Politics in the Gilded Age

The term "Gilded age" comes from a novel written jointly by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner about a character who was always scheming to profit from political favors. It has been used to describe a time in American politics when there were, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, "No leaders, no principles, and no parties." The people who ran things were the big Captains of industry who had the money to buy all the influence they needed.

Politics was largely muddled, with no clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans (except on the Tariff issue).

People remembered what had happened in 1860, and didnít want to see it happen again.

The political parties were fairly evenly divided.

Between 1872 Ė 1896, no President won a majority of the popular vote. In at least one election, Benjamin Harrison won in 1888 simply because he carried some of the larger states with more electoral votes.

All the Presidents between Lincoln (1865) and Theodore Roosevelt (1900) were considered weak. Congress was primarily responsible for formulating policy. The President was simply an administrator performing the will of Congress. At the same time, no new legislation could get past Congress, as the parties were equally divided, and could not agree on important issues.

As a result, obscure candidates were normally chosen to run for President, and Vice Presidential candidates chosen simply because they could help carry a given state. Also, big business had a substantial control of politics. Congressmen routinely received stock, railroad passes, retainers, etc. from big business, and it was considered business as usual.

The two parties had substantial differences:

Republicans: Tended to be heirs to the Whigs. They were mainly Protestants of British descent. They also were heirs to the abolitionist tradition, and as a result drew in reformers, moralists, etc. Some were anti-Catholic nativists, and relied on the votes of Civil war veterans and blacks.

Democrats: Mostly outsiders, mix of different groups. They included southern whites, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, people who were opposed to the moral righteousness of the moralists. They were the party of "personal liberty."

One guy said a Republican is a guy who wants you to go to church every Sunday; a Democrat says if you want a beer on Sunday, you can have it.

The revival of prohibition helped draw party lines. Several groups, the Prohibition Party; the Womenís Christian Temperance Union, and the Anti-Saloon League all opposed alcohol. They were primarily Republican; as a result, the immigrants, hard drinking Irish, Germans, Italians, etc. became Democrats.

Civil Service Reform: Rutherford B. Hayes elected in 1876, took office in 1877. He was pretty much a straight arrow, had been wounded four times in the Civil War, and had been promoted to Major General. He was often called "old Granny" by people who made fun of his strict moralist views; his wife, who refused to allow alcohol to be served at White House functions, was known as "Lemonade Lucy." However, he suffered from the circumstances of his election. His critics called him "the de facto President; " "His Fraudulency," and "old Rutherfraud."

Republican party was split between two groups:

Stalwarts Supporters of Grant, a Radical southern policy, and the spoils system. They were led by Roscoe Conkling, Senator from N.Y.

Halfbreeds: supported Civil service reform, moderate southern policy. They were led by James G. Blaine, Senator from Maine.

Both men were Republicans, but both hated each other. Blaine once said Conkling walked like "a majestic, supereminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut. Each was trying to advance his own program, not that of his party, or his partyís position.

Hayes attempted to correct the abuses, corruption of the Grant Administration. He supported reform of the system by which Government officials were chosen. He could not get enough support in Congress to pass them, but did make small changes.

In one instance, Hayes had a number of New York Customs officials removed from office for corruption, and taking bribes. One of those removed was Chester A. Arthur. When Hayes named replacements, the nominees were rejected through "courtesy of the Senate," whereby Senators control appointments in their own states.

Hayes had said early on he would not run for a second term. In the election of 1880, the Stalwart Republicans wanted to run Grant. The convention was deadlocked, as the halfbreeds would not support him. Finally, on the 35th Ballot, votes were switched to James A Garfield, who was nominated as a "dark horse" candidate. Chester A. Arthur, the fired customs official, was nominated for Vice President.

Democrats nominated a Union Commander from Gettysburg, Winfield Scott Hancock. They did this to avoid "bloody shirt" attacks. The election was dirty and bribery was widespread; but Garfield won by a slim margin. He carried only 48.5% of the popular vote.

July 2, 1881, Garfield was leaving Washington for a vacation in New England when he was shot in the back by a crazed office seeker who had been denied a government job. His name was Charles Giteau. When he shot him, Giteau said, "I am a Stalwart, and Arthur is now President of the United States." His statement doomed the cause of the Stalwarts, as no one wanted to be associated with them. Giteau had a cab waiting for him, and had the cab take him to the Baltimore Police Station. He was later tried and executed for murder.

Garfield lived for two months after the shooting. He was very ill from his wound the entire time. Part of the problem is that his doctors used a metal detector invented by Alexander Graham Bell to try to find the bullet. It never occurred to them that the Metal detector would not be accurate on a bed with metal springs. As a result, they never found the bullet. Garfield ultimately died of gangrene. While he lived, a makeshift air conditioner was rigged to make him comfortable by a blower that blew air over a bed of ice. He died on September 19, 1881.

Arthur surprised a lot of people as President, as he was not the patsy of the Stalwarts that everyone had expected him to be.

As a result of the Garfield Assassination, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act which made the Civil Service Commission independent from the Cabinet offices, and provided for Government jobs to be filled on the basis of competitive examinations.

Election of 1884: The Republicans dumped Arthur for James G. Blaine, the leader of the Halfbreeds. He was "the consummate politician." He had a silver tongue, and would probably have been elected, were it not for a series of letters that said he was the puppet of the Railroad barons, and sold his votes to protect them.

Prominent party leaders bolted the ticket, and would not support it. The editor of the New York Sun called them "Mugwumps" after an old Indian word meaning "great chieftain." It became a joke: they said that mugwumps were unstable republicans who had their mugs on one side of the fence, and their "wumps" on the other; they couldnít make up their mind.

It was the New York Sun that printed the "yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" letter.

The problems within the party led the Democrats to nominate Grover Cleveland from New York. Cleveland did not have Blaineís charisma (he weighted 250 pounds, and was not a gifted speaker) but was famous for being honest. One supporter said, "We love him for the enemies he has made."

The Campaign was down and dirty; made dirtier when word got out that Cleveland, a bachelor, had had an affair with a widow, and she had had a child. There was no proof of paternity, but Cleveland had accepted responsibility. This at the time was considered terribly scandalous.

Democrats made fun of Blaine by chanting "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine. Republicans countered, "Ma, Ma, whereís my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.

Blaine would have won except for two screw-ups. He went to a fancy dinner with Jay Gould, and John Astor and some other millionaire bigwigs. Cartoons called it "Belshazzarís Feast." Also, he visited with a group of ministers at Republican headquarters, and one of them said the Democrats were the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." Blaine did not respond. This gave him the reputation of being anti-Catholic, and the Democrats rallied as a result. Cleveland won the election.

Cleveland attempted reforms, but in the end, his own party forced him to reward its faithful. His record for reform was somewhat mixed.

One accomplishment: In 1887, he signed an Act creating the Interstate Commerce Commission which could regulate railroad rates, forbade secret rebates to preferred shippers, and for railroads to enter into price fixing "pools."

The tariff issue again reared its ugly head. Many people said that the tariffs were protecting the big business corporate "trusts." It gave them a captive market. One person said, "The mother of all trusts is the tariff bill." It shielded the American companies from foreign competition.

Cleveland supported lowering the tariff, and the Republicans attacked him on the issue. A bill to lower the tariff died in committee. The only thing the effort did was rally support against Cleveland.

In the election of 1888, Cleveland was re-nominated; the Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison.

Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison. He ran pretty much as a dark horse, but was elected. Electric lights were first installed in the White House while he was in office

The old dirty bag of tricks was pulled out for the election. Cleveland had married while in the White House, and rumors started that he was a drunken wife beater. A fake letter linking him with British interests also hurt him. (The Irish voters hated anything and everything about the British.)

Cleveland had married a woman named Frances Folsom. She later had a daughter by him, named "Ruth." Everyone was thrilled about "little Baby Ruth; and the name was applied to the candy bar."

Harrison won the election by a very close vote. He only won it because he carried certain key states.

Harrison, as President, was largely overshadowed by James G. Blaine who became his Secretary of State. He was a bit of a cold fish, which didnít help things.

One observer said, let him make a speech to ten thousand men, and every one of them will go away his friend; let him meet the same ten thousand in private, and every one will go away his enemy.

Republicans controlled the legislature for his first two years in office, and some legislation was passed, including the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the McKinley Tariff.

Also, North and South Dakota; Montana, and Washington were admitted to the Union in 1889.

Sherman Antitrust Act: forbad contracts, conspiracies or combinations "in restraint of trade." The purpose was to prevent monopolies in interstate or foreign commerce.

A number of issues confronted the U.S. during the Harrison Administration:

The Tariff: The United States had adopted something of a protectionist attitude; it was an attempt to protect U.S. business from foreign competition. The problem was, it allowed big business; particularly the monopolies and trusts to grow, as there was no foreign competition. The debtors were the ultimate losers, as they were at the mercy of big business.

In 1890, Republicans took Harrisonís victory over Cleveland as a mandate to not only maintain the tariff, but to actually raise it. As a result, Congress passed the McKinley Tariff named for William McKinley, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The tariff raised the average tariff rate by 50%.

The McKinley Tariff was especially hurtful for farmers:

>they were forced to buy supplies on the domestic market; and since there was no competition to keep prices down, they paid heavily.

>The high tariff hurt sales in foreign markets. There were few U.S. dollars in foreign hands; because of few foreign sales in the U.S. As a result, there was no money for foreigners to purchase American farm products.

Many people were upset by the tariff, especially the farmers; and in themed-term elections, Democrats made substantial gains.

bullet Gold/Silver Issue: Remember, Congress had authorized the issuance of Greenbacks to finance the Civil War; now that the war was over, the government was retiring Greenbacks. Any U.S. currency in circulation was backed by Gold held by the U.S., and could be redeemed for Gold.

o The Gold Standard restricted the growth of the economy; it could only grow if the supply of money in circulation increased; and with the gold standard, it did not grow rapidly.

o There was a surplus of funds in the U.S. Treasury. The net effect of this was to remove money from circulation, which reduced the money supply, and caused deflation. Farmers and others saw prices falling steadily.

Previously, Congress had passed the Mint Act of 1792 which provided that anyone who had Gold or Silver in his possession could have it coined at a rate of 15:1 Ė fifteen ounces of silver equaled one ounce of gold. In 1837, this ratio had been changed to 16:1.

This was no problem when Gold was selling for $32.00 per ounce, and silver for $2.00 per ounce; but supply and demand could cause the price of either to change, and upset that value system.

In 1873, Congress revised the Coinage law, and dropped the provision for the coinage of silver. This was at a time when silver production was high, and the increased production could have inflated the money supply. Congressí action was known as the Crime of Ď73.

Farmers agitated for increased coinage of silver to inflate prices. A number of the newer states added to the Union had silver interests, and their representatives in Congress pressed for Silver Coinage.

The result was the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1878: It required the Treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month; and to issue Treasury notes in payment, which could be redeemed in either gold or silver.

Nobody was happy with the result:

o The "Silver people were not happy because the purchase of silver was not enough to have an impact on the economy.

o Big Business didnít like it because they were afraid that issuing paper money that could be redeemed in gold would reduce the gold reserve.

The Problems of Farmers: Conditions for farmers had grown steadily worse. Between 1870 Ė 1898, there was a long-term decline in commodity prices because of domestic overproduction. As production increased, prices decreased. New inventions in transportation and communication increased foreign competition also, and the farmers were the big losers.

A spiral developed, because the farmers felt they had to produce more and more to pay their bills, but the end result was to drive prices even lower.

Most farmers were simple folk, they didnít understand how one could make less by producing more; and they also didnít understand how overproduction could be a problem when so many people were doing without. It just didnít make sense to them. The only conclusion they could come to was that there was a screw loose somewhere in the system.

The big villains to the farmers were the railroads. They had to pay the high rates that the railroads set, as there was no alternative form of transport; plus they couldnít get the rebates that Rockefeller got, and didnít have the political pull the railroads had.

The farmers found themselves in a real dilemma. When they went to sell their produce, they found that the buyer determined the price; yet when they went to buy farm implements, the seller set the price. They were catching it going and coming.

As previously noted, the tariff was quite hurtful to farmers. They had to purchase goods from domestic manufacturers protected by the tariff; and at the same time, were not protected in foreign markets, where competition from foreign farmers lowered the prices they could receive. They were getting the old "double whammy."

Debt was a tremendous problem for farmers. As prices dropped for commodities, the amount of debt owed increased. The farmers acted on instinct and planted more wheat, cotton, etc., and this just drove down prices even more.

Farmers soon organized to seek protection. The first group to organize was formed by a representative of the Department of Agriculture, Oliver H. Kelly, after he toured the South in 1866 after the war and saw the poor plight of the farmers. He and several government clerks formed an organization known as the Patrons of Husbandry. It was better known as the Grange; after an old term for "granary."

The Grange formed a group of Farmerís cooperatives for buying and selling. Its membership reached 1/5 million in 1874; but it had little long-term political influence.

When the Grange movement faded, Farmers joined groups known as Farmerís Alliances. The movement welcomed anyone over age 16, men or women, displayed good moral character, believed in God, and demonstrated "industrious habits." It too did not have lasting political influence, as it tried to work within the existing parties.

Finally, after a bad season in 1887, the farmers were ready to form a new political party. It was to be a party of the "common people," and called itself the "peopleís party, or "Populist" Party.

A number of people championed the Populist Cause. Among them:

Mary Kennedy Lease: One of the first female lawyers in Kansas. She joined the Alliance movement as well as the Knights of Labor. She advised farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." In a speech for free silver coinage, she said "The people are at bay; let the bloodhounds of money beware."

"Sockless Jerry Simpson: Simpson had worked on a farm in Kansas when he saw his child crushed to death in a sawmill accident; and went into Cattle farming. In 1890, he ran for Congress as a Democrat; and said that the contest was between the "robbers and the robbed." His opponent was a wealthy Republican, and Simpson mocked him as a pawn of big business, and said his "soft white hands and silk hose" betrayed his true priorities. The Republican was outraged, and shouted back that it was better to have silk socks than none at all. The remark gave Simpson his nickname, and helped him win election.

Finally, in 1891, the new party was organized and a national convention called to meet in Omaha, Nebraska. This was the "Populist" party. The party platform called for:

Unlimited coinage of silver at 16:1

A graduated Income tax.

The time had come "when the railroad corporations will own the people, or the people must own the railroads." Therefore the Government should nationalize the railroads, telephone and telegraph systems; and for government to reclaim land not "actually needed" by the railroads.

The eight-hour workday.

No land ownership by aliens.

Restriction of immigration.

The last three provisions were added to attract the support of the urban laborers, whom the Populists called "fellow producers."

Bill Clinton and Al Gore have often claimed to be Populists; supporters of the common man and opposed to big business. During the 2000 campaign when Oil prices went sky high; Gore immediately blamed the big oil companies, and said they were cutting production to raise prices. He made a speech in which he called on Clinton to release oil from the Nations strategic reserves, so that the supply would reduce prices. Clinton agreed to do so the very next day. It had no effect on prices, and not near the effect on the vote that the two of them anticipated when they dreamed up this scheme.

The Election of 1892 proved to be a three-way race between:

Republican: Benjamin Harrison (incumbent)

Democrat: Grover Cleveland

Populist: James B. Weaver.

Cleveland carried a plurality of the popular vote, and as a majority of the Electoral College vote. He is the only person elected to two nonconsecutive terms as President.

Clevelandís second administration ran into problems early on. He made people mad on every side; and also, the country experienced the Panic of 1893. The Panic was the result of the failure of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads.

It was one of the worst panics in history. Millions of people were out of work, and many of them planned a march on Washington.

Among those who marched was a group called the Army of the Commonweal of Christ, led by Jacob S. Coxy. He and his son, named Legal Tender Coxy led a group of 400 protesters on a march to Washington. Their demand was that the government provide unemployed people with jobs. Coxy and his son rode in a carriage while everyone else walked. When they got to Washington, Coxy was arrested for walking on the grass; but the movement scared many Americans who called the populists "hayseed socialists" and who feared that their election would endanger property rights.

The Populists didnít do as well as they hoped in the election of 1894.

By the mid 1890ís the major concern became the Currency issue.

A major British banking house failed; and as a result, British investors unloaded their American dollars in exchange for gold. When this happened, Cleveland asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The result was a split in his own party.

Also, the government had struck a deal with J. P. Morgan. Morgan and other big money men agreed to buy up half a series of Government bonds in gold, thus bringing more gold into the treasury. The problem was, it made it look like the President and big business were in bed together.

At the same time, a new group, the American Bimetallic League began agitating for the coinage of silver.

Election of 1896: The Populists had expected that the major parties would straddle the silver issue, and decided to hold their convention last. They hoped that Republicans and Democrats who supported the coinage of silver would desert their own parties, and support the Populists. They miscalculated.

Republicans: Nominated William McKinley: and adopted a gold standard platform.

Democrats: William Jennings Bryan

Brian was 36 years old; barely old enough to be President. He was a fervent Baptist moralist, prone to lace his speeches with biblical references. He was an accomplished lawyer and gifted speaker. His speech at the Convention in defense of the coinage of silver won him the nomination.

"I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of libertyóthe cause of humanity. . . . We have petitioned, and out petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, but our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer, we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Bryanís nomination split the democratic party; a splinter group left and nominated their own candidate who said publicly that he would not object if his supporters voted for McKinley.

The Populists were in a quandary; but decided to back Bryan; but nominated their own Vice Presidential candidate.

Bryan launched a whirlwind campaign across the country making speeches; McKinley conducted a "front porch" campaign; receiving delegations at his home in Ohio. His campaign manager, Mark Hanna portrayed Bryan as a radical whose "communist spirit" would ruin the capitalist system.

Fears of what a Bryan election would do to business helped the Republicans raise a large sum of campaign funds. In the election, although Bryan had many votes in the West and South, he lost the election.

Bryan had a Baptist evangelical style that alienated many Catholic voters, a typical Democratic stronghold.

Factory workers did not support him because of threats by businesses to close the factory the day after a Bryan election.

The Populist movement was largely ended by the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Said one Populist, "the blare of the bugle drowned out the voice of the Reformer."


       There is an intriguing theory that Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is actually a political allegory on Populism.  NOTE: This means the "BOOK." Not the schmaltzy Julie Garland Movie. 

Among the symbolism suggested:

bullet The Yellow Brick Road -- The Gold Standard
bulletThe Silver Slippers (Only the movie made them "Ruby") -- Coinage of Silver
bulletDorothy -- Uncle Sam
bulletThe Cowardly Lion -- William Jennings Bryan
bulletThe Tin Man -- An Eastern Worker
bulletThe Scarecrow - A Midwestern Farmer
bulletThe Wizard - William McKinley and Mark Hanna
bulletWicked Witch of the East -- A Banker Boss
bulletWicked Witch of the West - A Railroad Baron
bulletThe Winged Monkeys -- The Prairie Indians

        For more details on this comparison check out This Website