Gilded Age Politics


Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age is chapter 23 of the APUSH curriculum. This outline provides notes, additional facts, and links to entries to provide students with a deeper understanding of concepts and topics related to politics in the Gilded Age.

Gilded Age Politics, Overview, Outline, APUSH

Ulysses S. Grant was the first President of the United States during the Gilded Age. Image Source: Chrysler Museum of Art.

Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age

The term “Gilded Age” was coined by the famous American writer Mark Twain. During this era of American history, politics was plagued by political scandals and economic depressions. Further, the age was dominated by a series of Presidents who are known as the “Forgettable Presidents.”

Population Growth Post-Civil War

  • Census data from 1870 reported a population of over 39 million people in the United States.
  • This marked a significant increase of 26.6% over the previous decade.
  • Despite the devastating casualties of the Civil War, population growth continued vigorously.
  • Immigration played a significant role in this population surge during the post-Civil War era.
  • The United States became the third-largest nation in the Western world, trailing behind Russia and France in terms of population.

Challenges in Civic Health

  • Despite the physical growth, the civic health of the United States did not progress at the same pace.
  • The aftermath of the Civil War gave rise to issues such as waste, extravagance, speculation, and graft.
  • Many idealistic Americans were deeply disillusioned during the postwar era.
  • They had expected positive changes after sacrificing for the Union, emancipation, and the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.
  • However, instead of the promised “new birth of freedom,” they encountered widespread corruption and political deadlock.

1. The Bloody Shirt Elects Grant

Gilded Age Politics started with the Presidential Election of 1868. The Republicans chose Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War General with no political background, for president. Democrats struggled with disorganization, unable to agree on much of anything other than denouncing the Military Reconstruction of the South. Republicans narrowly secured Grant’s victory by highlighting his war achievements. The refusal of his opponent, Horatio Seymour, to support redeeming Greenbacks at full value contributed to his defeat.

1.1 — Grant’s Popularity and Election

  • General Grant, characterized by his stubbly bearded appearance, emerged as the most popular Northern hero of the Civil War.
  • During the Reconstruction era, disillusionment with professional politicians led to the belief that a good general would make a competent president.
  • Grant received significant tokens of appreciation from grateful citizens, including houses in Philadelphia, Washington, and his hometown of Galena, Illinois, as well as a substantial monetary gift from New Yorkers.
  • Despite his lack of political experience, Grant’s popularity and military achievements led to his nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1868.
  • The Republican platform advocated for the continued Reconstruction of the South with federal intervention, emphasizing Grant’s leadership under the slogan “Let us have peace.”

1.2 — Grant’s Political Inexperience

  • Grant’s political acumen was limited, as evidenced by his previous voting history and cultural background.
  • Before his presidency, Grant’s only recorded vote was for the Democratic ticket in 1856.
  • He was known more for his expertise in evaluating horses than for his understanding of human affairs.
  • Grant’s cultural perspective was described as narrow, exemplified by his reportedly simplistic view of Venice, Italy.
  • Despite his lack of political finesse, Grant’s military reputation and personal integrity garnered him significant support within the Republican Party.
Ulysses S. Grant, 1865, August 18, Galena Illinois, HW
This illustration depicts the celebration in Galena. Image Source: Harper’s Weekly.

1.3 — Democratic Disarray and Monetary Policy Dispute

  • Democrats, convening for their nominating convention, opposed military Reconstruction but struggled to find common ground on other issues.
  • Wealthy eastern delegates pushed for the redemption of federal war bonds in gold, despite their purchase with depreciated paper greenbacks.
  • Midwestern delegates advocated for the “Ohio Idea,” which called for redemption in greenbacks to alleviate debt burdens and maintain money circulation.
  • This disagreement sparked a bitter contest over monetary policy that persisted until the end of the century, impacting the nation’s economic stability.

1.4 — Republican Campaign Tactics

  • Republicans capitalized on Grant’s popularity by vigorously promoting his candidacy.
  • They employed the strategy of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking memories of the Civil War to rally support.
  • This tactic marked the first instance of such explicit use of war imagery in a presidential campaign.
  • The slogan “Vote as You Shot” appealed to Union army veterans, further bolstering Republican support.

1.5 — Grant’s Victory and Voter Demographics

  • Grant secured victory in the election with 214 electoral votes compared to Seymour’s 80.
  • Despite his significant electoral success, Grant won the popular vote by a narrow margin, receiving 3,013,421 votes to Seymour’s 2,706,829.
  • Most white voters seemingly supported Seymour, while Grant’s support was primarily from former slaves, estimated at around 500,000.
  • The ballots of three unreconstructed southern states—Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia—were not counted.
  • Grant’s margin of victory underscored the importance of Republican efforts to maintain control in the South and secure the allegiance of freedmen to retain political power.

2. The Era of Good Stealings

Following the Civil War, the population increased, partly due to immigration, and Gilded Age Politics was plagued by corruption. Railroad promoters deceived customers, stock-market investors were viewed negatively, and many judges and legislators were corrupt. Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, two wealthy individuals, attempted to corner the gold market in 1869 by influencing President Grant and his brother-in-law, but their plan failed. The infamous Tweed Ring, also known as “Tammany Hall,” led by “Boss” Tweed, used bribery and fake elections to steal millions from New York City. Tweed was caught and died in jail after evidence was uncovered by The New York Times. Samuel J. Tilden, known for prosecuting Tweed, later became the Democratic nominee in the 1876 presidential election. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, consistently depicted Tammany’s corruption.

2.1 — Postwar Atmosphere of Corruption

  • While most businesspeople and government officials acted with decency, a pervasive sense of corruption tainted the postwar era.
  • Analogies such as the Man in the Moon holding his nose over America characterized the foul atmosphere.
  • Railroad promoters engaged in deceitful practices, leaving bond buyers with worthless investments and a mere “right of way.”
  • Stock market manipulators tarnished public trust, while judges and legislators were accused of selling their power for personal gain.
  • Cynicism flourished, defining an honest politician as one who remained bought once purchased.

2.2 — The Gold Cornering Scheme of Fisk and Gould

  • Millionaire partners “Jubilee Jim” Fisk and Jay Gould orchestrated a plot in 1869 to corner the gold market.
  • Fisk, known for his flamboyance, provided the “brass,” while Gould, renowned for his cunning, provided the brains.
  • Their scheme relied on preventing the federal Treasury from selling gold, achieved through the bribery of President Grant and his brother-in-law.
  • On “Black Friday” in September 1869, Fisk and Gould drove the price of gold skyward, causing financial ruin for many honest businesspeople.
  • The bubble burst when the Treasury released gold, contrary to Grant’s alleged assurances, leading to a congressional investigation that concluded Grant had acted indiscreetly.

2.3 — The Infamous Tweed Ring in New York City

  • The Tweed Ring, led by William Magear “Boss” Tweed, epitomized the corruption of the era, employing bribery, graft, and fraudulent elections to embezzle vast sums, estimated at up to $200 million.
  • Honest citizens were intimidated into silence, while dissenters faced raised tax assessments.
  • The New York Times exposed the corruption in 1871, despite attempts to silence it with a $5 million bribe.
  • Cartoonist Thomas Nast relentlessly caricatured Tweed, refusing bribes to cease his criticism.
  • Samuel J. Tilden prosecuted Tweed, gaining fame that later propelled his presidential nomination, leading to Tweed’s imprisonment and demise.

3. A Carnival of Corruption

Gilded Age Politics was full of corruption. Grant was known for his laid-back demeanor, and seemingly overlooked the corruption within his administration. Except for Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, his cabinet was corrupt, including his in-laws, the Dent family. The Crédit Mobilier scandal, where a railroad company overcharged for construction, stained Grant’s reputation. A New York newspaper exposed the scandal, resulting in the formal censure of two Congress members and the revelation that the Vice President accepted stock. In 1875, the Whiskey Ring Scandal surfaced, revealing millions stolen from the Treasury. Grant retracted his earlier leniency when his private secretary was implicated. In 1876, Secretary of War William Belknap was found to have profited $24,000 from a scheme that supplied forts in the western territories.

3.1 — Corruption in Grant’s Administration

  • President Grant’s cabinet was rife with grafters and incompetents, tarnishing the reputation of the federal government.
  • Grant himself was susceptible to favor seekers, who showered him with gifts such as cigars, wines, and horses.
  • Grant’s election provided opportunities for his relatives, with several members of the Dent family securing positions in the government.

3.2 — The Crédit Mobilier Scandal

  • The Crédit Mobilier scandal emerged in 1872, implicating Union Pacific Railroad insiders who formed a construction company and profited from inflated contracts to build railroad lines.
  • Company executives clandestinely distributed valuable stock to key congressmen to prevent potential exposure by Congress.
  • A newspaper expose and congressional investigation resulted in the censure of two congressmen and revealed that the vice president had accepted payments from Crédit Mobilier.

3.3 — The Whiskey Ring Scandal

  • In 1874–1875, the Whiskey Ring scandal defrauded the Treasury of millions in excise-tax revenues.
  • Despite President Grant’s declaration to hold all guilty parties accountable, his private secretary’s involvement led to leniency and even exoneration for some culprits.
  • Further corruption surfaced in 1876, leading to Secretary of War William Belknap’s resignation after he was found to have accepted bribes from suppliers to Indian reservations.
  • Grant, loyal to his associates, reluctantly accepted Belknap’s resignation despite his involvement in corrupt activities.

4. The Liberal Republican Revolt of 1872

Gilded Age Politics created new political movements. By 1872, dissatisfaction with Grant’s administration emerged, even though major scandals had not yet been publicized or uncovered. Reformers formed the Liberal Republican Party, nominating Horace Greeley, who also gained support from the Democratic Party. Despite Greeley’s past criticism of Democrats in his newspaper, his calls for reconciliation between North and South pleased them. The campaign involved typical mudslinging, with Greeley labeled as an atheist, communist, and more, while Grant was accused of ignorance, drunkenness, and fraud. Despite this, Grant decisively defeated Greeley in both the electoral and popular votes. In 1872, the Republican-led Congress passed a general amnesty act, restoring political rights to all but about 500 former Confederate leaders.

Horace Greeley, Illustration, LOC
Horace Greeley. Image Source: Library of Congress.

4.1 — Formation of the Liberal Republican Party

  • By 1872, widespread discontent with Grantism, characterized by corruption and scandals, was growing across the nation.
  • Reform-minded citizens united to establish the Liberal Republican party, advocating for the removal of corrupt officials from the Washington administration and an end to military Reconstruction.

4.2 — The Missteps of the Liberal Republicans

  • The Liberal Republicans faltered in their efforts when they nominated the brilliant yet erratic Horace Greeley for the presidency at their Cincinnati convention.
  • Despite Greeley’s reputation as a fearless editor of the New York Tribune, his dogmatic, emotional, and unsound political judgments detracted from his candidacy.

4.3 — The Democrats’ Puzzling Endorsement of Greeley

  • Surprisingly, the Democrats, hungry for office, endorsed Greeley’s candidacy, despite his history of criticizing them harshly.
  • Greeley’s endorsement by the Democrats was likened to them “eating crow,” as he had previously vilified them as traitors and worse.
  • Greeley’s plea for reconciliation across the North-South divide resonated with Democrats, leading to their support despite his past criticisms.

4.4 — Election Dilemma

  • Both major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, renominated their respective candidates: Grant for the Republicans and Greeley for the Democrats.
  • The electorate faced a choice between two candidates whose careers had primarily been outside of politics, and who were deemed unqualified for high political office due to their temperament and lack of political experience.

4.5 — Mud-Spattered Campaign

  • In the contentious campaign, regular Republicans attacked Greeley with various accusations, labeling him as an atheist, communist, free-lover, vegetarian, brown-bread eater, and cosigner of Jefferson Davis’s bail bond.
  • Democrats criticized Grant, portraying him as an ignoramus, drunkard, and swindler.

4.6 — Election Outcome

  • Despite the mud-slinging, regular Republicans, chanting “Grant us another term,” secured victory for President Grant.
  • Grant won convincingly with 286 electoral votes to Greeley’s 66 and in the popular vote with 3,596,745 votes to 2,843,446.

4.7 — Impact of Liberal Republican Agitation

  • The agitation from the Liberal Republicans prompted the regular Republicans to address internal issues before facing potential expulsion from power.
  • In response, the Republican-led Congress passed a general amnesty act in 1872, removing political disabilities from most former Confederate leaders.
  • Congress also took steps to reduce high Civil War tariffs and initiated mild civil service reform to address corruption within the Grant administration.
  • Although the Liberal Republicans ultimately lost the election, their influence led to lasting changes, demonstrating the impact of third parties in American politics.

5. Depression, Deflation, and Inflation

Gilded Age Politics was affected by the economy. The Panic of 1873, caused by excessive railroad and factory development and banks’ over-lending, mirrored past economic downturns driven by speculation and easy credit. It started with the collapse of Jay Cooke & Company, led by Jay Cooke, a Civil War financier. During the panic, some advocated for mass printing of Greenbacks to induce inflation, but Grant vetoed this, supporting the Resumption Act of 1875, which committed to withdrawing Greenbacks and redeeming paper money in gold. Grant’s refusal to mint more silver dollars, alongside new silver discoveries, decreased silver prices despite debtor complaints. Grant’s stance on sound money, though criticized for governance, remained unchanged. Few exchanged greenbacks for gold on Redemption Day in 1879. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 mandated the Treasury to buy and coin silver bullion, but its impact on cheap money was minimal. Republican hard-money policies led to a Democratic House of Representatives in 1874 and the formation of the Greenback Labor Party in 1878.

5.1 — Economic Panic of 1873

  • The United States experienced an economic panic in 1873, characterized by a rapid and severe economic downturn.
  • This crash was a consequence of overextended capitalist expansion, marked by excessive railroad construction, mining operations, factory building, and agricultural expansion beyond existing market demands.
  • Bankers exacerbated the situation by issuing imprudent loans to finance these ventures, leading to widespread defaults and the collapse of the credit-based economy.

5.2 — Impact of the Panic

  • The economic downturn resulted in over fifteen thousand business bankruptcies, causing widespread financial distress.
  • In New York City, unemployed individuals engaged in riotous clashes with law enforcement as social tensions escalated.
  • Black Americans were particularly affected by the crisis, with the collapse of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company causing significant losses.
  • Black depositors, who had entrusted over $7 million to the bank, lost their savings, leading to setbacks in black economic development and a loss of confidence in savings institutions within the black community.

5.3 — Demand for Inflationary Policies

  • During times of economic hardship, debtors intensified their calls for inflationary measures to alleviate financial burdens.
  • Proponents of inflation revived the issue of greenbacks, which had been issued during the Civil War but depreciated due to mistrust and legal uncertainties.
  • By 1868, the Treasury had already withdrawn $100 million of greenbacks from circulation, with expectations for their complete removal.
  • Agrarian and debtor groups, known as “cheap-money” supporters, advocated for the re-issuance of greenbacks, believing that increased money supply would lead to lower interest rates, rising prices, and easier debt repayment.

5.4 — Debate Over Monetary Policy

  • Supporters of inflation believed that increasing the money supply would lead to cheaper money, rising prices, and easier debt repayment.
  • Conversely, creditors favored deflationary policies to protect the value of their loans and assets, preferring repayment in a stable or appreciating currency.
  • The conflict between cheap-money advocates and hard-money advocates centered on opposing views regarding the effects of monetary policy on debt repayment and economic stability.

5.5 — Victory for Hard-Money Advocates

  • The hard-money advocates, advocating for a stable currency and deflationary policies, achieved success in influencing government policy.
  • In 1874, they convinced President Grant to veto a bill aimed at increasing the issuance of paper money.
  • Another victory came with the Resumption Act of 1875, which committed the government to withdrawing greenbacks from circulation and redeeming all paper currency in gold at face value, starting in 1879.

5.6 — Debtor Relief through Silver Coinage

  • Debtors turned to silver as a potential solution to their financial woes, arguing that silver had been undervalued compared to gold.
  • In the early 1870s, the Treasury maintained an unrealistic exchange rate between silver and gold, causing silver miners to withhold their product from federal mints.
  • Congress responded by officially ending the coinage of silver dollars in 1873, exacerbating tensions between debtors and silver miners, particularly in Western states.

5.7 — Opposition to Silver Coinage

  • Hard-money Republicans resisted calls for increased silver coinage, viewing it as a scheme to promote inflation.
  • President Grant aligned with hard-money advocates, implementing policies to accumulate gold reserves and reduce the circulation of greenbacks, known as “contraction,” despite its deflationary impact.

5.8 — Effects of Contraction Policy

  • The contraction policy, aimed at restoring government credit and increasing the value of greenbacks, had a deflationary effect on the economy.
  • Between 1870 and 1880, the amount of money per capita in circulation decreased, contributing to economic challenges during the depression.
  • Despite criticism, the policy successfully restored the government’s credit rating and maintained the value of greenbacks until Redemption Day in 1879.

5.9 — Political Ramifications

  • The hard-money policy of the Republicans led to political consequences, including the election of a Democratic House of Representatives in 1874.
  • In 1878, it also gave rise to the Greenback Labor Party, which advocated for monetary reform and polled over a million votes, electing fourteen members of Congress.
  • The debate over monetary policy remained a significant political issue, indicating that the contest was far from over.

6. Pallid Politics in the Gilded Age

Gilded Age Politics was largely uninspiring. Mark Twain coined the term “The Gilded Age” to depict an era that appeared prosperous on the surface but concealed underlying problems. Corruption was rampant, and presidential elections were closely contested. While both Democrats and Republicans shared similar economic ideas, they had fundamental differences. Republicans traced their roots to Puritanism, while Democrats were more akin to Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Democrats held strong support in the South, while Republicans garnered votes from the North, West, and the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), comprising former Union veterans. In the 1870s and 1880s, Republican discord was fueled by rivals Roscoe Conkling (Stalwarts) and James G. Blaine (Half-Breeds), who engaged in bitter conflicts, causing deadlock within the Republican Party.

6.1 — Political Balance in the Gilded Age

  • The Gilded Age, sarcastically named by Mark Twain in 1873, was characterized by a delicate political balance following the Civil War.
  • Minor shifts could sway the advantage to the opposition party, leading to closely contested presidential elections and frequent changes in control of the House of Representatives.
  • Between 1869 and 1891, the majority party in the House switched six times, with only three sessions seeing unified control of the House, Senate, and White House.

6.2 — Lack of Significant Economic Differences

  • Despite the ferocious competition between Democrats and Republicans, few significant economic issues divided the major parties during the Gilded Age.
  • Both parties largely agreed on matters such as the tariff, civil-service reform, and currency, leading to rough agreement on national issues.
  • Despite their shared viewpoints, Democrats and Republicans remained fiercely competitive, with tightly organized structures and loyal members.

6.3 — High Voter Turnout and Party Loyalty

  • Voter turnout during the Gilded Age reached unprecedented levels, with nearly 80 percent of eligible voters participating in presidential elections.
  • Party loyalty was strong, with party faithful marching to polling places behind marching bands on election days.
  • “Ticket splitting,” or voting across party lines, was rare during this period.

6.4 — Explanation of Political Consensus and Partisan Fervor

  • The apparent paradox of political consensus and partisan fervor during the Gilded Age can be explained by sharp ethnic and cultural differences between the two major parties.
  • These differences encompassed distinctions in style, tone, and especially religious sentiment, shaping the values and beliefs of Republican and Democratic voters.

6.5 — Republican Values and Voter Base

  • Republican voters predominantly adhered to creeds rooted in Puritanism, emphasizing strict codes of personal morality and advocating for government intervention in both economic and moral affairs.
  • Their electoral base was concentrated in the Midwest and rural/small-town Northeast, with support from grateful freedmen in the South and members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a politically influential organization of Union veterans.

6.6 — Democratic Values and Voter Base

  • Democratic voters, including immigrant Lutherans and Roman Catholics, subscribed to faiths with a more tolerant view of human weakness and a belief in the acceptance of differences in an imperfect world.
  • They rejected the government’s imposition of a single moral standard on society.
  • The Democratic electoral base was found in the South, northern industrial cities with large immigrant populations, and regions controlled by well-organized political machines.

6.7 — Local Political Contests and Issues

  • These differences in temperament and religious values often led to contentious political battles at the local level, particularly concerning issues such as prohibition and education.
  • The clash between Republican and Democratic values played out in local elections, reflecting broader cultural and religious divides within American society.

6.8 — Patronage in Politics

  • Patronage, the practice of distributing jobs in exchange for votes, kickbacks, and party loyalty, was vital to both political parties during the Gilded Age.
  • This system led to intense internal conflicts and infighting, particularly within the Republican Party during the 1870s and 1880s.

6.9 — Stalwarts vs. Half-Breeds

  • The Republican Party experienced boisterous infighting over patronage, with factions divided on how to approach the practice.
  • The Stalwarts, led by Roscoe Conkling of New York, openly embraced patronage, engaging in the traditional practice of exchanging civil service jobs for votes.
  • Opposing the Stalwarts were the Half-Breeds, who were more open to civil-service reform but primarily quarreled with the Stalwarts over control of the patronage system.
  • James G. Blaine of Maine emerged as the champion of the Half-Breeds, known for his charming personality but also criticized for his lack of firm ethical principles.

6.10 — Impact of Factionalism

  • Despite their colorful personalities, Conkling and Blaine failed to resolve their differences, resulting in a stalemate within the Republican Party.
  • The factionalism and deadlock caused by the power struggle between the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds hindered the party’s ability to govern effectively and led to internal divisions.

7. The Hayes-Tilden Standoff, 1876

Gilded Age Politics led to a constitutional crisis during the Presidential Election of 1876. Grant nearly pursued a third term but the House of Representatives opposed the idea. Republicans then nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, dubbed the “Great Unknown” due to his mysterious background. Democrats selected Samuel Tilden. The election was tight, with Tilden securing 184 Electoral College votes out of the required 185. However, results in Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and part of Oregon were uncertain and contested, as these states submitted conflicting returns from both Democratic and Republican sources.

7.1 — Grant’s Potential Third Term

  • In 1876, supporters of Ulysses S. Grant urged him to seek a third term as president, despite concerns about his leadership.
  • Grant, oblivious to his shortcomings, showed a willingness to consider a third term.
  • However, the bipartisan House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected the idea with a vote of 233 to 18.

7.2 — Selection of Rutherford B. Hayes

  • With Grant out of contention and internal divisions within the Republican Party, a compromise candidate was sought.
  • Rutherford B. Hayes, known as “The Great Unknown,” emerged as the compromise candidate.
  • Hayes’s primary qualification was his governorship in Ohio, a crucial swing state in presidential elections due to its significant electoral influence.
Rutherford B Hayes, 19th President
President Rutherford B. Hayes. Image Source: Wikimedia.

7.3 — Importance of Ohio in Presidential Politics

  • Ohio’s pivotal role as a swing state in presidential elections led to its prominence in producing presidential candidates.
  • The state’s electoral significance was underscored by the saying, “Some are born great, Some achieve greatness, And some are born in Ohio,” reflecting its influence on national politics during the 1870s.

7.4 — Presidential Election of 1876

  • The presidential election of 1876 featured Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, and Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic nominee.
  • Tilden gained fame for his role in prosecuting Boss Tweed in New York and campaigned against the Republican scandal.
  • Tilden secured 184 electoral votes, just one short of the 185 needed to win, with 20 votes in four states, including three in the South, in dispute due to irregular returns.

7.5 — Disputed Electoral Votes

  • Both parties dispatched representatives to the contested southern states of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, where two sets of returns were submitted, one Democratic and one Republican.
  • The weeks passed with no resolution, leading to a dramatic constitutional crisis as paralysis gripped the nation.

7.6 — Constitutional Crisis

  • The Constitution specifies that electoral returns from states are sent to Congress and opened by the president of the Senate in the presence of both chambers.
  • However, the Constitution does not specify who should count the votes, leading to uncertainty over whether Republican or Democratic returns would be chosen.
  • The impasse raised questions about how to resolve the crisis and determine the rightful winner of the election.

8. The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction

Gilded Age Politics led to the end of Reconstruction in the South. The Electoral Count Act of 1877 established an electoral commission of 15 men from the Senate, House, and Supreme Court to resolve electoral disputes. However, the 15th member, David Davis, resigned at the last moment. In February 1877, the Senate and House convened to resolve the presidential dispute. Eventually, Hayes became president as part of the Compromise of 1877. The compromise granted concessions to both sides: for the North, Hayes agreed to remove troops from Louisiana and South Carolina and subsidize the Texas and Pacific rail lines. In the South, military rule and Reconstruction ended with the withdrawal of troops. The compromise effectively abandoned Blacks in the South by ending their protection. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, their last effort for protection, was largely deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1883 Civil Rights cases.

8.1 — The Compromise of 1877

  • The country faced a stark choice between clash or compromise as the March 4, 1877, Inauguration Day approached, with the possibility of having no president.
  • Democratic hotheads cried “Tilden or Blood!” and some prepared for conflict, but behind the scenes, statesmen worked to negotiate a resolution, reminiscent of Henry Clay’s tradition of compromise.
  • The compromise was ultimately reached through the Compromise of 1877.

8.2 — Electoral Count Act and Electoral Commission

  • The Electoral Count Act, passed by Congress in early 1877, established an electoral commission comprising fifteen members selected from the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court.

8.3 — Composition of the Electoral Commission, 1877

8 Republicans:

  • Senate (Republican majority): 3 members
  • House (Democratic majority): 2 members
  • Supreme Court: 3 members

7 Democrats:

  • Senate (Republican majority): 3 members
  • House (Democratic majority): 3 members
  • Supreme Court: 2 members

8.4 — Resolution Process and Democratic Reaction

  • In February 1877, the Senate and House convened jointly to settle the dispute just a month before Inauguration Day.
  • The electoral commission reviewed the disputed documents from the southern states, starting with Florida.
  • After prolonged discussion, the commission, consisting of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, voted along partisan lines to accept the Republican returns, sparking outrage among Democrats in Congress.
  • Outraged Democrats in Congress attempted to launch a filibuster in protest against the commission’s decision, vowing to continue until they perceived justice was served.

8.5 — Compromise of 1877 Resolves Deadlock

  • The Compromise of 1877, already partially negotiated behind closed doors, prevented renewed deadlock.
  • Democrats reluctantly agreed to allow Rutherford B. Hayes to take office in exchange for concessions from Republicans.

8.6 — Concessions Made

  • Hayes agreed to withdraw intimidating federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina, the two states where they remained.
  • Republicans promised Democrats access to presidential patronage and support for a bill subsidizing the construction of the Texas and Pacific Railroad’s southern transcontinental line.

8.7 — Outcome and Fulfillment of Promises

  • While not all promises were fulfilled in later years, including the subsidy for the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the compromise held long enough to resolve the dangerous electoral standoff.
  • The deal allowed Hayes to receive the remainder of the disputed returns, with a narrow partisan vote of 8 to 7, just three days before his official inauguration.

8.8 — Impact of the Compromise

  • The Compromise of 1877 brought temporary peace but came at a significant cost.
  • To avoid violence, the compromise sacrificed the rights and interests of black freedmen in the South.
  • The compromise marked the Republican Party’s quiet abandonment of its commitment to racial equality.
  • This commitment had already been waning, and the compromise solidified this shift.

8.9 — Civil Rights Act of 1875 and Its Legacy

8.10 — Withdrawal of Federal Troops from the South

  • Rutherford B. Hayes sealed the compromise by withdrawing the last federal troops that supported carpetbag governments in the South.
  • As the Federal troops departed, the Republican governments, which were often enforced through military force, collapsed.

9. The Birth of Jim Crow in the Post-Reconstruction South

Gilded Age Politics played a role in the establishment of Jim Crow Laws in the South. As Reconstruction ended and the military withdrew, white supremacy resurged. Voting restrictions like literacy tests, voter registration laws, and poll taxes targeted black voters. Many blacks became sharecroppers or tenant farmers. In 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision deemed “separate but equal” facilities constitutional, legalizing Jim Crow segregation.

9.1 — End of Reconstruction and Rise of “Redeemers”

  • Reconstruction officially ended as the Democratic South quickly consolidated power and suppressed black rights.
  • White Democrats, known as “Redeemers,” regained political control through fraud and intimidation and wielded it ruthlessly.
  • Blacks asserting their rights faced unemployment, eviction, and physical harm under the new regime.

9.2 — Sharecropping and Tenant Farming

  • Blacks and poor whites were forced into sharecropping and tenant farming arrangements.
  • Former slaves often became subject to their former masters, now landlords and creditors.
  • The “crop-lien” system perpetuated debt cycles, with farmers remaining in perpetual indebtedness to merchants.
  • Southern blacks endured generations of poverty under conditions scarcely better than slavery.

9.3 — Plessey v. Ferguson and “Separate but Equal”

  • Daily discrimination against blacks intensified with white southerners back in power.
  • Informal separation of blacks and whites evolved into systematic legal segregation known as Jim Crow laws by the 1890s.
  • Southern states implemented literacy requirements, voter registration laws, and poll taxes to disenfranchise the black population.
  • The Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), ruling “separate but equal” facilities constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause.

9.4 — Segregation and Discrimination

  • African Americans faced grotesque inequalities compared to whites, being segregated in inferior schools and separated from whites in all public facilities.
  • Blacks encountered daily reminders of their second-class citizenship, enduring segregation in railroad cars, theaters, restrooms, and other public spaces.
  • Southern whites enforced the racial code of conduct harshly, dealing severely with any black who challenged the status quo.

9.5 — Record Number of Lynchings

  • The 1890s saw a record number of lynchings of African Americans, simply because they were black. However, many whites were also lynched, often for supporting blacks.
  • Lynchings were often carried out as a response to perceived violations of the South’s racial hierarchy.
  • Lynchings occurred regularly in the United States from 1882 to 1970, with the worst years being 1892 and 1884.
  • In 1892, 161 blacks and 69 whites were lynched, totaling 230 incidents, making it the deadliest year for lynchings.
  • In 1884, 164 whites and 51 blacks were lynched, totaling 215 incidents, marking another severe year for lynchings.
  • The number of lynchings in each year varied, with fluctuations in the figures for both whites and blacks.
  • Lynching was a common form of racial violence and intimidation, disproportionately targeting African Americans throughout the Gilded Age.

9.6 — Need for Second Reconstruction

  • It would take nearly a century for the racist imbalance of Southern society to be addressed through a second Reconstruction

10. Class Conflicts and Ethnic Clashes

Gilded Age Politics contributed to conflicts between ethnic groups. In 1877, the presidents of the nation’s top four railroads cut wages by 10%, prompting a worker strike. President Hayes deployed troops to end the unrest, resulting in violence and over 100 fatalities. The failed strike increased racial tensions, notably especially between the Irish and Chinese communities. Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant in San Francisco, encouraged attacks on the Chinese population. In 1879, Congress passed a bill to restrict Chinese immigration, primarily comprising male laborers recruited for railroad work in California. However, Hayes vetoed the bill, citing violations of the existing treaty with China. Following Hayes’s presidency, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became law, prohibiting all Chinese immigration, marking the first immigration restriction in the United States.

Chinese Worker, Central Pacific Railroad
Photograph of a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific Railroad. Image Source: Stanford Libraries.

10.1 — Reconstruction and Labor Strife

  • The aftermath of the Civil War saw the end of regional warfare and the rise of class warfare, fueled by economic depression and deflation following the Panic of 1873.
  • Railroad workers, already facing tough economic conditions, were hit hard when the presidents of the nation’s four largest railroads collectively decided to reduce employees’ wages by 10% in 1877.

10.2 — The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

  • In response to the wage cuts, railroad workers initiated strikes across the country, known as the Great Railroad Strike. President Hayes’s decision to deploy federal troops to suppress the unrest escalated the conflict, garnering support from the working class.
  • The strikes led to violent clashes between workers and soldiers in cities like Baltimore and St. Louis, resulting in over one hundred deaths.
  • The failure of the railroad strike highlighted the divisions within the labor movement, exacerbated by racial and ethnic tensions. These divisions were particularly pronounced between Irish and Chinese workers in California.

10.3 — Chinese Immigration

  • By 1880, California had a significant Chinese immigrant population of around 75,000 thousand, constituting about 9% of the state’s total population.
  • Chinese immigrants, mostly impoverished single males from the Taishan District of Guangdong Province in southern China, initially came to the United States to work in the goldfields and build the transcontinental railroads.
  • With the decline of the gold industry and the completion of railroad construction, many Chinese immigrants returned to China with minimal savings.

10.4 — Challenges Faced by Chinese Immigrants

  • Chinese immigrants who remained in America after the completion of railroad construction encountered significant hardships. They were relegated to menial jobs such as cooks, laundrymen, or domestic servants.
  • Lacking familial support and community ties, Chinese immigrants lived isolated lives in a hostile environment where they faced discrimination and exclusion.
  • Unlike other immigrant communities whose children helped facilitate assimilation through exposure to the English language and American customs in schools, Chinese immigrants lacked this support system.
  • The phrase “not a Chinaman’s chance” emerged during this period to symbolize the overwhelming obstacles faced by Chinese immigrants in America.

10.5 — Denis Kearney Incites Violence Against the Chinese

  • In San Francisco, Denis Kearney, an Irish-born political leader, led violent attacks against Chinese immigrants, inciting his followers to abuse and terrorize them.
  • “Kearneyites,” resentful of competition from Chinese laborers, targeted them for violence and discrimination, viewing the Chinese immigrants as threats to their livelihoods.

10.6 — The Chinese Exclusion Act

  • Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited further immigration from China. This legislation remained in effect until 1943.
  • Some exclusionists sought to revoke the citizenship of native-born Chinese Americans. 
  • However, the Supreme Court affirmed birthright citizenship in the case of U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898, providing legal protection to Chinese Americans and other immigrant communities.
  • The doctrine of birthright citizenship, enshrined in the 14th Amendment, guaranteed citizenship to all individuals born in the United States, regardless of their parent’s nationality. This principle offered vital safeguards to Chinese Americans and other immigrant groups.

11. Garfield and Arthur

In 1880, Republicans nominated James A. Garfield, an Ohioan who rose to the rank of Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War. His running mate was Chester A. Arthur, a member of the Stalwart faction. Democrats selected Winfield S. Hancock, appealing to the South for his fair Reconstruction approach and Gettysburg service. Garfield narrowly won the popular vote (214 to 155 electoral votes). He was known for his kindness but struggled with saying “no.” Garfield appointed James G. Blaine as Secretary of State and opposed the Stalwart platform. Tragically, Garfield was assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau. Chester Arthur, unexpectedly, distanced himself from Stalwarts and advocated for reform, supporting the Pendleton Act of 1883. This act introduced civil service reform, ending financial assessments for jobholders and establishing a merit-based system. It also created a Civil Service Commission to oversee open competitive service. While the Pendleton Act reduced patronage in politics, it led to political alliances with business leaders.

11.1 — James A. Garfield, a “Dark Horse” Candidate

  • Before the 1880 presidential campaign, Rutherford B. Hayes, the incumbent president, was alienated from the Republican Party and not considered for re-election.
  • The Republican Party sought a new candidate for the 1880 election and ultimately chose James A. Garfield, a relatively unknown figure, as their nominee.
  • Garfield was selected as the “dark-horse” candidate from Ohio, a state with significant electoral influence.
  • Chester A. Arthur, a prominent Stalwart figure from New York, was nominated as Garfield’s vice-presidential running mate.
James Garfield, 20th President of the United States, Portrait
President James A. Garfield. Image Source: Wikimedia.

11.2 — 1880 Presidential Election

  • James A. Garfield won a narrow victory over the Democratic candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock, in the 1880 presidential election.
  • Despite polling only 39,213 more votes than Hancock, Garfield secured a comfortable lead in the electoral college, with 214 electoral votes compared to Hancock’s 155.

11.3 — Assassination of President James A. Garfield

  • Following his inauguration, President Garfield became embroiled in a political conflict between his secretary of state, James G. Blaine, and Senator Roscoe Conkling, a prominent Stalwart.
  • Tragedy struck when Garfield was shot in the back by Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally deranged office seeker, at a Washington railroad station.
  • Despite lingering in agony for eleven weeks, Garfield succumbed to his injuries on September 19, 1881.
  • Guiteau, who declared himself a Stalwart and proclaimed Arthur as the new president, was apprehended and later found guilty of murder.
  • Guiteau’s defense argued his insanity, but he was convicted and subsequently executed by hanging.

11.4 — Impact of Garfield’s Assassination on Political Reform

  • Garfield’s assassination catalyzed political reform efforts, particularly aimed at addressing the corrupt spoils system prevalent in American politics.
  • Chester Arthur, initially underestimated due to his background in cronyism and luxurious lifestyle, emerged as a key figure in spearheading reform efforts.

11.5 — The Pendleton Act of 1883

  • In response to public outrage over Garfield’s murder, the Republican Party embraced reform, leading to the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883.
  • Often referred to as the “Magna Carta of civil-service reform,” the Pendleton Act aimed to curtail corruption by prohibiting compulsory campaign contributions from federal employees and introducing competitive examinations for federal job appointments.

11.6 — Effects of Civil-Service Reform

  • While initially covering only a fraction of federal positions, civil service reform helped curb some of the most egregious forms of political patronage.
  • However, unintended consequences emerged, including a shift in political fundraising strategies. With access to lucrative federal posts restricted, politicians increasingly relied on contributions from big corporations.

11.7 — Legacy of President Arthur

  • President Arthur’s unexpected commitment to integrity and reform alienated powerful Republicans, leading to his eventual political downfall.
  • Despite his efforts to combat corruption, Arthur faced opposition within his party and was ultimately replaced.

12. The Blaine-Cleveland Mudslingers of 1884

Gilded Age Politics was marred by mudslinging. In 1884, James G. Blaine secured the Republican nomination, causing some reform-minded Republicans to defect to the Democratic Party, earning the nickname “Mugwumps.” Democrats selected Grover Cleveland as their candidate. However, Cleveland faced controversy over allegations of fathering an illegitimate child. The campaign witnessed intense mudslinging. New York’s vote proved crucial, and an ill-advised Republican insult toward the Irish population there led to New York swinging in favor of Cleveland, ultimately determining the election outcome.

12.1 — James G. Blaine’s Presidential Nomination

  • Blaine’s persistent pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination culminated in success in 1884, when he was chosen as the party’s candidate at the convention in Chicago.
  • Despite Blaine’s political prowess, his candidacy was marred by allegations of corruption, notably the exposure of the “Mulligan Letters,” which implicated him in a scandal involving favors for a southern railroad.

12.2 — The Rise of the Mugwumps

  • Reform-minded Republicans, disillusioned by Blaine’s candidacy and the corruption allegations, defected to the Democratic Party.
  • Dubbed “Mugwumps,” these Republicans were characterized as “holier-than-thou” individuals who refused to support Blaine’s tainted candidacy.

12.3 — Grover Cleveland’s Candidacy and Scandal

  • Democrats rallied around Grover Cleveland, a noted reformer known for his integrity and straightforwardness.
  • Despite his reputation as “Grover the Good,” Cleveland faced scrutiny when reports surfaced of his involvement in an affair with a Buffalo widow, resulting in an illegitimate child for whom he provided financial support.
  • Cleveland admitted to the allegations
  • Despite pressure to conceal the truth, Cleveland confessed, refusing to deceive the public and earning respect for his principled stance.

12.4 — Low Point of the 1884 Campaign

  • The 1884 presidential campaign reached a low point in American politics, characterized by mudslinging and personal attacks rather than substantive policy differences.
  • Both parties engaged in crude rhetoric and taunts, with Democrats chanting slogans and Republicans responding in kind, reflecting the lack of focus on issues.

12.5 — Blaine’s Fatal Mistake in New York

  • New York played a decisive role in the election, with Blaine’s campaign suffering a critical blow due to a derogatory remark made by a Republican clergyman.
  • The clergyman’s slur against Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” alienated Irish-American voters, contributing to Blaine’s loss in New York by a narrow margin.

12.6 — Cleveland Elected President

  • Cleveland secured the presidency with a slim electoral victory, winning 219 electoral votes to Blaine’s 182.
  • Despite losing the popular vote by a narrow margin, Cleveland’s electoral win, including a sweep of the solid South, secured his path to the White House.
Grover Cleveland, Portrait
President Grover Cleveland. Image Source: Wikimedia.

12.7 — Military Service of the Candidates

  • Neither Cleveland nor Blaine had served in the Civil War, a notable departure from previous presidential candidates during the period.
  • Cleveland had hired a substitute to serve in his place while he supported his family, while Blaine was the sole Republican candidate between 1868 and 1900 who had not been a Civil War officer.

13. “Old Grover” Takes Over

Grover Cleveland was the first Democrat President since James Buchanan. His support for laissez-faire capitalism pleased business owners and bankers. Cleveland appointed two former Confederates to his cabinet and initially aimed to follow the merit system, although he later yielded to party pressure, dismissing nearly two-thirds of federal employees. Military pensions posed challenges for Cleveland, as these funds, intended for Civil War veterans, were often misused. Nonetheless, Cleveland demonstrated his willingness to confront corrupt practices regarding military pensions by vetoing a bill aimed at expanding the pension list to include hundreds of thousands of new recipients.

13.1 — Grover Cleveland’s Presidency

  • Grover Cleveland assumed office in 1885 as the first Democrat to hold the presidency since James Buchanan 28 years earlier.
  • Cleveland’s physical stature, standing at 5 feet 11 inches and weighing 250 pounds, led to speculation about his ability to lead the nation effectively.

13.2 — Cleveland’s Principles and Policies

  • Cleveland adhered to orthodox principles, particularly advocating for laissez-faire economics, which pleased business interests.
  • His direct and outspoken manner, coupled with a profane hot temper, characterized his leadership style.

13.3 — Civil Service Reform and Patronage

  • Cleveland faced conflicting pressures regarding civil service reform, balancing the demands of Democratic supporters for patronage jobs with the expectations of reform-minded Mugwumps.
  • Initially supportive of merit-based appointments, Cleveland ultimately yielded to Democratic bosses’ demands and dismissed a significant number of federal employees to accommodate loyal Democrats.

13.4 — Challenges with Military Pensions

  • Cleveland encountered difficulties with military pensions, as the influential Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) lobbied for numerous pension bills benefiting veterans, including those with dubious claims.
  • Despite being a Democrat and a nonveteran, Cleveland diligently reviewed each bill, vetoing several hundred of them and providing detailed justifications to Congress for his actions.

14. Cleveland Battles for a Lower Tariff

By 1881, the Treasury amassed a $145 million surplus, largely from the collection of high tariffs. Calls for tariff reduction grew, although it was opposed by major industrialists. Initially indifferent, Cleveland gradually leaned towards tariff reduction. In late 1887, he openly urged Congress to consider lowering tariffs, leading to criticism from both political parties.

14.1 — Tariff Policy during Cleveland’s Presidency

  • During the Civil War, tariff rates were raised significantly to finance the war effort, leading to high levels of protection for American industry.
  • By 1881, the Treasury was accumulating a substantial surplus, reaching $145 million annually, primarily due to tariff revenue.
  • Congress faced two options to address the surplus: spending it on pensions and other projects to gain favor with interest groups or reducing tariffs, which industrialists strongly opposed.

14.2 — Cleveland’s Position on Tariffs

  • Grover Cleveland initially had little interest in the tariff but became convinced of the need for downward revision after studying the issue.
  • Lowering tariffs would benefit consumers by reducing prices and weaken monopolies by reducing protection.

14.3 — Cleveland’s Action on Tariffs

  • In late 1887, Cleveland boldly advocated for lower tariffs, aiming to eliminate the Treasury surplus and adhere to his belief in fiscal responsibility.
  • His blunt appeal sparked intense debate and division among Democrats and Republicans, setting the stage for the tariff to become a central issue in the upcoming 1888 presidential election.

14.4 — Presidential Nominees and the Tariff Issue

  • Democrats reluctantly nominated Grover Cleveland for president at their convention in St. Louis.
  • Republicans turned to Benjamin Harrison, whose grandfather was former President William Henry Harrison, as their presidential nominee.
  • The tariff emerged as the primary issue of the campaign, with both parties distributing around 10 million pamphlets on the subject.

14.5 — Republican Campaign Tactics

  • Republicans, alarmed by the prospect of a lowered tariff, raised a substantial war chest of $3 million, largely through alliances with big business.
  • This funding was used to engage in aggressive tactics, including voter manipulation such as bribing voters known as “repeaters” and “floaters.”
  • In critical states like Indiana, votes were openly purchased, with prices reaching as high as $20 per vote.

14.6 — Election Outcome

  • Benjamin Harrison won the presidency with 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168.
  • Despite Cleveland polling more popular votes, with 5,537,857 to Harrison’s 5,447,129, he became the first sitting president to lose reelection since Martin Van Buren in 1840.
  • The election outcome hinged on a narrow margin in New York, where a change of approximately 7,000 ballots could have reversed the result.
Benjamin Harrison, Portrait, 23rd President
President Benjamin Harrison. Image Source: Wikimedia.

16. The Billion-Dollar Congress

Gilded Age Politics led to massive spending by Congress. The new Speaker of the House, Thomas B. Reed, was an imposing leader. To address the issue of achieving a quorum in Congress, Reed started counting Democrats present who failed to respond during roll call. After three days of tumult, Reed emerged victorious, presiding over the 51st Congress, often referred to as the “Billion Dollar Congress” due to its approval of numerous costly projects.

16.1 — Political Tensions in the House

  • After Benjamin Harrison’s victory, Republicans anticipated the distribution of federal offices and the utilization of surpluses generated by high tariffs.
  • However, in the House of Representatives, Republicans held only a slim majority with three more votes than the required quorum of 163 members.
  • Democrats planned to obstruct House business by refusing to respond to roll calls, demanding roll calls to confirm quorum presence, and employing other delaying tactics.

16.2 — Entry of Thomas B. Reed

  • Thomas B. Reed of Maine, a towering figure standing at six feet three inches, assumed the role of Republican Speaker of the House.
  • Reed was renowned for his mastery of debate and his ability to wield sarcasm effectively.
  • He possessed a harsh nasal drawl and was skilled at delivering cutting remarks, such as his response to a congressman quoting Henry Clay about prioritizing being right over being president.

16.3 — Reed’s Leadership Style

  • Thomas B. Reed’s leadership style was characterized by his assertiveness and willingness to confront opponents.
  • His verbal acumen and quick wit intimidated adversaries, causing them to recoil from the force of his retorts.
  • Reed quickly asserted his dominance over the House, compelling even reluctant Democrats to comply with his directives.
  • He employed tactics such as counting absent Democrats as present, despite their objections, effectively bending the House to his will.
  • Reed’s forceful leadership earned him the nickname “Czar Reed.”

16.4 — The Billion-Dollar Congress

  • Under Reed’s leadership, the 51st Congress became known as the “Billion Dollar  Congress,” being the first in history to appropriate such a large sum of money.
  • This Congress allocated significant funds for pensions to Civil War veterans and increased government purchases of silver, reflecting its prioritization of veteran welfare and monetary policy.

16.5 — McKinley Tariff Act of 1890

  • To sustain government revenue and shield Republican industrialists from foreign competition, the Billion Dollar Congress passed the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890.
  • This legislation raised tariff rates to their highest peacetime levels ever, averaging 48.4 percent on dutiable goods.
  • The McKinley Tariff Act aimed to protect domestic industries by imposing high tariffs on imported goods, contributing to economic protectionism.
William McKinley, 1897, Portrait, Benziger
William McKinley. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

16.6 — Impact of the McKinley Tariff Act

  • Sponsored by William McKinley in the House, the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 intensified challenges for farmers.
  • Farmers faced increased financial strain as they were forced to purchase costly manufactured goods from protected American industries while selling their agricultural products in competitive, unprotected global markets.
  • This disparity in market conditions exacerbated rural discontent, leading to widespread dissatisfaction among farmers.

16.7 — Political Consequences in the Congressional Elections of 1890

  • The discontent stirred by the McKinley Tariff Act contributed to a significant shift in the political landscape.
  • In the congressional elections of 1890, the Republicans suffered a major setback, losing their majority and retaining only 88 seats compared to the Democrats’ 235.
  • William McKinley himself faced defeat in the elections.

16.8 — Inclusion of the Farmers’ Alliance

  • The 1890 Congress saw the emergence of the Farmers’ Alliance, a militant organization representing the interests of southern and western farmers.
  • Nine members of the Farmers’ Alliance were elected to Congress, signaling a growing influence of agrarian interests in national politics.
  • The presence of these alliance members foreshadowed increased political activism and advocacy for agricultural reforms in subsequent legislative sessions.

17. The Drumbeat of Discontent

Gilded Age Politics contributed to the rise of the Populist Movement. The Populist Party emerged in 1892, fueled by discontent among farmers. Their primary demand was for inflation through the free coinage of silver. Additionally, they advocated for a range of reforms, including a graduated income tax, government oversight of railroads and communication networks, direct election of U.S. senators, term limits, initiative and referendum processes, a shorter workday, and restrictions on immigration.

17.1 — Rise of the Populist Movement

  • The People’s Party, or “Populists,” emerged as a significant political force in 1892, representing the frustrations of farmers in the agricultural belts of the West and South.
  • Formed from the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populists convened in Omaha and adopted a bold platform denouncing governmental injustice.
  • The Populist platform included demands for inflation through the unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, government ownership of key industries like railroads and communication, and electoral reforms such as direct election of U.S. senators and a one-term limit on the presidency.
  • General James B. Weaver, an eloquent Greenbacker, was nominated as the Populist presidential candidate.

17.2 —The Populist Platform

  1. Free Silver — As part of the Free Silver Movement, the Populists supported Bimetallism and demanded the unlimited coinage of silver at a fixed ratio to gold, aiming to increase the money supply and alleviate the economic struggles faced by farmers and workers.
  2. Economic Reforms — They advocated for a graduated income tax to address income inequality, as well as government ownership of key industries such as railroads, telegraph, and telephone, viewing public ownership as a means to curb the power of monopolies and ensure fair treatment for all citizens.
  3. Political Reforms — The Populists called for the direct election of U.S. senators, aiming to reduce the influence of political corruption and special interests. They also proposed a one-term limit on the presidency to prevent the concentration of power and foster greater accountability.
  4. Direct Democracy — Seeking to empower citizens in the legislative process, the Populists endorsed the adoption of the initiative and referendum, allowing citizens to propose and enact laws directly.
  5. Labor Rights — They advocated for a shorter workday to improve working conditions and promote the well-being of laborers.
  6. Immigration Restriction — The Populists supported restrictions on immigration, reflecting concerns about labor competition and preserving opportunities for American workers.

17.3 — Nationwide Strikes and Worker-Farmer Coalition

  • In the summer of 1892, a wave of strikes erupted across the country, raising the possibility of a coalition between aggrieved workers and indebted farmers against the capitalist system.
  • At Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel plant, a strike by steelworkers protesting pay cuts led to a violent confrontation with armed Pinkerton detectives. Ten people were killed, and around sixty were wounded before troops intervened to break the strike and the union.
  • Similarly, federal troops suppressed a strike among silver miners in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene district, further escalating tensions between labor and capital.

17.4 — Populist Performance in the 1892 Election

  • The Populists achieved a notable performance in the 1892 presidential election.
  • They garnered 1,029,846 popular votes and secured 22 electoral votes for General Weaver.
  • This marked them as one of the few third parties in U.S. history to make an impact in the electoral arena.
  • However, they did not achieve an electoral majority.
  • Populist electoral support primarily came from six midwestern and western states, with four states (Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada) fully supporting the Populist candidate.

17.5 — Challenges in the South

  • Despite being a hotbed of agrarian discontent, the South was reluctant to embrace the Populist movement.
  • Racial tensions played a significant role in this reluctance, with white elites cynically exploiting historic racial antagonisms.
  • Populist leaders like Tom Watson attempted to reach out to the black community, recognizing the potential power of their votes.
  • However, conservative white elites in the South used tactics such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause to suppress African-American suffrage.
  • The near-total extinction of African-American suffrage in the South led to dire consequences for Southern blacks, including severe Jim Crow laws and increased intimidation tactics.

17.6 — Impact on the Populist Party and Tom Watson

  • Efforts to suppress the black vote had repercussions for the Populist Party.
  • Tom Watson, a prominent Populist leader, abandoned his appeals for interracial solidarity and eventually became a vocal racist.
  • After 1896, the Populist Party increasingly embraced racism and advocated for black disfranchisement.
  • This transformation represented a bitterly ironic outcome of the Populist campaign in the South.

18. Cleveland and the Depression of 1893

Gilded Age Politics created a debate over monetary policy in the United States. Grover Cleveland became president just as the Depression of 1893 started, the first of its kind in the modern industrial era. About 8,000 American businesses failed, and many railroads went bankrupt. Cleveland faced a deficit due to the Treasury issuing gold for notes under the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, draining gold reserves. He also underwent secret surgery aboard his yacht for a growth in his mouth. If he had died, it could have led to chaos. William Jennings Bryan pushed for “free silver,” angering Cleveland, who used executive power to silence Senate filibusters, alienating silver-supporting Democrats.

18.1 — Grover Cleveland’s Return to Office

  • Grover Cleveland returned to office in 1893, making him the only president ever reelected after a previous defeat.
  • Cleveland’s second term saw him unchanged, characterized as bull-necked and bull-headed, with added weight, polish, conservatism, and self-assertiveness.

18.2 — Economic Challenges

  • The nation faced significant economic challenges upon Cleveland’s return.
  • Debtors were in revolt, and workers were restless.
  • The country experienced the onset of the devastating depression of 1893, lasting approximately four years.
  • This economic downturn was the most severe of the nineteenth century.
  • Contributing factors to the depression included overbuilding, speculation, labor unrest, and ongoing agricultural depression.
  • Free-silver agitation further worsened American credit abroad.
  • Additionally, European banking houses exacerbated financial strain by calling in loans from the United States.

18.3 — Economic Distress

  • The economic distress during this period was widespread and severe.
  • Approximately eight thousand American businesses collapsed within six months.
  • Numerous railroad lines went into the hands of receivers.
  • Soup kitchens were established to feed the unemployed.
  • Gangs of hoboes, commonly known as “tramps,” wandered throughout the country.
  • Despite efforts by local charities, the federal government, adhering to a laissez-faire philosophy, saw no legitimate means to alleviate the suffering masses.

18.4 — Financial Challenges and Cleveland’s Response

  • Grover Cleveland, previously concerned with a surplus, now faced a deepening deficit.
  • The Treasury was compelled to issue legal tender notes for the silver bullion it purchased.
  • Owners of this paper currency could then exchange it for gold, and by law, the notes had to be reissued, perpetuating an “endless-chain” operation draining gold reserves.
  • The gold reserve in the Treasury dropped below $100 million, a level popularly considered the safe minimum to support approximately $350 million in outstanding paper money.
  • To address this issue, Cleveland sought to halt the depletion of gold reserves by orchestrating the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890.
  • He called Congress into an extra session in the summer of 1893 to pursue this objective.

18.5 — Cleveland’s Health Crisis and Political Turmoil

  • Grover Cleveland faced a health crisis as a malignant growth developed on the roof of his mouth.
  • The growth required surgical removal, which was conducted secretly on a private yacht to avoid public knowledge.
  • Had Cleveland died during the surgery, Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson, a proponent of soft-money policies, would have assumed the presidency, potentially deepening the political crisis.

18.6 — Debate over the Repeal of the Silver Act

  • In Congress, a heated debate ensued regarding the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
  • William Jennings Bryan, a young Democratic congressman from Nebraska, passionately championed the cause of free silver, captivating the galleries with his eloquence.
  • Supporters of silver adamantly opposed the repeal, leading to a filibuster in the Senate.
  • President Cleveland intervened using his job-granting power to break the filibuster, which alienated Democratic Silverites like Bryan and caused a disruption within the party.

18.7 — Consequences of the Repeal and Financial Measures

  • Despite the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, however, the depletion of gold from the Treasury only partially halted.
  • By February 1894, the gold reserve dwindled to a worrisome $41 million, placing the United States at risk of abandoning the gold standard.
  • To address the financial crisis, Cleveland floated two Treasury bond issues totaling over $100 million in 1894.
  • However, the “endless-chain” operations draining gold reserves continued, requiring further action.

18.8 — Desperate Measures and Financial Relief

  • In early 1895, Cleveland turned to J.P. Morgan, a prominent banker, and head of a Wall Street syndicate, for assistance.
  • After tense negotiations, Morgan and the bankers agreed to lend the government $65 million in gold.
  • While profit-driven, the bankers conceded by agreeing to obtain half of the gold from abroad and taking steps to preserve it in the Treasury.
  • This loan, though temporary, helped restore confidence in the nation’s finances amidst the ongoing economic turmoil.

19. Cleveland Breeds a Backlash

Gilded Age Politics led to a partnership between the government and business. Cleveland was criticized for turning to J.P. Morgan for help during the Depression. He was embarrassed by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff, which failed to lower tariffs due to excessive additions. Additionally, the Supreme Court rejected an income tax, fueling the perception that politicians served the wealthy.

19.1 — Backlash Against Morgan’s Errand Boy

  • The bond deal with Wall Street stirred controversy and condemnation, particularly from Silverites and debtors who saw Wall Street as a symbol of greed in American politics.
  • President Cleveland’s secretive negotiations with J.P. Morgan were criticized as a betrayal of national interests, leading to accusations of being “Morgan’s errand boy.”
  • Despite the backlash, Cleveland defended his actions, asserting that he had no shame or repentance regarding his involvement in the deal.

19.2 — The Wilson-Gorman Tariff

  • Cleveland faced additional embarrassment with the passage of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff in 1894.
  • Although Democrats had promised tariff reductions, the final bill, laden with special-interest protections, failed to significantly lower the high McKinley Tariff rates.
  • Cleveland reluctantly allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

19.3 — Setbacks for Democratic Political Fortunes

  • The series of setbacks, including the bond deal controversy and the compromised tariff legislation, dealt a blow to Democratic political fortunes.
  • The depression, coupled with these setbacks, led to a resounding defeat for Democrats in the congressional elections of 1894.
  • Republicans, buoyed by their landslide victory, eagerly anticipated the presidential race of 1896, reflecting a shift in political momentum away from the Democrats.

19.4 — Cleveland’s Ineffectiveness in Addressing Economic Crisis

  • Despite possessing gruff integrity and occasional courage, Cleveland failed to effectively manage the severe economic crisis of 1893.
  • Cleveland’s efforts were hindered by the constraints that constrained politicians of his era, limiting his ability to enact meaningful change.

19.5 — The Forgettable Presidents of the Gilded Age

  • Alongside other presidents of the Gilded Age, such as Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison, Cleveland is often labeled as one of the “forgettable presidents” due to their perceived lack of impactful leadership.
  • Gilded Age presidents, characterized by their bearded appearance and perceived blandness, left a limited imprint on the nation’s political history.
  • Issues such as the tariff, the money question (related to currency and banking), and labor rights remained unresolved during their tenures, contributing to their legacy as ineffective leaders.
  • The political vitality during the Gilded Age was primarily found in local settings and within Congress, where legislative action often overshadowed presidential initiatives.

These Presidents, in order, are:

  1. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)
  2. Rutherford B. Hayes (1887—1881)
  3. James A. Garfield (1881)
  4. Chester A. Arthur (1881—1885)
  5. Grover Cleveland (1885—1889)
  6. Benjamin Harrison (1889—1893)
  7. Grover Cleveland (1893—1897)
  8. William McKinley (1897—1901)

19.6 — Anticipation of Political Reform

  • Despite the shortcomings of Gilded Age presidents, the period witnessed growing discontent among down-and-out debtors and disgruntled workers.
  • The anticipation of political reform culminated in the momentous election of 1896, where efforts were made to address the systemic issues plaguing the nation’s political system.

Gilded Age Politics APUSH Resources

This outline is based on the 16th edition of The American Pageant and connects to Unit 5: 1844–1877 and Unit 6: 1865–1898 of the AP US History curriculum. We are working on guides for each of these APUSH Units. When they are completed, the links will be added here.

APUSH Chapter Notes and Outlines

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Gilded Age Politics
  • Date 1868–1896
  • Author
  • Keywords Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age, Gilded Age Politics, Forgettable Presidents, Election of 1868, Election of 1872, Election of 1876, Compromise of 1877, Billion Dollar Congress
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 19, 2024