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From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age Hardcover – August 3, 2010


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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1 edition (August 3, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809047934
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809047932
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,772,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Chris on August 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Charles Calhoun's book has a very straightforward purpose -- to provide an overview of the national political scene from about 1868 through 1900. And he does this quite well. The book is a shade under 200 pages, and it contains minimal analysis, even though Calhoun is certainly a capable historian of the Gilded Age. But his goal is to show readers that contrary to popular belief, the Gilded Age wasn't a black hole in politics, that there were serious issues that were hotly debated, from race relations to the role of government and, most notably, economic policy.

Calhoun traces the major political issues and fights in Congress and on the campaign trail from the administration of Grant through McKinley's reelection in 1900. He shows that the focus on equitable treatment for southern blacks waned during that period, and by the end of the century, foreign policy, which captured less attention for most of the period, became more significant. Throughout the three-plus decades, the tariff, taxation and monetary policy were of the utmost importance to politicians (William Jennings Bryan was so focused on silver coinage that he essentially took himself out of the 1900 election with his determination to make it a focal point).

The author compares the more activist presidencies of Benjamin Harrison and McKinley to their polar opposites, the two Cleveland administrations. And since the second Cleveland term was such a disaster, followed by a successful McKinley presidency, it paved the way for a reevaluation of the role of government in the everyday lives of citizens, which led to the progressive era.

Calhoun's book makes me interested in learning more about the period, but it at least offered a nice introduction to the era's key political players and the issues they fought for and against. It was an easy read and certainly worth my time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By MarkK VINE VOICE on August 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
For most Americans, the political history of the Gilded Age brings to mind a succession of indistinguishably bearded presidents who did nothing. Sandwiched as it is between the drama of the Civil War period and the revolution in government brought about during the Progressive Era, it often tends to be overshadowed and overlooked, a period where the dominance of laissez-faire attitudes meant that little of significance took place. In this short little book, Charles W. Calhoun demolishes such misconceptions, showing the period to be one that both wrestled with important questions left over from the Civil War and set the stage for many of the transformations that were to follow.

Calhoun begins his study with the 1868 presidential election. Though this was the first presidential election after the Civil War, the issues created by the conflict dominated the campaign, particularly the issue of black suffrage. Republicans proved effective at rallying voters outside the South by "waving the bloody shirt," or rallying voters to defending the results against the efforts by Democrats to reverse them. Calhoun sees this as reflective of the political philosophies that characterized the political parties in this period, with the Republicans believing that the federal government could play a positive role in national development, while the Democrats argued for greater deference to state and local governments.

This clash of philosophical approaches was reflected not just in contrasting views on the issue of black suffrage, but in economic policy as well. Calhoun sees the Republicans in the 1870s as facing the question of whether to emphasize the efforts to preserve black suffrage or their use of tariffs and other policies to encourage national economic development.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Derek Grimmell on February 8, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I realize how much a rating really is a comparison of expectations to experience, in which case all review ratings are ultimately unfair. This book covers the history of American political campaigns from 1868 to 1900, focusing on the relative importance of sectional issues -- also known as civil rights -- versus prosperity. I think it does a good job of showing the various watershed moments when each party took a turn in one direction or the other. I ended up with some picture of Cleveland, James Blaine, Benjamin Harrison, and especially the free-silver issue, which sank Cleveland's second term by creating a perception of government insolvency that worsened a business panic.

4 rather than 5 because my expectations were higher than the actual achievement. I was hoping for a deeper and more penetrating insight into the era. The book never goes beyond political calculations to tie these in with major shifts in public sentiment. I wanted more about the process, for example, of average voters losing interest in civil rights: was it the people who led to the shift in political tone, or was it the shift in political calculation that influenced public opinion? Or did the two proceed in isolation from one another? I still don't know. Instead I got about a dozen snapshots of different groups patching together coalitions in attempts to win the big prize, and how each succeeded or failed, implemented the vision, and the consequences.

My recommendation: Ignore my 4-star review, and read this book. It's a good enough overview of the politics of the era. At the end you will probably want to dig in to more focused works, such as biography of Blaine, Cleveland, and Garfield, but wanting to do more research after reading a book is probably a good thing.
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