Late Gilded Age - 1890 to World War I

United States History: The Gilded Age (1890) to World War I


The Harrison Administration

Harrison's administration brought a reversal of the financial policies of Grover Cleveland. Congress disposed of the Treasury surplus by making large appropriations for pensions, naval vessels, lighthouses, coast defenses, and other projects. It also passed the McKinley Tariff Act, which raised the already high protective duties and resulted in higher prices for many household commodities. In order to gain the support of the West for the bill, Congress in 1890 passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, by which the government agreed to buy 4,500,000 oz (130,000 kg) of silver every month and to issue paper money equaling the full amount purchased. Also in 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which declared illegal "every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade." Although the nation favored this measure, it reacted against the higher prices brought about by the McKinley Act by electing a Democratic Congress in 1890. In 1892 former Democratic President Grover Cleveland won his second term. A feature of the campaign was the emergence of a new political party—the People's Party, usually known as the Populist Party—formed principally by western farmers and workers who were members of the Farmers' Alliances or of the American Federation of Labor. The People's Party nominee for president, James Baird Weaver of Iowa, ran on a platform that included demands for the free coinage of silver, government ownership of important utilities, and election of U.S. senators by popular vote.

The Second Cleveland Administration

Cleveland's second administration was marked by increasing conflict between the interests of the agricultural reformers, whose followers lived in the West, and those of the large bankers and manufacturers of the country, the seat of whose enterprises was generally in the East. Those who expected Cleveland and his solidly Democratic Congress to effect the financial and economic reforms demanded by the West suffered disappointment. Although pledged to a tariff for revenue only, Congress yielded to the desires of senators devoted to protecting the interests of large corporations or trusts by passing another high protective tariff. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the income tax law. (The burdens of this tax, which had been much stiffened in 1894, had fallen on the comparatively wealthy.) Besides legislation and judicial decisions that displeased the West, the administration saw a period of industrial depression, high prices, widespread unemployment, lockouts, and strikes.

The most important strike was that in 1894 of the employees of the Pullman Company, who were led by the American Railway Union. The strike was called to protest unfair working conditions at the Chicago-based Pullman Company, a manufacturer of railroad sleeping cars. It resulted in violence, the deaths of workers, and the destruction of property. President Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to restore order, and the federal courts issued an injunction to break the strike. Several of the strike leaders were imprisoned, including labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Among working classes, particularly the Populists and the more radical Democrats, the episode resulted in increasing discontent with the administration. This dissatisfaction was expressed at the Democratic convention of 1896. Dominated by the radical elements of the West, the convention issued a platform demanding, among other things, the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1 (Bimetallism), and an end to government by federal injunction, as in the Pullman strike. The Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for president; the Republicans, William McKinley. The chief issue of the campaign, in which the economic interests of West and East were sharply opposed, was the silver question. After a strenuous contest, McKinley defeated Bryan.

The McKinley Administrations

The principal event of McKinley's first administration was the Spanish-American War (1898), fought over the issue of the liberation of Cuba. The United States was victorious in the war, and Spain relinquished Cuba and ceded to the United States the Philippine Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Expansion of the nation to include regions outside of the North American continent was denounced as imperialism by the Democratic Party, and became the principal issue of the 1900 presidential campaign. The nation, however, supported the policy of expansion as carried out by the McKinley administration; in the election McKinley again defeated Bryan, this time by a popular majority of almost 1 million votes and by 292 electoral votes to 155. In September 1901 McKinley was assassinated by a crazed anarchist, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became president. His administrations marked a new attitude held by a section of the Republican Party toward the important social, political, and economic questions of the time, and led gradually to a sharp split in the party.

Theodore Roosevelt and Progressivism


Theodore Roosevelt, like Jackson and Lincoln, believed that the president had the duty of initiating and leading Congress to implement a policy of social and economic benefit to the people at large. As he himself put it, he found the presidency "a bully pulpit." Roosevelt's policies, designed to secure a greater measure of social justice in the United States, were outlined in his first message to Congress, on December 3, 1901. Roosevelt's address included demands for federal supervision and regulation of all interstate corporations; for amendment of the Interstate Commerce Act to prohibit railroads from giving special rates to shippers; for the conservation of natural resources; for federal appropriations for irrigation of arid regions in the West; and for extension of the merit system in civil service.

President Roosevelt was particularly noted for his policy regarding the trust, a type of business combination that forms for the purpose of reducing competition and controlling prices. The number of trusts in the United States had increased greatly at the end of the 19th century; only 60 had existed in the United States before the Spanish-American War, whereas 183 were formed between 1899 and 1901. Many of the trusts had practical monopolies of vital commodities such as oil, beef, coal, and sugar or of important utilities such as the railroads. Roosevelt recognized the right of such combinations to exist, but he also insisted on the right of the government to control and regulate the trusts. At his urging, Congress passed several measures designed to help enforce the antitrust laws already on the statute books. Among the new laws were the Elkins Act (1903), aimed at eliminating the discriminatory practice of secret rebates given by various railroads to certain shippers, and the Hepburn Act (1906), aimed at strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission in its authority over railroads and other public carriers. During his administrations (after completing McKinley's administration, Roosevelt was elected in 1904), the Department of Justice instituted 43 suits against the trusts and won several important judicial decisions, including one ordering the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey as a holding company with a monopoly on oil refining.

Other domestic reforms in Roosevelt's program, which he called the Square Deal, were his expansion of forest reserves and national parks; the appointment of the National Conservation Commission in 1908 to promote further conservation; and the passage of the Meat Inspection Act. Also passed was the first of the Pure Food and Drug Acts, which followed a federal investigation of packing-house conditions prompted by revelations made in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) (see Sinclair, Upton Beall). Roosevelt gained worldwide importance through his dramatic speeches and actions as president, his inauguration of the building of the Panama Canal, and his activities in ending the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Roosevelt declined to run for reelection in 1908 and the Republicans nominated his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, based on Roosevelt's recommendation. Taft easily defeated his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan.

The Taft Administration

The Republican platform of 1908, like the Democratic platform of that year, called for a downward revision of the tariff. Nonetheless, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which Congress passed in 1909, was still a high protective tariff. A pronounced split over the tariff questions and other issues developed in the Republican Party during Taft's administration. On one side was the conservative element, the so-called standpatters, who wanted a high tariff and opposed the kind of reforms initiated by Roosevelt. On the other side were the so-called insurgents, later known as progressives, who denounced the high rates of the Payne-Aldrich tariff as a betrayal of the promises made in the Republican platform and criticized the administration for refusing to continue the reforms begun by Roosevelt. Former President Roosevelt openly sided with the progressives; he supported not only tariff revision but other political and economic reforms such as direct primaries, the recall, and an income tax.

In January 1911 the Republican senator from Wisconsin, Robert M. La Follette, organized the National Republican Progressive League to take political action for the principles of the progressive element in the Republican Party. By 1912 the progressives had elected several governors in western states. Standpatters and progressive Republicans engaged in a bitter battle for control of the Republican national convention of June 1912. Defeated in their efforts to seat their delegates, the progressives, led by Roosevelt, bolted the convention and in August organized the Progressive Party. Popularly known as the Bull Moose Party, the progressives nominated Roosevelt for president and Governor Hiram W. Johnson of California for vice president. The regular Republican convention had nominated Taft, and the Democratic Party nominated Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. Because of the split in the Republican ranks, Wilson won decisively.

Wilson and the New Freedom


Woodrow Wilson, like Roosevelt, believed that the presidency should be used for initiating and guiding national legislation in accordance with the chief executive's interpretation of the will of the people. In his inaugural address, he announced his dedication to the task of improving the national life in all possible aspects. Wilson's social, economic, and political policies as a unit are sometimes known as the New Freedom, from the title of a volume by him published in 1913 and containing significant passages from his addresses in the campaign of 1912. Displaying unusual executive ability and skillful control of his cabinet and Congress during most of his two terms in office (he was reelected in 1916), Wilson succeeded in carrying out notable revisions and reforms in the laws governing the tariff, the banking system, trusts, labor, and agriculture.

Under Wilson's guidance and urging, Congress in 1913 passed the Underwood Tariff Act, which provided for a general decrease in the Payne-Aldrich tariff schedules and for an income tax to bring in sufficient revenue to compensate for any loss in national revenue occasioned by the lower tariff duties. To provide the means for furnishing an elastic currency—that is, one that could be readily expanded or contracted to suit the national need, and to establish more effective general supervision of banking than existed at the time, Wilson actively advocated the passage by Congress of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which resulted in the organization of the Federal Reserve System. Also in 1913 the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, requiring that U.S. senators be elected by popular vote rather than by state legislatures.

Wilson considered private monopoly "indefensible and intolerable" and prevailed on Congress in 1914 to pass two important pieces of legislation in regard to trusts. One established the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and prevent unfair methods of business competition; the second was the Clayton Antitrust Act, designed primarily to punish those guilty of employing such unfair methods. The Clayton Act also exempted all labor unions and agricultural associations from the provisions of the antitrust laws; prohibited, in most instances, the use of the injunction in labor disputes; and expressed the principle that strikes, peaceful picketing, and boycotts do not violate the federal laws. Other measures to protect labor passed during Wilson's administration include the La Follette Act, which regulated working conditions for seamen on U.S. ships; laws providing an eight-hour working day for railroad workers on interstate lines; and the prohibition of child labor under certain conditions. The Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 established 12 federal land banks to make money available for long-term farm mortgages at reasonable rates.

Wilson also achieved a victory in domestic affairs when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which legalized women's voting rights, was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920 (see Woman Suffrage).

The most important issues of Wilson's first and second terms, however, were those arising from the outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914, the entrance of the United States into the war in 1917, and the making of peace in 1919. For discussion of these issues, see "World War I," below.

Foreign Affairs (1865-1920)


The period included in the following summary of the foreign relations of the United States may be divided into three parts. In the first, from 1865 to 1898, U.S. foreign policy was determined principally by the attitudes and actions of foreign governments. U.S. foreign policy during these three decades was strongly nationalistic; it did not concern itself with world issues, nor did it enable the United States to play an important part in world affairs. As a result of the Spanish-American War, however, the United States acquired territorial possessions outside its continental area, giving the nation problems of colonial government and control that, together with other factors, compelled it to assume an increasing role in world affairs. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought a period of diplomatic conflict between the United States and Great Britain and between the United States and Germany; in 1917 the United States was finally drawn into the war against Germany and its allies. The United States was influential in the writing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the war in 1919. The U.S. Senate's rejection of the treaty and of U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the covenant for which formed part of the treaty, temporarily reversed the tendency toward U.S. involvement in world affairs.