Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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Why did so many people participate in politics in the late nineteenth century?

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There are a number of possible reasons why political participation increased in the US in the late nineteenth century, particularly at the national level. New communication technologies, such as the telegraph, and modes of transportation, such as railroads, created the sense of a more interconnected national economy.

After the Civil War, Americans could have splintered into two permanently opposed cultures. The long process of Reconstruction helped to create a sense of a shared national identity that would mean more to people than their regional identities. As the US became more of a major player on the world stage, people increasingly identified with the national government. And, as the economic and social arrangements of American life became increasingly complex, the federal government was more and more of an integral part in the average citizen's life.

The growth of new political movements also encouraged greater political participation. For example, the Populist Party towards the end of the nineteenth century advocated greater participation by common people in political life, as well as a "loose money" policy that would stimulate the economy and make it easier for small farmers to overcome crushing debt. Populism encouraged ordinary Americans to think of themselves as holding real political power.

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One reason were that political rallies were entertaining as well as informative. Campaigns were often occasions for the community to get together and attend a party as well as become informed on local events. Newspaper circulation was quite high at the end of the nineteenth century and people enjoyed reading competing editorials. The news media did not claim to be impartial back then and people read newspapers for commentary as well as news reporting.

Elections were also quite close in many locations. State and local elections had greater interest for people than national elections. The United States also went through a period of economic hardship during the late 1800s, and many people were starting to become involved in the Progressive movement. One goal of this movement was to bridge the gap between the have's and have not's.

In many circumstances, people actively campaigned for national politicians in hopes that they could cash in on government patronage positions. Many Gilded Age politicians used governmental patronage as a source of bribery. At the national level, this was curtailed somewhat with the assassination of James Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker. Garfield's death led to the enactment of the Pendleton Act which mandated tests for office seekers. Patronage would still be claimed as a privilege that could be doled out by successful campaigners.

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One reason that so many people participated in politics in the late 19th century is that Democrats and Republicans were almost evenly matched in claiming the national electorate. Elections were decided on very thin margins, so it was essential to vote. About 80% of the electorate voted in elections, which is much higher than the percentage of the electorate that votes in most elections today (see the source from Sage American History at the link below). Shortly after Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1876, many African American men voted; they were disenfranchised over time, making the voter turnout higher in the years during and right after Reconstruction.

In addition, politics on the local level played a very large role in people's lives. While the federal government did very little, the politicians in a city or town were responsible for controlling local services and even doling out jobs through patronage. The national Congress did very little, but people needed services such as fire departments, police protection, and garbage services to cope with their lives, which were increasingly urbanized. In addition, during this time, cities such as New York City built waterworks to provide fresh water to their populations, which were faced with insecure or contaminated sources of water before that point (see the source by Melosi, below). Therefore, voters were motivated to become involved in the political process to ensure that local governments would provide these vital services to them.


Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from

Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,


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