Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics

Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics

Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics

Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics


Much of late-nineteenth-century American politics was parade and pageant. Voters crowded the polls, and their votes made a real difference on policy. In Party Games, Mark Wahlgren Summers tells the full story and admires much of the political carnival, but he adds a cautionary note about the dark recesses: vote-buying, election-rigging, blackguarding, news suppression, and violence.

Summers also points out that hardball politics and third-party challenges helped make the parties more responsive. Ballyhoo did not replace government action. In order to maintain power, major parties not only rigged the system but also gave dissidents part of what they wanted. The persistence of a two-party system, Summers concludes, resulted from its adaptability, as well as its ruthlessness. Even the reform of political abuses was shaped to fit the needs of the real owners of the political system--the politicians themselves.


The Campaign is simply disgusting. We shall win, but what a victory!

—Edwin L. Godkin to a friend, 1896

Edwin L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, was right on both counts. For the 1896 election was the year when the Populists, greatest third party since the Civil War, allied with Democrats of South and West, mounted their challenge against the cities and business interests of the East. For Godkin and so many other liberal reformers, the sides could not have been clearer. Favoring a gold standard were all the forces of order, property, public responsibility, and financial sanity. Demagogues and madmen rallied their hosts on the other side. On election day, justice triumphed. The Populists were broken. Never again would they put the twoparty system at serious risk. Indeed, though Godkin could not know it, never again would any third party mount quite such a challenge to the Republican and Democratic hold on America’s political process.

Historians like Lawrence Goodwyn and Leon Fink tempt us to see how it could have turned out differently. From 1848 to the century’s end, robust third and fourth parties were the norm. In the 1860s and 1870s, level-headed prophets foresaw a day when new parties would replace the old. It had happened before, more than once, as enemies became allies and allies sundered on the new, pressing issues. Parties based on issues like slavery and the Civil War must perish when the last fetter was broken, the last banner furled. Greenbackers, Labor Party men, and Populists looked to the breakthrough to come. But that moment never came.

It was, in fact, less a possibility than we might imagine from the many excellent books dedicated to third-party fortunes—among which Goodwyn’s, Fink’s, Peter Argersinger’s, and Robert McMath’s hold the very highest rank. By 1896 . . .

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