Politics and Corruption in the Gilded Age

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What should have been the federal government's role in regulating the Gilded Age economy?

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It is difficult to say what the role of the government "should" have been, as the answer depends on your political ideology. Some would say the small government, next-to-no-regulations world of the Gilded Age is what we should return to. Others would say no.

The Gilded Age lasted roughly from the 1870s to 1900. It was an age of great economic expansion and industrialization in the United States. Immigration was entirely open in this period, meaning there were no quotas, and one did not need a passport to enter the country. Many immigrants flooded into the country looking for opportunity, but with little knowledge of the language, laws, or customs of their new home. It was a period in which the U.S. became very wealthy, positioning it to take over from Great Britain as the world's premier power in the twentieth century.

Like today, the rapid creation of wealth, at that time with very little regulation and no income tax, led to huge income inequality. A few very wealthy individuals, sometimes called Robber Barons, owned a disproportionate amount of the country's wealth and land. This led to exploitation and corruption. The poor had very few laws to protect them. They had no minimum wage, no social security, and no unemployment insurance.

Many in today's world, having benefitted from the greater protections brought in by the 1930s New Deal, would say that the government should have acted faster to institute income taxes, break up the monopolies that gave the rich too much power over pricing, institute laws to regulate banks and businesses, and expand the government to provide more protection to working people.

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While the Gilded Age is known for launching achievements from many of the world's most accomplished entrepreneurs, inventors and thinkers, the federal government of the United States has been criticized for its lack of regulatory influence during this area. In fact, the Gilded Age is recognized as an "all-time low" for presidential authority.

The President and Federal Authority

Throughout the Gilded Age, there was significant corruption at the Congressional and state levels of government, which in turn manifested in economic corruption. The federal government, led by the President of the United States, was criticized as being forgettable and impotent from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Gilded Age. President Andrew Johnson served as a focal point for the national dissatisfaction with federal authority during this time, avoiding impeachment by one Senate vote. The Grant Administration was rife with corruption and the Hayes Presidency began with accusations of election fraud, weakening federal authority even further. With the authority of the federal government compromised, it was unable to exert the same balancing power over the other branches of government and the economic sector that the American system of government normally facilitates.

Economic Regulation

The lack of federal authority in the Gilded Age contributed to an even greater lack of economic regulation. Factories that rose to success during the Civil War resulted in the Panic of 1893, during which the American economy came close to doubling in size. Economic competition intensified and a small minority rose to power and drove many of their competitors to bankruptcy. Critics of the federal government cited a lack of economic regulation that kept the most prominent industrialists from dominating the economy. It was believed that these “captains of industry” profited through often unfair tactics in an economy with few laws governing fair business practices.

Laissez-Faire Ideology and the Role of Federal Government in the Economy

By today's prevailing economic standards, the federal government during the Gilded Age should have imposed more regulation on businesses and industries. However, this is a matter of debate based on economic and political ideals such as capitalism, the free market and the degree of financial conservatism or liberalism the individual holds. In general, the federal government during the Gilded Age was considered pro-business, while many critics argued that it should have been more focused on protecting consumers. Many people wanted the Presidents during this time to show a greater willingness to control market conditions and place restrictions upon successful businesses to protect workers and other competitors. This lack of regulatory control came from the laissez-faire policy, which values minimal governmental intervention in the economic affairs of a country. Many Americans embraced laissez-faire economics during this time, while others argued that the federal government should have been more active in creating regulations to protect workers' rights, limit child labor, and prevent economic corruption.


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