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

History
Summary Gilded Age Politics: 1877–1892
Summary Gilded Age Politics: 1877–1892

Events

  • 1876

    Rutherford B. Hayes is elected president

  • 1877

    Railroad workers strike across United States

  • 1880

    James A. Garfield is elected president

  • 1881

    Garfield is assassinated; Chester A. Arthur becomes president

  • 1883

    Congress passes Pendleton Act

  • 1884

    Grover Cleveland is elected president

  • 1888

    Benjamin Harrison is elected president

  • 1890

    Congress 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

    Hayes

    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.

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