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Gilded Age Politics: Political Machines & Civil Service Reform

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  • 0:07 'Forgotten' Presidents
  • 3:08 Civil Service Reform
  • 5:03 Political Machines
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Refresh your memory of the 'Forgotten Presidents' of the Gilded Age, and learn how Civil Service Reform might have cleaned up the federal government, but not the cities and states. They were the domain of political machines, like Tammany Hall.

The 'Forgotten' Presidents of the Gilded Age

After Reconstruction, through the turn of the 20th century, America experienced a Gilded Age. It was an era of extremes, remembered for big businesses, and the men who ran them, and for the unmatched accomplishments of inventors like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Alexander Graham Bell. This era saw unparalleled industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, the emergence of labor unions, and a middle class. During this little slice of history, American politicians - especially presidents - took a backseat. But that's not to say the era wasn't political.

Voter participation was at an all-time high, and elections often had razor-thin margins, but neither party really seemed to do anything. Congress debated little more than tariffs and currency, despite decades of unrelenting social and economic change in the nation. The presidency was virtually powerless, the names of Gilded Age presidents nearly unknown:

  • Rutherford B. Hayes - Selected in what has come to be called the 'corrupt bargain' to end Reconstruction.
  • James Garfield - Shot dead after just four months.
  • Chester Arthur - Whose party refused to nominate him after he actually accomplished something.
  • Grover Cleveland - Who may be most famously remembered as the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
  • Benjamin Harrison - Whose most memorable legacy might be that he was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, and
  • William McKinley - Known for starting a war and then being assassinated by an anarchist.

The presidents themselves weren't implicated in any major scandals, but many of the people around them were. This fact was largely blamed on patronage, sometimes also called the 'spoils system.' Whatever you call it, the problem was that government jobs were generally granted to people as a reward for their political favors. This may be why some historians go back as far as President Ulysses S. Grant in the list of Gilded Age politicians - because he ramped up the era of presidential patronage and because of his blissful ignorance of the cesspool of corruption around him.

For example, despite his aggressive work to increase social equality and quell the KKK, Grant is also remembered well for the infamous Crédit Mobilier scandal. His own vice president shielded a corrupt railroad firm from federal investigation in exchange for stock in their company. Grant's critics noted that the president might have been an honest man, but he had appointed relatives, old army buddies, and party hacks to important positions, regardless of their skills or experience.

Civil Service Reform

It wasn't until President James Garfield's assassination in 1881 that steps were finally taken to reign in this kind of political patronage. A mentally-unstable man named Charles Guiteau had volunteered on Garfield's campaign, as many thousands of people do every election cycle. But Guiteau thought he deserved to be appointed as an ambassador in return. When the job offer never came, an indignant Guiteau shot and killed President Garfield. So when Vice President Chester Arthur acceded to the Presidency, he pushed through the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

To this day, the law requires that most federal jobs be filled on the basis of merit, determined by performance on an exam. It also prevents most civil service employees from being fired based on their political views. In 2013, the Pendleton Act applied to more than 90% of federal workers. Despite his effectiveness, President Chester Arthur was not nominated by the Republican Party to run as its candidate in the 1886 election.

Unfortunately, the Pendleton Act had an unintended side effect; the political parties now had to find another source of income, since they could no longer count on donations from wealthy job seekers. Increasingly, they turned to industrial leaders, who purchased influence and assured that legislation would continue to favor big business. Frustrated farmers organized the Populist Party to advance their own agenda, but it was quickly engulfed by the Democrats. In short, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act officially brought patronage and the spoils system to an end in the federal government, but it did not end the corruption.

Political Machines

Additionally, the Pendleton Act didn't apply to state and city politics. Urban governments, especially, were dominated by political machines. These were networks that operated in a manner similar to political parties; but rather than being focused on a platform of issues, political machines existed for the maintenance of power by a single boss or an elite group. Political machines used any means possible, especially dubious 'get out the vote' strategies on Election Day, to tighten their political and administrative control of a city, or county, or state. Once in command, they rewarded their supporters with cushy jobs, favorable legislation, and lucrative business contracts for city services.

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