Saturday, September 25, 2010
Clio Speaks - Party Conflict: Republicans versus Democrats, 1877-1901
Clio, History's Muse
Between 1877 and 1901, the Democrats and Republicans, while competing on fairly even terms, engaged in an intense partisan battle for political supremacy. In a public arena devoid of a mass media and professional sports entertainment, partisan politics provided the public with a spellbinding national spectacle. Party affiliation amounted to zealotry, akin to religious devotion, and the outcome of the two major parties' battle assumed enormous preeminence in public life. Campaign strategies, contemporary circumstances, and economic conditions affected the fates of the parties. Voters ousted the Democratic party during the Panic of 1893 and turned to the Republican party. When economic stability returned, Republicans took the credit.
The two major parties differed in their approach as to how much the government should intervene in matters of economic development. Republicans endorsed government activism as a means of developing the nation's wealth. Democrats insisted that the government's role should be minimal. Both parties opposed the growth of trusts, and agreed that government size and power should not be increased to regulate the economy or enforce social justice (although the Republicans believed that federal government should protect civil rights in the South). At the top of the Republican economic agenda was the protective tariff, which appealed to patriotic and nationalist sentiments, and won the support of labor groups. The protective tariff united Republicans and divided Democrats. Also, culture and religion affected party allegiance. The Protestant ethos of the Republican party won supporters in the Northeast and Midwest but alienated less evangelical religious groups, such as Roman Catholics and German Lutherans intent on protecting their cultural, as well as their religious freedom. Democrats defended white supremacy and enjoyed support primarily from the white Old South; blacks were staunch Republicans. The debate over a gold standard or free silver created divisions within the parties. In presidential elections and Congress, the parties shared equal power, and by the late nineteenth century experienced a 'gridlock.' In 1892, the People's, or Populist, party challenged the Democrats and Republicans.
The Panic of 1893, the nineteenth century's worst and most protracted economic depressions, was blamed on Democratic President Cleveland's administration, even though the causes of the depression preceded Cleveland's return to office. Labor unrest, most notably the Pullman Strike and Coxey's Army, further weakened the administration, as labor turned against the Democrats. The election of 1894 proved a political turning point, as power was transferred to the Republicans, first in the House of Representatives, the largest transfer in teh history of the United States, and then in the White House with McKinley's victory in 1896. Democratic hopeful William Jennings Bryan's single-issue free silver campaign, however appealing, could not reestablish the Democrats in the White House. After 1896, the Populist party waned. In 1897, Congress enacted the Dingley Tariff Act, which raised customs duties. The war with Spain in 1898 boosted McKinley's authority, and the Gold Standard Act of 1900 established the monetary standard. McKinley's assassination in 1900 saw the ascendancy of Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Party. The protective tariff, civil service, and the gold standard questions were replaced by more complex questions, such as the role of political parties and government regulation of business.