Essays Berkin Chapter 18
1. Both cultural and political life in the Gilded Age can be said to have become more democratic. Do you agree or disagree?
DEVELOPING YOUR ANSWER: The disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South was a grave setback for political democracy. You should include references to the methods employed by white southerners to completely exclude blacks from public life.
In the sphere of cultural life, there is evidence in favor of the statement. Educational opportunity expanded; women began to enter the professions; and the problems of ordinary people received attention from realistic novelists and from the Ash Can School artists. In the context of wider participation, you should also discuss the development of mass entertainment in the Gilded Age.
To temper this view of wider participation in cultural life, your essay could explore the facts that fewer women than men went to college, college remained inaccessible to the lower classes, and toleration for same-sex relationships declined.
2. Recall that Mark Twain described the era after the Civil War as a Gilded Age: it was attractive on the outside, but base and ugly underneath. Do you think that Twain’s metaphor correctly characterizes political life in the United States in the years between 1868 and 1896? Use examples from your text to support your answer.
DEVELOPING YOUR ANSWER: If you choose to argue that political life during the Gilded Age was indeed debased, the corruption rampant at the time provides good evidence to support such a view. Include references to the Credit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring scandals in your discussion. Most important of all, describe the spoils system and its corrupting effect on political life.
If, on the other hand, you wish to emphasize positive features of American political life after the Civil War, then the various reforms that improved the political system can be cited in evidence. The struggle for civil service reform, the Pendleton Act, and the subsequent (if gradual) expansion of the list of classified positions were positive developments, as was wide adoption of the secret ballot by the 1890s. These significant reforms diminished the ability of the political parties to act corruptly.
Another positive development that merits attention is the women’s suffrage movement. It achieved success during the Gilded Age in several western states. While the road toward political equality for women in every state was still a long one, the victories during the Gilded Age can be seen as a triumph for the continued growth of democracy in the United States.
2. Faced with severe economic problems, many Americans between 1868 and 1896 thought that a solution could be found in changing the nation’s currency. Trace their efforts and explain what they hoped to achieve.
DEVELOPING YOUR ANSWER: Because the Gilded Age was, overall, a period in which prices fell (deflation), people in debt—farmers in particular—suffered. They believed they could obtain relief by increasing the amount of money in circulation, which would, in turn, force prices to rise (inflation).
To increase the amount of money in circulation, supporters of inflation first supported the Greenback Party, which called for increasing the amount of paper money in circulation. Later, they supported the idea of reintroducing silver coinage. In discussing the solution offered by the “Silverites,” you should mention their 16-to-l formula, the Bland-Allison Act, and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
The presidential election of 1896 can be analyzed as a referendum on the idea of coining silver, with William Jennings Bryan attacking those who opposed it in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic nominating convention. Bryan’s defeat at the polls was, however, the death knell for this solution to the farmers’ problems.
You might also mention the Gold Standard Act of 1900 as the final decision regarding silver coinage.
3. Describe how U.S. foreign policy focused increasingly on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea as a consequence of initiatives during the McKinley presidency.
DEVELOPING YOUR ANSWER: Conditions even prior to McKinley’s presidency set the stage for America’s expansion into both seas after 1896. You might begin by discussing the ideas of Alfred Mahan, how they focused public opinion on the importance of a presence on the high seas, and the resulting need for colonies. In addition, events in Cuba and Hawaii, as well as conflict with Germany over Samoa during the presidencies of Cleveland and Harrison, helped prepare the way for later developments.
For the McKinley presidency, discuss how and why war with Spain broke out. The United States emerged from the war in control of important Spanish colonies—the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico—thereby establishing a presence in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. In addition, America asserted itself during McKinley’s tenure in two other Pacific regions that had nothing to do with Spain: in Hawaii and in China. Be certain to include discussion of the policy enunciated toward China by John Hay, McKinley’s secretary of state.