Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics / Edition 1

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Much of late-nineteenth-century American politics was parade and pageant. Voters crowded the polls, and their votes made a real difference on policy. In Party Games, Mark Wahlgren Summers tells the full story and admires much of the political carnival, but he adds a cautionary note about the dark recesses: vote-buying, election-rigging, blackguarding, news suppression, and violence.
Summers also points out that hardball politics and third-party challenges helped make the parties more responsive. Ballyhoo did not replace government action. In order to maintain power, major parties not only rigged the system but also gave dissidents part of what they wanted. The persistence of a two-party system, Summers concludes, resulted from its adaptability, as well as its ruthlessness. Even the reform of political abuses was shaped to fit the needs of the real owners of the political system—the politicians themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With acerbic wit and an incomparable grasp of period detail, Summers paints a picture of U.S democracy's late nineteenth-century style."
American Historical Review

"Perceptively illuminates. . . . Creative and wide-ranging. . . . Places black men at the center of their own self-construction and should not be overlooked in any consideration of African American and masculinity studies."
American Studies

"With impressive research . . . Summers effectively links [Gilded age politics] into a coherent political universe, illuminated by interesting and often obscure vignettes. . . . An important and provocative book that commands attention and will reward reading."
Journal of Southern History

"A welcome addition to Gilded Age political historiography. . . . Challenges accepted historiography and provides a lively account of the professionals who dominated US politics at the end of the nineteenth-century."
Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire

Summers examines the American political system of the late nineteenth century with a behind-the-scenes look at the poll taxes, rigged elections, and other electoral shenanigans designed to bring large numbers of voters to the polls but still keep power in the hands of major partisan players.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807855379
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Wahlgren Summers is Thomas D. Clark Professor of History at the University of Kentucky. He is author of many books, including The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878 and Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884.

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Read an Excerpt

Party Games

Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics
By Mark Wahlgren Summers

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5537-5

Chapter One

A Typical Year

Bring the good old frying-pan, we're going to fry some fat; Bring a peck of anthracite in grandpa's old white hat, Put the "Protects" in the pan, then we'll know "where they're at" While we are frying for Bennie. -New York World, August 19, 1892

Particulars aside, the 1888 campaign was one like any other.

Every election differs from every other, of course. There was no mistaking blunt, bulky Grover Cleveland for any other president, his rough edges softened by a White House marriage, his great frame stirred only by a sense of duty and a passion for hard work. "We love him ... for the enemies he has made," an admirer had declared, and in four years of vetoing private pension grabs and scowling down office beggars, Cleveland should have increased that love tenfold. Not since 1840 had a Democratic incumbent president sought a second term. Contemporaries couldn't help remembering it: the winner, William Henry Harrison, was grandfather to Republicans' current nominee, former senator Benjamin Harrison. Political old-timers compared the parades and gimmickry to that first "log cabin and hard cider" campaign, and Democratic cartoonists drew Harrison as a half-pint, dwarfed under his grandfather's hat. Read the tracts, hear the marching masses' cries, and 1888 might seem the election of elections, settling the nation's destinies for the next quarter century. "Vote out Republican disease," the New York Sun exhorted,

Vote out the nation's lasting hurt; Vote out four years of bloody shirt, Vote in four years of thorough peace.

Armageddon with brass bands: that was the 1888 campaign.

And every other. If any partisan had paused to flip through newspapers' back files, he would have discovered that the country, by its votes in 1868, apparently chose bayonet rule over revolution and anarchy, just as it selected empire and robbery over free love and treason in 1872, fraud in vote-counting over fraud in vote-casting in 1876, political degeneracy over economic ruin in 1880, and sexual depravity over a saturnalia of corruption in 1884. The republic was always at stake. This heightened, apocalyptic sense was one by-product of the political carnival.

In truth, just about everything about 1888 was new except the basic pattern: the methods, wiles, and arts of the politician. The 1888 campaign, therefore, becomes a fitting showcase not just for the pleasures of partisan politics but for its perils. Hoopla, hype, trickery, bribery, and fraud were as natural to the process as a torchlight parade. Not just in its best but in its worst and most manipulative, not just in its most public attractions but in its most private rascalities, this was a typical election year in the so-called party period.

The brighter side of partisan display was plain to see. Politics could be savored in buttons, campaign clubs, and parades, and in the contributions of an intensely partisan press. "The whole face of the country is plastered with politics," a visitor to the Indiana farm country reported. "Seen from a train, the whole country might be thought the camp of some great army with the flags marking regimental headquarters." Every town had one mass meeting, and most cities had more. Just before the election, Republicans and Democrats shared the same night and paraded down different streets in New York. Each spectacle had its own attractions, of course. Democrats put the mother of Irish patriot Charles Stewart Parnell on their reviewing stand and Wild West showman "Buffalo Bill" Cody in a yellow dogcart. Onlookers could see banners of blue and gold, and scarlet pennants ornamented with golden legends, canes with flags waving from the handle, brass bands tramping under the guerdon of a stuffed rooster, platoons wielding brooms, jewelers carrying life-size portraits of the president, and endless mottoes. For the first time, campaign buttons became the fashion, including one for Cleveland that looked like the pin that members of the Grand Army of the Republic wore-which, since most GAR members were Republican, put many Union veterans in a rage. Consciously cultivated to give politics a more moral tone, women were enlisted in campaign clubs, displayed on floats as symbols of liberty and the purity of the republic, and provided with a whole array of badges that combined partisan identification with that tastefulness and discretion that a male electorate expected of ladies-whose involvement in politics, of course, was preeminently to protect home, family, and morality and unsullied by a sordid desire for offices or power. Something new called a "kazoo" allowed partisans to project a tune "with a lugubrious, whining intensity of dolor," and since these sold for twenty dollars per hundred, there was no escaping them. Songsters issued "rot of an offensively partisan character," and canvassers passed out cigars that may have been even more offensive than they were partisan. "I am so glad this damn campaign is over," labor leader Terence V. Powderly sighed as election day approached; "if it lasted another month, I believe every man, woman and child in the country would be stark, staring mad."

Likely enough, Powderly was not contemplating the kazoos. Republicans were incensed at the smear campaign of faked quotations from Benjamin Harrison. Not that they should have felt surprised; the spirit of intense partisanship that set parades in motion inevitably breached the rules of courtesy and biased each party's press to keep lies alive. Indianapolis residents knew that during the great railroad strike of 1877, Harrison never drilled a private company and marched them to the depot threatening to start "them trains running by force." They were not likely to believe that he ever said "a dollar a day was enough for any workingman" and "any amount was too much for a striker." But the quotations spread, and all Harrison's own denials could not stop them.

Even more sinister was the undercurrent of ugly gossip about Grover Cleveland's marriage, the inescapable result of campaigns so committed to selling a candidate's personality and the recognition of women's particular interest in upholding the highest personal morality in public life. High-placed Republicans carried on a whispering campaign, alleging that Cleveland beat his wife and went on drunken sprees. Confronted with his role in fostering the stories, Senator John J. Ingalls offered a curious defense. The very fact that the president's friends felt called upon to deny the charges was all but a confirmation that they were true, he declared. In West Virginia, the stories were traced back to the wives of Republican leaders, though far less delicate versions regaled the smoking rooms.

Whereas Cleveland's domestic life was whispered, of course, the tariff issue was shouted. In explaining policy issues in detail, the Gilded Age party system showed itself at its best, and the tariff certainly was one about which the voters, whether as consumers or producers, had every right to care. Workers knew that changes in rates would affect their own wages or general prosperity, though the parties differed on exactly how. In an age when women's attention to politics seemed to be quickening, and certain causes like the restraint of the liquor traffic had turned growing numbers of them into activists at election time, talk about the tariff was sure to appeal to mothers and wives worried about what the family's breadwinner earned and how much a week's wage could buy, and to temperance advocates aware that the liquor traffic throve in part because the government needed excise taxes to make ends meet. Raise tariff rates and the government could afford to shut down saloons without reckoning the cost. Women could vote just about nowhere, but both parties counted on their support to make men vote right and to soften what might seem a matter of crass advantage into a question of virtue and protecting the home. For that, Republicans warned, was just what was at stake. Did husbands want to see their wives "unsex themselves in their struggle for bread" like free-trade England's? Did they want to see "the pregnant mother" sent into the factory and the brothels filled by women unable to make a decent living on the starvation wages that foreign competition were sure to bring?

But amid the many arguments intricate and subtle that both sides retailed, the issue also was used to prove one party patriotic and the other one un-American, even treasonable, or to show that legislation was bought and sold like meat in a butcher's shop. What Republicans were aiming for was not that catchphrase of the late 1880s, the ideal of genteel reformers, a "campaign of education," but a feeling of alarm, even panic. In close northeastern industrial states, even a modest defection would shift the balance, and any issue appealing to class and ethnic loyalties at the same time was doubly useful. Party managers were bidding for the Irish American vote especially. Any enemy of England was Ireland's friend, and so Republicans gave the British lion's tail a twist whenever they could. John Bull-baiting fitted well with the protective tariff issue; England was America's greatest rival for industrial goods and, protectionists warned, would expand into American markets the moment tariff walls fell. Irish Americans were reminded that "free trade ruined Ireland" and by it was ruined still. Throughout the campaign, Republicans spotted Cleveland badges of the finest silk that English mills could spin-as fine, indeed, as the English-made Harrison badges proclaiming, "No Free Trade, but Protection for America."

Finding quotations proving the Republican case was as easy as lying. It took only a typewriter and some imagination. Who, for example, in reading a damning confession from the English Iron Era, would check to see whether any such magazine existed? Republicans passed out tens of thousands of cards with the Union Jack on one side and quotes from English newspapers on the other, all assuring readers that a vote for Grover was a vote for England. "It need hardly be said that these quotations from the London papers are of exclusively American manufacture," the St. James Gazette commented.

Democrats played the patriot game, too. On the West Coast especially, they tried to tie a Chinese pigtail to the protectionists. How could a tariff raise wages, when Republicans glutted the labor market with immigrants who came without families to support or appetites requiring more than "rat pie"? Republicans had put through the Burlingame Treaty, opening America to Chinese coolies by the thousands; two Republican presidents had vetoed laws excluding the immigrants permanently, and the 1882 law had passed with Republican opposition, Harrison's included. Whites in Chinese masks and outfits paraded as a "Hallison Band," beating tin pans and clashing cymbals. "hallison's Flends," the New York Herald shrieked:

Chicago's Mongolian Republicans raise a campaign fund. They hope to vote some day. Working for harrison because they consider him their friend.

Democrats proved their good intentions more concretely. In the closing hours of Congress, free-trade congressman William L. Scott of Pennsylvania offered a bill canceling the return permits of some 12,000 Chinese laborers who had returned home. A panicked House stampeded it through, and only three senators dared vote against it. "Cleveland and Scott / Made the Chinese trot," paraders chanted.

At the same time, Democrats took their own twist of the British lion's tail, though compared to their rivals, they looked like amateurs. Responding to the opposition's emphasis on Harrison's pedigree, one newspaper traced his ancestors back to an English general among Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads, who, it alleged, took part in the massacre of 3,000 Irish prisoners at Drogheda. Under political pressure from leading party operatives at national committee headquarters, President Cleveland sent in a message to Congress demanding retaliatory legislation against Canada for its refusal to extend landing privileges to American fishing fleets. Everyone knew that the real purpose of Cleveland's sudden militancy was political. "The President has done just what I expected him to do," Senator John Spooner of Wisconsin wrote disgustedly. "He has run up the American flag." From Irish Americans, a flood of telegrams of approval poured into the White House. Catholic newspapers applauded. "Instead of a campaign of dreary statistics," a New York lawyer rejoiced, "it gave us a sentimental issue."

It did, indeed, but only on temporary loan. To the British minister in Washington, Lionel Sackville-West, came a letter, apparently from one Charles F. Murchison, asking advice. Murchison was English-born and at heart still English, and the campaign troubled him. With all the president's posturing, he was no longer sure which presidential candidate would serve British interests best; could Sackville-West help him? Too much of a gentleman or a fool to suspect a trick, the British minister wrote back, assuring Murchison that Cleveland's call for retaliation was all a campaign ruse and advising a vote for Cleveland. But there was no Murchison. A citrus grower from southern California, George Osgoodby, had imposed on Sackville-West to smoke out England's true sentiments. Republican chairman Matthew Quay ran off "millions of copies" of the letter. Quickly, the president sent the minister packing in time for paraders to greet him with,

Sack! Sack! Sackville West! Cleveland's in the White House-? You know the rest!

But the damage had been done. "They have given Sir Sackville the shake," Senator John Sherman told one audience, "and now all that remains for you to do is to give Mr. Cleveland the sack."

The Irish vote took more than sensations to peel it from its traditional Democratic loyalties. A sizable chunk would go where its leaders drove it, and the leaders with whom the party chose to deal were men cultivated and financed by Republican Party managers. "Nothing is required but careful and immediate organization," a Pennsylvania industrialist wrote the vice presidential nominee. "I have spent large sums in helping these men perfect their organization and I have increased since my last letter to you my personal expenditures to an amount all told in excess of $29,000."

Money, indeed, was everywhere. A campaign could not get along without it, and that of 1888 showed how far the need for it defined the major parties' leadership and the way managers chose to direct public debate. Observers noted that the Democratic National Committee looked like a railroad board of directors, and there were plenty of representatives of coal interests, too. Tariff reform meant money in the purse for some firms, as well as financial risks for others.


Excerpted from Party Games by Mark Wahlgren Summers Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: The Dog That Didn't Bark at Night
I Our Friend the Enemy
1 A Typical Year 3
2 What Else Could He Have Put into H--l? 19
3 Politics Is Only War without the Bayonets 33
4 The Demon Lovers 55
II Party Tricks
5 The Press of Public Business 73
6 The Best Majority Money Can Buy 91
7 An Eye on the Maine Chance 107
8 Anything, Lord, but Milwaukee! Malapportionment and Gerrymandering 125
III Policy - The Golden Rule?
9 Purse'n'All Influence 141
10 The (Round) House of Legislation 161
11 Class Warfare, Mainstream-Party Style 175
IV Rounding off the Two and a Half Party System
12 The Treason of the Ineffectuals 195
13 A Little Knight Music 211
14 The Fix Is In 229
15 Dishing the Pops 251
Coda: Parties to a Conspiracy 277
Notes 283
Bibliography 321
Index 345
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