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The Gilded Age and Rutherford B. Hayes

The period in American history between the Reconstruction and the Progressive Era is commonly known as the Gilded Age. In this period, the US seemed to be simultaneously abandoning the ideals of the past and failing to anticipate the future; this was in large part due to the confusion of a horrendous Civil War and massive immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. During this period, many Americans sought refuge in community organizations like the Moose Lodge, the Elks Club, and the Masonic Lodge. The politicians of the Gilded Age tended to avoid the major issues of social injustice and inequality, instead focusing on minor issues like public v. parochial schools, and the blue laws (laws restricting commercial activity on Sunday).

Although the Republicans dominated the executive branch during the Gilded Age, Congress was evenly divided. The Republican party was composed mainly of people from the Northeast and Midwest. Blacks typically were Republicans (that is, when they were allowed into the political process). In general, the Republicans supported high tariffs and sound money. One of the main internal disputes in the Republican party was between the stalwarts, who supported the spoils system, and the half-breeds, who did not. As for the Democrats, they were largely based in the South or in the big cities of the North. The Democrats and Republicans butted heads over ethnic, religious, and cultural issues, but they tended to avoid larger economic and social issues. Extremely talented individuals were more likely to go into business than politics during this era. Another trend of the Gilded Age was the domination of the president by Congress. 

Foolishly, Rutherford B. Hayes made himself a lame-duck president by announcing soon after taking office that he would not seek a second term. Hayes' wife was nicknamed 'Lemonade Lucy,' because she would not allow any alcohol in the White House. Hayes tried to restore the power of the presidency after the debacle of Grant, but he was weakened by intense struggles over his Cabinet confirmations. One thing Hayes can be credited with is making a gallant attempt to destroy the spoils system. He replaced the Collector of the Customs House after discovering the corruption of that body, and he appointed Carl Schurz Secretary of the Interior on the basis of merit. In turn, Schurz established a merit system in his department, creating an entrance exam for potential employees.

One of the failures of the Hayes administration was its handling of the Great Rail Strike of 1877. When over two-thirds of the rail lines were shut down by strikes, Hayes sent in federal troops, and there was considerable bloodshed. This set a bad precedent for how strikes would be handled in the future. Hayes also vetoed an attempt by western labor unions to restrict Chinese immigration, saying that this would be a violation of the Burlingame Treaty. One of the main issues in the Hayes years was monetary policy. Farmers, who were often in debt, wanted a soft currency not backed by anything; they were willing to settle for a silver standard. In Hepburn v. Griswold (1869), the Supreme Court had ruled that there could not be paper money without a gold standard; in the Legal Tender cases of 1871, however, the Court reversed itself. The bickering over these conflicting rulings plagued the Hayes administration.

After the Specie Resumption Act of 1875, Hayes worked to minimize the effects of the oncoming 'day of redemption,' in which paper money could be exchanged for gold coins. He began a policy of contraction, wherein the government gradually took in paper money and issued gold, and he funded attempts to mine more gold. The Greenbackers were those who wanted Hayes to postpone the day of redemption; he did not, and it ultimately proved anticlimactic, as people assumed their paper money was 'good as gold' and didn't bother to redeem it. Hayes also had to deal with the Silverites. In 1873, the government had enraged silver prospectors by announcing that it would no longer make coins out of silver. In answer to their fury, Hayes pushed through the Bland-Allison Act, which established that a minimum of $2 million of silver had to be purchased and coined by the government every month.

1. Why do you think many Americans sought refuge in community organizations during the Gilded Age?
A: they felt alienated from the nation as a whole
B: they hated Rutherford B. Hayes
C: they preferred business to politics
D: these organizations offered free meals

2. What is the author's opinion of the Gilded Age?
A: it was the best period of American history
B: it was a period of confusion in American society
C: it was a period marked by strong government
D: it was a period that retained the values of earlier periods

3. What is a likely synonym for 'parochial' as it is used here?
A: public
B: private
C: segregated
D: closed

4. What is the 'spoils system'?
A: the process by which newly-elected officials fill all government jobs with their supporters
B: the process of establishing a gold standard
C: the electoral college
D: the process of electing senators

5. Which of the following statements is true of politics during the Gilded Age?
A: It focused too much on major issues, and failed to make small but necessary changes.
B: It was the desired profession for talented individuals.
C: It avoided the major issues, instead focusing on minor controversies.
D: It was dominated by the executive branch.

6. What was one result of the ineffectiveness of government during the Gilded Age?
A: talented people thrust their energies into improving the situation
B: chaos erupted on the day of redemption
C: Hayes refused to allow alcohol into the White House 
D: talented people went into business rather than politics

7. Which word best describes the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes?
A: weak
B: abstemious
C: energetic
D: powerful

8. Based on the passage, what is one thing you could assume about the years after the Hayes presidency?
A: the Supreme Court would assume new powers
B: there would be bloody conflicts as a result of strikes
C: Congress would control economic policy
D: there would never be another lame-duck president

9. What was slated to happen on the 'day of redemption'?
A: Silverites would be jailed
B: gold coins could be exchanged for paper money
C: all ongoing strokes would be broken 
D: paper money would be exchanged for gold coins

10. Why was the 'day of redemption' so anticlimactic?
A: people assumed that the paper money was still valuable
B: there was confusion about which day it was
C: people didn't have very much paper money
D: there was not enough gold to mint new coins

Answer Key

1. A. The confusion following the Civil War, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the Hayes government, caused many Americans to feel disillusioned about the United States.

2. B. The author suggests that the United States was plagued by many problems during the Gilded Age.

3. B. Parochial schools are any that are not administered by a government.

4. A. The term 'spoils system' derives from the expression, 'To the victor go the spoils.'

5. C. Politicians were fearful of confronting the issues of injustice and inequality.

6. D. The author states that the most qualified people in American society were reluctant to enter politics.

7. A. The Hayes presidency suffered from lame-duck status for much of its duration.

8. B. The author indicates that Hayes' mismanagement of the Great Rail Strike of 1877 set a bad precedent for the handling of future strikes.

9. D. The United States was engaged in a process of typing paper money, which had been subject to massive inflation, to a gold and silver standard.

10. A. People still had enough faith in the government to believe that their paper money was 'good as gold.'

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Last Updated: 08/20/2014

 

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