From Publishers Weekly
The politics of the late 19th century, or the Gilded Age, is the subject of this short history, and the author hopes to draw parallels between then and now. Voter turnout often surpassed 75%, political scandals were abundant, and odd third parties and flamboyant figures captured the public eye. The era has given Calhoun plenty to chew on, and the author, manifestly passionate about his niche, suggests that we are missing the implications of the historical drama. Unfortunately, by filling his book with a bewilderingly pedestrian barrage of facts, he fails to draw a persuasive parallel. Either too determined to be brief, or too loyal to his single-minded premise, Calhoun's summary of the era's politics is scholarly, complete, and bone dry. While its central impetus, the shifting balance between the influence on politics of moral issues and brute economics, is a worthy anchor point, the sheer stultifying force of endless dithering over tariffs, monetary policy, in-fighting, and partisan bickering is too strong.
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A specialist on American political history between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Calhoun here delivers an insightful survey of the period. Keen to modify the times’ reputation for scandal and scant historical consequence, he covers the public issues and political personalities in play in the competition between and within the Republican and Democratic parties. Proceeding chronologically through each national election from 1868 to 1900, Calhoun describes how putative presidential candidates jockeyed for nominations, how victor and vanquished interpreted election results, and the disposition of campaign pledges by the ensuing political alignment in Washington. As Calhoun’s title suggests, the ground on which elections were contested shifted from Reconstruction and the civil rights of blacks to economic issues, with the Republicans tending to favor activist government and Solid South Democrats, minimal government. Noting what scandals did erupt, Calhoun ascribes their salience to voters as minimal compared with the Panics of 1873 and 1893 or partisan positions on civil service reform, tariff rates, and silver coinage. An eminently readable historian, Calhoun will click with fans of politics and the political past. --Gilbert Taylor