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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Supremacy of the Republican Party (1861-85) · CHAPTER XVII·»

The Growth of Opposition to Republican Rule

Abuses in American Political Life.—During their long tenure of office, the Republicans could not escape the inevitable consequences of power; that is, evil practices and corrupt conduct on the part of some who found shelter within the party. For that matter neither did the Democrats manage to avoid such difficulties in those states and cities where they had the majority. In New York City, for instance, the local Democratic organization, known as Tammany Hall, passed under the sway of a group of politicians headed by “Boss” Tweed. He plundered the city treasury until public-spirited citizens, supported by Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic leader of the state, rose in revolt, drove the ringleader from power, and sent him to jail. In Philadelphia, the local Republican bosses were guilty of offenses as odious as those committed by New York politicians. Indeed, the decade that followed the Civil War was marred by so many scandals in public life that one acute editor was moved to inquire: “Are not all the great communities of the Western World growing more corrupt as they grow in wealth?”

In the sphere of national politics, where the opportunities were greater, betrayals of public trust were even more flagrant. One revelation after another showed officers, high and low, possessed with the spirit of peculation. Members of Congress, it was found, accepted railway stock in exchange for votes in favor of land grants and other concessions to the companies. In the administration as well as the legislature the disease was rife. Revenue officers permitted whisky distillers to evade their taxes and received heavy bribes in return. A probe into the post-office department revealed the malodorous “star route frauds”—the deliberate overpayment of certain mail carriers whose lines were indicated in the official record by asterisks or stars. Even cabinet officers did not escape suspicion, for the trail of the serpent led straight to the door of one of them.

In the lower ranges of official life, the spoils system became more virulent as the number of federal employees increased. The holders of offices and the seekers after them constituted a veritable political army. They crowded into Republican councils, for the Republicans, being in power, could alone dispense federal favors. They filled positions in the party ranging from the lowest township committee to the national convention. They helped to nominate candidates and draft platforms and elbowed to one side the busy citizen, not conversant with party intrigues, who could only give an occasional day to political matters. Even the Civil Service Act of 1883, wrung from a reluctant Congress two years after the assassination of Garfield, made little change for a long time. It took away from the spoilsmen a few thousand government positions, but it formed no check on the practice of rewarding party workers from the public treasury.

On viewing this state of affairs, many a distinguished citizen became profoundly discouraged. James Russell Lowell, for example, thought he saw a steady decline in public morals. In 1865, hearing of Lee’s surrender, he had exclaimed: “There is something magnificent in having a country to love!” Ten years later, when asked to write an ode for the centennial at Philadelphia in 1876, he could think only of a biting satire on the nation:

“Show your state legislatures; show your Rings;
And challenge Europe to produce such things
As high officials sitting half in sight
To share the plunder and fix things right.
If that don’t fetch her, why, you need only
To show your latest style in martyrs,—Tweed:
She’ll find it hard to hide her spiteful tears
At such advance in one poor hundred years.”

When his critics condemned him for this “attack upon his native land,” Lowell replied in sadness: “These fellows have no notion of what love of country means. It was in my very blood and bones. If I am not an American who ever was?… What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ’government of the people, by the people, for the people,' or a Kakistocracy [a government of the worst], rather for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

The Reform Movement in Republican Ranks.—The sentiments expressed by Lowell, himself a Republican and for a time American ambassador to England, were shared by many men in his party. Very soon after the close of the Civil War some of them began to protest vigorously against the policies and conduct of their leaders. In 1872, the dissenters, calling themselves Liberal Republicans, broke away altogether, nominated a candidate of their own, Horace Greeley, and put forward a platform indicting the Republican President fiercely enough to please the most uncompromising Democrat. They accused Grant of using “the powers and opportunities of his high office for the promotion of personal ends.” They charged him with retaining “notoriously corrupt and unworthy men in places of power and responsibility.” They alleged that the Republican party kept “alive the passions and resentments of the late civil war to use them for their own advantages,” and employed the “public service of the government as a machinery of corruption and personal influence.”

It was not apparent, however, from the ensuing election that any considerable number of Republicans accepted the views of the Liberals. Greeley, though indorsed by the Democrats, was utterly routed and died of a broken heart. The lesson of his discomfiture seemed to be that independent action was futile. So, at least, it was regarded by most men of the rising generation like Henry Cabot Lodge, of Massachusetts, and Theodore Roosevelt, of New York. Profiting by the experience of Greeley they insisted in season and out that reformers who desired to rid the party of abuses should remain loyal to it and do their work “on the inside.”

The Mugwumps and Cleveland Democracy in 1884.—Though aided by Republican dissensions, the Democrats were slow in making headway against the political current. They were deprived of the energetic and capable leadership once afforded by the planters, like Calhoun, Davis, and Toombs; they were saddled by their opponents with responsibility for secession; and they were stripped of the support of the prostrate South. Not until the last Southern state was restored to the union, not until a general amnesty was wrung from Congress, not until white supremacy was established at the polls, and the last federal soldier withdrawn from Southern capitals did they succeed in capturing the presidency.

The opportune moment for them came in 1884 when a number of circumstances favored their aspirations. The Republicans, leaving the Ohio Valley in their search for a candidate, nominated James G. Blaine of Maine, a vigorous and popular leader but a man under fire from the reformers in his own party. The Democrats on their side were able to find at this juncture an able candidate who had no political enemies in the sphere of national politics, Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York and widely celebrated as a man of “sterling honesty.” At the same time a number of dissatisfied Republicans openly espoused the Democratic cause,—among them Carl Schurz, George William Curtis, Henry Ward Beecher, and William Everett, men of fine ideals and undoubted integrity. Though the “regular” Republicans called them “Mugwumps” and laughed at them as the “men milliners, the dilettanti, and carpet knights of politics,” they had a following that was not to be despised.

The campaign which took place that year was one of the most savage in American history. Issues were thrust into the background. The tariff, though mentioned, was not taken seriously. Abuse of the opposition was the favorite resource of party orators. The Democrats insisted that “the Republican party so far as principle is concerned is a reminiscence. In practice it is an organization for enriching those who control its machinery.” For the Republican candidate, Blaine, they could hardly find words to express their contempt. The Republicans retaliated in kind. They praised their own good works, as of old, in saving the union, and denounced the “fraud and violence practiced by the Democracy in the Southern states.” Seeing little objectionable in the public record of Cleveland as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, they attacked his personal character. Perhaps never in the history of political campaigns did the discussions on the platform and in the press sink to so low a level. Decent people were sickened. Even hot partisans shrank from their own words when, after the election, they had time to reflect on their heedless passions. Moreover, nothing was decided by the balloting. Cleveland was elected, but his victory was a narrow one. A change of a few hundred votes in New York would have sent his opponent to the White House instead.

Changing Political Fortunes (1888-96).—After the Democrats had settled down to the enjoyment of their hard-earned victory, President Cleveland in his message of 1887 attacked the tariff as “vicious, inequitable, and illogical”; as a system of taxation that laid a burden upon “every consumer in the land for the benefit of our manufacturers.” Business enterprise was thoroughly alarmed. The Republicans characterized the tariff message as a free-trade assault upon the industries of the country. Mainly on that issue they elected in 1888 Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, a shrewd lawyer, a reticent politician, a descendant of the hero of Tippecanoe, and a son of the old Northwest. Accepting the outcome of the election as a vindication of their principles, the Republicans, under the leadership of William McKinley in the House of Representatives, enacted in 1890 a tariff law imposing the highest duties yet laid in our history. To their utter surprise, however, they were instantly informed by the country that their program was not approved. That very autumn they lost in the congressional elections, and two years later they were decisively beaten in the presidential campaign, Cleveland once more leading his party to victory.


L.H. Haney, Congressional History of Railways (2 vols.).

J.P. Davis, Union Pacific Railway.

J.M. Swank, History of the Manufacture of Iron.

M.T. Copeland, The Cotton Manufacturing Industry in the United States (Harvard Studies).

E.W. Bryce, Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century.

Ida Tarbell, History of the Standard Oil Company (Critical).

G.H. Montague, Rise and Progress of the Standard Oil Company (Friendly).

H.P. Fairchild, Immigration, and F.J. Warne, The Immigrant Invasion (Both works favor exclusion).

I.A. Hourwich, Immigration (Against exclusionist policies).

J.F. Rhodes, History of the United States, 1877-1896, Vol. VIII.

Edward Stanwood, A History of the Presidency, Vol. I, for the presidential elections of the period.


1. Contrast the state of industry and commerce at the close of the Civil War with its condition at the close of the Revolutionary War.

2. Enumerate the services rendered to the nation by the railways.

3. Explain the peculiar relation of railways to government.

4. What sections of the country have been industrialized?

5. How do you account for the rise and growth of the trusts? Explain some of the economic advantages of the trust.

6. Are the people in cities more or less independent than the farmers? What was Jefferson’s view?

7. State some of the problems raised by unrestricted immigration.

8. What was the theory of the relation of government to business in this period? Has it changed in recent times?

9. State the leading economic policies sponsored by the Republican party.

10. Why were the Republicans especially strong immediately after the Civil War?

11. What illustrations can you give showing the influence of war in American political campaigns?

12. Account for the strength of middle-western candidates.

13. Enumerate some of the abuses that appeared in American political life after 1865.

14. Sketch the rise and growth of the reform movement.

15. How is the fluctuating state of public opinion reflected in the elections from 1880 to 1896?

Research Topics

Invention, Discovery, and Transportation.—Sparks, National Development (American Nation Series), pp. 37-67; Bogart, Economic History of the United States, Chaps. XXI, XXII, and XXIII.

Business and Politics.—Paxson, The New Nation (Riverside Series), pp. 92-107; Rhodes, History of the United States, Vol. VII, pp. 1-29, 64-73, 175-206; Wilson, History of the American People, Vol. IV, pp. 78-96.

Immigration.—Coman, Industrial History of the United States (2d ed.), pp. 369-374; E.L. Bogart, Economic History of the United States, pp. 420-422, 434-437; Jenks and Lauck, Immigration Problems, Commons, Races and Immigrants.

The Disputed Election of 1876.—Haworth, The United States in Our Own Time, pp. 82-94; Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic (American Nation Series), pp. 294-341; Elson, History of the United States, pp. 835-841.

Abuses in Political Life.—Dunning, Reconstruction, pp. 281-293; see criticisms in party platforms in Stanwood, History of the Presidency, Vol. I; Bryce, American Commonwealth (1910 ed.), Vol. II, pp. 379-448; 136-167.

Studies of Presidential Administrations.—(a) Grant, (b) Hayes, (c) Garfield-Arthur, (d) Cleveland, and (e) Harrison, in Haworth, The United States in Our Own Time, or in Paxson, The New Nation (Riverside Series), or still more briefly in Elson.

Cleveland Democracy.—Haworth, The United States, pp. 164-183; Rhodes, History of the United States, Vol. VIII, pp. 240-327; Elson, pp. 857-887.

Analysis of Modern Immigration Problems.Syllabus in History (New York State, 1919), pp. 110-112.

«·The Supremacy of the Republican Party (1861-85) · CHAPTER XVII·»