The Gilded Age (from Wikipedia)

This is interesting. . . and rings familiar, but not exactly, of course. Historians often refer to the period from the end of the Civil  War to the turn of the 20th century as “the Gilded Age,” a term credited to Mark Twain and Charles D. Warner for a book of that title. The bracket dates are about 1869 to 1896. Here’s the Wikipedia entry about the Politics of the time:

“Americans’ sense of civic virtue was shocked by the scandals associated with the Reconstruction era: corrupt state governments, massive fraud in cities controlled by political machines, political payoffs to secure government contracts (especially the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal regarding the financing of the transcontinental railroad), and widespread evidence of government corruption during the Ulysses S. Grant Administration. This corruption divided the Republican party into two different factions, The Stalwarts led by Roscoe Conkling and the Half-Breeds led by James G. Blaine. Accordingly there were widespread calls for reform, such as Civil Service Reform led by the Bourbon Democrats and Republican Mugwumps supporting Democratic reform candidates such as Grover Cleveland. There was a sense that government intervention in the economy inevitably led to favoritism, bribery, kickbacks, inefficiency, waste, and corruption. The Bourbon Democrats led the call for a free market, low tariffs, low taxes, less spending and, in general, a Laissez-Faire (hands-off) government. They specifically denounced imperialism and overseas expansion. Many business and professional people supported this approach, although—to encourage rapid growth of industry and protect America’s high wages against the low wage system in Europe—most Republicans advocated a high protective tariff. Labor activists and agrarians expressed the same spirit but focused their attacks on monopolies and railroads as unfair to the little man. Many Republicans also complained that high tariffs, for instance on British steel, benefited industrialists like Carnegie more than his employees who even at the time were regarded by many as being pitifully exploited.

“In politics, the two parties engaged in very elaborate get-out-the vote campaigns that succeeded in pushing turnout to 80%, 90%, and even higher. It was financed by the “spoils system” whereby the winning party distributed most local, state and national government jobs, and many government contracts, to its loyal supporters. Large cities were dominated by political machines, in which constituents supported a candidate in exchange for anticipated patronage—favors back from the government, once that candidate was elected—and candidates were selected based on their willingness to play along. The best known example of a political machine from this time period is Tammany Hall in New York City, led by Boss Tweed. Presidential elections between the two major parties (the Republicans and Democrats), were closely contested, and Congress was marked by political stalemate. Mudslinging became an increasingly popular way of gaining advantage at the polls, and Republicans employed an election tactic known as “waving the bloody shirt“. Candidates, especially when combating corruption charges, would remind voters that the Republican Party had saved the nation in the Civil War. During the 1870s, voters were repeatedly reminded that the Democrats had been responsible for the bloody upheaval, an appeal that attracted many Union veterans to the Republican camp. The Republicans consistently carried the North in presidential elections. The South, on the other hand, became the Solid South, nearly always voting Democratic. The political humiliations of Reconstruction were still fresh in many minds. Conversely, the Democrats invoked images of the “lost cause” and the glorious “stars and bars” in much the same way Republicans “waved the bloody shirt.” The corruption of the Republican organization led to the defection of a group of reformers called the Mugwumps that supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884. This victory gave Democrats control of the presidency for the first time since the Civil War (not counting the ascension of Andrew Johnson who was technically elected as part of the Union Party).

“Overall, Republican and Democratic political platforms remained remarkably constant during the years before 1900. Republicans generally favored inflationary, protectionist policies while Democrats favored hard-money, free trade and other libertarian policies. The negativity and ambiguity of politics began a shift in the press to yellow journalism, in which sensationalism and sentimental stories took as prominent a role as factual news.”

The line of presidents in that era included Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and Cleveland again—not among our most memorable, Grant being more a Civil War figure.

2 Responses to The Gilded Age (from Wikipedia)

  1. Deb Forgione says:

    What a good read this morning. This period is fascinating because it was prior to the income tax . “”The negativity and ambiguity of politics began a shift in the press to yellow journalism, in which sensationalism and sentimental stories took as prominent a role as factual news.”” shows how history repeats itself and people are people, so what really changes in politics. I think we are kinder nation and society, but politics are still as ruthless as anyone can see on the front page of the local newspaper.

  2. DickH says:

    There’s a great line in Twain’s book “The Gilded Age.” I’m paraphrasing, but the character says something like “America is a great country; yesterday I had nothing and today I owe a million dollars,” which is something that was probably said many times during the housing bubble of earlier this decade.