UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Gilded Age
*The War between the States was a great tragedy for the United
States, but for some Northerners, it was a blessing in
disguise. To supply the massive Union Army (in which about
two million men served over the course of the war, with a peak
size close to a million), factories turned out uniforms, guns,
packaged food, and the steel needed to build ever more rails,
trains, ships, and new factories to support the war effort.
So many improvements were made in manufacturing and business that
their growth in the late 19th century is sometimes called the
Second Industrial Revolution, and it was a revolution that made
the men that led it wealthy: although the word ‘millionaire’
had existed since the early 1700s, it first came into wide-spread
use following the Civil War.
*The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and early 1800s had been
based on textiles, and (even for Northerners who would not have
liked to admit it) heavily dependent on slavery. The Second
Industrial Revolution was based on steel (and thus on coal and
iron). This was in large part because in 1850 Henry Bessemer
in England developed the Bessemer Process, a way to make strong,
lightweight steel that was not brittle (a problem with earlier
ways of making steel). This steel formed the frames for
skyscrapers, railroads, suspension bridges like the Brooklyn
Bridge (the longest bridge on Earth when it was finished in
1883). Railroads, in turn, allowed the shipment of
mass-produced goods across the nation.
*Mass production was at the heart of the Industrial
Revolution. As manufacturing was broken down into many
steps, it was not necessary to hire expert craftsmen.
Rather, anyone could be trained to make a single part of a product
or to put those parts together. At its most refined, this
allowed one person to do only one single job all day. This
was boring, perhaps dehumanising, and poorly paid, but
efficient. This led to the mass production of goods that had
once been produced one at a time by hand tools.
*As mass production became more efficient, goods became cheaper,
and more people were able to buy more products, allowing even
working-class people to feel rich—a working-class or middle-class
person might even have several suits of clothes now, in the same
style (even if not of the same quality) as the upper class, or a
watch of his own—and he could buy them all from department stores
(including Macy’s, the first department store, founded in 1858) or
through mail order catalogues (such as Sears, Roebuck, and
*A growing middle class of office managers, accountants, and other
white collar workers who could not afford country estates like
those of the great industrialists formed country clubs to purchase
and share retreats outside the crowded, polluted cities, to which
they could escape on weekends and vacations (also a new idea).
*Even the working class who could not afford country clubs could
still enjoy the new public parks that were being created in major
cities—such as Central Park in New York.
*Furthermore, although the average factory worker was paid less
than expert craftsmen might have been, most still made a wage good
enough that in the mid-1800s they could hope to get ahead in the
world, which eventually attracted workers from around the world.
*This was the American Dream: to work hard, become good at your
job, and save money to start your own business or at least impress
the boss enough that you could one day run his.
*One of the most popular writers of the late 1800s was Horatio
Alger. He wrote rags-to-riches stories in which poor boys
worked hard and eventually became wealthy and famous (usually with
a little luck thrown in, too, such as rescuing the boss’s daughter
and marrying her). Although they were usually pretty corny,
they were still believable because Americans truly had a chance to
achieve something like it.
*One reason American factory workers could demand higher wages in
the mid-1800s was because if they did not get the pay they wanted,
they could always move west. Factory owners could pay them
higher wages than foreign companies paid their workers because the
US government encouraged it.
*Protective tariffs made foreign goods expensive, encouraging
people to buy American products. High tariffs were supported
by the Republican Party, which tended to be supported by
businessmen (and also by many Civil War veterans and
African-Americans who wanted to vote for the Party of
Lincoln). Democrats tended to oppose tariffs because they
hurt the poor (especially farmers and immigrants who got the worst
jobs) by driving prices up.
*Laissez-faire economic policies also let businesses
compete with each other so that the strongest and most efficient
would succeed. This competition helped keep prices from
getting too high.
*The fact that successful businesses could make money encouraged
risk-taking and innovation. Entrepreneurs who started their
own businesses were seen as heroes and so were the inventors who
made the factories more efficient.
*Thomas Edison was one of the most famous inventors. He not
only invented the light bulb, but he held almost 1,100 patents in
the US, having created types of record players, movie cameras,
power plants and electrification of homes, and the electric chair
(partly through the creation of the first industrial research lab
at Menlo Park, New Jersey—where some of his employees, most
famously Nikola Tesla, resented that Edison got all the credit and
profit for the inventions they helped to develop).
*One of Edison’s rivals was George Westinghouse, who developed the
air brake, making trains easier and safer to stop, thus letting
railroads run longer trains and run them at higher speeds.
He also created one of the first and most influential electric
companies in competition with Thomas Edison.
*After 1837, Samuel Morse’s telegraph let businessmen and regular
folks communicate with one another between cities. Alexander
Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, making communication
even easier. In 1896 Guglielmo Marconi developed the
wireless telegraph in which formed the basis for the later
invention of radio.
*These inventions began a Communication Revolution (which let
businesses and governments manage operations over much larger
*The development of steel frame construction and Elisha Otis’s
safety elevator made skyscrapers possible, and, after the Great
Chicago Fire of 1871, widespread.
*The rival meatpackers, Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift, made
Chicago a centre of the meatpacking industry, as cattle and other
livestock were shipped there by rail from the great ranches and
feedlots of the Great Plains and the Midwest and then slaughtered,
butchered, and packaged for sale around the country.
*Meat could be sold around the country thanks to Swift's invention
of the refrigerated railroad car, one of the greatest
unappreciated inventions in modern history. Refrigeration
allows people to live far from the source of their food, which has
allowed the growth of urbanisation, particularly the urbanisation
of inhospitable places.
*Railroads also made travel not just more common, but more
comfortable, as George Pullman's Pullman Palace Car Company made
*Railroads came to cover so much of America and travel so quickly
that they changed time itself. To make sure that trains ran
on schedule wherever they were, the railroads invented time zones
and began standardising time across the country (previously noon
was determined locally whenever the sun was overhead).
*This period of great technological advances and growing wealth
for the industrialists and businessmen who ran it as well as the
conspicuous consumption of the middle-class managers who worked
for them was far from perfect. Mark Twain described the late
19th Century as a Gilded Age, beautiful and shining on the
surface, but shoddy beneath.
*Although goods were becoming cheaper, the lure of American jobs
and land drew so many immigrants that land and jobs became
scarcer, driving wages for the working man down, as did
mechanisation, which reduced the need for workers.
*As coal and oil were burnt in large quantities, industrial
pollution appeared on a scale that was previously unknown—the
famous London fogs were actually choking pollution.
*Andrew Johnson’s unpopularity and impeachment had weakened the
office of the president, and his successors did little to regain
*US Grant was elected because he was a war hero. In fact,
every man elected president for the rest of the 19th Century
except for Grover Cleveland was a Union veteran. Reminding
voters that a candidate was a veteran was called waving the bloody
*The period from about 1868 to 1900 is sometimes described as the
Third Two-Party System, which was characterised by weak
presidents, most of them Republicans, and a strong Congress, often
dominated by Democrats (who relied on the Solid South, which would
never vote for the Party of Lincoln), with few major policy
differences except over the tariff, which Republicans wanted high
and Democrats wanted low.
*Congress was itself often dominated by wealthy businessmen.
Eventually so many Congressmen grew wealthy through bribes,
favours, and business connections that the Senate was known in the
late 1800s as the Millionaires’ Club.
*Although President Grant was honest himself, he was too trusting
and protective of his close associates, most of whom become
involved in numerous scandals and Gilded Age politics became
infamous for their corruption.
*The Credit Mobilier Scandal was the largest of the scandals that
tainted Grant’s administration. Credit Mobilier was a
company created by the owners of the Union Pacific Railroad during
the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Credit
Mobilier got contracts from the UP, and billed them at high prices
(sometimes nearly double the actual construction costs), which the
UP passed on to Congress. Credit Mobilier then bought stock
in the UP at cheap rates and resold it for higher prices on the
open market. To keep Congress from checking their books too
closely, they sold Credit Mobilier stock to Congressmen at lower
than market rates. Although most of the dirty dealing took
place before Grant became president, it only became public in
1872, and his reputation was hurt.
*In 1875, a Whiskey Ring was discovered, in which government
officials had stolen millions of dollars in excise tax
money. Grant promised to ‘let no guilty man escape’ until he
found that his private secretary was one of the guilty men.
When the Secretary of War, Belknap, was found to have skimmed
$24,000 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs by selling the right to
disburse (usually sub-standard) supplies on reservations, Grant
covered for him, too.
*In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican Governor of Ohio ran
against Samuel Tilden, Democratic Governor of New York, for the
presidency. Hayes was a Civil War veteran, a fact his
supporters mentioned often. Tilden was more popular,
however, and won a slight majority of the popular vote.
*In the Electoral College, however, things were closer.
Several states--Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and
Oregon--had one or more of their electoral votes questioned, so
that twenty votes were unallocated at the end of 1876. The
election was close—if Tilden got even one of the disputed votes,
or if Hayes got them all, that man would win.
*Tilden probably should have won, and some people called for a new
Civil War: Tilden or Blood! Most Democrats were afraid
to complain too loudly, because some feared (unjustifiably) that
Grant would set himself up as military dictator if pushed too
far. Republicans were upset, but some were willing to let
Tilden in to avoid violence. Some Blacks were supposedly
afraid that if Tilden did win, slavery would be
re-established. It was a very tense situation.
*Congress had to decide what to do, so they set up a special
committee. The committee had 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and
one honest man. However, at the last minute, the neutral
man, David Davis of the Supreme Court, was appointed to the Senate
and resigned his judgeship. He was replaced by a
Republican. Not surprisingly, the commission voted 8 to 7 in
favour of Hayes.
*The Democrats were furious. However, rather than have a
constitutional crisis, a bargain was reached: the Compromise
of 1877. Tilden would let Hayes take office without
complaint, but in return Reconstruction would end in the South,
and some money would be spent to improve the Southern states in
ways they wanted.
*Afterwards, the president was known as ‘Ruther-fraud’ B. Hayes,
despite being a man of great personal integrity.
*The Republican Party eventually split between those who benefited
from the corrupt system that supported it, called Stalwarts, and
those who wished to reform it, known as Half-Breeds.
*Even more important to the political system than bribes from big
business was the spoils system whereby successful politicians
rewarded their supporters with government jobs. Both parties
had powerful organisations known as machines whose bosses
dominated local and national politics. The most famous
machine of the 1800s was the Democrats’ Tammany Hall in New York
(and its most famous boss was William Tweed, eventually busted by
Samuel Tilden), but it was only one of many, and Stalwarts ran
most Republican machines.
*After a long and contentious convention in 1880, in which the
Stalwarts supported Grant for an unprecedented third term and the
Half-Breeds supported James G. Blaine from Maine, a compromise was
reached in which Ohio Civil War veteran James Garfield, a
Half-Breed was nominated for president and New Yorker Chester
Arthur, a Stalwart closely tied to the corrupt political machine
of Roscoe Conkling, was nominated as vice-president.
*After Garfield’s election, Conkling demanded that one of his
allies be made Secretary of the Treasury and that another be made
Collector of the Port of New York (a position that could offer
many well-paid jobs as spoils for political supporters and that
was traditionally filled at the request of New York’s
senators). Garfield ignored him, and Conkling and Thomas
Platt (New York’s junior senator) resigned in protest over the
port collector’s position. They expected to be re-elected
(which would be a slap in Garfield’s face) but they were not, to
*Garfield was a brilliant man. He was a former college
professor and fluent in many languages. He was able to write
with both hands at once, and as a party trick would write the same
thing with both hands at once, but one hand would write in Latin
and the other in Greek. Although he had accepted some Credit
Mobilier stock, he mostly escaped the scandal. Republican
reformers had high hopes for him. The he was shot.
*Charles Guiteau was a misfit in society and a failure in business
and marriage. He had tried to campaign on behalf of Garfield
and believed he should be rewarded with a diplomatic job in
France. After all, political supporters were rewarded under
the spoils system. In truth, he was a nonentity who Garfield
did his best to avoid. Finally, Guiteau decided the
Republican party needed a Stalwart leader, so he bought a gun
(regretting that he could not afford to pay extra for an
ivory-handled one that would look nice in a museum) and shot
Garfield in the back in a railway station, saying ‘I am a Stalwart
of Stalwarts, and Arthur is president now!’
*Garfield took months to die (during which time air conditioning
was developed to make him more comfortable and an early metal
detector was used (unsuccessfully) to help locate and remove the
fatal bullet), and would probably have survived if he had had more
competent doctors (Guiteau claimed in his trial that Garfield’s
doctors had killed him; Guiteau had only shot him).
*It was assumed that Chester Arthur would be as corrupt as any
machine politician could hope. He certainly had been up
until that point, and he was hardly a model of moral
rectitude: he loved fine clothes, fine wine, and wild
parties. However, to everyone’s surprise, upon succeeding to
the presidency, Arthur became an honest man (perhaps because he
knew he only had a few more years left to live if he kept up his
*Among the most important acts he signed into law was the
Pendleton Civil Service Act, which required most federal
government jobs to be filled based on merit and the first civil
service exams. It also made it illegal to fire or demote
government workers for political reasons. Later civil
service laws would make government jobs less and less available as
*In 1884, Blaine ran for the presidency at last, but revelations
of corruption, particularly related to investments in railroads,
came back to haunt him, especially a letter that he had concluded
with the request ‘burn this letter.’ Furthermore, a fellow
Republican described the Democrats as the party of Rum, Romanism,
and Rebellion, and this turned many Catholics against Blaine
despite the fact that his mother was an Irish Catholic and he had
tried to appeal to Irish-Americans. Furthermore, Blaine was
not a Civil War veteran.
*Charges of corruption particularly hurt a man who had campaigned
Civil Service Reform, and Republicans repulsed by Blaine’s
corruption known as Mugwumps turned against Blaine, splitting the
Republican Party, and supporting Blaine’s opponent, Grover
*Cleveland had been Sheriff of Erie County, New York (in which
role he had personally hanged two men), Mayor of Buffalo, and
Governor of New York, in all cases establishing a reputation as a
conservative, honest, and efficient leader, nicknamed Grover the
*However, he had not fought in the Civil War (having hired a
substitute), and even Grover the Good had a scandal of his own, an
illegitimate son borne in 1874 to Maria Halpin, who claimed
Cleveland had raped her, but whom he claimed had slept with many
men and that he had accepted responsibility for the child because
of all the potential fathers, he was the only one who was
*Despite this scandal, Cleveland was elected in a very close vote
(48.9% of the popular vote and 219 electoral votes to Blaine’s
48.3% of the popular vote and 182 electoral votes).
*As president, Cleveland supported the Gold Standard, officially
instituted in 1873 and believed to maintain a more stable
currency, but which was leading to deflation by the 1880s as the
economy expanded more rapidly than the money supply. Many
farmers wanted silver coins to be minted again to create inflation
and make it easier to pay off debts; likewise, many miners wanted
silver to be minted again to make the large supplies of silver in
the west to become valuable once more. The Bland-Allison Act
of 1878 had required the government to purchase and mint a limited
amount of silver, but Cleveland blocked attempts by Congressman
Richard Bland to allow unlimited coinage of silver, angering many
*In 1888, the Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison, grandson of
President William Henry Harrison, and himself a Senator from
Indiana and a veteran of the Civil War who had fought with Sherman
in Georgia. He campaigned in support of a protective tariff,
and although he lost the popular vote by 90,596 popular votes, he
won the Electoral College 233 to 168.
*Four years later, though, in the election of 1892, Cleveland
would return, beating Harrison (largely because many Westerners,
who often voted Republican, instead supported the Populist Party
in hopes of economic reform including Free Silver) and becoming
the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
This page last updated 16 July, 2020.