The last third of the nineteenth century is the most misunderstood and disparaged period in the political history of
the United States. For the better part of the twentieth century, historians painted the era in the darkest hues
imaginable, arguing that spoilsmen and corruptionists ruled its political life and that obtaining office for its own
sake was the primary motivation for politicians more devoted to partisan advantage than the public good. According to
this interpretation, issues and principles counted for little in political contention, and few real differences existed
between the Republicans and the Democrats, who dominated elections and office-holding. Over the years scholars sought to
outdo one another in censuring the Gilded Age in the most derogatory terms; it was, they said, an age of "negation,"
"cynicism," and "excess"-a "huge barbecue" for politicos and robber barons that excluded poor farmers and laborers.
Like most stereotypes, this negative image has some validity. The roster of politicians in the late nineteenth century
did include some brazen spoilsmen who seemed to crave office for its own sake or for the money it might bring. Some
corruption did occur, especially in the 1870s during the general lowering of moral restraints that characterized the
post-Civil War period. But during the 1960s and after, a new generation of scholars challenged this interpretation,
arguing that traditional historians had overemphasized these unsavory aspects to the point of distorting the political
reality. These "revisionist" historians did not deny that venality and office mongering had occurred, but they sought to
shift the scholarly focus to matters of public policy whose long-term impact was ultimately more significant than the
seamier side of politics. Analyzing the era on its own terms, these scholars concluded that political leaders of the
late nineteenth century were generally hard-working public servants, serious about issues and governance. In this view,
significant differences over policy, not mere rhetorical shadowboxing, separated Democrats from Republicans. What
leaders said mattered to voters, and what they did affected the well-being of the nation. But even though this newer
judgment rests on thorough research, it has not won complete acceptance among historians. One author, for example,
recently portrayed Gilded Age presidential elections as "invariably ... corrupt," the two major parties as "nearly
identical," and election results as "not decided by the issues." Another says that "the leading statesmen of the period
showed as little interest in important contemporary questions as the party hacks who made up the rank and file of their
What caused traditional historians and some modern scholars to take such a dim view of Gilded Age politics? To a
considerable degree, this negative assessment originated in the jaundiced observations of late nineteenth-century
critics who were outside the political system. In trying to explain the period, many historians have paid closer
attention to these commentators' biting criticisms than to the words and accomplishments of politicians themselves. The
very name that scholars assign to the period, the Gilded Age, derives from an 1873 novel of that title by Mark Twain and
Charles Dudley Warner, which satirized politics as rife with corruption and fraud committed by self-seeking politicians.
Historians have also been fond of quoting Henry Adams, whose insufferable arrogance doomed his own quest for a political
career. Late in life Adams used his autobiography to strike back at the system that overlooked him, charging that "one
might search the whole list of Congress, Judiciary, and Executive during the twenty-five years 1870 to 1895, and find
little but damaged reputation." He could have added that his own prejudiced diatribes had done much to damage the
reputations of others.
One of the most influential critics was the Englishman James Bryce, whose 1880s trip to the United States, resulting
in his two volume study, The American Commonwealth, led some Americans to label him the Gilded Age Alexis de
Tocqueville. Bryce alleged that neither the Republican nor the Democratic party "has anything definite to say on...
issues; neither party has any principles, any distinctive tenets... All has been lost, except office or the hope of it."
In reaching these conclusions, however, Bryce had come under the sway of Edwin L. Godkin, editor of the Mugwump journal
The Nation, whose disdain for his contemporaries in politics was boundless and not altogether rational. Taking their cue
from Adams, Bryce, Godkin, and other hostile contemporaries, many twentieth-century historians looked back with distaste
at the politics of the last three decades of the nineteenth century.
Other historical sources, such as newspapers, have contributed to slanted interpretations. Most Gilded Age dailies
and weeklies were intensely loyal partisans of one party and had nothing good to say about the politicians of the other.
Their "news" pages as well as their editorial columns served up mixtures of vituperation, trumped up charges of fraud
and corruption, and downright falsehoods about the opposing party. Ohio Governor Joseph B. Foraker exaggerated only
somewhat when he complained in 1885 that for some newspapers it was a "common thing to call the man with whom they do
not happen to agree, a liar, a thief, a villain, a scoundrel, a Yahoo, a marplot, a traitor, a beast, anything and
everything they may be able to command in the way of an epithet." One study shows that a movement for "independent"
journalism in the 1870s led zealous reporters to produce stories about politicians that were often scurrilous and
sometimes wholly imaginary. Scholars' later reliance on these biased journals as sources contributed to their overall
negative impression of politics in the period.
Investigations in Congress had a similar effect. At times the party in control of the House or the Senate used
committee hearings or other legislative reports to discredit actions or doctrines of the opposing party. As an American
diplomat in Paris wrote home to a senator in 1876, "The fury of 'investigation' in Washington has reached such a stage
that it is something like the days of the French Revolution when it was enough to cry 'suspect' and the man was ruined."
Often rooted more in partisanship than reality, these inquiries seemed to lend an official authentication to charges
that, when taken together, have led historians to see the period's politics in the worst possible light.
This problem of skewed sources has been compounded by the tendency of some scholars to read back into the period
modern values concerning government activism. In the words of Geoffrey Blodgett, such historians exhibit "a profound
impatience with the Gilded Age for having not yet discovered the Welfare State." Today the idea that the government is
responsible for the nation's economic growth and the citizens' well-being is widely accepted, but in the late nineteenth
century most people clung to the traditional notion that good government meant limited government. Its main purpose was
to maintain order and protect persons and property. Most citizens would have resisted the redistributive tendency of
many twentieth-century economic policies as a perversion of governmental power. Moreover, allegations of corrupt
purposes by government officials, whether true or not, evoked calls for retrenchment and aroused suspicion of government
in general that inhibited the espousal, let alone the enactment, of positive programs. The cry of "Job!" greeted many
legitimate and worthwhile proposals, particularly those involving subsidies or other expenditures of money. The
resulting climate of distrust reinforced among voters a small-government notion that restrained leaders who might have
taken more aggressive action but who also wished to win elections. As one congressman who lost reelection in 1868
stated, "My opponent is ... a popular because a negative man." In 1890 the Republican majority in Congress passed an
extraordinary number of important laws, with the result that the party lost overwhelmingly in the congressional
elections that year. Lack of achievement is one of the principal failings that scholars have alleged about Gilded Age
governance. In reality, leaders accomplished more than historians used to give them credit for, but they often did so in
spite of the limitations placed on them by an essentially conservative electorate.
Divided control of the national government also slowed the formulation and adoption of policy. Between 1875 and 1897
each major party held the presidency and a clear majority in both houses of Congress for only a single two-year period,
the Republicans in 1889-1891 and the Democrats in 1893-1895. During most of this era, Congress was divided, the
Democrats more often than not controlling the House of Representatives and the Republicans usually holding a majority in
the Senate. These divisions made the passage of legislation difficult. Each of the seven Congresses between 1875 and
1889, on the average, enacted only 317 public laws. But in the 5lst Congress (1889-1891), when Republican President
Benjamin Harrison worked with a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, the number of laws passed shot up
to 531, representing an unprecedented level of legislative accomplishment unequalled until Theodore Roosevelt's second
The balance between the parties in Congress mirrored an equilibrium between Republicans and Democrats in the national
electorate. Except for Democrat Grover Cleveland's two terms, Republicans typically sat in the White House, but in four
of the five presidential elections from 1876 to 1892 the Democratic nominee wound up with more popular votes than his
Republican opponent. In 1880 defeated Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock trailed Republican James A. Garfield by less than
half of 1 percent. A considerable portion of the Democratic votes came from former slave states which, after the end of
Reconstruction, witnessed a widespread suppression of voting by African Americans, who nearly unanimously supported the
Republican party. To take the two most egregious examples, in Louisiana the black population grew by 33 percent between
1870 and 1880, but from the presidential election of 1872 to that of 1880 the number of Republican votes decreased by 47
percent. In Mississippi the black population growth was 46 percent, and the Republican vote decline was 59 percent.
Because of this denial of the suffrage, by 1880 the conservative, white Solid South had emerged, assuring the Democrats
of a large bloc of electoral votes that year and in future presidential elections.
To counterbalance the South the Republicans could depend almost as surely on winning several states in the Northeast
and the upper Midwest, but neither of these two blocs of sure states by itself held enough electoral votes to win the
presidency. Hence, election results usually turned on the outcome in a half-dozen swing or "doubtful" states, the most
important of which were New York and Indiana. During campaigns, party leaders and committees focused their efforts in
these states, enlisting the aid of the party's best speakers and expending the largest proportion of campaign funds. In
addition, the parties often chose residents from doubtful states for their national tickets. Between 1876 and 1892 the
two major parties selected twenty nominees for president and vice president; eight were from New York and five from
One of the criticisms traditional historians leveled against Gilded Age politics was that no real substantive
differences divided Republicans from Democrats. Here again, the equilibrium in party strength offers some explanation.
With the outcome of elections in doubt, party leaders and spokesmen saw the need to exercise caution in articulating
party positions and were wary of getting too far ahead of public opinion. Taking too strong a stand, even on a minor
issue, might offend just enough members of some group to bring defeat at the next election. In 1884, for instance, the
Republicans lost the presidential election after trailing in pivotal New York by about one thousand votes out of one
million. Contemporaries and historians alike could cite many factors, both ideological and organizational, any one of
which could have tipped the balance.
When scholars charge that Gilded Age Republicans and Democrats were largely indistinguishable, they tend to apply an
inappropriate standard. Historically, American political parties have not been like those of European countries, with
starkly differentiated groupings of left and right. Instead, largely because victory in the electoral college requires a
majority rather than a plurality, major parties in the United States seek broad consensus and try to make their appeals
as wide as possible, with the result that a considerable area of agreement often exists between them. In the Gilded Age
the even balance between Republicans and Democrats simply reinforced their perceived need to avoid the fringes of
Despite this need for caution, the major parties were not like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as some traditional
historians have alleged. As several of the revisionist scholars have shown, important ideological distinctions existed
between Republicans and Democrats. Certainly, each party had its internal disagreements and inconsistencies, but overall
they espoused philosophies and policies that clashed in significant ways and offered voters real choices at the polls.
Generally speaking, Republicans placed greater stress on government activism, especially at the national level, with the
primary aim of fostering economic development. They welcomed the nation's burgeoning industrialization and believed the
federal government should assist the process. In the words of Senator John P. Jones, "One of the highest duties of
Government is the adoption of such economic policy as may encourage and develop every industry to which the soil and
climate of the country are adapted." As the period progressed, the protective tariff emerged as the centerpiece of the
Republicans' economic program. Democrats, on the other hand, tended to cling to their party's traditional belief in
small government and states' rights. They criticized elements in the Republicans' program as favoring special interests.
With its low-tariff wing from the agrarian, largely preindustrial South still looming large, the Democratic party
continued its decades-old opposition to tariff protectionism. In pursuit of their goals Republicans read the
Constitution broadly to find sanction for national government action; Democrats' interpretation viewed federal power as
more restricted. In the past generation modern scholars have begun to recognize the differences between parties that
Gilded Age politicians knew instinctively. As the Maine statesman James G. Blaine put it (in a somewhat partisan
fashion) in his book Twenty Years of Congress, late nineteenth-century Democrats and Republicans displayed the same
"enduring and persistent line[s] of division between the two parties which in a generic sense have always existed in the
United States;-the party of strict construction and the party of liberal construction, the party of State Rights and the
party of National Supremacy, the party of stinted revenue and restricted expenditure and the party of generous income
with its wise application to public improvement."
At the state and local levels Republicans again were more willing to resort to government action for what they
perceived to be the good of society. They were more likely than Democrats to advocate restrictions on the consumption of
alcohol, although many Republicans approached the question warily, fearful of repelling blocs of voters, such as German
Americans or Irish Americans, who resented such interference in their personal lives. Similarly, Republicans were more
inclined to favor measures to hasten the assimilation of immigrants, such as requiring the use of the English language
in parochial schools. Again, Democrats tended to oppose such paternalism. In the past few decades several historians,
using quantitative methods to measure voter reaction to such issues, have argued that ethnic and religious distinctions
lay at the root of party affiliation. In this view, voters from pietistic, evangelical Protestant denominations tended
to favor the moralistic stewardship associated with the Republicans, while liturgical, ritualistic sects, especially
Roman Catholics, found comfort in the Democrats' defense of individuals' private lives.
Not all citizens felt well-served by either of the two major parties, and the period witnessed occasional third-party
campaigns. In 1872 a group of Republicans, primarily well-educated, economically independent professionals and
businessmen, bolted their party. Disenchanted with the policies and administrative style of President Ulysses S. Grant,
these self-proclaimed Liberal Republicans mounted an effort to block his reelection. Their nominee, Horace Greeley, won
endorsement by the Democrats, but he met the fate of most third-party candidates, a crushing defeat. The
Prohibitionists, another group drawn mostly from Republican ranks, fielded presidential tickets every year starting in
1880. They reached their high-water mark in 1888 with just under 2.2 percent of the popular vote. The Greenback-Labor or
National party, whose chief policy objective was the inflation of the currency, ran nominees for president from 1876 to
1884. They garnered their largest vote in 1880 with 3.36 percent of the total. They did manage to elect a few
congressmen, their greatest success coming in 1878 with fifteen members of the House out of a total of 293. Occasionally
these third parties were able to upset the calculations of major party leaders, especially in closely contested states.
As Senator Benjamin Harrison noted in 1885, "I have little hope of making Indiana a Republican state with 4,000
Republican Prohibitionists and 8,000 Republican Greenbackers voting separate tickets." Even so, the possibility of such
parties achieving power themselves remained virtually nonexistent, and fringe groups, such as the Socialists, had even
The third party that came closest to moving into major party status was the People's party, or the Populists, in the
1890s. Historians disagree over the degree to which economic distress or other causes moved farmers to become Populists,
but the party's rhetoric was heavily freighted with economic issues. Farmers found themselves increasingly caught up in
a world market structure with volatile prices for farm commodities. A general downward trend in prices magnified the
debt burden of farmers, many of whom had overextended themselves into regions of dubious agricultural productivity.
Blaming their troubles on a variety of scapegoats, including railroads, manufacturing trusts, bankers, and the monetary
system, many farmers were disappointed when the two-party system seemed unwilling to adopt their various proposals for
relief. In 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, won over one million popular votes (out of twelve
million cast) and twenty-two electoral votes. The Populists elected some members of Congress and achieved momentary
success in some individual states and parts of states. In the nation as a whole, however, most voters, even in many
farming regions, stuck with the two major parties.
Indeed, throughout the late nineteenth century the vast majority of voters stood by the Republicans or the Democrats,
in congressional and state elections as well as in presidential contests. Moreover, whatever their motivation, party
supporters went to the polls in huge numbers. In presidential election years over 75 percent of eligible voters
typically cast ballots, a turnout rate far in excess of twentieth-century averages. In this sense the active political
community in the Gilded Age was much broader than its modern-day counterpart. In another sense, however, the political
community was narrower, for virtually everywhere women were denied the ballot, and in the South, after the end of
Reconstruction, conservative white Democrats employed a variety of means to block voting by African Americans. But even
with these egregious exclusions from the suffrage, politics remained a consuming interest to people throughout the
nation, engaging the enthusiastic participation of millions of citizens.
What kind of leader emerged in this popular political culture? Among the most enduring stereotypes from the period is
that of small-minded, grasping politicians who used public office mostly to serve their own interests, and often for
their own financial gain, with little real concern for matters of policy or the public good. Recent research reveals a
strikingly different portrait of the people who led the two major parties, especially at the national level. Certainly,
the idea of conflict of interest was underdeveloped and some politicians took bribes or otherwise engaged in corrupt
practices, but in all likelihood no higher percentage did so than during most other times in the nation's history.
Indeed, the zealous partisan quest for scandalous material about political opponents probably resulted in allegations of
questionable conduct regarding behavior that in other eras might have been winked at or overlooked.
In reality many men who rose to be party leaders considered politics much more a financial burden than a boon. The
pay of a congressman or cabinet member, for instance, while considerably above the wages of the average American, fell
far short of what most such men could earn in private life. Moreover, the expenses that accompanied politics and
government service diminished their finances still further. Typically, a congressman discovered that campaign costs ate
up about a year's worth of his salary. Once in office, his expenses continued, including the maintenance of a second
home in costly Washington, DC, during much of the year. In March 1874, for example, an Illinois congressman wrote home
to his wife that he was "in debt [for] board for a month and must wait for the 3rd of April before I can make ends
meet." During another session a senator found an apartment on K Street with only three rooms and no private bath for a
rent of $250 per month, 60 percent of his monthly salary. In 1873, Congress voted a much-needed pay raise for its
members and other federal officers, but a politically unwise provision to make the raise retroactive to the beginning of
the current congressional term sparked a press outcry. Quickly the Senate and House returned their members' pay to its
former level, where it remained for the rest of the period.
During this so-called salary grab controversy one Massachusetts constituent wrote his congressman that "if we would
preserve our republican institutions in their simplicity and purity, the salary of no officer within the gift of the
people should be an inducement to any man to seek it." Such an attitude on the part of the public regarding government
salaries had unfortunate consequences. Low pay certainly enhanced the attractiveness of bribes or other illicit gain.
More important, it sometimes deterred able individuals from seeking public office. As one Illinois lawyer argued when he
refused to run for the House, a seat in Congress often took "honorable, self-respecting gentlemen ... and kept them in a
state of shabby genteel pauperism all their lives." The result too frequently was that only men of independent means or
substantial wealth could afford or would accept such service. If, by the end of the century, Americans complained that
the Senate had become a "millionaires' club," to some degree they had themselves to blame.
One compensation for congressional service was supposed to be the patronage power, the privilege of placing one's
political friends and supporters in subordinate offices. Typically, senators and representatives from the party in power
sent the president and other executive-branch officers recommendations of people to fill federal offices in their own
states and in Washington. As a personnel program for the federal bureaucracy with its one hundred thousand-plus
positions, this so-called spoils system was not without its own internal logic. With respect to governance, the system's
defenders maintained that the president's policy aims would best be served by employees recruited from his own party and
that he should gladly take the advice of senators and representatives who better knew the qualifications of applicants
from their localities. On the political level, they argued, elections were won through the interested labor of a
committed cadre of party workers, and rewarding such labor by the bestowal of appointive office was essential to the
recruitment and maintenance of these cadres.
To many political leaders, however, dealing with patronage seemed more a punishment than a power. Yes, one might
build a loyal core of backers from those who received appointments, but for each office, ranging from postal clerk to
cabinet officer, a dozen or more applicants might press their claims, and as Senator John Sherman noted, "however wise
may be the selection there will be many disappointments." Disappointing an office seeker might be politically damaging,
but it could also be personally wrenching. As one Interior Department official wrote during the depression of the 1890s,
"I have hungry men and women by the score coming to see me in the hope and belief that I can give them employment, and
this has made my office here a burden. I cannot refuse to see them, and my inability to help them has come to be a kind
of torture.On top of it all, politicians who recommended or who madeappointments found themselves severely denounced by
a growing civil service reform lobby that called for merit considerations over partisanship in the selection and
promotion of government employees.
From the politicians' standpoint, the worst drawback of the spoils system was the enormous loss of time and energy
devoted to dealing with office seekers and pushing recommendations. Former President Harrison looked back on his years
in the White House and noted that during the first eighteen months of his term a president typically spent four to six
hours per day on patronage matters. Congressman Garfield called it "the most intolerable burden I have to bear." In
1883, Congress began to remedy the problem with passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act, an important step in the
creation of a professionalized bureaucracy. The law initially brought only a portion of the offices under the merit
system, but successive presidential administrations expanded the classified list. The pressure for office eased
somewhat, but applications still flooded in at the beginning of a presidential term and also during times of high
unemployment. Both these conditions existed in the spring of 1897, when, during the first four months of William
McKinley's administration, Senator John C. Spooner of Wisconsin received and answered over seven thousand letters-more
than 130 on July 4 alone-most of them about offices. Whatever civil service reformers might say, in dealing with
patronage, as one congressman put it, he and his colleagues considered themselves "more the oppressed than the
National political leaders faced other vexations, not least of which was the sheer physical discomfort of working in
Washington much of the year. "It is so terribly hot here that we can hardly live," one congressman wrote his wife in
1870. During the summer the mercury inside the House of Representatives frequently topped ninety degrees, even after
sundown. In September 1888, Spooner described the poorly ventilated Senate chamber as "a box within a box." "I have been
pretty nearly laid up with a headache for a week or ten days," he complained. "Hardly a man in the Senate feels well."
Moreover, although committee chairmen had the use of their committee rooms as quasi-offices, most members of Congress
received no office space beyond their small desks in the crowded chamber. They were thus forced to rent offices at their
own expense or do most of their work in their living quarters. Similarly, a committee chairman enjoyed the assistance of
the committee's clerk, but the typical member had no staff unless he hired and paid a clerk out of his own pocket.
Even with the help of a clerk, a member frequently felt overwhelmed by the work. In addition to the patronage burden,
constituent correspondence was often heavy, and a member could delay answers to letters only at his political peril.
Citizens expected their representative or senator to serve as their agent whenever they had business before the
government, with the result that congressmen spent much time prowling the executive departments tracking down veterans'
pensions, pushing claims, or otherwise advocating constituents' causes. Furthermore, with rare exceptions, members of
Congress researched and wrote their own speeches, sometimes several hours in length. The work did not stop once a speech
was given; a congressman who delivered a major speech or extended remarks during a day's session might stay up until two
or three o'clock the next morning correcting the text for the Congressional Record. "It is up hill work all of it," one
wrote to his wife in 1872, "and last night when I came home I could hardly draw one foot after another."
Over in the executive branch conditions were hardly better. In 1891 the second in command of the Post Office
Department begged for another assistant, telling Congress, "I average at my desk--without a moment's absence from the
building-more than ten hours a day, besides night work." Two months after leaving the White House, Harrison confessed,
"There is nothing further from my mind or thought or wish than the resumption of public office. I was thoroughly tired
and worn out." Possibilities for achievement by politicians did, of course, exist, and many posted creditable records.
"But," as Senator George F. Edmunds noted, "whether their own lives have been the happier for such labor, with such
inevitable trials and exposures, may be greatly doubted."
Grueling work, pay unequal to the labor, uncertainty of tenure-who would want such a job? Why would men pursue
careers in national politics? Explaining the mystery of ambition lies perhaps more with the psychologist than the
historian, but it seems clear that, like most successful politicians, men who attained positions of leadership in the
late nineteenth century simply took immense satisfaction from being at the center of action and power. Garfield, a man
of intellect with wide interests, frequently thought of leaving politics but could never quite bring himself to do it.
After reading poet Ralph Waldo Emerson's book Society and Solitude, the Ohio congressman mused that "the calm spirit
which [Emerson] breathes around him, makes me desire greatly to get up and out of the smoke and dust and noise of
politics into the serene air of literature. Still," he confessed, "I suppose, if I were there, I should grow weary of
the silence." In the words of Senator Spooner, "There is in public life ... much that is burdensome and distasteful to a
man of sensibility," and yet, "with it all there is a fascination about public life which I hardly know how to define
but the existence of which is unmistakable."
In large measure, the attractiveness of political life, especially for leaders at the national level, lay in the
sense of accomplishment public service offered them. Despite the frustrations they endured, most remained convinced that
their labors sustained and promoted firmly held principles. Hence, even such a senator as Indiana's Oliver P. Morton,
often dismissed as a blatant spoilsman interested only in office mongering, could write an eight-page letter to the
president discussing the intricacies of the currency question. The same issue was near the heart of Illinois Senator
John A. Logan, whose letters to his wife chronicled his fierce struggle for the Inflation Bill in 1874:
[January 21:] To tell you the truth I have not been in 4 hours any night for one week I have been so busy on my
[February 21:] I have been up again last night and am nearly worn out but will get some rest soon. This fight in the
Senate equals any ever made as is said by every person here. We are fighting against all the large papers, all the
bankers, all the importers, and aristocrats [and] for the people.
[April 4:] I am nearer a worn out man than I ever have been in my life. My mind has been on such a stretch for months
that I am nearly exhausted but hope soon to be all right again as our great fight is practically at an end.
Two weeks later Mrs. Logan wrote the senator and showed how much she shared his anxiety: "I could not keep from
crying this evening when I read the telegram announcing that the President had vetoed the 'Finance Bill.' " Evidence of
this deep sense of commitment could be multiplied many times over, but one more example will suffice. A half year after
leaving office, former cabinet member Jeremiah Rusk wrote a friend: "It makes me sick to see my old department-the
agricultural-shrink and wither as though it had been struck by an August frost. I felt as though the foundation had been
laid for the greatest department of the Government-by its enlargement and by increasing its usefulness to the
agricultural classes-but [now] it seems the policy has been changed to see how little can be done."
For most Gilded Age political leaders, their commitment to principle, as well as their personal ambition, was
inextricably linked to devotion to party. They could not achieve their goals unless they gained power, which they could
not do except through the agency of one of the two major parties. Leaders high and low, and many voters as well,
displayed a dedication to party that bordered on zealotry. Even so level-headed a politician as Treasury Secretary John
Sherman once confessed to a friend that the idea of the opposing party coming to power "haunts me like a nightmare."
Parties were nearly as old as the Republic. The emergence of mass politics earlier in the nineteenth century had led
to the creation of partisan structures and methods that were well established by the beginning of the Gilded Age. In a
general sense, party organizations served as the essential link between leaders, who formulated policy and governed, and
the voters, who, with their own beliefs and notions, sought guidance and inspiration. In an age when politicians had no
independent means for reaching masses of voters (such as television in the late twentieth century), the party
constituted the essential vehicle for communicating with the electorate.
In both major parties the structure was pyramidal, resting on a broad foundation at the precinct or ward level and
moving up through town, city, county, legislative and congressional districts, state, and nation. At each level the
periodic convention was the basic governing unit for the party. Gatherings of leaders and interested activists, these
conventions served several purposes. Those in attendance selected nominees for public office and issued platforms
promulgating party beliefs, they chose delegates to attend subsequent conventions up the pyramid, and they created
various committees to conduct the ensuing campaign and to carry on party business until the next convention.
As this structure suggests, the national party was in reality little more than a confederation of state and local
parties, with only a weak national committee structure holding it together between presidential election years. Even so,
the quadrennial national convention was in many ways the crowning event in the party's cycle. Here, delegates on the
platform committee from throughout the nation hammered out a statement of shared ideals, and here, delegates sought to
choose a presidential ticket that would win the confidence and votes of party members everywhere. Although local issues
and battles remained important to voters, the national convention and the following campaign proved to be powerful
forces for the renewal of party identification.
Responsibility for organizing and conducting the national campaign lay with the national committee (chosen by the
national convention), and especially its executive committee and officers: chairman, secretary, and treasurer. These
officials had no power to dictate to state or local committees but tried to coordinate their activities as best they
could. The national committee was assisted by a congressional campaign committee, which in off-years as well as in
presidential years aided party candidates for Congress.
The traditional interpretation of Gilded Age politics held that in conducting their campaigns, politicians relied
mostly on organizational techniques and machine management to win elections. Indeed, one important study labeled the
era's political culture as "the triumph of organizational politics." Certainly, party managers perfected remarkably
accurate advance polling schemes and created elaborate get-out-the-vote mechanisms, but close examination of
politicians' behavior reveals that, in fact, they also placed great stress on the discussion of issues. The late
nineteenth century saw a decline in the significance of parades, picnics, bonfires, rallies, and similar devices to
ignite the emotions of the party faithful. More and more, political leaders turned to what they called the "campaign of
education," appealing to voters on questions of government policy, especially those that affected citizens' economic
well-being in an industrializing society. In the words of one campaign official in 1868, who was sending out tens of
thousands of pamphlets to voters each day, "The people are intelligent and want something different from 'horrible
caricatures and sensational trash.' "
Successful politicians came to realize that winning or retaining power rested largely on the flow of information to
the electorate. Because communications technology had advanced little beyond the telegraph, they could reach voters only
through public speeches or in print. Hence, in the months before elections, hundreds of state and national party leaders
took to the hustings, speaking to audiences day after day for weeks on end, laying out their party's doctrines and
appealing for support. For these men, the campaign season was a punishing time, filled with poorly ventilated halls or
huge outdoor crowds, endless miles in jostling, dirty railroad cars, sleep deprivation, and indigestion. One campaigner
reported to the Republican national committee in 1872 that "breathing railroad dust every day and speaking in the open
air every night has played havoc with my voice. I am very hoarse and must lay up a day or two for repairs." By
midcampaign that year the seemingly tireless James G. Blaine confessed that eight weeks of speechmaking had left him
"completely worn out." Still, he and others returned to the task year after year, because they were convinced of the
continuing need to appeal to what Blaine called the "will of the Sovereign People."
The parties and their leaders did not depend solely on personal speaking. An effective orator might convey his
message to several thousand listeners, but a printed version of his address could expand his audience many times over.
Indeed, the production and distribution of such speeches and other printed matter played a pivotal role in late
nineteenth-century electioneering. Printed campaign material included congressional speeches, other addresses,
statistical tables, reproduced newspaper items, and other brief broadsides. In Blaine's words, "little tracts" carrying
the party's message were "exceedingly effective, short enough to read, and read by everybody. "
Party committees in New York and Washington dispatched pamphlets in huge quantities for local distribution. In 1872,
for instance, before the end of September, the Republican congressional campaign committee had sent out more than seven
million tracts in addition to a circular three times per week to three thousand rural newspapers. Typically, in election
years the committees also published so-called campaign textbooks, that is, collections of documents, speeches, and
similar material, to aid state and local speakers and editors as they composed their appeals to voters in their own
localities. Through most of the period, congressional incumbents had the added advantage of being able to mail campaign
literature as documents under their "frank," or free postal privilege. In addition, the parties counted on the help of
special interest groups. In the first eight months of 1888, for example, the American Iron and Steel Association
distributed over 1,100,000 of its Tariff Tract pamphlets in support of the Republican party's protectionist
The conventional wisdom among most contemporary politicians (and later historians) was that a party's main objective
was simply to poll its full vote, that is, that there was not much chance of winning converts from the opposing party.
With party identification strong among the electorate and party switching relatively rare, the principal aim in
campaigns was to inspire the party faithful to get to the polls rather than to persuade others to come on board. Yet, at
times, political leaders seemed to forget this maxim and urged workers and speakers to try to attract wavering voters
from the enemy camp. In 1888, for instance, one state party chairman instructed organizers of campaign speech events to
"invite, especially, moderate men of the opposition who are likely to be influenced by sound arguments and persuasive
appeals." Particularly in doubtful states, such as Indiana and New York, attracting even a few defectors from the
opposing party could spell the difference between victory and defeat.
The closeness of elections heightened the possibility that vote buying or other forms of corruption could influence the
outcome. It was a rare election that did not bring a barrage of allegations of fraud leveled by the two major parties
against each other or by self-styled reformers and third-party losers against one or both major parties. Substantiating
the myriad charges is difficult, however, and modern scholars disagree about the amount or the impact of election
corruption in the period. According to one study, citizens who took money for their votes were relatively few in number
and selected candidates from their own party anyway; those who sold their vote to the party that paid them more for it
were an even smaller minority of purchased voters. Of course, in a close election even a small number of purchased
"floating" votes could contribute to the result, but it is equally true that all the unpurchased votes-usually the vast
majority-influenced the result as well. "The majority of voters," this study asserts, "were not bribed but, rather,
voted for their party out of deep and long-standing loyalty."
Much more than bribery, legitimate campaign outlays represented a consistent and pervasive drain on party resources.
Such expenses included the salaries of paid party officials and workers, travel expenses for campaigners, polling,
outfitting headquarters rooms and public lecture halls, advertising, office supplies, postage, printing and distributing
documents and textbooks, financial support for party newspapers, and on and on. In 1888, Irish World editor Patrick Ford
itemized his expenses for organizing the Irish-American voters in New York City for the Republican party. Most of the
funds went for salaries (district organizers, assistant directors, clerks, messenger boys, and so forth), but his list
also included "Fitting Up 30 Ward Rooms" with such items as three thousand chairs at 35 cents each, banners and signs
for each room at $25.00, and gaslight for each room at $3.00 per week for fourteen weeks. The total came to $73,465, and
this was for only one portion of the population in a city usually carried by the opposing party.
Campaigns were costly. The responsibility for raising the necessary funds lay with party executive committees or
separate finance committees, which often found their task difficult. Traditionally, committees expected state and
federal officeholders to contribute a portion of their government salaries to the party cause. This source was not
available to the party out of power, however, and the Civil Service Act of 1883 made federal officials less vulnerable
to this kind of political assessment. By 1892 one state party chairman was complaining that "postmasters who receive
from $600 to $ 1 000 [per year in salary] send in contributions of from $3.00 to $5.00."
As the period progressed, parties looked increasingly to other sources of revenue, including economic interests that
stood to benefit from the enactment of party policies. Traditional historians have referred to this sort of fund-raising
as "frying the fat" from large capitalists who, in turn, expected subservience from the politicians, especially on
issues affecting their businesses. In reality, the relationship was more complex. For one thing, there was no certainty
that such contributions would be forthcoming. After narrowly losing his race for the presidency in 1884, Blaine
complained, "I was beaten in New York simply for the lack of $25,000 which I tried in vain to raise in New York in the
last week of the campaign. With all the immense interests of the tariff at stake, I don't think a single manufacturer
gave $20,000. I doubt if one gave $10,000." Four years later, however, when the tariff issue dominated the campaign, the
national committee amassed a war chest in excess of $1.2 million. Yet in 1890 tariff beneficiaries seemed asleep again;
when congressional Republicans sought reelection after passing the highly protective McKinley Tariff Act, campaign
officials complained that money comes in slowly & in small amounts." In 1896, when the tariff steward McKinley himself
ran for president against William Jennings Bryan, whose economic ideas many businessmen considered dangerous, Republican
campaign manager Mark Hanna had millions in campaign funds at his disposal.
Raising funds from business sources thus met with erratic success, and even when the party received such
contributions, they did not automatically lead to businessmen getting what they wanted. James M. Swank, general manager
of the American Iron and Steel Association, a strong backer of the protective tariff and always a big contributor to the
Republican party, complained about the party's poor performance in the passage of the Tariff of 1883. "It is
unfortunate," he wrote the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, "that your Committee, in considering the Tariff
Commission's schedules, did not invite a few leading representatives of the most important industries of the country to
appear before it. The new tariff does not give satisfaction in many quarters." Swank and the iron and steel interests
had to wait seven years, until the McKinley Act, for a tariff they found fully satisfactory.
Swank had been on hand in Washington for the hectic final days of congressional debate on the 1883 tariff, only to
return home to Philadelphia disappointed and suffering from a severe cold and "physical prostration." His experience was
not unusual and belies the stereotype of the overbearing lobbyist whipping politicians into line. The negative
reputation of lobbyists notwithstanding, there was nothing inherently corrupt or even unreasonable in a legislator's
listening to the recommendations of constituents and others affected by legislation. It was not unusual for a
congressman to turn to such individuals as the only available source of information about a particular industry or
interest. Moreover, politicians and business lobbyists frequently subscribed to the same basic views anyway. Senate
Finance Committee leaders such as Justin Morrill, John Sherman, and Nelson Aldrich did not need Swank to convince them
of the importance of tariff protection to further the nation's industrial development, although circumstances did not
always permit them to enact their ideas.
More problematic were those instances in which congressmen came under pressure from conflicting interests. What was a
senator to do, for instance, when woolen manufacturers urged a decrease in import duties on raw wool and sheep farmers
demanded an increase? Consider the case of New York Senator William M. Evarts who, while Congress was considering the
Interstate Commerce Act, received pleas from a Buffalo coal wholesaler "to render all the aid you possibly can to the
passage of the Reagan Bill," and from a Seneca Falls pump manufacturer to "use your very best endeavors in killing this
suicidal bill." American business interests, or "capitalists," were not a monolith, and a congressman obviously could
not have a "sweetheart relationship" with both sides of diametrically opposed interests.
While some legislators were undoubtedly in the pocket of large business interests, most had the opportunity to hear a
variety of voices: rich, middle class, and poor-farmers, laborers, small factory owners, importers, academics,
clergymen, lawyers, and merchants, as well as bankers and leaders of large corporations. In the absence of the twentieth
century's sophisticated opinion survey techniques that track Americans' attitudes on public issues, Gilded Age political
leaders paid close attention to the often numerous letters they received from constituents and others. The surviving
papers of congressmen and senators give unmistakable evidence of a broad citizen interest in national issues. In 1888,
for instance, an Ohio farmer of uncertain literacy wrote his senator: "Do No Let a free traid bill pass if Can be helped
because it will be a injury to the farmer in the Contry. We Cant Compeate with Foran Labor at 30 cents a day or less."
On the free silver question Brooklynite Thomas Edge wrote the Senate Finance Committee chairman, "I am a poor working
man but I want and mean to have the best money this nation can give for my work." "For God['s] sake," wrote a Wisconsin
insurance agent to his senator, "and for the sake of suffering humanity, hurry up the tariff bill. The whole business of
the country is hung up in suspense." Such letters might not carry as much weight as those from a James Swank, but they
were not ignored. Most congressmen read all such correspondence and wrote replies or told a clerk to send a specific
response along with an appropriate printed speech or document.
Illustrations of this ardent citizen engagement, especially concerning economic questions, could be multiplied almost
infinitely, demonstrating that political debate was not an empty or "false" argument among the elite but in some measure
an ongoing dialogue between leaders and the led. Such evidence also suggests that voters' preferences and actions were
not motivated solely or perhaps even principally by local or ethno-religious considerations. Clearly, they gave rational
consideration to the economic issues that dominated national political debate, issues whose outcome would affect their
own well-being. Party leaders understood that political reality; as the Republican vice chairman weighed his party's
tariff strategy in 1888, he observed that "the masses may be wrong, of course, but they are going to furnish the votes
that will decide this election." Conversely, citizens had more faith in the politicians' willingness and ability to act
for the public good than many later historians gave them credit for. As one contemporary journalist wrote, "The
politicians, after all, are the ones who inspire the people. It may be a humiliating confession for an American but it
is a fact."
In assessing the Gilded Age political universe as a whole, one might well ask: Was it wrong for citizens to have faith
in their leaders? If not, why did not government accomplish more, especially at the federal level? In one sense,
Americans got the government they asked for. With the major-party electorate evenly divided between Republicans and
Democrats-leading to divided party control of the national government-stalemate often resulted. Yet, it would be wrong
to dismiss the era as a whole as one of little accomplishment. The decades after the Civil War saw a shift in political
concern away from the dominance of sectional issues toward questions of economic policymaking, with important
implications for the evolution of government's role in the following century. When Gilded Age politicians tried to cope
with the vexing and divisive currency issue, for example, they implicitly recognized that the government had a part to
play in determining the country's money supply and, hence, the level of economic activity, a role that would be the
essence of twentieth-century fiscal and monetary policy. The tariff issue had the power to touch people all across
economic lines, and Congress's grappling with it was at its core a debate over what the government should do to promote
prosperity-a question that continues to dominate policy debate to this day. Subsidies to railroads or other enterprises,
often criticized as the quintessence of Gilded Age misfeasance, could be seen as an innovative approach to
government/business cooperation in creating and modernizing the infrastructure of an industrializing nation. The late
nineteenth century also witnessed the beginning of serious government regulation of business with the foundations laid
down by the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the government began to police itself with the
Pendleton Civil Service Act. Some scholars even see the government's pension program for Union veterans as an important
antecedent for twentieth-century welfare policies.
Among the most important developments in the late nineteenth century was the growing strength and importance of the
office of president. Having recovered from the blows struck by the attempted impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the
scandals of the Grant administration, the presidency, by the end of the century, had become the center of the national
political system. Historically, policymaking had been the province of Congress, but, more and more, presidents went
beyond their traditional administrative role to act as legislative leaders on behalf of their policy objectives. By the
end of the century, much legislation was being originally drafted in the executive branch. As with much else in American
life, the 1890s brought an extraordinary transformation in presidential activism. At the beginning of the decade,
Harrison employed a variety of means to achieve his ends: veto threats to influence the shape of legislation, well-timed
messages and public statements to garner support, and informal dinners and other consultations with congressmen at the
White House to push them in the right direction. Harrison's successor, Grover Cleveland, was in many ways a strong
executive, but his ham-handed efforts to pressure Democrats in Congress frequently backfired and left him isolated from
much of his party. McKinley picked up where Harrison left off. As a smoother, more skillful politician who saw the
importance of cultivating good press relations, McKinley proved so effective as an administrator and legislative leader
that recent scholars consider him the first modern president.
A strong national executive, with the president voicing citizens' concerns from the "bully pulpit," emerged as a
defining feature of the Progressive Era that followed. In other ways as well the Gilded Age foreshadowed the Progressive
Era, including the increasing emphasis on government activism to address economic problems and other issues and in the
impulse toward reform. Progressivism was not merely the discovery of new purposes for government; it also represented
the release of government activism from the restraining effect of the previous era's two decades of political
equilibrium. One of the main reasons the Progressive Era started when it did was that the stalemate had been broken.
Because the Republicans had established themselves as the majority party in the mid-1890s, President Theodore Roosevelt
was freer than his predecessors of worries about perpetuating his party in power. Less fearful of frustration at the
hands of historically obstructionist Democrats (many of whom were now taking on progressive ways of thinking), Roosevelt
could move toward governing much more boldly.
The late nineteenth century witnessed profound changes in the United States. Scholars once treated its political life
almost as an historical embarrassment, in Henry Adams's words, "poor in purpose and barren in result." Most historians
now realize how inadequate that judgment was to describe this complex and portentous time, bridging the age of Abraham
Lincoln and that of Theodore Roosevelt. In a rapidly evolving society, political leaders confronted problems of
unprecedented intricacy and scope. That they were locked in partisan stalemate much of the time and frequently hamstrung
by one of the major parties, the Democrats, who believed that Americans wanted less government, not more, often
prevented vigorous action. Yet, they were able to post some modest success in reaching solutions to the society's
problems. More important, leaders of a more activist inclination, including Republicans such as John Sherman, Benjamin
Harrison, and William McKinley, glimpsed, if they did not fully appreciate, the broader possibilities for energetic
government. In important ways they helped lay the groundwork for the twentieth-century American polity.
Source:Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 239-60.