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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Gilded-Age Politics and Agrarian Revolt - Document Overview

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American political life during the last quarter of the nineteenth century has long been viewed in negative terms. Novelist Mark Twain labeled the era "The Gilded Age" because of the corrupt connections between business tycoons and political leaders. Politics during the period were preoccupied with patronage, the long-established pattern of rewarding loyal supporters with government jobs. Prominent senators such as Roscoe Conkling of New York and Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, as well as urban bosses like New York City's William Marcy Tweed and George Washington Plunkitt, were masters of the so-called spoils system, a term derived from the saying, "To the victor belongs the spoils." They and other political "bosses" used the patronage system to reward supporters and to maintain powerful political "machines."

Eventually, however, the abuses of the spoils system sparked protests and legislation. In 1881 concerned citizens founded the National Civil Service Reform League, and in 1883 they helped push through Congress the Pendleton Civil Service Act. It created a federal civil service commission to establish job qualifications and competitive exams for a variety of government positions, thereby removing them from the patronage system.

While Republicans dominated the White House, the two major political parties were evenly balanced in the Congress. Tariff and monetary policies dominated public debate. Republicans generally supported high tariffs (taxes on imported goods) as a means of protecting American producers from foreign competition. Republicans also tended to promote a conservative monetary policy based on the gold standard. To maintain its base of support among northern voters, the Grand Old Party also consistently supported generous government pensions for Union war veterans. For their part, Democrats were more divided on such issues, with factions on opposite sides. This reflected the geographic diversity of the party. The Democrats found their reliable base of support in two contrasting regions: the South and the northern cities with large immigrant populations.

Unlike today, voter participation during the Gilded Age was remarkably high. Elections aroused enormous interest. Of course, women could not yet vote in national elections, and black males found voting increasingly problematic in the former Confederacy as the century came to a close. Indians and Asians were also the subjects of racial prejudice and legal discrimination. Both Native Americans and Chinese Americans were denied citizenship. During the 1890s various state and local laws intending to disenfranchise African Americans virtually eliminated their involvement in politics. The men who did vote across the country were most keenly interested in local concerns rooted in ethnic and cultural issues such as Sunday closing laws, liquor prohibition, and immigration restriction.

The phenomenal economic development after the Civil War fostered a massive wave of foreign immigration to the United States. Europeans and Asians flocked to America in search of jobs and freedom. The massive influx eventually provoked a rising nativist sentiment that culminated in efforts to limit immigration. During the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, thousands of Chinese began streaming into the United States, most of them settling in California. Although initially encouraged to migrate to the United States, they soon found themselves the victims of violent harassment. A new California constitution drafted in 1879 included numerous anti-Chinese provisions, prohibiting them from owning land or engaging in particular professions. Courts also refused to accept testimony from Chinese. Anti-Chinese riots killed dozens of the newcomers.

By 1880 there were over 100,000 Chinese on the West Coast, and the rising numbers prompted efforts to prohibit further immigration. This culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Although President Chester Arthur vetoed the bill, Congress passed it to protect "American" jobs and to maintain white "racial purity." The new restrictions provided a precedent for a series of laws thereafter limiting foreign access.

Perhaps the most salient political issue during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was a tension between city and country, industry and agriculture. Millions of distressed American farmers during the late nineteenth century felt ignored or betrayed by the political process. While the industrial economy and urban culture witnessed unprecedented expansion, farmers confronted a chronic boom-bust cycle characterized by falling prices, growing indebtedness and dependence on local merchants and middlemen, and the high cost of credit. In the rural South and in the Midwest, discontented farmers first formed grassroots Granges or Alliances that provided opportunities for both social recreation and political action. By the 1890s these regional efforts had combined to form a third national political party, the Populists. The new party promoted a variety of reforms and policies, but it soon fastened upon a seeming panacea: the free and unlimited coinage of silver. A massive coinage of silver, they argued, would inflate the money supply and thereby increase the prices for farm commodities, make credit cheaper, and relieve debtors of their paralyzing burdens.

In 1892 Populists participated in their first presidential elections, with candidate James B. Weaver garnering 9 percent of the popular vote. A year later a sharp financial panic triggered what became the onset of the worst depression in American history up to that time. This prolonged crisis gave sudden credibility to many Populist ideas, and the free-silver crusade made inroads into the Democratic party, especially in the West and South. In 1896 the Democrats and the Populists nominated Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska to run against Republican William McKinley, thus setting the stage for one of the most important presidential elections in American history. The Republicans and McKinley emerged triumphant, but Populists succeeded in creating momentum for a more activist government in the early twentieth century.


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