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Patronage and Populism: The Politics of the Gilded Age

Primary Source Set

The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain in his 1873 book, The Gilded Age: A Tale for Today. Twain’s phrase uses the practice of gilding, in which a thin sheet of gold leaf is laid over plain metal, as a metaphor to describe how major societal and political problems were hidden with a veneer of respectability during the post-Civil War era. In the Gilded Age, corruption and graft permeated every level of American politics. Campaigns promised patronage and civil service positions in order to win elections and access to infrastructure benefitted corporations over small-scale farmers.

This corruption met various forms of resistance. Backlash to self-serving Gilded Age politicians led to the arrest of New York Democratic Party Boss William Tweed, who controlled votes and appointments. A decade later, Charles Guiteau murdered President James Garfield; Guiteau believed the President owed him a government job as recompense for unsolicited political campaign work. The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry and the Populist Party both rose to national prominence for their fight against railroad conglomerates’ preferential treatment of business allies. Both groups also pushed for bimetallism—backing American currency with both gold and silver—and wanted to put more paper money into circulation.

One of the most active critics of Gilded Age politics was Thomas Nast, a New York political cartoonist best known for creating the elephant and donkey as symbols for the Republican and Democratic parties. Nast’s cartoons spurred citizens’ opposition to corruption throughout the era. By the late 1890s, American politics had moved toward the ideals of Progressivism, which sought to protect social welfare, encourage productivity, ensure morality, and generate economic reform by reinterpreting the United States Constitution as an organic or alterable document.

Additional resources for research

  1. William “Boss” Tweed and the Bitter Days of Tammany Hall, The Bowery Boys podcast.
  2. Thomas Nast Takes Down Tammany: A Cartoonist’s Crusade Against a Political Boss, Museum of the City of New York blog.
  3. People’s Choice: A History of Populism, BackStory Radio Podcast.

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