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Politics in The Gilded Age

Key Points

  • Gilded Age politics were dominated by corruption, as politicians took bribes and rewarded their supporters with posh government jobs
  • Elections had high turnout and extraordinarily close results, but neither major party pursued ambitious policies
  • In the 1890s, frustrated farmers organized their own party, the Populists
  • In 1896, the Democrats co-opted much of the Populist agenda and the Populists supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan for the presidency; Bryan lost and the Populists faded away

"A Stalwart of the Stalwarts"

  • Government jobs were distributed through corrupt patronage systems
  • President James Garfield was assassinated by a frustrated job-seeker named Charles Guiteau

In 1881, Charles Guiteau, a mentally unstable gadfly, went postal on the President of the United States, James Garfield. Guiteau, whose career ambitions had bounced from religion to law to politics, believed he was entitled to a political appointment to a plum government job after campaigning for Garfield in the election of 1880. When he did not receive the government post he thought he deserved, he bought a gun, spent two weeks learning to use it, and then shot James Garfield as the president prepared to board a train. Guiteau realized that he was making history—as he waited at the train station for the president's arrival, he had his shoes shined and then arranged for a cab that could take him to jail in style. But he was not much of a writer; after shooting Garfield, Guiteau shouted his carefully practiced line: "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts—Arthur is president now." It was no "Sic semper tyrannis," but Guiteau's prosaic line did reveal the political passions of the times—a period in which party loyalty was a transcendent value and the distribution of patronage was among the national government's central tasks.

Political Corruption

  • Corruption scandals were common during Gilded Age
  • Crédit Mobilier scandal implicated Vice President Schuyler Colfax
  • City politics ruled by corrupt machines like New York's Tammany Hall

The political history of the Gilded Age is usually reduced to a tale of corruption and scandal. And indeed there were plenty of both to go around, at all levels of public life. The administration of President Ulysses S. Grant was a cesspool of graft and abuse. Treasury Department officers demanded bribes from importers if they wanted their goods to be processed efficiently. The Naval Department awarded contracts on the basis of favoritism rather than competitive bidding. The Secretary of War accepted bribes from merchants interested in lucrative trading franchises on Indian lands. Even Grant's personal secretary conspired with whiskey distillers to avoid excise taxes.

The most high-reaching and elaborate scandal involved the Crédit Mobilier, a firm whose shady relationship with the Union Pacific Railroad was shielded from government investigation by the Vice-President of the United States, Schuyler Colfax. In return for running interference against government oversight, Colfax and other government officials were allowed to buy stock using future dividends—that is, he was allowed to "buy" them for free. We should all be so lucky.

At the municipal level, the corruption was just as great—and the headlines were just as sensational. The political machines that dominated urban politics distributed city jobs to loyal supporters regardless of ability, and they awarded city contracts for construction and services to those offering the largest bribes. As cities swelled with migrants moving from rural areas and immigrants arriving from Europe, roads had to be built, sewer and gas lines had to be laid, and police and fire departments had to be staffed. Political insiders grew rich meeting the needs of the rapidly expanding cities.

The most powerful example of this political corruption was New York's Tammany Hall. This Democratic political organization capped off its orgy of self-rewarding control over New York City politics by building an elaborate new city hall. One loyal member of the Tammany organization was dubbed the "Prince of Plasterers" by the New York press when it was discovered that his connections had earned him a tidy $3 million for his work on the new building.15

But the corruption that plagued American politics was only the most sensational shortcoming of American political life during these decades. More subtle, but just as problematic, was the general lethargy that crippled national government and the failure of either of the major parties to advance an agenda adequate to the needs of America's rapidly changing society. As America's industries expanded, as America's workers wrestled with the new demands of the industrial workplace, as industrialists devised new business structures to tame the market, as immigrants arrived in record numbers, and as America's cities swelled to the breaking point, the national government proved unable to do much more than argue about tariff rates and forms of currency.

A Dynamic but Unambitious Democracy

  • National elections during Gilded Age were close and voter turnout was high
  • But neither Democrats nor Republicans pursued ambitious agendas

On the surface, American politics appeared vital and dynamic. Voter participation rates were extraordinarily high. On average, 78% of the nation's eligible voters voted in the presidential elections between 1876 and 1896. And often these contests were decided by razor-thin margins—Presidents Garfield, Cleveland, and Harrison all won by less than 1% in the elections of 1880, 1884, and 1888. And while the Republican Party dominated the presidency during these years, the Democrats consistently controlled the House of Representatives.

Yet beneath this statistical portrait of an energetic and keenly contested political culture lay political parties that were largely indistinguishable from one another on most matters of policy and an electorate that chose sides more on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and culture than ideology or policy. In other words, American political life during these years was dynamic and participatory. But there was not much substance to it at all.

The observation requires some qualification. There were indeed general philosophical differences between the two major parties. Republicans tended to favor greater government involvement in economic and social issues. They retained old Hamiltonian and Whig beliefs in the value of federal action in promoting economic development. They also were more likely to support various restrictions on alcohol and modified forms of Sabbatarianism. Democrats, on the other had, tended to favor small government and states' rights. They opposed government intervention in the economy and they resisted moralistic encroachments on personal freedoms. But in translating these philosophies into policy, neither party was very creative or ambitious. A handful of issues dominated the national agenda for decades—tariffs and currency reform and, to a lesser extent, civil service reform. And in the absence of more expansive visions, the two parties waged battle largely for the spoils of patronage that victory would bring. Voters, in similar fashion, marched in parades, attended rallies, and vehemently claimed party affiliation more as an exercise in identity formation than in an effort to chart public policy.

It is no wonder that the presidents elected during this era were largely forgettable figures (except for Grover Cleveland, who is memorable mainly for weighing more than 300 pounds). They were loyal party functionaries who came to office with relatively narrow policy ambitions but many favors to repay. Benjamin Harrison calculated that he spent four to five hours a day on questions regarding patronage. Even Cleveland, who gained national recognition as the reform mayor of Buffalo, discovered that "dreadful, damnable office seeking" demanded an extraordinary amount of his attention.

Explaining the Political Malaise

  • Both parties appealed to small number of moderate swing voters in just five swing states
  • Laissez faire ideology and legacy of Civil War discouraged political activism

Why American political life became so uninspired is hard to say. Several factors converged to make the Gilded Age—politically, the years between Presidents Grant and McKinley—so unimaginative and unambitious. For starters, the very competitiveness of politics during these years encouraged a sort of middling political strategy. With so many contests decided by such narrow margins, the parties aimed toward the center of the electorate and vied for the handful of swing voters that could turn an election their way. Moreover, in most presidential elections, sixteen states could be counted on to vote Republican, while fourteen reliably voted Democrat. That left just five swing states—California, Connecticut, Indiana, New York, and Nevada—whose middle-of-the-road voters had to be courted cautiously by the rival parties. This was not an electoral map that encouraged bold agendas.

In addition, there were certain philosophical factors inhibiting a more robust governmental response to the changes and challenges of the period. Most Americans embraced the laissez faire economic theories that served industrial leaders so well. According to these theories, government intervention into the economy would only gum up the wheels of progress. These economic ideas dovetailed nicely with the constitutional conservatism that dominated this period. Most Americans believed that the powers of the federal government were constitutionally severely limited. After almost a century of debate, policymakers agreed that the federal government could generate revenues through a tariff, that had a certain narrow authority over interstate internal improvements such as railroads, and that the federal government was responsible for monitoring American currency. But beyond this, there was little agreement over specifics, and a general tendency to err on the side of caution in interpreting the constitution's allocation of governmental authority within the economy.

In addition to these philosophical inhibitions to government ambition, there were what might be labeled psychological inhibitions as well. Many analysts believed that the reformist, interventionist philosophies of the 1840s and 1850s had culminated in the bloodbath of the Civil War. According to this analysis, antislavery activists, who refused to accept the conciliatory, compromising strategy modeled by the Constitution's framers, had forced a deadly, destructive war on Americans. And their self-righteous, impatient zeal had done still further damage during the period of Reconstruction labeled "radical." Just like prewar antislavery activists, these radical reformers had refused to allow history to take its more patient course; they had insisted on trying to force change upon an unready region. And consequently, nothing—perhaps worse than nothing—had been achieved.

It was therefore the convergence of a series of demographic, historical, and philosophical factors that bred the lethargic political culture of the Gilded Age. It took the formation of a third party focusing on the needs of American farmers—the entrance into the political arena of a group of outsiders—to shake up the system and point American political development in a new direction.

The Farmers' Revolt

  • New technologies improved agricultural production, but soon led to prices dropping too low to support farmers
  • Farmers frustrated with Democrats and Republicans formed their own organizations: Grange, Farmer's Alliance, Populist Party

America's farmers experienced a dramatic shift in fortunes over the course of the Gilded Age. In the years after the Civil War, growing urban markets and increased exports to Europe inspired agricultural expansion into the Midwest. Between 1860 and 1900, farmers placed 430 million new acres under cultivation. To assist them in their work, new technologies and new fertilizers rapidly increased productivity. And America's expanding network of railroads enabled Midwestern farmers to transport their crops to eastern markets and ports.

But by 1880, farmers' once lucrative markets had weakened. Increased production in Europe and South America, and European tariffs that blocked American exports, left American farmers facing increased competition and falling prices. In addition, farmers experienced the flip side of their new technology—increased productivity meant that market saturation could be achieved by fewer men. By 1900, one farmer could produce as much wheat as it had taken twenty to produce in 1860.

As domestic and foreign markets shrank, farmers' prospects dimmed, especially since many carried large debt burdens optimistically taken on during the preceding boom decades. But rather than go broke quietly, farmers attempted to adapt the organizational lessons of industry and labor to their own sector of the economy. They began to organize and experiment with the benefits of cooperation and size. The Grange (founded in 1867) and the Farmers' Alliance (founded in 1877) introduced marketing and equipment cooperatives, collectively owned mills, and even credit unions. But by 1890, farmers had decided that they needed to take their organizational efforts to the next level—so they formed their own political party. In July 1892, 1300 delegates gathered at Omaha, Nebraska to write a national platform and select a presidential nominee—The People's (or Populist) Party was born.

Breaking ties with the established parties was often a painful process in an era when party affiliation was a critical part of personal identity. But easing this separation was the particular character of the farmers' analysis of their circumstances. In sorting out the causes of their economic distress, they tended to focus less on the structural changes within international markets than the "conspiracy" of Eastern money interests that they believed was working against them—banks that charged exploitive interest rates, railroads that levied discriminatory rates, and commodities middlemen that reaped the greatest rewards from the farmers' back-breaking labor. There was some validity to their assessment. Railroads, in particular, were guilty of charging discriminatory rates on western goods—a producer paid 95 cents per ton from Chicago eastward, but $3.20 per ton west of the Missouri river.16 But more important than the actual accuracy of their assessment was the way that it functioned to tie farmers together as a victimized class. In blaming bankers, middlemen, and railroad tycoons—all agents of the new industrial economy—for their woes, farmers were able to transform their economic concerns into a crusade on behalf of America's agrarian past. In blaming a conspiracy of money men rather than the vicissitudes of global markets, farmers were able to build a coherent movement rather than just a political coalition, a movement for justice rather than just another political party.

The Populist Platform

  • Populist Party demanded activist government policies to help farmers
  • Major Populist issues: government ownership of railroads, income tax over property tax, free coinage of silver
  • Populists became serious political power by mid-1890s

United and given direction by their conspiratorial analysis of farmers' predicament, the Populist Party advanced an ambitious agenda that called for unprecedented levels of government involvement in the economy. Arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission, created in 1877 to regulate the railroads, had proven completely inadequate to this task, they proposed that the government assume ownership of the railroads, as well as the telegraph lines. Complaining that the current network of national and state banks charged excessively high interest rates on rural borrowers, they recommended the creation of "postal savings banks" controlled by locally elected officials.

To address what they perceived as inequities in local and state tax systems, the Populists argued that property taxes should be replaced by a graduated income tax. After all, they argued, in an industrial economy acreage was a poor indicator of wealth. And to redress what they saw as inequities in land ownership, they proposed that the land reclaimed through the nationalization of the railroads be made available to agrarian settlers.

The Populist Party also proposed an innovative government agency labeled the regional subtreasury. Since farmers were often victimized by falling prices, but yet were unable to hold onto their crop until prices rose because they had debts to service, the Populists proposed that the federal government create a network of storage/credit institutions that would lend farmers a percentage of their crops' value while they waited for prices to rise.

And finally, the Populists suggested that the federal government should increase the amount of money in circulation through the "free coinage" of silver. Since the Civil War, Americans had debated how much and what kind of money should be allowed to circulate. While some suggested a limited supply of money, backed only by gold, would ensure that its value would be sustained, others argued that an expanded money supply, backed also by silver, would facilitate economic growth and allow common people easier access to cash. By 1890, something of a compromise had been reached. Gold was coined and placed into circulation, and gold-backed bank notes circulated as a form of currency. Silver was also coined, but the amount was severely limited in order to contain the amount of money in circulation and protect its value.

Populists argued that the money supply produced by this compromise was inadequate to the needs of America's expanding population, and that the limitations placed on the coinage of silver hurt farmers and other common people unable to compete with more affluent borrowers. But if silver was freely coined, if the government coined all of the silver available to it, America's money supply would grow, crop prices would rise, and borrowers would be able to more easily pay down their debts. In modern economic terms, the farmers wanted the government to pursue an inflationary monetary policy.

By the middle of the 1890s, the farmers had built a national political party with growing membership throughout the South and Midwest. And unlike the other major parties, they had advanced a creative and pragmatic solution for the farmers' problems. (What effect the farmers' solution would have had on the other sectors of the economy was another question entirely, of course.) Unlike the other parties, the Populists had managed to shake off many of the philosophical and historical inhibitions that had limited the national government for the previous thirty years. And, for better or for worse, they had forced the other parties to take notice.

The Fate of Third Parties

  • Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan earned Democratic nomination for president in 1896 by adopting many Populist policies
  • Populist Party also chose to endorse Bryan
  • Bryan lost election to Republican William McKinley, Populists ceased to be major force in American politics

The Democrats were the hardest hit by the farmers' defections from their party to the Populists. They, far more than the Republicans, relied on southern and western votes. And so they did what America's major political parties usually do when facing a challenge from a third party—they co-opted one of their challengers' issues and stole most of their thunder. At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan delivered a ringing call for the free coinage of silver. Declaring that "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this cross of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," the messianic Bryan brought convention delegates to their feet; a few days later he was named the party's nominee for the presidency.

The Populists were left in quandary. Many among the rank and file had earlier encouraged joining forces with the Democrats. These "fusionists" now urged their fellow-Populists to join the Democrats in nominating Bryan for the presidency. A second group, labeled "mid-roaders," argued that the Democrats would never embrace the full breadth of the Populist agenda—after all, silver was just one plank of their platform. If they allowed themselves to be absorbed by the Democrats, their full agenda and the distinctive character of their movement would be lost. But the fusionists prevailed—the People's Party followed the Democrats in naming Bryan its nominee; the mid-roaders succeeded only in placing one of their own, Tom Watson, on the Populist ticket as the vice-presidential candidate.

The decision to embrace Bryan may have been the judicious course, but the Populist Party would never be the same. Much of the crusade-like enthusiasm that had animated the party's rank-and-file was lost in the decision to accept the candidate of the old, established party. And when Bryan was defeated by Republican William McKinley in the general election, many Populists lost confidence in political action altogether.

Over the next several years, other factors would converge to weaken the Populist appeal. The discovery of gold in the Yukon would dramatically increase the nation's gold reserves, and consequently the nation's money supply; the Yukon Gold Rush had much the same inflationary impact that free silver would have done. At the same time, poor European harvests would boost prices for American agricultural products. But while the Populist Party would never recover, the Populists' insurgency had produced a revolution of sorts in American politics. They had, at least for a moment, broken the stranglehold of the two traditional parties and produced a viable third alternative for American voters. They had articulated a creative and expansive platform that spoke to real issues left unaddressed by the other parties. And they had scared the Democrats and the Republicans to death. In the decades that followed, both parties would recognize the need not just to reach out to these disaffected voters, but to re-imagine the role of government in this new industrial era.

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