Gilded Age Politics

The Gilded Age was a period from the late 1870s until the 1890s through which the United States became an industrial nation. During this time, the US experienced dramatic economic, political, and social transformation. The 1870s and 80s saw the US economy rise at the fastest rate in history, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, US industrial production led the world. 

Gilded Age Politics Gilded Age Politics

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Table of contents

    Gilded Age Timeline

    DateEvent
    1859Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published.

    Gilded Age Politics Charles Darwin StudySmarterFig. 1 - Charles Darwin

    1870sThe Gilded Age began.Second Industrial Revolution.
    1877Compromise of 1877. Republican candidate Hayes was appointed President in exchange for withdrawing troops from the South. This kickstarted Jim Crow.
    1881President Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau.

    Gilded Age Politics Official Presidential Portrait of James Abram Garfield, 20th President of the United States StudySmarterFig. 2 - Official Presidential Portrait of James Abram Garfield, 20th President of the United States (4 March 1881 - 19 September 1881)

    1883Pendleton Civil Service Act forbade presidents from awarding government positions to their supporters.
    1890The top 1% of the US population owned 25% of the nation's wealth.
    1892Homestead Strike saw steel workers go on strike. They were put down by the state government.
    1893Economic depression. President Cleveland was forced to ask JP Morgan for a loan of over $60 million.
    1894Pullman Strike saw railroad workers across the country going on strike. The President sent in the military to defeat the strike.
    1896End of the People's Party.
    190040,000 miles of railroad tracks laid out across the country.End of the Gilded Age.

    Causes of the Gilded Age

    The Gilded Age was brought about by the Second Industrial Revolution. It took off after the Civil War and introduced key elements such as assembly-line production, the telephone, refrigeration, electrification of homes and businesses, the automobile, and more. These benefited industrial growth because they promoted the mass production of goods.

    Did you know? The term ‘Gilded Age’ was coined in 1873 by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. It referred to the reality that beneath the prosperity of the era hid political corruption and vast poverty.

    A particularly important change happened in the production of steel. A new process called the Bessemer process made steel mass production cheaper. The availability of steel benefited the US railroad industry. By 1900, the country had laid around 40,000 miles of new tracks. This made it easier to transport goods, and it opened up the west of the country. Steel also allowed for the construction of new machinery and skyscrapers.

    Gilded Age Political Ideas

    The huge economic boom of the Gilded Age was also due to the popular political ideas of the time: social Darwinism and laissez-faire.

    Gilded Age Politics Social Darwinism

    Social Darwinism was a social theory based on the ideas of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). This theory was proposed by Herbert Spencer and influenced business leaders of the Gilded Age. Whilst Darwin’s natural selection was a biological idea, social Darwinists applied it to people. According to them, those who were economically and socially successful were ‘naturally’ the fittest.

    Gilded Age Politics Herbert Spencer StudySmarterFig. 1 - Photograph of Herbert Spencer

    Poverty, on the other hand, was a result of natural inferiority. Social Darwinists took the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ to argue against government aid to the poor, believing that this ‘natural inferiority’ should be bred out of the population. Social Darwinists also used their theory to justify racism.

    Gilded Age Politics Laissez-Faire

    The Gilded Age embodied laissez-faire capitalism. Laissez-faire, meaning ‘let them do [what they will]’ in French, combined some of the ideas of social Darwinism with principles of the free market, and limited government intervention.

    Supporters of laissez-faire were known as liberals. They argued that when the market was free from government intervention, it would produce the best and most efficient outcomes.

    Gilded Age Political Parties

    Politics in the Gilded Age saw a lot of corruption as well as the highest voter turnout ever seen in the US. Some states reached over 90% turnout. There were three main parties that were active during the Gilded Age: the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the People’s Party.

    Gilded Age Political Parties The Republican Party

    The Republican Party had worked for civil rights throughout the Reconstruction, but their support for racial egalitarianism had diminished by the 1870s. Instead, they now supported the expansion of business and infrastructure, particularly the railroad industry for which they provided land and subsidies.

    Did you know? The Republican and Democrat parties would switch ideological positions between 1900 and 1930.

    Republicans also wanted to introduce a protective tariff to shield the industry from foreign competition, and to implement the gold standard (to tie the value of the dollar to a fixed amount of gold).

    A tariff is a tax placed by one country on goods and services imported from another country.


    Causes of the Gilded Age

    The Gilded Age was brought about by the Second Industrial Revolution. It took off after the Civil War and introduced key elements such as assembly-line production, the telephone, refrigeration, electrification of homes and businesses, the automobile, and more. These benefited industrial growth because they promoted the mass production of goods.

    Did you know? The term ‘Gilded Age’ was coined in 1873 by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. It referred to the reality that beneath the prosperity of the era hid political corruption and vast poverty.

    A particularly important change happened in the production of steel. A new process called the Bessemer process made steel mass production cheaper. The availability of steel benefited the US railroad industry. By 1900, the country had laid around 40,000 miles of new tracks. This made it easier to transport goods, and it opened up the west of the country. Steel also allowed for the construction of new machinery and skyscrapers.

    Gilded Age Political Ideas

    The huge economic boom of the Gilded Age was also due to the popular political ideas of the time: social Darwinism and laissez-faire.

    Gilded Age Politics Social Darwinism

    Social Darwinism was a social theory based on the ideas of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). This theory was proposed by Herbert Spencer and influenced business leaders of the Gilded Age. Whilst Darwin’s natural selection was a biological idea, social Darwinists applied it to people. According to them, those who were economically and socially successful were ‘naturally’ the fittest.

    Gilded Age Politics Herbert Spencer StudySmarterFig. 3 - Photograph of Herbert Spencer

    Poverty, on the other hand, was a result of natural inferiority. Social Darwinists took the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ to argue against government aid to the poor, believing that this ‘natural inferiority’ should be bred out of the population. Social Darwinists also used their theory to justify racism.

    Gilded Age Politics Laissez-Faire

    The Gilded Age embodied laissez-faire capitalism. Laissez-faire, meaning ‘let them do [what they will]’ in French, combined some of the ideas of social Darwinism with principles of the free market, and limited government intervention.

    Supporters of laissez-faire were known as liberals. They argued that when the market was free from government intervention, it would produce the best and most efficient outcomes.

    Gilded Age Political Parties

    Politics in the Gilded Age saw a lot of corruption as well as the highest voter turnout ever seen in the US. Some states reached over 90% turnout. There were three main parties that were active during the Gilded Age: the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the People’s Party.

    Gilded Age Political Parties The Republican Party

    The Republican Party had worked for civil rights throughout the Reconstruction, but their support for racial egalitarianism had diminished by the 1870s. Instead, they now supported the expansion of business and infrastructure, particularly the railroad industry for which they provided land and subsidies.

    Did you know? The Republican and Democrat parties would switch ideological positions between 1900 and 1930.

    Republicans also wanted to introduce a protective tariff to shield the industry from foreign competition, and to implement the gold standard (to tie the value of the dollar to a fixed amount of gold).

    A tariff is a tax placed by one country on goods and services imported from another country.

    The Republican Party dominated the presidency during the Gilded Age, and their policies mostly benefited banks and rich business owners.

    Gilded Age Political Parties The Democratic Party

    The Democratic Party opposed the tariff proposed by the Republicans and promoted state and local control of the government. They also favoured protecting personal liberties over moral reform. In the South, Democratic state governments imposed segregation on African-Americans, and limited many of the civil liberties they had gained during Reconstruction. In the North, Democrats appealed to people in the city, often by offering food and jobs in exchange for votes.

    Although Republicans usually held the presidency, Democrats often took control of the House of Representatives throughout the Gilded Age. Elections were often close and corruption meant elections were fiercely controversial.

    Gilded Age Political Parties The People’s Party

    In the 1890s, the People’s Party emerged. It was also known as the Populists and their objective was to forward the interests of farmers. Farmers faced several problems in this era. The mechanisation of agriculture had driven crop prices down, unregulated railroads charged high rates to ship crops to the markets, and the gold standard made paying back loans more difficult. To make matters worse, the Republican tariff was detrimental to farmers because it imposed high taxes on manufactured goods but not on raw materials. This meant that farmers had to buy foreign machinery at high prices but sold their crops at low prices in a competitive market.

    The aims of the People’s Party were:

    • Regulation of the railways.

    • More government regulation of farm prices.

    • Introduction of graduated income tax to remove the government's income dependence on tariffs.

    • Maximum eight-hour working days.

    • The introduction of the ‘silver standard’.

    The silver standard, or free silver, involved coining silver as well as gold in order to increase the money supply and make paying back loans easier. Since 1865, the world production of gold had decreased, but there had been a rapid growth in silver.

    The People’s Party was popular in the South and the Midwest where agriculture was concentrated, and they won many victories in the 1892 election. However, in 1896 the Democratic Party incorporated many of their policies, including free silver. When the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan lost the election, the Populist Movement effectively ended.

    Political Corruption During the Gilded Age

    The rapid growth of cities contributed to the establishment of political machines. The definition of a political machine in US politics is a party organisation led by a boss or a small group, which commands enough support to maintain political control of an area. This control is maintained through rewards for the supporters. At the time, rewards included lucrative jobs on local, state, and national levels. In other words, political machines were in charge of buying votes. The most notable political machine was Tammany Hall in New York City, run by the Democratic Party. It played an important role in the control of New York and in helping immigrants. This system of buying votes was a key cause of political corruption.

    The Gilded Age also coincided with the period of Forgotten Presidents. Every president elected between 1872 and 1892 received less than 50% of the vote. Gilded Age Presidents were weak and limited in what they could do and spent most of their efforts repaying political favours through patronage.

    Patronage was when the President awarded government positions to his political supporters.

    The Compromise of 1877 demonstrates the corruption of politics and the lack of leadership each president had. The 1876 presidential election was disputed between the two candidates who had a very similar amount of votes. As a solution, the presidency was simply awarded to Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes. He got it in exchange for removing federal troops from the South who had been placed there to protect African Americans at the voting booths.

    In 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated by a man called Charles Guiteau. Guiteau had supported Garfield and was enraged when he was not rewarded with a position in office. In an effort to somewhat tackle patronage, President Chester Arthur introduced the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. This Act created the Civil Service Commission which awarded job positions based on merit, rather than in exchange for political support.

    Here is a table of the 'forgotten presidents' of the Gilded Age.

    Name

    Party

    Term

    Ulysses Grant

    Republican

    1869-77

    Rutherford Hayes

    Republican

    1877-81

    James Garfield

    Republican

    1881-81

    Chester Arthur

    Republican

    1881-85

    Grover Cleveland

    Democratic

    1885-89 & 1893-97

    Benjamin Harrison

    Republican

    1889-93

    Who Had the Most Power During the Gilded Age?

    Whilst the Presidents of the Gilded Age had little power, super-rich industrialists and financiers held great power. These men were labeled as ‘robber barons’ by the public. This referred to their huge wealth made through questionable practices, such as corruption and relying on immigrant labour.

    Gilded Age Politics Bosses of the senate StudySmarter
    Fig. 4 - Drawing ‘The Bosses of the Senate’

    The laissez-faire policies of the time meant people could become extremely rich. By 1890 just 1% of the population controlled 25% of US wealth. Examples of robber barons include John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan.

    John D. Rockefeller created the Standard Oil Company in 1870, which at one point controlled 90% of all available oil in the US. Rockefeller used many unfair practices to grow his company, and the business came to hold a monopoly on oil.

    Monopoly.

    When one company dominates the market, pushing out smaller competitors.

    Andrew Carnegie earned his fortune through the steel industry. He owned all aspects of the manufacturing process. Later in life, he would give away much of his wealth.

    JP Morgan was born into wealth and continued to amass it through working as a financier for what became J. P. Morgan and Company, one of the wealthiest banks in the world at the time. In fact, the depression of 1893 forced President Cleveland to ask JP Morgan for a loan of over $60 million, demonstrating who really had power in Gilded Age society.

    How did people live during the Gilded Age?

    Wealth inequality was a defining feature of the Gilded Age. The industrialisation of the US led to the expansion of major cities. There were wealthy people and poor people and they lived very differently. The Gilded Age saw the growth of the middle class, with the creation of clerical jobs, such as receptionists and administrators, held by both men and women. Holders of these jobs constituted the middle class and could afford to spend money on consumer goods and leisure activities.

    Whilst the middle class and the wealthy enjoyed a high standard of living, those in poverty lived in tenement houses. These consisted of tiny rooms without light, ventilation, or good sanitation. Journalist Jacob Riis exposed this in his 1890 photo series How the Other Half Lives and only then were reforms introduced to improve housing.

    Gilded Age Immigration

    Industrialisation led to large-scale immigration, first from Germany and Scandinavia, and later from other parts of Europe. Those who subscribed to social Darwinism believed that the second wave of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were racially inferior to immigrants from countries such as England or Germany. They saw the occupations of these eastern and southern European migrants - unskilled factory jobs - and argued this was a result of racial make-up.

    Gilded Age Labour Unions

    The focus on efficiency and mass production often led to a lack of consideration for workers. There were long working hours, low pay, and even child labour. Between 1881 and 1900, around 35,000 workers lost their lives in accidents at work each year. Discontent led to the formation of labour unions that advocated eight-hour working days and the abolition of child labour. There was also a series of strikes, but these had little results.

    In the Homestead Strike of 1892, workers at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steelworks went on strike, but the state government sided with the owners and defeated the union. A similar situation occurred with the Pullman Strike of 1894. A strike by workers for George Pullman became a nationwide railroad strike, which was met with the President dispatching troops to end the strike and issuing an injunction against the union.

    Gilded Age Politics - Key Takeaways

    • The Gilded Age was an age of industrialisation caused by the Second Industrial Revolution, which was characterised by laissez-faire capitalism.
    • There was huge wealth inequality throughout the period, which was justified by the wealthy through social Darwinism.
    • The three main parties of the period were the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the People’s Party.
    • Presidents during this period were weak and corrupt and operated through a system of patronage.
    • There was mass immigration to the US from Europe. Immigrants from areas such as Germany were seen more favourably than those who came from South and Eastern Europe.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gilded Age Politics

    What were the politics of the Gilded Age?

    Politics in the Gilded Age combined high political turnout with political corruption and weak presidents. Politics was based on the ideas of laissez-faire capitalism and social Darwinism, which restricted government involvement in the economy and the tackling of social issues.

    Why did the political structure change during the Gilded Age?

    The political structure in the sense of the branches of government did not change, but politics was transformed by the idea of laissez-faire and the growth of big businesses. The federal government was weak, whilst rich businessmen came to exercise considerable influence over politics.

    What did the government do during the Gilded Age?

    Put simply, not much! The Gilded Age was characterised by a small role for the federal government, which did not intervene other than to protect American businesses. This involved helping the railroad industry, which was key to the economic growth, and imposing high tariffs on foreign goods.

    Was the Gilded Age good or bad for politics?

    The Gilded Age was good for politics in the sense that it saw very high voter turnout and political engagement. However, it is generally considered to be bad for politics due to the high levels of corruption of the time.

    What were three major problems of the Gilded Age?

    - There was a lot of corruption in government and big businesses.

    - There was huge wealth inequality.

    - The system of laissez-faire began to produce monopolies.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did President James Monroe introduce what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine?

    The Roosevelt Corollary ______ the Monroe Doctrine.

    The Good Neighbour Policy aimed to _______ relations with countries in the Western Hemisphere.

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