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Workers in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

180 min


  • Students will learn about various incidents of labor strife by participating in role play to reenact the Haymarket Riot, Homestead Strike, and the Pullman Strike.
  • Students will evaluate successes and failures of various methods that workers used when seeking to bring about economic and political change.
  • Students will analyze constitutional principles and the guarantees of the First Amendment and list recommendations for effectively solving social and economic problems.
  • Students will identify examples of the presence or absence of essential virtues for civil society.

  • Industrial revolution
  • Artisans
  • Taylorism
  • Piecemeal work
  • Depression
  • Deflation
  • Recession
  • President Rutherford B. Hayes
  • Andrew Carnegie
  • Henry Clay Frick
  • Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers
  • Pinkerton Detective Agency
  • Strikebreakers
  • Alexander Berkman
  • Pullman Company
  • American Railway Union
  • Anarchists
  • Eugene Debs
  • President Grover Cleveland
  • In re Debs (1895)
  • Sherman Antitrust Act (1890)
  • Yellow dog contract
  • Open-shop
  • Blacklist
  • Adair v. U.S. (1895)
  • Liberty of contract
  • Labor unions
  • Collective bargaining
  • Uriah Stephens
  • Knights of Labor
  • Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
  • William Haywood
  • Red Scare
  • American Federation of Labor (AFL)
  • Samuel Gompers
  • Business unionism
  • Progressives
  • Organized labor
  • Lochner v. New York (1904)
  • Muller v. Oregon (1908)
  • Social science
  • Brandeis Brief
  • Bunting v. Oregon (1917)
  • President Theodore Roosevelt
  • United Mine Workers
  • Arbitration
  • President William Howard Taft
  • Department of Labor
  • Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914)
  • Adamson Act
  • Keating-Owen Child Labor Act
  • National War Labor Board
  • Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)

  1. Prior to the lesson, print a class set of each of the role play Scene Cards (Handouts BC, and D). Recommendation: Print each set of handouts on a different color of heavy paper or cardstock and laminate for repeated use. For example, you might print Handout B on yellow cardstock, Handout C on orange, and Handout D on green.
  2. Distribute and assign for homework copies of Handout A: Workers in the Gilded Age
  3. General tips and procedures for role play activities:
    1. Assign parts. Have students make their own nametags. Each nametag should be a full-size sheet of paper, with name in bold lettering so that it can be read from across the room. Nametags can be affixed with paper clips or attached to yarn lanyards.
    2. Have students read the entire Scene Card description for each role play activity before dividing into small groups to prepare. These scene cards are not scripted; students will make up their own original dialogue and actions to portray the events and their significance based on the information provided in the background essay and the skeleton plan of each event.
    3. Assign areas of the room for each scene, and have actors report to the appropriate locations.
    4. Within each area of the room, students will work together for about 10 minutes to discuss their scene, plan their dialogue, and prepare to effectively portray the action. Students may visit other areas of the room to coordinate their interaction with other groups as needed. During this preparation time, the teacher will circulate from group to group, answering questions and pointing out any potential challenges. General rules for role plays:
      1. No blood
      2. No bruises
      3. No inappropriate language
      4. No props other than those available to be quickly improvised in the classroom
      5. Narrator sets up the action for each scene and provides transition to highlight the historical and constitutional significance of the events portrayed.
    5. Students reenact the event.
    6. Before discussing the debriefing questions provided on each Scene Card, have each character in the role play summarize who he/she was, what actions the individual took, and why.

Activity I » 30 minutes

  1. Assign parts. At least ten actors are required for this role play; fifteen or more would be better.
    1. Striking workers (multiple)
    2. Strikebreakers (multiple)
    3. Police (at least 2 or 3; one dies, and then 6 more die later)
    4. Others
    5. Speakers
    6. Someone
    7. Anarchists (8: Four are hanged and one commits suicide)
    8. Judge Joseph Gary
    9. Governor John Peter Altgeld
    10. Narrator
    11. Other roles if desired might include prosecuting and defense attorneys and jury.
  2. Distribute Handout B: Haymarket Scene Card, 1886, and have all students read all of the scene descriptions.
  3. Assign areas of the room for each scene, and have actors report to the appropriate locations:
    1. McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Works, Chicago
    2. Haymarket Square, Chicago
    3. Courtroom
    4. Illinois Governor Altgeld’s Office
  4. Students within each scene prepare and develop dialogue.
  5. Reenact Haymarket Riot.

Activity II » 30 minutes

  1. Assign parts and have students make their nametags. At least 15 actors are required for this role play; 20 or more would be better.
    1. 3750 Striking workers
      1. 750 members of Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers Union (multiple)
      2. b) 3000 non-union workers (multiple)
    2. Andrew Carnegie
    3. Henry Clay Frick
    4. Strikebreakers (multiple)
    5. 11 Sheriff’s deputies (multiple)
    6. Several thousand Homestead townspeople (multiple)
    7. 300 Pinkerton agents (multiple)
    8. Pennsylvania Governor Robert E. Pattison
    9. 8500 National Guardsmen (multiple)
    10. Alexander Berkman
    11. Narrator
    12. Other roles if desired
  2. Distribute Handout C: Homestead Strike Scene Card, and have all students read all of the scene descriptions. For this role play activity, all scenes take place at or near the Carnegie Steel Mill at Homestead, Pennsylvania.
  3. Students within each scene prepare and develop dialogue.
  4. Reenact Homestead Strike

Activity III » 30 minutes

  1. Assign parts. At least eighteen actors are required for this role play; twenty-five or more would be better.
    1. George Pullman, inventor of the railway sleeping car and president of Pullman Company
    2. Pullman Palace Car Workers (multiple)
    3. Pullman Company management
    4. American Railway Union (ARU) (multiple)
    5. Eugene V. Debs, President of ARU
    6. General Managers Association (GMA)
    7. Strikebreakers (multiple)
    8. Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld
    9. President Grover Cleveland
    10. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney
    11. Federal Judge Peter S. Grosscup
    12. Federal Judge William A. Woods
    13. 2000 Federal troops (multiple)
    14. Narrator
    15. Other roles if desired
  2. Distribute Handout D: Pullman Strike Scene Card, 1886, and have all students read all of the scene descriptions.
  3. Assign areas of the room for each scene, and have actors report to the appropriate locations:
    1. Pullman, Illinois
    2. Chicago, Illinois
    3. Washington, D.C. and Springfield, Illinois
  4. Students within each scene prepare and develop dialogue.
  5. Reenact Pullman Strike.

  1. Distribute Handout E: Graphic Organizer Comparing Haymarket, Homestead, and Pullman Incidents.
  2. Have students work in groups that include at least one actor from each of the role play vignettes, to complete the table on Handout E. In each group, students discuss the debrief questions from the role play activities and then report to the class on their conversations. Be sure to draw out constitutional principles, civic virtues, and historical significance of these events. Why do these events matter today?
  3. Ask students to brainstorm some recommendations for carrying out successful social and economic change within a constitutional republic characterized by limited government, while you record their comments on the board. Begin by writing this question on the board: How productive are forms of violence, such as bomb-throwing, in achieving beneficial ends related to social and economic change? Students may comment that our history suggests that successful movements involve people who
    1. Clarify and simplify their goals
    2. Commit to non-violent methods
    3. Build a base of support and sympathy for their cause
    4. Work within the system using legal (or at least peaceful) methods
    5. Exercise patience, persistence, and courage, expecting that long-term commitment will be necessary
  4. Ask students themselves to evaluate the lesson, reflecting on the most important things they learned, and how those realizations may apply to their own lives.

  1. Have students analyze and evaluate the Carnegie quote:

    Reflecting on the Homestead Strike, Carnegie wrote in a letter, “the false step was made in trying to run the Homestead Works with new men. It is a test to which workingmen should not be subjected. It is expecting too much of poor men to stand by and see their work taken by others. . . The pain I suffer increases daily. The Works are not worth one drop of human blood. I wish they had sunk.” In 1920 Carnegie wrote in his autobiography, “Nothing. . . in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply… No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead.”

  2. Students should research the Carnegie biography to find examples of constitutional principles and essential virtues reflected in his life.
  3. Find online examples of newspaper articles covering similar labor incidents today. . Evaluate those articles for fairness and accuracy. What similarities and differences do you see between those news reports from over a century ago and modern news reports?

Student Handouts

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Farmers in the Gilded Age

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