Politics and the Call for Reform During the Late 19th Century

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Time Line

1867 National Grange movement founded
1870s Farmers’ Alliance movement begins
1872 Ulysses S. Grant reelected president
1876 Rutherford B. Hayes elected president
1880 James A. Garfield elected president
1881 Garfield shot; Chester A. Arthur becomes president
1883 Congress passes Pendleton Civil Service Act
1884 Grover Cleveland elected president

First mass-transit system in the United States (Richmond, Virginia)

Benjamin Harrison elected president

1889 Hull House opens
1896 William McKinley elected president


Politics and the Call for Reform

The last half of the nineteenth century brought prosperity to many and poverty to many more. Immigrants continued to flood into the United States by the millions, usually taking the lowest-paid jobs and living in the poorest housing. Their acceptance of the situation meant that business owners, managers, and landlords had little incentive to improve wages or living and working conditions. However, many people tried to do something on an individual basis. The settlement-house movement brought help into the neighborhoods where it was most needed. Political machines also provided essential improvements such as sewer systems to cities, albeit at a price.

As manufacturing and service workers began to unionize and demand better working conditions, farmers began to try to do the same. National and regional Farmers’ Alliance movements formed, bringing farmers together to address their most important financial and political concerns. By the end of the century, the Alliance movements had won major concessions for farmers.

People who were financially well off saw no need for reform, and those who profited from the widespread corruption in politics and business did not seek reform either. On the other side, millions of people clamored for a more democratic society, feeling that the United States had become a nation ruled by the wealthy for the wealthy. Most presidential elections during this era turned on the question of reform. Some progress was made, but major reforms would have to wait until the turn of the century and the rise to the presidency of the pugnacious, determined, fearless Theodore Roosevelt.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Politics and the Call for Reform During the Late 19th Century Practice Test

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