Politics in the Gilded Age


I.  Ulysses S. Grant as president
    A.  Presidential election of 1868
 Ulysses S. Grant the Republican nominee
  Continued military Reconstruction
  Ulysses S. Grant supporters during campaign began "waving the bloody shirt" -- reviving gory

                    memories of the Civil War
          2.  Democrats nominated Horatio Seymore who denounced Military Reconstruction.
          3. Ulysses S. Grant defeated Seymore 214 to 80 electoral votes but only by 300,000 in popular vote.
    B.  President Grant presided over an era of unprecedented growth and corruption.
         1. President Grant was considered one of worst presidents in U.S. history with much corruption in his

         2. Black Friday – Gold Market scandal

             a.  Jim Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner gold market in 1869.
             b.  Persuaded President Grant to make the federal Treasury refrain from selling gold.
             c.  Fisk and Gould then bid price of gold upward.
             d.  Treasury finally released gold which caused the price of gold to plummet  ("Panic of 1869"), but

                  Fisk and Gould had already sold their gold and made a huge profit.
             e.  Congressional probe found that President Grant did nothing illegal but acted recklessly.
        3.  Tweed Ring in New York City (William Marcy Tweed - mayor)
             a.  “Boss” Tweed used bribery, graft, and fraudulent elections to gain perhaps $200 million at the

                  expense of New York City – headed notorious Tammany Hall political machine.

                  -- Tammany Hall was the headquarters of the Democrats in New York City.
             b.  New York Times exposed him in 1871
                  i.  Tweed opponents informed the paper about Tweed’s illegal practices, which brought charges and

                      a trial.  Tweed was found guilty.
        4.  Credit Mobilier scandal
              a.  Railroad construction company formed by insiders of Union Pacific Railway
 b.  Hired themselves to build the railroad and paid themselves huge fees.
                   i.  Paid dividends of 348% in one year
                   ii.  Distributed shares of stock to congressmen to avoid interference.  This type of bribery is called

             c.  New York newspaper exposed scandal in 1872 and charges confirmed by subsequent Congressional

                  investigation that censured 2 members of Congress and the Vice President.
                   -- President Grant’s reputation tarnished.

            d.  The two Congressmen and the Vice President were given reprimands
       5.  Whiskey Ring scandal
 1875, public discovered Whiskey Ring had robbed millions in excise-tax revenues.
                 -- President Grant: "Let no man escape prosecution"
            b.  Yet, one of President Grant’s own cabinet members and his private secretary were part of the scam.
            c.  President Grant persuaded the jury not to convict.
       6.  Secretary of War William Belknap pocketed $24,000 for selling the privilege of disbursing supplies to

            Indians; supplies often were worthless.
            a.  House of Representatives voted to impeach him and he resigned the same day.
            b.  President Grant accepted resignation "with great regret."
  C.  Election of 1872
       1.  Liberal Republican party formed in response to President Grant’s corrupt presidency.
            a.  Slogan: "Turn the rascals out"
            b.  The Liberal Republicans Horace Greeley nominated for president.
      2.  Democratic party endorsed Greeley who had earlier bashed them as he seemed to be the strongest

           candidate available; no Democrats willing to run against President Grant.
      3.  President Grant defeated Greeley 286-66 electoral votes and by almost 800,000 popular votes.
      4.  Liberal Republican influence forced the Republican Party to reform itself.


II.  Panic of 1873/1874
      A.  Greenback Issue
 1874, to stimulate economic growth Democrats sought inflation by printing more  

                      Greenbacks/paper money into circulation.
                 b.  Paper money didn’t catch on, people wanted coin money.

                 c.  This worsened the economy.
     B.  Debtors push for silver
           1.  People who were in debt sought to increase money supply, making it easier to pay debts.
           2.  These debtors wanted the Treasury department to make a large amount of silver coins to be released

                in society.  Silver is cheaper than gold, so more coins could be made.
           3.  Instead the Treasury  Department and Congress stopped coinage of silver dollars in 1873.
           4.  The silver values declined which further hurt the economy.


III.  Politics in the Gilded Age
       -- Term coined sarcastically by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in the literary work The Gilded

          Age (1873)
      A.  The authors stated that this was an era of the "forgettable presidents": Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and

            Harrison; Cleveland the only exception – did little of enduring value to the nation
      B.  Social issues more pronounced in party differences
            1.  Republicans:
                 a.  Heavy support from businessmen
                 b.  Support from the Midwest and small and rural towns in New England
                 c.  Heavy support from African Americans, not after 1877 though.
                 d.  Emphasized identify-of-interest argument: people should accept their place in society because the

                      wealthy know what’s best for the country
            2.  Democrats consisted of
                 a.  Religions stressed less stern views of human weaknesses
                 b.  Views opposed government efforts to impose single moral standard on whole society.
                 c.  Support came from the Solid South and large industrial cities where immigrants factored in

                      significantly under political machines.  Many immigrant Lutherans and Catholics, especially Irish

                     African American support after 1877.
                 d.  Emphasized economic equity
      C.  Patronage and bribery dominated politics
            1.  Definition: Giving away many government offices for votes and kickbacks.
            2.  Reformers targeted the spoils system as being inefficient and a breeding corruption.

                 a.  spoils system:  giving jobs for political supporters.
       D.  Republican Party divisions
            1.  "Stalwarts" headed by Roscoe Conkling, U.S. Senator who favored spoils system.
            2.  "Half-Breeds" led by James G. Blaine, Congressman who favored civil service reform.
            3.  "Mugwumps"
 Composed of young liberal reformers
 Favored Reconstruction policies to help African Americans

            4.  Infighting 1870s and 80s resulted in a split in philosophy of the Republican Party.


IV.  Election of 1880, Garfield and Arthur
      A.  Republican James Garfield defeated Democrat Winfield Hancock (both were Civil War officers)

            electoral votes to 155

            1.  While campaigning, Garfield waved the  bloody shirt.”
      B.  Garfield became the second president to be assassinated (July 2, 1881) by a political office seeker who

            did not benefit from the spoils system.  Charles J. Guiteau assassinated President Garfield; "I am a

            Stalwart.  Arthur is now the president."
      C.  President Garfield seen as a martyr in a corrupt civil service system—spurred public demand for reform
      D.  Pendleton Act of 1883
 Prohibited hiring office holders based on wealth.
                 b.  Merit system for making appointments
                 c.  Set up Civil Service Commission charged with administering open competitive examinations to

                      applicants for posts in classified office.
            2.  Problem: Federal support from powerful office-seekers was significantly reduced thus forcing

                 politicians to look increasingly to corporations for campaign financing.


V.  Election of 1884
      A.  James G. Blaine became the Republican nominee
            1.  Many Republicans believed Blaine was corrupt
            2.  Some Republicans left for the Democratic Party
      B.  Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, ex-mayor of Buffalo and ex-governor of New York
            1.  Seen by many as a reformer who stood firm against the railroads in New York.
            2.  Platform included more honesty and efficiency in government.
      C.  Campaign
            1.  Republicans publicized Cleveland’s claimed of having an illegitimate child 8-years prior to the

            2.  In New York, a Republican clergyman damned the Democrats as the party of  "Rum, Romanism,

                 and Rebellion" – thus insulting New York’s Irish community
                 a.  Blaine failed to renounce the statement
                 b.  Shortened phrase "RRR" stuck and ultimately cost Blaine crucial New York
      D.  Election results
            1.  Cleveland won 219-182 electoral votes and by about 40,000 popular votes.
            2.  The desertion of Republicans to the Democratic Party and the New York incident contributed to

                 Cleveland’s victory.
            3.  First Democratic president since James Buchanan 28-years earlier.


VI.  Cleveland’s presidency
       A.  Staunch believer in laissez faire: government should leave the free market alone.
       B.  IMilitary pensions
            1.  By 1880, military pensions for Civil War veterans were being abused through loopholes that

                 allowed able-bodied veterans to file fraudulent claims.
            2.  President Cleveland courageously vetoed several hundred thousand new pensioners.
      C.  Tariffs became the major issue separating the two parties in the 1880s.
            1.  Republicans favored a high tariff; Democrats hated it.
                  -- Republicans (especially William McKinley) argued that it stimulated American industry and

                      enriched all Americans; labor sort of supported this.
            2.  President Cleveland sought lower tariffs
                 a.  Believed lower tariffs equaled lower prices for consumers and less protection for monopolies.
                 b.  Would also end embarrassing treasury surplus.
                 c.  In 1887 annual address to Congress, President Cleveland spent entire speech appealing for

                      lower tariffs.
                 d.  The tariff hurt President Cleveland’s re-election in 1888.

VII.  Election of 1888
          A.  Democrats reluctantly re-nominated President Cleveland.
          B.  Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison (grandson of President William H. Harrison)
          C.  Harrison defeated President Cleveland 233-168 electoral votes  (although Cleveland had more popular


VIII.  President Benjamin Harrison’s term of office.

          A.  President Harrison’s domestic plan

    1.  The Pension Act of 1890

         a.  This plan gave pensions to all Union Civil War veterans who had served at least 90 days in the


                     b.  Thus, from 1891 to 1895, the bill for pensions rose from $81 million to $135 million.

          B.  The Sherman Anti-Trust Act

                1.   Passed in 1890, this act ended monopolies, but it was a weak law.  Corporations found ways

                      around the law.

          C.  The McKinley Tariff Bill of 1890

                1.  This tariff boosted rates up to 48.4%—the highest level yet.

  a.  The farmers lost the most from this tariff.


IX.  The Populist Challenge of 1892

        A.  Election of 1892

1.  In 1892, the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland while Republicans went with the unpopular

     President Harrison, but a new third party: the People’s Party (aka Populist Party) made the election


a.     Populist Party:  They demanded free and unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax,

     and government ownership of the telephone, telegraph, and railroads—all to combat injustice.

                   b.  They also wanted direct elections of U.S. Senators, a one-term limit on the presidency, and the

                        use of the initiative and referendum to allow citizens to propose and review legislation.


X.   Grover Cleveland again as President

A.    Depression of 1893

1.  Grover Cleveland (Democrat) won the election of 1892, but no sooner than he had stepped into the

     presidency did the Depression of 1893 break out; it was the first such panic in the new urban and

     industrial age, and it caused much outrage and hardships.

              2.  About 8000 American businesses collapsed in six months, and dozens of railroad lines went


              3.  Meanwhile, Grover Cleveland had developed a malignant growth under the roof of his mouth,

                   and it had to be secretly removed in a surgery that took place aboard his private yacht; had he died,

                   Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson, a “soft money” (paper money) man, would have caused massive

                   chaos with inflation.

        B.  Gold Shortages and Job Shortages

              1.  President Cleveland stopped the release of silver coins and threatened to remove all gold coins to

                   help the economy.  Instead this sank the United States into financial turmoil.

              2.  As a result of the now troubled economy, unemployed rose.

                   a.  General” Jacob S. Coxey led his his “Commonweal Army” or “Coxey’s Army” of supproters

                        marched to Washington D.C. demanding more jobs. 

b.    Upon reaching Washington D.C, Coxey and his supporters were arrested for walking on the

White House grass, while the other people were arrested for disorder and pillage of businesses.


XI.  Change in leadership, again

       A.  Election of 1896

            1.  Republican candidate

                 a.  The Republican candidate for the presidency in 1896 was William McKinley, a respectable and

                      friendly former Civil War major who had served many years in Congress representing his native


                 b.  McKinley was a conservative in business, preferring to leaves things alone, and his platform was

                      for the gold standard.

                      i.  His platform also called for a gold-silver bimetallism.

            2.  Democratic candidate

                 a.  The Democrats were in disarray, unable to come up with a candidate, until William Jennings

                      Bryan, the “Boy Orator of the Platte,” came to their rescue.

                 b.  At the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Bryan delivered a movingly passionate speech in

                      favor of free silver, and his Cross of Gold Speech created a sensation and got him nominated to be


                      i.  The Democratic ticket called for unlimited coinage of silver with the ratio of 16 silver ounces

                          worth as much as one ounce of gold.

                      ii.  Some Democrats who did not approve of this left their party.

             3.  Election results

                  a.  McKinley won decisively, getting 271 electoral votes, where Bryan received 176 electoral votes.


XII.  William McKinley becomes president

        A.  Fixing the economy

1.  When McKinley took office in 1897, he was calm, worked well with his party and avoiding major


              2.  The Dingley Tariff raised more revenue (money), raising the tariff level to 46.5 percent and

                   protecting American businesses and jobs.

              3.  Prosperity was returning due to the Dingley Tariff, and gold was discovered in Alaska, thus

                   stimulating the economy.