Toward an Industrial Polity

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Toward an Industrial Polity


The Grant Administration. The campaign slogan of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, Let Us Have Peace, expressed a waning of support for additional federal initiatives to reconstruct the South. Grants margin of victory over Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour was remarkably narrow considering the national admiration for the victorious Union commander, and Seymour may well have carried a majority of the white voters in the country. Most of the Southern states had been readmitted to the Union in June, when the Fourteenth Amendment was declared in effect. One of the most powerful Radical Republicans, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, died later in the summer; as he had requested, he was buried in a racially integrated cemetery to illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of Man before his Creator. Before Grants inauguration took place Congress submitted to the states the last of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibiting states from discriminating on the basis of race in voting laws. Vigilant federal attention to the South was not over. To the contrary, violent attempts to thwart Reconstruction prompted Congress to enact far-reaching Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. But the impulse to translate the meaning of the Civil War into law was considerably weaker than it had been a few years earlier. This development was acutely recognized by advocates of woman suffrage, who were bitterly disappointed that the Fifteenth Amendment, like the Fourteenth, failed to bar discrimination on the basis of sex.

Organizing Capital. The politics of the sectional conflict gradually gave way to the politics of large-scale economic development. The federal government from 1862 to 1872 gave railroads millions of dollars in aid and more than one hundred million acres of land to advance construction, concentrating on the transcontinental routes mapped during the war. Mining companies also benefited from the donation of millions of acres of valuable land through legislation such as the National Mineral Act of 1866. If the principle underlying these grants did not differ from previous attempts by state governments to stimulate economic growth, the interests of corporations like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad defied the traditional geographic boundaries of politics. The potential of these firms to blur even the national boundaries of politics was illustrated by one of the major scandals of the era, the revelation that the Crédit Mobilier firm, contracted to build the transcontinental railroad, had paid inflated prices and given free shares to government officials, including the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Organizing Labor. Workers responded to the political influence of pooled capital by exploring political strategies to defend their interests. These interests, of course, varied widely in an economy that still included many independent artisans as well as unskilled operatives in mechanized factories. But workers increasingly found common ground, increasing the number of national labor unions from three in 1865 to twenty-one by the early 1870s. The transition from the politics of sectional conflict to the politics of the Gilded Age could best be observed in Massachusetts, a hotbed of the antislavery movement and the most industrialized state in the country. When the state legislature denied a petition by the shoemakers union, the Knights of Saint Crispin, to form cooperatives that would provide more profits to workers, a coalition of unions formed a labor reform party. In its first statewide election the new organization elected twenty-three members of the legislature. The party helped to create the first Bureau of Labor Statistics in the country, and Massachusetts congressman George F. Hoar suggested that the federal government should establish a similar commission to collect and publish information about wages, hours, and working conditions. In the ensuing debate, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts summarized the feelings of many longtime Republicans when he shuddered that he never heard the term laboring class here without the same sort of sensation which I used to have on hearing the word slave. He exhorted the Senate never to acknowledge the existence of classes in this land of equality. Wilsons comments reflected the logic of antebellum Northern politics that labor was either slave labor or free labor and the reluctance of his

generation to accept the idea that wage laborers might have only an artificial freedom.

Machine Politics. With the waning of the sense of crisis that shaped public life from the 1850s, American politics came to focus more narrowly than ever before on the scramble for government-created wealth. Unlike the patronage battles between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans or between Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats, the Gilded Age contests between Republicans and Democrats seemed to be devoid of ideas. The emergence of Simon Cameron as the most powerful figure in Pennsylvania politics symbolized the transition. He had been thoroughly overshadowed in Abraham Lincolns cabinet by William Henry Seward and Salmon P. Chase, who shared Camerons talents for political infighting, but also articulated visions of the future of the nation. Forced to resign from the War Department on grounds of mismanagement, Cameron resurfaced after the war as the representative of the Pennsylvania Railroad and patron of political machines in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. These interests propelled him into the United States Senate, where he served with other powerful political bosses like Roscoe Conkling of New York, John A. Logan of Illinois, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana. Their bases of support reflected trends that disturbed many observers. Cameron and other bosses relied on the large corporations growing out of the expansion of the economy, who received the federal largesse in land grants and lobbied state governments on daily decisions that affected business. Critics also deplored the urban political machinesmost notoriously the Tweed Ring in New York Citywhich built upon the political power of immigrants as a voting bloc. A parallel on a national level was the Republican strategy to mobilize Union veterans by seeking pensions and waving the bloody shirt to taint Democrats with Southern secessionism.

Republican Schism. The transformation of politics after the war was dramatized by the rupture of the Republican Party in the election of 1872. The divisions in the party had largely crystallized two years earlier in a struggle over one of the main priorities of the Grant administration, the annexation of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, successfully led the opposition to the treaty, primarily because he saw the expansionist measure as a threat to Haiti, the only republic in the western hemisphere governed by African Americans. He was joined not only by Democrats eager to thwart the Grant administration but also by Republicans like Lyman Trumbull and Carl Schurz. These reformers wanted the administration to focus on the challenge to government presented by corporate interests and urban machines; their central priority was the enactment of civil service legislation, which had been first introduced in Congress in 1865. Grant in turn strengthened his ties to the so-called Stalwart wing of the party headed by Conkling and Morton. Despairing of winning the Republican Party back from Grant and his allies, the reformers organized a separate Liberal Republican campaign in the presidential election of 1872. They eventually chose as their nominee Horace Greeley, longtime editor of the New York Tribune. The subsequent campaign departed sharply from the established pattern of politics, particularly after the Democrats decided to back Greeley as well. It was odd for Greeley or Charles Francis Adams, leaders of the antislavery movement, to oppose the Republican Party that they had helped to found while men less motivated by principle, such as Conkling and Morton, represented the call to sustain racial progress in the South. The incongruity reflected the shift away from the issues that had long dominated politics. In this transition, the reform constituency of the Liberal Republican movement would increasingly find no comfortable base in national politics.

Politics of Depression. The long-term deflationary period touched off by the Panic of 1873 created a new political environment. Massive joblessness caused relations between capital and labor to loom larger on the national agenda. The leading labor issues of the immediate postwar era, the eight-hour day and formation of cooperative enterprises among workers, gave way in the most severe phases of the depression to a demand for public relief. Bitter labor disputes in the mining and railroad industries during 18741877 pointed toward the question that would soon emerge at the forefront of labor matters: the role of government in strikes pitting employers against employees. The tendency of government to side with capital was foreshadowed by the 1875 strike in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, in which Gov. John Hartranft intervened to help crush the Working-mens Benevolent Association. After the strike, testimony by operatives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency who had infiltrated the Molly Maguires (a secret labor organization) led to the conviction and execution of twenty miners for alleged acts of violence during the conflict. Similarly, when striking railroad workers stopped traffic on trunk lines through much of the country in the summer of 1877, several governors mobilized militia units, and when they failed, President Rutherford B. Hayes called out U.S. Army troops to crush the general strike. The confrontations added to ranks of workers concluding that their best political strategy might be socialism. As one leading financial editor warned at the end of the strike, the Communist is here.

Politics of Inflation. The impact of the depression was no less convulsive in agriculture. Farmers hit hard by the worldwide decline in prices began to experiment with independent political parties calling for regulation of railroads and, increasingly, expansion of the money supply. The inflation resulting from circulation of more money in the economy would aid farmers and other debtors because they would be making repayments with money that cost less than at the time their obligations were contracted. In the years between the end of the Civil War and the Panic of 1873, debates over monetary policy had centered on the fate of paper money or greenbacks issued by the federal government to finance the Union war effort. When the depression hit, Congress passed the Inflation Bill of 1874, which would have issued more greenbacks in an attempt to boost the economy, but President Grant refused to sign the legislation. A year later he approved Sen. John Shermans Specie Resumption Act, which called for the government to redeem all circulating paper money in gold by 1879. With the close of the greenback era, farmers and other advocates of inflationstrongly encouraged by silver mining interestsshifted to a demand for coinage of silver, which had been eliminated by the Coinage Act of 1873 and reintroduced in only a limited form by the Specie Resumption Act of 1875. In finance, as in other areas, the definition of issues in the Civil War and Reconstruction era had given way to a new formulation that would preoccupy American politics for the remainder of the nineteenth century.


Between 1850 and 1877 a series of Indian wars plagued the western frontier and added to the woes of the U.S. government. In the 1860s federal authorities implemented a reservation policy. Aside from its claim to humanitarianism, this policy also saved money: it cost less to house and feed Indians on reserved plots of land than it did to fight them. Many tribes were not willing to comply. During the Civil War, the Navajo of the Southwest tried to expel whites from their tribal lands. Between 1862 and 1871 the Apache leaders Mangas Coloradas and Cochise came close to reclaiming most of Arizona. In the Northwest the Modoc and Nez Percé of Oregon rose up in 1872 and 1877, respectively. However, the most famous Indian wars occurred on the Great Plains. In the 1860s the Lakota and Cheyenne attempted to bar white encroachment on their lands in the Dakota Territory, Wyoming, and Montana. Little Crow met defeat in 1863, but Red Cloud managed to wrest some concessions from the federal government in 1868, including the Powder River country as unceded Indian territory on which no whites might trespass without Indian consent. With the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, thousands of settlers streamed into the area. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, the Lakota and other tribes began sporadic attacks on the interlopers. On 25 June 1876 the best-known battle of the Indian wars occurred at the Greasy Grass, or Little Bighorn, River, Montana, where a detachment of the Seventh Cavalry under George A. Custer was annihilated. After this defeat, the U.S. Army methodically hunted down the various Indian bands and crushed all resistance in the West by 1890.

Source: Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970).

Compromise of 1877. Voters in 1874 responded to the depression by turning against the party in power. In the House of Representatives, a Republican majority of 110 seats became a Democratic majority of 60 seats. The elections marked the end of Republican dominance and the beginning of a period of remarkably close competition between the two national parties, which translated into an era of legislative deadlock. The presidential election of 1876 illustrated the precarious balance. Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden won a majority of the popular vote but failed by one vote to achieve an electoral majority. Results were disputed in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, where violence and intimidation kept African American supporters of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes from voting; the eligibility of one of the three electors from Oregon was also challenged. Congress referred thé controversy to a special electoral commission composed of five representatives, five senators, and five Supreme Court justices; the eight Republicans and seven Democrats voted on straight party lines to award the disputed electoral ballots and the presidency to Hayes. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Hayes made commitments through his key political advisers to withdraw the federal troops still posted in the South and to accept the violence-tainted elections that had returned Democrats to power in the governments of the three Southern states. This agreement completed the redemption of the South, as the reestablishment of conservative government was called, that had taken place in Virginia and Tennessee in 1869, North Carolina in 1870, Georgia in 1871, Texas in 1873, and Alabama and Arkansas in 1874. Although the national Republican Party sporadically contemplated renewed federal enforcement of black voting rights in the South until 1890, the Com promise of 1877 effectively signaled the end of Reconstruction.


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

David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 18621872 (New York: Knopf, 1967).