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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Gilded Age

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Mark Twain, never one to gild the lily, named this period the Gilded Age. The Decadent Age may have been more appropriate. It's up to you to deconstruct the gilding from the wilted lily underneath to help your students get the best image of this complicated time period.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity, among others, looking at the corruption of Tammany Hall.
  • current events, including articles asking if we're in a new Gilded Age (the re-gilded age?).
  • historical resources on inventions, muckrackers, and labor unions.

And so much more.

No need to sugar coat it. Shmoop gives it to you straight.

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  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
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Instructions for You

Andrew Carnegie made a fortune in the steel industry and then developed a philosophy of wealth explaining both the importance and responsibilities of large personal fortunes.

Show this excerpt from Carnegie's 1899 essay to your students:

"This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community -- the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves."
-- Andrew Carnegie, 1899

You may want to spend a few minutes explaining some terms (trust funds, agent and trustee) and breaking down Carnegie's argument.

Then ask them to write a short rebuttal. Regardless of their views, they must rebut Carnegie's arguments. Give your students only 7-10 minutes to do so.

Then ask them to exchange papers and rebut the arguments just presented by their peer. Instruct them to focus closely on the arguments presented by their peer and respond directly to them. Allow your students 7-10 minutes to do this.

Then circulate the papers to a third reader. This reader will rebut the second reader's rebuttal. Again instruct them not just to rehash their original argument; instead they must respond to the specific points raised by the previous reader.

You can debrief this exercise within a discussion.

  • Who had a good argument? Who raised some good points?
  • What positions were difficult to rebut?
  • Where do you stand now?

End the exercise by asking student to write a short paper (two paragraphs) summarizing their conclusions about Carnegie's philosophy.

(Lesson aligned with CA History-Social Sciences 9th-12th grade historical research, evidence, and point of view standards 1, 4; historical interpretation standard 3; 11th grade American History standard 11.2.5)

Instructions for Your Students


Your teacher will ask you to read an excerpt from Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth," written during the Gilded Age. Imagine yourself as a critic of Carnegie's position (whether or not you agree in real life). When you're finished reading, write a brief rebuttal of Carnegie's argument.

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