In the period from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little difference between the agendas of Republicans and Democrats. Both parties were generally pro‐business, despite the fact that steps were taken to regulate the railroads and the trusts, and neither was concerned with the economic and social dislocations brought about by industrialization and urbanization. The questions that dominated domestic politics in the late nineteenth century appear rather mundane — monetary policy, civil service reform, and the tariff. The failure of the federal government to seriously address the problems facing agriculture forced farmers to organize and pursue political action on their own. Although domestic issues occupied the nation for most of the period, foreign policy questions dominated the last years of the century. In a remarkably short time, the United States acquired an overseas empire in the Pacific and the Caribbean and became a major force in world affairs.
Republicans and Democrats were relatively evenly matched in the political arena. Although the Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1876 and 1900, presidential elections were close and the winner rarely received more than 50 percent of the popular vote. Congress was usually divided with a Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House. The reason for such an even political balance was that neither party had a truly national base of support. Democrats could count on the “solid” South (as the states of the former Confederacy were called) and the southern parts of the border states, as well as recent immigrants, Catholics, and the working class in the larger cities of the Midwest and Northeast where political machines got out the vote. Republicans, on the other hand, had strongholds in smaller cities, towns, and the rural areas of the Midwest and New England, and were also backed by the business community, the growing middle class, and African‐Americans (to the extent that they could and did go to the polls). These generalizations about party loyalty had many exceptions, of course. For instance, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were swing states, meaning that they might vote either Democrat or Republican in a presidential election.
Greenbacks and silver. The nation's monetary system was chaotic after the Civil War, with gold, silver, and paper money all circulating simultaneously. Gold circulated in twenty‐, ten‐, and five‐dollar coins known as “double eagles,” “eagles,” and “half‐eagles” while silver coins were minted as dollar, half‐dollar, quarter, dime, and half‐dime coins. Greenbacks, the paper money printed by the Union during the Civil War, remained in circulation and could be redeemed for gold or silver. Banks, meanwhile, were printing their own notes (another form of paper money), often in excess of their assets. As individuals and institutions struggled to find security within the country's complicated financial system, two approaches to managing the system emerged — one that favored restricting the money in circulation and another that favored expanding it. Supporters of a restricted currency felt that limiting the money supply would keep the economy stable and prices low. Advocates of an expanded currency, however, believed that increasing the money supply would make it easier for debtors, particularly farmers, to pay off what they owed and create increased prices for farm products.
Those who supported an inflated currency, as well as mining interests in the West that had just found major deposits of silver, were outraged when the Coinage Act of 1873 ordered the U.S. Mint to stop issuing silver dollars; they derided the new law as “the Crime of '73.” In 1878, the Greenback Labor party, which was quite successful in that year's Congressional elections, called for the unlimited coinage of silver. In the same year, the silverbackers secured passage of the Bland‐Allison Act, which required the Treasury to buy between two and four million dollars worth of silver per month. Treasury officials, however, purchased the minimum amount of silver required under the law and did not put the new coins produced into circulation. Congressional supporters of a silver standard passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890, under which 4.5 million ounces of silver were bought each month (effectively the entire output of the western silver mines) and Treasury notes were made redeemable in gold or silver. While the money supply did increase slightly, the currency question remained unresolved and became the central issue in the 1896 presidential election.
Civil service reform. Angered by the scandals of the Grant administration and political corruption in general, Americans demanded changes in the way government jobs were given out. Common practice was to rely on the spoils system, in which the party that won the presidency replaced office holders in the federal bureaucracy with members of its own party. Critics charged that such “rotation in office” resulted in a considerable loss of experience and expertise. The Republican party was split into two factions on the issue of civil service reform. The Half‐Breeds, led by Senators Carl Schurz and James G. Blaine, along with newspaper editor Edwin L. Godkin, favored an end to the spoils system, while the Stalwarts, led by Senator Roscoe Conkling, felt that control of patronage jobs was essential. When the Republican convention deadlocked on the issue in 1880, the party compromised and nominated Half‐Breed James A. Garfield for president and Stalwart Chester A. Arthur for vice president.
Although Garfield won the close election, he was assassinated four months after taking office by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker and self‐proclaimed Stalwart. The country was so outraged by the murder that the Pendelton Civil Service Act was passed by Congress and signed by new pro‐spoils President Arthur in 1883. The law created an independent Civil Service Commission and determined which jobs in the federal government would be filled on a merit basis through competitive examinations rather than through political appointment. Although the percentage of positions covered by the law was small at first, subsequent legislation expanded the commission's reach and significantly improved the quality of federal employees.
Considered by his peers to be a hack politician and a mediocre president, Chester Arthur was pushed aside by the Republicans in 1884 in favor of James G. Blaine, whose career in the Senate was tarnished by trading political favors for railroad stock. The Democrats, who had captured the House in 1882, sensed a chance to gain the White House for the first time since 1856. They selected Grover Cleveland, who had risen from the mayor of Buffalo, New York, to the governor of the state in a remarkably short period of time. The campaign was a dirty one, with the Republicans claiming that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child; he admitted that he had accepted his responsibility for the child and was paying support to its mother. A remark by a Protestant minister (who was a Blaine supporter) that the Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was not disavowed quickly enough by the Republicans, and this helped Cleveland to win a close election.
The tariff question. Tariffs were the one issue that seriously divided the two parties. Republicans favored high tariffs to help subsidize American industry by keeping cheaper imported goods out of the country; Democrats wanted to lower duties to reduce prices. Tariff schedules — what rates were charged on which products — were always changing to reflect new commodities on the market or the political strategies of members of Congress who used the tariffs for their own advantage. A senator from Iowa, for example, would support a low rate for iron ore since none was mined in his state and a high rate on imported grain to protect Iowa corn.
Toward the end of his term, Grover Cleveland proposed a major overhaul of the country's tariff policy. The high rates, he argued, had created a sizable federal surplus that pushed the cost of living up for everyone while benefiting only a few. Congress refused to enact tariff reform, and Cleveland's position cost him the next election. Although receiving more of the popular vote, he lost to Benjamin Harrison, the Republican senator from Ohio, in the electoral college. Emboldened by their victory in 1888, the Republicans raised rates in 1890 (the McKinley Tariff) and again in 1897 (the Dingley Tariff). In the interim, during Cleveland's second term (1892–97), a modest reduction was enacted in the Wilson‐Gorman Tariff of 1894. The law included a personal income tax to make up for the revenue lost due to the lower rates, a provision the Supreme Court later declared unconstitutional.