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1878-1899: Government and Politics: Overview

1878-1899: Government and Politics: Overview

Ushering in the Gilded Age. In 1876, as the United States celebrated the centennial of its independence, one of the most disputed and corrupt presidential elections in American history spelled the end of the Reconstruction era and the beginning of a new period of American history. After the Civil War, Congress stationed federal troops in the states of the former Confederacy with the intention of ensuring the rights of African Americans. In reality these troops did little for most former slaves. Instead they served mainly to keep power in the hands of Republicans loyal to the federal government and away from Democrats who had supported the Confederacy. By 1876 federal troops remained in only three southern statesFlorida, South Carolina, and Louisianarepresenting the vestiges of federal Reconstruction policies.

The Hayes-Tilden Controversy. In the 1876 presidential election Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won 4,034,311 votes (47.95 percent) while his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, earned 4,288,546 (50.97 percent). Under the Constitution, however, the president is selected by presidential electors from each state, not by popular votes. In Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana enough of the electoral votes were in dispute to keep the election undecided. After much political maneuvering, these three states, and Oregonwith a total of twenty-two voteseach sent two sets of returns and left the decision of which votes to count up to Congress, where the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the Republicans controlied the Senate.

The Compromise of 1877. The dispute was resolved by the so-called Compromise of 1877, by which a joint committee of Congress turned the problem over to a special electoral commission made up of five senators, five congressmen, and five Supreme Court justices. The group was carefully selected to include seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent, David Davis, who was one of the Supreme Court justices. At the last minute, however, Davis could not serve on the commission and he was replaced by a Republican. When the commission announced its decisions, the voting fell along party lines: eight in favor of seating all the Republican electors, and seven in favor of seating all the Democratic electors. Democrats in the House of Representatives made it clear that they would accept the recommendations of the commission only if they received certain concessions, the chief one being that if they agreed not to block Hayess election, he would remove the last federal troops from the southern states. The withdrawal of the last federal troops in April 1878 marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of what has become known as the Gilded Age, an era in which political corruption, the spoils system, and back-room deals contributed to a weak federal government largely incapable of meeting the needs of a complex, industrialized society.

Redefining Government. Most Americans in the late nineteenth century believed that the federal government should limit its activities to delivering the mail, collecting tariffs, providing patronage, guarding the coasts, fighting Indians, and preserving civic order. Yet the rapid growth of large, national corporations raised a host of new concerns about the role of government in overseeing business and industry. Factory workers called for a shorter workday, safety standards for the work-place, and regulations to protect working women and children. Farmers asked for laws to prevent them from being exploited by the railroads that carried their crops to market and by bankers who lent them money. Politicians and businessmen asked if the government should protect average citizens by regulating businesses or if it should allow big business to shape the national economy. In general the vision of what the federal government might do for its citizens was limited by the tradition of laissez-faire, allowing events to follow their own course without government interferenceuntil the end of the period when an economic crisis forced the federal government to take action.

Congressional Power. The U.S. government in the late nineteenth century was smaller and weaker than the federal government in the twentieth century. Congress overshadowed the presidency in authority and power. With its growing number of specialized committees Congress was the place where politicians hammered out federal policy amid a riot of local, state, and special interests. At the same time Democrats and Republicans were beginning to debate and rework the distinction between local and national.

The Courts. With a relatively weak executive branch, the court system often had a disproportionately large role in setting policy. For example, during the 1870s states attempted to regulate railroad rates, but in 1886 the Supreme Court declared these state laws unconstitutional, ruling that the railways were a form of interstate commerce and, as such, fell under federal jurisdiction. The courts also refused to strike down the Jim Crow laws that southern states passed to legalize segregation, failing to protect the civil rights of African Americans and ultimately adopting a separate but equal doctrine that allowed segregation to continue well into the twentieth century.

Political Parties. Between 1878 and 1900 the Republican and Democratic parties also helped to fill the vacuum created by a weak executive branch. Republicans saw themselves as the party of Abraham Lincoln, representing hardworking, churchgoing, liberty-loving Americans and committed to the gold standard and high tariffs, while Democrats wanted lower tariffs and a gold-and silver-backed currency. Party afflliations were more the product of ethnic, racial, religious, and regional identity than a result of ideological differences. As the 1880s progressed Republicans spent less and less time waving the bloody shirt, realizing that continuing to blame the South for the Civil War would not win them votes. The Democratic Party was an amalgamation of diverse groups. Immigrants and newcomers often found their first allies in the urban Democratic boss and his machine, whose operatives gave jobs and aid in exchange for votes. Southern, or Bourbon, Democrats remained hostile to Reconstruction policies and to government intervention.

The Monetary System. A chaotic monetary and banking system presented ongoing problems. The supply of money in the United States did not grow as fast as the national economy, causing deflation: that is, prices of goods fell, and the value, or buying power, of the dollar increased. As deflation continued unchecked, wealthy people got richer, while working people got poorer. Debtors, farmers, and working people fought for some system that would increase the money supply and relieve pressures on them. Many argued for the abandonment of the single gold standard as the backing for all currency in favor of a silver and gold standard. Positions on silver versus gold shaped the politics of the period, especially in the 1890s.

Tariffs. The primary means of raising funds for the federal government was levying tariffs on foreign goods. Tariffs, or taxes on imports, were also a way for the federal government to protect domestic products from foreign competition. By scheduling high tariffs on particular categories of imported manufactured goods and agricultural products, the government could shelter American manufacturers and farmers. For example, tariffs on textiles allowed eastern manufacturers to keep the prices of their goods artificially high instead of making them competitive on the world market. If the tax was extremely high, it prevented or severely limited the sales of imported items on the American market and discouraged foreign manufacturers from selling in the United States. While such high tariffs protected some American manufacturers, they hurt others and the American consumer. For example, California clothes sellers had to pay high prices for textiles manufactured in New York and Philadelphia because import duties increased the price of cheaper imported cloth from England to such an extent that buying it was prohibitive. Ultimately the consumer had to pay high prices for clothing. Tariffs became controversial as they drove up the prices of many products and decreased the selection of consumer goods on the American market.

The Spoils System. The daily operations of government remained mired in traditional partisan competition for the benefits and resources of office holding. The press and politicians labeled the various practices of the era: the distribution of government positions by the victorious party was called the spoils system; tariff protection through bargaining (and later the practice of any sort of vote trading through which politicians secure the passage of legislation in their own interests) became known as logrolling; lucrative government contracts or appropriations were called pork barrel; cash given to politicians by contractors was labeled boodle; and extreme patriotism or chauvinism, typically in support of aggressive overseas expansion, was jingoism. They also had frequent cause to use the old term gerrymandering to refer to the establishment of new, oddly shaped voting districts to favor the election of a candidate from a specific party.

Reforming Politics. Reformers fought to replace the spoils system by establishing a merit system for civil-service appointments that would rid government bureaucracy of warping partisan influences. They sought to end logrolling as a means of determining import duties by calling for a neutral tariff commission; they proposed competitive bidding to end pork barrel and boodle; and they hoped gerrymandering could be replaced with fair political reapportionment. Every president or political leader who fought for civil-service reforms had the difficult and paradoxical task of convincing the beneficiaries of the status quo to change a process by which they had benefited. Politicians who voted for change turned their backs on the system that had backed them; politicians committed to maintaining the status quo turned their backs on a growing number of voters who supported reform and modernization.

Movements for Change. During the 1880s and 1890s many Americans joined political organizations to express their discontent with politics as usual. Feeling increasingly alienated from the new style of corporate business and national marketing, farmerswho suffered from falling prices throughout the 1880s and were particularly hard hit by the economiec depression of 1894flocked to I the populist movement, particularly in the South and the West. Organized labor gained momentum in the 1880s and 1890s with the rise of the Knights of Labor, the eight-hour workday movement, and various protests by industrial workers over wages and conditions. While Congress and the courts remained skeptical of the labor movement, workers agitated for and sometimes won improvements in working conditions, hours, and wages. By the turn of the century reformers had set out to clean up city, state, and national governments. Progressivism, a broad-based, loosely knit coalition of reformers, hoped to make the government more effective in protecting children, female workers, immigrants, and laborers in general. Populism, organized labor, and progressivism made the 1890s a period of rethinking the social contract between government and the public.

An International Presence. By the last two decades of the nineteenth century many Americans were advocating a greater international role for the United States, specifically in the Pacific in regard to Hawaii and Samoa and in the Caribbean, where the struggle of Cuban rebels against colonial Spanish rule attracted American sympa-thy. A movement to modernize and professionalize the American military, particularly the navy, resulted in a more powerful navy with a new fleet of steel ships. Naval actions proved decisive in the short Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States annexed Hawaii and extended its influence in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, gaining Puerto Rico and Guam through the treaty with Spain that ended the war. The United States also gained virtual possession of the Philippines and heavy influence over the government of a newly independent Cuba.

Political Rights for Women and Minorities. African Americans and women fought for an increased voice in their political destinies, laying the basis for reforms finally achieved in the twentieth century. African Americans found themselves with few allies in the post-Reconstruction era, as Bourbon Democrats reasserted control over the South and a new generation of eastern and midwestern politicians, less committed to the struggles of the Civil War, took the reins of power. Although the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) gave male African Americans the right to vote, they were systematically denied that right in southern states by a series of state laws instituting measures such as literacy tests and poll taxes as well as by outright harassment and violence. White womens suffrage activism gained strength in these years, as women active in temperance, progressivism, higher education, and city government called for the right to vote as a first step in achieving political equality with men. African American suffragists linked the struggle for womens suffrage with African Americans civil rights and called for their white sisters and for black communities to support them. The battle for woman suffrage would not end until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Rewriting the Rules. Battles over political rights for African Americans and women, over political reform, tariffs, money policy, and the role of the United States in Asia and Latin America were the chief concerns of the federal government for the last quarter of the nineteenth century, laying the groundwork for measures that decisively shaped American government and politics in the twentieth century.

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