Virtual Issue: The Fight to Vote: Electoral Politics in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Suzannah Leinster, JGAPE Undergraduate Intern, Queen’s University
This virtual issue is published to coincide with the 2022 midterm elections. It brings together a collection of articles from JGAPE’s past 20 years that examine elections and electoral politics in the GAPE. Gilded Age and Progressive Era elections were volatile affairs, reflecting the economic instability, class divisions, and flagrant racism of the period. As we see here, corruption and voter intimidation – especially efforts to exclude African American voters – were mainstays of GAPE elections, but so too was Americans’ deep commitment to the electoral process.
Politics and economy are ever rarely seen straying from one another, and Nicolas Barreyre shows us the close relations of economic depression and political change. In the short term, Republican inability to address and ameliorate the consequences of the 1873 economic collapse led disastrous losses in the 1874 midterms. In the longer term, inter- and intra-party divisions over economic issues led to a “politics of inertia” and a Republican turn away from Reconstruction.
Voter intimidation, corruption, and blatant racism, especially in the South, were also frequent features of Gilded Age elections. Bryant K. Barnes uses the case of H. Seb Doyle, a Populist African American preacher threatened with lynching, to show how racism pervaded the Democratic and Populist parties. Though the Populists initially called for biracial politics, they used the same supremacist ideology as the Democrats to consolidate their political platform. In the end, Barnes shows, the Populists eventually abandoned their commitment to biracial politics in the name of political reform and joined Democrats and others in supporting Black disfranchisement.
White supremacist efforts to exclude Black voters were not always successful, however, thanks to African Americans’ commitment to electoral politics. Stephen A. West shows how African American votes were a persistent force at a local, regional level. He uses the town of Greenville, South Carolina, to demonstrate how African American enfranchisement in local political issues was essential for their continued place in federal electoral discourse. African American voter registration and participation in Greenville show areas where black residents had the power to reform municipal institutions.
Even though, as Nicolas Barreye argues, Congressional support for Reconstruction petered out quickly in the early 1870s, American interest in supporting Black voters in the South did not end. As Colin McConarty explains, public response to the proposed Federal Elections Bill of 1890 showed that some Americans remained committed to protecting Black voters in the South well after the end of Reconstruction. Private citizens wrote letters strongly supporting the bill and expressing dismay and horror at white Southerners’ efforts to suppress Black political engagement.
By the turn of the twentieth century, elections began to change as campaigning came to revolve around the personalities and actions of candidates than local and state political parties. John F. Reynolds examines the rise of personality-charged, candidate-based politics in California: not a positive step. But as Tom Culbertson’s discussion of the GAPE’s vibrant political cartoons shows, the power of personality (and of corruption!) were a feature of the period. Culbertson’s emphasis on the artist's creative power and their tendency to choose favourite presidential candidates demonstrates the lively nature of these pictures. Together, Reynolds and Culbertson remind us of the strong echoes of GAPE electoral politics in today’s political arena.