Samuel P. Hays’ book Response to Industrialism 1885- 1914 offers a comprehensive look at the history of American industrialism starting in the post Civil War era through the beginnings of the first world war. It is the third book in a series of four that relates the history of this country from its founding through the beginning of the Cold War. The main goal of Hays book is to examine how industrialization affected all aspects of American society as well as the nation as a whole. He does not just focus on the positive effects of industrialization but also the negative consequences that were just as present. These negative consequences inspired societal responses to industrialism known as the Progressive and Populist Movements. While many saw industrialism as being crucial to American success on the world stage, Hays attempts to help the reader understand the downsides to industrialism and the resulting counter movement that helped reorganize American politics, society and economy.
While the book is divided into nine chapters there seem to be three distinct sections that outline different influences of industrialization. The first section is directed at the structural changes that industrialism brought to the American landscape and society. He focuses on changes such as transportation and communication. He argues that the improvement of technology in these fields was a major catalyst for the growth economically of America. The building of railroads created a mass market and allowed for mass production. The invention of the telephone created knowledgeable consumers and allowed for quicker business decisions.
As a result of these improvements there were several resulting consequences. The agricultural sphere became commercialized as railroads allowed for foodstuffs to be transported greater distances, granting consumers access to greater choice. Industrialization also increased the importance of cities. As factories came to dominate the urban landscape, cities became the nerve centers of the country. Industrialization also transformed American government. Hays believed that government reflected the attitude of the people. People initially valued the promise of wealth that industrialization created, which led government to become a pro business advocate.
Despite these changes, of which many people saw as positive, the second section of the book deals with the negative influences that industrialization had on different spheres of American society. This section is by far the longest and reflects Hays belief that industrialization had significantly negative impacts on average Americans of all regions. He begins with a general analysis of the perception of wealth. Originally, the economic growth of the country created a hope in all Americans that they could overcome their economic restrictions. Industrialization was the vehicle that would allow them to rise above their social class and experience what the wealthy already knew.
However, the pursuit of wealth along with the growing income disparity led many to finally realize the harsh reality. The pursuit of wealth was leading to a deterioration of societal norms such as good morals. Material success reduced the role of religion in society. No longer were people concerned with pursuing a righteous path. While the morality of American society was jeopardized, it also economically destabilized the lives of many citizens throughout the nation. Farmers in the South and the West were now forced to compete with commercial farms. They became concerned about their well being when they realized that their cost of production was higher than the prices that their products could be sold due to competition from the industrial farms.
In the urban sphere similar concerns were forming. The urban sphere was the area of the country most boosted by industrialism. The number of factories made cities an attractive region for both Americans and immigrants looking for work. Factories offered them a source of consistent labor and a more secure source of income. Unfortunately, factory work provided almost no possibility of upward mobility. The increase in immigration also increased competition thus providing business owner’s power over their employees. The ability for employers to limit wages created dire situations in cities for the vast majority of the growing population in cities. The increase in poverty was a major factor in the moral degradation of the urban environment.
As a result of these conditions that were the result of industrialization, it forced American society into action. In the agricultural realm local farmers banded together to pressure the political parties into action. They formed labor forces whose presence was a threat to the business agriculture of the region. The farmer collective was the start of the greater conflict that took place between big business and labor that would be contested throughout the nation. Just as the farmers unionized, a similar phenomenon was taking place within the cities. For too long big business dominated its employees. By the late 1800’s those in the cities began collectively organizing in order to increase their rights, for the situation had gotten to the point that urban life for the lower classes was no longer tolerable. The income disparity was obvious and the wealthy made no attempts to hide it.
The second section ends with an analysis of the rural and urban spheres fight back against those who most benefitted from industrialism by attempting to reform the political sphere. This came to be known as the Progressive Movement. With the rise of industrialism, political machines had arisen in order to protect the interests of business. However, by the end of the 19th century reformers decided that enough was enough and directed their attentions at modifying the political sphere to look out more for the interests of laborers. The conflict within the political sphere grew so heated that the debate reached the Supreme Court, which was required to make some monumental rulings on the relationship between business and the American public. Samuel P. Hays is very critical of industrialism. It unleashed many negative effects on the American society and inspired a countermovement that unleashed a battle between ordinary labor and big business that would come to define the period.
Despite these criticisms Hays concludes his book with a final section devoted to the greater success that industrialism made possible for each region as well as the nation as a whole. While he acknowledges that the East was by far the greatest beneficiary of industrialism, Hays believed that as a region both the South and West received positive benefits as well. The West was greatly improved thanks to the construction of railroads, dams and aqueducts. The South was revamped and as a result became described as the “New South” that still had agricultural roots but now possessed increased mechanization to allow improved efficiency. An interesting argument that Hay puts forward at this point was the idea that though industrialism had benefitted the South and West, the greatest benefit was still felt in the East for the South and West were in part Eastern colonies. Regardless of if one does or does not agree with this statement the result of these improvements in all regions of the nation, was the emergence of the United States as a world power. With these substantial resources the US was primed to become competitive in the world. Thus the next step was to expand outwards and compete imperially with Europeans nations. The end of the 19th century saw a significant rise in the external conflicts that the US became involved in leading into the First World War.
Samuel P. Hays’ book is a great source for understanding the impact of industrialism on American society during the second half of the 19th century. He does a particularly good job of complicating the typical narrative of industrialism. That narrative was one that only focused upon the overall success of industrialism. It ignored the consequences for society. Hays’ narrative focuses on those consequences and helps the reader understand the sacrifice that Americans had to make in order to progress. While industrialism brought many benefits to Americans it threatened their way of life and so they needed to respond. This is what prompted the Progressive countermovement that would come to dramatically change many aspects of American society.
The overall purpose of the book is commendable but there are a couple of shortcomings. First, Hays makes very little reference to any other historical work. The editor praises Hay in his use of the “rich storehouse of recent scholarship” yet this scholarship is presented in a very limited manner throughout the text. A second criticism has to do with the book’s relationship to the environment. Hay states “industrialism was less important in changing the motives of Americans than in profoundly altering the environment…” Despite this claim Hay spends very little time exploring the alteration of the American landscape. Instead he narrows his focus to the people who worked the environment and their perceptions of the changes that took place due to industrialism. The only point in his book where Hay explicitly references the land was during his analysis of the change in the political sphere. With the election of Theodore Roosevelt there was the rise of the conservation movement but Hay spends only a few moments on the topic proclaiming it a generally unsuccessful movement.
William Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis is a book very similar to Samuel P. Hays. Both books analyze the affects of industrialism on the development of American society. Cronon’s book is a little more specific in its focus by looking only at Chicago. Still they approach industrialism in a similar manner to try and reveal how industrial improvements affected different spheres of society. Unlike Hays however, Cronon takes a greater interest in analyzing industrialism’s affect on the environment. He traces how human perceptions of land have changed. They moved away from seeing the land as simply a natural setting and instead began to commoditize all aspects of the land such as prairies, forests, animals and water. This type of analysis is missing from Hays book and if present could have added an interesting dimension to his argument.
My final criticism of Hays’ book is that he attempts to analyze too many different aspects of a changing American society. Whether it is economically, socially, religiously or some other aspect, Hays attempts to provide some sort of commentary. This is very useful if a reader is using the book to gain some general knowledge on a subject but unfortunately the breadth of the project meant that many of his commentaries are shallow in their analysis. An example of this can be seen with his description of the decrease in religiosity. He spends only a moment describing the regression of religion from society but does not fully explain what religion’s role had originally been in society or why this was changing. Hays general neglect of topics such as this does not hamper his overall narrative but it does leave the reader with further questions. As a work in general Samuel P. Hays efforts should be applauded for he does a good job of highlighting the different influences that industrialism had on different spheres of American society and though he devotes little attention to its influence on the environment, his narrative is useful in our understanding of catalysts of change during this period.
Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: WW Norton &
Hays, Samuel P. The Response to Industrialism 1885-1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago
 Each book in the series was written by a different author.
 Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism 1885-1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1957), 5-9.