6.13 Politics in the Gilded Age

7 min readjune 1, 2020

Robby May

Robby May

Ashley Rossi

Ashley Rossi

AP US History 🇺🇸

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For a large part of the period, the federal government seems to be M.I.A. Political paralysis is a term frequently associated with the era as it was largely marked with stalemates, incompetence, and corruption. Still, there are some things worth mentioning.
🎥 Watch: AP US History - The Gilded Age


In the North, Republican politicians kept memories of the Civil War alive during the Gilded Age by figuratively waving the “bloody shirt” in every campaign and reminding the millions of veterans of the Union army that their wounds had been caused by southern Democrats and that Abraham Lincoln had been murdered by a Democrat.
They kept the votes of reformers and African Americans. The core of their strength came from men in business and the middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, many of who supported temperance or prohibition.


After 1877, the Democrats could count on winning every election in the former state of the Confederacy. The solid South was indeed solidly Democrat and would stay that way until the mid-20th Century. 
In the North, Democratic strength came from big city political machines and immigrant vote. Democrats were often Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews who objected to temperance and prohibition crusades conducted by Protestant.

Patronage: Stalwarts, Mugwumps, and Halfbreeds

Since neither party had an active legislative agenda, politics in this era was chiefly a game of winning elections, holding office and providing government jobs to the party faithful.
In New York, Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling became a powerful leader of his party by dictating who in the Republican ranks would be appointed to lucrative jobs in the New York Customs House. Conkling and his supporters were known as the Stalwarts, while their rivals for patronage were the Halfbreeds, led by James G. Blaine.
Republicans who did not play the patronage game were ridiculed as the Mugawumps for sitting on the fence – their “mugs” on one side of the fence and “wumps” on the other. 

Presidential Politics 

Rutherford B. Hayes
Hayes' most significant act was to end Reconstruction by withdrawing the last federal troops from the South. 
James Garfield
Hordes of office seekers wanted government jobs and constantly cornered the president. In July, on his way to vacation in New England, Garfield was shot while walking toward the train by Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged lawyer and disappointed office seeker.
Chester A. Arthur
Pendleton Act, reforming the Civil Service was created under him. He also approved the development of a modern American navy and began to question the high protective tariffs
Grover Cleveland
He implemented the new civil service system and vetoed hundreds of private pension bills for those falsely claiming to have served or been injured in the Civil War. He worked long into the night reviewing veterans pensions and civil service appointments. He forced railroad, lumber and cattle companies to surrender millions of acres of fraudulently occupied public land. He signed into the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the federal government's first effort to regulate business and the Dawes Act, which reformers hoped would benefit American Indians. 

Pendleton Civil Service Act

In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act to reform the civil service. 
  • It created the bipartisan Civil Service Commission to administer competitive examinations and appoint officeholders on the basis of merit. 
  • Initially it affected only 14,000 of the 100,000 government jobs, but it would expand over time. 

Greenback Party

Paper money not backed by specie (gold or silver) had been issued by the federal government in the 1860s as an emergency measure for financing the Civil War. Northern farmers who received high prices during the war, prospered from the use of greenbacks. On the other hand, creditors and investors attacked the use of unbacked paper money as a violation of natural law. Supporters of paper money formed a new political party, the Greenback party.


In addition to removing greenbacks, Congress also stopped the coining of silver. The silver discoveries in Nevada revived demands for the use of silver to expand the money supply.  A compromise law, the Bland-Allison Act was passed over Hayes’s veto.
  • It allowed a limited coinage of $2-4 million in silver each month at the standard silver-to-gold ratio of 16 to 1. 
  • Famers, debtors, and western miners were not satisfied and continued to press for the unlimited coinage of silver. 

Harrison and the Billion Dollar Congress

For the first two years of Benjamin Harrison’s presidency, Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. The new Congress was the most active in years, passing the first billion-dollar budget in US history. It enacted the following:
  • McKinley Tariff Act was passed and raised tariff duties about 4% (higher than ever before)
  • Sherman Antitrust Act was also passed and was the first federal attempt to regulate big business. This was an attempt to deal with the problem of trusts, declaring them illegal. Penalties for violation were stiff, including fines and imprisonment and the dissolution of guilty trusts. 
  • Sherman Silver Purchase Act with the discovery of the great bonanza mines in Nevada, American silver production quadrupled between 1870 and 1890, flooding the world market and lowering the price of silver. As a result, many nations demonetized silver in favor for gold, which was a more scarce metal. 

Populist Party

The farmers alliance movement provided the foundation of a new policy party – the People’s, or Populist, party. Delegates from different states met in Omaha, Nebraska in 1892 to draft a political platform and nominate candidates for president and vice president for the new party. The Omaha Platform (basically the earlier Ocala demands added on to) called for both political and economic reforms.
  • The direct popular election of US senators (instead of being picked by the state legislatures)
  • The use of initiatives and referendums, procedures that allowed citizens to vote directly on proposed law.
  • Unlimited coinage of silver to increase the money supply
  • Graduated income tax (the greater a person’s income , the higher the percentage of the tax on his or her income)
  • Public ownership of railroads by the US government
  • Telegraph and telephone systems owned and operated by the government
  • Loans and federal warehouses for farmer to enable them to stabilize prices for their crops
  • 8 hour workday for industrial workers. 
🎥 Watch: AP US History - Populism
By 1896, the Populists had considerable political support and chose William Jennings Bryan  (made famous for his “Cross of Gold” speech 👑 attacking the gold standard) as a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, the Democrats also chose Bryan and began adopting many key issues of the populist party. With the votes split between these two parties, McKinley (the Republican candidate) won the election and marked the end of the Populist Era. 

Panic of 1893

In February of 1893, panic suddenly hit the New Stock Market. In one day, investors dumped on million shares of a leading company (the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad) and it went bankrupt People were frightened and hurriedly sold off their stocks and assets to buy gold. It depleted the gold reserve of the US Treasury. By March, the reserve was near the $100 million mark, which was the amount the government committed at to maintain the gold standard. By April, it fell below $100 million. Quickly many bad things happened: 
  • The banks began to cut back on loans. 
  • Businesses were unable to get capital and failed at a rate of two dozen a day during the month of May. 
  • In August, the worst month, factories and mines across the country shut down. Economics estimated unemployment at 2 million or 15% of the labor force. 
  • 15,000 businesses and 600 banks closed in 1893.
  • 1894 was even worse. By the midyear, unemployment was at 3 million. 1 out of 5 workers was unemployed. 

Coxey's Army

Some of the unemployed wandered across the country in small groups or small armies. “General” Jacob Coxey led an “army” of 3000 people from Ohio to Washington, D.C. 
  • He wanted to put the nation’s jobless to work building roads.
  • He wanted Congress to pass the Coxey Good Roads Bill, which would authorize the printing of $500 million in paper money to finance road construction
Coxley made it to the foot of the Capitol where the police were on him. He and a companion were clubbed and then arrested for trespassing. He was then sentenced to 20 days in jail. The armies melted away but their discontent didn’t. 

Political Machines, Boss Tweed, and Tammany Hall

In urban areas, poor immigrants often turned to political machines ⚙️ for aid. Since the federal government did fairly little for these groups, many of them came to rely on political machines. Political machines often brought modern services to the city, including a crude form of welfare for urban newcomers. 
  • They would find jobs and apartments for recently arrived immigrants and show up at a poor family’s door with baskets of food during hard times. 
  • They ran picnics for slum children on hot summer days and contributed to hospitals, orphanages and dozens of worthy neighborhood causes. 

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Although political machines were pretty corrupt in their dealings (as seen through Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall Ring 💰), immigrants often supported them for their ability and willingness to provide direct aid in exchange for votes. 
The New York County Courthouse (The house that Tweed built) was his masterpiece. It was in downtown Manhattan and was a three-story structure. It was designed to cost $250,000 but the bills ran higher. Andrew Garvey charged $500,000 for plasterwork and then $1 million to repair the same work. The total bill was $13 million.
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