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The Gilded Age & the Progressive Era (1877–1917)


Gilded Age Politics: 1877–1892

Summary Gilded Age Politics: 1877–1892


1876Rutherford B. Hayes is elected president
1877Railroad workers strike across United States
1880James A. Garfield is elected president
1881Garfield is assassinated; Chester A. Arthur becomes president
1883Congress passes Pendleton Act
1884Grover Cleveland is elected president
1888Benjamin Harrison is elected president
1890Congress passes Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Pension Act, and McKinley Tariff

Key People

Rutherford B. Hayes - 19th U.S. president; technically lost election but took office after Compromise of 1877 with Democrats
James A. Garfield - 20th U.S. president; elected in 1880 but assassinated after less than a year in office
Chester A. Arthur - 21st U.S. president; took office in 1881 after Garfield’s assassination
James G. Blaine - Congressman from Maine; leader of Half-Breeds in the Republican Party
Grover Cleveland - 22nd and 24th U.S. president; first elected in 1884 after defeating James G. Blaine
Roscoe Conkling - New York senator; leader of the Stalwarts in the Republican Party
Benjamin Harrison - 23rd U.S. president and grandson of ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison; defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888
William “Boss” Tweed - Corrupt Democrat who controlled most of New York City politics during the Gilded Age


Rutherford B. Hayes had little political power during his four years in office, having barely squeaked into the White House by one vote after the Compromise of 1877, in which the Democrats ceded the White House to the Republicans in exchange for an end to Reconstruction in the South. The real winners in the election were Republican spoils seekers who flooded Washington, D.C., in search of civil service jobs.

Stalwarts and Half-Breeds

Disputes over these spoils split the Republican Party into two factions: the Stalwarts, led by Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, and the Half-Breeds, led by Congressman James G. Blaine of Maine. Neither group trusted the other, and the split left the Republican Party unable to pass any significant legislation during this time.

The Railroad Strike of 1877

The only major upheaval during Hayes’s presidency was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when railroad workers throughout the United States went on strike to protest the lowering of their salaries. More than a hundred people died during violence related to the strike, forcing Hayes to use federal troops to suppress the uprisings.

The Election of 1880

By the election of 1880, the Republicans, no longer supporting Rutherford B. Hayes, nominated the relatively unknown Ohioan James A. Garfield for president, along with the Stalwart running mate Chester A. Arthur. Democrats nominated Civil War veteran Winfield Scott Hancock, and the pro-labor Greenback Party nominated James B. Weaver. In the election, Garfield received a sizable majority of electoral votes but won the popular vote by only a slim margin over Hancock.

Garfield and Hayes

Like Hayes’s, Garfield’s presidency was overshadowed by Stalwart and Half-Breed infighting. In the summer of 1881, Garfield’s term was cut short when a delusional Stalwart supporter named Charles Guiteau assassinated Garfield in Washington, D.C. Guiteau hoped that Vice President Arthur would become president and give more federal jobs to Stalwarts.

Although Arthur did replace Garfield, the assassination convinced policymakers that the U.S. government was in dire need of civil service reform to combat the spoils system. Congress therefore passed the Pendleton Act in 1883, which created the Civil Service Commission to ensure that hiring of federal employees was based on examinations and merit rather than political patronage.

The Gilded Age & the Progressive Era (1877–1917): Popular pages