The Gilded Age
There was little nostalgia and backward looking in the dynamic North and West during the "Gilded Age"—the boom decades that followed the Civil War. Business was expanding rapidly, with manufacturing, mining, railroads, and banking leading the way. There were millions of new farms in the prairie states. Immigration reached record levels. Progress was the watchword of the day. The wealth of the period is highlighted by American upper class opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") that used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.
Conservatives in the 20th Century, looking back at the Gilded Age, retroactively applied the word "conservative" to those who supported unrestrained capitalism. For example, Oswald Garrison Villard, writing in 1939, characterized his former mentor Horace White (1834–1916) as "a great economic conservative; had he lived to see the days of the New Deal financing he would probably have cried out loud and promptly demised."
In this sense, the conservative element of the Democratic party was led by the Bourbon Democrats and their hero President Grover Cleveland, who fought against high tariffs and on behalf of the gold standard. In 1896, the Bourbons were overthrown inside the Democratic Party by William Jennings Bryan and the agrarians, who preached "Free Silver" and opposition to the power that banks and railroads had over the American farmer. The agrarians formed a coalition with the Populists and vehemently denounced the politics of big business, especially in the decisive 1896 election, won by Republican William McKinley, who was easily reelected over Bryan in 1900 as well.
Religious conservatives of this period sponsored a large and flourishing media network, especially based on magazines, many with close ties to the Protestant churches that were rapidly expanding due to the Third Great Awakening. Catholics had few magazines but opposed agrarianism in politics and established hundreds of schools and colleges to promote their conservative religious and social values.
Modern conservatives often point to William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), a leading public intellectual of the era, as one of their own, citing his articulate support for free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard, and his opposition to what he saw as threats to the middle class from the rich plutocrats above or the agrarians and ignorant masses below.
The Gilded Age came to an end with the Panic of 1893 and the severe nationwide depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897.
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