How the Gilded Age’s Top 1 Percent Thrived on Corruption



According to Richard White of Stanford University, the rise of corruption and growth of modern means of communication that intensified the way corruption can work was the primary reason while Gilded Age was among the most corrupt eras in American history. Records show that by 1890, 20% of the United States wealth was held by 4000 millionaires of the country and gave rise to corporations which in turn give kickbacks to politicians in ‘rub my back, I rub your back’ deals. In the most notorious instance of corruption connected to railroads, Union Pacific Railroad executives formed a sham construction company, Credit Mobilier and submitted bills for nearly double the construction cost of the Eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad and pocketed the overcharges. This scandal consumed President Ulysses S. Grant’s first and second vice presidents. White later explained that Grant wasn’t a corrupt man but he was fully surrounded with people that f questionable characters. White also explained that the pay structure in the system made the public officials vulnerable to bribery and fraud as most postmasters earned a percentage of stamps sold by them and prosecutors received fees for each case brought before them.

Tammany Hall leader, William Tweed and his cronies still between $45 million and $200 million in city funds through the kickbacks generated from doling out highly lucrative public offices as political plums and also from lavish bribes collected while awarding contracts and through the fixed election and widespread voter fraud. Tammany Hall politician, George W. Plunkitt engaged in a very subtle form of corruption by gaining access to privileged information on proposed public works execution and using it for his private use, a style he called an honest graft and plagued Gilded Age. Muckraking reporters exposure of political corruption cleared the road for the enactment of reforms by President Theodore Roosevelt, the beginning of saner environment and extinction of the corruption of Gilded Age.