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The Gilded Age. Politics in the Late 19 th Century. Conventional View. Politicians of the Gilded Age are normally condemned for: Evading issues Dodging the responsibility of enacting major legislation Nor reflecting the mood and purpose of the American people

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the gilded age

The Gilded Age

Politics in the Late 19th Century

conventional view
Conventional View

Politicians of the Gilded Age are normally condemned for:

  • Evading issues
  • Dodging the responsibility of enacting major legislation
  • Nor reflecting the mood and purpose of the American people
  • Deteriorating into a group of spoilsmen
  • Best serving the business community as they themselves were served by business
true shortcomings
True Shortcomings

Presidents and Congressmen of the period failed to realize – or did not appreciate – the major problem of the time:

“The adjustment of American politics to the great economic and social changes that had come to the US with the rise of industrialism and urbanism.”

themes and tension
Themes and Tension

Two general themes caused tension during the Gilded Age:

  • Laissez-faire “ a doctrine opposing government interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights." Source: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990).
  • Concentration of power in the hands of the government at all levels - local, state, and federal. Government during this period assumed more authority and power, especially expanding its bureaucratic control and authority. Major areas of expansion of government power included land policy, railroad subsidies, tax/tariff policy, immigration policy, and Indian policy.
national government enumerated powers
National GovernmentEnumerated Powers
  • Provide for National defense
  • Coin money
  • Regulate international trade
  • Establish immigrations laws
  • Establish Bankruptcy laws
  • Establish and administer post office
  • Promote science & arts
  • Establish Federal Courts system
  • Make treaties
federal government oversight of business
Federal Government Oversight of Business
  • No clear constitutional role
  • America, like most West European nations at the time, followed a policy of Laissez Faire
    • Literally means “allow to do”
    • In the vernacular, would be “hands off”
  • Laissez Faire - government should not interfere w/ decisions made in an open/competitive market. Government should not make decisions that affect the sale of goods & services (i.e. setting prices & wages)
    • Critics call this the “age of negation” or the politics of dead center”
    • During this period government simply did not concern itself with economic or social matter
laissez faire as an economic policy
Laissez Faire as an Economic Policy

Two major problems

  • Not all markets are free and competitive
  • Over emphasizes role of economics
    • Only those items/services that are marketable will be offered
    • Ignores social costs
political control
Political Control

While both parties sought to control both Congress and the presidency neither was able to accomplish either task.

In PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS between 1876 and 1896 three elections provided the winner with a popular vote of less than one per cent.

Two presidents were elected while their major opponents received the majority of the popular vote.

political control1
Political Control

Republicans won four of six elections but:

  • Gained a majority in only one (1896)
  • Gained a plurality in one other (1880)

Democrats won the presidency twice in 1884 and 1892 but:

  • Won the majority of the popular vote in 1876
  • Won a plurality in 1884, 1888 and 1892
political control2
Political Control

Controlling both Congress and the Presidency:

  • Between 1877 and 1897 Republicans controlled both branches at the same time for only four years, 1881-1883 and again in 1889-1891.
  • During the same period Democrats controlled both branches for only two years, 1893-1895.
  • Republican control during 1881-1883 the Republicans had control only because one member of the House was William Mahone – Readjuster from Virginia – who cooperated with them.
state local governments
State & LocalGovernments

Primarily responsibility for

  • Law & order (police power)
  • Regulatory authority
  • Housing/zoning rules
  • Taxation
  • Social services
interstate commerce commission icc established 1887
Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)(established 1887)
  • Charged w/ bringing order to growing patchwork of state laws
  • Approved freight and passenger rates on railroads
  • Set a precedent for future regulation of trade as well as proactive government - intervention of government into private enterprise
  • Also marked a shift in power from states to federal government
the spoils system
The Spoils System

Supporters argued:

  • Was an essential tool of governance
    • Only “loyal” followers could effectively pursue the leader’s policies
    • Enabled parties to strengthen their organizations
    • Rewarded party loyalty
  • Had a positive impact on the country
    • Attracted needed government workers
    • Mobilized the electorate
    • Allowed wider participation in democratic system
    • Prevented emergence of entrenched bureaucracy
the spoils system1
The Spoils System

Detractors argued:

  • Inefficiency
    • Unqualified personnel
    • Instability due to turnover
  • Lack of continuity in government
    • Frequent policy shifts hamper business growth
    • Frequent policy shifts cripple foreign policy
  • Graft, corruption
  • Distracted officials from actual process of governing
rise of the political machine
Rise of the Political “Machine”

“The boss exploited the inability of government to supply the demands of the emerging city. He created a mechanism – the “machine” – for coping with the complex political, economic, and social adaptations entailed in the transformation of American society.”

rise of the political machine1
Rise of the Political “Machine”

The machine responded to the needs of three groups:

  • Immigrants and the urban poor
  • Legitimate businesses
  • Illegitimate businesses
rise of the political machine2
Rise of the Political “Machine”

Cornerstones of the bosses’ success:

  • Personal touch
  • Political power
  • Patronage

“There’s got to be in every ward somebody that any bloke can come to – no matter what he’s done – and get help. Help, you understand, none of your law and justice, but help.”

tammany hall a k a the tweed ring
Tammany Hall(a.k.a the Tweed ring)

The model of the big city machine in the Gilded Age

  • Dominated New York city and state politics from 1866 to 1871
  • The “ring” was composed of only four men
    • Treasurer Peter Barr Sweeny “the Brains”
    • City Controller Richard Connolly, “Slippery Dick”
    • Mayor Abraham Hall “the Elegant”
    • William Marcy Tweed “the Boss”
tammany hall a k a the tweed ring1
Tammany Hall(a.k.a the Tweed ring)

Tweed ring never controlled a true majority of the voters

  • Power base was control of
    • City Hall
    • Hall of Justice
    • State Capital
    • Tammany Hall (Dem party headquarters)
  • Through patronage, Tweed claimed to control 12,000 electors in the city’s 21 wards
  • Numerous ways to cheat at the polls
    • Padded registration lists
    • Repeat voters “vote early and vote often”
    • Opponent’s votes were often delivered to the Hudson River


What are you going to do about it?



“You have the liberty of voting for anyone you please; we have the liberty of counting in any one we please.”