Modern history

National Politics in the Era of Industrialization

Politicians such as John Sherman played an important role in the expanding industrial economy that provided new opportunities for the wealthy and the expanding middle class. For growing companies and corporations to succeed, they needed a favorable political climate that would support their interests. Businessmen frequently looked to Washington for assistance at a time when politicians were held in low repute. During this era, the office of the president was a weak and largely administrative post, and corporate leaders were unconcerned with the quality of the mind and character of presidents, legislators, and judges so long as these officials furthered their economic objectives. For much of this period, the two national political parties battled to a standoff, which resulted in congressional gridlock with little accomplished. Yet spurred by fierce partisan competition, political participation grew among the electorate.

Why Great Men Did Not Become President

James Bryce, a British observer of American politics, devoted a chapter of his book The American Commonwealth (1888) to “why great men are not chosen presidents.” He acknowledged that the office of president “is raised far above all other offices [and] offers too great a stimulation to ambition.” Yet he believed that the White House attracted mediocre occupants because the president functioned mainly as an executor. The stature of the office had shrunk following the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the reassertion of congressional power during Reconstruction (see chapter 14). Presidents considered themselves mainly as the nation’s top administrator. They did not see their roles as formulating policy or intervening on behalf of legislative objectives. Presidents had only a small White House staff to assist them, which reflected the meager demands placed on their office, especially in times of peace, which prevailed until 1898. The Civil Service Act of 1883 had reduced even further the political patronage the president had at his disposal. With the office held in such low regard, Bryce asserted, “most of the ablest men for thought, planning, and execution in America, go into the business of developing the national resources of the country.” During the Age of Organization, great men became corporate leaders, not presidents.

Perhaps aware that they could expect little in the way of assistance or imagination from national leaders, voters refused to give either Democrats or Republicans solid support. No president between Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley won back-to- back elections or received a majority of the popular vote. The only two-time winner, the Democrat Grover Cleveland, lost his bid for reelection in 1888 before triumphing again in 1892. Republicans scored victories in four out of six presidential contests from 1876 to 1896, but the vote tallies were extremely close.

Nevertheless, the presidency attracted accomplished individuals. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877—1881), James A. Garfield (1881), and Benjamin Harrison (1889—1893) all had served ably in the Union army as commanding officers during the Civil War and had prior political experience. The nation greatly mourned Garfield following his assassination in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled applicant for federal patronage. Upon Garfield’s death, Chester A. Arthur (1881—1885) became president. He had served as a quartermaster general during the Civil War, had a reputation as sympathetic to African American civil rights, and had run the New York City Customs House effectively. Grover Cleveland (1885—1889, 1893—1897) first served as mayor of Buffalo and then as governor of New York. All of these men, as even Bryce admitted, worked hard, possessed common sense, and were honest. However, they were uninspiring individuals who lacked qualities of leadership that would arouse others to action.

Congressional inaction

Character alone did not diminish the power of the president. More important was the structure of Congress, which prevented the president from providing vigorous leadership. Throughout most of this period, Congress remained narrowly divided. Majorities continually shifted from one party to the other. For all but two terms, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, while Republicans held the majority in the Senate. Divided government meant that during his term in office no late-nineteenth- century president had a majority of his party in both houses of Congress. Turnover among congressmen in the House of Representatives, who were elected every two years, was quite high, and there was little power of incumbency. For example, of the twenty- one congressmen from Ohio elected in 1882, only ten had served in the previous session, and only four of the ten won reelection two years later. The Senate, however, provided more continuity and allowed senators, with six-year terms of office, to amass greater power than congressmen could, as evidenced by John Sherman serving six terms in the upper chamber.

For all the power that Congress wielded, it failed to govern effectively or efficiently. Contemporary observers lamented the dismal state of affairs in the nation’s capital. A cabinet officer in 1869 complained: “You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!”

Although both the House and the Senate contained men of great talent, fine speaking ability, and clever legislative minds, the rules of each body turned orderly procedure into chaos. In the House, measures did not receive adequate attention on the floor because the Speaker did not have the power to control the flow of systematic debate. Committee chairmen held a tight rein over the introduction and consideration of legislation and competed with one another for influence in the chamber. Congressmen showed little decorum as they conducted business on the House floor. Representatives chatted with each other, their voices drowning out the speakers at the podium, or they ignored the business at hand and instead answered correspondence and read newspapers.

The Senate, though more manageable in size and more stable in membership (only one-third of its membership stood for reelection every two years), did not function much more smoothly. Despite party affiliations, senators thought very highly of their own judgments and very little of the value of party unity. The position of majority leader, someone who could impose discipline on his colleagues and design a coherent legislative agenda, had not yet been created. An exasperated Woodrow Wilson, who favored the British system of parliamentary government, attributed the problem to the failure to place trust in somebody “to assume final responsibility and blame.” Wilson, the author of Congressional Government (1885) and a future president, concluded: “Our government is defective as it parcels out power and confuses responsibility.” Under these circumstances, neither the president nor Congress governed efficiently or responsibly.

An Energized and Entertained Electorate

Despite all the difficulties of the legislative process, political candidates eagerly pursued office and conducted extremely heated campaigns. The electorate considered politics a form of entertainment. Political parties did not stand for clearly stated issues or offer innovative solutions; instead, campaigns took on the qualities of carefully staged performances. Candidates crafted their oratory to arouse the passions and prejudices of their audiences, and their managers handed out buttons, badges, and ceramic and glass plates stamped with the candidates’ faces and slogans.

Partisanship helped fuel high political participation. During this period, voter turnout in presidential elections was much higher than at any time in the twentieth century. Region, as well as historical and cultural allegiances, replaced ideology as the key to party affiliation. The wrenching experience of the Civil War had cemented voting loyalties for many Americans. After Reconstruction, white southerners tended to vote Democratic; northerners and newly enfranchised southern blacks generally voted Republican. However, geographic region alone did not shape political loyalties; a sizable contingent of Democratic voters remained in the North, and southern whites and blacks periodically abandoned both the Democratic and Republican parties to vote for third parties.

Religion played an important role in shaping party loyalties during this period of intense partisanship. The Democratic Party tended to attract Protestants of certain sects, such as German Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well as Catholics. These faiths emphasized religious ritual and the acceptance of personal sin. They believed that the government should not interfere in matters of morality, which should remain the province of Christian supervision on Earth and divine judgment in the hereafter. By contrast, other Protestant denominations, such as Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, highlighted the importance of individual will and believed that the law could be shaped to eradicate ignorance and vice. These Protestants were more likely to cast their ballots for Republicans, except in the South, where regional loyalty to the Democratic Party trumped religious affiliation.

1892 Presidential Campaign Plate Before radio, television, and the Internet, political parties advertised candidates in a variety of colorful ways, including banners, buttons, ribbons, and ceramic and glass plates. Voters, who turned out in record numbers during the late nineteenth century, coveted these items. This plate shows the 1892 Democratic presidential ticket of Grover Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson, who lost the election. Collection of steven F. Lawson

Some people went to the polls because they fiercely disliked members of the opposition party. Northern white workers in New York City or Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, might vote against the Republican Party because they viewed it as the party of African Americans. Other voters cast their ballots against Democrats because they identified them as the party of Irish Catholics, intemperance, and secession.

Although political parties commanded fierce loyalties, the parties remained divided internally. For example, the Republicans pitted “Stalwarts” against “Half Breeds.” Led by Senators Roscoe Conkling and Chester Arthur of New York, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and John Logan of Illinois, the Stalwarts presented themselves as the “Old Guard” of the Republican Party, what they called the “Grand Old Party” (GOP). The Half Breeds, a snide name given to them by the Stalwarts, tended to be younger Republicans and were represented by Senators James G. Blaine, John Sherman, and James A. Garfield of Ohio and George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts. This faction claimed to be more open to new ideas and less wedded to the old causes that the Republican Party promoted, such as racial equality. In the end, however, the differences between the two groups had less to do with ideas than with which faction would have greater power within the Republican Party.

Overall, the continuing strength of party loyalties produced equilibrium as voters cast their ballots primarily along strict party lines. The outcome of presidential elections depended on key “undecided” districts in several states in the Midwest and in New York and nearby states, which swung the balance of power in the electoral college. Indeed, from 1876 to 1896 all winning candidates for president and vice president came from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey.


• What accounted for the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the federal government in the late nineteenth century?

• How would you explain the high rates of voter turnout and political participation in an era of uninspiring politicians and governmental inaction?

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