Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State

By Bruce A. Rubenstein; Lawrence E. Ziewacz | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

Radicals and Reformers

NATIONAL POLITICS DURING THE THIRTY-FIVE years following the Civil War traditionally has been depicted as the “Republican Era,” a time of one-party rule, scandal, incompetency, and general insensitivity toward the social problems manifesting themselves in a rapidly changing America. Yet, this picture is misleading. Passage of legislation such as the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act belies the myth that unregulated business ran the nation. Although politicians were reluctant to discard immediately the Jeffersonian theory of limited government, they did accept the notion of federal responsibility for social and economic reforms, as well as limited regulation of business. It is equally erroneous to characterize the period as one of solid Republican dominance. After 1872 the Democratic Party was always competitive in presidential contests and often controlled the House of Representatives. The United States Senate was continuously in Republican control, but rarely did the victorious party have more than a three-vote margin. Because of the closeness of party strength, both major parties relied on emotional speeches, bands, and parades, rather than issues to bring the faithful to the polls. Avoidance of controversial policy questions was common, as party leaders feared alienating any segment of voters. Consequently, many groups felt left out of the political process and created their own parties in the hope of mustering enough support to convince a major party to adopt their platforms to gain more votes.

Michigan politics were a reflection of the national scene. Ostensibly Michigan was a state that could be relied upon to deliver its electoral votes for the Republican presidential candidate. It was thought to be so safely in the Republican column during this time that no native son was ever seriously considered for a presidential nomination, as that honor went to men living in “swing states” whose electoral votes were in doubt. Every United States senator from 1857 to 1900 was Republican, and Michigan Democrats sent only eleven men to the House of Representatives

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