A Country at Odds with Itself

views updated

A Country at Odds with Itself

America in 1878 was just coming out of the Reconstruction Era (1865–77). The Reconstruction years were a time of rebuilding and renewal in the South, which had suffered bitter defeat in the American Civil War (1861–65). The Civil War was a conflict that took place from 1861 to 1865 between the Northern states (Union) and the Southern states (Confederacy) that had seceded, or formally withdrawn, from the Union. Union troops had destroyed cities and countryside throughout the Confederacy during the war, and Reconstruction was a time for rebuilding those areas from the ground up. But more than physical buildings and land had been ruined; Southern society was in disarray as well. After four years of bloodshed and conflict, the Southern way of life no longer existed. The plantation economy, which relied so heavily on the work of slaves, could no longer be sustained now that slavery was illegal. White Southerners had to relearn how to live from day to day without the use of slaves.

If whites had difficulty making the transition to a slave-free lifestyle, African Americans found the change even more challenging. For many, slavery was the only life they had ever known. Now they were expected to find jobs and a place in society in a culture that still considered African Americans inferior. For a while, rights were extended to freedmen and free-born African Americans. By the end of Reconstruction, however, there was more animosity between the two races than ever before. By law, African Americans had the same rights as whites. In practice, however, these laws were not always upheld, and the hatred in the hearts of many Southern whites had not been erased.

False hopes and broken promises

The eleven Southern states that had participated in the Civil War were charged with forming new governments. For the first time, African Americans served in politics. These citizens were guaranteed the same rights—political and civil—as whites. African Americans were given hope that they would enjoy equal status with their white peers.

This ideal never happened. Northern abolitionists (people who worked to end slavery) who had shown concern for slaves in the South during the war now focused their energies and efforts elsewhere. Freed slaves found life outside the master's house nearly impossible; they had never had the chance to develop the skills needed to live life independently. Mostly, the failure to achieve equality was due to the refusal of many white Southerners to tolerate African Americans as their equals. Not only did these whites not accept the idea, many aggressively fought against it with terrorism in the form of an organization called the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan implemented a campaign of violence that included random torture, lynchings (executions without a legal trial), rape, and murder of African Americans and the whites who supported them. While African Americans theoretically had rights, they were too afraid to exercise them.


People who worked to end slavery.
A decline in the prices of goods and services.
electoral votes:
The votes a presidential candidate receives for having won a majority of a state's popular vote (citizens' votes). The candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state wins all of that state's electoral votes. Each state receives two electoral votes for its two U.S. senators and a figure for the number of U.S. representatives it has (which is determined by a state's population). A candidate must win a majority of electoral votes (over 50 percent) in order to win the presidency.
Gilded Age:
The period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction (roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century), characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption.
A rise in the prices of goods and services.
Ku Klux Klan:
An organization of whites who believed in white superiority and who terrorized African Americans and their supporters in the South after the Civil War.
A breakaway group of the Republican Party whose goal was to return Ulysses S. Grant to the White House.
patronage system:
Also known as the spoils system. In patronage, someone donates large sums of money to help ensure the election of a candidate. That candidate repays the favor by making job appointments or by passing and proposing legislation that safeguards the interests of the business or person who donated the money.
political boss:
A politically powerful—and often corrupt—person who can direct a group of voters to support a particular candidate.
popular vote:
The result of the total number of individual votes in an election.

By the end of Reconstruction, the Republican Party all but disappeared from the South. Republicans had been the loyal supporters of black equality, but at a time when African Americans needed them most, they gave in to the pressures of powerful Southern whites. The white supremacists (whites who believed that African Americans were inferior to them in every way) kept Republicans and African Americans from the polls. Those African Americans who once held political office were subsequently voted out. Little by little, the South was returning to the power structure it had known before, despite the law.

By 1878, the rights afforded to African Americans had all but disappeared. Without a vote or representation in government, and without the ability to obtain an education or necessary life skills, most African Americans were forced to take jobs as sharecroppers. In the sharecropping system, whites continued to own the land that African Americans worked and lived on. The workers were responsible for buying all supplies and equipment needed to harvest crops, an obligation that kept them in debt most of the time. Workers also had to pay rent on the land. The only difference between sharecropping and slavery was that African Americans had more control over their time and work conditions as sharecroppers. They also were given a portion of the crops they harvested. But they would never gain independence or wealth; most of the time, they were barely getting by.

Dawn of the Gilded Age

As the Gilded Age (the period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction, characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption) was ushered in, the South was returned to Democratic power. According to Nell Irvin Painter, author of Standing at Armageddon, these Democrats called themselves the "wealth and intelligence of the South." In their eyes, they had "redeemed" their states by recapturing political power and saving society from corruption and incompetence. They managed to overlook the hypocrisy of their methods, which involved violence and corruption.

Democrats and even some Republicans blamed Reconstruction for the economic difficulties facing Southern states. They accused the carpetbaggers (Northerners who had moved to the South) and scalawags (Southern whites of limited income) of weak leadership, and claimed that only men of wealth should enter politics. Traditionally, wealthy men were educated men. They felt this qualified them—and disqualified everyone else—from the world of politics. These wealthy men believed the new politicians were using politics for personal gain rather than to serve society. But too often, "society" in their minds meant the wealthy.

The dawn of the Gilded Age saw the struggle for political power reach an intensity like no other time in American history. Voters turned out for political elections in numbers not equaled since. According to historian Richard Jensen in The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America, U.S. senator Henry Blair (1834–1920) of New Hampshire summed it up best: "We love our parties as we love our churches and our families."

Republicans versus Democrats

Party identification

The Republicans identified themselves by who they were and what they did. Sometimes called the Grand Old Party (GOP) after 1880, Republicans entered the Gilded Age with campaigns that appealed to Americans' sense of patriotism (love of country), morality (goodness), and prosperity (wealth).

Republicans took full credit for saving the Union in the Civil War, and used that power to demand that they alone were worthy of serving the Union in peace. Many veterans from the war joined the Republican Party. A poll taken in Indiana in 1880 showed that 69 percent of veterans voted Republican. So close were the ties between the party and the war that in eight of nine presidential elections between 1868 and 1900, the Republican candidate was a Union veteran.

Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall

Corruption in late nineteenth-century politics was not rare. But one name rises above the others: William Marcy Tweed. Born in 1823 in New York City, he held a number of jobs before entering politics, including firefighting, chair-making, and bookkeeping.

Tweed became a New York City alderman (representative) in 1851. He quickly rose through the ranks of city government. He earned the nickname "Boss," and his friends were known as the "Tweed Ring." Tweed had appointed so many of his friends to political positions in New York City that in 1870, he was able to pass a charter allowing him and his friends to control the city treasury.

Tweed's headquarters were located in a building known as Tammany Hall. Tweed's power was such that he controlled the mayor, and he rewarded his political supporters with money he received in bribes and kickbacks from friends to whom he awarded city contracts. This process was known as the patronage system, and Tweed's was a prime example of machine politics.

Tweed's crimes were many. He and his ring of friends faked leases on city-owned buildings, padded bills with charges for repairs that never happened, and bought overpriced goods and services from suppliers controlled by the ring. All in all, they managed to steal between $30 million and $200 million from the city between 1865 and 1871.

Tweed's most notorious deed was the construction of the New York County Courthouse, begun in 1861. For instance, he paid a carpenter $360,751 (equal to $4.9 million in modern value) for one month's worth of work. But the courthouse had very little woodwork throughout its rooms. Three tables and forty chairs cost $179,729 (equal to $2.5 million). A plasterer received $133,187 (equal to $1.82 million) for two days' work. These laborers were friends of Tweed. Tweed himself profited from a financial interest in the quarry that provided the marble for the courthouse. When a committee investigated why the building of the courthouse took so long (ten years, and it still was not done), Tweed spent $7,718 (about $105,000) to print the report. In reality, it did not cost him a thing, since he owned the printing company.

Tweed controlled the Democratic Party of New York City. By 1870, he was appointed commissioner of public works. This position gave him even greater opportunity to steal the city's money. One example of his illegal activity was when he bought three hundred benches for $5 each and resold them to the city for $600 apiece. Tweed also organized the development of City Hall Park. His original estimate for the project was $350,000. By the time he had completed the job, spending had escalated to $13 million.

In 1871, someone, most likely a disgruntled city official, leaked word of Tweed's embezzling activities (fraudulent use of funds). Thomas Nast (1840–1902), a political cartoonist working for the magazine Harper's Weekly, learned of the corruption and began a campaign to expose Tweed and his ring. Tweed tried to bribe Nast with a half million dollars. This was a hundred times the yearly salary Nast earned at the magazine, but he refused to be bought. When that did not work, Tweed pressured Harper Brothers, the company that owned the magazine. They refused to fire Nast, and the company lost its profitable contract to supply New York schools with books, a contract controlled by Tweed.

On July 21, 1871, the New York Times published some of the contents of New York County's financial records. When the public realized that Tweed was paying his friends $41,190 for a broom and $7,500 for a thermometer, chaos erupted. A committee was established to investigate Tweed and his ring. In 1873, Tweed was arrested, found guilty of corruption, and sentenced to twelve years behind bars. He served only two years but was rearrested almost upon release. New York sued him for $6 million.

Tweed did not have the money, so he was held in debtor's prison. He was allowed daily trips to visit his family, and on one of these trips, he escaped to Spain. There he worked as a seaman on a Spanish ship. But one of Nast's cartoons caused someone to recognize him and he was captured in 1876. Tweed died in a New York prison on April 12, 1878.

The party depended on people to vote according to their moral beliefs. They never missed an opportunity during election years to remind Americans that Democrats were the former slave owners who also ran saloons and joined the Ku Klux Klan. To dramatize their point, they often mentioned William "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878; see box). Tweed was arguably the most corrupt politician of the Gilded Age. Republicans were painted as religious, devoted, hard-working members of society who resisted the temptations of alcohol in favor of attending church functions.

Prosperity, or economic growth, was on the minds of everyone during the Gilded Age. Republicans took the credit for creating the policies that allowed for postwar prosperity. This much was true: The Republican reforms did empower the federal government to become more involved and have a greater role in the economy, thus improving economic conditions.

Whereas the Republican Party defined itself by who it was and what it did, the Democratic Party built itself on a platform of what it opposed. In large part, it was informed by the principles of an attorney named Samuel Tilden (1814–1886). Tilden led the revival of the Democratic Party in New York through the early 1870s. His program did not include federal government involvement to any great extent but instead promoted individual states' rights. Throughout the Gilded Age, Democrats were against most taxes and against land grants that gave public lands to corporations. Democrats felt the land should be set aside to provide farms for private citizens.

Party beliefs

In modern society, a set of political and moral beliefs can indicate whether a person is more likely to be affiliated with a particular political party. For example, conservatives, who tend to include people in favor of the death penalty and against abortion, are more apt to vote Republican. Liberals, who generally support women's reproductive rights and gun control, are more likely to vote Democrat. These labels are not always accurate, but they tell a lot about how a person votes.

In the Gilded Age, religious affiliation often determined how a citizen would vote. Methodists, Baptists, Congregationals, Presbyterians, and some Lutherans usually voted Republican if they lived outside the South. Most African Americans, regardless of region, were Republican, as were the majority of abolitionists.

Democratic candidates could usually count on the votes of Episcopalians, Catholics, and German Lutherans—religions that defined sin more narrowly. In addition to religious affiliation, race played an important role as well. The majority of Southern whites voted Democrat. Democrats defended white supremacy and considered other races inferior. They were more tolerant of religious differences but more race intolerant than Republicans, generally speaking.

The issues

If simplified, the major difference between the Republicans and Democrats of the Gilded Age was their stance on the role of government. Republicans believed the government should use its authority to expand the nation's economy through funded programs and legislation. Democrats wanted the government to stay out of economic and business affairs. They considered unrestricted competition as the most direct route to prosperity.


Republicans wanted the government to implement a protective tariff (tax). They felt high taxes on foreign-made products would ensure that American agriculture and industry were not left behind. American workers would enjoy job security and receive higher wages than their foreign peers. Republicans played on the emotionalism of patriotism to advance their cause, claiming that the tariff would preserve the quality of life of the American workman.

Most Democrats looked at a protective tariff as nothing but a burden on consumers. They believed taxes should be used only if necessary to fund government services. Democrats did not embrace the concept of free trade (trade and business arrangements without tariffs or regulations), however. They saw taxes as a way to finance a government. Not all Democrats wanted lower tariffs; those who supported tariffs did so out of a fear of foreign competition. The tariff issue served to unify the Republicans, whereas it divided the Democrats.


Religion was another area that pitted Republican against Democrat. Republicans promoted moralistic policies based on Protestant values. (Protestantism is a branch of Christianity that accepts the Bible as the only source of revelation or truth.) They embraced restrictions on the sale and use of alcohol as well as limitations on the rights of businesses to open on Sunday.

Democrats believed in the separation of church and state. They felt religion was a personal issue and should not be regulated by government. Democrats were against any laws that promoted a particular faith. Because of this, Democrats found supporters in Roman Catholics and other Christians who were not so active in evangelism (preaching the gospel).


Throughout the Gilded Age, America's economy was unstable. Much of the era was spent in deflation (a decline in the prices of goods and services). The government's monetary policy held that every dollar in circulation had to be backed with an equal amount of gold. The world's supply of gold was unchanging. But the population of the world was growing, so the value of every dollar rose. People in debt had trouble meeting their financial responsibilities. One solution was to increase the amount of money in circulation.

There was no definitive line between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. Members of each party fell into two camps: those who advocated the use of gold, and those who wanted to use silver. The world's supply of silver was growing, which made the actual value of the metal on currency markets low. Consumers with debt did not like the idea of paying off their obligations with dollars of increasing value. They preferred the inflation (decline in the purchasing power of money) that would arise from an increase in the amount of currency in circulation. Creditors, however, did not want to be paid in dollars of shrinking value. Clearly, no one, regardless of party affiliation, was going to be happy with either gold or silver.

Civil service:

Compared with modern times, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century government was small. Politicians enjoyed a patronage system that is still in place today, though to less obvious extent. Also known as machine politics, or the spoils system, the patronage system awards contracts, favors, and appointments to people in return for their political support. This system does not operate on justice or fair play; it is unfair and costly to American citizens. But in the years of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, politics was ruled by corruption.

By the 1870s, the patronage system was being loudly criticized. Those against patronage claimed that its highest priority was maintaining party loyalty rather than appointing officials with true ability. The people wanted a separate group of workers to perform government business. Politicians were against a civil service, as they recognized it as a reform that would reduce their power. They liked having friends in official positions. Others were against the reform because it would be based on academic achievement rather than ability. As with the religion issue, Democrats and Republicans were not clearly divided on the idea of a civil service. By 1876, though, the spoils system had reached a level of corruption that made both parties call for reform.

The "other" parties

Although politics were dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties, there were other, smaller political parties active throughout various periods of the Gilded Age.


One smaller political party formed as an offshoot of the Republican Party. The men of this group reached higher degrees of education and enjoyed an elevated social status. Labeled Mugwumps by their critics, these reform-minded men were based in Boston and New York City. No one is certain of the origin of the word Mugwump. One version is that it derives from a Native American word for a young male who believes he knows more than his elders. Another claims a mugwump is a bird sitting on a fence: Its "mug" is on one side, its "wump" on the other. Being called a fence-sitter is an insult hurled at people who cannot make up their minds. The Mugwumps seemed to fit the description, as they sometimes were unable to decide whether or not to support the Republican candidate. They chose to redefine the word Mugwump as one who acts on principle rather than blind loyalty.

Mugwumps supported the idea of minimal government involvement in business and the economy. The patronage system so prevalent in Gilded Age society infuriated them, and they promoted a civil service program based on testing and ability.

Most Mugwumps were Republican, though they were criticized for breaking with party loyalty. In 1884, they voted for Democrat Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89 and 1893–97) in the presidential election. Their obvious disloyalty to Republicans made them the target for contempt of most politicians, who considered them annoying, though relatively harmless. Political peers began comparing the Mugwumps to women, an insult insinuating they were not manly enough to adhere to party loyalty. Gilded Age women had no vote; their role was limited to the home. To be called a woman in politics was a major slur. When all was said and done, the Mugwumps never achieved great status or had a major impact on Gilded Age politics.

Farmer and labor parties

Some of the smaller political parties developed out of a need perceived by laborers and farmers, who felt underrepresented by Democrats and Republicans. These coalitions formed at local levels, but never gained enough momentum or strength to become national forces.

These parties, though separate, were known collectively by various names, including Reform, Independent, Greenback, Grangers, and Labor. They worked closely and identified with the major labor and farm organizations of the Gilded Age.

The farm and labor parties identified themselves as the producing classes in the economy. According to their labor theory, one is either a producer (whose labor produces value) or a parasite (who gets rich on the value produced by others). The use of the word "parasite" stems from its biological definition: an organism that relies on another organism for its life and contributes nothing to its survival. Parasites included bankers, wholesalers, gamblers, lawyers, and others who made their profits off the laborers and farmers. Supporters of the labor theory thought that producers should form cooperatives that would eliminate the need for parasites.

The first official group to embrace the labor theory was the Grange, also known as the Patrons of Husbandry. Oliver H. Kelley (1826–1913) founded the Grange in 1867 in an effort to improve the efficiency of farming methods. It quickly grew throughout the Midwest and the central South. By 1874, Grangers formed political parties in eleven states; each state party had its own name, including Reform, Anti-Monopoly, or simply Granger Party. Because farms were dependent upon railroads, much of the focus of the Granger movement was on railroad legislation. Mostly, Grangers wanted a limit on shipping rates.

The Grange hit its peak in the mid-1870s before it began experiencing financial difficulties. Members began fighting among themselves, and by the end of the decade, the Grange no longer existed.

The Greenback Party was founded in 1875, much for the same agricultural reasons as those that motivated the Grange. Some of the Granger parties actually joined forces with the Greenbackers, who took their name from the paper money printed during the Civil War. The Greenbackers promoted the quantity theory of money. This theory states that if the money in circulation grows more quickly than the economy, inflation (rising prices) occurs. If the opposite happens, deflation (falling prices) results. They also supported the concept of fiat money, which says money has value because the government says it does, not because it can be redeemed for gold or anything else. Bankers and other money experts criticized both theories as illogical.

As deflation took over the economy, Greenbackers demanded the government issue more paper money. Farmers agreed with this request, as throughout the nation, they were experiencing serious amounts of debt.

The party focused its attentions not only on economy, but on labor. Through the mid-1880s, Greenbackers called for more rights for laborers as well as safer working conditions. (See more about these topics in Chapter 3.) Although they managed to nominate one of their own in the 1880 presidential election—U.S. representative James Baird Weaver (1833–1912) of Iowa—he got just over 3 percent of the popular vote. They fared even worse in 1884, when their nominee, Massachusetts politician and former Civil War general Benjamin Butler (1818–1893), got less than 2 percent of the vote.

The Greenback Party aligned itself with local and state labor parties throughout the 1880s. In 1886, an Independent Labor mayoral candidate in New York City finished second in the race, behind the Democratic candidate but ahead of the Republican. The United Labor Party did even better that same year when its candidate won the mayoral race in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 1887, spurred on by the success of the labor parties, the Greenbackers joined with the farm and labor organizations to form the Union Labor Party. Despite its efforts and hopes, the Union Labor Party presidential candidate—state senator Alson J. Streeter (1823–1901) of Illinois—drew less than 1 percent of the votes in the 1888 election. The farm and labor parties, though successful on local levels, never realized their goals on a national level.

Presidents of the Gilded Age

Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) was the president in office as America entered the Gilded Age. He had won the 1876 presidential election, which turned out to be one of the most controversial in American history.

To understand the importance of the 1876 election, it is essential to understand the political climate of the time. America was reeling from the corruption of the administration of the previous president, Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77). Though Grant himself was considered an honest man, he did not run his administration wisely. He had been elected nearly four years after the end of the Civil War, after having served as general of the Union army. It was a time of strife—the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) was still a recent memory and his successor, Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), was unpopular. The war-torn country was depending on Grant to unify the North and South and put America back in business.

Instead, Grant depended on Congress to lead the way. He seemed bewildered to be in office, unable to make decisions that would move America forward. At a time when the country needed strong leadership, Grant failed to take control. As a result, his two-term presidency was one of the most corrupt and ineffective administrations in history. By 1876, America wanted little more than honesty in the White House.

Who won the 1876 election?

To this day, there are people who insist Hayes, then-governor of Ohio, did not win the 1876 election. He had run against Samuel Tilden, a Democrat from New York. Tilden was a district attorney there before he had been elected governor.

By the final days of the campaign, Tilden was favored to win. Even Hayes was convinced he had lost. A record 81.8 percent of eligible voters had participated in the election; clearly, America wanted a say in choosing its new leader.

After all the votes had been counted, it was clear Tilden had won the popular vote (total number of votes by individuals). However, electoral votes (which are assigned to states based on population) from four states—Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon—were in dispute. A congressional committee was appointed to investigate the situation. The committee comprised five Supreme Court justices, five members from the House of Representatives, and five senators. The plan was to have seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent. However, the sole independent, Supreme Court associate justice David Davis (1815–1886), was elected a U.S. senator from Illinois and did not serve on the committee. His committee replacement was Republican. As a result, every vote the committee took after reviewing the evidence resulted in an 8–7 split in favor of the Republican Hayes. He was awarded all the electoral votes that had been in question, and scored a victory at 185–184.

Hayes in office

Though Tilden was not happy with the results, he did not dispute the final count and let America move on. In order to do that, the Democrats and Republicans needed to resolve their conflicts. They did this by developing the Compromise of 1877. Under this agreement, the Democrats accepted the Republican president if certain conditions were met. One condition required the president to appoint a Democrat to his Cabinet, a requirement he met but that angered his fellow Republicans nonetheless. He also had to withdraw federal troops from the South, a move that worked against African Americans there and the rights they had recently been granted. Without the protection of federal soldiers, there was no one to enforce racial equality. The new president brought an end to Reconstruction soon after taking oath. After just four months in office, he was faced with the first nationwide labor strike. Railroad workers had been forced to take pay cuts beginning in 1873. By July 1877, they went on strike in hopes of putting an end to the unfair treatment (see Chapter 3).

Hayes dispatched federal troops to control the strikes that were erupting throughout the states. In doing so, he ushered in an era when state and federal forces sided with companies against aggravated laborers.

Hayes's years in office were uneventful compared to the conflict under which he entered. Although he had promised civil service reform, the House of Representatives and Senate made it impossible for him to overturn the patronage system. He refused to participate in the system himself, however. This simple act only served to turn his fellow Republicans against him.

While Hayes was president, the Treasury put into action two currency policies. The Resumption Act was passed in 1875. This act specified that greenbacks—the money issued during the Civil War—could be redeemed in gold after 1879. Until the passage of the Resumption Act, there were, in addition to greenbacks, gold coins and gold certificates in circulation. Then, after the war, a gold dollar was issued. All these monies had different values and made the system confusing. The Resumption Act linked the greenbacks to the gold supply.

Election 2000: Another Mystery

The presidential election of 2000 was even more controversial than the election of 1876. Democratic vice president Al Gore (1948–) ran against the Republican governor of Texas, George W. Bush (1946–), in a race that became a national obsession.

Polls showed the two candidates running in a dead heat: the election was considered too close to call. November 7, 2000, was Election Day. That evening, many media outlets announced their belief that Gore had won the state of Florida, a key state in any election because of its high number of electoral votes. As the night progressed, however, television networks retracted their statement. It was clear that the race was so close that whichever candidate took Florida would be the next U.S. president.

Early the next morning, the networks announced Florida and the presidency belonged to Bush. Gore heard the news that he lost by fifty thousand votes and called to congratulate Bush on his victory. Shortly afterward, Gore was told that the governor's lead in Florida had shrunk to a couple thousand votes at best.

As media focus shifted to Florida—a state whose governor was Jeb Bush (1953—), brother of the Republican presidential candidate—it became clear that the voting process in that state was questionable. Palm Beach County, for example, used butterfly ballots. These ballots put the names of the candidates on the left and right margins and a column of punch holes running down the center. It was difficult to tell which hole went with which candidate, especially for older or visually impaired voters. In other counties throughout the state, authorities found disqualified ballots and ballots in which no presidential vote was registered.

The confusion surrounding the election led to a recount of the ballots. Soon, controversy erupted over chads. On punch card ballots, voters must push out a small piece of the ballot to indicate the vote. This piece of the ballot is called a chad. Ideally, chads are completely removed by voters. However, many ballots had "hanging" chads, "pregnant" chads (pushed to the point where they were sticking out, but not removed), and "dimpled" chads (clearly tampered with, probably in an effort to remove them). These controversial ballots had been disqualified and ignored in the original round of vote counts.

After several recounts of the ballots and as many lawsuits and emergency motions filed by both sides of the controversy, certified results gave Bush the victory in Florida with 537 votes over Gore. Gore appeared on national television and informed the public that the final count failed to include thousands of votes. He contested the election results at a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on December 2. The U.S. Supreme Court challenged the Florida Supreme Court to explain why it extended deadlines for the hand recounts. While Gore told the court that they were wrong to uphold the certification of the recount, Bush's legal team was telling them to let the final numbers stand.

On December 8, the Florida Supreme Court voted 4–3 for another manual recount. Bush appealed that decision, and it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, 5–4. On December 12, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that no further recounts would be allowed. The following day, Gore conceded defeat to his opponent, and George W. Bush, son of former president George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93), was declared the victor.

Final counts showed Gore having won 48.38 percent of the popular vote, compared to Bush's 47.87 percent. Independent candidate Ralph Nader (1934–) earned 2.74 percent of the vote. Bush officially took 271 electoral votes, leaving 266 to Gore. Of all the registered voters in America, 51.3 percent voted in that election.

Many Americans felt Bush had not been elected to the White House, that he had won the election through questionable tactics in his brother's state. Regardless, Bush was inaugurated as the nation's forty-third U.S. president in January 2001, and was reelected in 2004.

The other currency policy was called the Bland bill, named after Democrat Richard Bland (1835–1899), the U.S. representative from Missouri who introduced it. This bill called for the introduction of silver coinage. Because of favorable silver market conditions of the time, introducing silver coinage would make the value of circulating currency rise. The bill was passed in the House and was sponsored by U.S. senator William Allison (1829–1908) of Iowa. Although Hayes opposed the bill, it was passed as the Bland-Allison Act in 1878.

Hayes kept good his promise to serve only one term. He was succeeded by James A. Garfield (1831–1881), who lived to serve just over six months of his presidential term.

Garfield: assassination of a president

By the time of the 1880 election, the Republican Party was divided. Led by political boss (politician in control of a party's votes) Roscoe Conkling (1829–1888; see box), a faction, or group, broke away from the majority of Republicans and called themselves the Stalwarts. These men favored electing former president Ulysses S. Grant to a third term in the White House. (Though there was no law that limited the number of presidential terms a person may serve, it was standard for presidents to serve only two terms. It was not until 1951 that the Twenty-second Amendment was ratified, limiting presidents to two terms in office; this came about as a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt [1882–1945; served 1933–45] being elected to four terms.) The other Republican candidate was U.S. representative James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield had served in the Civil Waras the Union's youngest major general. New York lawyer Chester A. Arthur (1829–1886) was the Republican nominee for vice president.

Roscoe Conkling: Radical Republican

Born in Albany, New York, on October 30, 1829, Roscoe Conkling practiced law before entering politics in 1858. His initial political loyalty lay with the Whig Party, which was primarily concerned with promoting internal transportation improvements such as canals, railroads, and river routes. He joined many of his fellow Whigs and switched to the Republican Party at its beginnings. In 1858, Conkling was elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the beginning of a long political career that included terms as congressman (1865–67) and senator (1867–81).

Conkling was an outspoken member of the Radical Republicans. This group favored the abolition of slavery and embraced the unpopular idea that freed slaves should enjoy the same rights and quality of life as whites.

When Rutherford B. Hayes became president in 1877, Conkling was Hayes's main obstacle to reforming the civil service. Having enjoyed great power as a result of the patronage system, Conkling was not eager to give it up. He took full advantage of the policy that gave senators a great breadth of personal control over all federal appointments in their states.

Conkling headed the Stalwarts in 1880. The Stalwarts wanted to send former president Ulysses S. Grant back to the White House for a third term. That dream was dashed when U.S. representative James A. Garfield of Ohio was elected president. When it became clear Garfield would not bow to the patronage system or Conkling's demands for appointments, Conkling resigned from the Senate. He returned to practicing law in New York City and turned down President Chester A. Arthur's nomination of him for the Supreme Court in 1882. Conkling died in 1888.

The Democrats nominated Winfield Hancock (1824–1886), another Civil War general. Unlike Garfield, Hancock had minimal political experience. The Greenback candidate was U.S. representative James Baird Weaver (1833–1912) of Iowa. He, too, had served as a general in the Civil War, but as a presidential candidate, he inspired few votes. Garfield narrowly won the popular vote by half a percentage point. He managed to win the electoral vote without the support of one Southern state. This was a major victory for the Republicans, as it proved they could win even without the Southern African American vote.

Garfield, like Hayes, wanted to appoint a Cabinet that would maintain the unity of the Republican Party. Conkling, still a powerful political boss, demanded the president adhere to the patronage system. When Garfield refused, a power struggle ensued. Being a senior senator, Conkling felt Garfield was obligated to take his advice when it came to making important appointments in the Cabinet. Garfield, however, felt some appointments were too important to surrender to patronage, that they should be given to those men who were truly qualified.

The situation intensified when it came time for Garfield to appoint a head to the New York Customhouse. New York was Conkling's state; he wanted to name the official himself. Garfield ignored him, an act that let all senators know he would not play the patronage game.

On July 2, 1881, Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau (c. 1840–1882), a religious fanatic who called himself a Stalwart. His defense was that he was saving the Republican Party. Garfield had served just four months of his term before being shot. He lived another two-and-a-half months before dying, at which time Vice President Arthur was sworn in as president.

As tragic as the assassination was, it was the event that led directly to the much-needed civil service reform.

Arthur: an unlikely president

Vice presidents in the late nineteenth century were not chosen for their ability to lead so much as for their ability to maintain party unity. Arthur was no exception to the rule. No one viewed Arthur as presidential material, but his commitment to running an honest administration surprised everyone, especially Roscoe Conkling.

Arthur had been a longtime political ally of Conkling's, and a loyal Stalwart. Years before his vice presidency, Arthur served as collector of New York's Customhouse, a key position at the building where most of the taxes on imported goods were collected. He had never considered himself above taking advantage of the patronage system. Even during his brief stint as vice president, Arthur fought Garfield on his attempts to destroy patronage. In that way, Arthur and Conkling were united.

But when Arthur got to the White House, he had a change of heart. He was determined to prove to the American people that he was too ethical to participate in machine politics (the political system that relied on patronage and behind-the-scenes control). This sudden shift on Arthur's part incensed Conkling, who viewed it as a betrayal; the two parted company when Conkling refused to work with the president.

A direct result of Arthur's commitment to ethics was the passing of the Pendleton Act in 1883. The Act called for an unbiased commission to oversee the Civil Service. Appointment to government service and promotion from within the service would finally be based on ability as demonstrated in written examination. In the past, civil service employees were forced to give a portion of their salary to the political party that had appointed them; that rule was outlawed with the Act. In addition, employees could no longer be fired for political reasons.

That same year, Arthur signed the Tariff Act. This law put a limit on taxes so that the government would not have a surplus at the end of each year.

Arthur was the first president to limit immigration when he signed a law in 1882 that excluded criminals, lunatics, and beggars from coming to the shores of America. He also suspended Chinese immigration for ten years (see Chapter 4).

For all his dedication to honesty, the president kept one secret from the country. He was dying of Bright's disease, a kidney disorder. He ran for the Republican nomination in 1884, but was defeated by former U.S. senator James Blaine (1874–1934) of Maine. Arthur died two years later.

Cleveland: in, out, back in

The presidential campaign of 1884 was waged between the more experienced Republican nominee, James Blaine, and Democrat Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York. In a surprising upset, Cleveland defeated Blaine, with the support not only of Democrats but of the Mugwumps as well. The victory made Cleveland the first Democrat in the White House since before the Civil War. Another first involving Cleveland is when he became the first president to be married in the White House. The forty-nine-year-old president married twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom in June 1886; their age difference caused something of a stir among social circles.

In his inaugural address, Cleveland promised equal justice to all. He kept his word when he vetoed a bill that would fund the distribution of seed grain to drought-stricken farmers. True to the traditional Democratic view that federal government should have a limited role in the economy, Cleveland held the belief that federal aid encouraged the expectation of charity and weakened the strength of the nation's character. His beliefs led him to veto pension bills to Civil War veterans when their claims were fraudulent. When Congress passed a bill that would award pensions for disabilities not caused by military service, he vetoed it, as well. Cleveland saw such acts as favoritism, and he refused to support them. Moving into the twenty-first century, no president in American history had used the power to veto as often as Grover Cleveland.

No president before him had ever taken a stand against the railroads. But Cleveland ordered an investigation into railroad land holdings and ordered them to return eighty-one million acres to the government, which then returned the land to the public domain (meaning it belonged to no one person or company). This land had been given to them via government grant. Further, the president signed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 (see Chapter 2). This law imposed federal regulations on the railroads, which reduced their power as well as their opportunity for corruption in the form of rate discrimination. Prior to the Act, railroads charged higher rates to shippers sending freight short distances than they did to those needing long-distance service. Sometimes the discrimination originated with the shipper. Standard Oil was notorious for demanding "rebates" from railroads as a reward for choosing one railroad over another (see Chapter 2). The Act was the first attempt to put an end to discrimination involving railroads, regardless of who instigated it.

The other major reform passed in 1887 was the Dawes Severalty Act (see Chapter 5). This law dismantled the reservation system and gave separate parcels of land to individual Native Americans and their families. The results of the Dawes Severalty Act would require Native Americans to adapt to a lifestyle they were unaccustomed to living. Throughout history, they had lived in tribes. Now they would be forced to live apart. Despite Native American protests, the Act was signed into law. In the end, the Act only served to cause the Native Americans to lose their most valuable land. It did not put an end to reservation life, nor did it reduce their dependence on federal assistance.

Cleveland's last attempt at reform was to reduce the protective tariff. Although both Republicans and Democrats drafted bills that slightly reduced the tariff, they were, for the most part, unable to compromise on this important issue.

Cleveland's assault on institutions such as the railroad and private pensions coupled with his attack on the tariff cemented his fate. He was defeated in the 1888 election by the Republican candidate, former U.S. senator Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901; served 1889–93) of Indiana.

Cleveland would be reelected as president after Harrison's term in office. He would deal with severe economic depression (a period marked by low production and sales and high unemployment; businesses often fail in a depression) and its fallout: unemployment, business failure, and farm closures.

President Cleveland intensified his popularity with the way he handled a railroad strike in Chicago. Cleveland sent federal troops to control the situation and force the strikers to adhere to an injunction (order). As noted on Whitehouse.gov, the president assured the American public: "If it takes an entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a post card in Chicago, that card will be delivered."

Cleveland retired from politics and moved to New Jersey. He died in 1908.

Harrison: unable to escape the tariff

Harrison received one hundred thousand fewer popular votes than did Cleveland, but he took the majority of electoral votes, 233–168. Even more important, Harrison's election put a Republican in the White House and helped put a majority of Republican seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Prior to his election, Democrats ruled in both the Senate and the House. For the first time in thirteen years, the Republican Party had a solid chance of changing public policy.

From his first day in the White House, Harrison left no doubt that he was there to do business. The Democrats in Congress were used to getting their way, however, and used every strategy they had to block or disable bills and legislation they did not like. New rules for voting were established to counteract the Democrats' tactics, and with them, the Republicans were able to implement reform.

Harrison's four years in office saw progress in foreign relations. The president also approved funding for internal improvements and naval expansion. He signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (see Chapter 2), which prohibited the forming of monopolies (companies that control and retain economic power over an entire service or industry).

But the priority issues were the protective tariff and the surplus (extra) federal budget. The Republicans wanted to reduce the surplus without reducing the tariff. A bill sponsored by Ohio governor William McKinley (1843–1901) and influenced by James Blaine (who was in his second stint as secretary of state, having served for just over nine months for Presidents Garfield and Arthur in 1881) added farm goods to the list of products that would be protected from taxation. By allowing more items to enter the country free, the federal budget would be reduced.

The second part of the bill involved the reciprocal tariff reduction clause. Any country that reduced tariffs on American exports would receive lower tariffs on the goods they exported to America. The McKinley Tariff passed into law on October 1, 1890.

Harrison ran for reelection in 1892 but was defeated by former president Grover Cleveland. Harrison died in 1901.

McKinley: focus on foreign policy

Republican William McKinley took over the White House in 1897, making him the last of the Gilded Age presidents. The depression that plagued Cleveland's final term had almost disappeared by 1897, so McKinley was able to turn the focus of America's leadership to foreign policy.

While in office, Spanish military in Cuba was fighting a bloody war against revolutionaries (citizens who organized to fight the government). A quarter of the Cuban population had been wiped out, and those left living were suffering. McKinley announced in April 1898 that America would intervene in the struggle and fight to help Cuba gain its independence from Spain.

The Spanish-American War lasted one hundred days (see Chapter 11). The United States destroyed the Spanish fleet in Cuba, took the city of Manila, and moved forces into Puerto Rico. McKinley realized that if America was to expand its commercial power into the Far East (and thereby become a super-power throughout the world), it would need to acquire possession of islands in the Pacific. With that in mind, America added the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to its territory. Never before had America gained control of land and people such a long distance from the United States.

America was pleased with McKinley's leadership and elected him to serve a second term in 1900. Tragedy changed the course of events when the president was shot by Leon Czolgosz (1873–1901), a mentally disturbed anarchist (one who is against rules of any kind), on September 6, 1901. The president died eight days later.

Enter the Progressive Era

McKinley's assassination marked the end of the Gilded Age. He was also the last of what historians call the Log Cabin Presidents, those men who were born into simple, sometimes poverty-stricken, circumstances, yet worked their way up the political ladder to the ultimate seat of leadership.

Republican Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9) became the first president of the Progressive Era, a period in history that is remembered for its diligent commitment to change.

For More Information


Ashby, Ruth. Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. San Diego: Blackbirch Press, 2002.

Calhoun, Charles W., ed. The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996.

Cherny, Robert W. American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868–1900. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1997.

Lynch, Denis Tilden. "Boss" Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987.


"Big Apple History: Tammany Corruption." PBSKids.org.http://pbskids.org/bigapplehistory/business/topic21.html?print (accessed on March 16, 2006).

"Compromise of 1877." U-S-History.com.http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h396.html (accessed on June 16, 2006).

"Election 2000: How We Got Here: A Timeline of the Florida Recount." CNN.com.http://archives.cnn.com/2000/ALLPOLITICS/stories/12/13/got.here/index.html (accessed on March 16,2006).

Library of Congress. "America's Story: Boss Tweed Escaped From Prison December 4, 1875." America's Library.http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/recon/boss_1 (accessed on March 16, 2006).

Lincoln Institute. "Roscoe Conkling (1829–1888)." Mr. Lincoln and New York.http://www.mrlincolnandnewyork.org/inside.asp?ID=53&subjectID=3 (accessed on March 16, 2006).

The President Benjamin Harrison Home.http://www.presidentbenjaminharrison.org/ (accessed on March 16, 2006).

"Presidential Elections: 1876." HistoryCentral.com.http://www.multied.com/elections/1876.html (accessed on March 16, 2006).

"The Presidents of the United States." The White House.http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/ (accessed on March 16, 2006).

"The Rise of the City." Digital History.http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=211 (accessed on March 16, 2006).

"Roscoe Conkling." Spartacus Educational.http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAconkling.htm (accessed on March 16, 2006).

Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center.http://www.rbhayes.org/hayes/ (accessed on March 16, 2006).

"Tammany Society." Spartacus Educational.http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAtammany.htm (accessed on March 16, 2006).

About this article

A Country at Odds with Itself

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article