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America's History in the Making

Taming the American West

Theme 3

The unintended consequence of Reconstruction policies was a call for a fairer and more humane economy, foreshadowing twentieth-century government reforms.

Displaced native inhabitants, struggling new settlers, and a clamoring for more direct government assistance were all unintended consequences of the Republican Party's efforts to integrate and incorporate the nation after the Civil War. Amidst widespread hardship, bitter conflicts, and severe depressions in the 1870s and 1890s, many voters became disenchanted, largely on economic grounds, with the party of Union victory. As a result, Republicans lost their political dominance in the 1870s, and the subsequent two decades of national elections brought intense party competition and razor-thin margins of victory.

As the balance of power between the Republicans and Democrats narrowed, a window of opportunity opened up for other political parties, including the Greenback-Labor Party, Prohibitionists, Union Labor Party, and the United Labor Party. In this era of partisan stand-off, reformers created alternative parties to advance their vision of a stronger government that would help people in radical ways. Farmers sought direct federal action rather than indirect subsidies to business; however, policymakers and influential citizens feared that giving food and shelter to the needy would undermine the farmers' willingness to work, and weaken the family structure.

The most significant of these third parties was the Populist, or People's Party, that enjoyed a brief period of success by the 1890s. The Populist Party, composed primarily of farmers and laborers, laid the foundation for twentieth-century state-building by calling for stronger regulation of industry, public ownership of railroads and telegraphs, a progressive income tax to fund government services, and direct election of state senators.

The 1890s was a watershed moment in American politics. Up to this point, Republicans were the state-building party, but at this time the Democrats began to assume the role. It was the Populists that pushed the Democrats to become a more activist and peopleoriented government.

Primary Sources

Artifacts

Gift for the Grangers

J. Hale Powers & Co., GIFT FOR THE GRANGERS (1873). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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