The Gilded Age
Restoring Honest Government
The Gilded Age
A novel written by Mark Twain and Dudley Warner describing post Civil War America. They believed this period in America was extremely corrupt and the title of their book came to describe the entire era. Political corruption was widespread on both a national and local level.
The most corrupt machine in the nation, and the symbol of all corrupt political machines. It was the brainchild of William “Boss” Tweed. Tweed and his cronies stole $200 million from the city of New York.
George Washington Plunkitt stated, “but nobody things of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft.” Plunkitt was referring to the practice of using political insider knowledge to purchase land before a government project started and selling it for a large profit to the government.
Jay Gould with the aid of President Grant’s brother-in-law attempted to corner the gold market. Schuyler Colfax was involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal while he was the Speaker of the House. The scandal happened before Colfax was Vice President but it still tarnished Grant’s administration.
The Spoils System
Government jobs were awarded on the basis of patronage and not ability. The need to change this was the basis for today’s civil service system. Applicants for jobs had to take a standard test and the job went to the person with the highest test scores.
Editor of the New York Tribune. Greely was one of the main proponents of civil service reform. Greely ran as the Liberal Republican candidate against Grant in his bid for reelection. The Democrats, hoping to benefit from the split in the Republican party, supported Greely.
Grant Wins ď Ź
The Liberal Republicans thought the Credit Mobilier scandal would be the deciding factor in the election and that it would allow them to defeat Grant. Grant used his war hero status again and successfully won his bid for re-election for a second term.
Greely was left exhausted and broken after the election. He died three weeks after the election. With his death, hopes for civil service reform seemingly had died with him.
Hope for Reform
Still hoping to make corruption in Grant’s administration a major political issue, the Democrats nominate Samuel J. Tilden as their presidential candidate in 1876. Tilden had won fame as the man who had broken Boss Tweed’s ring in Tammany Hall.
Republican Victory ď Ź
The Republicans responded with their own candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio. Hayes had a good track record of his own for civil service reform in his state.
Hayes angered his own party with his efforts to reform government. The Republican Party split into two groups: –
Stalwarts – those strongly opposed to political reform. They were led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. The Half-breeds – led by James Blaine of Maine, they claimed to support reform but wanted control of the patronage system.
Hayes chose to not run for re-election in 1880. The Half-breeds won the battle in the party’s convention and elected their nominee James A. Garfield to run for President. Garfield’s running mate was Chester A. Arthur – one of Conkling’s allys.
Garfield won a close election. His presidency was short lived. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. Guiteau had wanted a government job. He was mentally deranged. He believed if he assassinated Garfield, it would help advance the cause of the Stalwarts.
Chester A. Arthur
Garfield’s assassination did not have the affect that Guitreau desired. Arthur, while sympathetic to the Stalwart cause, decided to move ahead with a reform program.
President Arthur helped gain passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. The new law created a Civil Service Commission to administer competitive job examinations. It took an important step towards reform as it established the principle that federal jobs below policy making level would be granted on merit.
Critics of the Pendleton Act
Critics argued the law did not do enough. It only covered 10 percent of federal jobs. The other 90 percent was still based on patronage.
Angered by Arthur’s reform efforts, the Republican Party divided once again for the presidential election of 1884. The Stalwarts threw their support behind James Blaine.
The Republican reformers, called Mugwumps (the name came from the Algonquian word for big chiefs), were so angered, they gave their support to the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. Cleveland, like Tilden, had fought Tammany Hall. The election avoided serious discussion of issues and resorted to “mudslinging” tactics.
“A public office is a public trust.” Cleveland was determined to reform the federal government. He doubled the number of federal jobs requiring civil service exams. Like the Republican reformers, Cleveland angered his own party.
President Harrison ď Ź
Cleveland defeated the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison, of Indiana by 100,000 votes in the general election, but lost in the Electoral College. Harrison and his Congress set out to undo as many reforms as possible. They used the patronage system to fill every job that did not have a civil service requirement.
The Billion Dollar Congress
The 1890 Congress spent so much money to reward its supporters it became known as the “Billion Dollar Congress.” Pet projects included civil war pensions and local pet projects of the members of Congress.
Grover Cleveland ď Ź
ď Ź ď Ź
As a interesting side note, Cleveland is the only American President to have served two terms that were not consecutive. Cleveland served his first term in office in 1885-1889. Cleveland served his second term in office in 1893-1897.