In which John Green teaches you about the Gilded Age and its politics. What, you may ask, is the Gilded Age? The term comes from a book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner titled, “The Gilded Age.” You may see a pattern emerging here. It started in the 1870s and continued on until the turn of the 20th century. The era is called Gilded because of the massive inequality that existed in the United States. Gilded Age politics were marked by a number of phenomenons, most of them having to do with corruption. On the local and state level, political machines wielded enormous power. John gets into details about the most famous political machine, Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall ran New York City for a long, long time, notably under Boss Tweed. Graft, kickbacks, and voter fraud were rampant, but not just at the local level. Ulysses S. Grant ran one of the most scandalous presidential administrations in U.S. history, and John will tell you about two of the best known scandals, the Credit Mobilier scandal and the Whiskey Ring. There were a few attempts at reform during this time, notably the Civil Service Act of 1883 and the Sherman Anti-trust act of 1890. John will also get into the Grange Movement of the western farmers, and the Populist Party that arose from that movement. The Populists, who threw in their lot with William Jennings Bryan, never managed to get it together and win a presidency, and they faded after 1896. Which brings us to the Progressive Era, which we’ll get into next week!
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course: US History, and today we’re going to continue
our look at the Gilded Age by focusing on political science.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green, so it’s another history class where we don’t actually talk about
history? Oh, Me From the Past, your insistence on trying
to place academic exploration into little boxes creates a little box that you yourself
will live in for the rest of your life if you don’t put your interdisciplinary party
hat on. So the Gilded Age takes its name from a book
by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that was called The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
It was published in 1873 and it was not that successful, but while The Gilded Age conjures
up visions of fancy parties and ostentatious displays of wealth, the book itself was about
politics, and it gives a very negative appraisal of the state of American democracy at the
time. Which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise
coming from Twain, whose comments about Congress included, “Suppose you were an idiot. And
suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
And also, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly
Native American criminal class except Congress.” So when faced with the significant changes
taking place in the American economy after the Civil War, America’s political system
both nationally and locally dealt with these problems in the best way possible: by becoming
incredibly corrupt. intro
Stan says I have to take off my party hat. Rrrr rrrr rrrrr….
So House Speaker Tip O’Neill once famously said that all politics is local and although
that’s not actually true, I am going to start with local politics today, specifically
with one of America’s greatest inventions, the urban political machine.
So a political machine is basically an organization that works to win elections so that it can
exercise power. The most famous political machine was New York City’s Tammany Hall,
which dominated Democratic party politics in the late 19th century, survived until the
20th, and is keenly associated with corruption. Oh, it’s already time for the Mystery Document?
This is highly unorthodox, Stan. Well, the rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the Mystery Document. I’m usually wrong and I get shocked with
the shock pen. Alright, let’s see what we’ve got here.
“My party’s in power in the city, and it’s going to undertake a lot of public
improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park
at a certain place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board
of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody
cared particular for before. Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit
on my investment and foresight. Of course it is. That’s honest graft.”
Stan, I know this one. It’s about machine politics. It’s from New York. It doesn’t
say it’s from New York, but it is because it is George Plunkitt. Yes! How do you like
them apples? Oh, you wanna know the name of the book? It’s
“Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.” Stan, transition me back to the desk with a Libertage, please.
Plunkitt became famous for writing a book describing the way that New York City’s
government actually worked, but he was a small fish compared with the most famous shark-like
machine politician of the day, William “Boss” Tweed, seen here with a head made of money.
“Boss” Tweed basically ran New York in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and his greatest
feat of swindling helps explain how the machine system worked.
It revolved around the then-new County Courthouse that now houses the New York City Department
of Education. Building the courthouse was initially estimated
to cost around $250,000, but ended up costing $13 million by the time it was finished in
1871. Included in that cost was a bill of $180,000
for three tables and forty chairs, $1.5 million for lighting fixtures, and $41,000 for brooms
and cleaning supplies. A plasterer received $500,000 for his initial
job and then $1 million to repair his shoddy work.
The standard kickback in these situations was that Tammany Hall received two dollars
for every one dollar received by the contractor. That may seem like a bad deal for contractors,
but remember: That plasterer still got to keep half a million dollars, which is worth
about $9 million in today’s money. Now of course that makes it sound like political
machines were pure evil, especially if you were a taxpayer footing the bill for that
courthouse. But machines also provided valuable services
to immigrants and other poor people in cities. As Plunkitt explained, Tammany could help
families in need: “I don’t ask whether they are Republicans
or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would
investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the
time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them
if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up until they get things running again.”
In return for this help, Tammany expected votes so that they could stay in power. Staying
in power meant control of city jobs as well as city contracts. Plunkitt claimed to know
“every big employer in the district – and in the whole city, for that matter — and
they ain’t in the habit of saying no to me when I ask them for a job.”
But with all the corruption, sometimes even that wasn’t enough. Fortunately Tammany
politicians could always fall back on fraud. Tammany found bearded men to vote, then took
them to the barber to shave off the beard, but left the moustache, so that they could
vote a second time. And then, they would shave off the ‘stache so they could vote for a
third. And then of course, there was always violence
and intimidation. By the end of the century a Tammany regular lamented the good old days
when, “It was wonderful to see my men slug the opposition to preserve the sanctity of
the ballot.” But, corruption wasn’t limited to big cities
like New York and Chicago. Some of the biggest boondoggles involved the United States Congress
and the executive branch under president Ulysses Grant.
The first big scandal, dubbed the “King of Frauds” by the New York Sun, involved
Credit Mobilier, the construction company that did most of the road building for the
Union Pacific Railroad. This two pronged accusation involved, first:
overcharging the public for construction costs and siphoning off profits to Credit Mobilier,
and second: bribery of Congressmen. Now, this second charge was, of course, much
juicier and also more partisan because only Republican congressmen, including the Speaker
of the House, were implicated in it. Eventually Massachusetts Congressman Oakes
Ames was found guilty of giving bribes, but no one was ever found guilty of receiving
those bribes. As you can imagine, that did wonders for the reputation of Congress.
The second major scandal involved the so-called Whiskey Ring, which was a group of distillers
in St. Louis who decided that they didn’t like paying excise taxes on their product,
perhaps a slightly more noble cause than that of the 2009 Bling Ring, who just wanted to
dress like Paris Hilton. John McDonald, a Grant administration official,
helped distillers reduce their taxes by intentionally undercounting the number of kegs of booze.
But then in 1875, the tax evasion grew out of control. And McDonald eventually confessed
and was convicted, thereby tainting the presidency with corruption just as Credit Mobilier had
tainted Congress. That leaves the Supreme Court untainted, but
don’t worry, the Dred Scott decision is worth at least, like, eighty years of tainting.
So with all this distrust in government, after Grant served two terms, presidential elections
featured a series of one-termers: Hayes, Garfield (whose term was filled out by Chester Arthur
after Garfield was assassinated), Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and then Cleveland again.
McKinley, who was elected twice, but then he was assassinated.
As for their parties, Gilded Age Republicans favored high tariffs, low government spending,
paying off national debt and reducing the amount of paper money – or greenbacks – in
circulation. Democrats opposed the tariffs and were often linked to New York bankers
and financiers. In short, both parties were pro-business,
but they were pro-different-businesses. Despite that and the widespread corruption,
some national reform legislation actually did get passed in the Gilded Age.
The Civil Service Act of 1883 – prompted by Garfield’s assassination by a disgruntled
office seeker – created a merit system for 10% of federal employees, who were chosen
by competitive examination rather than political favoritism.
But, this had an unintended effect. It made American politicians much more dependent on
donations from big business rather than small donations from grateful political appointees,
but, you know, nice idea. And then in 1890 the Sherman Anti-Trust act
forbade combinations and practices that restrained trade, but again it was almost impossible
to enforce this against the monopolies like U.S. Steel.
More often it was used against labor unions, which were seen to restrain trade in their
radical lobbying for, like, health insurance and hard hats.
But all in all the national Congress was pretty dysfunctional at the end of the 19th century,
stop me if that sounds familiar. So state governments expanded their responsibility
for public health and welfare. Cities invested in public works, like transportation, and
gas, and later, electricity, and the movement to provide public education continued.
Some northern states even passed laws limiting the workday to 8 hours. “What is this, France?”
is what courts would often say when striking those laws down.
Reform legislation was less developed in the South, but they were busy rolling back reconstruction
and creating laws that limited the civil rights of African Americans, known as Jim Crow Laws.
In the west, farmers became politically motivated over the issue of freight rates. Wait, are
we talking about railroads? Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble.
In the 1870s, farmers formed the Grange movement to put pressure on state governments to establish
fair railroad rates and warehouse charges. Railroads in particular tended to be pretty
monopolistic: They owned the track going through town, after all, so it was hard for farmers
to negotiate fair shipping prices. The Grange Movement eventually became the Farmer’s
Alliance movement, which also pushed for economic cooperation to raise prices, but was split
into Northern and Southern wings that could never really get it together. The biggest
idea to come out of the Farmers Alliance was the subtreasury plan. Under this plan, farmers
would store grain in government warehouses and get low-rate government loans to buy seed
and equipment, using the stored grain as collateral. This would allow farmers to bypass the banks
who increasingly came to be seen, along with the railroads, as the source of all the farmers’
troubles. Eventually these politically motivated farmers
and their supporters grew into a political party, the People’s Party or Populists.
In 1892 they held a convention in Omaha and put forth a remarkably reform minded plan,
particularly given that this was put forth in Omaha, which included:
The Sub-Treasury Plan, (which didn’t exactly happen, although the deal farmers ended up
with was probably better for them) Government Ownership of Railroads (which sort of happened,
if you count Amtrak) Graduated Income Tax (which did happen, after
the passage of the 16th amendment) Government Control of the Currency (which
happened with the creation of the Federal Reserve System)
Recognition of the Rights of Laborers to Form Unions (which happened both at the state and
federal level) and Free Coinage of Silver to produce more
money, which we’ll get to in a second The People’s Party attempted to appeal to
a broad coalition of “producing classes” especially miners and industrial workers,
and it was particularly successful with those groups in Colorado and Idaho. As the preamble
to the party platform put it:
“Corruption dominates the ballot box, the Legislatures, the congress and touches even
the ermine of the bench … From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we
breed the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.”
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, some western states were so Populist, they even granted women
the right to vote in the 1890s, which added tremendously to the Populist’s electoral
power. But most American voters stuck with the two
main parties. Industrial workers never really joined in large numbers because the Populist
calls for free coinage of silver would lead to inflation, especially in food prices, and
that would hurt urban laborers. But if it hadn’t been for that threat of
silver inflation, we might have three major political parties in the U.S. today. Or at
least two different ones. Stupid inflation, always ruining everything.
Populist leaders also struggled to unify because racism.
Some Populist leaders, like Tom Watson, argued that black and white poor farmers were in
the same boat, but Southern populists were not inclined to take up the fight against
segregation, and even Watson himself later began spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric.
But, in the halcyon Populist days of 1892, their presidential candidate, James Weaver,
gained 1 million votes as a third party candidate. He carried 5 western states and got 22 electoral
votes, which is better than Mondale did. But the best known Populist candidate was
actually the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan, who once spoke of America as being crucified on a cross of gold, firmly supported
free coinage of silver in the hopes that increasing the amount of money in circulation would raise
prices for farmers and make it easier for people to pay off their debts.
Williams Jennings Bryan is probably better known for the anti-evolution stance he took
in the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” where he was up against none other than Clarence
Darrow. But he did almost become president. So, the
Populists were really wary of Bryan as a Democrat, because they feared that their ideas would
be reduced to simply “free silver,” but they voted for him anyway.
But Bryan still lost the 1896 election to William McKinley in what has become known
as the first modern political campaign, because the business classes gave McKinley’s campaign
an unprecedented $10 million. Which these days will buy you nine ads in
Iowa. But back then, it won you an entire presidential election. He won the electoral
college in a landslide 271-176. Bryan’s defeat in 1896 effectively put an
end to the Populist Party. The corruption in government, both federal and local, continued,
and new journalists called Muckrakers began exposing it in the press.
Even though they were defeated at the polls, Populist ideas, especially direct election
of senators and a progressive income tax, quickly became mainstream.
Now, these days we don’t necessarily associate those ideas with Populists, which suggests
that maybe they were right to worry about hitching their wagon to Bryan’s star.
But in the end, would you rather have your name survive or see your ideas enacted?
But of course many of the problems that the Populists were concerned with persisted, as
did the scourge of Jim Crow. We’ll discuss those next week when we look at the Progressive
Era. Thanks for watching. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and
myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Okay, I’ll make the transition, but I think
you’ll want to keep filming this. Every week there’s a new caption for the Libertage.
If you’d like to suggest one in comments, you can do so where you can also ask questions
about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thank you for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video