Industrialization and the Gilded Age: 1816–1900

Politics in the Gilded Age

Origins of "The Gilded Age"

The phrase "Gilded Age," coined by satirist Mark Twain, describes a period that on the surface looked opulent and grand, much like an item gilded with gold. However, a much harsher reality existed beneath the surface.

The late 19th century in the United States was a period characterized by excessive materialism, unscrupulous business practices, and unchecked corruption both in corporate boardrooms and in government offices. In 1873 a journalist named Mark Twain, who would later gain fame as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a newspaper editor named Charles Dudley Warner cowrote The Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was a satirical novel about corruption in public life. It would eventually lend its name to the time period.

The novel's plot centers around a young, fortune-seeking woman and a scheming politician who join forces. They engage in bribery, concoct fraudulent real estate deals, and lobby for bogus legislation in order to get rich. Despite the novel's broad use of caricature and melodramatic plot, which includes murder and a Senate investigation, critics acknowledged the novel's accurate portrayal of Washington, D.C. The city was portrayed as a place where the desire for money, power, and celebrity seemingly had no bounds. The novel's title became a metaphor for the time. While the late 19th century appeared to be a golden age of industry and opulence, it was actually like a brass object gilded, or coated, with gold. It was beautiful on the outside, but beneath the gold was something ugly and of little value. The corruption that enabled industrialists and politicians to enrich themselves would soon be exposed by reformers at the beginning of the 20th century.

Political Machines in the Gilded Age

Political machines became a powerful force in the local politics of major cities. They appealed to immigrants and the working class by supplying them with jobs, homes, and loans in exchange for votes.

In the 19th century, city governments were often unable to provide citizens with services considered essential today, such as police protection, water and sewer service, and trash collection. As a result, political machines became a powerful force in local politics. A political machine was a party-affiliated organization led by a powerful and disciplined boss who got things done, often by illegal means. Political machines gained appeal among voters, especially members of the working class and immigrants, by providing favors such as loans, housing, and jobs. With voters' support, political machines put their people in office and kept them there through fraudulent elections and patronage, a system of rewarding people loyal to the party by giving them valuable contracts and secure jobs.

The most notorious of the political machines belonged to William M. Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed, a Democratic leader who rose to power in New York City in the late 1860s. The organization was known as Tammany Hall, named after the building that served as Boss Tweed's headquarters. Through Tammany Hall, Tweed appointed friends to key government positions, thus ensuring a blind eye would be turned to his many illegal activities. Tweed enriched himself and others through many schemes, including kickbacks, graft, and bribery. His most ambitious project, however, was the building of the New York County Courthouse. In return for providing laborers with grossly inflated contracts, Tweed received a healthy sum of money. It is estimated Tweed stole as much as $200 million from the city over the course of his career. However, Tweed met his downfall when disgruntled city workers took evidence of his corruption to The New York Times. At the same time, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast began publishing caricatures of Tweed in a monthly national magazine. Tweed was tried and convicted in 1873.

For all their negatives, political machines did have some positive effects on city life. They were responsible for creating the first professional police forces. They helped immigrants by passing housing regulations and providing poor families with food and shelter. In addition, political machines offered party loyalists a way up the social ladder by providing jobs within the machine.
Democratic leader Boss Tweed tried unsuccessfully to bribe editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast to stop publishing caricatures of him. Nast's illustrations highlighted Tweed's greed and theft of public funds, which played a major role in swaying public opinion against Boss Tweed.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ6-787; Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-53831

National Politics During the Gilded Age

National and state governments in the Gilded Age were often corrupt, in part because many politicians were beholden to big business and practiced patronage under the spoils system. The Populist Party consisted mainly of farmers and labor groups.

During the Gilded Age, politics were no less partisan at the state and national levels than at the local level. The Democratic and Republican parties adopted different views and were supported by voters from all walks of life. The Republican Party considered itself the party of morality. Its voters were mostly Protestant, affluent, and from the Northeast and Midwest. The leaders of industry were predominantly Republicans. As the party that ended slavery, Republicans also received the votes of African American freedmen. The Democratic Party was a coalition of groups with overlapping and often conflicting goals, including Catholics, white Southerners, and immigrants. The Democrats often sought reform of government corruption. The nation was evenly divided between the two parties, resulting in narrow wins for either side. Voter affiliation was often based on ethnic, racial, or religious identity rather than political views.

Despite periodic reform efforts by both parties, government at the national level continually suffered from corruption and scandal. Many politicians were indebted to wealthy interests. Wealthy industrialists made contributions—critics called them bribes—to politicians in return for favorable legislation, such as weak regulation of monopolies and high tariffs that kept out foreign goods. In addition, politicians engaged in the spoils system, the practice of a winning political party filling public offices with its supporters. When one party won, it would remove all the appointees from the other party and replace them with its own members. The spoils system was a form of patronage, rewarding loyal party members and supporters. However, its critics complained that the system chose appointees based on loyalty with no regard for knowledge or ability. What's more, they claimed, mass firing and hiring was inefficient because people who knew a job were let go, and people who needed to learn the job took their places.

By 1889 a new party was emerging. The Populist Party was a grassroots movement that lasted from 1889 to 1896 and was made up primarily of farmers and some labor groups. Populist Party members were tired of the corruption in government and big business. They wanted relief from economic policies that hurt them, including shrinkage of the money supply, which led to high interest rates for needed loans. They had a range of demands, including lower taxes, women's suffrage, African American voting rights, fair labor and union laws, and the regulation of big business. They wanted to increase the money supply by adding greenbacks—a form of paper money that wasn't redeemable in gold or silver—to the economy. Populists also supported the Free Silver movement, a policy in which silver would be added to the gold standard. In the end, however, the Populist Party was unable to win enough support from industrial laborers in the North and farmers in the South to break the monopoly on presidential politics held by the Democrats and Republicans.