The Gilded Age

Part A: Definition

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Gilded Age Era

This term had several connotations and is metaphoric on several levels. Unlike “golden,” which has positive associations of beauty and value, the word “gilded” carries connotations of cheap commercialization, shoddiness, and fakery. It suggested a fascination with gold, wealth, and power and it implied that the culture and refinement of something rough and crude was just a veneer. It can be taken to reference an obsession with appearances. “Gilded Age” also suggests a fascination with gold itself and with the wealth and power that gold symbolizes. All of these applied to many aspects of the nation's character.


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Part B: Election of Grant

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Election of Grant and the "Bloody Shirt" campaign

The notion still prevailed that a good general would make a good president. General Grant, the most popular Northern hero to emerge from the war, was presented with houses, large checks, and lavish gifts from many northern states in the Union. Grant was a hapless greenhorn in the political arena. He presented himself as a Republican, although his one presidential vote had been cast for the Democratic ticket. His cultural background was narrow, but the Republicans saw past his flaws and enthusiastically nominated Grant for the presidency in 1868. The party's platform sounded a clarion call for continued Reconstruction of the South under the glinting steel of federal bayonets. Though Grant struck a highly popular note when he said, "Let us have peace." This noble statement became a leading campaign slogan.


Wealthy eastern delegates demanded a plank promising that federal war bonds be redeemed in gold, even though many of the bonds had been purchased with depreciated greenbacks. Poorer midwestern delegates promoted the "Ohio Idea,"

which called for redemption in greenbacks. Democrats wanted to keep money in circulation and keep interest rates lower. This dispute introduced a bitter contest over monetary policy that continued to convulse the Republic. The Democrats' nominee Horatio Seymour scuttled the party's faint hope for success by repudiating the Ohio Idea. Republicans whipped for enthusiasm for Grant by energetically "waving the bloody shirt". This revived gory memories of the recent Civil War, which for the first time became a prominent feature of a presidential campaign. "Vote as You Shot" was another powerful Republican slogan.


Grant won the electoral vote and popular vote in the election but the only won the popular vote by 300,000. Most white voters supported Seymour and and estimated 50,000 former slaves gave Grant his margin of victory. To remain in power, the Republican party had to continue to control the South and keep the the ballot in the hands of the grateful freedmen.


Part C: Corruption of Gilded Age

Corrupted politics and people

Although the majority of businesspeople and government officials conducted their affairs with decency and class, the whole postwar atmosphere was fetid with corruption and dishonesty, coming from all different directions. Free-wheeling railroad promoters sometimes left gullible bond buyers with only "two streaks of rust and a right of way." Unscrupulous stock-market manipulators were a cinder in the public eye. Too many judges and legislators put their power up for hire. Cynics defined an honest politician as one who, when bought, would stay bought.



The infamous and corrupt Tweed Ring in New York City clearly displayed the lack of ethics typical of that era. Burly "Boss" Tweed employed bribery, graft, and fraudulent elections to milk the metropolis of as much as $200 million. Honest citizens were cowed into silence. Protesters found their tax assessments raised. Tweed's days or manipulation and unethical scheming finally ran out. The New York Times secured damning evidence in 1871 and courageously published it, though offered $5 million not to do so. Cartoonist Thomas Nast pilloried Tweed mercilessly, after spurning a heavy bribe to desist. Nast attacked "Boss" Tweed in a series of cartoons that appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1972. In one, Nast depicts the corrupt Tweed as a powerful giant, towering over a puny law force. The portly thief apparently claimed that his illiterate followers could not help seeing "them damn pictures." Unbailed and unwept, Tweed died behind bars.

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Part D: Compromise of 1877

What occurred in the compromise of 1877?

Immediately after the presidential election of 1876, it was clear that the outcome of the race hinged largely on disputed returns from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. These were the only three states in the South with Reconstruction-era Republican governments still in power. As a bipartisan congressional commission debated over the outcome early in 1877, allies of the Republican Party candidate Rutherford Hayes met in secret with moderate southern Democrats in order to negotiate acceptance of Hayes' election. The Democrats agreed not to block Hayes' victory if the Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, thus consolidating Democratic control over the region. As a result of the Compromise of 1877, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina became Democratic once again, effectively marking the end of the Reconstruction era.


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