Gilded Age

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What is it?

The Gilded Age, a sarcastic term coined by Mark Twain in 1873, defines a three-decade-long post Civil War era where politics were unstable and unpredictable yet America was viewed as the land of "milk and honey" due to what people perceived as an economically flourishing nation. The term "gilded" meaning to have an item of lesser value coated in gold to look expensive, described this era for America accurately. While there were signs of economic boom and industrial innovations, there was also an underlying problem of political corruption. Additionally, there was never a particular party that remained in control and power often fluctuated between parties. For example, from 1869 to 1891, the majority party in the House of Representatives switched six times. However, despite these political inconsistencies, the Democrats and Republicans agreed on many economical decisions such as the tariffs, civil-service reform, and currency.


Grant and the "Bloody Shirt" Campaign

Despite his lack of political background, Grant initially held the title of the most popular Northern hero to emerge in the election of 1868. Grant continued to win the favor of the Northerners by the Republican's platform to reconstruct the South under federal control and even further when he adopted the slogan, "Let us have peace." Through their support for Grant, the Republicans excitedly "waved the bloody shirt" as their main source of political propaganda in honor of their victory in the Civil War. Grant won the election with 214 electoral votes against 80 votes for his Democratic opponent, Horatio Seymour.


Corruption During the Gilded Age

Overall, the corruption of the Gilded Age was extensive- not just politically, but socially as well. About 27 million immigrants came to the United States from the year 1880-1930 and discrimination was a prime issue during this time. Immigrants- such as Jews, Irish, Italians, and Chinese- were essentially cast out and accused of stealing jobs from American workers. Therefore, they suffered from low paying jobs, horrible living conditions in tenements, exclusion from the political process, and overall mistreatment.


Additionally, the Gilded Age reflected a time of political corruption as well. William "Boss" Tweed traded jobs, housing, and other important items in return for immigrant votes- a method called the "Spoil System." Political leaders would promise individuals political positions in the city in exchange for their vote. Tweed also gained power through kickbacks. He promised immigrants that he would build them a new tenement in return for their support. Once he had reached a position of political power in the city, he sought out funding for the construction project. In doing so, Tweed made money off of some of the project in exchange for hiring a certain company to construct the tenement. However, Tweed is not legally allowed to directly pocket the money, so he earned it by telling the company to simply pay him themselves. Essentially, Tweed found a way to steal from the city without making it look like a theft.



Tweed's scams were exposed when the New York Times posted an article about his deals. However, immigrants continued to vote for Tweed because they were not able to read the newspaper. Therefore, Thomas Nast drew cartoons for the New York Times highlighting tweed's bribed and he lost the support of immigrants.


Thomas Nast Cartoon Examples

Compromise of 1877

The election of 1876 resulted in very close results between Republican candidate Hayes and Democrat Tilden followed by controversy breaking out in Congress. In order to attain office, Republican allies met secretly with Democrats and formed the Compromise of 1877. In exchange for federal troops being withdrawn from the South, Democrats agreed to let Hayes take office. This exchange allowed Democrats to re-gain control in the South along with Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana becoming Democratic states again. Additionally, the Compromise of 1877 ended the Reconstruction Era.


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