The political battles during the Gilded Age (1869-1889) were not fought with weapons and lives as was the Civil War directly before them, but with pamphlets, verbal accusations and national ideals. However, were the two most prominent foes vying due to differing economic policies, or were they similar parties that based their separation on national origin, geography, history, and emotion? The basic economic reforms were, in fact, similar, yet the varying ideologies and animosities that remained from prior eras enlarged the gap between Democrat and Republican.
After the Civil War, the general consensus of the American population was a yearning for unity (to some extreme), civil service reforms, the tariff, currency, and a prosperous America. The basic disagreement between the parties was on military reconstruction, which was over by 1877, less than halfway through the Age (502). Both Republicans and Democrats, however, wished for the general union of America – the majority of the Republicans (moderates) did not aim to punish the South through Military Reconstruction and the South, although angered, rose above their resentment and waited until 1877, when Northern troops pulled out and the South was left to govern itself (511). Throughout the various presidencies, of which most were dominated by Republicans (save for Grover “the good” Cleveland), graft and dishonest means for achieving wealth were not uncommon within both parties, leading to the Panic of 1873 (506).
Such a depression shed light upon the unscrupulous practices of many political figures, as well as debtors and other prominent businesspeople. This led to yet another national agreement – civil service reforms. Under the Presidency of Republican Chester Arthur, the Pendleton Act was passed in 1883. Considered the “Magna Carta of civil-service reform,” it prohibited financial assessments on job-holders and established a merit system of making appointments to office on the basis of aptitude. Furthermore, the act created a Civil Service Commission that examined applicants for posts in the classified service (518).
Most Americans, save for debtors, called for a monetary system based on “greenbacks” rather than hard-money (gold). By 1879, “contraction” (or the accumulation of gold stocks against the appointed day for resumption of metallic-money payments ) and reduction of “greenbacks” restored the government’s credit rating, and revived the “greenbacks” along with it. Although these developments were actually enacted under a Republican presidency, such reforms were backed by Congress in (almost) its entirety (507).
One might as, then, why was there political competition? Historically, Democrats represented the needs of the South; they were pro-slavery, supportive of states’ rights, and representatives of an agrarian population. The Republicans did not have such views before and within approximately ten years of the Civil War; they were anti-slavery, supportive of a strong central government, and representatives of an urban population, brimming with a large work force of laborers, debtors, businessmen, and other non-agrarian vocations.
However, both Republican and Democratic sentiments were mixed until two competing parties with few varying significant economic issues were the outcome (508). Republicans gradually began to abandon their commitment to black equality, as many votes were already cast and few freedmen would vote Democrat, with the last radical Republican act passed in 1875 (Civil Rights Act). Southerners were left to govern themselves, allowing laws that, under the pretense “separate but equal,” placed blacks back in the chains that were recently unshackled (511).
Although economic issues were not a large factor in party separation, Democratic (South) resentment for Republicans (North) remained. The humiliation that the South suffered during Reconstruction, including the emancipation of slaves, was not an act that would be easily forgotten (510). Furthermore, the lives and societies of aristocratic agrarians and hard-working laborers were so distinctly different that such a large variation could only be bridged over several centuries.
The Democrats and Republicans of the Gilded Age were, in reality, overwhelmingly distinct political parties. The groups and ideals that both parties represented were absolutely opposite. The similarity in their economic reforms is explained by their desire to create a prosperous America – one that could only be achieved through civil service reforms, government-issued currency, and further economic legislation.