The Gilded Age, a descriptive label for the period from the end of Reconstruction to the start of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency in 1901, came into general use during the middle of the twentieth century. In political history these decades carry a pejorative connotation that has persisted despite much scholarly work on the complexity of the period's public life. Broadly speaking, the Gilded Age is regarded as a time when politicians failed to engage the issues of industrialism, urbanization, and agricultural discontent. Instead, so the argument runs, Republicans and Democrats wasted their time and energies on such peripheral issues as the protective tariff and civil service. By 1901, according to this interpretation, the United States was no better off than it had been when Ulysses S. Grant left the presidency in March 1877.
Historical scholarship has challenged this pejorative view of the late nineteenth century, but the stereotype remains powerful. The term Gilded Age itself derives from a novel of the same name by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1873, that depicted economic life as a speculative excess where fraud and chicanery abounded. More than half a century later, the phrase seemed to capture the essence of the period between Reconstruction and the emergence of the reform spirit called progressivism.
Americans faced daunting challenges in the fast-moving era of the Gilded Age. The United States industrialized, became more urban, settled the West, and expanded overseas. Racism marred the way citizens interacted. Workers, farmers, and city dwellers faced major inequities and struggled to exist on meager salaries. Ample social problems demanded solutions, and politicians struggled to find useful answers to new dilemmas.
But the Gilded Age, in the minds of its critics, had a larger failing. The men in power and the electorate who supported them should have known that future generations would criticize the record of those in authority between 1877 and 1901. The centers of power in the society should have adopted the reform measures of the New Deal half a century before the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This lack of prescience about the direction of American life created, with deliberation and malice, an unjust society at the end of the nineteenth century.
There is much that is unhistorical about these generalizations. By projecting twentieth-century assumptions back to nineteenth-century Americans, critics have imposed on the Gilded Age the impossible task of correctly predicting the future. In the process, the real contributions and limitations of national politics during these years have become obscured. Much of the way Americans view politics now stems from the evolution of public life after 1877. When the polemical aspects of the era are removed, the political importance of the Gilded Age can be judged with more accuracy.
The most salient features of this time period were the high degree of voter involvement in politics and the relatively even balance of the two major parties. The figures indicating a substantial level of electoral participation are striking. Turnout in state, congressional, and presidential contests far exceeded what was common during the twentieth century. In 1896, when William McKinley ran against William Jennings Bryan, some 78 percent of eligible voters outside of the South cast ballots. Of course, African Americans, Hispanics, and women were denied the right to vote throughout much of the country. (It is worth noting that African American men had been granted the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment, but that right had been stripped away in a campaign of terror and disenfranchisement culminating in the 1890s. Those African American men who managed to continue to vote through the end of the century almost all supported the Republican Party.) Nonetheless, the extent of voter mobilization during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s reflected the strong partisan identifications among Americans.
Within this political universe, Democrats and Republicans battled on equal terms. Neither party achieved an absolute majority in the four contests for president from 1880 through 1892. On Capitol Hill, it was rare for a single party to control both houses (though it did occur on four occasions from 1874 to 1896). In the battleground states of the Middle West, elections often turned on a small percentage of the vote, with the outcome hinging on which party's adherents came to the polls on voting day. Participants at the time believed that the fate of the nation turned on the outcome of voting.
During the Gilded Age, Americans debated with passion an issue that had dominated domestic politics for most of the century: the extent to which government should promote the growth of the economy. The question of regulating the economy and society through government action was not yet a mainstream concern. But the two major parties took positions on the questions at odds with modern perceptions of their ideological differences.
The Republicans were then the party of an active government. They believed that protective tariffs to develop native industries could diffuse the benefits of a prosperous economy through all levels of society. In the arguments of men such as James G. Blaine and William McKinley, the tariff fused economic appeals with nationalistic pride. The doctrine served the interests of the business community, but protectionism also appealed to labor, small business, and farmers who faced competition from Mexico and Canada. For some adherents, the tariff acquired an almost religious significance.
Republican activism carried over into other areas of economic and cultural life. The party favored subsidies to railroads, land grants to farmers, and federal support of public education. It put in place an elaborate, expanding, and expensive program of pension payments to Civil War veterans and their families. Pensions became one of the largest expenditures of the federal government. While there were regional differences about money and banking policy, the Grand Old Party (as it became known) endorsed the gold standard and opposed inflation. On social issues, most Republicans favored laws against entertainment on the Sabbath, supported the prohibition of alcohol, and sought to have public schools teach all students in English. These positions aroused opposition from immigrant groups. Above all, the Republicans saw themselves as the party of progress and the Democrats as advocates of obstruction.
The Democratic Party (or the Democracy as it was often called) still believed in the core principles that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had advanced earlier in the century. The smaller the government and the closer to the people in its operations the better off the country would be. Democrats stood for the rights of the states against the power of the federal government. Since the South was a major bastion of Democratic strength in elections, the ability of white Southerners to maintain racial supremacy was a key element in the appeal of “the party of the fathers.” Democrats also supported a smaller government role in the cultural issues of Prohibition and Sunday closings that Republicans favored.
On the tariff, the Democrats identified with the interest of consumers, doubted the constitutionality of customs duties, and stood for freer trade. The most that the party would accept as an official doctrine was “a tariff for revenue only.” Since Democrats wanted the government to remain small, in practice, they believed that tariff rates should be as low as possible. Some elements of the party in industrial states favored a degree of protection. Nonetheless, the tariff issue represented a major dividing line between the parties throughout these years.
With the Civil War and Reconstruction a tangible memory for most politicians, the two parties reflected the lingering consequences of that conflict. The Republicans stood for political equality for African Americans, although their fervor for that position waned as the years passed. By the 1890s, many members of the Grand Old Party (GOP) believed that the racial issues of the war and its aftermath should be muted or abandoned.
The Democrats, on the other hand, were unapologetic champions of white domination in the South. A belief in states’ rights and the rule of white men was a quasi-religious conviction among southern Democrats. These party members tolerated the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Amendment because they had no choice. In their true convictions, they believed that all such legislation should be repealed. As a result, African Americans had at most a marginal position in the public life of the Gilded Age.
Both major parties felt the pressure from reform elements in society to professionalize politics and reduce the impact of partisanship. Calls for changing the ways in which public officials were chosen for government offices became known as civil service reform, and the idea gained popularity in the 1870s and early 1880s. The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 began the process of diminishing the role of parties in the appointment process.
Stalemate characterized the first ten years of the Gilded Age. The Republicans elected Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 over Samuel J. Tilden in a disputed contest that reflected the even balance between the parties nationally. Hayes served one reasonably successful term and was succeeded by James A. Garfield, who carried the Republicans to victory in 1880. The presidents assassination in the summer of 1881 put Chester Alan Arthur in the White House. After 24 years of successful elections to office, the Republicans were losing their ascendancy in national politics. They nominated their most popular leader, James G. Blaine, in 1884. But the taint of scandal that surrounded him put their chances in serious doubt.
The Democrats selected the governor of New York, Grover Cleveland, to oppose Blaine. In an election notable for its emphasis on personal issues, such as whether Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child and whether Blaine was corrupt, the Democrats won in a close vote. Cleveland served a solid if undistinguished term and faced uncertain prospects for reelection. In late 1887 he made the issue of the tariff the centerpiece of his impending campaign. Delighted Republicans jumped at the opportunity to wage a presidential race on that topic. Making a unified campaign, the GOP nominated Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, who proved effective in delivering the party's message. Although Cleveland prevailed in the popular vote, Harrison triumphed in the electoral count. The Republicans also controlled both houses of Congress.
In the two years that followed, the Republicans implemented a program of governmental activism with the passage of the McKinley Tariff to raise rates and the Sherman Antitrust Act. Their effort to protect the voting rights of African Americans in the South through a federal elections bill failed in the face of opposition from the Democrats. Most voters turned against the Republicans and repudiated their initiatives.
By the election of 1890, long-simmering discontent among farmers in the South and West produced a third party in the congressional races. Low crop prices and a heavy burden of debt impelled many agrarians to support candidates for the Farmers Alliance and the People's, or Populist, Party. These candidates spoke out for inflating the currency by coining silver into money on an equal basis with gold. This strategy would, they believed, raise prices and make debts easier to pay back. Congress had enacted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890 to provide support for silver, but Populists argued that the measure did too little to address the problem. In the 1890 elections, the Republicans lost control of the House as the Democrats and the Populists made impressive gains.
The resurgent Democrats continued their success in the presidential contest in 1892. Cleveland won an impressive victory over Harrison, and his party now controlled both the House and the Senate. The Populists had fielded their own presidential ticket, which carried four states in the West. The new third party had produced significant gains in its effort to become a viable alternative to the Republicans and Democrats.
Economic hard times hit in the spring of 1893 with a panic in the banking sector that soon spread across the nation. Cleveland called Congress into special session in August to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which the president blamed for the economic crisis. He achieved his goal but split his party into two warring factions. The situation then deteriorated further for the Democrats. Beyond the monetary issue, the Pullman Strike in the summer of 1894 and other examples of social unrest during hard economic times gave both the Republicans and the Populists an opportunity to capitalize on pervasive discontent.
The congressional elections in 1894 brought dramatic Republican gains. The Democrats lost more than 100 seats in the House and lost their majority. The GOP also gained in the Senate. The Populists saw their vote totals rise to a limited extent. The outcome in 1894 signaled a probable Republican victory in 1896 and also suggested that the appeal of the Peoples Party was limited to the agrarian regions of the South and West. As it turned out, the Republican triumphs in 1894 proved enduring, and the party held control of the House for the next 16 years.
The political climax of Gilded Age politics came in the presidential election of 1896 in the race between William McKinley for the Republicans and William Jennings Bryan for the Democrats and Populists. Bryan stood for free silver; McKinley defended the gold standard. Voter turnout was very high in the North and Middle West. McKinley won a decisive victory with a nearly 600,000-ballot majority in the popular vote. The stalemated politics that had characterized the Gilded Age had come to an end with the Republicans triumphant.
During McKinley's administration, the nation went to war with Spain over the independence of Cuba, and, in the process, acquired the Philippine Islands in 1898. This overseas adventure sparked debate about the nation's future as an imperial power. At the same time, with the return of prosperity after 1897, concerned citizens argued that the growth of big business required expanded government power to regulate the economy. There was a sense that, for all the material achievements of the late nineteenth century, political and economic reform had become imperative. In 1900, McKinley's second victory over Bryan confirmed Republican dominance, even as there were calls for lowering the tariff, addressing the power of big business, and redressing social injustice. In waging the war with Spain and administering the colonial empire that ensued, McKinley became the first president to administer the United States as a world power. His assassination in September 1901 brought his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, to the White House. Soon there was talk of “progressive” change and a need to depart from the ideas and policies of the late nineteenth century. The reputation of the Gilded Age sagged and has never recovered.
What did these decades mean for American politics? The intensive voter interest in elections of that time has never been repeated. The issues of the tariff and money have survived in other forms but have never again dominated political discourse. Debate over the role of government in regulating the economy has supplanted the controversy over promoting national growth. The processes of choosing candidates became more democratic with woman suffrage, direct election of U.S. senators, and procedural changes such as the direct primary, the initiative, and referendum. In many respects, the Gilded Age seems a lost world in national politics.
But, the period had a significant legacy. Racial segregation, established after the Civil War and solidified in the Gilded Age, took years to address and still shapes voter attitudes in the South. The power of corporations to influence policy and finance politics has survived all attempts at reform. The two-party system that emerged intact from the late nineteenth century still precludes alternatives. While the Gilded Age may seem a receding era in the political history of the United States, its impact endures.
See also banking policy; Democratic Party, 1860–96; economy and politics, 1860–1920; elections and electoral eras; Republican Party to 1896; Spanish-American War and Filipino Insurrection; tariffs and politics.
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