The Civil War Era itself saw great steps taken in civil rights--mainly, that blacks were no longer seen as property but under the 14th Amendment were granted equality under the law. However, this progressive pace slackened somewhat in the years following the Reconstruction. As a few shrewd businessmen gained money and power in vast quantities, Congress quickly lost the ability to regulate commerce almost entirely. Though the American government tried to protect consumers with new constraints on business such as the Sherman Anti-trust act, these laws were not nearly potent enough to cripple the monopolies which had reached their peak in the years following the Civil War.
The prevailing dependence on railroads as a main source of transportation gave avaricious railroad owners the opportunity to wrest every possible cent from the common traveler while bestowing rebates and other deals upon a few lucky businessmen in hopes of forging powerful alliances.
In the case of the Credit Mobilier scandal, the government actually financed a crooked get-rich scheme. Four clever insiders of the Union Pacific Railway arranged for a contract with Congress to build a railroad, then started the Credit Mobilier company and literally overpaid themselves to build railroads--sometimes by as much as $20,000 extra per mile of rail. To keep Congress from blowing any whistles, the men involved then distributed company stock to key members of Congress. Railroad owners also won pleasing reports in the media by giving journalists free transportation. However, the miles of rail laid during the Gilded Age did serve some positive purpose. The ever-growing network led to a more capable manufacturing industry, as raw materials could be shipped to factories, which then machine-made goods and sent them to the sprawling corners of the nation.
Anti-trust laws did little to stop the so-called "Captains of Industry" because most...