Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Another fascinating period in US history is that time period referred to as the Gilded Age. This phrase, coined by Mark Twain, refers mainly to the period immediately following the Civil War and stretching to early part of the 20th century. The Gilded Age gave birth to the "Progressive Era." The excesses of this period paved the way for progressive legislation we will talk about later in this post.

I read a book written by Kenneth Atkinson called "Dark Horse" about the election and assassination of James A. Garfield of Mentor, Ohio. Garfield was a Civil War hero and respected congressman. His election in 1880 followed the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, who shared a similiar biography and was also from Ohio. Hayes had followed Grant, who shared Civil War service and too, was from Ohio. That's a rather odd coincidence I suppose, but it is testament to the fact that Ohio was as it is today, a battleground state.

The politics of the Gilded Age were fascinating and were dominated by political machines headed by powerful bosses who controlled and swung elections to their candidates. I suppose it is no coincidence that immigration was at flood stage during the Gilded Age and new immigrants made promising targets for the political bosses who were expert at exploiting them for votes. Some things don't change I guess.

The political strategists (bosses) were just getting ahold of the power of class warfare and continued to mine it with zeal for votes and power. The interplay of the bosses and powerful politicians was really a fascinating part of this book. In the 1880 election the Democrats were basically small time players as they were for most of the Gilded Age. In fact, the Democrats elected only one president from 1860 until 1912. Grover Cleveland won the 1884 and 1892 elections becoming the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. Other than those two elections it was domination by the Republicans. It should also be noted here that with the notable exception of Cleveland, the Gilded Age presidents uniformly acquiesced to the legislative branch. Consequently, the power players of Gilded Age were congressmen and most notably senators. Names such as Roscoe Conkling of NY, James Blaine of Maine, Marc Hanna of Ohio, and Henry Cabot Lodge of Mass., to name a few were the true power players.

The main issues of the 1880 election were Civil Service Reform and monetary policy. The Republican Party was split between two factions, the Stalwarts, led by Conkling, and the Half-Breeds, led by Blaine. Their major bone of contention in the 1880 election was the nomination of Grant for a third term with the Stalwarts backing Grant. This disagreement had led to the split in the party as the corruption of the Grant administration had damaged the image of Grant and the Republicans. The nickname of Half-Breeds had intially been a pejorative, but faction came to take as a badge of honor. The Republican convention degenerated into a political bloodbath as backers of Grant and Blaine fought ballot after ballot for the nomination.

Garfield emerged gradually as a reform candidate. On the 32nd ballot he chosen by a candidate of the reform which continued to grow culminating in his nomination and election. Sadly, Garfield was assassinated in 1881, just as he was emerging as a president willing to take on the political bosses in his own party. My opinion is that the unfulfilled presidency of Garfield was a tragedy with the outcome of adding fuel to the fire for the progressive movement. By this I mean that Garfield, with his popularity within congress and with the American people, could have achieved genuine reforms that made sense without the excesses of the progressive movement.

The Gilded Age is a very interesting period in US history and it needs much more study by Americans. That study will, I trust, give pause to the winds that are sweeping away small government at an alarming rate. There's nothing like learning from the past to sober up the American people. Our politicians are in full power grab mode and we need a president like a Garfield or Cleveland to step on the brake and restore some sanity.

I have given my Advanced Placement US history students an assignment to read several articles covering the Gilded Age and the approach of citizens, like Andrew Carnegie to the use of accumulated wealth. I'll give you the link here.

Read the following articles "The Economy of Time and Expenses," "Wealth," and "The Relation of Wealth to Morals." They will give you a good idea of the thinking of Gilded Age Americans and their thoughts about the booming economy that poured out wealth at an astonishing rate stepping up the pace of the change of America from an agrarian based economy to an industrialized economy. Americans struggle with the problem of accumulated wealth to this day. It's interesting to read how they thought about the "wealth problem" and their reactions to it. It's an interesting insight that we will discuss beginning the opening day of school with a test. You have to make sure they read, right?


Ducky's here said...

One word about the Gilded Age.

Thorstein Veblen. A study of the age wouldn't be complete without "A Theory of the Leisure Class".

"The Theory of Business Enterprise" is less well known but as important. He pretty well demonstrates the coming cultural plague of TV advertising and the ability to divorce products and profit from and social value.

Law and Order Teacher said...

Thanks I'll check it out.

BB-Idaho said...

Brief timeline can be found here .