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
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
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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