As the presidential election of 1868 drew near, Republicans nominated Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. Although Grant had never held public office, he had been a successful Union general, was popular in the North, and served as a reminder that Republicans had won the war. Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York who opposed emancipation, supported states’ rights, and wanted to regain control of Reconstruction from Congress. Although Grant received 214 electoral votes to Seymour’s 80, he won the popular vote by only 300,000, a slim margin. Republicans maintained control of Congress.
Grant’s presidency marked the beginning of the Gilded Age—the name that novelist Mark Twain gave to the postwar, post-Reconstruction era of big business, graft, and scandal that lasted until about 1900. The Gilded Age was enabled partly because most presidents during this era, including Grant, were weak in relation to Congress. The U.S. government’s economic policy became lax during these years, allowing Americans to take advantage of the laissez-faire economics via increased speculation, investment, and corruption.
Indeed, Grant had not even completed his first year in office before scandal hit. In 1869, financial tycoons Jim Fisk and Jay Gould bribed officials in Grant’s cabinet, including Grant’s own brother-in-law, to turn a blind eye while the two wealthy businessmen attempted to corner the gold market. Fisk and Gould even conned Grant himself into not releasing any more of the precious metal into the economy.
Fisk and Gould’s attempt to corner the gold market led to the panic of September 24, 1869, “Black Friday.” Congress was able to restore gold prices only after releasing more gold into the economy, despite Grant’s promise that more gold would not be released. Though Grant was unknowingly part of the scandal, no formal charges were filed against him.
Historians also associate the Grant presidency with corrupt political bosses and “machines,” the most notorious of which was the Tammany Hall machine in New York City, led by William “Boss”Tweed. Tweed, more than anyone else, was the symbol of corruption during the Gilded Age: he controlled nearly every aspect of political life in New York City; used bribery, extortion, and fraud to get what he wanted; and even sponsored phony elections to put his associates in office. Historians estimate that he may have fleeced as much as $200 million from New Yorkers. Though it could be argued that Tweed preyed on recent immigrants, he also provided valuable services for them: Tammany Hall often gave newly arrived immigrants housing, jobs, and security in exchange for votes.
The law finally caught up with Tweed in 1871, when New York prosecutor Samuel J. Tilden helped expose the Democratic politician’s corrupt dealings and sent him to jail. Tweed ultimately died in prison. Tilden, for his part, capitalized on his sudden fame and entered politics; within five years, he ran for president of the United States.