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  • Hi, I'm John Green, this is Crash Course: US History, and today we're going to continue

  • our look at the Gilded Age by focusing on political science.

  • Mr. Green, Mr. Green, so it's another history class where we don't actually talk about

  • history? Oh, Me From the Past, your insistence on trying

  • to place academic exploration into little boxes creates a little box that you yourself

  • will live in for the rest of your life if you don't put your interdisciplinary party

  • hat on. So the Gilded Age takes its name from a book

  • by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that was called The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.

  • It was published in 1873 and it was not that successful, but while The Gilded Age conjures

  • up visions of fancy parties and ostentatious displays of wealth, the book itself was about

  • politics, and it gives a very negative appraisal of the state of American democracy at the

  • time. Which shouldn't come as a huge surprise

  • coming from Twain, whose comments about Congress included, “Suppose you were an idiot. And

  • suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

  • And also, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly

  • Native American criminal class except Congress.” So when faced with the significant changes

  • taking place in the American economy after the Civil War, America's political system

  • both nationally and locally dealt with these problems in the best way possible: by becoming

  • incredibly corrupt. intro

  • Stan says I have to take off my party hat. Rrrr rrrr rrrrr....

  • So House Speaker Tip O'Neill once famously said that all politics is local and although

  • that's not actually true, I am going to start with local politics today, specifically

  • with one of America's greatest inventions, the urban political machine.

  • So a political machine is basically an organization that works to win elections so that it can

  • exercise power. The most famous political machine was New York City's Tammany Hall,

  • which dominated Democratic party politics in the late 19th century, survived until the

  • 20th, and is keenly associated with corruption. Oh, it's already time for the Mystery Document?

  • This is highly unorthodox, Stan. Well, the rules here are simple.

  • I guess the author of the Mystery Document. I'm usually wrong and I get shocked with

  • the shock pen. Alright, let's see what we've got here.

  • My party's in power in the city, and it's going to undertake a lot of public

  • improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park

  • at a certain place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board

  • of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody

  • cared particular for before. Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit

  • on my investment and foresight. Of course it is. That's honest graft.”

  • Stan, I know this one. It's about machine politics. It's from New York. It doesn't

  • say it's from New York, but it is because it is George Plunkitt. Yes! How do you like

  • them apples? Oh, you wanna know the name of the book? It's

  • Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.” Stan, transition me back to the desk with a Libertage, please.

  • Plunkitt became famous for writing a book describing the way that New York City's

  • government actually worked, but he was a small fish compared with the most famous shark-like

  • machine politician of the day, WilliamBossTweed, seen here with a head made of money.

  • BossTweed basically ran New York in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and his greatest

  • feat of swindling helps explain how the machine system worked.

  • It revolved around the then-new County Courthouse that now houses the New York City Department

  • of Education. Building the courthouse was initially estimated

  • to cost around $250,000, but ended up costing $13 million by the time it was finished in

  • 1871. Included in that cost was a bill of $180,000

  • for three tables and forty chairs, $1.5 million for lighting fixtures, and $41,000 for brooms

  • and cleaning supplies. A plasterer received $500,000 for his initial

  • job and then $1 million to repair his shoddy work.

  • The standard kickback in these situations was that Tammany Hall received two dollars

  • for every one dollar received by the contractor. That may seem like a bad deal for contractors,

  • but remember: That plasterer still got to keep half a million dollars, which is worth

  • about $9 million in today's money. Now of course that makes it sound like political

  • machines were pure evil, especially if you were a taxpayer footing the bill for that

  • courthouse. But machines also provided valuable services

  • to immigrants and other poor people in cities. As Plunkitt explained, Tammany could help

  • families in need: “I don't ask whether they are Republicans

  • or Democrats, and I don't refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would

  • investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the

  • time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them

  • if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up until they get things running again.”

  • In return for this help, Tammany expected votes so that they could stay in power. Staying

  • in power meant control of city jobs as well as city contracts. Plunkitt claimed to know

  • every big employer in the districtand in the whole city, for that matter --- and

  • they ain't in the habit of saying no to me when I ask them for a job.”

  • But with all the corruption, sometimes even that wasn't enough. Fortunately Tammany

  • politicians could always fall back on fraud. Tammany found bearded men to vote, then took

  • them to the barber to shave off the beard, but left the moustache, so that they could

  • vote a second time. And then, they would shave off the 'stache so they could vote for a

  • third. And then of course, there was always violence

  • and intimidation. By the end of the century a Tammany regular lamented the good old days

  • when, “It was wonderful to see my men slug the opposition to preserve the sanctity of

  • the ballot.” But, corruption wasn't limited to big cities

  • like New York and Chicago. Some of the biggest boondoggles involved the United States Congress

  • and the executive branch under president Ulysses Grant.

  • The first big scandal, dubbed theKing of Fraudsby the New York Sun, involved

  • Credit Mobilier, the construction company that did most of the road building for the

  • Union Pacific Railroad. This two pronged accusation involved, first:

  • overcharging the public for construction costs and siphoning off profits to Credit Mobilier,

  • and second: bribery of Congressmen. Now, this second charge was, of course, much

  • juicier and also more partisan because only Republican congressmen, including the Speaker

  • of the House, were implicated in it. Eventually Massachusetts Congressman Oakes

  • Ames was found guilty of giving bribes, but no one was ever found guilty of receiving

  • those bribes. As you can imagine, that did wonders for the reputation of Congress.

  • The second major scandal involved the so-called Whiskey Ring, which was a group of distillers

  • in St. Louis who decided that they didn't like paying excise taxes on their product,

  • perhaps a slightly more noble cause than that of the 2009 Bling Ring, who just wanted to

  • dress like Paris Hilton. John McDonald, a Grant administration official,

  • helped distillers reduce their taxes by intentionally undercounting the number of kegs of booze.

  • But then in 1875, the tax evasion grew out of control. And McDonald eventually confessed

  • and was convicted, thereby tainting the presidency with corruption just as Credit Mobilier had

  • tainted Congress. That leaves the Supreme Court untainted, but

  • don't worry, the Dred Scott decision is worth at least, like, eighty years of tainting.

  • So with all this distrust in government, after Grant served two terms, presidential elections

  • featured a series of one-termers: Hayes, Garfield (whose term was filled out by Chester Arthur

  • after Garfield was assassinated), Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and then Cleveland again.

  • McKinley, who was elected twice, but then he was assassinated.

  • As for their parties, Gilded Age Republicans favored high tariffs, low government spending,

  • paying off national debt and reducing the amount of paper moneyor greenbacksin

  • circulation. Democrats opposed the tariffs and were often linked to New York bankers

  • and financiers. In short, both parties were pro-business,

  • but they were pro-different-businesses. Despite that and the widespread corruption,

  • some national reform legislation actually did get passed in the Gilded Age.

  • The Civil Service Act of 1883 – prompted by Garfield's assassination by a disgruntled

  • office seekercreated a merit system for 10% of federal employees, who were chosen

  • by competitive examination rather than political favoritism.

  • But, this had an unintended effect. It made American politicians much more dependent on

  • donations from big business rather than small donations from grateful political appointees,

  • but, you know, nice idea. And then in 1890 the Sherman Anti-Trust act

  • forbade combinations and practices that restrained trade, but again it was almost impossible

  • to enforce this against the monopolies like U.S. Steel.

  • More often it was used against labor unions, which were seen to restrain trade in their

  • radical lobbying for, like, health insurance and hard hats.

  • But all in all the national Congress was pretty dysfunctional at the end of the 19th century,

  • stop me if that sounds familiar. So state governments expanded their responsibility

  • for public health and welfare. Cities invested in public works, like transportation, and

  • gas, and later, electricity, and the movement to provide public education continued.

  • Some northern states even passed laws limiting the workday to 8 hours. “What is this, France?”

  • is what courts would often say when striking those laws down.

  • Reform legislation was less developed in the South, but they were busy rolling back reconstruction

  • and creating laws that limited the civil rights of African Americans, known as Jim Crow Laws.

  • In the west, farmers became politically motivated over the issue of freight rates. Wait, are

  • we talking about railroads? Let's go to the ThoughtBubble.

  • In the 1870s, farmers formed the Grange movement to put pressure on state governments to establish

  • fair railroad rates and warehouse charges. Railroads in particular tended to be pretty

  • monopolistic: They owned the track going through town, after all, so it was hard for farmers

  • to negotiate fair shipping prices. The Grange Movement eventually became the Farmer's

  • Alliance movement, which also pushed for economic cooperation to raise prices, but was split

  • into Northern and Southern wings that could never really get it together. The biggest

  • idea to come out of the Farmers Alliance was the subtreasury plan. Under this plan, farmers

  • would store grain in government warehouses and get low-rate government loans to buy seed

  • and equipment, using the stored grain as collateral. This would allow farmers to bypass the banks

  • who increasingly came to be seen, along with the railroads, as the source of all the farmers'

  • troubles. Eventually these politically motivated farmers

  • and their supporters grew into a political party, the People's Party or Populists.

  • In 1892 they held a convention in Omaha and put forth a remarkably reform minded plan,

  • particularly given that this was put forth in Omaha, which included:

  • The Sub-Treasury Plan, (which didn't exactly happen, although the deal farmers ended up

  • with was probably better for them) Government Ownership of Railroads (which sort of happened,

  • if you count Amtrak) Graduated Income Tax (which did happen, after

  • the passage of the 16th amendment) Government Control of the Currency (which

  • happened with the creation of the Federal Reserve System)

  • Recognition of the Rights of Laborers to Form Unions (which happened both at the state and

  • federal level) and Free Coinage of Silver to produce more

  • money, which we'll get to in a second The People's Party attempted to appeal to

  • a broad coalition ofproducing classesespecially miners and industrial workers,

  • and it was particularly successful with those groups in Colorado and Idaho. As the preamble

  • to the party platform put it:

  • Corruption dominates the ballot box, the Legislatures, the congress and touches even

  • the ermine of the benchFrom the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we

  • breed the two great classestramps and millionaires.”

  • Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, some western states were so Populist, they even granted women

  • the right to vote in the 1890s, which added tremendously to the Populist's electoral

  • power. But most American voters stuck with the two

  • main parties. Industrial workers never really joined in large numbers because the Populist

  • calls for free coinage of silver would lead to inflation, especially in food prices, and

  • that would hurt urban laborers. But if it hadn't been for that threat of