The Gilded Age Politics in the Late 19 Century th

The Gilded Age
Politics in the Late 19th Century
Conventional View
Politicians of the Gilded Age are normally
condemned for:
• Evading issues
• Dodging the responsibility of enacting major
• Nor reflecting the mood and purpose of the American
• Deteriorating into a group of spoilsmen
• Best serving the business community as they
themselves were served by business
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
Two general themes caused tension during the Gilded Age:
1. 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).
2. 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
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
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
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
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 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 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
Primarily responsibility for
 Law & order (police power)
 Regulatory authority
 Housing/zoning rules
 Taxation
 Social services
Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)
(established 1887)
Charged w/ bringing order to growing
patchwork of state laws
Approved freight and passenger rates on
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
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 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”
“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 “Machine”
The machine responded to the needs of three groups:
 Immigrants and the urban poor
 Legitimate businesses
 Illegitimate businesses
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)
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 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.”