The Gilded Age’s Democratic Contradictions

The Gilded Age’s Democratic Contradictions

The New Party Bosses

How did our once-raucous party system become the pacified purview of elites?


In “The Four Lost Men,” an elegiac short story written in the 1930s about his dying father’s memories of life in post–Civil War America, Thomas Wolfe memorably conjured up the era’s presidents: “My father spoke then of the strange, lost, time-far, dead Americans…the proud, vacant, time-strange, and bewhiskered visages of Garfield, Arthur, Harrison and Hayes…. Who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had ever seen him in the streets of life?… Who had heard the casual and familiar tones of Chester Arthur? And where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides: which was which? Were they not lost?”

Wolfe’s words are frequently quoted to illustrate the seeming irrelevance of national politics in what Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called the Gilded Age, when it did not seem to matter who occupied the White House, since real power was enjoyed not by presidents but by the robber barons who were transforming the United States into the world’s foremost industrial economy. Can anyone today identify a single accomplishment of Benjamin Harrison or Chester A. Arthur? Who can explain in plain English what the heated battle over the “free coinage of silver at 16 to 1” was all about?

Jon Grinspan does not cite Wolfe in his new book, The Age of Acrimony, but it is easy to imagine him doing so. Not, however, to underscore the pointlessness of Gilded Age politics, but as evidence of late-19th-century Americans’ intense identification with the two major parties. Wolfe’s four lost men may have lacked charisma and accomplished almost nothing while in office, but, Grinspan argues, Americans were far more passionately invested in national politics then than they are today. And if you think our current moment of hyperpartisanship, political polarization, abusive language, widespread efforts to suppress the right to vote, and violent clashes over electoral outcomes is unprecedented, think again. As far back as the 1790s, opponents called George Washington a British agent and Thomas Jefferson a lackey of revolutionary France. In the decades before the Civil War, not a session of Congress passed without punches being exchanged between lawmakers and knives and pistols being drawn in the Capitol. But the high point of this kind of acrimonious politics came in the Gilded Age.

A curator of political history at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Grinspan draws on an impressive array of memoirs, letters, and scholarly works. Thanks to his position in a history museum, he is also intimately familiar with the material culture of politics, and he directs the reader to the “incredible variety of campaign paraphernalia”—the banners, placards, broadsides, buttons, and other items—displayed during electoral campaigns. The result is a compelling portrait of the central place of national party politics in Americans’ lives and how this began to change around the turn of the 20th century. Grinspan shows how a raucous democratic system in which the vast majority of the electorate voted gave way to a more sedate and exclusionary political culture that, in the name of political reform, erected more and more barriers to participation by working-class Americans.

The word “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. The founders considered unrestrained democracy as dangerous as tyranny. To keep popular enthusiasms under control, they provided for an Electoral College to choose the president; a Senate elected by state legislatures, not the people; and a Supreme Court whose members served for life. But by the 1830s, as Alexis de Tocqueville discovered when he visited the United States, the idea of democracy had become a defining feature of American life (at least for white men). To Tocqueville, democracy meant far more than a particular set of electoral institutions. It was one of the “habits of the heart,” as he put it: a culture grounded in individual initiative, belief in equality, and an active public sphere.

With the Union’s victory in the Civil War, these democratic sentiments became even more deeply entrenched in American life. Many Americans believed that the advent of what one congressman called a “pure democracy,” purged of slavery and racial injustice and confidently addressing the dislocations caused by the rapidly industrializing economy, was at hand. Instead, Grinspan argues, Gilded Age political campaigns subordinated substance to mass spectacle, with huge nightly parades of torch-bearing partisans, incessant political rallies, and spellbinding oratory laced with scurrilous attacks on opponents. In saloons and on urban streetcars, Americans engaged in fistfights over politics. On Election Day, armed men employed by local political machines tried to prevent supporters of the opposing party from casting a ballot.

Presidential elections between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, Grinspan writes, were “the loudest, roughest political campaigns in our history.” One magazine described them as “the theater, the opera, the baseball game, the intellectual gymnasium, almost the church,” rolled into one. The election of 1884, which pitted Democrat Grover Cleveland against Republican James G. Blaine, was “the dirtiest, most disgusting and disgraceful our nation has ever known,” in the words of one contemporary observer. Republicans dwelled on the fact that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, Democrats on Blaine’s record of financial malfeasance. Yet no matter how mediocre or corrupt, political leaders were revered by their followers. Who today would call a presidential candidate the “Plumed Knight,” as Blaine became known in 1884?

Despite, or because of, the rowdiness of politics, voter turnout was extraordinarily high in this period. The election of 1876, remembered today for the compromise that made Rutherford B. Hayes president and ended Reconstruction, brought to the polls 82 percent of eligible voters, the highest participation rate in American history. Eight and a half million men voted in 1876, nearly as many persons as visited the great Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that year during its entire six-month existence. Turnout would have been even higher if violent white supremacists had not prevented numerous African Americans in the South from casting a ballot. (Had Black voting rights been secure, the result of the disputed election would not have been disputed; Hayes would have handily won several Southern states and, with them, the presidency.)

Once in office, these politicians behaved not as statesmen seeking to address the nation’s problems but as members of “organized crime syndicates”: They were mostly interested in distributing the spoils of office. Before the war, large numbers of congressmen (including Abraham Lincoln) served one term and then returned to their districts. In the Gilded Age, they “hung around.” Politics had become a full-time profession, and officials spent much of their time dispensing patronage to supporters at home. With the size of the federal bureaucracy greatly enhanced as a result of the Civil War, there were plenty of positions to distribute.

Yet despite the presence of all these professional politicians, little significant legislation was enacted. One reason for both the intensity of political competition and the lack of substantive accomplishment, Grinspan suggests, was that the parties were so evenly matched. In three of the five presidential elections between 1876 and 1892, the candidates were separated by less than 1 percent of the electorate. Twice, the candidate who received the most popular votes lost in the Electoral College. No president between Ulysses Grant and William McKinley was reelected. Only for brief periods did the same party control the presidency and Congress.

In the 1870s, a group of political reformers emerged who self-consciously styled themselves the “Best Men.” Disgusted by the spectacle of campaigning, the high levels of spending and taxation by urban political machines, and their own lack of political influence, they sought to make American public life less vulgar. It was easy enough to blame corrupt politicians for the degradation of politics. But reformers increasingly blamed democracy itself. The problem, the purported Best Men insisted, was that too many people were voting, especially working-class Americans—immigrants in the large cities, African Americans in the Reconstruction South—who were easily swayed by demagogues. The real dividing line in Gilded Age politics, Grinspan notes, was not such issues as the currency, the tariff, or the rights of the formerly enslaved, but rather politics itself: those who benefited from democracy and those who wanted to curtail it.

One of the most influential statements of the latter position came from the historian Francis Parkman, in an 1878 essay titled “The Failure of Universal Suffrage.” The honest middle class, he wrote, found itself trapped between “an ignorant proletariat and a half-taught plutocracy.” But while Parkman disdained the rapaciousness of the robber barons, he made it clear that the country’s working classes posed the greater danger. Democracy, Parkman complained, transferred power “from superior to inferior types of men,” resulting in the reign of “organized ignorance.” One solution to what he called the problem of “promiscuous suffrage” was to limit the number of people voting. During the 1870s New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden headed a commission that sought to do precisely this: It proposed a new charter for New York City that imposed a hefty property qualification to take part in elections for the Board of Finance. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it; people generally do not agree to disfranchise themselves.

Unwilling to plunge into the distasteful world of political campaigning and lacking the clout to weaken the grip of electoral democracy on the halls of power, the era’s self-described reformers sought to upgrade the quality of officeholders by shielding them from partisan politics. They seized on the idea of civil service reform in the hope that basing government employment on passing an examination rather than having a connection with a political boss would “finally separate politics from government.” Unfortunately, this reform, implemented in 1883 in the wake of President James A. Garfield’s assassination by a man universally described as a disappointed office seeker, did as much to weaken democracy as it did to purify it. Political appointees had been expected to pay a portion of their salaries to their party; this was how both major parties financed themselves. Now, forced to look elsewhere for funds, the parties increasingly turned to corporations and the wealthy. “Men who already had money stepped in to bankroll campaigns,” Grinspan writes. We still live with the consequences.

Beginning in the 1890s, reformers adopted a new approach to curtailing what they considered democracy’s excesses. Forming an alliance with conservative businessmen bent on limiting the power of ordinary voters, middle-class reformers no longer simply criticized from the sidelines. Rather, they became directly engaged in politics, challenging the power of political bosses but also aiming to reduce the size of the electorate.

The changes were most extreme in the South, where white supremacist Democrats disfranchised nearly all Black voters, as well as a substantial number of poorer white ones, via poll taxes, literacy tests, and “good character” requirements. The region became a collection of what the British call rotten boroughs, whose elected officials exercised far more political influence than the size of their minuscule electorates justified. In 1910, only 4 percent of adult Black Georgians were registered to vote. Yet the state’s representation in Congress was based on its entire population.

Elsewhere, Grinspan writes, “respectable reform shifted its focus from who should vote to how.” In the 19th century, voting was a quasi-public act. Political parties issued printed ballots to their supporters, and crowds milling around the election site could see which one each voter deposited in the ballot box. The widespread adoption of the secret ballot and, soon afterward, curtained voting machines transformed voting into a private act. Combined with new laws that barred providing assistance to voters, the secret ballot effectively disenfranchised a considerable number of Americans, especially those who were illiterate.

Meanwhile, electoral campaigns became more restrained and “educational,” with formal lectures and the distribution of innumerable pamphlets and broadsides taking the place of rowdy physical confrontations. No longer did the weeks before Election Day witness daily torchlight parades, and Election Day itself became orderly, even dull. Politics, Grinspan writes, moved indoors: People discussed it at home but did not fight about their political differences in the streets.

By the early 20th century, what Grinspan calls an “incredible transformation of American politics” had taken place. One result of “the withering of partisanship and the cooling of political passion” was a precipitous decline in voter participation. By 1924, for the first time in American history, fewer than half the eligible voters cast ballots. The ratification in 1920 of the 19th Amendment enfranchising women represented the greatest expansion of democracy in the nation’s history. But as Grinspan notes, women “got to play the game only after most of the fun was gone.” The Age of Acrimony had been succeeded by an age of political civility, but at a cost—the ability of large numbers of working-class Americans to influence the decisions that shaped their lives.

Running like a bright thread through this book is the story of William D. Kelley and his remarkable daughter Florence, whose careers, taken together, lasted nearly a full century and illustrate the changes Grinspan puts at the center of his discussion.

The elder Kelley, a long-serving member of Congress from Philadelphia, was a leading Radical Republican during the Civil War era. Because of his monomaniacal advocacy of the protective tariff as the key to prosperity, he became known as Pig Iron Kelley. Florence Kelley, essentially educated at home by means of her father’s massive library, went on to attend Cornell University and, after being denied entrance to the University of Pennsylvania because of her sex, decamped to the University of Zürich, where she fell in with a cadre of socialist exiles from Russia, marrying one of them. Returning to the United States and abandoning her physically abusive husband, she moved to Chicago, where she was appointed inspector of factories for Illinois, making her one of the most powerful women in the nation. Soon after, she became the first general secretary of the National Consumers League, which sought to mobilize women’s purchasing power in the burgeoning mass consumption economy to fight child labor and the exploitation of female factory workers.

Pig Iron Kelley exemplified what alarmed reformers about traditional party politics—that it didn’t much matter what he stood for, in Grinspan’s words, “as long as enough people in Pennsylvania’s Fourth Congressional District liked his voice.” Politics was a show, with success deriving from the ability to campaign, not govern. Like her father, Florence Kelley was dedicated to a form of political action. But she represented how much could be accomplished outside of partisan politics with the deployment of expertise, local organization, and publicity campaigns exposing social ills.

A gifted writer, Grinspan tells this story in a highly engaging manner. The reader is swept along as if in the midst of one of the era’s mass parades. Grinspan peppers the book with tidbits of information that illuminate larger trends, pointing out, for example, that while in the 19th century virtually every newspaper was affiliated with a political party, by the early 20th, fully a quarter had proclaimed their political independence. He frequently reaches for novelistic effects, unexpected juxtapositions, and quotable turns of phrase.

Sometimes Grinspan’s style can overwhelm the substance. Despite a passing mention of the idea that membership in a mass political party provided a “tribal” sense of identity in a fractured society, we do not really learn why Americans devoted so much energy and emotion to political campaigns or why they voted as they did. We learn a great deal about the mechanisms of politics, but far less about party ideologies. “Mostly,” Grinspan writes, “each side just opposed whatever the other side stood for.”

Grinspan demonstrates how central party politics was to American culture during the Gilded Age. But he displays a surprising impatience with the movements outside the two-party system and with the numerous historians who study them. He says little about the deep sense of social crisis in the late 19th century, when many Americans feared they were “standing at Armageddon” (to borrow the title of Nell Irvin Painter’s history of this period). He chides scholars for devoting more attention to “radical solutions” and “tiny minorities”—for example, labor unions, socialist clubs, and the Farmers’ Alliance—than to the major parties. Historians, he suggests, should concentrate on the winners. They have “devoted great efforts to understanding the Populists” and William Jennings Bryan’s campaign for president in 1896, he observes, “but McKinley won.”

Grinspan, for the most part, also ignores those Gilded Age radicals who did, in fact, attract large followings. Henry George, the country’s leading proponent of the “single tax” on land, whose book Progress and Poverty was among the century’s great best sellers, makes only a very brief appearance when he runs against Theodore Roosevelt in the New York City mayoral race of 1886. Edward Bellamy, whose futuristic novel Looking Backward inspired the creation of hundreds of socialistic Nationalist Clubs in the 1890s, goes unmentioned. So does Ida B. Wells and her crusade against lynching. These figures may not have overturned the two-party system, but they did help to change the political discourse. And the era’s third parties—Greenbackers, Populists, local labor parties—placed the rapidly expanding gap between rich and poor on the agenda and pioneered the graduated income tax, public regulation of corporations, and other initiatives that would later come to fruition.

As for the other end of the social scale, The Age of Acrimony contains no mention of financiers such as J.P. Morgan who, at the turn of the 20th century, remade American capitalism by creating the monopolistic corporations that would dominate the economy for many decades. The years straddling 1900 were a moment not only of political transition, as Grinspan demonstrates, but also of other changes in American life. This was when the United States, thanks to the Spanish-American War, acquired an overseas empire; when the Jim Crow system became firmly entrenched in the South; when the Census Bureau announced the closing of the frontier; and when conservative jurisprudence took hold on the Supreme Court, as the justices ignored the abrogation of Black Americans’ constitutional rights while shielding corporations from public regulation. Of course, it would be unfair to criticize an author for not producing a book he did not set out to write. But changes in the functioning of democracy cannot be understood in isolation from these transformative developments.

Despite these omissions, The Age of Acrimony speaks directly to the current moment, when grassroots upsurges are both forcing the political system to confront longstanding inequalities and inspiring assaults on the practice of democracy itself, as state after state seeks to limit the right to vote. It reminds us that now, as then, American democracy is a terrain of conflict, forever a work in progress.

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