The period of US history from 1865–1900 is often called the Gilded Age. Bailey and Kennedy (hereafter “Bailey” in this chapter) entitle the chapter on these years, “Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age.” Such a title contradicts the vast political and economic progress of the late 1800s. The Gilded Age presidents were sometimes flawed, but they had many outstanding accomplishments. They had principles and integrity; they laid the foundation for civil liberties and voting rights for blacks; they restored stability to the monetary system; they cut the national debt by more than half; and they reformed government administration by increasing the number of government jobs made on the basis of merit. In part as a result of this often subtle but high quality leadership, the United States grew during the Gilded Age to become a world economic power.
Despite the remarkable progress during the Gilded Age, Bailey does not like this era. He admits many of these accomplishments happened, but he is a self-described political liberal. He wants more government programs and he wants strong presidents who take power away from Congress to make changes to redistribute wealth. The Gilded Age presidents, by contrast, were mostly conservative. They liked the Constitution, the separation of powers, free markets, and individual liberty. They believed that a strong connection existed between these values and the strong economic growth they were witnessing.
Bailey is especially contemptuous of President Ulysses S. Grant, president from 1869 to 1877. Not only was Grant, in some ways, the most conservative of these presidents, but he set the tone for the progress of the Gilded Age in three ways. First, he vigorously supported rights for blacks through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. He also condemned the Ku Klux Klan. Second, Grant returned the United States to a sound currency backed by gold. Third, Grant attacked the huge national debt from the Civil War by insisting on balanced budgets, and budget surpluses, each year of his presidency. In doing this, he even managed to abolish the federal income tax. Grant did have some scandals occur during his presidency, but he did not cause them or participate in them to any degree. Bailey will seize on these scandals to discredit Grant. History to Bailey is not the teaching of information and ideas to students; it’s an effort to advocate a point of view. He will use evidence selectively to support his point of view. Let’s analyze Bailey’s chapter.