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Politics in the Gilded Age


  • Politics in the Gilded Age were characterized by scandal and corruption, but voter turnout reached an all-time high.
  • The Republican Party supported business and industry with a protective tariff and hard money policies.
  • The Democratic Party opposed the tariff and eventually adopted the free silver platform.
  • The People's (Populist) Party emerged in the 1890s to champion the interests of farmers. The party endorsed the coinage of silver to improve the financial situation of debtors.

Comparing political parties in the Gilded Age

There’s a strange contradiction in Gilded Age politics: on one hand, it was the golden age of American political participation. Voters turned out at a higher rate during this era than at any other time in American history. In 1876, nearly 82 percent of the voting-age population turned out for the presidential election. Today, turnout rates hover around a dismal 50 percent.
Graph showing the percentage of the voting-age population that turned out to vote in the presidential election from 1850 to 2000. Turnout peaked in the 1870s and 1880s and declined thereafter.
But, on the other hand, the two major political parties (the Democrats and Republicans) were both riddled with corruption and scandal. Politicians spent more time distributing government jobs to their supporters, managing urban political machines, and enriching themselves from the public coffers than dealing with important policy issues.
Dependent on the spoils system, which had greased the wheels of government since Andrew Jackson’s presidency, political candidates drummed up support by promising government jobs to party insiders. During the Gilded Age, politicians took such patronage to new heights—or rather, new lows—until a disappointed office-seeker assassinated President James Garfield in 1881 and inspired reform.
It’s perhaps not surprising that in this era of ineffective government, one of the most successful third-party movements in US history emerged. The People’s Party, or the Populists, reached national prominence in the 1890s on a platform of policies aimed at reining in big business and helping struggling farmers.
In this article, we’ll compare the platforms, constituents, and actions of the three political parties during the Gilded Age.

The Republican Party

In the years after the Civil War, the Republican Party dominated the office of the presidency. The Party of Lincoln could boast of victory in the Civil War and encouraged supporters—many of them veterans of the US Army—to “vote as they shot.” The Republican coalition included white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants; rural northerners and westerners; and African American men. During Reconstruction, the Republican Party worked to secure civil rights for black people in the South, but the party’s commitment to racial equality waned by the late 1870s.
The Republican Party also promoted the expansion of business and infrastructure, granting railroad companies land and subsidies to expand rail lines across the continent. Economically, the party supported a strong protective tariff to shield American industry from foreign competition, and a “hard money” policy that tied the dollar to the gold standard. These policies benefited banks and business owners.

The Democratic Party

Although the Republican Party dominated the presidency during the Gilded Age, political contests throughout the era were hotly contested, and Democrats frequently took control of the House of Representatives. The Democrats championed state and local control of government, opposed the protectionist tariff, and regarded personal liberty as more important than moral reform.
The Democratic Party appealed to white southerners and northeastern city dwellers, particularly Irish and German immigrants. Democratic state governments in the South opposed civil rights for African Americans during Reconstruction and imposed segregation and Jim Crow laws afterward.
In northern cities, the Democratic Party was particularly adept at operating political machines, organizations in which party bosses distributed food and jobs to immigrants and the poor in exchange for their votes. The most famous of these was Tammany Hall in New York City, where William “Boss” Tweed ruled with an iron fist.
Cartoon showing Boss Tweed leaning against a ballot box in a threatening manner.
Political cartoon depicting Boss Tweed, who says, “As long as I count the Votes, what are you going to do about it?” Source: Wikimedia Commons

The People’s Party (The Populists)

The People’s Party, commonly called the Populists, emerged as a major force in national politics in the 1890s. The party traced its roots from the cooperative organizations that American farmers had formed after the Civil War, including the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance.
Popular in the Midwest and the South, the Populists represented the interests of farmers, who encountered many struggles in the last half of the nineteenth century: the mechanization of agriculture drove crop prices down, the unregulated railroads charged high rates to ship crops to markets, and the protective tariff helped industry but not farmers. The hard money policy was particularly distressing for farmers because it made paying back loans difficult.
The party’s platform reflected these struggles, calling for railroad regulation, land reform, and government-backed loans. The most important plank of the platform, however, was free silver: Populists wanted to coin silver in addition to gold in order to increase the money supply and promote inflation. More money in circulation would decrease its value and make repaying loans easier.
Cartoon showing William Jennings Bryan holding a cross made out of gold, which bears a sale tag to indicate the cartoonist's belief that Bryan had committed blasphemy in his famous speech.
Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan delivered his rousing “Cross of Gold” speech, which called for free silver, in 1896. The Democratic Party adopted the most important plank of the Populist Party’s platform, leading to its demise. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Populists were extremely successful for a third-party movement, winning many victories in state and local elections in 1892 and over a million popular votes for their presidential candidate, James B. Weaver. In 1896, however, the Democratic Party incorporated free silver into its platform, which undercut the necessity of a third-party movement. Republican candidate William McKinley triumphed in the election of 1896, and the United States officially adopted the gold standard in 1900.
Check your understanding
Choose the aspects of the political parties in the Gilded Age (including Republicans, Democrats, and Populists) which were similar or different.
Stance on hard money
Amount of corruption
Level of voter enthusiasm
Groups supporting them

What do you think?

Was the Gilded Age a golden age of American politics or a low point? Why?
Did the Populists succeed? Why or why not?
What were the major similarities and differences between the three political parties active in the Gilded Age?

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