Illinois During the Gilded Age

Political Development in Gilded-Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

Illinois, which had so often voted Democratic in the era of Stephen Douglas, became a Republican state after the Civil War. The Civil War cemented many Illinois residents' ties to the party of the Union, and Abraham Lincoln's tragic assassination only deepened their loyalty. But a more complex set of circumstances led to a fundamental realignment of Illinois politics as well. The Civil War gave rise to new organizations, such as the Union League Club, which had often acted as Republican auxiliaries in the tumult of the war. In peacetime, many of these groups turned their energies to electing Republican candidates. The emergence of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union war veterans first organized at Decatur in 1866, bolstered the Republican Party's electoral cause as well. Economic changes also affected Illinois politics. During the war Illinois had become an increasingly industrial state receptive to Republicans' high tariffs and railroad promotion.

President Andrew Johnson But the Republican Party was not without its own dilemmas, conflicts, and crises. The federal government faced the task of returning the southern states to the Union and securing the rights of freedmen and women. With Lincoln's assassination, the task of leading this work fell to Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had replaced Hannibal Hamlin on Lincoln's 1864 ticket in an effort to appeal to southern unionists.

After a brief honeymoon, many party leaders came to reject Lincoln's southern successor. Although he was willing to accept the Thirteenth Amendment's emancipation and some civil rights for African-Americans, Johnson soon proved receptive to the entreaties of southern white supremacists eager to rejoin the Union on favorable terms and devise new ways to control the black population. Johnson's call for leniency toward the South outraged his party, and many feared that he would follow in the steps of John Tyler, another vice president added to balance a ticket only to turn upon the party that elected him.

The struggle over Reconstruction divided Republicans. Radicals demanded that the federal government take up an active program to remake southern society in order to ensure freedmen their rights. Moderates advocated a program of legal rights without larger federal support. While many Republicans advocated an immediate break with President Johnson, Illinois leaders, including Senator Lyman Trumbull, counseled patience. But when Johnson vetoed Trumbull's bills to secure blacks' civil rights and empower a Freedmen's Bureau to protect them, he lost the support of his party in Illinois and across the north.

Ultimately the conflict with Johnson brought moderate and radical Republicans together, and they agreed to form new state governments in the South on the basis of black suffrage and the exclusion of ex-rebels. Where southern states had once enjoyed the opportunity to rejoin the Union with only the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, they now faced an arduous process that obliged them to ratify the Amendment, write black voting rights into state constitutions, and apply to the Republican Congress for readmission.

Despite the voters' rejection of his policies, Johnson continued to obstruct the Congress' Reconstruction project. In February of 1868 the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. The House vote sent the president on to a trial before the Senate, which would determine his fate. Ultimately, seven Republicans broke with the Radicals and held the Senate one vote short of the required two-thirds necessary to remove Johnson from office.1

The matter of political spoils badly damaged the Republican Party, both nationally and in Illinois. Despite the new state constitution's closing of several legal loopholes, many officeholders and their friends persisted in enriching themselves at the public's expense. In 1869's local elections Republicans and Democrats often combined forces to run "citizens" tickets that defeated the “ring” tickets put forward by Republican machines. In other locales Democratic candidates displaced Republicans tarnished by scandal. At a national level, the issue of political corruption split the Republican Party again.

Losing confidence in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, many Republicans distanced themselves from their party and began to work for political reform. Reformers often criticized governments' persistent awards of lucrative state contracts to political insiders and the wholesale appointment of individuals only distinguished by their contributions to Republican campaign efforts to civil service positions. Their movement resulted in the Liberal Republican Party's challenge to the two-party system in 1872.

Many of Illinois' top Republicans, including Governor John Palmer, the German-American leader Gustave Koerner, Senator Lyman Trumbull and Supreme Court Chief Justice David Davis, sought the new party's presidential nomination. But the Liberal Republican convention in Cincinnati, Ohio could not agree on a strong candidate, and compromised by naming the New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Democrats, at loose ends, accepted Greeley as their own nominee as well.

The new party signaled the emergence of a new middle class of professional men, including many Republicans and some northern Democrats, devoted to administrative competence in government, but the Liberal Republicans (often referred to as “Mugwumps”) made little attempt to appeal to traditional Democratic voters. Nor did they address the concerns of farmers or other voters alienated by the two-party system. Illinois, like the rest of the north, gave its solid support to President Grant, and he returned to Washington for a second term marred by corruption and scandal.2

In the fall of 1876 the national electorate seemed to return the Democratic Party to the White House. Democrats disputed close election returns in three southern states still controlled by Republican Reconstruction government. They suggested that officials in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana had awarded their states' electoral votes to the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, when the popular vote had actually supported the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Hayes' campaign relied upon these three states to secure a narrow majority in the Electoral College. Without them, Tilden would be president.

Democrats and Republicans agreed upon a special commission made up of equal members of each party and a Supreme Court Justice. When it became plain that the Justice was deciding all matters in favor of the Republicans, Democrats' protests included talk of another Civil War. In this atmosphere, the parties agreed upon a plan that awarded Hayes the presidency. In return, Republicans agreed to remove the remaining federal troops from the southern states, provide political patronage to white southerners, and enact legislation to facilitate southern economic development. Hayes, who had once defended the rights of black southerners, presided over the end of Reconstruction.3

After 1876 the two major political parties entered a period of close electoral competition in which economic issues often took center stage. While both parties remained largely devoted to the maintenance of the gold standard, new parties, such as the Greenbackers, continued to agitate for an expanded money supply to mitigate the effects of the period's pervasive deflation. In many quarters of the North, Republicans continued to motivate their voters with the practice of "waving the bloody shirt," or reminding them that the Democrats had been the party of secession. Ethno-cultural concerns also contributed to voters' party identifications, as Republicans became increasingly concerned with the regulation, and even prohibition, of alcoholic beverages, much to the chagrin of Germans and other ethnic minorities who did not share their Yankee habits. Finally, the two parties often presented very different ideas about gender roles. Although they could not vote, women often found influence in Republican campaigns, usually as symbols of the party’s ideology of what one historian has called “evangelical domesticity.” By the 1880s, Republicans often presented themselves as “the party of the home.” For example, they argued that tariffs created wages high enough to allow workers’ wives to stay at home and devote themselves entirely to their families.4

The tariff became one of the Gilded Age's most contentious national political issues. Despite the 1880 Democratic presidential candidate Winfield Scott Hancock's insistence that the tariff remained a local issue, the matter illuminated two competing visions of the United States' future development. In opposition to Republican claims that the tariff “protected” American workers and their families from the vicissitudes of the marketplace, and especially competition with lower-paid British factory workers, Democrats insisted that the policy of protection represented a gigantic fraud in which privileged special interests, like iron and steel makers or sheep farmers, used federal policy to enrich themselves. The resulting high prices cost American consumers money as well. And, to make matters worse, American tariffs led foreign countries to respond with their own duties upon American goods, thereby drying up the export trade. These advocates insisted that the hated tariff undermined the otherwise beneficent working of the free marketplace, and hence held back American economic development.

John Peter AltgeldIn Chicago, the Great Fire, coupled with massive immigration and the rise of new labor violence, presented unique political challenges. In 1873 the electorate responded by making a People's Party candidate mayor of Chicago. Native born, evangelical reformers saw the new party as an obstacle to their goal of reforming and uplifting the poor. Newly arrived Germans also began to organize a Socialist Party in Chicago. Socialists demanded jobs or relief for unemployed workers, while the city administration advised the jobless to rely upon self-help and individual initiative.5

The Illinois Republican Party dominated the statehouse in Springfield until the election of the Chicago Democrat John Altgeld (pictured at right) in 1892. Altgeld became the first Illinois governor not born in the United States. He enforced labor legislation more closely than his predecessors, often refused to call out the state militia in support of employers in labor disagreements, and overturned the convictions of three defendants in the notorious Haymarket incident. Illinois voters returned Altgeld to private life in 1896.

In the 1870s farmers, including many in Illinois, had formed organizations known as Granges, which were devoted to self-help and political lobbying. In the 1880s many agriculturalists formed Farmer's Alliances, which established cooperative grain elevators and other ventures to free themselves from the power of highly organized businesses. By 1890 many state Alliances ran their own slates of political candidates, which won nine seats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate.

By 1892 the Alliance had formed a new national political organization, the People’s Party, which many simply called “the Populists.” Its platform endorsed a national system of government crop warehouses, or subtreasuries, which would allow farmers to store their harvests until they found favorable prices. The People’s Party also advocated an expansion of the American money supply through the free coinage of silver. In the preceding decades the federal government's retirement of Civil War "greenbacks" and insistence upon the gold standard had effectively deflated the American dollar, placing an enormous strain upon debtors like farmers. The Populists polled over one million votes and carried three states in 1892’s presidential election.

The election of William McKinley in 1896 began a new period of Republican dominance in presidential politics, but political realignment really occurred in the midterm elections of 1894. In that year the Republican Party regrouped from its disastrous 1892 results, which had sent Grover Cleveland to the White House for the second time, to sweep the Congress. The Populists' call for expanding the currency through the coinage of silver had proven popular with many southern and western Democrats, splitting the party and dooming the conservative Cleveland. When Democratic delegates met in Chicago in the summer of 1896, their nomination of Bryan also put an effective end to the Populist Party, who nominated him as well, albeit with a different candidate for the Vice-Presidency.6

  • 1. Eric McKitrick Andrew Johnson: A Profile (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969)
  • 2. John G. Sproat The Best Men: Liberal Reformers of the Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968); Mark Wahlgren Summers The Era of Good Stealings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) (
  • 3. Michael Holt By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008)
  • 4. Rebecca Edwards Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • 5. Richard Schneirov Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998)
  • 6. Charles Postel The Populist Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)