Gilded Age

Alexander Nicoll

Gilded Age

The Gilded age: The term was coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), satirizing what they believed to be an era of serious social problems disguised by a thin gold gilding. From the outside America seemed prosperous but in the country, internal problems ensued. Gilding means to cover a rough base with a layer of gold to seem grandiose but in fact was fake.

The Gilded Age was an era of enormous growth, especially in the North and West. This attracted millions of immigrants from Europe and was the first time America saw immigrants from Eastern Europe. However, the Gilded Age was also an era of enormous poverty. The average annual income for most families was $380, well below the poverty line. While few people rose to economic wealth, the majority remained poor and the gap between the rich and the poor were at an all-time high. Labor unions erupted throughout America in response to corruption and scandals in politics and the business sector. Railroads were the major industry, but the factory system, mining, and labor unions also increased in importance. Two major nationwide depressions known as the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893 interrupted growth.

Bloody Shirt Campaign

Grant had remained a popular Civil War hero, and the Republicans continued to wave the "bloody shirt" as a patriotic symbol representing the North and their success in the Civil War. People were still wary of politicians in the age of Reconstruction because of Andrew Johnson and believed a military leader would best serve as president. The Republicans favored high tariffs and a continuation of radical Reconstruction policies that supported five military districts in the Southern states. Grant also favored amnesty to former Confederate soldiers like the Liberal Republicans. The election season degenerated into the opposing sides launching vicious personal attacks on the opposition candidate. Seymour, who was the governor of New York City, was accused of being in cahoots with the hated Irish immigrants and racial terrorists like The Ku Klux Klan. Grant had served heroically in the Union Army and had been wounded several times. And the Republicans continually reminded the voters that Grant had participated in the war, a tactic sharply criticized by Democrats as “waving the bloody shirt", which kept the prejudices of the Civil War alive.


As America began to prosper during the Gilded Age corruption in politics and the economy was rampant. Grant’s presidency is tainted with multiple examples of back-hand dealings and immoral practices. To his credit he oversaw the Whiskey Scandal, the Credit Mobilier dilemma, Gould and Fisk’s Black Friday, and even his own Secretary of War William Belknap’s bribe-taking to annex the Dominican Republic. The largest scandal at the time would be the Tammany Hall political machine and “Boss” Tweed. Tweed and the rest of his political advisors stole an estimated $200 million from the city of New York through kickbacks and bribes. The most employed method by Tweed was to hire architects to build government buildings but invoice the city double the price it should have been. Tweed paid the actual cost out of pocket and kept the extra cash from the city for himself. He escaped prosecution mostly because he did give back to the city through welfare programs for widows, orphans, the poor, the aged, the sick and the unemployed. However in 1871 the New York Times found sufficient evidence to convict him for misuse of public funds. Moreover, a political cartoonist Thomas Nast could be credited more for his capture. His depictions of Tweed as a greedy giant allowed mainly immigrants who did not understand English or the illiterate to understand what Tweed did. After Tweed fled to Spain he was deported back to America after officials recognized him from Nast’s drawings. He was later prosecuted by Samuel Tilden and died in prison. Corrupt business practices were also employed. A popular scheme that the board of directors of Union Pacific Railroad and Credit Mobilier utilized was to build a dummy company, create an interlocking directorate, and transfer funds from one company to the other bankrupting one. Monopolies and trusts also were rampant. John D. Rockefeller is famous for perfecting the trust which is where two companies would consolidate. The problem with monopolies and trusts were that it did not allow any competition meaning companies could raise prices. In response, the government took steps to prevent this by signing into law the Sherman Anti-Trust Act even though it was not that effective.

Compromise of 1877

The Compromise of 1877 arose to settle the 1876 Election. With disputed results from the states of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana and no party budging on who won a special committee of 5 Senators, Representatives, and Judges from the Supreme Court dealt with the dispute after passing the Electoral Count Act. The Republicans pulled out an 8-7 victory over the Democrats but it was solidified by a secret agreement between the two sides. The Republicans would abandon the remaining military governments in Louisiana and South Carolina and would withdraw troops. The Democrats would allow Hayes the presidency and honor free slaves' rights. It ended the Reconstruction era and pulled federal troops out of state politics in the south. The decision was made by the Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives allowing the decision of the Electoral Commision. Grant moved the troops out of Florida before leaving office and Hayes took out the remaining from South Carolina and Louisiana.