American History
Civil Service Reform and the Populists

*In the late 1800s, the United States government made few changes to the basic structure of government or American life.  Most elections were very close, and the political parties were fairly evenly balanced in Congress, so it was not hard for one party to block the other’s plans.


*The presidents of the Gilded Age were weak.  Hayes won his election by a controversial decision by a special panel.  Benjamin Harrison won less than half the popular vote (but won the electoral vote by a large margin because he won most of the big Northern states).  Instead, politics was dominated by political machines.


*Political machines were the leaders who ran each party from behind the scenes.  Most big cities and most states had a political ‘Boss’ who decided who would run for election and then could tell them what to do once they won with his support (which often included bribery, vote-rigging, and other dishonest practises). 


*The most famous of all these Bosses was Boss Tweed of New York who ran the Democratic machine called Tammany Hall.  He arranged for people to get government contracts who then gave kickbacks to him and his machine.  He also got laws passed to help railroads and other businesses who in turn gave him stock free or sold it to him cheap. 


*Tweed was eventually brought down by the lawyer and later governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, and the political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, whose cartoons were especially effective at presenting Tweed’s corruption in a way that even the illiterate could understand.


*These Bosses maintained their power through the spoils system—the people they helped get elected gave government jobs to their supporters, who ended up owing their livelihoods to the bosses. The post office had the most jobs of this type, but there were many others as well. 


*Many jobs were dispensed by the president himself, but this changed after the assassination of President Garfield by a lunatic who had wanted to be Ambassador to France.  The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 began requiring applicants to take an exam before they could get some government jobs.


*One of the big issues separating Democrats and Republicans was still the tariff.  Factory owners and many factory workers supported one, while most farmers (who found farm equipment more and more expensive to buy) did not.


*To make things easier to by, farmers did not just want lower tariffs, they also wanted more money (to lower the value of the individual dollar, thus making it easier to pay off their loans).  In 1873, the US government began to issue dollars only in gold—the gold standard, which limited the money supply and raising the value of the dollar. 


*Some farmers wanted paper money to be issued again, which would easily drive down the price of money, but many farmers (and mine owners, who kept discovering more silver) felt that coining silver money again would help them a lot without going as far as issuing paper money.  The government soon began issuing a small number of silver dollars again, but many people demanded that the government mint as many silver dollars as they could—free silver, or the bimetallic standard.


*As farmers faced harder and harder times as cotton and wheat prices fell, they began to organise.  What had southern farmers formed to help them work together?  (Farmers’ alliances) 


*Similar organisations also arose in the west.  The first was called the Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange (an old term that means a farm and its buildings).  In the 1870s they managed to have ‘Grange Laws’ passed that regulated rates for shipping and storing grain so that railroads could not gouge the farmers, although the Supreme Court later overturned some of these laws because they affected railroads that crossed state lines.


*Even Congress eventually listened to some farmers’ and miners’ demands and passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890, under which the U.S. Government would buy silver with paper money that could be exchanged for gold or silver dollars—and everyone exchanged them for gold, running down the government’s gold supply and Grover Cleveland oversaw its repeal in 1893.


*In 1892, members of the Grange, Farmers’ Alliances, and other groups formed the Populist Party.  Look at page 201.  What regions elected the most Populist politicians?  Populism spread across the South and West and quickly began electing members of congress and governors.


*In the South, the Populists even got blacks and whites to work together, until the Democratic Party managed to convince many whites that a vote for the Populists was a vote for ‘Negro supremacy.’


*As a depression hit America in the 1890s, even some urban workers were attracted to the Populist Party, but the Democrats again struck back, trying to keep their traditional constituencies.  In 1896 they nominated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency.


*Bryan was born in Illinois and grew up in Nebraska, where he gained a reputation early on as a great public speaker—the Boy Orator of the Platte (also like the Platte River, his opponents said, he was six inches deep and a mile wide at the mouth).


*He spoke for farmers and poor workers, demanding Free Silver in religious imagery, saying, ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’  His Cross of Gold speech made him famous, and split farmers’ votes between the Democrats and the populists, meaning that neither party won the presidency in 1896. 


*Once again, the Republicans won the big Northern states for William McKinley, even though almost every Southern and Western state supported Bryan.  The same thing happened in 1900, partly because the discovery of gold in Alaska, the Yukon, and Australia had introduced enough gold into the world money supply that the value of money went down enough that Free Silver was not quite as important as it had been.  Bryan even ran for president (and lost) again in 1908.

This page last updated 26 August, 2015.
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