Sunday, May 13, 2012

The "Ponderous Tilt-Hammer"

Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed The Man Who Broke the Filibuster. James Grant: Simon and Schuster 2011.

Financial journalist James Grant has produced a fascinating biography of a remarkable and once well-known and justly admired speaker of the House, Republican Thomas B. Reed of Maine.

As speaker, Reed overhauled parliamentary rules to streamline proceedings and make it more difficult for members to disrupt legislative business. The term "filibuster," today associated solely with the Senate, applied in the 19th century to the House of Representatives as well before Reed made it impossible to bring debate to a halt with dilatory tactics.

Possessed of an acerbic wit and lacking much patience for fools, Reed championed hard money and earned little but scorn from his foes, many of whom were soft-money agrarian radicals and populists. In a vivid turn of phrase that captured Reed's ability to pulverize opponents, Iowa Populist James B. Weaver called the Maine Republican a "ponderous tilt-hammer who seldom strikes, but when he does ... requires a solid body to withstand the impact."

Grant supports the hard-money views embraced by Reed and goes to considerable length to denounce the Greenback-Labor Party, which enjoyed particular success in Reed's home state during its brief existence. That is not surprising.

But this is not a 21st-century screed about the heresies of populism. Reed was more than just a doctrinaire financial conservative. He was an early supporter of women's suffrage and later became an outspoken anti-imperialist. He studied French and delighted in the language -- although, as Grant points out, he was dismissive of the free-trade doctrines championed by French philosopher Frederic Bastiat, a thinker now much admired by conservatives.

Although marred by too many lengthy quotations from speeches by Reed and other figures, "Mr. Speaker" offers an accessible introduction personalities of the age. James G. Blaine, James A. Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley populate its pages, as do lesser known figures such as Charles Frederick Crisp, Reed's over-matched Democratic rival.

Published last year and available as an e-book through, "Mr. Speaker" remains a timely and useful introduction to the period.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Another View of Cleveland and his Banker

Banker J.P. Morgan and President Grover Cleveland are the subjects of a brief, provocative essay by historian John Steele Gordon that appeared March 10 on

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pundits and Populism

William Jennings Bryan (Chicago Historical Society).

A history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago has weighed in with a thought-provoking essay on populism and its portrayal by the nation's political pundits.

Leon Fink writes that the image of "populists, tarred in the 1890s as a party of unkempt, uneducated madmen whose hatred for the rich would unleash anarchy on the Republic, lives on in the minds of contemporary detractors as an ignorant rabble simplistically dividing the country between Main Street and Wall Street."

As Fink points out, this kind of commentary continues a longstanding tradition dating back to the late 19th century, when agrarian radicals who denounced the nation's banking system and related economic were dismissed as ignorant rubes -- or worse.

In the years after the Civil War, advocates of greater use of paper greenback dollars to alleviate the deflationary pressures crushing farmers were characterized in the pages of the Methodist Christian Advocate as immoral. The publication argued that "atheism is not worse in religion than an unstable or irredeemable currency in political economy."

Variations on that theme continued through the end of the century. In the superheated presidential campaign of 1896, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan embraced the populist doctrine of "free silver" as a means of expanding the nation's currency, the Leon, Iowa, Decatur County Journal characterized supporters of the doctrine as "long haired, beer guzzling anarchists."

The populists (the lower-case "p" referring to both the party and its antecedents in the late 1870s and 1880s) of the era recognized the damage these kinds of critiques caused. The nation's newspapers, James B. Weaver complained in the early 1880s, "made business men believe that we were a set of hare-brained fanatics."

Weaver fought back by editing a newspaper of his own, the Iowa Tribune, devoted to the economic and political programs favored by agrarian radicals. In 1892, he published A Call to Action, articulating a wide-ranging populist critique of institutions ranging from the banking system to the Supreme Court.

Other populists responded by making tactical adjustments. As historian Michael Kazin has pointed out, Bryan avoided speaking on free silver when campaigning among wage-earning industrial workers in the urban North who rightfully feared the impact of inflation.

The monetary doctrines of 19th-century populists were only part of an ambitious political program that addressed a broad range of economic, social and political problems that emerged as the United States evolved into an industrial economy. That is often ignored by critics past and present.

The 1880 Greenback-Labor Party platform, for example, called for an eight-hour day, a graduated income tax, regulation of working conditions in the nation's factories and an end to child labor. The party further demanded that "every citizen of due age, sound mind, and not a felon, be fully enfranchised."

The monetary theories of 19th-century agrarian radicals have been largely forgotten, but in other important respects their ideas live on. Whether that's good or bad is for others to judge, but one thing is clear: populists and their antecedents forever changed the political landscape of the United States. Not bad for a set of hare-brained fanatics.


Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

McPherson, Edward. A Handbook of Politics for 1880: Being a Record of Important Political Action, National and State, from July 1, 1878, to July 1, 1880. Washington D.C.: James J. Chapman, 1880.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, Minn.,2008.

_______. "Get Ready for '96: The Decatur County Press, Partisanship, and the Presidential Campaign of 1896." Iowa City: Iowa Heritage Illustrated, 84 (Fall 2003).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

David Frum on the Mugwumps

In a recent edition of The Atlantic Monthly, conservative writer David Frum argues that the Mugwumps offer a worthy model for conservatives:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Weaver Biography Wins Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award

Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver has been honored with the State Historical Society of Iowa's Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award. The honor "recognizes the book judged as the most significant book on Iowa history published during the preceding year."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A New Look at Cornelius Vanderbilt

Here's Alice Schroeder's review of T.J. Stiles' The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An Iowa Memorial Day, 1895

The Rev. George E. Mitchell presided at the Memorial Day observance in Davis City, Iowa, in 1895.

More than thirty years after the guns fell silent at Appamottox, memories of the Civil War remained fresh in the market towns and county seats of the rural Midwest.

In late May, 1895, the residents of Davis City, Iowa, prepared to honor the veterans of that conflict and remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to preserve the Union. The solemnity of the occasion trumped the partisan and sectarian differences that otherwise divided the Decatur County community.

Those differences were significant. With a population of 600, Davis City featured two newspapers (!) -- the Republican Davis City Rustler and the stoutly Populist Davis City Advance. Methodists and Reformed Latter-Day Saints filled the local churches.

The Advance made no secret in other columns of its contempt for President Grover Cleveland (calling him "Old Tub-of-Fat" in one memorable quip). It showed no less disdain for Republicans. As Memorial Day approached, however, partisan sniping ceased. The Advance reported that local residents formed committees responsible for music, the decoration of graves, and the arrangement of children in a procession to the local cemetery. A ritual Grand Army of the Republic service for the decoration of soldiers' graves was planned, followed by a program of music, prayer and reminiscence at the local Latter-Day Saints church.

One of the leading figures in the day's ceremonies was my great-great grandfather, the Rev. George E. Mitchell. As a 19-year-old in 1861, Mitchell enlisted in an Illinois infantry regiment and marched across Missouri to northwest Arkansas. There, in early 1862, he fought in the battle of Pea Ridge, an engagement that halted the Confederate advance into Missouri and kept the border state in the Union.

Mitchell paid a painful price for his service, however. Wounded in battle when a musket ball shot through his foot and exited at the heel, he was hospitalized and eventually discharged. He brought the family to southern Iowa in 1872, and by the middle of the 1890s the Mitchells were well established in Decatur and neighboring Clarke counties.

My ancestor took enormous pride in his war-time record. He was active in the Grand Army of the Republic and local Republican politics. In many ways, and in other contexts, Mitchell was just the sort of figure who might have been expected to drive the Populist editors of the Advance to distraction. But his service on this day won nothing but praise.

"The memorial services conducted Sunday afternoon by Rev. Mitchell were highly appreciated," the paper reported on May 30. "About thirty soldiers marched from the G.A. R. hall to the church headed by the stars and stripes to half-mast. Rev. Mitchell is an old soldier who knows how to touch the hearts of the comrades."

Similar scenes unfolded other in many other Northern states on Memorial Day in 1895, but the ceremonies resonated with particular poignancy in Iowa, which sent 70,000 soldiers to fight for the Union. "Of the soldiers and sailors sent to war, few states paid a higher cost in lives than did Iowa," writes Joseph F. Wall in Iowa: A History. The state lost 3,540 in battle, 8,498 to disease, and 515 in prison or due to starvation.

No wonder, then, that Wall concludes that the war for Iowans "was the great determinant of our political structure and in many important ways of our social attitudes for the next 100 years. In these respects, the war was as important to Iowa as it was to Mississippi or Alabama."

Beginning with John Fremont in 1856, the Hawkeye State voted so regularly for Republican presidential candidates that the quip was that "Iowa will go Democrat when Hell goes Methodist." Not until 1912 would Iowa leave the Republican fold, when Woodrow Wilson carried the state. In 1895 the joke remained not only funny but accurate.

One year later, Davis City and Decatur County would be riven by the dramatic presidential campaign of 1896. Republican William McKinley carried the Hawkeye State but lost Decatur County, where sympathies for the Populists and their third-party antecedants ran strong, by a small margin.

But for one day, partisanship was set aside as the town's residents came together to remember the sacrifices of those who took up arms for the Stars and Stripes.


Davis City Advance, May 23, May 30, 1895.

Wall, Joseph F. Iowa: A History. New York: W. Norton & Co., 1978.