A Fee-Based Government

President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Rutherford B. Hayes, from the moment that he “won” the Election of 1876, had many opponents. And, because he believed that having opponents meant you must be doing something right, he relished the fight with his opposition. One issue that Hayes prioritized was reforming the fee-based governance system, the system that empowered government officials to use “fees, bounties, subsidies, and contracts with private individuals or corporations to enforce laws and implement public policy.”[i] With the federal government having significantly grown from the antebellum era, those officials had accrued and would continue to accrue power in novel ways. Reforming that system—if, in fact, Hayes sought to do that—would not be something he could have hoped to do during his time as President.

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Reconstruction

Charleston, South Carolina. 1865.

The years after the Civil War, until 1877, were replete with novel uncertainties. The country had changed: the qualities that defined antebellum America had vanished; those who had been the most vocal before the war—soon-to-be Confederates—had seen their soapbox taken by the “Radical Republicans,” Republicans who sought to not only end slavery but to bring into effect equality amongst the races. Regardless of political party or geographic location, the country and its citizens had the task of reconstructing the United States, every one of them, and that task began before the Civil War’s end. President Abraham Lincoln spoke of his hope to reconcile the “disorganized and discordant elements” of the country, and he said: “I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable.”[i] Lincoln died four days later without fully setting forth his vision for how the nation may reconstruct itself, but events would soon render that vision—broad and ambiguous as it was—antiquated: soon after his death, the same federal government that had grown to enjoy extraordinary power (such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus) would go from having an authentic political genius, Lincoln, at its helm to having Andrew Johnson, a disagreeable at best (belligerent at worst) as executive; and not so long after Johnson took power, roving bands of the Ku Klux Klan acted in concert with state officials throughout the South to subjugate—by any means—those who had been freed.

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The Election of 1876

The Inauguration of the 19th President of the United States. 1877.

In celebrating America’s first centennial, on July 4, 1876, one must have recalled the tumult of that century: a war to secure independence, a second war to defend newly-obtained independence, and then a civil war the consequences of which the country was still grappling with eleven years after its end. But there also had been extraordinary success in that century, albeit not without cost; by the 100-year mark, the country had shown itself and the world that its Constitution—that centerpiece of democracy—was holding strong (with 18 Presidents, 44 Congresses, and 43 Supreme Court justices already having served their government by that time), and the country had expanded several times over in geographic size, putting it in command of a wealth of resources as its cities, industries, and agriculture prospered. Several months after the centennial celebration was the next presidential election, and during the life of the country, while most elections had gone smoothly, some had not—the elections of 1800 and 1824 were resolved by the House of Representatives choosing the victor as no candidate secured a majority of Electoral College votes and the election of 1860 was soon followed by the secession of Southern states. And yet, even with those anomalous elections in view, the upcoming election of 1876 was to become one unlike any other in American history.

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The Election of 1872

Horace Greeley. By: Mathew Brady.

From the time that Ulysses S. Grant became a household name in America—during the Civil War—and particularly following Lincoln’s assassination, there was no more popular American in the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. The presidential election of 1868 showed the level of support that Grant had: although it was his first election, he won the entirety of the Midwest and New England and even took six of the former Confederate states. He was always going to be a formidable opponent. As the election of 1872 approached, it became clear that Grant, a Republican, would not have to vie for re-election against a candidate with the stature of a fellow former general or even a well-established politician; instead, his challenger would be the founder and editor of a newspaper: Horace Greeley, a Democrat. Although Greeley had one term in the House of Representatives at the end of the 1840s, his following stemmed not from his brief time as a politician but rather the incisive pieces that he wrote and published in his newspaper, the New-York Tribune. As loyal as his readers were, there remained a question whether Greeley’s following could grow to unseat the man who still, seven years after the war, was viewed as bringing peace and prosperity to the country.

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The Panic of 1873

The Intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street in New York City. September 1873.

Economic crises carry with them hugely devastating results: high rates of unemployment and bankruptcy are emblematic of the more modern ones. Often, a crisis is not precipitated by a flaw in the overall economy but instead a dangerous practice in a sector of that economy. Perhaps that sector has companies or individuals who have undertaken a course of action that threatens the market, and perhaps no authority figure—governmental or otherwise—can curb or stop that dangerous behavior and prevent the damage from being done. By 1873, the American railroad industry had become an industry asking for a crisis: throughout the country—and increasingly in Europe—the American railroad companies had been a popular investment; the lure of high returns was too strong for investors to resist, and the tinderbox for the impending blaze would be the bonds of railroad companies. Those bonds were the sought after investment of the time and had been collateralized—just as a piece of real estate is collateralized for a mortgage—several times over (therefore inflating the value of the bonds, the volume of the railroad bond market, and the risk of the investments). Investors, through their greed, were guaranteeing that when the market did face a disruption—and it inevitably would—that disruption, that spark, would be the beginning of a years-long economic depression.

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Crédit Mobilier

The Union Pacific Railroad at the 100th Meridian in 1866. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Americans’ trust in their government has always ebbed and flowed, and those ebbs and flows have largely depended on whether the government and its officers have acted in ways that earned the trust of its citizens or in ways that led the government to be mired in scandal—therefore sullying its reputation. Some of the largest ebbs in trust have come after officials in the top echelon of government—Senators, Representatives, Presidents and their cabinets—have used their offices for their own benefit. Two months before the election of 1872, news broke of a scandal that would extend well into 1873 and implicate politicians as prominent as the Vice President, and that scandal foreshadowed the ways in which big business and politics would intertwine in not only the Nineteenth Century but the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.

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The Rise of Wage Labor

Chicago in the Late 1800s.

During the Gilded Age, millions of Americans saw their work lives transform: no longer would it be so common for the working man or woman to survive based on what he or she produced; rather, that worker would receive payment—from an employer or a contractor—for the time worked. That change allowed for the possibility during the Gilded Age for the older generation to reflect on their younger years, before the Civil War, and how they had sold most of what they had grown or made (and how they had then needed a wide variety of skills to not only grow or make those goods but to bring those goods to market and actually sell them). During the Gilded Age, that same generation could have been working the last years of their working lives reporting to a factory for work; work that likely had a significant element of danger and that may have required them to use a fraction of the skills that had served as their saving grace during their younger years. For the generations of Americans that have come after the Gilded Age, the system of wage labor has been no oddity. It became a substantial part of the modern way of life and not only in America. What would have struck and should strike subsequent generations, however, were the mechanics of the American economy in which wage labor was born and how the wage labor system in its rawest form did not extend even some of the most basic protections to workers.

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The Nineteenth Century Liberal

View from the Capitol 01 detail
Washington, DC in 1870.

The two dominant American political parties of the late 1860s, the Republicans and the Democrats, are the parties that continue to dominate the political landscape into the early Twenty-First Century. Although they are the same parties in name, many of the policies they espouse—and the place on the political spectrum their supporters find themselves—have almost entirely reversed in the intervening century and a half. In modern parlance, a liberal is one that finds himself or herself on the left side of the political spectrum and is more likely to be a member of the Democratic Party. In the late Nineteenth Century, the term had an entirely different meaning. Read more

The Election of 1868

GrantColfax1868
A Campaign Poster for Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. M.B. Brown & Co., New York. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

In 1864, as the election neared, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, wagered that his re-election prospects depended on having a unity ticket: rather than choose a fellow Republican for the nomination for Vice President, he opted for a War Democrat and southerner, Andrew Johnson. With Johnson being from the South, condemning the Confederacy, and supporting the prosecution of the Civil War without negotiated peace—unlike the faction in his party known as the Copperheads (which called for immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy)—he served as a useful balance to the Republican, Lincoln, whose party was increasingly vocal about abolition and subjugating the South, political issues that chilled some parts of the electorate to Lincoln. By 1868, much had changed. Lincoln had been assassinated, Johnson had poorly navigated Washington politics (and had come to within one vote of the Senate removing him from the presidency), and Ulysses S. Grant had continued his meteoric rise in popularity. There was little doubt that Grant would be the Republican nominee; he was one of the most popular Americans of the 1860s and would remain so for the duration of the 19th Century. The bigger questions were who the Democratic Party would choose as its nominee and whether that nominee would have a chance at becoming the first Democrat elected to the Presidency in twelve years—when James Buchanan won the election of 1856. Read more

America in 1870

Although America, by 1870, was still not one hundred years into its life as a country, it had the blessings and curses of an industrialized nation—some inherited from the British but others uniquely American.[i] Among the blessings was widespread prosperity: the United States then had “74 percent of British and 128 percent of German per-capita income.”[ii] Although many Europeans had come to see America as a country filled with “little more than amiable backwoods-men not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage,” those Europeans had erred in reaching that conclusion as was evident at the London Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 when Americans showed their latest inventions in their “outpost of wizardry and wonder” with machines that “did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do—stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles—but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking.”[iii] But that presentation of the United States to the world lacked the nuance that was evident to those who toured the country; prosperity may have been widespread, but it was not equally distributed and it was not without hardship.

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