Gilded Age Politics

Politics in the Gilded Age were intense. In the years between 1877 and 1897, control of the House of Representatives repeatedly changed hands between the Democratic and Republican parties. Political infighting between the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions in the Republican Party prevented the passage of significant legislation. During this era, the political parties nominated presidential candidates that lacked strong opinions—possibly to avoid stirring up sectional tensions so soon after the Civil War.

“The Forgotten Presidents”

Some historians have dubbed Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison the “forgotten presidents.” Indeed, it might be argued that the most notable event that occurred during the Gilded Age was the assassination of President Garfield in 1881. His death prompted Congress to pass the Pendleton Act, which created the Civil Service Commission two years later. This commission reformed the spoils system, which had rewarded supporters of a winning party with “spoils,” or posts in that party’s government.

Industrialization and Big Business

The Civil War had transformed the North into one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the world, and during the Gilded Age, businessmen reaped enormous profits from this new economy. Powerful tycoons formed giant trusts to monopolize the production of goods that were in high demand. Andrew Carnegie, for one, built a giant steel empire using vertical integration, a business tactic that increased profits by eliminating middlemen from the production line. Conversely, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company used horizontal integration, which put competitors out of business by selling one type of product in numerous markets, effectively creating a monopoly. These “captains of industry” cared little for consumers and did anything they could to increase profits, earning them the nickname “robber barons.


Railroads were the literal engines behind this era of unprecedented industrial growth. By 1900, American railroad tycoons like Cornelius Vanderbilt had laid hundreds of thousands of miles of track across the country, transporting both tradable goods and passengers. The industry was hugely profitable for its leaders but riddled with corrupt practices, such as those associated with the Crédit Mobilier scandal of 1871. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of corrupt railroads in the Wabash case, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 to protect farmers and other consumers from unfair business practices.

Organized Labor

Organized labor did not fare nearly as well as big business during the Gilded Age, as most Americans looked down on labor unions during the era. The first large-scale union, the National Labor Union, was formed just after the end of Civil War, in 1866. Workers created the union to protect skilled and unskilled workers in the countryside and in the cities, but the union collapsed after the Depression of 1873 hit the United States. Later, the Knights of Labor represented skilled and unskilled workers, as well as blacks and women, in the 1870s, but it also folded after being wrongfully associated with the Haymarket Square Bombing in 1886.

Despite these setbacks for organized labor, workers continued to strike, or temporarily stop working, for better wages, hours, and working conditions. The most notable strikes of this era were the Great Railroad Strike, the Homestead Strike, and the Pullman Strike, all of which ended violently. The more exclusive American Federation of Labor, or AFL, emerged as the most powerful union in the late 1880s.

Urbanization and Immigration

As profits soared, so did America’s standard of living. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, millions of Americans left their farms and moved to the cities, which were filled with new wonders like skyscrapers, electric trolleys, and lightbulbs. Nearly a million eastern and southern European immigrants arrived in America each year, settling primarily in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. These new immigrants crowded into the poorest neighborhoods, the cities’ crime- and disease-ridden slums. Politicalmachine bosses like William “Boss” Tweed in New York preyed on immigrants, promising them public works projects and social services in exchange for their votes.

A growing middle class spurred a late-nineteenth-century reform movement to reduce poverty and improve society. Reformer Jane Addams, for example,founded Hull House in Chicago to help poor immigrant families adjust to life in America. The success of Hull House prompted other reformers to build similar settlement houses in the immigrant-clogged cities of the eastern United States.

The West

The American West also underwent radical transformations. Railroads allowed more and more Americans to travel from overcrowded eastern cities and settle out West. Within a twenty-year period, American settlers had slaughtered more than 20 million bison, nearly causing the animal’s extinction. Many Native American tribes of the West, including the Sioux, Fox, and Nez Percé, deeply resented white settlers’ disregard for their land and primary food supply and began to attack the settlers. After a number of bloody battles, skirmishes, and massacres, the U.S. Army subdued the Native American population, herding them onto reservations. In an effort to “Americanize” Indians, Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act in 1887, which forbade Native Americans from owning land.

The Populist Party

The Depression of 1873, which effectively dissolved the National Labor Union, also threatened many new settlers in the Midwest. Plagued by steep railroad fares, high taxes under the McKinley Tariff, and soaring debt, thousands of small farmers banded together to form the Populist Party in the late 1880s. The Populists called for a national income tax, cheaper money (what Populists called “free silver”), shorter workdays, single-term limits for presidents, immigration restrictions, and government control of railroads.

Cleveland’s Second Term

In 1892, Grover Cleveland defeated Republican incumbent Benjamin Harrison and Populist candidate James B. Weaver in 1892 to become the only U.S. president ever to serve two nonconsecutive terms. Although Cleveland’s first four years were free of any major change, his second term was a tumultuous one. The Depression of 1893 hit the U.S. economy hard, forcing Cleveland to ask Wall Street mogul J. P. Morgan for a loan of more than $60 million. In 1894, more than 500 protesters in “Coxey’s Army” marched on Washington demanding cheaper money and debt relief. Despite Morgan’s loan, Cleveland was unable to put the economy back on track, and it cost him the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1896.

The Election of 1896

In 1896, Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, the “Boy Orator,” after he delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech demanding free silver. Because Bryan incorporated much of the Populist platform into his own, the Populists chose to endorse him rather than their own candidate. Meanwhile, Republicans nominated Senator William McKinley from Ohio on a pro-business, anti–free silver platform. McKinley’s campaign manager, Marcus “Mark” Hanna, worked behind the scenes to convince powerful business leaders to back several key Republican candidates. As a result, McKinley won the election of 1896, effectively killing free silver and the Populist movement.

The Spanish-American War

McKinley’s greatest challenge as president was the growing tension between the United States and Spain over the island of Cuba. Spanish officials had suppressed an independence movement in Cuba, its most profitable Caribbean colony, and forced Cuban men, women, and children into internment camps. “Yellow journalists” like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer published sensational stories about the atrocities in Cuba, partly to increase their papers’ circulation but also to provoke American ire for the Spanish. Although McKinley did not want go to war, he felt compelled to do so, especially after the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, which he blamed on Spain.

The war itself was over within a matter of weeks, but during that time, the United States seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, thanks in part to future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. After the war, American forces withdrew from Cuba according to the Teller Amendment but also forced the new Cuban government to sign the Platt Amendment, giving the U.S. Navy a permanent military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The passage of the Foraker Act, meanwhile, granted Puerto Ricans limited government; they would not receive collective U.S. citizenship until 1917.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick Policy

McKinley won the election of 1900 with Roosevelt as his running mate but was assassinated by an anarchist less than six months into his second term. As a result, Roosevelt took office as one of the youngest presidents in American history. Despite his youth, Roosevelt proved to be a “bully” with his Big Stick diplomacy. One of his most important policies, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declared that only the United States, not Old World powers, had the authority to interfere with Latin American affairs. Roosevelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, drafted the Open Door Notes, which asked that Japan and the European powers respect China’s territorial status and fair trade. Roosevelt went on to take over Colombia’s northernmost province, Panama, in order to secure America the right to build the Panama Canal. Toward the end of his presidency, Roosevelt also toured with the Great White Fleet, a group of U.S. Navy battleships, around the world in a symbolic display of force.

Roosevelt and Progressivism

Roosevelt was just as active at home as he was abroad. During his presidency, America had become increasingly urbanized and industrialized. The Progressive movement, which formed as a response to the rapid social and economic growth and change that was taking place, helped spawn a new era of social reform. Muckrakers—journalists who wrote about political and industrial corruption as well as social hardships—had significant influence on Roosevelt, who outlined a package of domestic reforms called the Square Deal, whichwere meant to protect consumers, tame big business, support the labor movement, and conserve the nation’s natural resources.

Congress, meanwhile, passed the Elkins Act and Hepburn Act to regulate the railroads and the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act to regulate food inspection and sanitation. Congress passed the acts, in part, after the popularity of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary meatpacking practices. Roosevelt also supported strikers in the Anthracite Strike, prosecuted several trusts under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and signed the 1902Newlands Act, selling lands in the West to fund irrigation projects.

Taft’s Presidency

Roosevelt’s friend and handpicked successor William Howard Taft promised to carry out the rest of Roosevelt’s progressive policies if he were elected president. After winning the election of 1908, however, Taft proved to be more of a traditional conservative than most had expected. Although he continued progressive policy by prosecuting more trusts than his predecessor, in a more conservative vein than Roosevelt he signed the steep Payne-Aldrich Tariff in 1909 and fired conservationist Gifford Pinchot from the forestry division. Many Republican Progressives, including his former friend Roosevelt, denounced Taft as a traitor to the movement. When Republicans nominated Taft again in 1912, Roosevelt left the convention and entered the presidential race as the candidate for the new Progressive Republican or Bull Moose Party.

Wilson’s First Term

With two feuding party leaders splitting the Republican vote, Democrat Woodrow Wilson managed to win the presidential election. Also a Progressive, Wilson championed a new group of reforms, the New Freedom, which regulated big business, further supported the labor movement, and reduced tariffs. In 1913, he signed the Underwood Tariff, which was lower than Taft’s, and also reformed the national banking system with the Federal Reserve Act. The following year, Wilson passed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act to replace the much weaker Sherman Act of 1890, which was riddled with loopholes. Other progressive bills he signed into law included the Warehouse Act, the La Follette Seaman’s Act, the Workingman’s Compensation Act, and the Adamson Act. Wilson also ordered General John “Blackjack” Pershing to invade Mexico in 1916 to pursue the bandit Pancho Villa.

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