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Patronage, Logrolls, and “Polarization”: Congressional Parties of the Gilded Age, 1876–1896

  • Frances E. Lee (a1)

According to the quantitative indicators scholars use to measure political polarization, the Gilded Age stands out for some of the most party-polarized Congresses of all time. By contrast, historians of the era depict the two major parties as presenting few programmatic alternatives to one another. I argue that a large share of the party-line votes in the Congress of this period are poorly suited to the standard conceptualization as “polarization,” meaning wide divergence on an ideological continuum structuring alternative views on national policy. Specifically, the era's continuous battles over the distribution of particularized benefits, patronage, and control of political office make little sense conceived as stemming from individual members' preferences on an underlying ideological dimension. They are better understood as fights between two long coalitions competing for power and distributive gains. In short, the Gilded Age illustrates that political parties are fully capable of waging ferocious warfare over spoils and office, even despite a relative lack of sharp party differences over national policy.

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1. James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995), 699.

2. See Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948); Michael F. Holt, “Change and Continuity in the Party Period: The Substance and Structure of American Politics, 1835–1885,” in Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775–2000, ed. Byron E. Badger and Anthony J. Shafer (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001); Richard L. McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

3. Gretchen Ritter, Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

4. John A. Garraty, The New Commonwealth, 1877–1890, The New American Nation Series (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 226.

5. Roach, Hannah Grace, “Sectionalism in Congress (1870 to 1890),American Political Science Review 19 (1925): 500–26, 501.

6. James L. Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1983), 107.

7. Sean Dennis Cashman, America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: New York University Press, 1984), 195.

8. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Crisis of the American Party System,” in Political Parties and the Modern State, ed. Richard L. McCormick (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1984), 75–76.

9. For historical accounts of party differences during the period, see Charles W. Calhoun, From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010); H. Wayne Morgan, The Gilded Age, a Reappraisal (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1963); R. Hal Williams, Years of Decision: American Politics in the 1890s (New York: Wiley, 1978). For political science accounts, see Richard Franklin Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Stewart, Charles III, and Weingast, Barry R., “Stacking the Senate, Changing the Nation: Republican Rotten Boroughs, Statehood Politics, and American Political Development,Studies in American Political Development 6 (1992): 223–71.

10. Robert S. Salisbury, “The Republican Party and Positive Government, 1860–1890,” Mid-America (Jan. 1986), 17–18.

11. Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialization. See also Calhoun, From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail.

12. Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialization, xviii. Bensel argues that the agrarian-leaning Democrats were nevertheless obliged to consistently select conservative nominees for president in order to successfully compete for the presidency, such as wealthy corporate and railroad lawyer Samuel J. Tilden and staunch “goldbug” Grover Cleveland, both former governors of New York.

13. See also Calhoun, Charles W.Political Economy in the Gilded Age: The Republican Party's Industrial Policy,Journal of Policy History 8 (1996): 291 .

14. See Richard J. Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); Paul Kleppner, The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850–1900 (New York: Free Press, 1970); Paul Kleppner, The Third Electoral System 1853–1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979). For an analysis reporting differences in issue-voting between Republicans and Democrats, see DeCanio, Samuel, “Religion and Nineteenth-Century Voting Behavior: A New Look at Some Old Data,Journal of Politics 69 (2007): 339–50.

15. Ritter, Goldbugs and Greenbacks, 24–29.

16. See Holt, “Change and Continuity in the Party Period”; Harris, Carl V., “Right Fork or Left Fork? The Section-Party Alignments of Southern Democrats in Congress, 1873–1897,The Journal of Southern History 42 (1976): 471506 .

17. Data downloaded from Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal's website,

18. Between 1993 and 2013, party-unity votes constituted 55 percent of all roll call votes in the House and 59 percent of all roll call votes in the Senate. Between 1876 and 1896, party-unity votes constituted 65 percent of all roll call votes in the House and 70 percent of all roll call votes in the Senate. For data on nineteenth-century congressional roll call votes, see Hurley, Patricia A. and Wilson, Rick K., “Partisan Voting Patterns in the U.S. Senate, 1877–1986,Legislative Studies Quarterly 14 (1989): 225–50; Clubb, Jerome M. and Traugott, Santa A., “Partisan Cleavage and Cohesion in the House of Representatives, 1861–1974,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7 (1977): 375401 . For contemporary data, see Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, Michael J. Malbin, and Andrew Rugg, “Vital Statistics on Congress,” Strengthening American Democracy 4 (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, July 2013), updated Aug. 2014,

19. John S. Lapinski, The Substance of Representation: Congress, American Political Development, and Lawmaking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 12.

20. Vincent P. DeSantis, “The Republican Party Revisited, 1877–1897,” in The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal, ed. R. Hal Williams (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1963), 96.

21. Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 6.

22. For a discussion of these issues, see Clinton, Joshua D., “Using Roll Call Estimates to Test Models of Politics,Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012): 7999 .

23. Gary W. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins, Setting the Agenda: Responsible Party Government in the U.S. House of Representatives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 46.

24. Ibid.

25. John H. Aldrich, Why Parties? A Second Look (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 32–43.

26. Ibid., 33.

27. DeSantis, “The Republican Party Revisited, 1877–1897,” 101. The reference to “controlled inflation” denotes the concessions Republicans made to silver and bimetallism, including the Bland–Allison Act of 1878 and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Even though congressional Democrats had been stronger supporters of silver than congressional Republicans, silver purchase was finally ended by the Democratic-controlled 53rd Congress in the Cleveland administration.

28. H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877–1896 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1969), 54–56. This particular investigation, however, backfired and redounded more to the benefit of Republicans than Democrats—contrary to the hopes of the Democrats who launched it.

29. Theodore J. Lowi, “American Business, Public Policy, Case-Studies, and Political Theory,” World Politics 16 (1964): 689. The use of the 1890 end date probably refers to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Notably this legislation did not see successful enforcement against business combinations for many years after its passage, both because of Supreme Court precedent in United States v. E. C. Knight Co., 156 U.S. 1 (1895) and low Justice Department priority in both the Harrison and Cleveland administrations.

30. McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy, 170–71.

31. David W. Brady, Critical Elections and Congressional Policy Making (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 51.

32. Holt, “Change and Continuity in the Party Period,” 98.

33. Roach, “Sectionalism in Congress (1870–1890)”; DeSantis, “The Republican Party Revisited, 1877–1897.”

34. Robert W. Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868–1900 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1997), 80. For a more detailed account, see Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 185–95.

35. For detail on the partisan and sectional politics of the Act, see Sanders, Roots of Reform, 269–73.

36. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 529.

37. These issues were all party splitting and better predicted by NOMINATE's second dimension than the first dimension. See Poole and Rosenthal, Congress, 100–106.

38. Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 14.

39. Leonard Dupee White, The Republican Era, 1869–1901: A Study in Administrative History (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 11.

40. Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 17.

41. For a concise account of the party organizations of the era, see Joseph Cooper, “From Congressional to Presidential Preeminence: Power and Politics in Late Nineteenth-Century America and Today,” in Congress Reconsidered, ed. Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 361–91.

42. William L. Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered by Ex-senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, from His Rostrum—the New York County Court House Bootblack Stand (New York: McClure, Phillips, and Co., 1905), 70–71.

43. Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley, 36–37.

44. David R. Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

45. Polsby, Nelson W., “Institutionalization of United States House of Representatives,American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 144–68, table 8.

46. Polsby, “Institutionalization of United States House of Representatives,” 161.

47. Reed, Thomas B., “Contested Elections,The North American Review 151 (1890): 114 .

48. Jenkins, Jeffery A., “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives, 1789–2002,Studies in American Political Development 18 (2004): 112–35; Jenkins, Jeffery A., “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the Senate, 1789–2002,Studies in American Political Development 19 (2005): 5374 . Jenkins finds that Senate contested elections were not pursued to partisan advantage in the way House elections were; instead, senators of the era employed strategic state admission for this purpose.

49. Green, Matthew N., “Race, Party, and Contested Elections to the U.S. House of Representatives,Polity 39 (2007): 155–78.

50. On the settlement of the 1876 election and the Federal Elections bill, see Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley, 18–26, 339–43. On Chester and the Southern Independents, see DeSantis, Vincent P., “President Arthur and the Independent Movements in the South in 1882,Journal of Southern History 19 (1953): 346–63. On the post-Civil War politics of race in the North, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865–1901 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

51. The issue classification scheme was developed by Poole and Rosenthal (see Poole and Rosenthal, Congress, 259–62).

52. These include votes on disputed elections, military pensions, impeachments and investigations, electoral votes, and civil service and patronage.

53. On average, the first dimension of DW-NOMINATE correctly predicts 79 percent of all members' votes on issues involving political office and patronage; it correctly predicts their positions on 80 percent of all other types of roll call votes.

54. Garraty, The New Commonwealth, 256. See also Ari Hoogenboom, “Spoilsmen and Reformers,” in The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal, ed. R. Hal Williams (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1963), 69–90.

55. Jordan Fabian and Molly K. Hooper, “House GOP Votes to Ban All Earmarks,” The Hill, March 11, 2010, The House rules of the 111th Congress specify, on penalty of a point of order, that all bills, joint resolutions, and conference reports either (1) list and name the requesting member for all included earmarks, limited tax benefits, and limited tariff benefits or (2) specify that no such benefits are designated.

56. Wilson, Rick K., “An Empirical Test of Preferences for the Pork Barrel: District Level Appropriations for Rivers and Harbors Legislation, 1889–1913,American Journal of Political Science 30 (1986): 737 .

57. On average, customs duties alone constituted 53.5 percent of annual federal receipts between 1877 and 1897. See Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 144–45, table 2.4.

58. Alfred E. Roseboom and Eugene H. Eckes, A History of Presidential Elections, from George Washington to Jimmy Carter (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 108.

59. Roseboom and Eckes, A History of Presidential Elections, 102

60. Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley, 117.

61. Lowi, in fact, offers the tariff before 1962 as a central example of distributive policy, in his initial formulation of the concept. See Lowi, “American Business,” esp. 690–93.

62. Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition, 148.

63. Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 467.

64. For a general treatment of the redistributive stakes in protection, see Ronald Rogowski, Commerce and Coalitions: How Trade Affects Domestic Political Alignments (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

65. Garraty, The New Commonwealth, 245.

66. Ibid., 246.

67. Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley, 462.

68. Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 113.

69. Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley, 474.

70. Ibid., 475.

71. Ibid., 171.

72. Tom E. Terrill, The Tariff, Politics, and American Foreign Policy, 1874–1901 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973), 159–83.

73. Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley, 352. See also Edward Stanwood, American Tariff Controversies in the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), 243–95. After the passage of the McKinley tariff, gross imports actually went up, and revenue collected went down. During the four years of the McKinley tariff between 1891 and 1895, the ratio of customs duties to the total value of imports averaged 22.94; under the “Mongrel Tariff” of 1884–1890, the ratio was 30.18. See Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 144–45, table 2.4.

74. McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy, 173.

75. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 294.

76. On this point, see Clinton, Joshua D. and Lapinski, John, “Laws and Roll Calls in the U.S. Congress, 1891–1994,Legislative Studies Quarterly 33 (2008): 511541 .

77. For evidence of this claim from the 1980–2008 era, see Frances E. Lee, Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

78. Stevens, S. K., “The Election of 1896 in Pennsylvania,Pennsylvania History 4 (1937): 67 , quoted in Sanders, Roots of Reform, 139.

79. Simulation experiments that vary the underlying number of dimensions in the policy space demonstrate that when the two parties vote distinctly from one another, a single dimension will dominate, regardless of how many true dimensions there are. See Aldrich, John H., Montgomery, Jacob M., and Sparks, David, “Polarization and Ideology: Partisan Sources of Low-Dimensionality in Scaled Roll-Call Analyses,Political Analysis 22 (2014): 435–56.

80. Heckman, James J. and Snyder, James M., “Linear Probability Models of the Demand for Attributes with an Empirical Application to Estimating the Preferences of Legislators,RAND Journal of Economics 28, Special Issue in honor of Richard E. Quandt (1997): S142–89.

81. David Karol, Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

82. Poole, Keith T. and Rosenthal, Howard, “Patterns of Congressional Voting,American Journal of Political Science 35 (1991): 230 .

83. Bryce, The American Commonwealth, 701–702.

For comments, I am indebted to Joe Cooper, David Karol, Ira Katznelson, Emery Lee, Bruce Oppenheimer, Daniel Stid, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors Tony Chen and Eric Schickler.

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