Gilded Age Politics
“What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more hell.”
POLITICAL PARTIES IN THE LATE 1800s
Toward the end of the 1800s, the two major political parties (Republican and Democrat), had almost equal support across the nation. While the Republican base seemed to be centered in the
North and Midwest, Democrats drew most of their support from the South and West. Also a few small political parties like the People’s Party, Prohibition Party and the Greenback Party grew popular in certain areas and were focused on one major issue. This balance between the political parties meant that certain key states, certain issues, or third parties, could influence a presidential election. Over time, each party developed an identity of itself. The Republicans identified themselves with nationalism and national unity. Because of this outlook, many Gilded Age
Republicans were often hostile to immigration and ambivalent toward social problems. On the other hand, the Democratic Party saw themselves as a party that supported limited government and personal liberty. Grover Cleveland, who won the presidency twice, in 1884 and 1992, embodied this new breed of Democratic candidate.
CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE SPOILS SYSTEM
Several important issues would dominate national politics after the Civil War. One of the principle problems facing the American political system was the spoils system, a method of selecting non-elected government officials. It drew its name from the quote, “to the victor go the spoils.” Also called patronage, the spoils system ensured government jobs were often given to party workers or friends of the victorious politician. It had been first instituted by Andrew
Jackson after his victory in the 1828 election over John Quincy Adams and gradually developed over the nineteenth century. After assuming office, Jackson purged the administration of many
Adams supporters and appointees, instead installing those who had endorsed him. Jackson was often ruthless in his use of patronage, as an 1828 editorial said that Jackson “will reward his friends, and punish his enemies.” Yet Jackson had other reasons as well. Instead of making the positions permanent, he wanted to make government officials answerable to the people. In his opinion, government officeholders should rotate in and out with each administration so that they don’t become permanent features of Washington and lay themselves open to corruption.
Regrettably, many political appointees proved to be corrupt or even incompetent. Supporters of the spoils system said it gave opportunities to many citizens and avoided the emergence of a permanent government bureaucracy. Critics of the system, however, maintained that the system only led to corruption when unqualified people took important government jobs. To these, civil
service reform was necessary. In these reformers’ view, the only way to ensure that competent people filled government positions was for applicants to pass a written examination.
STALWARTS VS HALFBREEDS
The Republican Party was split on the issue of the spoils system. This split would play decisive role for the future of patronage in American politics following the presidential election of 1880.
Entrenched Republican political boss Roscoe Conklin led one faction called the Stalwarts. These powerful men were considered traditional Republicans and were opposed to the notion of civil service reform. Through patronage the traditional Republicans could keep supporters of theirs in power. Any type of civil service reform, in Stalwarts’ minds, would be a threat to their power.
Stalwarts were opposed by a more moderate wing of the Republican Party they derisively called
Half-Breeds. Long-time Republican James G. Blaine led this more moderate faction. As the election of 1880 approached, the two Republican camps could not agree on a candidate.
Stalwarts wanted to nominate