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With a single shot of John Wilkes Booth’s pistol, the greatest President that ever served America was dead. With the Civil War barely over and with the country in a complete state of moral and political chaos, Abraham Lincoln’s death could not have come at a worse time. (1) The great leader, the brave revolutionary, the progressive politician – Abraham Lincoln was the man who held an ever-changing America together, the only candidate to lead America forward and leave the brutalities of the Civil War, and of course slavery, behind.
As it was, Lincoln’s death at Ford’s Theatre could not have come at a worse time for the nation – the death of a national hero, when the people needed him most. (1) His assassination marked the beginning of political chaos within America’s upper echelons, and most unfortunately condemned the south to decades of isolation and the races to a long arduous painful struggle, which remains. (4c)(1) With one single bullet, the soul was immediately ripped out of American politics and all the work of one great man nearly undone.
Never before was a strong leader more needed to capitalise on this great opportunity for the country, than after Lincoln’s murder. A man to carry the mantle for this new “free” America, a great leader to unite the people once again, a man to make America great. Unfortunately, all they got was Andrew Johnson. If the people had wanted a replica of Abraham Lincoln, they were hugely disappointed. As a Democrat from the border state of Tennessee, Johnson was never going to be a mould in Lincoln’s image. (4c) He became very much his own man – whether this was to the benefit of American politics, is highly doubtful.
Never before had a President distanced himself so much from Congress. He was egotistical and narrow-minded and never seemed to fully comprehend the complexity of the war that had taken place. As a white southerner, Johnson’s feelings towards blacks were at best mixed. This was seen in his instruction to ex-rebel states to draw up state constitutions and allow ex-confederate leaders to dominate these state governments. (1) Johnson gave these states pretty much “free rein” over their own affairs and his policy of silence and non-interference was damaging to the freedmen, allowing the states to remain loyal to “the ause”. (1) Slavery was officially dead, but oppression was thriving. Violence against the freedmen became commonplace and with the introduction of the hugely controversial “Black Codes” in many states, blacks were denied all but their basic civil rights. Overall, there was a ridiculously ignorant and narrow-minded, yet widely accepted, view that “the blacks at large belong to the whites” (Carl Schulz). (1) The infamous Ku Klux Klan (1865) carried out unprecedented violent attacks on the freedmen. (4f) The cowardice of Johnson was seeing all hopes for a brighter future unravel before the freedmen’s eyes.
What would Abe Lincoln have thought? However, Johnson was not allowed have an easy ride – Congress fought back and moved to exclude Johnson’s own senators and representatives from the house. (1) To further rile Congress, Johnson in turn vetoed a proposed Fourteenth Amendment (4d)– which defined a U. S. Citizen (including African Americans) – gave extension of powers to the Freedman’s Bureau, and included a reformed civil rights law. (4d) There was now a complete split between the President and the Republican Party.
This in turn united the Republican Party; they were united in their hatred of Johnson and now abandoned him. (1) Inevitably, impeachment proceedings were brought against Johnson instigated by Edwin Stanton (the first of its kind to be brought against any American President). These were rightly rejected by Congress. If this had been passed it would have threatened the basis of the Constitutional system that would have caused political chaos. (4a) However, one positive outcome of the whole affair was that it warned all future Presidents not to follow Johnson’s example. In other words, don’t mess with Congress!
In 1868, Johnson was finally replaced through the normal political process, by the people’s choice, the hero of Appomattox and Vicks, Ulysses S. Grant (4c) – a very much passive President whose hunger and dedication to the role must come into question. (1) However, despite Grant’s failings as President, at least Congress was united once again and the Congressional majority could now concentrate on the problem of the South and the blacks without interference. Proposed plans for reform in the South were defeated – plans to industrialize it and form the South in the image of the progressive North deemed impossible.
For the South had changed greatly – it was now riddled with economic problems with the death of slavery leaving a void in Southern institutions. The general consensus among many was that it must be left for the southerners to sort out – black and white. (1)(4e) Meanwhile, the radical Republican programme was continuing to make massive strides forward: in March 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed giving blacks the vote: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by any state on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude”. 2)(4d) The Unionists now had the help of black voters and educating them how to vote and more precisely, how to vote Republican, was a priority. (1)(4e) The freed men were now willing and eager to make the most of their freedom – they were no longer irrelevant in American society – for the first time they had a voice.
The freedmen’s cause also had a large volume of support behind it from varying sectors: the scalawags and carpetbaggers (essential to radical reconstruction and always eager for change in the South), the capitalists and industrialists (wanting to capitalise on the rich mineral wealth of the South – coal, iron, oil – and of course to maximise its labour supply), and support also from the national institutions (army, church, Freedman’s Bureau, state militias, Union League). (1) With this formidable force behind it the black’s status was gradually improving.
Public education was provided and property qualifications for voting were scrapped along with a framework of law not introduced in southern states. (2) This all helped the modernisation of the South (e. g. famous universities such as Howard, Atlanta and Fisk date from this time). (4e) However as the North progressed at a rapid rate, it found new excitement, new pleasures, new factories, new farms and its people and politicians became increasingly bored with the backward South. Time killed off radical leaders and the passion of newly elected civil war leaders died. Times were changing. 1) The Democratic Party now campaigned for black votes and the Republicans did likewise for white supremist votes. The North was now much more concerned with hating the new threat to American liberty, the Irish and European immigrants. (1)(4b) The South, however, had a different, less passive attitude than their Northern cousins.
The South was an entirely different place to the North – it may as well have been another world. Reconstruction for the North involved reintroducing states to the political fold on tolerable terms; for the South it meant rebuilding society from its foundations. 1) The divisions in the South at the time were plain for all to see; divisions between blacks and whites, (2) confederates and scalawags, and the classes (farmer class and planter class. ) There was also the economic problem – a southern economy that was based almost solely on cotton suffered hugely as a result of the abolition of slavery and the resulting shortage of a cheap labour supply. (1)(4f) As a result the despair of the South was expressed through savage race conflict and physical force. (4f) “This is a white man’s government”.
This was a call, made ever louder by the growing power and influence of the Ku Klux Klan. Attempts to prevent blacks from voting, drive them from landholdings and intimidate them to prevent them gaining any confidence were all brutally achieved. (1) “Corruption is the fashion”. (1) Meanwhile, American politics was going through its most dishonest era in history. With unmanageable debts arising from attempts to rebuild South and with corruption and incompetence rife throughout the entire Grant administration there was a split in the Republican party. 1) The 1872 election was fought between the Democrats and now “Liberal Republicans” – thus proving that two-party politics was here to stay. Grant just survived the Democratic challenge. Now, however, the Democrats had a new lease of life, a new optimism based on the anti-business Jacksonian platform. (1) This optimism was further inflated with the Democratic victory in the Congressional election in 1874. (1) Was Reconstruction coming to an end? As it turned out, no. Republican party candidate Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration undoubtedly rigged the 1876 Presidential election in his defeat of Samuel Tilden.
Reconstruction was however unofficially dead and by the looks of it, American politics and morals had gone with it. To avert another civil war and to calm the fuming Democrats – a compromise was reached (The Compromise of 1877). (4G) Hayes promised investment in the South in return for the improved treatment of African – Americans. As it turned out this did turn out to be too good to be true. There were still united attacks on blacks and a general decline in the blacks’ social status. Similarly, Hayes returned the compliment in showing little interest in the South – in a region that always voted Democratic. 1) Overall, it must be said that Reconstruction had failed in almost every way. The South was still in turmoil. The blacks were still being treated as second-class citizens (at best) and the southern whites coping with poor land, poor capital and seemingly no hope for the future. Reconstruction did bring about the 14th and 15th amendments giving a solid grounding for blacks in the North. These amendments however did not properly affect blacks in the South for another hundred years. (1) What would Abe Lincoln think? This was a time when the title “President” mattered very little.
Passive and corrupt Presidents became very much the norm – Presidents seemingly doing their utmost to undo the great work of Abraham Lincoln. President Rutherford B. Hayes rigged 1874 election; (4g)(4c) President Garfield will only be remembered for being shot by Charles J. Guiteau; President Arthur was a quiet dignified President, that’s all. (4c) Congress held all the great power now and this is also where the corruption in American politics was most prevalent. Selfish Senators often used their power and exploited their influence to get wealthier off big business corporations. (1) It was clear, politics stank.
It is true that the need to eradicate corruption was not helped by the two-party system that now was clearer than ever in American politics. (3)(2) This old-style Jeffersonian system left states to their own devices thus making the disease of corruption almost untreatable, and of course the corruptors almost untouched. (1) It was the mixture of old politics and a new society – a society unable to cope with the rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution changed America into what it is today – a continental nation, rich and productive economically populous, and industrialized, with various ethnic origins. 4b)(1) America was effectively the first fully modern society but as we have seen, was in a constant struggle with itself to adapt to this new “Gilded Age”. (3) In my opinion, this proves and merely underlines the flaws in the Constitutional Political system: it is a system that proved incapable of abolishing slavery peacefully and now was evidently unable to industrialize America morally. Meanwhile, it was now a fact that the big business millionaires and capitalists that were resulting from industrialisation practically owned state governments.
Entrepreneurs such as Frick, Carnegie and Rockefeller held absolute control over this new breed of greedy politician. (1) The businessmen competed furiously with each other taking potentially huge risks in the hope of claiming potentially huge profits. (3) Although the politicians in question were by no means godly, it must be said that they were always loyal to their party and extremely patriotic. They kept promises and looked after their own people. They were in politics to make a good living – it was the “American Way”.
However, the Mugwumps were the first group to make their dissent about this continuing epidemic of corruption matter – a group consisting of mainly liberal Republicans. Although the Mugwumps never posed any major threat to politicians they did have their achievements: (1) helped defeat of James Blaine (Republican) by Grover Cleveland in 1884 election. (2) pushed for introduction of secret ballots by 1892 in thirty-three states ( in an attempt to avoid violence and bribery present in past elections). (3) were essentially the spokesmen for the American conscience at the time.
The new expanding free education in America now taught children Mugwump ways – taught morals, patriotism and loyalty. Ultimately, however, the Mugwumps never fulfilled their great potential as a serious political party as they were blind to providing for the poorer classes – unlike the established politicians. (1)(4i) Meanwhile, relatively speaking, times looked healthy for the American economy: abundant rainfall, good harvests, easy credit – all resulted in benefits for both towns and farms. The winter of 1886-87 changed all that: cattle were destroyed and so-called ‘cattle-kings’ were ruined.
Similarly, the summer of drought in 1887 meant that the Kansas harvest failed. (‘In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted’). (1) Now times looked bad. Income for farmers naturally decreased and instead of blaming their own faults, turned their anger towards the mismanaged railroads. (3) The ruthless competition of building railroads in the East, resulted in the businessmen allowing Free Fares for Congressmen for using certain lines and provided ‘rebates’ for big shippers (e. g. Standard Oil). This resulted in the farmers having to pay more to railways to cover the capitalists’ costs adding to the problems of drought.
Farmers were now convinced that there was some kind of conspiracy against American agriculture. (1)(3) Everything the American farmer believed in was under threat from this new monster of industry and commerce. All sections of farmers in both the South and West (despite civil war) came together to form the Farmers’ Alliance in an attempt at improving the farmer’s lot. (4i) Farmers now expressed themselves through politics. In 1888 several farmer’s parties contested state elections and fared well (though at Presidential level everything stayed as normal with Benjamin Harrison (Republican) replacing the sterile Cleveland)
The newly formed People’s Party in 1892 was another sign of success on the farmers’ part. The real strength of the party was in the enthusiasm of its supporters – the Populists, headed by General James Weaver, did extremely well in the 1892 Presidential election, gaining a very respectable 1029840 votes. (1)(4i) It was a party aiming to restore the soul of America, a soul that had been eaten away in a haze of corruption and greed since the great Lincoln’s murder.
The Populists now set out on this great political crusade (not seen since 1840) and laid the agenda for reforms for the next twenty years. They sought dramatic changes: (1) (1) the free coinage of silver (2) a form of income tax be introduced (3) the sub treasury plan of the Farmers’ Alliance (4) the nationalization of railroads (5) the introduction of the secret ballot system in all states (6) a restriction on immigration (which had risen to unprecedented levels with the arrival of Europeans in search of a better living in America. (7) the limit of one-term for Presidents and vice-Presidents (8) Senators to be chosen by the people (9) and most controversially, it called for a national currency to be introduced that could adapt to the needs of the people. (1)(4) The currency question caused a complete split in Congress between the free traders and the protectionists. This substantial divide meant that no rational tariff would be possible. (4j) Grover Cleveland was one man opposed to a high tariff. Siding with the ordinary, working-class views, Cleveland’s popular vote naturally increased and he was re-elected for a econd term in 1892. It would be fair to label this term in office as an unqualified failure. (1)(4c)(4j) The economy immediately floundered. He failed to prevent or withdraw the 1890 McKinley Tariff, which undoubtedly favoured the monopolists. Attempts to restore business confidence failed, as businessmen remained unwilling to take risks at such an unsteady time. Efforts by Cleveland to defend the gold-standard (he was widely known as a staunch ‘gold-bug’) only served to widen the gap between himself and Congress.
It cannot be denied that this ’gold-bug’ administration completely failed to help the ordinary people through this economic depression – Cleveland failed to revive the economy. (1)(4j) As expected, the Democrats did badly in the 1894 Congressional elections as a wave of strikes swept the country in a vain attempt to prevent mass lay-offs. And what did Cleveland do to help these people most affected by this economic deadline? He introduced labour injunctions and sent federal troops to Chicago to break the railroad strike. (1) The people demanded and deserved more. Discontent grew, as did socialist ideas (similar to Populist ideas. There was a growing demand for greenbacks to be introduced (Fiat money), (1) which would allow the government to regulate the circulation of money. However Weaver made the fatal mistake of concentrating solely on the currency question in the lead up to the 1896 election as this issue had no appeal for those struggling industrial workers – they just wanted work! In the end, the election transpired to be economically irrelevant – instead it became a straight battle between the industrial society and farming communities and settled the identity of the Democratic and Republican parties for good.
The Republicans, led by William McKinley and his influential understudy Marcus Alonso Hanna represented the higher class society in America and lectured on the importance of the gold standard (Hanna certainly dominated the campaign while coaching McKinley how to behave). (1)(4k) The Democrats, on the other hand, aimed to rid themselves of all Cleveland’s work. In effect, the populists had captured the Democratic Party and this was confirmed when William Jennings Bryan was chosen to head their campaign. 4k) He was a man of reform and spoke for the plain, ordinary people of rural America. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”. (1) Emphatic and deeply biblical, the language spoke of something of huge importance to the Democrats. It must be said that Bryan re-committed the party to its original principles – principles that kept the party out of office for sixteen years, however, principles that were ultimately beneficial to it.
McKinley took the election and the Republicans captured both houses of Congress, which signifies the shift from America from a rural nation to an urbanised one. American politics now had a system and the parties had an identity. Hanna brought Republicans to the wealthy side, while Bryan put the Democratic future firmly into the hands of the poor and weak. (1)(4k) In my opinion, this makes the 1896 election the most important Presidential Election in American history. And then for some reason, the economy picked up.
Businesses began to boom again, farmers’ hopes improved and most importantly that famous American self-confidence was restored. (1) As it entered the 20th century, times began to look good again. The nineteenth century ended as it began, in violence. McKinley’s declaration of war on Spain in 1898 put a brief halt to the nation’s progressiveness. It was a brief, yet intensely fought conflict that ultimately led to a victory for the U. S. Navy, resulting in the Spaniards relinquishing their claim to ownership of certain parts of the Caribbean and Pacific, to the Americans. The Spanish/American War – April/July 1898). (4h) Many questions had to be answered going into a new century. Could America fulfil its potential? Could the societies of industry and agriculture live in harmony? Could blacks be accepted as equals? Could immigration be controlled in a way to help American citizens? Could America ever find another leader in the mould of Abraham Lincoln? Could American politics regain its moral values? Could America become the great nation that Lincoln once spoke of? As the great man once said; “With malice toward none, with harity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations” (Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. March 4, 1865). (4c) It was now up to America itself to make him proud.