(HRS) Gilded Age Politics, 1877-1900


      William Mckinley                                William Jennings Bryan

HRS Chapter 20 Study Guide

In Chapter 20, we focus on the interaction of the political, economic, and social forces within American society during the Gilded Age. This period is characterized by high public interest in local, state, and national elections, political balance between Democrats and Republicans at the national level, and factional and personal feuds within the two parties. Democrats and Republicans in Congress were split on the major national issues: sectional controversies, civil service reform, railroad regulation, tariff policy, and monetary policy. Though Congress debated these issues, factionalism, interest-group politics, and political equilibrium resulted in the passage of vaguely worded, ineffective legislation such as the Pendleton Civil Service Act, the Interstate Commerce Act, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Combined with a conservative Supreme Court, weak presidential leadership, and political campaigns that focused on issues of personality rather than issues of substance, these factors caused the postponement of decisions on major issues affecting the nation and its citizens.

The political impasse built up frustration within aggrieved groups in the nation. Southern blacks, who lived under the constant threat of violence and who remained economically dependent on whites, had to endure new forms of social oppression in the form of disfranchisement and ?Jim Crow? laws. This oppression was, in turn, upheld by the Supreme Court, which interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment narrowly. Women were frustrated in their attempts to gain the right to vote by the sexist attitudes prevalent in the male-dominated power structures of the era. Aggrieved workers turned to organized labor, to strikes, and, at times, to violence (discussed in Chapter 18). Aggrieved farmers also began to organize. In ?Agrarian Unrest and Populism,? we examine the reasons for agrarian discontent and trace the manifestation of that discontent from the Grange, through the Farmers? Alliances, to the formation of the Populist Party and the drafting of the Omaha platform in 1892.

The depression of the 1890s added to the woes of the United States. President Grover Cleveland failed to deal with the crisis effectively, and an air of crisis settled over the nation. Workers? protests multiplied; the Socialist Party of America, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, reorganized; Coxey?s Army, demanding a federal jobs program, marched on the nation?s capital; and fear of social revolution led business owners and government officials to use brute force to control what they perceived to be radical protest.

As the crisis persisted, the Populist Party gained ground but was hampered both by the reluctance of voters to abandon their loyalties to the two major parties and by issues of race. At the national level, Populists, convinced that the ?money power? and its imposition of the gold standard on the nation was the root cause of farm distress and the nationwide depression, continued to call for a return of government to the people and crusaded for the ?free and unlimited coinage of silver.?

The frustrations that had built up in the Gilded Age?an age of transition from rural to urban, from agrarian to industrial society?came to a head in the emotionally charged presidential contest of 1896. An analysis of the issues, outcome, and legacy of this election, which ended the political equilibrium of the age, is offered in the last section of the chapter.

Norton (2008). A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 8th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Economic Transformation: Industrialization and modernization irrevocably altered the life of the American farmer. New technologies such as the mechanical reaper and the iron plow allowed farmers to cultivate more land than ever before, but also imposed high costs, as farmers had to borrow to pay for the new machinery. Urban growth and railroads provided access to new markets, but also forced farmers to confront high costs for shipping and storage. Many farmers advocated currency inflation to help them to reduce their debts, while the federal government remained committed to maintaining the gold standard.

Politics and Citizenship:
In the immediate post-Civil War period, few Americans believed in the need for an active federal government. Although the government provided aid to businesses through land subsidies, high tariffs, and pro-business intervention in labor disputes, the government had few other roles in American life. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Congress, heavily influenced by big business, dominated a series of weak presidents (a result partly of the pendulum swing against the power that the office had accumulated during the Civil War).

Reform: In response to the challenges posed by industrialization, many farmers sought to organize to defend their interests (going against the notion that farmers were by nature individualists). This movement ultimately took the form of the Populist, or People's Party, the largest third-party movement in American history. The Populists proposed a wide ranging expansion of the power of the federal government in the public interest, laying the groundwork for the later Progressive movement. Although the Populists accomplished little in the form of specific pieces of legislation, their advocacy of a graduated income tax, measures such as the initiative, referendum, and recall, and the direct election of senators, all came to fruition within a few decades after the decline of the movement.

American Identity: The agrarian challenge exposed the degree to which the country was divided across regional, class, and racial lines. The Populists represented in many ways a movement of the economically marginalized in the West and South against the forces of the more prosperous East. At the same time, racial differences between black and white farmers in the South ultimately prevented the developed of a far-reaching challenge to the power of the economic elite in that region. The 1896 election represented a major realignment, whereby the Republican Party came to be the majority party for the next three decades, while the Democrats gradually began to be identified with the interests of the less fortunate elements of American society.

George, J. & Brown, J. (2007). AP achiever: Advanced placement american history exam preparation guide.  McGraw Hill.

Digital History

The Gilded Age

Mark Twain called the late 19th century the "Gilded Age." By this, he meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. In the popular view, the late 19th century was a period of greed and guile: of rapacious Robber Barons, unscrupulous speculators, and corporate buccaneers, of shady business practices, scandal-plagued politics, and vulgar display. It is easy to caricature the Gilded Age as an era of corruption, conspicuous consumption, and unfettered capitalism. But it is more useful to think of this as modern America's formative period, when an agrarian society of small producers were transformed into an urban society dominated by industrial corporations. An era of intense partisanship, the Gilded Age was also an era of reform. The Civil Service Act sought to curb government corruption by requiring applicants for certain governmental jobs to take a competitive examination. The Interstate Commerce Act sought to end discrimination by railroads against small shippers and the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawed business monopolies. These were turbulent years that saw labor violence, rising racial tension, militancy among farmers, and discontent among the unemployed. Burdened by heavy debts and falling farm prices, many farmers joined the Populist Party, which called for an increase in the amount of money in circulation, government assistance to help farmers repay loans, tariff reductions, and a graduated income tax.

The Political Crisis of the 1890s

The 1880s and 1890s were years of turbulence. Disputes erupted over labor relations, currency, tariffs, patronage, and railroads. The most momentous political conflict of the late 19th century was the farmers' revolt. Drought, plagues of grasshoppers, boll weevils, rising costs, falling prices, and high interest rates made it increasingly difficult to make a living as a farmer. Many farmers blamed railroad owners, grain elevator operators, land monopolists, commodity futures dealers, mortgage companies, merchants, bankers, and manufacturers of farm equipment for their plight. Farmers responded by organizing Granges, Farmers' Alliances, and the Populist Party. In the election of 1896, the Populists and the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. Bryan?s decisive defeat inaugurated a period of Republican ascendancy, in which Republicans controlled the presidency for 24 of the next 32 years. 

Biography of America 

Capital and Labor (series 17)
The making of money pits laborers against the forces of capital as the twentieth century opens. Professor Miller introduces the miner as the quintessential laborer of the period -- working under grinding conditions, organizing into unions, and making a stand against the reigning money man of the day, J. Pierpont Morgan.  

Lecture Outlines

Politics of the Gilded Age 1877-1900

The National Grange 1870-1890

The Populist Crusade 1890s


Immigration and Migration

Populism and Agrarian Dissent

Mary Elizabeth Lease

Web Links

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