This chapter discusses how the late 1800s saw political parties focusing on party competition rather than the economic issues that were hurting rural Americans.
Section 1 explains how the nearly even distribution of power between Republicans and Democrats during the late 1800s impacted American politics. In the late 1800s, many Americans believed that political corruption prevented government from addressing the nation's pressing needs. A president's assassination highlighted the need for political reform, and leaders made some changes. However, the government's difficulty in addressing national issues also resulted from the nearly even distribution of power between Republicans and Democrats. Power was so evenly matched that congressional votes often produced deadlocks and narrow margins determined most of the presidential elections. A close election gave Democrat Grover Cleveland the presidency in 1884. During his administration, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission to address public fears over railroad companies' practices. When Republicans won control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House in 1888, they pushed through new economic reforms. These reforms, however, transformed the budget surplus into a budget deficit.
Section 2 details the emergence of populism. In the years immediately following the Civil War, overproduction and deflation created economic hardships for many farmers. Many blamed railroads and banks and decided they needed more political muscle to effect economic changes. Farmers organized into the Grange, the Greenback Party, and the Farmers' Alliance. When farmers and reformers organized the Populist Party, their demands included allowing the free coinage of silver, ending national banks and protective tariffs, applying tighter restrictions on railroads, and allowing the direct election of U.S. senators. The main objective of the party was to expand the powers of the federal government to protect farmers. Populists pushed for unlimited silver coins during a gold crisis, but when economic stability returned, support for populism faded. Though the Populists never won a presidential election, they inspired reforms that were later adopted by other parties.
Section 3 describes how Southern states passed laws during the late 1800s that disenfranchised African Americans and imposed segregation on them. After Reconstruction, many African Americans tried to escape the grinding poverty of the rural South. While thousands of "Exodusters" migrated to Kansas, some African Americans joined farmers' alliances. When African Americans joined the Populist Party, Democratic leaders used racism to put an end to the Populist threat in the South. Election officials employed strategies at the polls that barred nearly all African Americans from voting. Encouraged by a Supreme Court decision, Southern States passed a series of laws that reinforced segregation. Another Supreme Court ruling endorsed "separate but equal" facilities for African Americans, and the South found its legal basis for discrimination. As racial brutality, mob violence, and lynchings increased during the late 1800s, African Americans responded with protests against violence, calls for compromise, and demands for equality.