into law. Some of these regulations included proper factory ventilation systems, fire prevention measures, and better sanitation practices.


Government Involvement in Labor Union Strikes & Workers’ Rights

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United Mine Workers in the Ludlow tent colony on a coal strike in Colorado from 1913 to 1914, via Denver Public Library Special Collections


Several protests and strikes ensued across the nation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Workers demanded better working conditions, fair wages, and a cap on working hours in a day. Quarrels over new workers’ rights led to the formation of labor unions that fought to be recognized. One of the key turning points in the politics of the American Industrial Revolution in correlation with workers’ rights was the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. Miners went on strike beginning in May 1902 with demands for higher pay and shorter hours.


A previous six-week-long strike that had taken place just two years prior had resulted in a pay increase. The United Mine Workers, under its president John Mitchell, had organized both strikes. The strike lasted 163 days and changed how the federal government got involved in industrial conflict.


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President Theodore Roosevelt sitting in his office, 1905, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in the strike, although it wasn’t his authority to do so. The idea of intervening was not on behalf of the mine workers or the mine operators. Instead, it was for the interests of the general public. The miners and mine operators managed to come to an agreement based on an investigation of the strike by the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission and its findings. The workers were awarded a 10% pay increase, and their workday hours decreased from ten to nine hours a day.


A huge victory came to workers in 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was signed. It included several laws pertaining to minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor. The eight-hour workday had been advocated for by hundreds of thousands of union workers and was becoming the standard. The FLSA outlawed oppressive child labor and included an age restriction that prohibited any children under the age of 14 at the time from working. Since an eight-hour workday became standard, so did the 40-hour work week. The FLSA set regulations for workers who accrued more than 40 hours in a week to be paid overtime.


Policies & Politics Influenced by the American Industrial Revolution

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Women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory selling newspapers while on strike by Bain News Service, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Several government regulations were put in place as the American Industrial Revolution heavily influenced the rise of big business. As companies invested in new technologies to improve efficiency, they became powerhouses of their industries. The period of America’s economic boom was nicknamed the Gilded Age for its seemingly powerful structure that was actually infested with corruption by large-scale companies taking over industries. This afforded the federal government to get involved in an effort to regulate big business and prevent price gouging and other monopolistic business practices.


Companies formed trusts to consolidate businesses so they could control prices and other decisions in an industry. The railroad industry was the first to experience federal regulations through the Interstate Commerce Act, passed by Congress in 1887. The law led to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the regulations. Price discrimination became a common practice in the railroad industry, and the Interstate Commerce Act made price discrimination illegal.


presidential election hobart mckinley american industrial revolution
Lithograph of Republican Party presidential election campaign of 1896 by Metzgar & Kelley and Gillespie, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, targeted monopolies. It outlawed trusts and monopolistic business practices, which became a massive problem as several industries were taken over by a few or even just one large company. The Sherman Act was slightly flawed as its language wasn’t concise, and some trusts managed to work their way around it. However, regulations like these helped consumers and small business owners from being dominated by large-scale businesses. Federal involvement in big business was very controversial. It wasn’t until World War I and World War II that there was more cooperation between businesses and the federal government in an effort to help with the efficiency of wartime production.


Several laws enacted in the 20th century addressed many issues workers faced during the American Industrial Revolution. Workers began to organize labor unions to demand better working conditions, shorter workdays, and higher wages. Some businesses were more reluctant to tend to union workers’ wants and needs. Others had a more progressive approach. Many debates in presidential elections in the late 19th and early 20th century revolved around divided public interests that called for better support for big business, progressive reforms, or protectionism.


Regulations relating to workers’ rights and the prevention of monopolistic business practices were enforced to weed out the corruption that was poisoning the business industry. One of the biggest political impacts of the American Industrial Revolution was the US rising to a world power position. Increased domestic and foreign trade opportunities strengthened the economy and encouraged the government to become more involved in foreign relations.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.