Overview of Gilded Age Politics Prior to Reform


During the Gilded Age, the government was dominated by corruption in the forms of graft, the spoils system, and bribery. The trusts owned and operated the federal government to ensure the government would promote the unrestricted expansion of big business and continue to disregard the general welfare of the people. In most of the presidential elections from 1868 to 1896, neither major party took a strong stance on any issue, yet these elections drew remarkably high voter turnouts. During this time, both parties sought to gain the presidency simply so their President could distribute desirable federal jobs to the party loyal. Corrupt party patrons exploited their powers granted by these jobs in order to supplement their income with bribes and graft. To combat these gross injustices, Progressive Politicians emerged and called for significant reforms to the existing systems of government, most of which had the intention of restoring the powers of government to the the people, and to ensure that federal jobs would always be in the hands of the most capable. These political reformers worked to reform the politics Gilded Age, and unlike the far more radical populists, they achieved many significant victories.

The Quest for Political Reform

Graphic Organizer of Political Reform in the Gilded Age

THESIS: The Progressive Political Reformers successfully fought to reform politics by breaking the power of political machines and national parties, to reform U.S. society by distributing the powers of the government to the people, and to reform the economy of the U.S. by breaking the oppressive control of trusts over the common man and the U.S. government.

Power to the People: Breaking the Hold of the Political Machine and the National PartiesBossWilliamTweed.jpg

The most well known of the political machine bosses during the gilded age was Boss William Marcy Tweed of New York City's Tammany Hall. Tweed's machine was incredibly corrupt, and its leaders made fortunes from graft while dominating the city's politics, but because of their activities in helping recent immigrants acclimate to America, the leaders of Tammany Hall were reelected time and again to prominent positions in city government. They made money by starting projects and claiming they used far more money than was actually necessary to complete the project, and keeping the difference. This system produced a number of significant improvements in the city, such as bridges, tenements, and a courthouse, but it was horribly innefficient and exploitative.

Therefore, it was a major goal of political reformers to break the power of these machines, and restore integrity to the politics of governing America's cities. The man who played the biggest role in taking down Boss Tweed, was interestingly enough, a cartoonist named Thomas Nast. Nast's cartoons communicated even to the masses of illiterate immigrants who comprised Tweed's constituency that his government was corrupt, and that he was making a fortune in robbing them of their meager earnings. Tweed was soon ruined, never to return to prominence in politics again.BossTweedCartoon.jpg


Another key progressive political reformer was Robert La Follette, who fought to break the hold of national political parties and corrupt political machines through reforms such as the initiative and referendum, direct primary elections, and direct election of senators.

Robert LaFollette and the "Wisconsin Experiment"RobertLaFollette.jpg

Robert LaFollette was the governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906. He was a strong fighter for the destruction of the corruption that had plagued public office during the Gilded Age. He soon became nick named "Fighting Bob" LaFollette. During his time as governor, he constructed what is now called the "Wisconsin Experiment". This was essentially a name for all the changes Lafollete made while in office to counteract the corruption and negligence of present politics.

One major change was his "hands on" approach to goverment. A change to the laissez faire goverment of the Gilded Age, the progressive approach to goverment involved monitering company acctions, regulation of public utilities, and legislation for worker's saftey and for the workers in general. His greatest accomplishment was his use of his own personal magnetism and charisma to popularize the progressive agenda throughout Wisconsin, and even nationally to some extent. Like all progressives, he deftly used professionals and scientific process to carry out his reform agenda.

His most noteworthy reforms in the area of breaking party and machine rule included:
  1. The establishment of direct primary elections
  2. The utilization of the initiative and referendum (recall has more to do with curbing patronage), each of which originated in a western state
  3. The establishment of direct elections of senators (nationally mandated later by the 17th amendment)
  4. The adoption of a state income tax (also nationally introduced in 1913 by the 16th amendment)
  5. Setting up commissions to regulate public utilities

The 16th and 17th Amendments

These two amendments represented national support of two of the reforms La Follette had been one of the first to champion. The 16th Amendment established a federal income tax, which was designed to make the rich pay a larger portion of their income, and thereby weaken their ironclad grip on the U.S. economy and the governments of its people. It represented the idea of "soaking the rich," as the video below summarizes.

The 17th Amendment mandated the direct election of senators, which prevented political machines and corporations in the states from manipulating the state legislatures into electing senators that would only act on behalf of the political machines and their benefactors.

The Significance and Causes for the 16th and 17th Amendments:

Secret (Australian) Ballot

The Secret Ballot was widely introduced to states to break the grip of parties and machines on the votes of the common man.The Australian Ballot is referred to as such because that type of ballot was introduced into Australian politics in 1856. While this was definitely not the first usage of a secret ballot (such a ballot was used in Ancient Greece and Rome), it was regarded as a step forward in modern politics because of its insurance of voter protection. Reformers during the Gilded Age supported the Australian Ballot as it made it hard for political machines and national parties to monitor the votes of their constituents. The secret ballots prevented members of the major parties and political machines from intimidating or bribing voters in order to gain their support, as well as preventing them from distributing pre-filled out ballots to their constituents. Unfortunately, it also prevented some of the illiterate immigrants from being able to vote, as they had no machine giving them the correctly filled out ballot.

The Commission System Galveston.png

In September of 1900, a tidal wave devastated the city of Galveston, Texas. In response, control of the city was taken away from the existing political machine, and placed into the hands of 5 city commissioners, 2 who were elected and 3 who were appointed, to be responsible for the repair, maintenence, and control of the city. In addition to the 5 commissioners, a full-time city manager was hired to oversee the process of governing the city. This setup became known as the commission system. The commission system was adopted by many American cities to curb the power of political machines in hopes that cities could be run more efficiently and without corruption. The popularity and effectiveness of the system led to the its adoption in 400 cities within 20 years. Although there were benefits of the commission system, there were some setbacks as well. The working class and immigrant groups were once again left out of the political process as political machines who once advocated for them were removed, The commission system was unquestionably efficient, but it could be somewhat undemocratic as well; this efficiency was essential for the destruction of political machines, but left many citizens out of the desicion making process. The commission system was later replaced by the city manager system in many places due to its checks and balances of power and its general effectiveness. Regardless of the negatives of the system, the commission system achieved its goal of cutting down on political machines' power and worked successfully against corruption for the good of the people.

Political Machines, Good and Bad

honest Republican voter.jpg
honest Republican voter.jpg

Political Machines were seen as a corrupt form of goverment, as people like Boss Tweed and places like Tammany Hall gave them a national reputation for unparalleled corruption. However, contrary to popular view, not all political machines were used for corruption. An example of a political machine being used for the public good, without greed, and for the spread of progressive ideals, was Robert La Follette's political machine used in the "Wisconsin Experiment". La Follette used a political machine in the sense that he enlisted the help of a bureau of professionals and a large group of politicians under under his own command to work towards a political goal. Besides their similar approach to politics, Tweed and La Follete were completely different. La Follette used his political power to advocate for the common man by passing key progressive legislation; Tweed used his power mostly for greed and personal monetary gain. However, while the contrast between good and bad can be seen between two different political machines, it can also be seen within a single political machine. Despite the greed and corruption of Tammany Hall, it gave both opportunities and a voice to New York immigrants. For years immigrants had had little control over their economic and political standing, but Tammany Hall helped these immigrants survive where the federal government failed to to so. All Tammany Hall politicians had asked for in return were their votes. Though the City Commission System and City Manager System were both more efficient and less corrupt than the governments of the political machines, they depended far less upon the participation of the common man in government, than upon the acts of a select few professionals and businessmen.

Death to Spoils: Reforming the Civil Services of the U.S.

The Republican party itself was sharply divided on the grounds of party patronage. On one side, the Stalwarts supported the spoils system as managed by former president Ulysses S. Grant, and were led by Senator Roscoe Conkling. On the other side, the Halfbreeds supported political reform and an end to the spoils system, and were led by Senator James G. Blaine. The Mugwumps, meanwhile, refused to play the patronage game at all, and were eventually absorbed into the more reform-minded Democratic party. When President James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled party patron, the reform minded Republicans prevailed with the passage of he Pendleton Act (1883), which would eventually end the patronage game by instituting Civil Service Examinations as a means for assigning public service jobs. This gradually switched the primary criterion for civil service jobs from party involvement to prior experience and professional aptitude.

Garfield Assassination

The Recall and the Direct Primary

These two popular progressive reforms were almost as important as the Pendleton Act in ensuring that government jobs went to the most competent candidates. The recall allowed the citizens of states which instituted it to remove from office any elected official whom they believed wasn't doing an effective job. The Direct Primary forced the National political parties to nominate candidates who would appeal to the common supporters of the party, rather than just the party leaders themselves, or the delegates at their conventions. This made it more likely that the parties would nominate a candidate who would most effectively represent the interests of a majority of the party's supporters, rather than one who would only represent the interests of the most powerful party members. Like most political reforms of the era, these two put more power in the hands of the people to choose their own leaders, and ensure that they continue to do their job well once elected.

The Initiative, Referendum, and Recall:

Protecting America from Corporate Domination:

While this is more the subject of "Regulating the Trusts," it is important to note the acts of certain reformers who were instrumental in loosening the grip of trusts on American Politics:

  1. Hiram Johnson (CA) - fought to regulate the Southern Pacific Railroad and break its grip over the Southern California government and economy
  2. Charles Evan Hughes (NY) - investigated the unethical business practices of the gas and insurance companines and the coal trust
  3. Woodrow Wilson (NJ) - As governor of New Jersey, led a series of significant political reforms, turning New Jersey into one of the nation's most liberal states -- as president he became a champion of reforms including the 16th and 17th amendments, and later the 18th and 19th (not strictly political) - he was essentially at the head of the Democratic Progressive movement

Lasting Effects of Reform:

  • Today, the Patronage Game plays a much less prominent role in politics; most federal civil service jobs continue to be awarded based on performance on competitive Civil Service Examinations
  • Political Machines such as Tammany Hall would never be allowed to exist today, largely because of the pace and relentlessness of the investigative media of today. Such a prominent display of government corruption would be hard to recreate today, especially in New York
  • It is a very real issue whether corporations have too much power in government; the Supreme Court's ruling allowing unlimited campaign contributions from corporations raises the question, "Who is really in charge of the government of America?"
  • Overall, people are much more conscious of corruption in government today, and this improvement can be at least partially attributed to these political reforms of the Progressive Era