I have often remarked that for productive authors, or composers, or artists, the trick to keeping things moving is to get going on one's next project before the last one has appeared. I have followed my own advice again and am now immersed in the politics of the 1870s and 1880s, envisioning a book on Gilded Age politics that will climax (but not begin) with the very exciting election of 1884. The book, I am convinced, will resonate among students of our current scene. The hallmark of politics in those days, as in ours, was extreme partisanship, and both parties argued in every election that their opponents' victory would lead to complete and immediate disaster. The press was so partisan that one very informed observer could cite only two major newspapers--the New York Herald and the Boston Herald--that simply tried to report the facts. Then as now, partisanship led to numerous attempts at various levels to manipulate the electoral process. The economy was on an upward course by the late 1870s, although it was subject, like ours, to the periodic panics and crises that we managed to do without from 1933 until 2008 because of the tight regulation of the banking system that the New Deal adopted. Labor had virtually no rights, there were no income or capital gains taxes, and inequality was growing rapidly. Political corruption ruled the federal, state, and various local governments. The race issue remained very heated, and some Republicans had not yet given up on preserving votes for freed slaves despite the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877. When the Democratic Party took control of Congress in the mid-1870s, it tried to force President Hayes to accept restrictions on federal power by threatening a government shutdown. In one respect, one could argue, the leaders of that period showed more responsibility than ours: they were paying off the huge debt accumulated during the civil war at a remarkably quick rate. Amidst all this, a small group group of journalists and a few maverick office holders such as the German-American Carl Schurz demanded a saner, cleaner politics, actually focused on making the government work better and meeting some of the nation's needs. History eventually vindicated them.
In at least one sense, however, those nineteenth-century men and women had a healthier political system than we. They took politics far more seriously than the average American does today, and it filled up incomparably more of their time. The daily and weekly press shows that American citizens followed public affairs far more intensely and knew much more about them than they do today.
In the wake of the Civil War, Republicans in particular felt keenly that they were living in a great progressive era of history, marked by the development of democratic government, which was also making progress across the Atlantic. They had fought and won a gigantic struggle--still the most costly conflict, in absolute terms, in American history--to preserve the Constitution and eliminate slavery. They saw themselves in the forefront of history, and Democrats did not disagree with that. Observers of all stripes customarily remarked in those days that they were not living in an era of great political leaders such as Adams and Jefferson, Webster and Clay, and Lincoln and Seward. The characteristic political figure of the time was a boss such as Roscoe Conkling of New York, or Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, or James G. Blaine of Maine, not a great and courageous thinker with new ideas for the future of the nation. Meanwhile, the world of 1880 had no television, broadcast or cable; no radio; and no social media. Newspapers, which proliferated like web sites today, provided all the news and much of the nation's entertainment. And they covered politics with astonishing detail.
No one, I often say, is entirely lucky or entirely unlucky. I have spent my adult life watching serious history go out of fashion, but at the same time, advances in information technology have made my work easier and easier to do. Thanks to various newspaper databases and magazine archives, I can bring virtually any publication to life right on this computer screen within a minute or less. And reading the newspapers of the Gilded Age is a remarkable experience.
Without word processors or even typewriters (until the mid-1880s at least), newspapers could commit remarkable amounts of information into print in one 24-hour news cycle. And politicians provided most of their copy. They constantly printed whole speeches, either on the campaign trail or in Congress. They also printed interviews. The very words of politicians, delivered at great length, were the stuff of politics, in a way that the rants of cable news people are today. Carl Schurz, the leader of the reform Republicans, had immigrated from Germany as a young man and made his name by speaking to German-Americans for the Republican Party. As late as 1880, he often spoke in German, but the papers managed to get translations of his remarks before the public within 24 hours. The political leaders themselves set the tone of public discussion in a way that they have now ceased to do. They talked at length, and often quite technically, about financial issues, civil service reform, the status of black Americans in the South, and much more. The public took them seriously precisely because they saw them as the heirs of the great men of the previous 100 years--even if they generally agreed that they did not deserve that legacy. We no longer see our politicians that way, partly because so many activists on both the right and the left do not view the history of the last 100 years as an inspiring story which it is our job to continue. Nor do we seem to have very many political leaders who consciously identify with any of the greats of the twentieth century, including the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, or even Reagan.
The political leaders of the late 19th century did little to arrest some alarming trends in American life. Fueled by a cruel process of industrialization, inequality grew apace, and money played an increasing role in politics. Black Americans lost most of the rights they had been granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. A bipartisan consensus did take some small steps towards replacing a politicized civil service with a professional one, laying the foundation for the great achievements of the twentieth century. Still, the nation took the American experiment, the attempt to make democratic government work and serve the needs of the people, seriously, to an extent that I am not sure that it does today.
Even though the two sides had fought the civil war out to a final conclusion at Appomattox, the divisions that had led to it created the intense partisanship of the post-crisis era. Today, as we slowly move towards a most uncertain outcome of our own crisis, it seems pretty sure that partisanship will persist for a long time as well. The election of 1884, in which a Democrat won the White House for the first time since 1856, and Grover Cleveland's first term that followed it, marked a step towards the reconciliation of the two sides, and the progressive movement that began to emerge in the next decade was bipartisan. Perhaps we too must look forward to a new era in which the two parties can genuinely work together to solve at least a few problems--even if many of the biggest ones remain unsolved. To do so we must all maintain some faith in the processes and institutions we have inherited from our forbears.