Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

America: From Colony to Superpower. Part II: 1876- 1929

The Gilded Age-

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comfort and luxuries, is also great; but the advantages of this law are greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train. But, whether the law be benign or not, we must say of it… It is here; we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department-

Wealth, Andrew Carnegie, 18891

The Gilded Age was the name given by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to the era in American history between the Reconstruction and the dawn of the twentieth century. The name poured scorn on the period for its rampant corruption, but it was an important period in the birth of the modern America. It was a time of dynamic change in various areas, including politics, business, labor unions, race relations, intellectual history, the role of women, foreign affairs, technology, etc. Large corporations became the dominant fact of the business world. New technologies revolutionised business. The U.S. built up a national marketplace connected by railways in which mass marketing and national product lines were developed: the strict regional lines that had for so long defined culture and lifestyle began to break down.

During the period, Presidents generally had middling power, and big business developed a mutual and corrupt alliance with politics, a situation called machine politics. Regional political party bosses such as Boss Tweed in New York blatantly rigged and bought elections, and made a profit in the process. Politics during this period in America was an intense game between two almost equally matched parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Voter participation in elections were higher than they had ever been. The Republican party of this period had its basic regional alliance between the Northeast and the Midwest- an alliance that had been consolidated in 1860 and had fought and won the Civil War. The Democratic party was even more regional than the Republicans. Its main support bases were the South and the cities of the Northeast.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, sought to increase presidential power in the face of Congress. He forced Congress to eventually accept his nominations for Cabinet. He dismissed two New York senators who were deeply involved in the Custom House patronage system and despite Congressional opposition eventually filled their places with men of his own choice. Hayes determination to increase the power and prestige of the presidential office hade made him many enemies, and there was no chance that the Republican party would countenace nominating him for re-election in 1880.

The Republicans eventually agreed on nominating Congressman James A. Garfield of Ohio for president, and Chester A. Arthur for vice-president. Garfield ran his campaign personally, and stressed the need for tariffs and protectionism. Huge money was spent in the swing states, with Indiana being carried by just 7,000 votes and New York by 20,000 votes. Before Garfield had a real chance to achieve anything as president, he was shot in the back by Charles J. Giteau, a crazed man who was disappointed he didn't get the office he had desired. Garfield eventually died eleven weeks later on September 19th 1880. He was succeeded by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

Public shock and anger at the murder of President Garfield created a mood wherein reform was again welcome. The Civil Service Act was passed which established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission of three members who were to administer competitive examinations and select appointees on the basis of merit and an apportionment among the states according to population. Over time centralised presidential control would reverse the decentralising pull of the spoils system and Congress.

Arthur never had enough party support to seriously be nominated as the Republican presidential nominee in 1884, and his support decreased further when he lost control of his own state in 1882. The Republicans instead nominated James G. Blaine of Maine, which led to a certain section of the party, known as the Yankee Mugwumps (a group of reformers) bolting the party. They agreed to leave if the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York, which they did. Cleveland won a tight race, and the long Republican grip over the presidency was over. The Democrats were back in power for the first time in twenty four years.

President Cleveland's views on many issues had voters in the dark somewhat, although they knew he was a conservative. He promised to adhere to &ldquobusiness principles” in his inaugrual address. He personally believed that the presidential role should generally be limited to the execution of the laws. But Cleveland continued Haye's policy of improving the integrity of the presidency and curbing Congressional power over it. In his fight for tariff reform, however, Cleveland took a more forthright stand that may have contributed to his defeat for reelection.

The campaign for Cleveland's re-election in 1888 was handicapped by halfhearted and ineffective leadership. By contrast, the Republican campaign had a vigorous leader in Senator Matt Quay, boss of a ruthless machine in Pennsylvania. Quay collected and spent a huge campaign fund. The Republican presidential candidate was Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, the grandson of former president William Henry Harrison. Republican strategists made telling use of this fund to purchase votes and rig elections in Indiana and New York. The winning party proved to have a more effective campaign and staged a better campaign. In a closely fought campaign, Cleveland actually polled a plurality of almost 100,000 popular votes, but Harrison won the electoral vote 233 to 168.

The Democrats chose Cleveland to run again for president in 1892 against the Republican incumbent, President Harrison. A third party, the Populists (who sought to unite farmers and labour to secure reforms), nominated General James B. Weaver of Iowa. Cleveland won by 277 electoral votes to 145, and by over 400,000 popular votes. Weaver hadn't a realistic chance of success, but did receive over a million votes. Cleveland's victory was not quite a landslide, but it was the most decisive victory either party had won in twenty years. Two months after President Cleveland's inauguration the market collapsed, ushering in the worst depression the nation felt up to this time. The causes of the depression were complex, but Cleveland stubbornly blamed it all on the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which he repealed. His remedy was to maintain the gold standard at all costs. Such a policy divided the country like no issue since slavery, and caused a revolution in the Democratic party that overthrew conservative control.

The Republican convention nominated William McKinley of Ohio as their presidential candidate in 1896. McKinley advocated high protectionist tariffs. The Democratic party had been split over the silver issue, with the Western and Southern wings winning out over the conservative Northeastern members. They eventually agreed to nominate William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. While he was only thirty six and little known in the East, Bryan was already widely known as a peerless orator in the West and the South, where he had been campaigning for three years to prepare the revolt of the silver forces. The silver-leaders of the &ldquorevolutionised” Democrats, in their next move, persuaded the Populist party to make Bryan its candidate as well. The proposal deeply divided the Populists, who neither wanted to split the reform forces with a separate ticket nor give up on their own party identity. Eventually they agreed.

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