Gilded Age Politics and Issues in 1880


Although the two major parties agreed on almost every national issue excepting the tariff, the election of 1880 introduced important issues advocated by third parties.

By the time the two dominant political parties met in the summer of 1880, the Civil War and Reconstruction were becoming faded memories as new issues confronted the American nation. These concerns included tariff policy, Civil Service reform, veteran’s benefits, and Asian immigration. Other issues, introduced by third parties, involved women’s suffrage, the establishment of a graduated income tax, prohibition, and the regulation of interstate commerce, particularly as it related to railroads.

The nation was in a period of change as regional concerns began to dominate national politics. The victory of James Garfield as the result of political compromise was as much a reflection of the unwillingness of the parties to confront these concerns as the coming compromises within Gilded Age politics that refused to directly confront the issues of the day.

The Divided Republican Party in 1880

The nomination of James Garfield on the 36th ballot by the divided Republicans was a sequel to the Hayes nomination four years earlier. Garfield, a “dark horse,” represented the compromise between James Blaine and Roscoe Conkling, both of whom coveted the nomination but represented divergent interests within the party. The choice of Chester Arthur as Vice President was a concession to Conkling. Arthur, a Conkling crony, was viewed as a public servant of dubious integrity.

Democrats Nominate a War Veteran

The Democratic Party nominated General Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock had fought throughout the years of the war and had commanded in the South during Reconstruction where he was perceived as having been weak in the protection of the rights of freedmen. This endeared him to the Southern Democrats and most notably the party elite that had achieved “home rule” with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

James Weaver and the Greenback Party

James B. Weaver of Iowa had been one of the most vocal spokesmen of the Greenback Party, formed in 1878 as the Greenback Labor Party. At that time, the Greenback Party endorsed an eight-hour work day and the free coinage of silver. The “soft money” issue, as seen in the party’s name, was important in the west where farmers struggled to pay mortgages and blamed eastern bankers for their troubles. Their monetary concerns would be epitomized in the early 1890s with William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

By 1880 the Greenback Party was ready to run a presidential candidate. The mid-term election had seen 14 Greenback Congressmen elected and had received over one million votes. The 1880 platform included women’s suffrage, the graduated income tax, and federal regulation of railroad freight rates. The party platform foreshadowed the issues advocated by the coming Populist Movement and the 1892 Omaha Platform.

Results of the Election of 1880

Garfield and Hancock were separated by a few thousand popular votes and historians have determined that Indiana and New York were the swing states. The only platform difference between the parties was the tariff issue. Unlike the mid-term election, the Greenback Party received only 308,578 popular votes, not enough to make any difference in the outcome.

James Blaine, one of the Republican contenders, was appointed Secretary of Stare, a position he would fill well and with distinction at a time the United States was flirting with imperialism. Garfield, the new president, would not fare as well. Four months into his presidency, he was shot. Chester Arthur became the President and under his leadership Civil Service reform was achieved. Arthur also advocated tariff reform and vetoed Congressional earmarks.

Changing Issues and the Role of Government

Few of the Presidents after Abraham Lincoln up to Teddy Roosevelt played pivotal roles in national leadership. But change was coming in terms of national issues. Eventually, these changes, often through third party pressures, resulted in Congressional action. In this regard, the Gilded Age was a period of political incubation from which populist ideals would emerge to reform many aspects of American society.


  1. Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns From George Washington to George W, Bush (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  2. Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era (Penguin, 1984)