ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN 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 improvement 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 Company’s).

 

*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).

*After 1837, Samuel Morse’s telegraph let businessmen and regular folks communicate with one another between cities.  Alexnader 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. 


*The sewing machine (developed by Elias Howe and improved by Isaac Singer) made the textile industry even more efficient and Elisha Otis’s safety elevator and the development of steel frame construction 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 sleeping cars.

*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 that power. 

 

*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 shirt.

 

*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 Part 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, but the Democrats were afraid to complain too loudly, because they 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.  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 elected 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 Marcy 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 their humiliation.

 

*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 high living).

 

*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 political rewards.

 

*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.

 

*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 Good. 

 

*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 who he claimed had slept with many men and the he had accepted responsibility for the child because of all the potential fathers, he was the only one who was unmarried.

 

*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 Westerners.

 

*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 3 October, 2018.
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