The Gilded Age

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No era ever debated partisan questions more fervently. The issues now seem remote, but they fascinated and moved voters at the time.

By the 1960s some historians had begun to argue that scholars in the 1930s, who revered a powerful Executive and an interventionist federal government, had read their biases into the study of the Gilded Age. Congress had remained more powerful than the Presidency during the period, and as often as not, one or both houses had not been of the President’s party; this explained the partisan deadlocks and compromises of the time. The national political scene had been one long struggle to build a new majority, a battle the Republicans finally won in 1894 and 1896. The highest rate of voter participation in American history occurred in the 188Os and 189Os, and the closeness of most elections and the sense of a major struggle for power reflected people’s intense interest in politics. If voting, public discussion of issues, and legislative enactments constitute democracy, the Gilded Age was one of the most democratic periods in American history.

In 1963 I published a symposium, The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal , in which leading young scholars presented new views of the era’s major public issues. (A second edition appeared in 1970.) Then in 1969 I brought out a narrative account of Gilded Age politics, From Hayes to McKinley . I liked the Republicans better than the Democrats because of their record against slavery and because they had attempted to build a truly national economy during the late nineteenth century. The Democrats seemed to me to have been a loose coalition of local and often conflicting interests. The party had feared and opposed federal authority because it threatened Democratic urban machines in the North and white rule in the South.

The traditional historian’s criticism of the lack of federal action in solving social problems during this period was ahistorical. Neither the consensus nor the machinery for such activity was available. Most Gilded Age Americans were content to leave such matters as public health, housing, and welfare to local government and private philanthropy. The typical citizen thought of the federal government only when picking up the mail, paying a modest excise tax on whiskey or tobacco, or seeing a serviceman in uniform. Nonetheless, the government did slowly get more involved in social problems, with much debate, as Ari Hoogenboom noted when delineating the struggle over civil service reform in Outlawing the Spoils (1961), and as Morton Keller recounted in Affairs of State (1979). Congress laid substantial groundwork for expanded action with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and civil service reform.

In the 1960s and 1970s the computer allowed historians to ask and answer many new questions about Gilded Age politics. Using methods of quantification borrowed from other social sciences, some scholars turned from studying party battles to analyzing the composition of the electorate, and from the national to the local scene. They concluded that political preferences had often been rooted less in economic positions than in ethnic and religious tensions. Tariff and currency questions had not been as important to voters as the compulsory teaching of English in public schools or the drive for Prohibition, which touched deeply held beliefs. (Catholics, for instance, had tended to oppose Prohibition, which they saw as an attempt to make them conform to a standard of personal conduct that Protestants upheld, and since Prohibitionists were often Republicans, Catholics usually voted Democratic.) The most influential scholar promoting this new theory has been Samuel P. Hays, author of American Political History as Social Analysis (1980).

BY THE 1980S THIS approach was widely accepted but had its critics. It was based mostly on studies of Midwestern states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Would it appear equally valid elsewhere? The quantifiers had produced a sharper picture of who voted but not necessarily of why they voted as they did. And did it really follow that national politics was secondary to local affairs? Perhaps the two were merely different. The quantifiers’ books were filled with statistics and complicated jargon and focused on groups and trends rather than on individuals. Surely something was missing. Their tone was that of the metronome, but Gilded Age politics had marched to the sound of the calliope and brass band.

Any new synthesis of Gilded Age politics will be convincing only if it recognizes voting behavior as both culturally determined and a product of the complex national political system. It is important to remember, for instance, that politicians of the Gilded Age set the agenda. And people responded strongly to personalities, just as they do today. Furthermore, people’s hopes and fears about their own jobs were important. Local contests and presidential elections had different dynamics, and voters, as always, had multiple personalities. The best syntheses of the various new approaches are found in Richard J. Jensen’s The Winning of the Midwest (1971) and R. Hal Williams’s Years of Decision (1978).