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The Gilded Age (1877 – 1900)

AP US History Study Terms: Gilded Age, Democratic Party, Republican Party, 17th Amendments, Railroad Regulation, National Civil Service Reform League, Pendleton Civil Service Act, Interstate Commerce Act, McKinley Tariff of 1890, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Jim Crow Laws, Grange Organizations, Sharecropping, Farmers’ Alliances, Subtreasury Plan, Depression of the 1890s, Gold Standard Act

The Gilded Age (1877 – 1900)

I General Characteristics of Gilded Age Politics

A The Gilded Age (1877 – 1900) was defined by industrialization, urbanization, and the commercialization of agriculture. Inevitably, the turbulence of the era made for a dynamic political climate, as illustrated by:

1.   Public interest in politics was at a peak – sort of like a spectator sport – and there was intense party loyalty [often on religious/ethnic lines] as follows:

a.  Democratic Party – opposed interference by gov’t w/respect to personal liberty, restrict gov’t power, mainly Catholic immigrants

b.  Republican Party – gov’t as agent of moral reform, direct gov’t action, mainly native-born Protestants

2.   Elections were also extremely close on both the local and nat’l levels; the two parties were split almost perfectly. *At the state level, though, one party usually ruled via the state boss, who was usually a Senator. The boss wielded huge powers until the Seventeenth Amendment (1913), which provided for direct election of Senators.

3.   Still, there was a significant amount of factionalism within both parties. The Democratic Party divided into white-supremacy Southerners, immigrants, working-class city dwellers, and business types who liked low tariffs. As for the Republican Party, there were the:

a.  Stalwarts – led by NY Senator and party boss Conklin, heavy reliance on spoils system

b.  Half-Breeds – led by Blaine, supposed idealists but really just out of power

c.   Mugwumps – true idealists, tended towards Democratic side

B On a broader level, the Gilded Age resulted in three main things: the rise of special interests, some major legislative accomplishments, and the continuation of political exclusion for minorities/women.

II The Main Issues of Gilded Age Politics

A Some key legislation was passed during the Gilded Age, mainly relating to the following issues…

1.   Sectional Issues – yes, the Civil War was still a problem, and both sides continually blamed e/o for the war and tried to invoke war memories for their own advantage. This led to a super costly veterans’ pension thing.

2.   Civil Service Reform – reformers began to advocate civil service reform (promotion based on merit rather than on party loyalty) as a means of restricting corruption. In 1881 the National Civil Service Reform League was formed, and in 1882 the Pendleton Civil Service Act was passed, which created the Civil Service Commission to oversee exams for positions for 10% of jobs. This was only the beginning, though, b/c the Constitution still stopped state corruption from being restricted.

3.   Railroad Regulation – to kill competition, RRDs developed several nasty habits: raising and lowering rates, making pricing dependent on competition rather than on distance, and playing favorites for big corporations. Farmers demanded regulation, resulting in commissions in 14 states by 1880. Munn v. Illinois reinforced the state regulation deal, but the 1886 Wabash case showed states couldn’t regulate interstate lines. In 1887, though, the Interstate Commerce Act was passed, which created the ICC to investigate RRD practices but didn’t provide for its enforcement – so the pro-business SC limited its powers through the Maximum Freight Rate case (1897 – ICC can’t set rates) and the Alabama Midlands case (1897 – RRDs can give higher rates for shorter distances).

4.   Tariffs – e/t they started out as measures to protect industries, tariffs were being abused by big companies to charge excessively high prices. Tariffs became a big party issues, as Republicans made protective tariffs part of their platform while Democrats pushed to lower rates (reduce the surplus by cutting taxes/tariffs, gov’t shouldn’t be making $). In the end, Republicans won out w/the McKinley Tariff of 1890 and then the Dingley Tariff of 1897.

5.   Monetary Policy – when prices fell after the Civil War, farmers got into trouble b/c their debts were worth the same, but their products were worth less. As a result, they went for silver while creditors favored a more stable gold-backed money supply. The whole deal even turned into a sort of class conflict and moral/religious thing. By 1870 the sides were clear – creditors (gold) and debtors (silver) – and when silver dollars were taken away after their value went up in respect to gold it was referred to as the “Crime of ’73.” The Bland-Allison Act (1878, allowed the Treasury to buy $2-4 million of silver) and Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890) were concessions, but the silver side remained unsatisfied.

B Overall, corruption notwithstanding, many important acts were passed during the Gilded Age.

III The Gilded Age Presidents

A After the scandals of Grant’s administration and the election of 1876, Gilded Age Presidents attempted to reestablish the legitimacy of the Presidency. They also began initiating legislation and using the veto more.

B Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican, 1877 – 1881) was a quiet compromiser who emphasized nat’l unity, opposed violence, and attempted to get rid of the spoils system by battling Conklin (he fired Chester Arthur, Conklin’s protégé, from NY Customs).

C James Garfield (Republican, 1881) aimed to reduce the tariff and maintain and independent position, but he was assassinated by a rebuffed patronage seeker and was succeeded by former Conklin protégé Chester Arthur (Republican, 1881 – 1885), who actually became a prudent leader: he passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883), supported RRD regulation, and used the veto to control business.

D Grover Cleveland (Democrat, 1885 – 1889) expanded civil service, vetoed private pension bills, and tried [and failed] to lower tariffs. Cleveland was defeated in 1888 by Benjamin Harrison (Republican, 1889 – 1893) b/c he was better at cheating.

E Through various methods, Harrison influenced the legislation that was passed, resulting in more bills than usual; issues dealt w/included civil service reform and the Dependents’ Pension Act [Union veterans]. Consequently, though, the budget exploded, giving the Democrats another opportunity.

F Cleveland ran again and won, during his second term (1893 – 1897) he attempted to deal w/currency, tariffs, and labor problems but ended up having to rely on big business, esp. b/c of the panic of 1893.

IV Limits of Gilded Age Politics

A Not everyone was included in Gilded Age politics, both in the North and the South. Race was of particular relevance in the South, though, where poor whites tried to squash the freedmen in order to preserve their own real or imagined social superiority.

B Race violence became commonplace in the South, as did disenfranchisement via poll taxes and bogus literacy tests [this was permitted b/c of US v. Reese, which ruled that Congress couldn’t control voting rights outside of the explicit conditions mentioned in the 15th Amendment].

C Worse still, as a result of a series of decisions by the SC in the 1870s that climaxed in 1883 when the 1875 Civil Rights Act [prohibited segregation in public facilities] was struck down, blacks were stuck w/”separate but equal” facilities. This was upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Commins v. Board of Education (1899), and was followed by the proliferation of Jim Crow laws.

D To cope, blacks tried to get educations, and black women often joined with white women to push for reform, especially reform relating to nat’l suffrage. Two major organizations led the fight: the NWSA [militants Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony wanted overall rights] and the AWSA [suffrage only].

E At first, the NWSA concentrated on a nat’l amendment, and the AWSA worked on the state level, but they merged in 1890 to become the NAWSA. Still, e/t they were successful in training leaders, raising awareness, and getting individual states to cooperate, nat’l suffrage was to come later.

V The Agrarian Revolt

A Even before the advent of Populism, angry farmers were getting organized. At first, the “agrarian revolt” took the form of the Grange Organizations of the early 1870s, and then the Farmers’ Alliances in Texas and the Great Plains.

B Economic woes faced by the farmers:

1    Sharecropping [the “crop lien” system] – if farmers [usually in South] were unable to pay their debts [for supplies], they had to promise to pay with their crops. The crops would rarely be worth enough, so they would borrow more, etc.

2    Economic Change – in the South, yeoman farmers were being pushed into cotton raising b/c of the debts incurred during the war [it was no longer practical to grow own food]. This made the debt situation worse and put them at the mercy of merchants. In the Midwest, the problem involved dropping prices [due to technological advances] that necessitated increases in production. But since costs weren’t dropping, many farmers got stuck big time.

3    Price Inflation/Interest Rate - to make matters worse, merchants took advantage by charging insane interest and inflating prices.

4    RRD Exploitation – see above

C Grange Movement (1870s) – farmers formed a network of Granges w/elected officers and membership oaths. E/t they began as social things, Granges soon turned to economics/politics. This didn’t work so well, though [they elected people, but couldn’t fight the corporations], so Granges declined in the late 1870s. In the Southwest, Mexican farmers also organized into the White Hats [“Gorras Blancas”], who were against the encroachment of English ranchers on their traditional lands, but this failed too.

D Farmers’ Alliances (1890s) – there were two (Great Plains & South). They began in Texas, and were generally groups of small farmers that were trying to combat big money, esp. RRDs. Like the Granges, they held rallies, educational meetings, and had cooperative buying and selling agreements.

E Subtreasury Plan – proposed by the FA, this was a plan to help indebted farmers that called for the federal gov’t to build warehouses where farmers could keep crops [and receive loans at 80% of the market price] while they waited for higher prices. Also, the gov’t would give low-interest loans to land buyers. This was meant to inject cash into the economy and raise crop prices while keeping others the same.

F E/t early attempts at merging were sabotaged by sectional differences, both Alliances eventually formed a third party in Omaha 1892 – the Populist Party. The Populists nominated Weaver for the 1892 election, and he ran on the Omaha Platform, which called for gov’t ownership of utilities and RRDs, gov’t ownership of land, farm loans, expansion of the currency, an income tax, direct election of Senators, and a shorter wkday.

G Of course, Weaver lost to Cleveland, but the Populists gained support through their wild speeches, etc.

VI The Depression of the 1890s

A The Depression of the 1890s really started in 1893 with the collapse of the Nat’l Cordage Company, which, like many other RRDs and manufacturers, had borrowed too much and was unable to pay its debts. To try to make up for their debt, companies bought more equipment and worked people harder – but all that did was make workers lose money as well. So companies closed, banks closed…overall, it sucked.

B The worst of it was between 1893 and 1895…people lost money, so they didn’t want to buy things, so prices dropped more, so wages dropped more…you get the picture. Currency was still a problem, as the gold reserves were dropping due to a silver boom, and the more the gold dropped, the more people tried to redeem their securities.

C As a result, the Sherman Act was repealed in 1893, but people STILL didn’t stop, which forced Cleveland to accept an offer from J.P. Morgan (in return for bonds, which they resold for profit). This got Cleveland in trouble with his fellow Democrats and wasn’t even that beneficial, as the economy crashed again in 1895 before it began to rise back up due to gold discoveries in Alaska, good harvests, and industrial growth.

D Strangely enough, the Depression was the last element in cementing the new national economy, b/c it wiped out lots of the weaker industries, I guess.

VII Depression Era Protests

A The first real protests were in 1877 [the RRD strikes], and they were followed by the Haymarket Riot (1866), Carnegie Steel strikes in 1892, violence at a silver mine (also in 1892), etc. These events scared the crap out of many well-off people, who thought, “Oh my GOD …the ANARCHISTS are behind it all.”

B This actually wasn’t true at all, though. There were some socialists in America, but it didn’t work out so well b/c of factionalism and the constant temptation to get ahead via the capitalist system. The biggest socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs, emerged in the aftermath of the 1894 Pullman car strike – but e/t he did form the Socialist Party of America, not much came of it until the next century.

C In 1894, another popular movement, Coxey’s Army, got a lot of attention. Coxey, who advocated public works projects and low-interest gov’t loans, led a huge number of farmers/unemployed people on a march to the capital. On the day of the demonstration, however, police stopped the protestors and arrested Coxey.

VIII The Election of 1896

A The Populists prepared to run again in the Presidential Election of 1896 – they were doing well, but their biggest problem was lack of organization, and the effects of racism. The big issue, as they saw it, was the coinage of silver, which they promoted as the obvious sol’n to the country’s economic problems.

B But Populists still faced one decision: should they semi-join one of the major party factions, or should they stay totally independent (and not win as many votes)? Republicans were obviously out of the question, as they supported big-business and the gold standard, but union w/the Democrats didn’t seem that bad.

C Anyhow, the Republicans went ahead and nominated William McKinley [at the suggestion of Marcus Hanna, an Ohio industrialist] w/o any problems; their only crisis was that, in response to their gold policies, a small group of silver Republicans walked out.

D The Democrats, on the other hand, became obsessed w/silver and nominated big orator guy William Jennings Byran, who wrote the famous convention pro-silver speech [of course, some gold Democrats had to go and walk out, but who cares about them].

E As a result, the Populists decided to go w/Bryan and the Democrats, only w/a different VP nominee. So, the campaign began. Bryan went on an all out speaking tour full of emotion, evangelicalism, and all that. McKinley sat at home on his butt and waited for the press to come to him so he could tell them about the new jobs he’d make w/his protective tariffs.

F What happened? McKinley killed Bryan, partially b/c the urban-rural coalition the Populists wanted hadn’t happened b/c of their silver obsession [took away from other reforms, and urban workers thought it would lower the value of their wages].

G Naturally, McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act (1900), which required that all paper money had to be backed by gold; he also raised tariffs and encouraged imperialism. The economy improved, but mainly b/c of the gold discoveries in Alaska, not b/c of McKinley. Nobody cared though, so they elected him again.

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