American Party Politics

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American Party Politics


The Two-Party System. During the 1880s and 1890s the two-party system functioned as the electoral counter-part to the government. For all but two years during these decades the Republican Party controlled the Senate, and for twelve years the party held the White House. The Democratic Party controlled the House of Representatives for about half the period. While both parties held national conventions every four years, they operated predominantly as state and regional organizations that existed in a web of obligation and reward between the party and local citizens and businessmen. Party platforms in these years took positions on national concerns such as temperance and tariffs, but they also addressed local and regional issues of concern to specific constitu-encies.

The Major Parties. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties were vast coalitions of individuals with differing viewpoints who carne together for the purpose of I fielding national candidates who could win elections.

Only on the tariff questionwhere the Republicans favored high, protective tariffs and the Democrats favored low tariffs to keep down consumer costsdid the two parties take distinctly different stands on the issues of the day. Except for the two nonconsecutive terms of Grover Cleveland, the Republicans controlled the presidency from 1861 to 1913, but popular support for the two parties was actually about even: between 1872 and 1896 no elected president won a majority of the popular vote, and vote totals for the two major-party candidates were extremely close.

The Republicans. Known as the Grand Old Party, or GOP, the Republicans were typically Protestants from old-time Yankee families, usually of British descent or from other established American stock. Home to free soilers, former members of the Whig Party, and abolitionists before the Civil War, the GOP continued to attract reformers in the 1880s and 1890s while also drawing anti-Catholic, antiimmigrant nativists, skilled workers, and farmers from the Northeast and Midwest. In the late nineteenth century the party found itself undergoing transformation to adapt to the needs of a changing society. The party was traditionally made up, in the words of Massachusetts Republican senator George Hoar, of the men who do the work of piety and charity in our churches, the men who administer our school systems, the men who own and till their own farms, the men who perform the skilled labor in the shops. The issue facing the GOP was how to adapt the partys individualiste ideals with an increasingly polyglot, urban, industrial society. They responded by calling themselves the party of prosperity as well as piety. During the 1870s and into the 1880s Republicans continued to wave the bloody shirt, a reminder that it was the Democrats who had led the South into rebellion and ignited the Civil War. Republicans maintained their support for the ideal of equal rights, but in the 1880s they began to realize that their bloody shirt strategy was no longer effective; voters wanted to put the war behind them, and a new generation of politicians no longer identified with the factional divisions of the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

The Democrats. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionism, the Republicans had a reputation for morality while the wide-ranging Democrats, with their tolerance for diverse opinions, were known as supporters of individuai liberty. In contrast to the Republican insiders, the Democrats were a party of outsiders, including immigrants, Catholics, Jews, southern whites, and a host of freethinkers. The southern Bourbon Democrats refused to accept the lessons of Reconstruction. After 1878 they gained political control in the southern states, undoing the attempts of Reconstruction Republicans to establish and ensure equal rights for African Americans. Their rhetoric of Jeffersonian Democracy,

free trade, limited government, and personal freedom (including opposition to temperance) met with sympathy in some quarters of the North and appealed to many reformers nationwide. As memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction faded, a new generation of politicians from the North and Midwest were less and less interested in old political divisions and more interested in business and financial issues. New Yorker Grover Cleveland, a reform Democrat, embodied the Bourbon Democrats philosophy. During his two nonconsecutive terms as president, he opposed high tariffs and soft money, vetoed Republican pension bills, and tried to support a vision of business unhampered by federal intervention.

Campaigns. Politics had become a national pastime by the 1890s. Campaigners distributed colorful banners, hats, flags, and buttons, and plastered the candidates faces on playing cards, leaflets, and pamphlets. The Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant could be seen everywhere. Party operatives combed streets, saloons, and neighborhoods drumming up votes for their candidates. In the 1880s and 1890s voter participation reached an all-time high, with 70-80 percent of those eligible to vote doing so.


The Republican Party was anything but unified in the last third of the nineteenth century. It was established in 1854 by a confederation of old-line political groups, and having provided the winning presidential candidate six times successively beginning in 1860, it continued as a party of headstrong factions, whose divisions were clearly drawn and who had the illusion of arguing among themselves to determine who should lead the country.

The Stalwarts were the old guard, those whose loyalties stemmed from the origins of the Republican Party. Their leader in the 1870s was Ulysses S. Grant, and Stalwarts enthusiastically supported his unsuccessful bid for a third terni as president in 1880. Grant, who led Union forces during the Civil War and served as president in 1869-1877, stood as a living symbol of the traditional values they held dear. The geographical base of the Stalwarts was in the Northeast, where congressional seats were safe from the Reconstruction politics that created a volatile electorate impatient with national politicians. They were especially strong in New York State, where Sen. Roscoe Conkling kept a firm grip on the awarding of federal patronage. The foundation of the Stalwart philosophy was that the Civil War had been a victory for the Union, and that the principles of the prewar Union should prevail. They had no interest in concessions to the South in the name of national unity.

The Half Breeds, led by the charismatic James G. Blaine of Maine and Ohioan William McKinley, were liberal, practical-minded Republicans who carne to prominence in the 1870s believing that the Republican Party had to reach out to disaffected Democrats to maintain its supremacy. They favored accommodation in the South and union on shared prineiples above ali. The Half Breeds shaped a future-minded party that sought to embrace factions rather than to stifle them.

The Mugwumps were Republican dissenters, who emerged in the election of 1884. They were bitterly opposed to the Republican Party the Half Breeds had wrought. In the attempt to broaden the Republican base, the liberal arm of the party had drifted from accommodation to outright corruption, the Mugwumps argued. The Mugwumps stood for ending excessive political patronage through civil-service reform. Though they thrived on factionalism, they thought that when interest groups made their point they should disband. The I Mugwumps name was said to be an Indian term for pompous people. In the 1884 presidential campaign between Blaine and Grover Cleveland, the Blaine supporters called renegade Republicans Mugwumps, meaning, it was said, that they were educated beyond their intelligence. Party regulars also joked that the Mugwumps had their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other.

Urban Political Machines. Powerful city bosses and their political machines linked the national party to the local level. The Democratic Party incorporated thousands of new immigrants into its urban operations, providing networks through which supporters could find work, loans, and companionship. For many neweomers urban machines provided a way to participate not only in politics but in a neighborhood-based community. Bosses depended on their people for votes and rewarded them for their efforts. Urban machines looked out for working-class families, helping them to achieve the same benefits enjoyed by the middle class, such as the new city services of water, sewerage, and electricity. Although the notorious Democratic boss William Marcy Tweed (1823-1878) was sent to prison in 1872 for plundering the New York City treasury, the Tammany Hall mens political club he had created continued to dominate the Democratic nominating process and distributed municipal jobs to loyal voters and party workers. A similar system of payoffs and rewards to local Democratic loyalists operateci in Chicago. During the 1880s Chris Buckley, the Blind Boss of San Francisco, was said to stand at polling places with the pockets of his overcoat filled with quarter-eagle gold coins (each worth $2.50). As he shook the hand of each man who had voted for him, he slipped his loyal supporter a coin. Voter fraud was not just an urban phenomenon. In 1888 West Virginians cast 159,440 votes in the presidential election, while the state had only 147,408 eligible voters, and Grover Cleveland won the state by a margin of only 506 votes.


Michael McGerr, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986);

H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969);

Paul Kleppner, The Third Electoral System, 1853-1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

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American Party Politics

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American Party Politics