Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course:
US History, and today we’re going to continue our look at the Gilded Age by focusing on
political science. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, so it’s another history
class where we don’t actually talk about history?
Oh, Me From the Past, your insistence on trying to place academic exploration into little
boxes creates a little box that you yourself will live in for the rest of your life if
you don’t put your interdisciplinary party hat on.
So the Gilded Age takes its name from a book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that
was called The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. It was published in 1873 and it was not that
successful, but while The Gilded Age conjures up visions of fancy parties and ostentatious
displays of wealth, the book itself was about politics, and it gives a very negative appraisal
of the state of American democracy at the time.
Which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise coming from Twain, whose comments about Congress
included, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But
I repeat myself.” And also, “It could probably be shown by
facts and figures that there is no distinctly Native American criminal class except Congress.”
So when faced with the significant changes taking place in the American economy after
the Civil War, America’s political system both nationally and locally dealt with these
problems in the best way possible: by becoming incredibly corrupt.
intro Stan says I have to take off my party hat.
Rrrr rrrr rrrrr…. So House Speaker Tip O’Neill once famously
said that all politics is local and although that’s not actually true, I am going to
start with local politics today, specifically with one of America’s greatest inventions,
the urban political machine. So a political machine is basically an organization
that works to win elections so that it can exercise power. The most famous political
machine was New York City’s Tammany Hall, which dominated Democratic party politics
in the late 19th century, survived until the 20th, and is keenly associated with corruption.
Oh, it’s already time for the Mystery Document? This is highly unorthodox, Stan. Well, the
rules here are simple. I guess the author of the Mystery Document.
I’m usually wrong and I get shocked with the shock pen.
Alright, let’s see what we’ve got here. “My party’s in power in the city, and
it’s going to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say,
that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place and I buy up all the land
I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and
there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. Ain’t it perfectly
honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight. Of course
it is. That’s honest graft.” Stan, I know this one. It’s about machine
politics. It’s from New York. It doesn’t say it’s from New York, but it is because
it is George Plunkitt. Yes! How do you like them apples?
Oh, you wanna know the name of the book? It’s “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.” Stan, transition
me back to the desk with a Libertage, please. Plunkitt became famous for writing a book
describing the way that New York City’s government actually worked, but he was a small
fish compared with the most famous shark-like machine politician of the day, William “Boss”
Tweed, seen here with a head made of money. “Boss” Tweed basically ran New York in
the late 1860s and early 1870s, and his greatest feat of swindling helps explain how the machine
system worked. It revolved around the then-new County Courthouse
that now houses the New York City Department of Education.
Building the courthouse was initially estimated to cost around $250,000, but ended up costing
$13 million by the time it was finished in 1871.
Included in that cost was a bill of $180,000 for three tables and forty chairs, $1.5 million
for lighting fixtures, and $41,000 for brooms and cleaning supplies.
A plasterer received $500,000 for his initial job and then $1 million to repair his shoddy
work. The standard kickback in these situations
was that Tammany Hall received two dollars for every one dollar received by the contractor.
That may seem like a bad deal for contractors, but remember: That plasterer still got to
keep half a million dollars, which is worth about $9 million in today’s money.
Now of course that makes it sound like political machines were pure evil, especially if you
were a taxpayer footing the bill for that courthouse.
But machines also provided valuable services to immigrants and other poor people in cities.
As Plunkitt explained, Tammany could help families in need:
“I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to
the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and
decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just
get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them
up until they get things running again.” In return for this help, Tammany expected
votes so that they could stay in power. Staying in power meant control of city jobs as well
as city contracts. Plunkitt claimed to know “every big employer in the district – and
in the whole city, for that matter — and they ain’t in the habit of saying no to
me when I ask them for a job.” But with all the corruption, sometimes even
that wasn’t enough. Fortunately Tammany politicians could always fall back on fraud.
Tammany found bearded men to vote, then took them to the barber to shave off the beard,
but left the moustache, so that they could vote a second time. And then, they would shave
off the ‘stache so they could vote for a third.
And then of course, there was always violence and intimidation. By the end of the century
a Tammany regular lamented the good old days when, “It was wonderful to see my men slug
the opposition to preserve the sanctity of the ballot.”
But, corruption wasn’t limited to big cities like New York and Chicago. Some of the biggest
boondoggles involved the United States Congress and the executive branch under president Ulysses
Grant. The first big scandal, dubbed the “King
of Frauds” by the New York Sun, involved Credit Mobilier, the construction company
that did most of the road building for the Union Pacific Railroad.
This two pronged accusation involved, first: overcharging the public for construction costs
and siphoning off profits to Credit Mobilier, and second: bribery of Congressmen.
Now, this second charge was, of course, much juicier and also more partisan because only
Republican congressmen, including the Speaker of the House, were implicated in it.
Eventually Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames was found guilty of giving bribes, but
no one was ever found guilty of receiving those bribes. As you can imagine, that did
wonders for the reputation of Congress. The second major scandal involved the so-called
Whiskey Ring, which was a group of distillers in St. Louis who decided that they didn’t
like paying excise taxes on their product, perhaps a slightly more noble cause than that
of the 2009 Bling Ring, who just wanted to dress like Paris Hilton.
John McDonald, a Grant administration official, helped distillers reduce their taxes by intentionally
undercounting the number of kegs of booze. But then in 1875, the tax evasion grew out
of control. And McDonald eventually confessed and was convicted, thereby tainting the presidency
with corruption just as Credit Mobilier had tainted Congress.
That leaves the Supreme Court untainted, but don’t worry, the Dred Scott decision is
worth at least, like, eighty years of tainting. So with all this distrust in government, after
Grant served two terms, presidential elections featured a series of one-termers: Hayes, Garfield
(whose term was filled out by Chester Arthur after Garfield was assassinated), Cleveland,
Benjamin Harrison, and then Cleveland again. McKinley, who was elected twice, but then
he was assassinated. As for their parties, Gilded Age Republicans
favored high tariffs, low government spending, paying off national debt and reducing the
amount of paper money – or greenbacks – in circulation. Democrats opposed the tariffs
and were often linked to New York bankers and financiers.
In short, both parties were pro-business, but they were pro-different-businesses.
Despite that and the widespread corruption, some national reform legislation actually
did get passed in the Gilded Age. The Civil Service Act of 1883 – prompted
by Garfield’s assassination by a disgruntled office seeker – created a merit system for
10% of federal employees, who were chosen by competitive examination rather than political
favoritism. But, this had an unintended effect. It made
American politicians much more dependent on donations from big business rather than small
donations from grateful political appointees, but, you know, nice idea.
And then in 1890 the Sherman Anti-Trust act forbade combinations and practices that restrained
trade, but again it was almost impossible to enforce this against the monopolies like
U.S. Steel. More often it was used against labor unions,
which were seen to restrain trade in their radical lobbying for, like, health insurance
and hard hats. But all in all the national Congress was pretty
dysfunctional at the end of the 19th century, stop me if that sounds familiar. So state
governments expanded their responsibility for public health and welfare. Cities invested
in public works, like transportation, and gas, and later, electricity, and the movement
to provide public education continued. Some northern states even passed laws limiting
the workday to 8 hours. “What is this, France?” is what courts would often say when striking
those laws down. Reform legislation was less developed in the
South, but they were busy rolling back reconstruction and creating laws that limited the civil rights
of African Americans, known as Jim Crow Laws. In the west, farmers became politically motivated
over the issue of freight rates. Wait, are we talking about railroads? Let’s go to
the ThoughtBubble. In the 1870s, farmers formed the Grange movement
to put pressure on state governments to establish fair railroad rates and warehouse charges.
Railroads in particular tended to be pretty monopolistic: They owned the track going through
town, after all, so it was hard for farmers to negotiate fair shipping prices. The Grange
Movement eventually became the Farmer’s Alliance movement, which also pushed for economic
cooperation to raise prices, but was split into Northern and Southern wings that could
never really get it together. The biggest idea to come out of the Farmers Alliance was
the subtreasury plan. Under this plan, farmers would store grain in government warehouses
and get low-rate government loans to buy seed and equipment, using the stored grain as collateral.
This would allow farmers to bypass the banks who increasingly came to be seen, along with
the railroads, as the source of all the farmers’ troubles.
Eventually these politically motivated farmers and their supporters grew into a political
party, the People’s Party or Populists. In 1892 they held a convention in Omaha and
put forth a remarkably reform minded plan, particularly given that this was put forth
in Omaha, which included: The Sub-Treasury Plan, (which didn’t exactly
happen, although the deal farmers ended up with was probably better for them) Government
Ownership of Railroads (which sort of happened, if you count Amtrak)
Graduated Income Tax (which did happen, after the passage of the 16th amendment)
Government Control of the Currency (which happened with the creation of the Federal
Reserve System) Recognition of the Rights of Laborers to Form
Unions (which happened both at the state and federal level)
and Free Coinage of Silver to produce more money, which we’ll get to in a second
The People’s Party attempted to appeal to a broad coalition of “producing classes”
especially miners and industrial workers, and it was particularly successful with those
groups in Colorado and Idaho. As the preamble to the party platform put it: “Corruption dominates the ballot box, the
Legislatures, the congress and touches even the ermine of the bench … From the same
prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes – tramps and
millionaires.” Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, some western states
were so Populist, they even granted women the right to vote in the 1890s, which added
tremendously to the Populist’s electoral power.
But most American voters stuck with the two main parties. Industrial workers never really
joined in large numbers because the Populist calls for free coinage of silver would lead
to inflation, especially in food prices, and that would hurt urban laborers.
But if it hadn’t been for that threat of silver inflation, we might have three major
political parties in the U.S. today. Or at least two different ones. Stupid inflation,
always ruining everything. Populist leaders also struggled to unify because
racism. Some Populist leaders, like Tom Watson, argued
that black and white poor farmers were in the same boat, but Southern populists were
not inclined to take up the fight against segregation, and even Watson himself later
began spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric. But, in the halcyon Populist days of 1892,
their presidential candidate, James Weaver, gained 1 million votes as a third party candidate.
He carried 5 western states and got 22 electoral votes, which is better than Mondale did.
But the best known Populist candidate was actually the Democratic nominee for president
in 1896, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, who once spoke of America as being
crucified on a cross of gold, firmly supported free coinage of silver in the hopes that increasing
the amount of money in circulation would raise prices for farmers and make it easier for
people to pay off their debts. Williams Jennings Bryan is probably better
known for the anti-evolution stance he took in the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” where
he was up against none other than Clarence Darrow.
But he did almost become president. So, the Populists were really wary of Bryan as a Democrat,
because they feared that their ideas would be reduced to simply “free silver,” but
they voted for him anyway. But Bryan still lost the 1896 election to
William McKinley in what has become known as the first modern political campaign, because
the business classes gave McKinley’s campaign an unprecedented $10 million.
Which these days will buy you nine ads in Iowa. But back then, it won you an entire
presidential election. He won the electoral college in a landslide 271-176.
Bryan’s defeat in 1896 effectively put an end to the Populist Party. The corruption
in government, both federal and local, continued, and new journalists called Muckrakers began
exposing it in the press. Even though they were defeated at the polls,
Populist ideas, especially direct election of senators and a progressive income tax,
quickly became mainstream. Now, these days we don’t necessarily associate
those ideas with Populists, which suggests that maybe they were right to worry about
hitching their wagon to Bryan’s star. But in the end, would you rather have your
name survive or see your ideas enacted? But of course many of the problems that the
Populists were concerned with persisted, as did the scourge of Jim Crow. We’ll discuss
those next week when we look at the Progressive Era. Thanks for watching.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café.
Okay, I’ll make the transition, but I think you’ll want to keep filming this. Every
week there’s a new caption for the Libertage. If you’d like to suggest one in comments,
you can do so where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered
by our team of historians. Thank you for watching Crash Course and as we
say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.