• • • During Reconstruction, the federal government sought to secure equal rights for African Americans, however, by the time of the Gilded Age (1877-1900) African Americans and other minorities experienced a narrowing of their rights.
After the Compromise of 1877, by having the federal troops leave the South, the South could now reassert their control over African Americans. Southern governments enacted measures aimed at disfranchising, or taking away African American voting rights. Jim Crow laws were enacted that kept whites and blacks segregated or apart.
• • • • • After Reconstruction, southern states were able to get around the 15 th Amendment.
The South enacted poll taxes in which voters would pay $1-$2 in order to vote. Poor African Americans could not afford this fee. States also enacted literacy tests which required voters to read. This disqualified some African American voters. Southern states also enacted grandfather clauses, which allowed a person to vote as long as his ancestors had voted prior to 1866. Of course, the ancestors of the black freedmen did not vote prior to 1866, but the ancestors of many white men did. Grandfather clauses allowed poor and illiterate whites to vote but not poor and illiterate African Americans.
African American participation in politics fell dramatically. In Louisiana, for example, the number of African Americans registered to vote plummeted from 130,000 in 1894 to just over 1,300 in 1904. On the eve of World War II in 1940, only 3 percent of African Americans could vote in the South.
• • • • Jim Crow segregation became a reality in the South. There were Jim Crow railroad cars and waiting stations, jury boxes, Bibles, cemeteries, restaurants, parks, beaches, and hospitals. In the North, Jim Crow laws were illegal but de facto segregation existed. This was segregation that put restrictions on where African Americans were allowed to live and vote.
Plessy v. Ferguson (Supreme Court case in 1896) established “separate but equal” clause and made segregation legal, in which it does not violate the 14 th Amendment.
Facilities, however, were rarely equal. For instance, in South Carolina, the state spent 14 dollars for every white students but less than 3 dollars for every black student.
• • • The most famous African American leader during the late 1800s was Booker T. Washington. Washington argued that African Americans needed to spend less time fighting Jim Crow and called for African Americans to “pull themselves up from their own bootstraps” by building up their economic resources and establishing their reputations as hardworking and honest citizens. Washington established the Tuskegee Institute, a school in Alabama, which became known for “industrial education.” Washington said this school would prepare African Americans to exercise the privileges of citizenship.
• • W.E.B. Du Bois was another famous African American leader. Unlike Washington, Du Bois argued that African Americans should demand full and immediate equality and not limit themselves to vocational education. Ida B. Wells was an African American woman who published a newspaper in which she spoke out against lynching. She spent her whole life crusading against lynching and fighting for African American rights.
• • • During the same time Jim Crow laws were taking effect in the South, discrimination against Chinese immigrants grew worse on the West Coast.
In 1879, California barred cities from employing people of Chinese ancestry. San Francisco established their own segregated oriental schools. Mobs of whites would attack Chinese immigrants saying they had taken their “white” jobs. Congress’ response to this violence was the Chinese Exclusion Act.
In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals of Chinese descent, born in the United States, could not be stripped of their citizenship, but upheld the Chinese Exclusion Act.
• • • Like African Americans and Asian Americans, Mexican Americans struggled against discrimination in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed at the end of the Mexican-American War, guaranteed property right of Mexican Americans who lived in the Southwest prior to the war. Still 4 out of 5 Mexican Americans who lived in New Mexico lost their land, as did Mexican Americans in other southwestern states.
Many factors caused Mexican Americans to lose their land.
• The U.S. Courts put the burden of proof on Mexican Americans to show they really owned the land. Differences in legal customs, and the fact that much of the land was held communally, not individually, made it difficult for many Mexican Americans to do so.
• Anglo-Americans used political connections to take land away from Mexican Americans. The “Santa Fe Ring,” an association of prominent whites, go the federal government to grant the group millions of acres of land in New Mexico. Thousands of Mexican Americans had lived on this land. Since New Mexico was a territory and not a state, Mexican Americans, who comprised the majority of the population, had no representatives in Washington, D.C. to challenge this deal.
• • • Throughout the Southwest – in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California – Mexican Americans fought to maintain their rights. Many Mexican Americans resented the loss of their land – One group, Las Gorras Blancas, targeted the property of large ranch owners by cutting holes in barbed-wire fences and burning houses. The group was sponsored by a national labor organization, the Knights of Labor, and had a newspaper to voice their grievances. They said, “Our purpose is to protect the rights and interests of the people in general; especially those of the helpless classes.” As Anti-Mexican feelings increased, a group of Hispanic citizens in Tucson, Arizona, formed the Alianza Hispano-Americana in 1894 to protect the culture, interests, and legal rights of Mexican Americans. Within two years, new branches of the organization opened in other cities.
• • • In the decades after the American Civil War, women continued to fight for the rights to vote, to own property, and to receive an education.
Susan B. Anthony (women’s rights activist), who helped with the abolition movement, felt betrayed when the Radical Republicans did not include women in the 14 th and 15 th amendments. In 1869, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Women Suffrage Association to fight for a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote. In 1872, Anthony illegally voted in a New York election and was arrested. While awaiting trial, Anthony delivered a speech called, “Is It a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?” Her speech failed to convince the nation to enact a women’s suffrage amendment. By the time of Anthony’s death in 1906, only four western states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho – had granted women the right to vote.
• • Women’s rights activists, however, did achieve some of their other goals. The number of women attending college jumped. By 1900, one third of all college students, nationwide, were women.
Women also played an increasingly important role in a number of reform movements. Frances Willard led the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She argued that women needed to vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol. Like many other WCTU members, Willard also promoted other social causes, such as public health and welfare reform.
• • Party loyalties were so evenly divided that no faction or group gained control for any period of time. Only twice between 1877 and 1897 did either the Republicans or Democrats gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress at the same time. Neither held control for more than two years in a row.
Compared to Lincoln, the Presidents of the Gilded Age appeared particularly weak. They won by slim margins and seemed to lack integrity. Rutherford B. Hayes owed his election in 1876 to a secret deal. Benjamin Harrison became only the second President in history to lose the popular vote but win the electoral college vote. Chester Arthur, who took over following James Garfield’s assassination upset so many fellow Republicans that he failed to win his own parties presidential nomination in 1884. The most noteworthy President of the era, however, was Grover Cleveland. In an era known for corruption, Cleveland maintained a reputation for integrity.
• • Grover Cleveland’s reputation for honesty was an exception. Many government officials, during the Gilded Age, routinely accepted bribes. • • Political cartoons showed this corruption to the public. Political parties and the spoils system were central components of politics during the Gilded Age.
The spoils system, which was first used by Andrew Jackson, awarded politicians government jobs to loyal party workers, with little regard for their qualifications.
• • • • The feeling that the spoils system corrupted government, or at least made it terribly inefficient, prompted a number of prominent figures to promote civil service reform. Civil service is a system that includes federal jobs in the executive branch. In a reformed system, most government workers got their jobs due to their expertise and maintain them regardless of which political party won the election.
Reforming the spoils system did cause controversy. Without the spoils system, politicians felt they would not attract the people needed to run their parties. It took the assassination of President James Garfield to make civil service reform a reality. The assassin Charles J. Guiteau shot Garfield because he believed that the Republican Party had not fulfilled its promise to give him a government job.
• Chester Arthur became President after Garfield and signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. This act established a Civil Service Commission, which wrote the civil service exam. Individuals who wanted to work for the government had to take the exam, and getting a job depended on doing well on the exam, not on manipulating one’s political connections. The plan reduced the power of the spoils system.
• • • • The tariff and monetary policy were critical economic issues during the Gilded Age. Monetary policy gave rise to independent political parties or movements that disagreed with the major parties’ commitment to the gold standard. Using the gold standard meant that the government would use gold as a basis of the nation’s currency.
Debate rises over the tariff. The Republicans favored it, as they claimed it would encourage the selling and manufacturing of goods within the United States, whereas the Democrats opposed it saying it increased the cost of goods to consumers and made it harder for farmers to sell their products abroad.
The Coinage Act of 1873 made it possible for the government to mint more silver currency. This upset bankers and international traders as they feared that considering silver as money would undermine the economy. Most farmers, however, favored coining silver to create inflation. The debate about the gold vs. silver standard would continue.
• • Between 1870 and 1895, farmer prices plummeted. Studies had even shown that by the early 1890s, it was costing farmers more to produce corn than they would get by selling it, so farmers burned the corn and used it as fuel. The more crops a farmer grew, the more the prices declined. The cost of business in farming grew. Farmers blamed big businesses, especially the railroads and the banks for their difficulties. The farmers also felt the nation has turned their back on them. It appeared to farmers that most of the nations leaders during the Gilded Age were from urban industrial states.
• • Farmers created a network of organizations to address their problems. One organization, organized by Oliver Kelly in 1867, was the Grange. The Grange attracted about a million members. Their goals were to provide education on new farming techniques, while calling for regulation of railroad and grain elevator rates. The “Grangers” were the ones responsible for the U.S. government establishing the Interstate Commerce Commission. The Grange declined in the late 1870s, but farm protest remained strong. Farmers’ Alliances, such as the Southern Farmers’ Alliance, became important reform organizations. These alliances formed cooperatives to collectively sell their crops, and they called on federal government to create “sub treasuries” or postal banks, to provide farmers with low-interest loans. They hoped the cooperatives would push the cost of doing business down and the prices for crops up.
• • • The spread of the Farmers’ Alliances led to the formation of the Populist Party in 1892. The Populists sought to build up a new political party from the grass roots. They ran entire slates of candidates for local, state, and national positions. Like a prairie fire, the Populist Party spread rapidly, putting pressure on the two major political parties to consider their demands. The Populist Party spelled out their views in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1892. Their platform warned about the dangers of political corruption, an inadequate monetary supply, and an unresponsive government. To fight for low prices they called for the coinage of silver, or “free silver.” To combat high costs they demanded government ownership of railroads. The were also for women’s suffrage. The Populist Party nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa as their presidential candidate and James Field of Virginia as his running mate. They also sought to reach out to urban workers, to convince them that they have the same enemy: the industrial elite.
• • For a new political party, the Populist Party did quite well in 1892. Weaver won more than 1 million votes for the presidency, and the Populists elected three governors, five senators, and ten congressmen. In 1894, the Populist Party continued to expand its base, gaining seats in the state legislatures and prompting the major political parties to consider endorsing their ideas.
In the South, the Populist Party had to unite whites and blacks if it hoped to succeed politically. However, the Democratic Party successfully used racist tactics, such as warning that a Populist victory would lead to “Negro supremacy,” to diminish the appeal of the Populist Party.
• • In 1893, a four-year-long depression began that not only worsened conditions for already suffering farmers but for other Americans as well. Labor unrest and violence engulfed the nation. The major parties failed to satisfactorily respond to the nation’s distress.
In the midst of discontent, the Populist Party’s relationship with the urban workers grew. Their relative success at the polls in 1892 and 1894 raised their hopes further. With the Democrats nominating William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate, the Populist Party felt they could win the White House in 1896.
• • • • William Jennings Bryan campaigned on the basis of supporting the silver standard. He delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech throughout the country rallying support for silver opposition.
With Bryan supporting “free silver,” the Populist Party chose not to nominate a presidential candidate.
Bryan’s campaign was like nothing anyone had seen before. For the first time, a presidental candidate toured the nation, speaking directly to the people. In contrast, Republican opponent William McKinley accumulated $15 million, 30 times more than what Bryan had, and allowed party regulators to campaign for him. The McKinley campaign cast Bryan and his Populist Party supporters as a potential dictator and a threat to the Republic. McKinley won the election and won reelection against Bryan again in 1900.
• • • • • Bryan’s emphasis on monetary reform, especially free silver, did not appeal to urban workers. He failed to win any state outside of the South and the West. The decision to endorse Bryan lead to the weakening of the Populist Party.
The Populist Party lingered for nearly a decade but disappeared by the early 1900s. Most of the voters who supported the Populist Party went back to supporting the Democratic Party.
Even though the Populist Party fell apart, many of the specific reforms that it advocated became a reality in the early decades of the twentieth century. As we will see later, the Progressives supported a graduated income tax system, regulation of the railroads, and a more flexible monetary system. Populism had lasting effects on the style of politics in the United States. For a brief time, there was even a coalition of whites and blacks in Texas. They were able to find common political ground. Increasingly, candidates campaigned directly to the people, and like Bryan, they emphasized their association with ordinary Americans.