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The Gilded Age Previous Next
Digital History ID 3112


Mark Twain called the late 19th century the "Gilded Age." In the popular view, the late 19th century was a period of greed and guile, when rapacious robber barons, unscrupulous speculators, and corporate buccaneers engaged in shady business practices and vulgar displays of wealth. It is easy to caricature the Gilded Age as an era of corruption, scandal-plagued politics, conspicuous consumption, and unfettered capitalism. But it is more useful to think of this period as modern America's formative era, when the rules of modern politics and business practice were just beginning to be written.

It was during the Gilded Age that Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up monopolistic business combinations, and the Interstate Commerce Act, to regulate railroad rates. State governments created commissions to regulate utilities and laws regulating work conditions. Several states filed suits against corporate trusts and tried to revoke the charges of firms that joined trusts.

The Purity Crusade

During the Gilded Age there were repeated attempts to enforce moral purity. In 1880, Massachusetts became the first state to reenact "Blue Laws" that prohibited most forms of business on Sunday. Lotteries, which had been widely used by government in the early 19th century to raise revenue, were outlawed, by 1890, in 43 of the 44 states. A number of states enacted laws forbidding horse racing, boxing, and even the manufacture of cigarettes. The earliest attempts to suppress narcotics were made. In 1877, Utah became the first state to forbid the sale of opiates for non-medical purposes.

The largest movement to enforce morality was the movement to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, which was founded in 1874, lobbied for a constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol.

Perhaps the most striking example of the politics of piety was the crusade to enforce sexual prudery. In 1872, Congress enacted the Comstock Act, which banned obscene literature from the mails. The law was interpreted broadly and was used to prevent the distribution of birth control information and contraceptive devices through the mails. The law was named for Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who became the government agent responsible for enforcing the statute. Comstock had 3,000 persons arrested for obscenity and took credit for hounding 16 people to their deaths. Among the books he successfully banned were Fanny Hill and A Peep Behind the Curtains of a Female Seminary. He also convinced the Department of Interior to ban Walt Whitman for writing poetry that he considered obscene.

Many Northerners, mainly Republic in politics, were convinced that one of the Civil War's lessons was that government action was sometimes necessary to solve deep-seated social problems. During the Gilded Age, there were repeated attempts to use government to purify and morally uplift society. Laws were enacted against against polygamy and obscenity. At the state and local level, there were repeated efforts to censor books, the theater, and in the first decade of the 20th century, the movies.

The most contentious moral issue in politics involved prohibition of beer and whiskey. Many Catholic and German Lutheran voters were deeply offended by efforts to use government to enforce moral standards. Together, Catholics and German Lutheran made up about 35 percent of the Northern electorate and in urban areas Germans alone comprised 15 to 50 percent of the urban vote.

There were also attempts to purify the American society by excluding undesirable groups and "uplifting" the electorate. After the Civil War, for the first time there were concerted efforts to restrict foreign immigration. The first group to be excluded were Chinese immigrants in 1882, a subject that is discussed in our unit on immigration.

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