Abraham Lincoln was one of the first to directly point out the intrinsic value of labor in relation to capitalism. "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital;" President Lincoln stated in his annual message to Congress on 3 December 1861, "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
The "Gilded Age," as Mark Twain so aptly named the period immediately following the Civil War, saw the real beginning of this era of extreme exploitation in America. This was initially powered by profiteering on the public dime during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Identical exploitation of workers had been experienced and written of earlier in Great Britain by authors such as Charles Dickens, as well as by European philosophers and radicals including Blanc, Proudhon, Bakunin, Marx, Engels, and Lassalle.
The "cure" proposed by these Europeans for the ills of antisocial capitalism was called socialism, or in its most extreme forms, communism and anarchism. The proponents of this cure were called reds, after the red in the French flag (or tricolor) the color of the Third Estate, or common people, in the French Revolution: a description they wore with pride.
Most American newspapers used the terms communism, socialism, and anarchism (together with their derivatives), interchangeably; often combining them indiscriminately with terms like worker's rights, strikes and strikers, unions, etc.. Anyone who showed sympathy for the rights of working men and women were called "pinks" and "pinkos," or "fellow travelers." Far too many Americans accepted the lies and misrepresentations of these newspapers, who tried to conflate the ideas of the most extreme European radicals (Proudhon and Bakunin), with those of the more thoughtful and moderate thinkers (Marx and Engels).
One example of this is the statement that all Communists and Socialists--including Karl Marx--wanted to get rid of all private property, and do away with marriage; since at that time the wife was considered to be essentially the husband's property.
This is simply not true.
Some of the more extreme proponents of change did make such radical proposals; Marx did not. He in fact thought that the private ownership of property on a small or medium scale (such as individual housing, a small business or farm) was a good thing. It was only where the large aggregations of capital--finance, in the factories, the mines, the railways, etc.--tended most strongly towards monopoly, market manipulation, and worker exploitation, that the workers needed to control production and distribution (see Erich Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man, (1966), footnote 23, p.33; this book also contains a translation of Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). "The Third Manuscript," particularly the sections on Private Property and Labor as well as Private Property and Communism, are worth reading, especially Marx's description of those wanting to think of women as property as "crude Communism," p.129).
As Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels said (and I will paraphrase here), "Tell a big enough lie often enough, and strongly enough, and soon most people will believe it is the truth." So, too many middle class and rural Americans believed the lies and half-truths of the American press, written by newspaper publishers for their corporate cronies. However, even this did not prevent a few homegrown radicals and groups from emerging.
Eugene Debs, who would run for President on the Socialist Party's ticket, may be the most famous, followed by his colleague, Reverend Norman Thomas. Joe Hill, Big Bill Heywood, and the many others who organized the western miners against the mine owners. Daniel DeLeon, who started the Socialist Workers Party, helped found the IWW with Debs and Heywood, and wrote of the compatibility of James Madison's and Karl Marx's thought. Henry George, America's answer to Karl Marx, who wanted a single tax system based on the surplus value of land. Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and the rest of the muckrakers, who made the public aware of many of the corporate and government scandals that pervaded American life: from the corruption in the cities, to the abuses of the monopolistic trusts, including Standard Oil.
Finally, notice was taken by the American people of the corruption, governmental and corporate, that was eating away at the fabric of America. The progressive era arrived, represented by the Presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Standard Oil and other monopolistic trusts were broken up using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the first regulation of industries at a nationwide level took place with the establishment of agencies such as the FDA and the FTC, the first income tax was imposed on the richest Americans, and U.S. Senators were directly elected by the people of their state for the first time.
Unfortunately, this first attempt to curb corporate power lasted only twenty years. The huge fortunes made in the First World War due to war profiteering (see Marine Major General Smedley Butler's 1935 pamphlet War is a Racket, for more on this phenomenon), permitted most of the progressive era reforms to be undone by the corporations and their Republican lackeys in the 1920's. Laissez faire capitalism once again became a cancer on the American economy, and the subsequent abuses of the American economy under this system led to the Crash of '29, and the Great Depression.
When Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, among his most important actions in his first two terms was to set up a bureaucracy to prevent abuses by corporations and the wealthy such as those that had led to the Crash of '29 and the Great Depression. The Security and Exchange Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board were among the entities created to curb corporate and plutocratic power. When the Second World War came, Senator Harry Truman and his oversight committee made certain that war profiteering--for the first and only time in American history--was punished.
The end of the Second World War also regrettably spelled the beginning of the end of the curtailment of the plutocratic/corporate power dynamic that had twice nearly destroyed America's constitutional republic by bringing into existence the worst nightmares of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln, while fulfilling many of the worst predictions of Karl Marx.
The plutocrats first attack against Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal protections for the average American against economic abuse by the wealthy was the passage--over now President Truman's veto--of the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the protections provided by labor unions in the work place. This, together with the National Security Act the same year--which established the Defense Department, the CIA, and the permanent placement of the United States on a "war footing"--also began an ever escalating degree of war profiteering by "defense contractors."
The profits from these defense contracts also led to an ever escalating number of corporate mergers, despite the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914, which had specifically toughened the Federal government's power against combinations (mergers) in restraint of trade. So many mergers took place in 1950 (219), that Congress passed the Celler-Kefauver Amendment to reinforce the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, in an effort to further prevent companies from buying stock in other companies.
It didn't work.