DISCUSSION TOPIC: How did the term “Gilded Age” characterize American society in the late 19th century? Provide a specific example of how this characterization is accurate AND inaccurate.What was life like on the home front during the American Civil War?
Home front conditions during the Civil War was plagued by death, disease, food and
supply shortages, and lack of male protection during a time that dictated women were inferior,
lacked reason, and were incapable of facing the hardships of life and war. In the north women
were better equipped to aid the war effort because they were previously involved in running
reform movement organizations, their relief programs and associations were better organized,
and they were able to pool their resources to form national organizations. The United States
Sanitary Commission planned, organized, and conducted massive fund-raising, organized the
nurse training program, and made sure the nurses made it to their posts. Urban women raised
over $15 million worth of supplies through door-to-door solicitation, musical benefits, and
lecture conferences. Rural women provided fruits and vegetables grown in ‘Sanitary Potato
Patches.’ In the north there were “truly exceptional women” such Clara Barton who overcame
feelings of humiliation because she was shamed by her thoughts of being only a woman when
her brave boys were wounded all around her (Roark et al., 2014, 403). She broke the shackles
and went to the field to aid the boys wounded by battle. She later founded the American division
of the International Red Cross. Dorothea Dix was the superintendent of nurses for the Union
Army. She solved the problem of men being distracted by pretty nurses in the field by only
hiring homely women over the age of thirty. Hardships were faced everyday by women of the
north. As their husbands and sons went off to war, they had to take care of family businesses,
tend to the farm and the animals, and act as sole caretaker of the younger children
Despite all the hardships they faced, women of the north were by far luckier than women
of the south. Southern women bore the greater hardships of war because it was fought in their
hometowns. They still had to deal with death, disease, and a lack of male protection, but because
the south fought a defensive war its women were often exposed to rape, confiscation of property
by Union soldiers, and a major lack of food and supplies. Although Union blockades were
partially responsible for food and supply shortages, the Confederate elite and merchants held a
greater share of the blame because making money was more important than the war effort.
Many planters refused to give up their profitable cotton crops to plant grains, those planters who
did harvest grains often hoarded their harvests, and merchants who had access to food and
supplies refused to sell to hungry mothers because they were unable to pay highly inflated prices.
As poverty, inflation, and hunger took over the southern states, “hungry women” conducted raids
under the red flag of deprivation (Roark et al., 2014, 405). The countryside was destroyed by
battles, the cities were filled with homeless refugees and food was scarce. Hundreds of women
throughout the south decided to act. Armed with knives and pitchforks, they broke into shops
and food stores confiscating flour, bacon, sugar, coffee, candles, clothes, and whatever else they
could. The women were not prosecuted because there was too much popular sympathy for them,
especially since they were soldiers’ wives.
Roark, J., Johnson, M., Cohen P., Stage, S., Hartmann, S. (2014). The American Promise, A
Concise History, Boston / New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.1 L. Frank Baum’s story of a Kansas girl and the magical land of Oz has become a classic of both film
and screen, but it may have originated in part as an allegory of late nineteenth-century politics and the rise of the
Populist movement.
Chapter Outline
20.1 Political Corruption in Postbellum America
20.2 The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold
20.3 Farmers Revolt in the Populist Era
20.4 Social and Labor Unrest in the 1890s
L. Frank Baum was a journalist who rose to prominence at the end of the nineteenth century. Baum’s most
famous story, The Wizard of Oz (Figure 20.1), was published in 1900, but “Oz” first came into being years
earlier, when he told a story to a group of schoolchildren visiting his newspaper office in South Dakota.
He made up a tale of a wonderful land, and, searching for a name, he allegedly glanced down at his file
cabinet, where the bottom drawer was labeled “O-Z.” Thus was born the world of Oz, where a girl from
struggling Kansas hoped to get help from a “wonderful wizard” who proved to be a fraud. Since then,
many have speculated that the story reflected Baum’s political sympathies for the Populist Party, which
galvanized midwestern and southern farmers’ demands for federal reform. Whether he intended the story
to act as an allegory for the plight of farmers and workers in late nineteenth-century America, or whether
he simply wanted to write an “American fairy tale” set in the heartland, Populists looked for answers
much like Dorothy did. And the government in Washington proved to be meek rather than magical.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
20.1 Political Corruption in Postbellum America
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Discuss the national political scene during the Gilded Age
• Analyze why many critics considered the Gilded Age a period of ineffective national
The challenges Americans faced in the post-Civil War era extended far beyond the issue of Reconstruction
and the challenge of an economy without slavery. Political and social repair of the nation was paramount,
as was the correlative question of race relations in the wake of slavery. In addition, farmers faced the task
of cultivating arid western soils and selling crops in an increasingly global commodities market, while
workers in urban industries suffered long hours and hazardous conditions at stagnant wages.
Farmers, who still composed the largest percentage of the U.S. population, faced mounting debts as
agricultural prices spiraled downward. These lower prices were due in large part to the cultivation of more
acreage using more productive farming tools and machinery, global market competition, as well as price
manipulation by commodity traders, exorbitant railroad freight rates, and costly loans upon which farmers
depended. For many, their hard work resulted merely in a continuing decline in prices and even greater
debt. These farmers, and others who sought leaders to heal the wounds left from the Civil War, organized
in different states, and eventually into a national third-party challenge, only to find that, with the end of
Reconstruction, federal political power was stuck in a permanent partisan stalemate, and corruption was
widespread at both the state and federal levels.
As the Gilded Age unfolded, presidents had very little power, due in large part to highly contested
elections in which relative popular majorities were razor-thin. Two presidents won the Electoral College
without a popular majority. Further undermining their efficacy was a Congress comprising mostly
politicians operating on the principle of political patronage. Eventually, frustrated by the lack of leadership
in Washington, some Americans began to develop their own solutions, including the establishment of
new political parties and organizations to directly address the problems they faced. Out of the frustration
Figure 20.2
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
wrought by war and presidential political impotence, as well as an overwhelming pace of industrial
change, farmers and workers formed a new grassroots reform movement that, at the end of the century,
was eclipsed by an even larger, mostly middle-class, Progressive movement. These reform efforts did bring
about change—but not without a fight.
Mark Twain coined the phrase “Gilded Age” in a book he co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner in
1873, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The book satirized the corruption of post-Civil War society and
politics. Indeed, popular excitement over national growth and industrialization only thinly glossed over
the stark economic inequalities and various degrees of corruption of the era (Figure 20.3). Politicians of the
time largely catered to business interests in exchange for political support and wealth. Many participated
in graft and bribery, often justifying their actions with the excuse that corruption was too widespread for
a successful politician to resist. The machine politics of the cities, specifically Tammany Hall in New York,
illustrate the kind of corrupt, but effective, local and national politics that dominated the era.
Figure 20.3 Pages from Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, published in 1873. The illustrations in this chapter reveal the
cost of doing business in Washington in this new age of materialism and corruption, with the cost of obtaining a
female lobbyist’s support set at $10,000, while that of a male lobbyist or a “high moral” senator can be had for $3,000.
Nationally, between 1872 and 1896, the lack of clear popular mandates made presidents reluctant to
venture beyond the interests of their traditional supporters. As a result, for nearly a quarter of a century,
presidents had a weak hold on power, and legislators were reluctant to tie their political agendas to such
weak leaders. On the contrary, weakened presidents were more susceptible to support various legislators’
and lobbyists’ agendas, as they owed tremendous favors to their political parties, as well as to key financial
contributors, who helped them garner just enough votes to squeak into office through the Electoral
College. As a result of this relationship, the rare pieces of legislation passed were largely responses to the
desires of businessmen and industrialists whose support helped build politicians’ careers.
What was the result of this political malaise? Not surprisingly, almost nothing was accomplished on
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
the federal level. However, problems associated with the tremendous economic growth during this time
continued to mount. More Americans were moving to urban centers, which were unable to accommodate
the massive numbers of working poor. Tenement houses with inadequate sanitation led to widespread
illness. In rural parts of the country, people fared no better. Farmers were unable to cope with the
challenges of low prices for their crops and exorbitant costs for everyday goods. All around the country,
Americans in need of solutions turned further away from the federal government for help, leading to the
rise of fractured and corrupt political groups.
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Mark Twain and the Gilded Age
Mark Twain (Figure 20.4) wrote The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today with his neighbor, Charles Dudley
Warner, as a satire about the corrupt politics and lust for power that he felt characterized American
society at the time. The book, the only novel Twain ever co-authored, tells of the characters’ desire to sell
their land to the federal government and become rich. It takes aim at both the government in Washington
and those Americans, in the South and elsewhere, whose lust for money and status among the newly
rich in the nation’s capital leads them to corrupt and foolish choices.
Figure 20.4 Mark Twain was a noted humorist, recognized by most Americans as the greatest writer of
his day. He co-wrote the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873.
In the following conversation from Chapter Fifty-One of the book, Colonel Sellers instructs young
Washington Hawkins on the routine practices of Congress:
“Now let’s figure up a little on, the preliminaries. I think Congress always tries to do as near
right as it can, according to its lights. A man can’t ask any fairer than that. The first preliminary
it always starts out on, is to clean itself, so to speak. It will arraign two or three dozen of its
members, or maybe four or five dozen, for taking bribes to vote for this and that and the other
bill last winter.”
“It goes up into the dozens, does it?”
“Well, yes; in a free country likes ours, where any man can run for Congress and anybody can
vote for him, you can’t expect immortal purity all the time—it ain’t in nature. Sixty or eighty or
a hundred and fifty people are bound to get in who are not angels in disguise, as young Hicks
the correspondent says; but still it is a very good average; very good indeed. . . . Well, after
they have finished the bribery cases, they will take up cases of members who have bought
their seats with money. That will take another four weeks.”
“Very good; go on. You have accounted for two-thirds of the session.”
“Next they will try each other for various smaller irregularities, like the sale of appointments to
West Point cadetships, and that sort of thing— . . . ”
“How long does it take to disinfect itself of these minor impurities?”
“Well, about two weeks, generally.”
“So Congress always lies helpless in quarantine ten weeks of a session. That’s encouraging.”
The book was a success, in part because it amused people even as it excoriated the politics of the day.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
For this humor, as well as its astute analysis, Twain and Warner’s book still offers entertainment and
insight today.
Click and Explore
Visit the PBS Scrap Book (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/gage) for information on
Mark Twain’s life and marriage at the time he wrote The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
In many ways, the presidential election of 1876 foreshadowed the politics of the era, in that it resulted
in one of the most controversial results in all of presidential history. The country was in the middle
of the economic downturn caused by the Panic of 1873, a downturn that would ultimately last until
1879, all but assuring that Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant would not be reelected. Instead,
the Republican Party nominated a three-time governor from Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was
a popular candidate who advocated for both “hard money”—an economy based upon gold currency
transactions—to protect against inflationary pressures and civil service reform, that is, recruitment based
upon merit and qualifications, which was to replace the practice of handing out government jobs as
“spoils.” Most importantly, he had no significant political scandals in his past, unlike his predecessor
Grant, who suffered through the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal. In this most notorious example of
Gilded Age corruption, several congressmen accepted cash and stock bribes in return for appropriating
inflated federal funds for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
The Democrats likewise sought a candidate who could champion reform against growing political
corruption. They found their man in Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York and a self-made millionaire,
who had made a successful political career fighting corruption in New York City, including spearheading
the prosecution against Tammany Hall Boss William Tweed, who was later jailed. Both parties tapped into
the popular mood of the day, each claiming to champion reform and promising an end to the corruption
that had become rampant in Washington (Figure 20.5). Likewise, both parties promised an end to postCivil War Reconstruction.
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.5 These campaign posters for Rutherford B. Hayes (a) and Samuel Tilden (b) underscore the tactics of
each party, which remained largely unchanged, regardless of the candidates. The Republican placard highlights the
party’s role in preserving “liberty and union” in the wake of the Civil War, hoping to tap into the northern voters’ pride
in victory over secession. The Democratic poster addresses the economic turmoil and corruption of the day,
specifically that of the Grant administration, promising “honesty, reform, and prosperity” for all.
The campaign was a typical one for the era: Democrats shone a spotlight on earlier Republican scandals,
such as the Crédit Mobilier affair, and Republicans relied upon the bloody shirt campaign, reminding the
nation of the terrible human toll of the war against southern confederates who now reappeared in national
politics under the mantle of the Democratic Party. President Grant previously had great success with the
“bloody shirt” strategy in the 1868 election, when Republican supporters attacked Democratic candidate
Horatio Seymour for his sympathy with New York City draft rioters during the war. In 1876, true to the
campaign style of the day, neither Tilden nor Hayes actively campaigned for office, instead relying upon
supporters and other groups to promote their causes.
Fearing a significant African American and white Republican voter turnout in the South, particularly in
the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which further empowered African Americans with protection
in terms of public accommodations, Democrats relied upon white supremacist terror organizations to
intimidate blacks and Republicans, including physically assaulting many while they attempted to vote.
The Redshirts, based in Mississippi and the Carolinas, and the White League in Louisiana, relied upon
intimidation tactics similar to the Ku Klux Klan but operated in a more open and organized fashion with
the sole goal of restoring Democrats to political predominance in the South. In several instances, Redshirts
would attack freedmen who attempted to vote, whipping them openly in the streets while simultaneously
hosting barbecues to attract Democratic voters to the polls. Women throughout South Carolina began to
sew red flannel shirts for the men to wear as a sign of their political views; women themselves began
wearing red ribbons in their hair and bows about their waists.
The result of the presidential election, ultimately, was close. Tilden won the popular vote by nearly 300,000
votes; however, he had only 184 electoral votes, with 185 needed to proclaim formal victory. Three states,
Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, were in dispute due to widespread charges of voter fraud and
miscounting. Questions regarding the validity of one of the three electors in Oregon cast further doubt
on the final vote; however, that state subsequently presented evidence to Congress confirming all three
electoral votes for Hayes.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
As a result of the disputed election, the House of Representatives established a special electoral
commission to determine which candidate won the challenged electoral votes of these three states. In what
later became known as the Compromise of 1877, Republican Party leaders offered southern Democrats an
enticing deal. The offer was that if the commission found in favor of a Hayes victory, Hayes would order
the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops from those three southern states, thus allowing the collapse
of the radical Reconstruction governments of the immediate post-Civil War era. This move would permit
southern Democrats to end federal intervention and control their own states’ fates in the wake of the end
of slavery (Figure 20.6).
Figure 20.6 Titled “A Truce not a Compromise,” this cartoon suggests the lack of consensus after the election of
1876 could have ended in another civil war.
After weeks of deliberation, the electoral commission voted eight to seven along straight party lines,
declaring Hayes the victor in each of the three disputed states. As a result, Hayes defeated Tilden in
the electoral vote by a count of 185–184 and became the next president. By April of that year, radical
Reconstruction ended as promised, with the removal of federal troops from the final two Reconstruction
states, South Carolina and Louisiana. Within a year, Redeemers—largely Southern Democrats—had
regained control of the political and social fabric of the South.
Although unpopular among the voting electorate, especially among African Americans who referred to it
as “The Great Betrayal,” the compromise exposed the willingness of the two major political parties to avoid
a “stand-off” via a southern Democrat filibuster, which would have greatly prolonged the final decision
regarding the election. Democrats were largely satisfied to end Reconstruction and maintain “home rule”
in the South in exchange for control over the White House. Likewise, most realized that Hayes would likely
be a one-term president at best and prove to be as ineffectual as his pre-Civil War predecessors.
Perhaps most surprising was the lack of even greater public outrage over such a transparent compromise,
indicative of the little that Americans expected of their national government. In an era where voter turnout
remained relatively high, the two major political parties remained largely indistinguishable in their
agendas as well as their propensity for questionable tactics and backroom deals. Likewise, a growing belief
in laissez-faire principles as opposed to reforms and government intervention (which many Americans
believed contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War) led even more Americans to accept the nature of an
inactive federal government (Figure 20.7).
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.7 Powerful Republican Party leader Roscoe Conkling is shown here as the devil. Hayes walks off with the
prize of the 1876 election, the South, personified as a woman. The cartoon, drawn by Joseph Keppler, has a caption
that quotes Goethe: “Unto that Power he doth belong Which only doeth Right while ever willing Wrong.”
20.2 The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Explain the difference between the spoils system and civil service, and discuss the
importance of this issue in the period from 1872 to 1896
• Recognize the ways in which the issue of tariffs impacted different sectors of the
economy in late nineteenth-century America
• Explain why Americans were split on the issue of a national gold standard versus free
coinage of silver
• Explain why political patronage was a key issue for political parties in the late
nineteenth century
Although Hayes’ questionable ascendancy to the presidency did not create political corruption in the
nation’s capital, it did set the stage for politically motivated agendas and widespread inefficiency in the
White House for the next twenty-four years. Weak president after weak president took office, and, as
mentioned above, not one incumbent was reelected. The populace, it seemed, preferred the devil they
didn’t know to the one they did. Once elected, presidents had barely enough power to repay the political
favors they owed to the individuals who ensured their narrow victories in cities and regions around the
country. Their four years in office were spent repaying favors and managing the powerful relationships
that put them in the White House. Everyday Americans were largely left on their own. Among the few
political issues that presidents routinely addressed during this era were ones of patronage, tariffs, and the
nation’s monetary system.
At the heart of each president’s administration was the protection of the spoils system, that is, the power
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
of the president to practice widespread political patronage. Patronage, in this case, took the form of the
president naming his friends and supporters to various political posts. Given the close calls in presidential
elections during the era, the maintenance of political machinery and repaying favors with patronage was
important to all presidents, regardless of party affiliation. This had been the case since the advent of a
two-party political system and universal male suffrage in the Jacksonian era. For example, upon assuming
office in March 1829, President Jackson immediately swept employees from over nine hundred political
offices, amounting to 10 percent of all federal appointments. Among the hardest-hit was the U.S. Postal
Service, which saw Jackson appoint his supporters and closest friends to over four hundred positions in
the service (Figure 20.8).
Figure 20.8 This political cartoon shows Andrew Jackson riding a pig, which is walking over “fraud,” “bribery,” and
“spoils,” and feeding on “plunder.”
As can be seen in the table below (Table 20.1), every single president elected from 1876 through 1892 won
despite receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote. This established a repetitive cycle of relatively
weak presidents who owed many political favors, which could be repaid through one prerogative power:
patronage. As a result, the spoils system allowed those with political influence to ascend to powerful
positions within the government, regardless of their level of experience or skill, thus compounding both
the inefficiency of government as well as enhancing the opportunities for corruption.
Table 20.1 U.S. Presidential Election Results (1876–1896)
Popular Vote
Electoral Vote
Rutherford B. Hayes
Samuel Tilden
James Garfield
Winfield Hancock
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Table 20.1 U.S. Presidential Election Results (1876–1896)
Popular Vote
Electoral Vote
Grover Cleveland
James Blaine
Benjamin Harrison
Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
William McKinley
William Jennings Bryan
At the same time, a movement emerged in support of reforming the practice of political appointments. As
early as 1872, civil service reformers gathered to create the Liberal Republican Party in an effort to unseat
incumbent President Grant. Led by several midwestern Republican leaders and newspaper editors, this
party provided the impetus for other reform-minded Republicans to break free from the party and actually
join the Democratic Party ranks. With newspaper editor Horace Greeley as their candidate, the party called
for a “thorough reform of the civil service as one the most pressing necessities” facing the nation. Although
easily defeated in the election that followed, the work of the Liberal Republican Party set the stage for an
even stronger push for patronage reform.
Clearly owing favors to his Republican handlers for his surprise compromise victory by the slimmest of
margins in 1876, President Hayes was ill-prepared to heed those cries for reform, despite his own stated
preference for a new civil service system. In fact, he accomplished little during his four years in office
other than granting favors, as dictated by Republic Party handlers. Two powerful Republican leaders
attempted to control the president. The first was Roscoe Conkling, Republican senator from New York
and leader of the Stalwarts, a group that strongly supported continuation of the current spoils system
(Figure 20.9). Long supporting former President Grant, Conkling had no sympathy for some of Hayes’
early appeals for civil service reform. The other was James G. Blaine, Republican senator from Maine
and leader of the Half-Breeds. The Half-Breeds, who received their derogatory nickname from Stalwart
supporters who considered Blaine’s group to be only “half-Republican,” advocated for some measure of
civil service reform.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.9 This cartoon shows Roscoe Conkling playing a popular puzzle game of the day with the heads of
potential Republican presidential candidates, illustrating his control over the picks of the party.
With his efforts towards ensuring African American civil rights stymied by a Democratic Congress, and
his decision to halt the coinage of silver merely adding to the pressures of the economic Panic of 1873,
Hayes failed to achieve any significant legislation during his presidency. However, he did make a few
overtures towards civil service reform. First, he adopted a new patronage rule, which held that a person
appointed to an office could be dismissed only in the interest of efficient government operation but not
for overtly political reasons. Second, he declared that party leaders could have no official say in political
appointments, although Conkling sought to continue his influence. Finally, he decided that government
appointees were ineligible to manage campaign elections. Although not sweeping reforms, these were
steps in a civil service direction.
Hayes’ first target in his meager reform effort was to remove Chester A. Arthur, a strong Conkling man,
from his post as head of the New York City Customs House. Arthur had been notorious for using his
post as customs collector to gain political favors for Conkling. When Hayes forcibly removed him from
the position, even Half-Breeds questioned the wisdom of the move and began to distance themselves
from Hayes. The loss of his meager public support due to the Compromise of 1877 and the declining
Congressional faction together sealed Hayes fate and made his reelection impossible.
In the wake of President Hayes’ failure, Republicans began to battle over a successor for the 1880
presidential election. Initially, Stalwarts favored Grant’s return to the White House, while Half-Breeds
promoted their leader, James Blaine. Following an expected convention deadlock, both factions agreed
to a compromise presidential candidate, Senator James A. Garfield of Ohio, with Chester Arthur as his
vice-presidential running mate. The Democratic Party turned to Winfield Scott Hancock, a former Union
commander who was a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, as their candidate.
Garfield won a narrow victory over Hancock by forty thousand votes, although he still did not win a
majority of the popular vote. But less than four months into his presidency, events pushed civil service
reform on the fast track. On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot and killed Garfield (Figure 20.10), allegedly
uttering at the time, “I am a Stalwart of Stalwarts!” Guiteau himself had wanted to be rewarded for his
political support—he had written a speech for the Garfield campaign—with an ambassadorship to France.
His actions at the time were largely blamed on the spoils system, prompting more urgent cries for change.
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.10 Garfield’s shooting and the subsequent capture of the assassin, Charles Guiteau, are depicted in this
illustration for a newspaper of the day. The president clung to life for another two months after the assassination.
The Assassination of a President
I executed
the Divine command.
And Garfield did remove,
To save my party,
and my country
From the bitter fate of War.
—Charles Guiteau
Charles Guiteau was a lawyer and supporter of the Republican Party, although not particularly well known
in either area. But he gave a few speeches, to modest crowds, in support of the Republican nominee
James Garfield, and ultimately deluded himself that his speeches influenced the country enough to cause
Garfield’s victory. After the election, Guiteau immediately began pressuring the new president, requesting
a post as ambassador. When his queries went unanswered, Guiteau, out of money and angry that his
supposed help had been ignored, planned to kill the president.
He spent significant time planning his attack and considered weapons as diverse as dynamite and a
stiletto before deciding on a gun, stating, “I wanted it done in an American manner.” He followed the
president around the Capitol and let several opportunities pass, unwilling to kill Garfield in front of his wife
or son. Frustrated with himself, Guiteau recommitted to the plan and wrote a letter to the White House,
explaining how this act would “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic.”
Guiteau shot the president from behind and continued to shoot until police grabbed him and hauled him
away. He went to jail, and, the following November after Garfield had died, he stood trial for murder. His
poor mental health, which had been evident for some time, led to eccentric courtroom behavior that the
newspapers eagerly reported and the public loved. He defended his case with a poem that used religious
imagery and suggested that God had ordered him to commit the murder. He defended himself in court
by saying, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” While this in fact was true, it did not save him.
Guiteau was convicted and hanged in the summer of 1882.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Click and Explore
Take a look at America’s Story (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/guiteau) from the
Library of Congress, which highlights the fact that Guiteau in fact did not kill the
president, but rather infection from his medical treatment did.
Surprising both his party and the Democrats when he assumed the office of president, Chester Arthur
immediately distanced himself from the Stalwarts. Although previously a loyal party man, Arthur
understood that he owed his current position to no particular faction or favor. He was in the unique
position to usher in a wave a civil service reform unlike any other political candidate, and he chose to
do just that. In 1883, he signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Act, the first significant piece of
antipatronage legislation. This law created the Civil Service Commission, which listed all government
patronage jobs and then set aside 15 percent of the list as appointments to be determined through a
competitive civil service examination process. Furthermore, to prevent future presidents from undoing
this reform, the law declared that future presidents could enlarge the list but could never shrink it by
moving a civil service job back into the patronage column.
In addition to civil service, President Arthur also carried the reformist spirit into the realm of tariffs, or
taxes on international imports to the United States. Tariffs had long been a controversial topic in the United
States, especially as the nineteenth century came to a close. Legislators appeared to be bending to the
will of big businessmen who desired higher tariffs in order to force Americans to buy their domestically
produced goods rather than higher-priced imports. Lower tariffs, on the other hand, would reduce prices
and lower the average American’s cost of living, and were therefore favored by many working-class
families and farmers, to the extent that any of them fully understood such economic forces beyond the
prices they paid at stores. Out of growing concern for the latter group, Arthur created the U.S. Tariff
Commission in 1882 to investigate the propriety of increasingly high tariffs. Despite his concern, along
with the commission’s recommendation for a 25 percent rollback in most tariffs, the most Arthur could
accomplish was the “Mongrel Tariff” of 1883, which lowered tariff rates by barely 5 percent.
Such bold attempts at reform further convinced Republican Party leaders, as the 1884 election approached,
that Arthur was not their best option to continue in the White House. Arthur quickly found himself a
man without a party. As the 1884 election neared, the Republican Party again searched their ranks for a
candidate who could restore some semblance of the spoils system while maintaining a reformist image.
Unable to find such a man, the predominant Half-Breeds again turned to their own leader, Senator Blaine.
However, when news of his many personal corrupt bargains began to surface, a significant portion of the
party chose to break from the traditional Stalwarts-versus-Half-Breeds debate and form their own faction,
the Mugwumps, a name taken from the Algonquin phrase for “great chief.”
Anxious to capitalize on the disarray within the Republican Party, as well as to return to the White
House for the first time in nearly thirty years, the Democratic Party chose to court the Mugwump vote
by nominating Grover Cleveland, the reform governor from New York who had built a reputation by
attacking machine politics in New York City. Despite several personal charges against him for having
fathered a child out of wedlock, Cleveland managed to hold on for a close victory with a margin of less
than thirty thousand votes.
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Cleveland’s record on civil service reform added little to the initial blows struck by President Arthur.
After electing the first Democratic president since 1856, the Democrats could actually make great use of
the spoils system. Cleveland was, however, a notable reform president in terms of business regulation
and tariffs. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that individual states could not regulate interstate
transportation, Cleveland urged Congress to pass the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. Among several
other powers, this law created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to oversee railroad prices and
ensure that they remained reasonable to all customers. This was an important shift. In the past, railroads
had granted special rebates to big businesses, such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, while charging
small farmers with little economic muscle exorbitant rates. Although the act eventually provided for real
regulation of the railroad industry, initial progress was slow due to the lack of enforcement power held
by the ICC. Despite its early efforts to regulate railroad rates, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined the
commission in Interstate Commerce Commission v. Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific Railway Cos. in
1897. Rate regulations were limits on profits that, in the opinion of a majority of the justices, violated the
Fourteenth Amendment protection against depriving persons of their property without due process of the
As for tariff reform, Cleveland agreed with Arthur’s position that tariffs remained far too high and
were clearly designed to protect big domestic industries at the expense of average consumers who could
benefit from international competition. While the general public applauded Cleveland’s efforts at both
civil service and tariff reform, influential businessmen and industrialists remained adamant that the next
president must restore the protective tariffs at all costs.
To counter the Democrats’ re-nomination of Cleveland, the Republican Party turned to Benjamin Harrison,
grandson of former president William Henry Harrison. Although Cleveland narrowly won the overall
popular vote, Harrison rode the influential coattails of several businessmen and party bosses to win the
key electoral states of New York and New Jersey, where party officials stressed Harrison’s support for a
higher tariff, and thus secure the White House. Not surprisingly, after Harrison’s victory, the United States
witnessed a brief return to higher tariffs and a strengthening of the spoils system. In fact, the McKinley
Tariff raised some rates as much as 50 percent, which was the highest tariff in American history to date.
Some of Harrison’s policies were intended to offer relief to average Americans struggling with high costs
and low wages, but remained largely ineffective. First, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 sought to
prohibit business monopolies as “conspiracies in restraint of trade,” but it was seldom enforced during
the first decade of its existence. Second, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of the same year required the
U.S. Treasury to mint over four million ounces of silver into coins each month to circulate more cash into
the economy, raise prices for farm goods, and help farmers pay their way out of debt. But the measure
could not undo the previous “hard money” policies that had deflated prices and pulled farmers into wellentrenched cycles of debt. Other measures proposed by Harrison intended to support African Americans,
including a Force Bill to protect voters in the South, as well as an Education Bill designed to support public
education and improve literacy rates among African Americans, also met with defeat.
Although political corruption, the spoils system, and the question of tariff rates were popular discussions
of the day, none were more relevant to working-class Americans and farmers than the issue of the nation’s
monetary policy and the ongoing debate of gold versus silver (Figure 20.11). There had been frequent
attempts to establish a bimetallic standard, which in turn would have created inflationary pressures and
placed more money into circulation that could have subsequently benefitted farmers. But the government
remained committed to the gold standard, including the official demonetizing of silver altogether in 1873.
Such a stance greatly benefitted prominent businessmen engaged in foreign trade while forcing more
farmers and working-class Americans into greater debt.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.11 This cartoon illustrates the potential benefits of a bimetal system, but the benefits did not actually
extend to big business, which preferred the gold standard and worked to keep it.
As farmers and working-class Americans sought the means by which to pay their bills and other living
expenses, especially in the wake of increased tariffs as the century came to a close, many saw adherence
to a strict gold standard as their most pressing problem. With limited gold reserves, the money supply
remained constrained. At a minimum, a return to a bimetallic policy that would include the production of
silver dollars would provide some relief. However, the aforementioned Sherman Silver Purchase Act was
largely ineffective to combat the growing debts that many Americans faced. Under the law, the federal
government purchased 4.5 million ounces of silver on a monthly basis in order to mint silver dollars.
However, many investors exchanged the bank notes with which the government purchased the silver
for gold, thus severely depleting the nation’s gold reserve. Fearing the latter, President Grover Cleveland
signed the act’s repeal in 1893. This lack of meaningful monetary measures from the federal government
would lead one group in particular who required such assistance—American farmers—to attempt to take
control over the political process itself.
20.3 Farmers Revolt in the Populist Era
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Understand how the economic and political climate of the day promoted the formation
of the farmers’ protest movement in the latter half of the nineteenth century
• Explain how the farmers’ revolt moved from protest to politics
The challenges that many American farmers faced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century were
significant. They contended with economic hardships born out of rapidly declining farm prices,
prohibitively high tariffs on items they needed to purchase, and foreign competition. One of the largest
challenges they faced was overproduction, where the glut of their products in the marketplace drove the
price lower and lower.
Overproduction of crops occurred in part due to the westward expansion of homestead farms and in part
because industrialization led to new farm tools that dramatically increased crop yields. As farmers fell
deeper into debt, whether it be to the local stores where they bought supplies or to the railroads that
shipped their produce, their response was to increase crop production each year in the hope of earning
more money with which to pay back their debt. The more they produced, the lower prices dropped. To
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
a hard-working farmer, the notion that their own overproduction was the greatest contributing factor to
their debt was a completely foreign concept (Figure 20.12).
Figure 20.12 This North Dakota sod hut, built by a homesteading farmer for his family, was photographed in 1898,
two years after it was built. While the country was quickly industrializing, many farmers still lived in rough, rural
In addition to the cycle of overproduction, tariffs were a serious problem for farmers. Rising tariffs on
industrial products made purchased items more expensive, yet tariffs were not being used to keep farm
prices artificially high as well. Therefore, farmers were paying inflated prices but not receiving them.
Finally, the issue of gold versus silver as the basis of U.S. currency was a very real problem to many
farmers. Farmers needed more money in circulation, whether it was paper or silver, in order to create
inflationary pressure. Inflationary pressure would allow farm prices to increase, thus allowing them to
earn more money that they could then spend on the higher-priced goods in stores. However, in 1878,
federal law set the amount of paper money in circulation, and, as mentioned above, Harrison’s Sherman
Silver Act, intended to increase the amount of silver coinage, was too modest to do any real good,
especially in light of the unintended consequence of depleting the nation’s gold reserve. In short, farmers
had a big stack of bills and wanted a big stack of money—be it paper or silver—to pay them. Neither was
forthcoming from a government that cared more about issues of patronage and how to stay in the White
House for more than four years at a time.
The initial response by increasingly frustrated and angry farmers was to organize into groups that
were similar to early labor unions. Taking note of how the industrial labor movement had unfolded
in the last quarter of the century, farmers began to understand that a collective voice could create
significant pressure among political leaders and produce substantive change. While farmers had their own
challenges, including that of geography and diverse needs among different types of famers, they believed
this model to be useful to their cause.
One of the first efforts to organize farmers came in 1867 with Oliver Hudson Kelly’s creation of the Patrons
of Husbandry, more popularly known as the Grange. In the wake of the Civil War, the Grangers quickly
grew to over 1.5 million members in less than a decade (Figure 20.13). Kelly believed that farmers could
best help themselves by creating farmers’ cooperatives in which they could pool resources and obtain
better shipping rates, as well as prices on seeds, fertilizer, machinery, and other necessary inputs. These
cooperatives, he believed, would let them self-regulate production as well as collectively obtain better rates
from railroad companies and other businesses.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.13 This print from the early 1870s, with scenes of farm life, was a promotional poster for the Grangers,
one of the earliest farmer reform groups.
At the state level, specifically in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa, the Patrons of Husbandry
did briefly succeed in urging the passage of Granger Laws, which regulated some railroad rates along
with the prices charged by grain elevator operators. The movement also created a political party—the
Greenback Party, so named for its support of print currency (or “greenbacks”) not based upon a gold
standard—which saw brief success with the election of fifteen congressmen. However, such successes
were short-lived and had little impact on the lives of everyday farmers. In the Wabash case of 1886,
brought by the Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railroad Company, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against
the State of Illinois for passing Granger Laws controlling railroad rates; the court found such laws to
be unconstitutional. Their argument held that states did not have the authority to control interstate
commerce. As for the Greenback Party, when only seven delegates appeared at an 1888 national
convention of the group, the party faded from existence.
Click and Explore
Explore Rural Life in the Late Nineteenth Century (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/
rurallife) to study photographs, firsthand reports, and other information about how
farmers lived and struggled at the end of the nineteenth century.
The Farmers’ Alliance, a conglomeration of three regional alliances formed in the mid-1880s, took root in
the wake of the Grange movement. In 1890, Dr. Charles Macune, who led the Southern Alliance, which was
based in Texas and had over 100,000 members by 1886, urged the creation of a national alliance between his
organization, the Northwest Alliance, and the Colored Alliance, the largest African American organization
in the United States. Led by Tom Watson, the Colored Alliance, which was founded in Texas but quickly
spread throughout the Old South, counted over one million members. Although they originally advocated
for self-help, African Americans in the group soon understood the benefits of political organization and a
unified voice to improve their plight, regardless of race. While racism kept the alliance splintered among
the three component branches, they still managed to craft a national agenda that appealed to their large
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
membership. All told, the Farmers’ Alliance brought together over 2.5 million members, 1.5 million white
and 1 million black (Figure 20.14).
Figure 20.14 The Farmers’ Alliance flag displays the motto: “The most good for the most PEOPLE,” clearly a
sentiment they hoped that others would believe.
The alliance movement, and the subsequent political party that emerged from it, also featured prominent
roles for women. Nearly 250,000 women joined the movement due to their shared interest in the farmers’
worsening situation as well as the promise of being a full partner with political rights within the group,
which they saw as an important step towards advocacy for women’s suffrage on a national level. The
ability to vote and stand for office within the organization encouraged many women who sought similar
rights on the larger American political scene. Prominent alliance spokeswoman, Mary Elizabeth Lease of
Kansas, often spoke of membership in the Farmers’ Alliance as an opportunity to “raise less corn and more
Click and Explore
The Conner Prairie Interactive History Park (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/
ruralwomen) discusses the role of women in rural America and how it changed
throughout the end of the nineteenth century.
The alliance movement had several goals similar to those of the original Grange, including greater
regulation of railroad prices and the creation of an inflationary national monetary policy. However, most
creative among the solutions promoted by the Farmers’ Alliance was the call for a subtreasury plan. Under
this plan, the federal government would store farmers’ crops in government warehouses for a brief period
of time, during which the government would provide loans to farmers worth 80 percent of the current
crop prices. Thus, farmers would have immediate cash on hand with which to settle debts and purchase
goods, while their crops sat in warehouses and farm prices increased due to this control over supply at the
market. When market prices rose sufficiently high enough, the farmer could withdraw his crops, sell at the
higher price, repay the government loan, and still have profit remaining.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Economists of the day thought the plan had some merit; in fact, a greatly altered version would
subsequently be adopted during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in the form of the Agricultural
Adjustment Act. However, the federal government never seriously considered the plan, as congressmen
questioned the propriety of the government serving as a rural creditor making loans to farmers with no
assurance that production controls would result in higher commodity prices. The government’s refusal to
act on the proposal left many farmers wondering what it would take to find solutions to their growing
Angry at the federal government’s continued unwillingness to substantively address the plight of the
average farmer, Charles Macune and the Farmers’ Alliance chose to create a political party whose
representatives—if elected—could enact real change. Put simply, if the government would not address the
problem, then it was time to change those elected to power.
In 1891, the alliance formed the Populist Party, or People’s Party, as it was more widely known. Beginning
with nonpresidential-year elections, the Populist Party had modest success, particularly in Kansas,
Nebraska, and the Dakotas, where they succeeded in electing several state legislators, one governor, and
a handful of congressmen. As the 1892 presidential election approached, the Populists chose to model
themselves after the Democratic and Republican Parties in the hope that they could shock the country with
a “third-party” victory.
At their national convention that summer in Omaha, Nebraska, they wrote the Omaha Platform to more
fully explain to all Americans the goals of the new party (Figure 20.15). Written by Ignatius Donnelly,
the platform statement vilified railroad owners, bankers, and big businessmen as all being part of a
widespread conspiracy to control farmers. As for policy changes, the platform called for adoption of the
subtreasury plan, government control over railroads, an end to the national bank system, the creation of a
federal income tax, the direct election of U.S. senators, and several other measures, all of which aimed at a
more proactive federal government that would support the economic and social welfare of all Americans.
At the close of the convention, the party nominated James B. Weaver as its presidential candidate.
Figure 20.15 The People’s Party gathered for its nominating convention in Nebraska, where they wrote the Omaha
Platform to state their concerns and goals.
In a rematch of the 1888 election, the Democrats again nominated Grover Cleveland, while Republicans
went with Benjamin Harrison. Despite the presence of a third-party challenger, Cleveland won another
close popular vote to become the first U.S. president to be elected to nonconsecutive terms. Although
he finished a distant third, Populist candidate Weaver polled a respectable one million votes. Rather
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
than being disappointed, several Populists applauded their showing—especially for a third party with
barely two years of national political experience under its belt. They anxiously awaited the 1896 election,
believing that if the rest of the country, in particular industrial workers, experienced hardships similar to
those that farmers already faced, a powerful alliance among the two groups could carry the Populists to
20.4 Social and Labor Unrest in the 1890s
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Explain how the Depression of 1893 helped the Populist Party to grow in popularity in
the 1890s
• Understand the forces that contributed to the Populist Party’s decline following the
1896 presidential election
Insofar as farmers wanted the rest of the country to share their plight, they got their wish. Soon after
Cleveland’s election, the nation catapulted into the worst economic depression in its history to date. As the
government continued to fail in its efforts to address the growing problems, more and more Americans
sought relief outside of the traditional two-party system. To many industrial workers, the Populist Party
began to seem like a viable solution.
The late 1880s and early 1890s saw the American economy slide precipitously. As mentioned above,
farmers were already struggling with economic woes, and the rest of the country followed quickly.
Following a brief rebound from the speculation-induced Panic of 1873, in which bank investments in
railroad bonds spread the nation’s financial resources too thin—a rebound due in large part to the
protective tariffs of the 1880s—a greater economic catastrophe hit the nation, as the decade of the 1890s
began to unfold.
The causes of the Depression of 1893 were manifold, but one major element was the speculation in
railroads over the previous decades. The rapid proliferation of railroad lines created a false impression of
growth for the economy as a whole. Banks and investors fed the growth of the railroads with fast-paced
investment in industry and related businesses, not realizing that the growth they were following was built
on a bubble. When the railroads began to fail due to expenses outpacing returns on their construction, the
supporting businesses, from banks to steel mills, failed also.
Beginning with the closure of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company in 1893, several railroads
ceased their operations as a result of investors cashing in their bonds, thus creating a ripple effect
throughout the economy. In a single year, from 1893 to 1894, unemployment estimates increased from
3 percent to nearly 19 percent of all working-class Americans. In some states, the unemployment rate
soared even higher: over 35 percent in New York State and 43 percent in Michigan. At the height of this
depression, over three million American workers were unemployed. By 1895, Americans living in cities
grew accustomed to seeing the homeless on the streets or lining up at soup kitchens.
Immediately following the economic downturn, people sought relief through their elected federal
government. Just as quickly, they learned what farmers had been taught in the preceding decades: A weak,
inefficient government interested solely in patronage and the spoils system in order to maintain its power
was in no position to help the American people face this challenge. The federal government had little in
place to support those looking for work or to provide direct aid to those in need. Of course, to be fair, the
government had seldom faced these questions before. Americans had to look elsewhere.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
A notable example of the government’s failure to act was the story of Coxey’s Army. In the spring of 1894,
businessman Jacob Coxey led a march of unemployed Ohioans from Cincinnati to Washington, DC, where
leaders of the group urged Congress to pass public works legislation for the federal government to hire
unemployed workers to build roads and other public projects. From the original one hundred protesters,
the march grew five hundred strong as others joined along the route to the nation’s capital. Upon their
arrival, not only were their cries for federal relief ignored, but Coxey and several other marchers were
arrested for trespassing on the grass outside the U.S. Capitol. Frustration over the event led many angry
works to consider supporting the Populist Party in subsequent elections.
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
L. Frank Baum: Did Coxey’s Army inspire Dorothy and the
Wizard of Oz?
Scholars, historians, and economists have long argued inconclusively that L. Frank Baum intended the
story of The Wizard of Oz as an allegory for the politics of the day. Whether that actually was Baum’s
intention is up for debate, but certainly the story could be read as support for the Populist Party’s crusade
on behalf of American farmers. In 1894, Baum witnessed Coxey’s Army’s march firsthand, and some feel
it may have influenced the story (Figure 20.16).
Figure 20.16 This image of Coxey’s Army marching on Washington to ask for jobs may have helped
inspire L. Frank Baum’s story of Dorothy and her friends seeking help from the Wizard of Oz.
According to this theory, the Scarecrow represents the American farmer, the Tin Woodman is the
industrial worker, and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan, a prominent “Silverite” (strong
supporters of the Populist Party who advocated for the free coinage of silver) who, in 1900 when the book
was published, was largely criticized by the Republicans as being cowardly and indecisive. In the story,
the characters march towards Oz, much as Coxey’s Army marched to Washington. Like Dorothy and her
companions, Coxey’s Army gets in trouble, before being turned away with no help.
Following this reading, the seemingly powerful but ultimately impotent Wizard of Oz is a representation
of the president, and Dorothy only finds happiness by wearing the silver slippers—they only became
ruby slippers in the later movie version—along the Yellow Brick Road, a reference to the need for the
country to move from the gold standard to a two-metal silver and gold plan. While no literary theorists
or historians have proven this connection to be true, it is possible that Coxey’s Army inspired Baum to
create Dorothy’s journey on the yellow brick road.
Several strikes also punctuated the growing depression, including a number of violent uprisings in the
coal regions of Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the infamous Pullman Strike of 1894 was most notable for its
nationwide impact, as it all but shut down the nation’s railroad system in the middle of the depression. The
strike began immediately on the heels of the Coxey’s Army march when, in the summer of 1894, company
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
owner George Pullman fired over two thousand employees at Pullman Co.—which made railroad cars,
such as Pullman sleeper cars—and reduced the wages of the remaining three thousand workers. Since
the factory operated in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, where workers rented homes from George
Pullman and shopped at the company store owned by him as well, unemployment also meant eviction.
Facing such harsh treatment, all of the Pullman workers went on strike to protest the decisions. Eugene V.
Debs, head of the American Railway Union, led the strike.
In order to bring the plight of Pullman, Illinois, to Americans all around the country, Debs adopted the
strike strategy of ordering all American Railroad Union members to refuse to handle any train that had
Pullman cars on it. Since virtually every train in the United States operated with Pullman cars, the strike
truly brought the transportation industry to its knees. Fearful of his ability to end the economic depression
with such a vital piece of the economy at a standstill, President Cleveland turned to his attorney general
for the answer. The attorney general proposed a solution: use federal troops to operate the trains under
the pretense of protecting the delivery of the U.S. mail that was typically found on all trains. When Debs
and the American Railway Union refused to obey the court injunction prohibiting interference with the
mail, the troops began operating the trains, and the strike quickly ended. Debs himself was arrested,
tried, convicted, and sentenced to six months in prison for disobeying the court injunction. The American
Railway Union was destroyed, leaving workers even less empowered than before, and Debs was in prison,
contemplating alternatives to a capitalist-based national economy. The Depression of 1893 left the country
limping towards the next presidential election with few solutions in sight.
As the final presidential election of the nineteenth century unfolded, all signs pointed to a possible Populist
victory. Not only had the ongoing economic depression convinced many Americans—farmers and factory
workers alike—of the inability of either major political party to address the situation, but also the Populist
Party, since the last election, benefited from four more years of experience and numerous local victories.
As they prepared for their convention in St. Louis that summer, the Populists watched with keen interest
as the Republicans and Democrats hosted their own conventions.
The Republicans remained steadfast in their defense of a gold-based standard for the American economy,
as well as high protective tariffs. They turned to William McKinley, former congressman and current
governor of Ohio, as their candidate. At their convention, the Democrats turned to William Jennings
Bryan—a congressman from Nebraska. Bryan defended the importance of a silver-based monetary system
and urged the government to coin more silver. Furthermore, being from farm country, he was very
familiar with the farmers’ plight and saw some merit in the subtreasury system proposal. In short, Bryan
could have been the ideal Populist candidate, but the Democrats got to him first. The Populist Party
subsequently endorsed Bryan as well, with their party’s nomination three weeks later (Figure 20.17).
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.17 Republicans portrayed presidential candidate Bryan as a grasping politician whose Populist leanings
could swallow the Democratic Party. Bryan was in fact not a Populist at all, but a Democrat whose views aligned with
the Populists on some issues. He was formally nominated by the Democratic Party, the Populist Party, and the Silver
Republican Party for the 1896 presidential election.
Click and Explore
Browse through the cartoons and commentary at 1896 (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/
1896election) at Vassar College, a site that contains a wealth of information about the
major players and themes of the presidential election of 1896.
As the Populist convention unfolded, the delegates had an important decision to make: either locate
another candidate, even though Bryan would have been an excellent choice, or join the Democrats and
support Bryan as the best candidate but risk losing their identity as a third political party as a result. The
Populist Party chose the latter and endorsed Bryan’s candidacy. However, they also nominated their own
vice-presidential candidate, Georgia Senator Tom Watson, as opposed to the Democratic nominee, Arthur
Sewall, presumably in an attempt to maintain some semblance of a separate identity.
The race was a heated one, with McKinley running a typical nineteenth-century style “front porch”
campaign, during which he espoused the long-held Republican Party principles to visitors who would call
on him at his Ohio home. Bryan, to the contrary, delivered speeches all throughout the country, bringing
his message to the people that Republicans “shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
William Jennings Bryan and the “Cross of Gold”
William Jennings Bryan was a politician and speechmaker in the late nineteenth century, and he
was particularly well known for his impassioned argument that the country move to a bimetal or
silver standard. He received the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896, and, at the nominating
convention, he gave his most famous speech. He sought to argue against Republicans who stated that
the gold standard was the only way to ensure stability and prosperity for American businesses. In the
speech he said:
We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its
application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer;
the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a
great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the
merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins
in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural
resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes
upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; . . . We come to speak of this
broader class of business men.
This defense of working Americans as critical to the prosperity of the country resonated with his listeners,
as did his passionate ending when he stated, “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and
the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we
will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You shall not press down upon the brow
of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’”
The speech was an enormous success and played a role in convincing the Populist Party that he was
the candidate for them.
The result was a close election that finally saw a U.S. president win a majority of the popular vote for the
first time in twenty-four years. McKinley defeated Bryan by a popular vote of 7.1 million to 6.5 million.
Bryan’s showing was impressive by any standard, as his popular vote total exceeded that of any other
presidential candidate in American history to that date—winner or loser. He polled nearly one million
more votes than did the previous Democratic victor, Grover Cleveland; however, his campaign also served
to split the Democratic vote, as some party members remained convinced of the propriety of the gold
standard and supported McKinley in the election.
Amid a growing national depression where Americans truly recognized the importance of a strong leader
with sound economic policies, McKinley garnered nearly two million more votes than his Republican
predecessor Benjamin Harrison. Put simply, the American electorate was energized to elect a strong
candidate who could adequately address the country’s economic woes. Voter turnout was the largest in
American history to that date; while both candidates benefitted, McKinley did more so than Bryan (Figure
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Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Figure 20.18 The electoral vote map of the 1896 election illustrates the stark divide in the country between the
industry-rich coasts and the rural middle.
In the aftermath, it is easy to say that it was Bryan’s defeat that all but ended the rise of the Populist
Party. Populists had thrown their support to the Democrats who shared similar ideas for the economic
rebound of the country and lost. In choosing principle over distinct party identity, the Populists aligned
themselves to the growing two-party American political system and would have difficulty maintaining
party autonomy afterwards. Future efforts to establish a separate party identity would be met with ridicule
by critics who would say that Populists were merely “Democrats in sheep’s clothing.”
But other factors also contributed to the decline of Populism at the close of the century. First, the discovery
of vast gold deposits in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–1899 (also known as the “Yukon
Gold Rush”) shored up the nation’s weakening economy and made it possible to thrive on a gold standard.
Second, the impending Spanish-American War, which began in 1898, further fueled the economy and
increased demand for American farm products. Still, the Populist spirit remained, although it lost some
momentum at the close of the nineteenth century. As will be seen in a subsequent chapter, the reformist
zeal took on new forms as the twentieth century unfolded.
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Key Terms
bloody shirt campaign the strategy of Republican candidates to stress the sacrifices that the nation had
to endure in its Civil War against Democratic southern secessionists
civil service the contrast to the spoils system, where political appointments were based on merit, not
Coxey’s Army an 1894 protest, led by businessman Jacob Coxey, to advocate for public works jobs for
the unemployed by marching on Washington, DC
Farmers’ Alliance a national conglomeration of different regional farmers’ alliances that joined together
in 1890 with the goal of furthering farmers’ concerns in politics
Gilded Age the period in American history during which materialism, a quest for personal gain, and
corruption dominated both politics and society
Grange a farmers’ organization, launched in 1867, which grew to over 1.5 million members in less than a
Half-Breeds the group of Republicans led by James G. Blaine, named because they supported some
measure of civil service reform and were thus considered to be only “half Republican”
Mugwumps a portion of the Republican Party that broke away from the Stalwart-versus-Half-Breed
debate due to disgust with their candidate’s corruption
Populist Party a political party formed in 1890 that sought to represent the rights of primarily farmers
but eventually all workers in regional and federal elections
Stalwarts the group of Republicans led by Roscoe Conkling who strongly supported the continuation of
the patronage system
subtreasury plan a plan that called for storing crops in government warehouses for a brief period of
time, during which the federal government would provide loans to farmers worth 80
percent of the current crop prices, releasing the crops for sale when prices rose
20.1 Political Corruption in Postbellum America
In the years following the Civil War, American politics were disjointed, corrupt, and, at the federal
level, largely ineffective in terms of addressing the challenges that Americans faced. Local and regional
politics, and the bosses who ran the political machines, dominated through systematic graft and bribery.
Americans around the country recognized that solutions to the mounting problems they faced would not
come from Washington, DC, but from their local political leaders. Thus, the cycle of federal ineffectiveness
and machine politics continued through the remainder of the century relatively unabated.
Meanwhile, in the Compromise of 1877, an electoral commission declared Rutherford B. Hayes the winner
of the contested presidential election in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from South Carolina,
Louisiana, and Florida. As a result, Southern Democrats were able to reestablish control over their home
governments, which would have a tremendous impact on the direction of southern politics and society in
the decades to come.
This OpenStax book is available for free at https://cnx.org/content/col11740/1.3
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
20.2 The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold
All told, from 1872 through 1892, Gilded Age politics were little more than political showmanship. The
political issues of the day, including the spoils system versus civil service reform, high tariffs versus low,
and business regulation, all influenced politicians more than the country at large. Very few measures
offered direct assistance to Americans who continued to struggle with the transformation into an industrial
society; the inefficiency of a patronage-driven federal government, combined with a growing laissez-faire
attitude among the American public, made the passage of effective legislation difficult. Some of Harrison’s
policies, such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, aimed to provide relief
but remained largely ineffective.
20.3 Farmers Revolt in the Populist Era
Factors such as overproduction and high tariffs left the country’s farmers in increasingly desperate straits,
and the federal government’s inability to address their concerns left them disillusioned and worried.
Uneven responses from state governments had many farmers seeking an alternative solution to their
problems. Taking note of the labor movements growing in industrial cities around the country, farmers
began to organize into alliances similar to workers’ unions; these were models of cooperation where larger
numbers could offer more bargaining power with major players such as railroads. Ultimately, the alliances
were unable to initiate widespread change for their benefit. Still, drawing from the cohesion of purpose,
farmers sought to create change from the inside: through politics. They hoped the creation of the Populist
Party in 1891 would lead to a president who put the people—and in particular the farmers—first.
20.4 Social and Labor Unrest in the 1890s
As the economy worsened, more Americans suffered; as the federal government continued to offer
few solutions, the Populist movement began to grow. Populist groups approached the 1896 election
anticipating that the mass of struggling Americans would support their movement for change. When
Democrats chose William Jennings Bryan for their candidate, however, they chose a politician who largely
fit the mold of the Populist platform—from his birthplace of Nebraska to his advocacy of the silver
standard that most farmers desired. Throwing their support behind Bryan as well, Populists hoped to
see a candidate in the White House who would embody the Populist goals, if not the party name. When
Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley, the Populist Party lost much of its momentum. As the country
climbed out of the depression, the interest in a third party faded away, although the reformist movement
remained intact.
Review Questions
1. Mark Twain’s Gilded Age is a reference to
A. conditions in the South in the pre-Civil War
B. the corrupt politics of the post-Civil War
C. the populist movement
D. the Republican Party
2. How did the Great Compromise of 1877
influence the election?
A. It allowed a bilateral government
B. It gave new power to northern Republicans.
C. It encouraged southern states to support
D. It gave the federal government new
3. What accounted for the relative weakness of
the federal government during this era?
4. A Mugwump is ________.
A. a supporter of the spoils system
B. a liberal Democrat
C. a former member of the Republican Party
D. a moderate Stalwart
5. Which president made significant steps
towards civil service reform?
A. Chester A. Arthur
B. Benjamin Harrison
C. Grover Cleveland
D. Roscoe Conkling
6. Why were U.S. presidents (with few
exceptions) so adamant about protecting the spoils
system of patronage during the late nineteenth
7. Which of the following was not a vehicle for
the farmers’ protest?
A. the Mugwumps
B. the Grange
C. the Farmers’ Alliance
D. the People’s Party
Chapter 20 | Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
8. Which of the following contributed directly to
the plight of farmers?
A. machine politics
B. labor unions
C. overproduction
D. inadequate supply
9. What were women’s roles within the Farmer’s
10. How were members of Coxey’s Army
received when they arrived in Washington?
A. They were given an audience with the
B. They were given an audience with
members of Congress.
C. They were ignored.
D. They were arrested.
11. Which of the following does not represent one
of the ways in which William Jennings Bryan
appealed to Populists?
A. He came from farm country.
B. He supported free silver.
C. He supported the subtreasury system.
D. He advocated for higher tariffs.
Critical Thinking Questions
12. How does the term “Gilded Age” characterize American society in the late nineteenth century? In
what ways is this characterization accurate or inaccurate?
13. With farmers still representing a significant segment of American society, why did government
officials—Democrats and Republicans alike—prove unwilling to help find solutions to farmers’ problems?
14. Upon reflection, did the Populist Party make a wise decision in choosing to support the Democratic
Party’s candidate in the 1896 presidential election? Why or why not?
15. Despite its relative weakness during this period, the federal government made several efforts to
provide a measure of relief for struggling Americans. What were these initiatives? In what ways were they
more or less successful?
This OpenStax book is available for free at https://cnx.org/content/col11740/1.3
Assignment Rubric Details
35 Point Discussion Rubric (2)
Contents and Analysis
13.0 pts
0.0 pts
The content and critical analysis are entirely accurate or
persuasive. The student has an excellent understanding of
the assigned topic. The presentation of the content and
analysis is clearly organized, and the discussion and was a
minimum of 350 words.
13.0 pts
Student Responses
The student responded to more than two classmates with
150 words. The response posts promoted further
12.0 pts
0.0 pts
12.0 pts
5.0 pts
0.0 pts
Quotes and Reference
The student met quote requirements. The citations and
references were in APA format.
5.0 pts
0.0 pts
5.0 pts
Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar are
5.0 pts
Total Points: 35.0

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