Politics of The Gilded Age

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Patronage is the giving of government jobs to those who helped the elected leader get in office. This is also called the “Spoils System.” The idea was that, if you won election, you should get to hire people for city jobs regardless of their qualifications. Many in the 1870s and 1890s argued the Patronage system was corrupt. The boss could hire unqualified people merely for supporting his candidacy. These people argued that only qualified citizens should service in city positions. This idea that one had to be qualified for a job was called “Civil Service.”

Rutherford B. Hayes, elected president in 1876, attempted to reform the patronage system. Hayes fired those who practiced patronage to attempt to get qualified people in positions of power. Some politicians were Stalwarts who supported the Spoils System. Other politicians became Reformers who supported Civil Service. In the election of 1880, Hayes did not run again. The Republicans knew the nation was becoming divided over Patronage, so they attempted to run two men on each side of the issue to avoid controversy. James A. Garfield was nominated as the Republican Presidential candidate and was a Reformer. Chester Arthur was nominated as the vice president and was a Stalwart.

On 7/2/1881, Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, who was angry that the patronage system did not allow him to get a job in Garfield’s administration. Garfield died on 9/19/1881. After this event, Arthur altered his beliefs on the issue, became Reformer, and supported the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. This act established a merit system for civil jobs, which meant one had to deserve a government job based on credentials to be hired.

Tariffs became an important economic and political topic in the late 1800s. A tariff is when a nation taxes goods from other countries so that foreign companies cannot compete with domestic businesses. Some argued tariffs helped big businesses, but hurt the common consumer. They argued more competition would decrease market prices and make things cheaper. In 1884, the first Democrat in 28 years, Grover Cleveland, won the presidency. His goal was lower tariffs to make prices cheaper for consumers. In 1888, many big businesses wanted to increase tariffs and supported the candidacy of Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, who won the presidency and supported higher tariffs. In 1892, Grover Cleveland was elected again! He was the first President to serve two terms that were not back to back. Though reelected, Cleveland was unable to maintain a significant reduction toward tariffs. In 1896, William McKinley, a Republican, was elected President and supported raising tariffs again.

The major economic issue of the late 1800s was this: should the USA use tariffs to help local businesses keep their prices high or invite foreign trade to keep prices low for consumers? Many Democrats argued against tariffs to help keep prices low for consumers. Yet, many Republicans argued for high tariffs to protect American businesses. These opposing viewpoints dominated the political and economic debates of the era.

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Politics of The Gilded Age