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Chapter 23 - Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age 1869-1896


Major Themes

  • Political life in the Gilded Age was marked by ineptitude, stalemate, and corruption. Despite similarity at the national level, the two parties competed fiercely for offices and spoils, while doling out “pork-barrel” benefits to veterans and other special interest groups.
  • The serious issues of monetary and agrarian reform, labor, race, and economic fairness were largely swept under the rug by the political system, until revolting farmers and a major economic depression in 1893 created a growing sense of crisis and demands for radical change,

Major Questions

  • What conditions seemed to promote the ineptitude, stalemate and corruption that seemed so prevalent in politics in the Gilded Age? Civil-service reform, tariffs, currency, divisions within the separate political parties, and the tendencies for people to hop to a different party when they didn't like their own.


Coming out of the Reconstruction period, characterize each of the two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Reflect on the philosophy of each party regarding government, economics and finance, civil rights, constituencies, issues of concerns, etc,

TARIFF High rates Low rates
GOV'T ACTION Intervention (where necessary) States rights; limited activity
GOV'T SPENDING High spending Low spending
CURRENCY Mixed- pro-gold, deflation Mixed- pro-silver, inflation
REFORM Mixed- support reform Mixed- anti-reform

The "Bloody Shirt" Elects Grant

  • The People did not want a professional politician as President during Reconstruction. They felt that a good general would make a good president. General Grant was the most popular Northern hero to emerge from the war. He was a greenhorn in the political arena. His one presidential vote had been cast for the Democratic ticket in 1856. The Republicans nominated Grant for the presidency in 1868. Their platform called for continued Reconstruction of the South, under the North. Republicans gained popularity for Grant by "waving the bloody shirt"; reviving gory memories of the Civil War.


The Era of Good Stealings

  • Post-Civil War, the majority of businesspeople and government officials continued to do their jobs with decency and honor, but the whole postwar atmosphere was fetid. People went as far as to say that the Man on the Moon had to hold his nose when passing over America. Free wheeling railroad promoters scammed investors. Many people scammed the stock-market with price manipulation. Judges and legislators put their powers up for higher.
  • Notorious in this new financial world was a pair of partners, "Jubilee Jin" Fisk, the brass, and Jay Gould, the brains. They convinced Grant through his stepbrother not to sell gold through the Treasury, then raised the price themselves by buying out all available gold. Contrary to his promises, Grant had the Treasury sell gold.
  • Another example was Burly "Boss" Tweed who scammed New York City citizens out of as much as 200million. He was stopped when the New York Times secured damning evidence in 1871.

Depression, Deflation, and Inflation

  • Crash in 1873:promoters had laid more railroad track, sunk more mines, erected more factories, and sowed more grainfields than existing markets could bear--bankers made toom many imprudent loans to finance these enterprises--profits failed to materialize and loans went unpaid, causing credit based house of cards to fall
  • more than fifteen thousand businesses went bankrupt
  • black americans hard hit:Freedman's Savings and Trust Company made unsecured loans to companies that went under
  • "folding money" issued during the war depreciated b/c of popular mistrust and legality
  • by 1868, treasury had already withdrawn $100 million of the "battle-born currency" from circulation: "hard money" people excited for total disappearance, "cheap money"(debtor groups) wanted a reissuance of the greenbacks-->more money=cheaper money=rising prices and easier to pay debts
  • creditors want deflation, debtors want inflation
  • "hard money" advocates get Grant to veto a bill to print more paper money in 1874 and Resumption Act of 1875(pledged gov't to further withdrawl of greenbacks from circulation and redemption of all paper currency in gold at face value)
  • debtors looked for relief in silver, wanted coinage of more silver
  • Hard money Republicans pushed "contraction":treasury began to accumulate gold stocks agains tthe appointed day for resumption of metallic-money payments coupled with reduction of greenbacks-->deflationary effect:amount of money per capita decreased(1870-1880--$19.42-$19.37)
  • contraction worsened the impact of depression, but did restore the gov'ts credit rating and brought embattled greenbacks up to full face value
  • republican hard-money policy helped elect a democratic HofR in 1874 and spawned Greenback Labor Party in 1878

Pallid Politics in the Gilded Age

  • political seesaw delicately balanced--every presidential election was close and majority party in HofR switiched 6 times in 11 sessions between 1869 and 1891-->only 3 sessions had the same party controlling the house, senate, and white house
  • democrats and republicans saw nearly eye to eye on questions like tariff and civil-service reform, and currency---however, quite competitive, tightly organized and commanded fierce loyalty from members
  • nearly 80 of eligible voters cast their ballots in pres. elections, and "ticket splitting"(failing to vote the straight party line) was rare
  • republican voters tended to adhere to creeds that traced their lineage to Puritanism, stressed strict codes of personal morality & believed gov't should play a role in regulating economic and moral affairs of society
  • democrats, mostly immigrant lutherans and roman catholics, more likely to adhere to faiths that took a less stern view of human weakness, professed toleration of differences in an imperfect world, spurned gov't efforts to impose a single moral standard on entire society
  • differences produced raucous political contests at local level, issues like prohibition and education loomed large
  • democrats had solid electoral base in south and in northern industrial cities, republicans had strength in midwest and rural northeast and got votes from grateful freedmen in the south and members of the Grand Army of the Republic
  • both parties disbursed jobs in return for votes, kickbacks, and party service
  • fighting within republican party in 1870s&1880s:"Stalwart" faction led by Roscoe Conkling embraced system of swapping civil-service jobs for votes, opposed to Conklingites were the Half-Breeds(led by James G. Blaine) who wanted civil service reform--stalemate

The Hayes-Tilden Standoff, 1876

  • Grant runs for 3rd termin 1876, but Housed derailed bandwagon-->two-term tradition
  • Republicans turn to Rutherford B. Hayes("The Great Unknown")
  • Democrats turn to Samuel J. Tilden

The Birth of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction South

  • White democrats resume political power in South & exercised it ruthlessly-->blacks who tried to assert their rights faced unemployment, eviction, and physical harm
  • Blacks and poor whites forced into sharecropping and tenant farming
  • "crop-lien" system: storekeepers extended credit to small farmers for food and supplies and in return took a lien on their harvests
  • Merchants manipulated the system so farmers remained in debt

The Blaine-Cleveland Mudslingers of 1884

  • James G. Blaines persistence finally paid off in 1884. He was a politician from Maine blessed with almost everything except a reputation for honesty. He was the clear choice of the Republican Convention in Chicago. Reform-minded Republicans found evidence against Blaine in the "Mulligan letters" connecting him to a corrupt deal involving federal favors to a southern railroad. Some reformers, unable to swallow this, joined the Democrats. They were referred to sneeringly as Mugwumps.
  • Democrats turned towards Grover Cleveland, who was a solid but not brilliant lawyer of 47. He had gone from the mayor's office in Buffalo to the governorship of New York and the presidential nomination in three short years. Republicans digging for some dirt against Cleveland found that he had been involved in an affair with a Buffalo widow. She had an illegitimate son who was then 8, that Grover had made financial provision for, implying that it was his. Democratic elders hurried to Cleveland with this news and tried to get him to lie like a gentleman, but he told the truth.
  • Few fundamental differences separated the parties in 1884. Cleveland swept the South and squeaked into office with 219 to 192 electoral votes and 4,879,507 to 4,850,930 popular votes.

Cleveland Battles for a Lower Tariff

  • during Civil War tariff schedules jacked up to raise revenues for military, american industry profited from this protection
  • but high duties continued to pile up revenue at customshouses, by 1881 treasury was running an annual surplus of $145 million
  • congress could reduce surplus in 2 ways: 1)squander it on pensions and "pork-barrel" bills, &thus curry favor with veterans and other self-seeking groups.2)lower the tariff(big industrialists opposed
  • Grover Cleveland-interested, lower barriers=lower prices for consumers and less protection for monopolies, end to treasury surplus
  • tossed an appeal for lower tariffs into lap of congress in late 1887, divided the 2 parties as 1888 presidential election loomed
  • democrats=Cleveland, republicans=benjamin harrison-->tariff=main issue
  • republicans raised a war chest of some $3million out of nervous industrialists, money used to line up corrupt "voting cattle", or "repeaters" and"floaters"
  • Harrison nosed out Cleveland:233 to 168 electoral votes, cleveland polled more popular votes(5,537,857 to 5,447,129)
  • Cleveland became 1st sitting president to be voted out of his chair since Martin Van Buren in 1840

The Billion Dollar Congress

  • Republicans under Harrison were excited for federal offices but in HofR, they had only 3 more votes than necessary
  • Democrats preparing to obstruct all House business by refusing to answer roll calls, demanding roll calls to determine the presence of a quorum, and employing other delaying tactics
  • New Republican Speaker of the House, Thomas B. Reed-->intimidating
  • 1st Congress in history to appropriate a billion dollars

Cleveland and Depression

  • With the Populists divided and the Republicans discredited, Cleveland took office again in 1893, becoming the only president ever reelected after defeat. He was the same old man, with just a little more polish. Cleveland had just seated himself in the chair when the depression of 1893 burst. Lasting for about four years, it was the most punishing economic downturn of the 19th century. The causes were the splurge of overbuilding and speculation, labor disorders, and the ongoing agricultural depression. The pinch on finances began when European banking houses began to call in loans from the United States.
  • About 8,000 businesses collapsed in six months. Soup kitchens fed the unemployed, while gangs of hobos wandered around. The Federal government, bound by the let-nature-take-its-course philosophy, saw no legitimate way to relieve the suffering masses.
  • Cleveland summoned Congress into extra session in the summer of 1893 to try and repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1840 to try and stop the Federal Treasury from being bled dry. This act was eventually repealed.
  • Another complication was occurring behind Americans backs. Cleveland had a malignant growth on the top of his mouth. He had to removed by a surgeon on his private yacht, to keep it secret. In 1894 the gold reserve sank to $41 million. The United States was in grave danger of going off of the gold standard. Early in 1895 Cleveland turned to J. P. Morgan for help. The bankers agreed to lend the government $65 million in gold.
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