The Gilded Age(1870-1900) is known for its widespread corruption, political stalemate, and the national government's failure to serve the public's interests. The central problem of the era was that big business was far too powerful, and that politicians worked for business-not the public. There were, however, some positive developments during this period.
Politics of this era was primarily local and patronage was of paramount importance. Most government employees worked for the local government and knew their positions depended on their political bosses winning the next election. New York City's William "Boss" Tweed was the epitome of this sordid state of affairs.
One positive aspect during the Gilded Age, however, was high voter turnout. About 70 to 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, a number far higher than today.
Another bright spot was reforms implemented by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who was in the White House from 1877-1881. He challenged the status quo by making political appointments and awarding jobs on the basis of merit.
The momentum for reform was disrupted, however, when Hayes's successor, President James Garfield, was assassinated in 1881. His assassin was a disappointed office seeker. After Garfield's death, Chester Arthur became a very competent president.
In 1883, civil service reform became a reality with the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This required competitive exams for more civil service jobs. The Mugwumps, a group whose members included Mark Twain, called for further reform measures for the civil service.
In 1884, Grover Cleveland won the presidency. He opposed the powerful business interests that had long influenced the government. Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms in the White House.
Sustained reform really became a reality with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt after 1900. He was a brilliant, charismatic, and capable man. His presidency marked the end of the Gilded Age.