Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: Government and Politics

The Gilded Age (1870–1900)

The Gilded Age (1870–1900)

How They Were Governed

The Civil Service Commission

The Civil Service Commission was created in 1883 to oversee the hiring of government employees by using a merit system. It was intended to replace the “spoils system”—a practice of rewarding political supporters by appointing them to government positions—which had grown consistently since the administration of President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845).

The Reformers’ Zeal

Although proponents of the spoils system claimed it made government more responsive and opened government service to the widest variety of candidates, reformers thought it fostered corruption. The administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), in particular, provided fuel for the reformers’ zeal. Grant had appointed many loyal friends to federal jobs—he knew many of them from his days as a general in the army—without regard for experience or competence. As it turned out, many of his closest associates were corrupt. When several of them—including cabinet secretaries—became implicated in financial scandals, the reform movement stepped up its efforts.

In 1871 Congress authorized the president to set regulations for filling civil-service positions. Grant appointed an Advisory Board of the Civil Service, which created and administered the first civil-service exams in 1872. However, Congress had provided no appropriations for the new commission, so it lasted only three years.

Reformers decided that regulation could not rest upon the will of individual presidents; instead, they pushed legislation to standardize federal employment. In 1865 Thomas Jenckes (1818–1875), a Republican representative from Rhode Island, introduced a reform bill patterned on the British government’s employment system. It sought to establish competitive examinations for all federal positions, except for appointments made by the president with the consent of the Senate. Jenckes’s legislation did not pass.

President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) used executive orders to institute moderate reforms: he prevented federal civil servants from taking an active role in politics, and he created a system that based federal appointments on competitive examinations. When Hayes’s successor, James Garfield (1831–1881), was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker, legislation to impose civil-service reform got renewed attention.

Although his successor, Chester A. Arthur (1829–1886), had earlier been a proponent and practitioner of the spoils system, as president he became a strong advocate of reform. In his first address to Congress he called for an objective standard for civil-service appointments. He also investigated abuses in awarding post office contracts and worked for passage of the Pendleton Act, which established the Civil Service Commission.

The Pendleton Act

In 1881 the National Civil Service Reform League was established to lobby for legislation to implement civil-service reform. The league was gaining public support, but its efforts did not bear fruit until Garfield was assassinated. The secretary of the league, Dorman Eaton (1823–1899), was called upon to draft a reform bill. That legislation was introduced in the Senate by George Pendleton (1825–1889), a Democrat from Ohio.

The Pendleton Act created a modern merit system for many offices and authorized the president to expand the system. The law originally affected only one-tenth of federal employees; successive presidents expanded its coverage so that, by 1900, nearly 60 percent of federal civil-service jobs were filled on the basis of merit.

Implementation of the Law

Although Eaton, who crafted the Pendleton Act, was the first chairman of the Civil Service Commission, the most energetic and enthusiastic early administrator was Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who was appointed chairman in 1889. Roosevelt, who would later be president of the United States, had begun his reform efforts in 1881 as a member of the New York Civil Service Reform Association. He had promoted passage of the New York State Civil Service Act of 1883, the first state civil service law in the nation. As head of the new federal commission he zealously investigated corruption and fraud. After one week in office, he fired examination board members in New York, who had been caught selling test questions to the public. He had postal employees arrested for buying votes for the re-election of President Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901)—who had appointed him four years earlier. “Government jobs,” Roosevelt declared, “belong to the American people, not politicians and shall be filled only with regard to public service.”

Roosevelt demonstrated that civil-service laws were going to be enforced regardless of political affiliation. When he resigned in 1895, the civil-service system had become an important and accepted part of the U.S. government.

See also Chester A. Arthur

See also The Spoils System

The Interstate Commerce Commission

The Interstate Commerce Commission, established by Congress in 1887 to oversee the railroad industry, was the first regulatory commission in U.S. history. Although it was initially ineffective, the commission did establish a precedent for federal regulation of commerce.


Although the massive expansion of the railroads after the Civil War (1861–1865), including the completion of the transcontinental railroad, was accomplished with land grants and government subsidies, the government had little say in how the railroads were run. The industry had immense impact on the economy, but its practices tended to serve railroad owners and not always the nation.

Several questionable practices had aroused public outrage. For example, through secret agreements railroad companies guaranteed reduced rates to large shipping companies that promised to ship goods on their trains. The lower rates allowed those shippers to undercut their competitors, get more business, and, in turn, give more business to their railroad partners. The rate concessions tended to drive out competition and eventually raise consumer prices.

In addition, railroads frequently charged different rates for the same service, depending on their competition in a particular area. Some railroads had established price-fixing “pools” to maintain artificially high rates. Many railroads gave free passes to politicians. And some railroad owners had manipulated the prices of their companies’ stock, creating greater profits for themselves than for ordinary investors.

Local Regulation

The railroads’ practices, although disliked by much of the public, had their most negative effects on farmers and small businessmen. These groups pressured—through such organizations as the Grange, a farmers’ movement that worked for political and economic change—for regulations that would protect them. The states responded first, starting in Illinois in 1871. Other states in the Midwest and the South soon passed regulatory legislation as well. At first, in Munn v. Illinois (1876), the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to regulate railroads. Ten years later, however, the court ruled in Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railroad v. Illinois that a state could not regulate commerce when it went beyond that state’s boundary. Only the federal government could regulate the railroads.

Interstate Commerce Commission Act

John Reagan (1818–1905), a Democratic representative from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, introduced legislation to outlaw specific unfair business practices of railroads. Shelby Cullom (1829–1914), a Republican senator from Illinois, proposed legislation to establish a regulatory commission that could investigate and prosecute the railroad companies for those unfair tactics. A joint committee crafted the final legislation that became the Interstate Commerce Commission Act of 1887. President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908) signed the bill.

The authority for the creation of the commission came from in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “regulate commerce…among the several states.” The commission, made up of five members, was charged with investigating unfair business practices in the railroad industry and bringing the railroads to court for illegal actions.

Although the law sought to establish guidelines for how the railroads could do business, the regulators were slow to develop specific rules and methods for their implementation. Deciding, for example, which rates were discriminatory was technically and politically difficult. Furthermore, the commission’s first chairman, Thomas Cooley (1824–1898), appeared to cater to the railroads’ interests. Until 1911 the commission brought only sixteen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court also seemed determined to undermine the power of the regulatory act. Of those sixteen cases, the railroads won fifteen.

Later legislation strengthened the law, providing the commission with the tools and direction needed to regulate the railroads effectively. Still, the original act, which established the first federal regulatory commission, was a legislative landmark.

Ellis Island

When Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor, was designated as the first federal immigration station in 1890, the United States was experiencing unprecedented immigration. Starting in 1865 a great wave of immigrants had arrived, primarily from England, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Wales. By 1890 a new wave of immigration had begun, mostly from eastern and southern Europe—including Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Russia. Ellis Island was the depot for most of the new arrivals.

Immigrant Patterns

Late nineteenth-century immigration was greatly influenced by the development of transportation networks. Railroads spread throughout Europe, connecting to places with access to seaports. Ocean transport changed dramatically as well. As late as 1856 more than 95 percent of European immigrants came to the United States by sail; just twenty years later more than 95 percent came by steamship.

Most immigrants, in that era, settled in cities. Initially, they chose to live in the northern states, but by 1890 many moved on to the western states. Ethnic groups preferred specific regions: Irish favored New England; Italians and Russians, the mid-Atlantic states, Germans, the eastern north-central states, and Scandinavians, the western north-central states. Families frequently arrived together, but young men often traveled on their own to find work. They would then either send for their wives and children or, in some cases, return to their families in Europe with the wages they had saved.

The Immigrant Experience

Nearly 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900. Some had fled land shortages, unemployment, famine, military service, natural disasters, and oppressive taxes. They saw the United States as the land of economic opportunity. Others sought relief from political and religious persecution. They saw the United States as the land of equality. Many arrived with hope, and often little else.

First- and second-class passengers, if they were not ill, were given cursory examinations aboard ship and allowed to disembark. The steerage passengers, however, were ferried to Ellis Island. On the island they would undergo medical and legal inspections conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration. More than 98 percent were admitted.

Whenever they could, new immigrants lived in neighborhoods populated by their own ethnic groups. There they were able to speak their own languages, worship with familiar rituals, and find familiar foods. Their city neighborhoods were filled with overcrowded housing, called tenements, that frequently lacked kitchens and bathrooms.

New immigrants usually had to take the hardest, most dangerous, and lowest-level jobs. They often found employment through friends or relatives, so people from one country tended to work in the same businesses. Russians became steel workers; Greeks were employed by small businesses; and Jews got jobs in clothing factories.

Immigration Laws

After certain states passed immigration laws following the Civil War (1861–1865), the Supreme Court in 1875 declared that regulation of immigration was a federal responsibility. That year Congress passed the first restrictive immigration statute, which barred convicts and prostitutes from admission. Other restrictive laws were passed because the public had begun to view immigration as an economic threat. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, grew out of worker unrest—and cultural suspicion—in California, where Chinese immigrants made up a large portion of the workforce. The law—the first to restrict immigration on the basis of race or ethnicity—prohibited Chinese immigration to the United States for ten years. Its provisions were later extended. A series of Alien Contract Labor Laws made it illegal for U.S. employers to seek workers in other countries. Other immigration laws imposed a fifty-cent head tax on all immigrants and excluded from entry anyone who was insane, had a contagious disease, or was likely to become dependent on the government.

The individual states, rather than the federal government, processed immigration until 1891, when the Bureau of Immigration was established. Ellis Island became the first and the most important immigrant-entry station. Nearly half of the population of the United States can trace its heritage back to immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. In 1954 the Ellis Island immigration station was closed. Today it houses a museum of its history.

See also The Chinese Exclusion Act

Important Figures of the Day

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), who was born a slave, became a fervent abolitionist, noted reformer, accomplished writer and orator, and respected statesman. He remains one of the most influential African-American leaders in U.S. history.

Childhood Slavery

Douglass, the child of Harriet Bailey, was born in a slave cabin on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He never knew the identity of his white father and was separated from his mother when he was a few weeks old. Raised by his grandmother until he was six years old, he was then sent to live on the plantation of his master, Aaron Anthony, where he first experienced the hardships and deprivations of slavery. At age eight he was dispatched to Baltimore to be a houseboy for Anthony’s relatives, Hugh and Sophia Auld.

Although it was unlawful to teach slaves how to read, Sophie Auld instructed Frederick until her husband found out and forbade it. Frederick decided to educate himself. He eventually purchased a copy of the Columbian Orator, which impressed upon him the power of the word, written and spoken, to inspire change.

At the age of fifteen Douglass was sent back to the Eastern Shore to work as a field hand. Hired out to Edward Covey, a local farmer known as the “Negro-breaker,” Douglass was whipped almost weekly. During that same period Douglass began teaching other slaves to read and write, even though it was forbidden.

When he was eighteen Douglass made an unsuccessful attempt to escape slavery. He was jailed briefly and then returned to the Aulds. They hired him out to work in the Baltimore shipyards, which gave him the chance to associate with the free black community. He participated in a secret debating society, which developed his oratorical skills and provided social contacts. Among the many people he met was his future wife, Anna Murray (1813–1882), a free black woman.

In 1838 Douglass escaped from slavery by impersonating a sailor. Murray joined him in New York. They were married and then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Fugitive Years

In Massachusetts, where he worked at odd jobs, Douglass became involved in the growing antislavery movement. He attended abolitionist meetings and subscribed to the Liberator, an antislavery newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison (1895–1879). In 1841, after he made a moving presentation at an abolitionist convention in Nantucket, Douglass was asked to become a speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. For the next four years Douglass toured the northern United States, lecturing on his experiences as a slave and on the evils of slavery.

In 1845 Douglass wrote the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which reveals details of his life as a slave and as a fugitive. To avoid being recaptured, Douglass left the United States and, along with Garrison, lectured throughout England and Ireland. His English friends eventually raised the money for Douglass to purchase his freedom: $711.66.

A Reformer’s Life

In 1847 Douglass returned to the United States and moved, with his family, to Rochester, New York, where he published the North Star, an abolitionist weekly. During the next several years Douglass provided shelter for fugitive slaves making their way north on the “underground railroad”; campaigned against segregation in the public schools; joined advocates for women’s rights at their convention in Seneca Falls, New York; and published his second autobiographical work, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Douglass’s work had connected him to many well-known reformers, including the militant abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859). Douglass disagreed with Brown’s violent tactics and refused to join him in 1859 in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. When Brown was captured in the raid, the authorities found a letter from Douglass in Brown’s possession. While no charges were ever brought against him, Douglass feared arrest for aiding and abetting Brown. He fled to Quebec and then to England, returning to the United States six months later after learning of the death of his young daughter.

Civil War and Reconstruction

When Douglass returned to the United States, he campaigned for Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), the Republican candidate for president. Then, when the Civil War began and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in “the rebellious states,” Douglass recruited for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African-American soldiers. As the war progressed he advocated equal pay and better treatment for the blacks who had enlisted with the Union forces.

Douglass endorsed the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens; and the Fifteenth Amendment, which banned race-based voting qualifications. During Reconstruction, the period following the war, he began publishing the New National Era, a newspaper supporting the new political role of African-Americans.

The Statesman

In the 1870s Douglass held a number of important positions: U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia; the Equal Rights Party nominee for vice president; recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia; and U.S. consul general in Haiti and chargé d’affaires in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. All the while Douglass continued to write—he published a third autobiographical work, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—and lecture. He opposed racism, advocated women’s rights, attacked the “Jim Crow laws” that supported racial segregation, denounced lynching, and preached his singular version of American ideals. On February 20, 1895, after speaking at a meeting of the National Council of Women, Douglass died suddenly.

His persuasive voice for social justice helped Douglass achieve international fame as an orator and writer. He is considered not only one of the most influential African-Americans in U.S. history, but also one of its most courageous and principled reformers.

See also Jim Crow Laws

Reunion of a Former Slave and His Master

In his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817 to 1882, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), who was born a slave, describes a meeting with his former master:

To me, Capt. [Thomas] Auld had sustained the relation of master—a relation which I had held in extreme abhorrence, and which for forty years, I had denounced in all bitterness of spirit and fierceness of speech. He had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattel, hired me out to a noted slave-breaker to be worked like a beast and flogged into submission; he had taken my hard earnings, sent me to prison, offered me for sale, broken up my Sunday-school, forbidden me to teach my fellow slaves to read on pain of nine and thirty lashes on my bare back; he had sold my body to his brother, Hugh, had pocketed the price of my flesh and blood without any apparent disturbance of his conscience.…I had made his name and his deeds familiar to the world by my writings in four different languages, yet here we were after four decades once more face to face—he on his bed, aged and tremulous, drawing near the sunset of life, and I, his former slave, [now] United States Marshal of the District of Columbia, holding his hand in a friendly conversation with him, in a sort of final settlement of past differences, preparatory to his stepping into his grave, where all distinctions are at an end, and where the great and small, the slave and his master, are reduced to the same level.…I had no business with this man under the old regime but to keep out of his way. But now that slavery was destroyed, and the slave and the master stood upon equal ground, I was not only willing to meet him, but was very glad to do so.…He was to me no longer a slaveholder either in fact or in spirit, and I regarded him as I did myself, a victim of circumstances of birth, education, law, and custom.… We addressed each other simultaneously, he calling me, “Marshal Douglass,” and I, as I had always called him, “Captain Auld.”…Though broken by age and palsy, the mind of Capt. Auld was remarkably clear and strong. After he had become composed, I asked him what he had thought of my conduct in running away and going to the North. He hesitated a moment as if to properly formulate his reply, and said: “Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place I should have done as you did.”


Frederick Douglass. The LIfe and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817 to 1882, edited by John Lobb. London: Christian Age Office, 1882.

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), an abolitionist and temperance activist, was one of the foremost figures in the fight for women’s suffrage. Although she did not live to see the passage in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, it was called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in her honor. …