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Markets, Morality, and the Media: The Election of 1884 and the Iconography of Progressivism

John, Richard R.

The victory of Democrat Grover Cleveland over Republican James G. Blaine in the presidential election of 1884 is one of those events in U.S. history that once commanded broad attention but has long since ceased to stir the blood. This was an epoch, after all, about which historians customarily play up the radical transformations being wrought by big business and downplay the influence of presidential administrations on public policy. In the conventional narrative—familiar to contemporaries, and updated a half century later for a generation of New Dealers by the journalist-turned-popular historian Matthew Josephson—greedy "robber barons" called the shots, while unscrupulous "politicos" did their bidding. This big-business-centric narrative has proved remarkably durable and helps explain why generations of historians have—misleadingly, in my view—borrowed a phrase from Mark Twain and called the period between the end of Congressional Reconstruction in 1877 and the emergence of the Progressive movement around 1900 the Gilded Age.

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America at the Ballot Box: Elections and Political History
University of Pennsylvania Press

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August 1, 2018