Gilded Age Politics
As America modernized, politics played an increasingly important role in the lives of the common men. Diverse groups participated in the political arena as they attempted to reform the social, political and economical problems of the newly industrial nation. Taking its name from the novel, The Gilded Age, the era referred to the decades from the 1870s to the 1890s where Americans struggled to battle corruption in a morally deteriorating society.
Pendleton Civil Service Act: Because of the Pendleton Civil Service Act, political candidates were forbidden from soliciting contributions from government workers. This act also set up a civil service commission to prepare competitive exams and establish standards of merit for a variety of federal jobs. In 1883, Congress enacted a civil service law introduced by Senator George Pendleton of Ohio. Although President Arthur was a Stalwart, he had the courage to endorse the act which reformed the spoils system.
Chester A. Arthur: He became president after the assassination of Garfield. This 21st president, who served from 1881 to 1885, rose above the political corruption prevalent during the times and headed a reform-oriented administration that enacted the first comprehensive U.S. civil service legislation. He supported the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883.
Election of 1884: James G Blaine was nominated by the Republicans, while Grover Cleveland was the Democratic nominee. The Independent Republicans, known as "Mugwumps," supported Cleveland, which cost Blaine the election. The Democrats controlled the House, while the Republicans dominated the Senate.
Stalwarts, Roscoe Conkling: The Stalwarts, who favored the spoils system of political patronage, were lead by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. The battle over patronage split the Republican party into two factions: the Half-breeds and the Stalwarts. The two differed mainly over who would control the party machinery.
Half-breeds: They argued with the Stalwarts on the issues of who would control the party of machine and would distribute patronage jobs. The Half-breeds supported civil service reform and merit appointments to government posts. They were joined together as the Republican party, but disputes over patronage split it into two: Stalwarts and Half-breeds.
James G. Blaine: Blaine was a Republican Congressman, senator, secretary of state under Garfield, and a presidential candidate under the Republican Half-Breeds, who ran against Conkling. Blaine was considered one of the most popular Republicans of his time, and was elemental in his party’s success in elections.
Mugwumps: This term designated dissident members of the Republican party, who, in the presidential election of 1884, refused to support the nominee of their party, James G. Blaine. Instead, they supported the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland, who was later elected. The term was first used derisively in a New York City newspaper, the Sun.
"Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion": At a rally on election eve, a clergyman denounced the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." Blaine failed to repudiate the remark and the Democrats widely publicized this insult to Catholics, drinkers and patriotic Democrats. Blaine’s mistake allowed Cleveland to obtain New York’s electoral votes.
High Tariffs: Republicans preferred high tariffs, while Democrats preferred low ones. Cleveland supported low tariffs. The Dingley tariff of 1879 increased rates to an all-time high levels while the Currency Act of 1900 officially changed the U.S. gold standard. The Wilson-Gorman Protective Tariff also unsuccessfully attempted to create an income tax.
Treasury surplus: The high tariffs were feeding a large and growing budget surplus. This surplus stood as a continual temptation to distribute it in the form of veterans pension or expensive public-work programs, known as pork barrel projects. Cleveland was convinced that surplus constituted a corrupting influence.
Pension GAR: After the Civil War, veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) to lobby for pensions. Veterans disability pensions cost the government millions dollars a year, but in 1879, bowing to GAR pressure, Congress had eased the rules for securing them. The GAR actively encouraged veterans to file claims.
Secret ballot: Between 1888 and 1896, 90% of all the states were convinced to adopt a new ballot like the one in Australia, which was a method of voting that listed voter options. This was a Populist goal articulated in the Omaha Platform. The paper ballot emerged as a dominant voting method. The secret ballot is also known as the Australian ballot.
"Murchinson letter": Charles Murchinson wrote a letter to the British Ambassador to ask how he should vote during the election of 1888. The ambassador fell into the trap and advised Murchinson to vote for Cleveland, rather than Harrison. The Republicans gracefully publicized the "Murchinson Letter" as a foreign attempt to meddle in an American election.
Cleveland’s 1887 annual address: Cleveland focused his entire annual address message to Congress on the tariff issue. He argued that lower tariffs would not only cut the federal surplus but also reduce prices and slow the development of trusts. His tariff message upset many corporate boardrooms who thought that lowering the tariff would hurt their prosperity.
Presidential Succession Act of 1886: This act determined that if both the President of the United States and the Vice President both died or if they were both disqualified, there would be a line of succession. The line started with first the president pro tempore, secretary of state, secretary of treasury, secretary of defense, and continued.
Election of 1888, candidates, issues: Because Blaine decided not to run, the Republicans turned to Benjamin Harrison. Republican focused on the tariff issue. The Republicans falsely portrayed the Democrats as advocates of "free trade," which many felt would have horrible consequences. Harrison won in the electoral college by defeating Grover Cleveland.
Benjamin Harrison, Billion dollar congress, Czar Reed: Harrison quickly rewarded his supporters. He appointed a past GAR commander as commissioner of pension. In 1890, Harrison signed the pension bill that Cleveland had earlier vetoed. The Republican Congress of 1890 became known as the Billion-dollar Congress.
McKinley Tariff: His administration enacted a higher tariff in 1897 and committed the country to the gold standard in 1900. It generally promoted business confidence. Probably in part because of these policies, the economy recovered from a severe depression, and the Republicans became identified with economic prosperity.
Election of 1892: The Republicans re-nominated Harrison, while the Democrats turned to Grover Cleveland who was a Conservative. The Populists nominated James B Weaver who did not did better than expected. Voters generally reacted against the high McKinley Tariff. Cleveland’s conservative economic policies brought him support, and he won the election.
Morgan bond transaction: During the depression of 1893 to 1897, the gold reserve dwindled to $41 million. Cleveland turned to Wall Street bankers J.P. Morgan and August Belmont agreed to lend the government $62 million in exchange for U.S. bonds at a special discount. The government then bought gold, which restored confidence in the government.
Wilson-Gorman Tariff: In order to increase the sight of the governments role in an age of towering fortunes, this tariff became a law without the signature of approval from Cleveland. It did have a modest income tax of 12% on all income over $4000, but the supreme court declared it unconstitutional in 1895.
Dingley tariff: The McKinley administration furthered its conservative platform through the Dingley Tariff of 1897, which increased rates to all-time high levels. The Currency Act of 1900 officially changed the U.S. to the gold standard. Due to the discovery of gold in Alaska and the prosperity of farms prices, there was little protest against the Dingley tariff.
Gold Standard Act, 1900: This act officially put the United States on the gold standard. It was passed by William McKinley’s administration during a time when both the House of Representatives and the Senate were dominated by Republicans. Subsequent to this act, the U.S. went on and off the gold standard several times and abandoned it in 1971.