American Government in the Gilded Age

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American Government in the Gilded Age


The Presidency. Presidents in the post-Civil War era were less powerful than presidents of the twentieth century. Until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901-1909, the president was more involved in party politics and patronage than in making and enforcing public policy. He also had little influence over appropriations and expenditures. Governmental bureaus and departments were much more attuned to Congressspecifically to the powerful House Appropriations Committeethan to the White House. The chief responsibility of the president in these years was patronage, or the filling of federal positions. Patronage took enormous amounts of time, and the president had little staff to help him make appointments to as many as one hundred thousand positions. President James A. Garfield, a Republican, complained in 1881 that AH these years I have been dealing with ideas, . . . and here I am considering all day whether A or B should be appointed to this or that office. Democrat Grover Cleveland, who served as president in 1885-1889 and 1893-1897, attempted to strengthen the presidency, believing that the most important goal he could achieve was to assert the entire in-dependence of the executive from the legislative branch; yet faced with a Republican Senate and armed only with the power to veto their legislation, he was largely unsuccessful.

Congress. Part of the reason for the power Congress enjoyed in the late nineteenth century was the rapid increase in the amount of business that carme before it. From 1871 to 1881, 37,409 public and private bills were introduced in the Congress; the number nearly doubled between 1881 and 1891 and reached 81,060 in 1900. Such a tremendous workload forced Congress to regulate its procedures and organization. The committee structure of both the House and Senate expanded during these years. By 1892 there were forty-four standing committees in the Senate and fifty in the House.

The House of Representatives. Much of the business in the House fell increasingly under the control of key committees and the powerful Speaker of the House. Democrat John G. Carlisle of Virginia, who was speaker in 1883-1889, and Republican Thomas B. Reed of


During the second half of the nineteenth century urban politics ran on extensive systems of boodle, or kickbaeks, Politicians needed cash for their political campaigns to pay for advertising and printing costs, to pay to get voters to the poliing places, and to distribute favors to those who worked for their reelection. The paychecks of mayors and other city officiate were never high enough to take care of all these expenses, but there was another source of ready money. When the city awarded contracts for public improvements such as water and sewer systems, bridges, highways, gas and trolley lines, parks, and public buildings, contractors earned large profits. In fact, such a contract represented hundreds of thousands, often millions, of dollars for the company that submitted the winning bid. For such a construction firm or utility company it was a small cost to include an under-the-table cash payment of a few thousand dollars to elected officials to ensure that the firm would get a contract and at favorable terms, Such payments became known as boodle.

Maine, speaker in 1889-1891 and 1895-1899, made themselves and the chairmen of the powerful committees on Appropriations and Ways and Means a majority on the Rules Committee, creating a masterful steering committee to solve procedural problems and control the flow of legislation. The speaker himself had the power to block bills he did not like. In 1887 a congressman paraded in front of Speaker Carlisle for three hours hoping to be recognized so that he might introduce a bill; finally in frustration he tore the bill into pieces. Despite the volume of business before it, the House was also more casual than it became in the twentieth century. Members frequently left the floor to meet in a bar tucked away in a corner of the Capitol, aptly named The Hole in the Wall, where liquor was served at all hours, until it closed l in 1903.

The Senate. During the mid 1880s future president Woodrow Wilson described the Senate as a small, select, and leisurely House of Representatives, but by the 1890s a forceful Senate leadership had imposed new procedures similar to those followed in the House. Republicans William B. Allison of lowa, Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, Mark Hanna of Ohio, and John Spooner of Wisconsin as well as Democrat Arthur P. Gorman of Maryland brought an unprecedented procedural discipline to the Senate. Until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than by popular elections. The procedure made senators more beholden to political parties and special interests than to the public, and in 1893, 1894, 1898, 1900, and 1902 the House passed amendments providing for the direct election of senators. Each time, the Senate refused to act on the amendment, earning a reputation for being an exclusive millionaires club.

Federal Bureaucracy. The moden apparatus of de-partments, commissions, and bureaus took shape during these years as the daily management of a rapidly expanding economy grew more complex. New agencies included the Department of Labor (1880), the Civil Service Commission (1883), and the Interstate Commerce Commission (1887); the Department of Agriculture, established in 1862, was raised to cabinet status (1889). The largest federal department was the Interior Department, comprising more than twenty agencies, including the Bureaus of Education, Pensions, Indian Affairs, the Census, the Land Office, and the Geological Survey. After the passage of the Pension Act of 1890, which made pensions available to every disabled Union army veteran who had served at least ninety days and to their widows and dependents, the Pension Bureau became one of the largest agencies, employing sixty thousand men and women by the late 1890s. The Treasury Department, another massive and important department, grew from 4,000 employees in 1873 to nearly 25,000 in 1900. The Post Office Department, which employed more than 56,000 people (about 56 percent of the federal work force) in 1881, grew to nearly 137,000 (about 57 percent) by 1901.


Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf, 1955);

Morton Keller, Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977);

David J. Rothman, Politics and Power: The United States Senate, I 1869-1901 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966).

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American Government in the Gilded Age

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