Thirty years after the Civil War, America had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse and was fast becoming the world’s leading producer of food, coal, oil and steel. But the transformation had created stark new divides in wealth, class and opportunity. By the end of the 19th century, the richest 4,000 families in the country—less than 1 percent of all Americans—possessed nearly as much wealth as the other 11.6 million families combined. The simultaneous growth of a lavish new elite and a struggling working class sparked passionate and violent debate over questions still being asked today: How is wealth best distributed, and by what process? Should the government concern itself with economic growth or economic justice? Are we two nations—one for the rich and one for the poor—or one nation where everyone has a chance to succeed?
This exclusive excerpt from the new film, The Gilded Age, tells the story of the People’s Party and Mary Elizabeth Lease, a firebrand and feminist who criss-crossed Kansas advocating for farmers’ rights. “It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” she proclaimed, “but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” Lease was instrumental in creating the People’s Party, better known as the Populists, which shocked the nation by winning 91 seats and control of the Kansas State Legislature in 1890.
Success in Kansas swept the country. Populist farmers joined labor unionists, Western miners and black professionals and farmers from the South, creating a third political party. They put forward radical and untested ideas to bring power back to the people through public ownership of railroads and utilities and a federal income tax.
A compelling portrait of an era of glittering wealth contrasted with extreme poverty, The Gilded Age is produced and directed by Sarah Colt and executive produced by Mark Samels. The film premieres on American Experience on Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 9–11 pm ET (check local listings) on PBS.