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Triangle Fire: Immigration, Poverty, Wealth, and Reform

The thinking of supporters of the Sumner, Carnegie, and Eugenics movement clashed sharply with that of many working people in the early 20th century, particularly the immigrants, industrial workers, and farmers of the day (Leonard). It was a conflict over the future course of American society between more traditional conservative proponents of limited government and laissez-faire capitalism and progressive reformers, working-class groups, and farmers’ organizations. The conflict also involved immigration, racial Immigration, Poverty, Wealth, and Reform. I will analyze this contradiction in this essay while quoting from at least four of the given readings, one of which must be the Triangle book necessary for the class to be fair to all sides and correctly represent perspectives.

Large concentrations of wealth under the hands of one person, according to William Graham Sumner, a key proponent of social Darwinism, are not a social threat. Although the law may occasionally be complicated for the individual, Sumner believed it is best for the race since it improves conditions in its train and ensures that the fittest survive in every department (Sumner). On the other hand, Mary Ellen Lease, a well-known member of the People’s Party, claimed that Wall Street controlled the nation and that instead of being a government of, by, and for the people, it now belonged to Wall Street. She claimed that the nation’s laws resulted from a system that dressed thieves in robes and honesty in rags. Even though over 100,000 shop girls in New York were forced to sell their virtue for food and 10,000 children in the U.S. per year starve to death due to hunger, Lease denounced politicians who claimed the country suffered from overproduction (Zinn).

One of the wealthiest men of his day, Andrew Carnegie, believed that the law of competition should be honored because it is to this law that we owe our marvelous material progress, which brings better conditions in its wake. As the price society pays for inexpensive comforts and luxuries, he claimed that society should pay for the law of competition because the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Carnegie also held that although the law may occasionally be complicated for an individual, it is better for the race as a whole since it ensures that the most vital individuals will prevail in every field (Carnegie). On the other hand, Rose Schneiderman, a labor union activist, denounced the subpar working conditions and low pay that many women had to endure. She questioned whether people ever paused to consider that almost everything they wear results from a young girl’s labor of love, who, at the very least, should be given the same respect as the birds (Schneiderman).

One hundred forty-six garment workers, including 123 women and girls, perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, bringing attention to the working class’s hardship and the demand for better working conditions and workers’ rights. “ The Triangle Waist Company occupied all three stories. Chief Croker puts the number of staff at work at around 1,000. According to the company’s owners, 700 men and women were present. No matter how many there were, they had no chance of escaping. The death toll was already at a significant level before smoke or flames appeared through the windows. Screaming men, women, boys, and girls crowded out on the numerous window ledges. They threw themselves into the streets far below, which was one of the first signs that people in the street realized that these three top stories had transformed into red furnaces in which human creatures were being caught and incinerated. They leaped while their clothes were on fire. The Triangle Waist Company fire, which occurred in the early 20th century and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of workers—mostly immigrant women—due to hazardous working conditions and a lack of safety rules, is described in the passage from Argersinger’s book. In the quote, the factory owners’ callousness and contempt for the lives of the employees who were trapped inside the burning building are both highlighted. The owners lied about the number of employees present in the factory. The tragedy at Triangle Waist Company served as a sobering reminder of the perils of unchecked capitalism and the necessity of reform to save workers’ rights and lives. The Triangle Fire’s occurrences sparked a labor movement and pressured the government to control working conditions and defend employees’ rights. The conflict between proponents of laissez-faire capitalism and progressive reformers, who aimed to enhance the lives of workers and secure their safety at work, is further highlighted by this catastrophe. Immigration and national and racial stereotypes were also at stake in the debate between the ideas of Sumner, Carnegie, and Eugenics movement supporters and those of working people, immigrants, industrial workers, and farmers at the time (Leonard).

A pivotal event, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, highlighted the tensions between proponents of laissez-faire capitalism and those calling for progressive reforms. One hundred forty-six garment workers perished in the fire, mostly young immigrant women confined within the factory due to locked doors and insufficient safety precautions. The catastrophe highlighted the working class’s heinous exploitation and horrible working conditions. Progressive reformers used the incident as a springboard for change to demand changes to the labor market and safety standards.

On the other hand, Conservative supporters of small government and laissez-faire capitalism did not respond with the same level of sympathy. William Graham Sumner’s statement that “If it is said that some people in our time have become rapidly and in a great degree rich, it is true; if it is said that large aggregations of wealth in the control of individuals are a social danger, it is not true” encapsulates the beliefs of many conservative thinkers of the era who thought that individual business success and the accumulation of wealth was not only acceptable but desirable. They claimed that economic competition was the driving force behind advancement and that the law of the fittest ensured that only the most significant organizations and people would survive.

The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was a well-known supporter of this viewpoint. He claimed that the wealthy had a moral duty to use their wealth for the good of society in his article “The Gospel of Wealth.” However, his opinions were based on the idea that only the most robust and capable people should advance in society. In his view, the law of competition ensured that only the most talented people would succeed, even though it was harsh for individuals.

The accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of people, on the other hand, was seen by the working class, immigrants, industrial workers, and farmers of the day as a threat to democracy and the health of society. Unchecked capitalism, they claimed, resulted in the exploitation of the working class and the wealth accumulation of a select few at the expense of the majority. Do you ever stop to consider that almost everything else you wear is the result of some poor girl’s labor, who at least should be entitled to equal consideration with the birds? asks Rose Schneiderman, underscoring the struggle of working-class women to be treated equally and to obtain better working conditions and pay.

Moreover, the discussion of immigration at this time was intertwined with the problem of riches and poverty. According to many progressive reformers and working-class organizations, immigrants were crucial to the nation’s economic development but also exposed to exploitation and prejudice. They advocated for defending immigrant rights, improved working conditions, and equitable pay. However, many conservative thinkers shared the beliefs of the eugenics movement’s proponents, who thought that the Anglo-Saxon race was superior and that immigration was dangerous (Leonard). They said that because of their perceived inferiority, immigrants threatened the stability and well-being of society and were unsuited for democratic government. Mary Ellen Lease says, “The result of a system that dresses thieves in robes and honesty in rags is our legal system. The politicians claimed that our problems were caused by overproduction. Overproduction results in over 100,000 shop girls in New York being forced to trade their virtue for bread and 10,000 little children in the U.S. dying of starvation each year,” the pain and plight of many working-class families at this time.

In conclusion, differences in opinions on wealth and poverty, immigration, national and racial stereotypes, and democracy’s viability were the root of the conflicts between proponents of laissez-faire capitalism and progressive reformers over the future course of American society. Progressives and working-class organizations believed that concentrated wealth in a small number of hands was a social danger that threatened the democratic ideals of America, in contrast to conservative defenders of limited government and laissez-faire capitalism who believed that wealth was a sign of individual success and that the market should be free from government intervention. Progressives and working-class organizations fought for the rights of immigrants. They opposed the dehumanizing stereotypes used to justify their exploitation, in contrast to conservatives who argued for stricter immigration laws and eugenicists who promoted the idea of selective breeding for a “better” society.

Works Cited

Argersinger, Jo Ann. The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Carnegie, Andrew. “The Gospel of Wealth.” North American Review, vol. 148, no. 391, 1889, pp. 653–665.

Leonard, Thomas C. “Retrospectives: Eugenics and economics in the progressive era.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19.4 (2005): 207–224.

Sumner, William Graham. “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.” Harper’s Weekly, 1883.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.


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