Some historians have dubbed the presidents of the Gilded Age the “forgotten presidents,” and indeed many Americans today have trouble remembering their names, what they did for the country, or even in which era they served. These six men—Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison—had relatively unremarkable terms in office and faced few if any major national crises during their presidencies. Some historians have suggested that these Gilded Age presidents were unexciting for a reason—because Americans wanted to avoid bold politicians who might ruin the delicate peace established after the Civil War.
This is not to say politics were unimportant in the Gilded Age. On the contrary, Americans paid more attention to politics and national elections during the post–Civil War period than at any other time in history, because each election had the potential to disrupt the fragile balance—and peace—between North and South, Republican and Democrat. Voters turned out in record numbers for each presidential election in the late nineteenth century, with voter turnout sometimes reaching 80 percent or greater. The intensity of the elections also helps explain why Congress passed so little significant legislation after the Reconstruction era: control of the House of Representatives constantly changed hands between the Democrats and the Republicans with each election, making a consensus on any major issue nearly impossible.
The increase in voter turnout was also partly the result of machine party politics, which blossomed in large U.S. cities during the Gilded Age. Powerful political “bosses” in each party coerced urban residents into voting for favored candidates, who would then give kickbacks and bribes back to the bosses in appreciation for getting them elected. Bosses would also spend money to improve constituents’ neighborhoods to ensure a steady flow of votes for their machines. In this sense, party bosses and machine politics actually helped some of the poorest people in the cities. Many politicians elected during the Gilded Age were the product of machine party politics.
Driven by the North, which emerged from the Civil War an industrial powerhouse, the United States experienced a flurry of unprecedented growth and industrialization during the Gilded Age, with a continent full of seemingly...