Gilded Age politics were characterized by intense competition between the two parties and much demographic change.
Gilded Age politics, referred to as the Third Party System, were characterized by intense competition between the two major parties, with minor parties coming and going, especially on issues of concern to prohibitionists, labor unions, and farmers. The Third Party System existed from about 1854 to the mid-1890s and featured profound developments in issues of nationalism, modernization, and race. The Democrats and Republicans fought over major economic issues and control of offices, which became the rewards for party activists. Voter turnout was very high and often exceeded 80% or even 90% in some states as the parties drilled their loyal members like an army drills its soldiers. Competition was intense and elections were very close. In the southern states, lingering resentment over the Civil War meant that much of the South would vote Democrat.
The Bourbon Democrats supported a free market policy, with low tariffs, low taxes, less spending and, in general, a laissez-faire (hands-off) government. They argued that tariffs made most goods more expensive for the consumer and subsidized the trusts (monopolies). They also denounced imperialism and overseas expansion. By contrast Republicans insisted that national prosperity depended on industry that paid high wages, and warned that lowering the tariff would be a disaster because goods made by low-wage European factory workers would flood American markets.
A few anti-tariff businessmen were Democrats, along with some merchants and other business people. Democrats were just as conservative on money issues as Republicans: the politics of business was common to both parties. The northern wing of the Democratic Party leaned heavily in favor of the working classes, whose demographic makeup included Roman Catholics of German and Irish descent, white Southern Baptists, and many of the working class immigrants once they became eligible to vote. Neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to take strong stands on issues important to the voters. The sectionalism that had been prevalent prior to the Civil War was still alive and well, and with the evenness of political party affiliations, candidates’ personalities were important.
Demographic trends boosted the Democrats’ totals, as the German and Irish Catholic immigrants had became Democrats, and outnumbered the English and Scandinavian Republicans. The new immigrants who arrived after 1890 seldom voted at this time. During the 1880s and 1890s, the Republicans struggled against the Democrats' efforts, winning several close elections and losing two to Grover Cleveland (in 1884 and 1892).
The Republican Party (also known as the Grand Old Party or GOP), dominated the era, as it claimed success in saving the Union, abolishing slavery and enfranchising the freedmen, while adopting many Whiggish modernization programs such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges. While most elections from 1874 through 1892 were extremely close, the opposition Democrats won only the 1856, 1884 and 1892 presidential elections, though from 1874 to 1892 the party often controlled the United States House of Representatives. Indeed some scholars emphasize that the 1874 election saw a realignment and the collapse of support for Reconstruction.
Another part of the Republican base was African-American voters who tended to vote Republican—the party of Lincoln and emancipation—whenever they could. The gradual disenfranchisement of blacks in the South tended to erode the Republican base as the century progressed. Republicans were also known as the party of business, and they supported protective tariffs, transportation improvements and a tight money policy.
From 1860 to the early 1900s the Republicans took advantage of the association of Democrats’ association with “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Rum stood for the liquor interests and the tavern-keepers, in contrast to the GOP, which had a strong dry element. “Romanism” referred to Roman Catholics, especially Irish Americans, who ran the Democratic Party in most cities, and whom the reformers denounced for political corruption and the operation of a separate parochial (religious) school system. “Rebellion” stood for the Democrats of the Confederacy, who had tried to break the Union in 1861, as well as their northern allies, called “Copperheads.”
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 laissez-faire policies.
Presidential elections were so closely contested between the two major parties that a slight nudge could tip the election, and Congress was marked by political stalemate. With support from Union Army veterans, businessmen, professionals, and craftsmen and larger farmers, the GOP consistently carried the North in presidential elections. The Democrats, often led by Irish Catholics, had their base among Catholics, poorer farmers, and traditional party members. Both parties comprised broad-based voting coalitions. Throughout the North, businessmen, shop owners, skilled craftsmen, clerks and professionals favored the Republicans as did more modern, commercially oriented farmers. In the South, the Republicans won strong support from the freedmen (newly enfranchised African Americans), but the party was usually controlled by local whites ("scalawags") and opportunistic Yankees ("carpetbaggers"). The race issue pulled the great majority of white southerners into the Democratic Party as Redeemers.
II. Corruption and One-Party Dominance
Parties of the Gilded Age were characterized by intense voter interest, partisanship, routinely high voter turnout, and unflinching party loyalty.
The dominant fact concerning the American political parties between 1875 and 1900 was that the parties were evenly divided. It was also an era in which political corruption seemed to be the norm; practices that today would be viewed as scandalous were accepted as a matter of routine. Businessmen wantonly bribed public officials at the local, state and national level, and political machines turned elections into exercises in fraud and manipulation.
Civil War and Reconstruction issues polarized the parties until the Compromise of 1877 finally ended the political warfare. War issues resonated for a quarter century, as Republicans waved the "bloody shirt" (invoking the memories and sacrifices of dead Union soldiers), and Democrats warned against Black supremacy in the South and plutocracy (business interests) in the North. The modernizing Republicans who had founded the party in 1854 were troubled by the corruption during the Grant administrations. Following the contested 1876 election, Rutherford Hayes became president after a highly controversial electoral count, demonstrating that the corruption of Southern politics threatened the legitimacy of the presidency itself. After Hayes removed the last federal troops in 1877, political competition in the south mainly took place within the Democratic Party.
Problems were not limited to the executive branch. During this period, Congress was known for being rowdy and inefficient. It was not unusual to find that a quorum (majority vote) could not be achieved because too many members were drunk or otherwise preoccupied with extra-governmental affairs. The halls of Congress were filled with tobacco smoke and spittoons were everywhere. One disgusted observer noted that the members chewed and spit incessantly; the atmosphere on the floor was described as an “infernal din.” The Senate, whose seats were often auctioned off to the highest bidder, was known as a “rich man's club,” where political favors were traded like horses, and the needs of the people in the working classes lay beyond the vision of those exalted legislators.
Corruption reached into Congress with the the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal, and disgraced the White House during the Grant Administration. The scandal divided the Republican party into two different factions, The Stalwarts led by Roscoe Conkling, and the Half-Breeds led by James G. Blaine. There was a sense that government enabled political machines to intervene in the economy and the resulting favoritism, bribery, inefficiency, waste, and corruption had negative consequences. Accordingly there were widespread calls for reform, such as Civil Service Reform led by the Bourbon Democrats and Republican Mugwumps. In 1884, the Democrats won their first national victory since 1856 with the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland to the presidency.
During this period very little serious legislation was passed; between 1875 and 1896 only five major bills made it through Congress to the president's desk. Unprecedented dilemmas being created by industrialization, urbanization, and the huge influx of immigrants were met with passivity and confusion.
V. City Government and the “Bosses”
Parties set up citywide political machines that brought together public officials and business leaders in a system of patronage and support.
Boss Tweed and the Tammany Ring by Thomas Nast, circa 1870
During this time cities experienced rapid growth under inefficient government. Major metropolitan centers underwent rapid population growth and as a result, had many lucrative contracts and jobs to award. To take advantage of the new economic opportunity, both parties built so-called “political machines” to manage elections, reward supporters, and pay off potential opponents. Financed by the “spoils system,” the winning party distributed most local, state and national government jobs, and many government contracts, to its loyal supporters.
Large cities became dominated by political machines, in which constituents supported a candidate in exchange for anticipated patronage. These votes would be repaid with favors from the government once that candidate was elected; very often, candidates were selected based on their willingness to play along with the spoils system. Each city’s machine lived under a hierarchical system with a “boss” who held the allegiance of local business leaders, elected officials and their appointees, and who knew how to manipulate the system in order to get their agenda passed. Machine staffers helped win elections by turning out large numbers of voters on election day. At the same time, most political machines’ staunchest opponents were members of the established class (nativist Protestants).
Perhaps the most famous example of a political machine from this time period is Tammany Hall in New York City. Tammany Hall, a New York City political organization, was originally developed as a club for “pure Americans.” Founded in 1786, it was the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in controlling New York City and New York State politics. As its electoral base lay predominantly with New York’s growing immigrant constituency, the extralegal services that Tammany and other urban political machines provided, often served as a rudimentary public welfare system. The patronage Tammany Hall provided to immigrants, many of whom lived in extreme poverty and received little government assistance, covered three key areas. First, Tammany provided in times of emergency: food, coal, rent money or a job. Secondly, Tammany served as a powerful intermediary between immigrants and the unfamiliar state. Lastly, Tammany Hall served as a social integrator for immigrants by familiarizing them with American society and its political institutions and by helping them become naturalized citizens. However, later-arriving immigrants, such as Jews and Italians, rarely saw any reward from the machine system, as there was little need for their participation as the machine reached critical participation and influence.
Tammany's control over the politics of New York City heightened considerably under William M. “Boss” Tweed. Tweed was able to expand the corruption and kickbacks of his appointed ring into practically every aspect of city and state governance. Under “Boss” Tweed's dominance, the city expanded into the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge was begun, land was set aside for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, orphanages and almshouses were constructed, and social services—both directly provided by the state and indirectly funded by state appropriations to private charities—expanded to unprecedented levels.
It was Tammany’s demonstrated inability to control Irish laborers in the Orange Riot of 1871 that began Tweed’s downfall. Campaigns to topple Tweed by the New York Times and Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly began to gain traction in the aftermath of the riot, and disgruntled insiders began to leak the details of the scope of the Tweed ring’s avarice to the newspapers. Tweed was arrested and tried in 1872. He died in Ludlow Street Jail, and political reformers took over the city and state governments.
IV. Political Participation and Change
Political partisanship throughout the late nineteenth century led to consistent turnouts of over 90% of the electorate.
Mobilizing voters was the basic campaign strategy to the maximum mobilization of potential votes. To find new supporters, politicians systematically canvassed their communities, talking up the state and national issues of the day, and watching which themes drew the best responses. In such a large, complex, pluralistic nation, the politicians discovered that citizens were especially loyal to their own ethno-religious groups.
Both parties set up campaign clubs, such as the Wide Awakes, in which young men paraded in torchlight processions wearing special uniforms and holding colorful banners. By the late 19th century, the parties in the Midwest combined to turn out over 90% of the eligible electorate in entire states. Some counties passed the 100-percent mark not because of fraud but because the parties tracked people down whom the census missed.
Fraud did take place in municipal elections in large cities, where the ward-heelers could expect tangible rewards. Apart from some Reconstruction episodes in the South, there was little fraud in presidential elections, because the local workers were not in line for presidential rewards anyway. The best way to build enthusiasm was to show enthusiasm. The parties used rallies, parades, banners, buttons, and insignia to display partisanship and promote the theme that with so much strength victory had to be inevitable. The side that lost was usually surprised, and tended to ascribe defeat to preternatural factors, such as bad weather or treachery.
Campaigning Changes in 1896
By campaigning tirelessly with over 500 speeches in 100 days, William Jennings Bryan seized control of the headlines in the 1896 election. It no longer mattered as much what the editorial page said—most newspapers opposed him—as long as his speeches made the front page. Financing likewise changed radically. Under the Second and Third Party Systems, parties financed their campaigns through patronage; now civil service reform was undercutting that revenue and entirely new, outside sources of funding became critical. Party loyalty itself weakened as voters were switching between parties much more often. It became respectable to declare oneself an “independent.”
Throughout the nineteenth century, third parties such as the Prohibition Party, Greenback Party and the Populist Party, evolved from widespread antiparty sentiment and a belief that governance should attend to the public good rather than partisan agendas. Because this position was based more on social experiences than any political ideology, nonpartisan activity was generally most effective on the local level. As third-party candidates tried to assert themselves in mainstream politics, however, they were forced to betray the antiparty foundations of the movement by allying with major partisan leaders. These alliances, and the factionalism they produced, discouraged non-partisan supporters and damaged the third-party movement by the end of the nineteenth century. As a result, many reformers and nonpartisans lent support to the Republican Party, which promised pay more attention issues important to them, such as anti-slavery or prohibition.