Monday, October 27, 2008

Going for the Gold

At the age of 79, after a lifetime that included service as a Union Army general in the Civil War and a term as governor of Illinois, Democratic Sen. John M. Palmer might well have basked in the role of elder statesman.

Instead, he ventured into the world of presidential politics at the head of an ill-starred third-party campaign for the White House in 1896.

Palmer was the candidate of the National Democratic Party, a creation of conservative supporters of President Grover Cleveland who could not abide the Democratic ticket headed by William Jennings Bryan.

The split in the party followed a tumultuous and unhappy return to the White House by Cleveland in 1892. Shortly after he took office, the Panic of 1893 swept through banks, investment houses, factories and farms, creating economic chaos that dominated his second term.

In 1894, Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to suppress the Pullman strike organized by Eugene V. Debs. Legions of unemployed workers loosely organized as an “army” by Jacob Coxey marched on Washington demanding relief. In the congressional elections of 1894, Republicans routed Democrats and regained control of Capitol Hill.

Two years later, when Democrats met in Chicago to choose their presidential candidate, the party nominated Bryan, whose support for free-silver, among other things, made him anathema to the conservative financiers who backed Cleveland and favored the gold standard.

The rebuke in Chicago was an ignominious end for Cleveland, whose victory in 1884 made him the first Democrat to win the White House since before the Civil War.

So-called Gold Democrats met in Indianapolis in September and selected Palmer as their presidential candidate. To balance the impact of having a former Union Army general at the top of its ticket, the Gold Democrats picked Simon Bolivar Buckner, 73, the Confederate general who surrendered Fort Donelson to Ulysses S. Grant, as Palmer’s running mate.

The Gold Democrats adopted a platform that cast their defection from the Bryan ticket as a high-minded defense of principle.

“This convention has assembled to uphold the principles upon which depend the honor and welfare of the American people in order that Democrats throughout the Union may unite their patriotic efforts to avert disaster from their country and ruin from their party,” the Gold Democrats declared.

Cleveland pronounced himself pleased with the ticket, but others were less enthusiastic. “You would laugh yourself sick could you see old Palmer,” Kenesaw M. Landis, the future commissioner of baseball, wrote to a friend. “He has actually gotten it into his head he is running for office.”

“A Splendid Ticket – Don’t Vote for It,” declared the New York Sun. The New York Times was marginally more supportive.

“The Democrats of this state have always been for sound money,” the Times observed in its tepid endorsement of Palmer. “The platform of the Chicago assemblage was a radical departure from Democratic doctrines, and the Chicago ticket stands for Populism, not Democracy.”

The Times’s endorsement came on Sept. 30, but by then, the campaign between Republican William McKinley and Bryan had evolved into a clear-cut battle between the bimetallism favored by Bryan and the hard-money policies favored by the GOP. Hard-money Democrats were an irrelevancy.

The Gold Democrats, one study has concluded, represented the last gasp of classic 19th-century liberalism – with its emphasis on minimalist government, free trade and hard money – in the Democratic Party. The Gold Democrats’ “efforts to defend these values ended in almost complete failure.”

When the votes were counted, the Gold Democratic ticket received 132,871 votes – an insignificant fraction of the more than 13 million presidential ballots cast that year. It would be the only time since 1860 that the Times endorsed a third-party candidate. Palmer’s showing in the fall gave the paper little reason to do so again.


The New York Times, Sept. 30, 1896

"Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classic Liberalism," David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito. The Independent Review, Vol. 4, No. 4, Spring 2000, pp. 555-575.

The Campaign of 1896: The Presidential Campaign, Cartoons & Commentary. Created by Rebecca Edwards and Sarah DeFeo.

Monday, October 20, 2008

1888's October Surprise

On October 21, 1888, readers of The Los Angeles Times learned some startling news.

The British minister to the United States, Lionel Sackville-West, had shared some favorable opinions about the Cleveland administration and its policy toward Great Britain with a correspondent who identified himself as a U.S. citizen of English descent named Charles F. Murchison.

Then, as now, it was considered highly inappropriate for a foreign diplomat to choose sides in a presidential election. When the diplomat in question was British – representing a country viewed with hostility and suspicion by a wide range of voters, particularly those of Irish ancestry – such sentiments threatened to turn the political landscape upside down.

Making matters worse for the hapless Sackville-West, the letter was a fraud. Its author was not "Murchison" but a Republican farmer from Pomona, Calif., named George Osgoodby.

The “Murchison letter” purported to seek Sackville-West’s guidance on how to vote in the upcoming election in a way that would support British interests. Sackville-West's reply started off well, advising his correspondent that in the heat of an election campaign it is difficult to assess the real policy of any party or presidential candidate regarding Britain.

Then he went too far. Sackville-West confided his belief that the Democratic Cleveland administration, “the party in power,” remained “desirous of maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain.”

That assertion was widely regarded as an endorsement by the British government’s representative in Washington of Cleveland’s reelection campaign against Republican Benjamin Harrison.

Col. Harrison Otis, the “swashbuckling and vehemently partisan” Republican proprietor of the Times, arranged to publish the correspondence with only two weeks left in the campaign – and it triggered a political explosion that dominated the campaign’s final weeks.

Secretary of State Thomas Francis Bayard Sr., tried to put as much distance between the administration and the letter as possible. “Lord Sackville,” Bayard told the New York Times, “has no other or better means of knowledge of the intentions of the President than any one of the 65,000,000 of American people.”

But he intimated that he recognized the damage caused by the correspondence. “It is still to be hoped that we will be able to settle the issues involved in the pending canvass without the importation of foreign interference or intermeddling in our domestic affairs,” Bayard said. “The American people will be prompt to resent and repel as impertinent any such attempts.”

Sackville-West’s uninvited endorsement of Cleveland carried a certain irony. The rotund former governor of New York had narrowly defeated Republican James G. Blaine in 1884, in part due to the assertion by a Republican minister, Samuel D. Burchard, that the Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

Sen. Dwight Sabin characterized the dilemma posed to Democrats by the Murchison correspondence as a no-win situation. “It looks to me very much like the fellow who concluded that one road led to destruction and the other to damnation. Consequently he would take to the woods,” the Minnesota Republican observed on Oct. 29. “I see no course open for the administration in this case but to take to the woods.”

In a manner of speaking, that’s exactly what happened. Although Cleveland actually won the popular vote by a narrow margin, Harrison ran up a comfortable margin in the Electoral College and went to the White House. New York, which Cleveland carried four years earlier with the help of Burchard’s impolitic comments, went for Harrison this time.

“The Sackville-West letter was evidently a great blunder,” Sabin predicted, “and it is likely to prove the Burchard of the Democratic Party.”


Andrews, Benjamin E. History of the United States, Vol. 5. 2007, Gutenberg Ebook, No. 227777.

The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 13, 2000, p. B3

The New York Times, Oct. 26, 1888, p. 1; Jan. 1, 1889, p. 1

The Washington Post, Oct. 31, 1888, p. 4

Monday, October 13, 2008

Back Home Again

It has long been a reliable ritual of presidential election television coverage: the theme music comes up, the broadcast begins – and within an hour, Indiana goes into the Republican column.

In presidential politics, the birthplace of Michael Jackson, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene V. Debs and Dan Quayle has been a dependable GOP stronghold for the past 40 years. Not since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson piled up his landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater, has a Democrat carried the state. Its lopsided Republican majorities meant that the TV networks could safely declare a Republican victory there as part of the evening’s preliminaries and then move on to other business.

This year, however, could be different. Polls show only a handful of percentage points separate Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. For the first time since A.J. Foyt recorded his second win at the Indianapolis 500, the Hoosier State and its 11 electoral votes are up for grabs.

While the notion of Indiana as a battleground state seems unusual to modern-day political junkies, in the latter half of the 19th century both parties fought fiercely for its 15 electoral votes.

Between 1880 and 1892, neither party managed to carry the state by more than 7,125 votes – Democrat Grover Cleveland’s margin of victory over Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1892. Four years earlier, Harrison, a resident of Indianapolis and former U.S. senator, carried his home state by a mere 2,376 votes over Cleveland.

Recognizing its importance, both parties usually managed to include a Hoosier on the presidential ticket. With only two exceptions, Indiana was represented on the national ticket of at least one of the parties in every presidential election between 1868 and 1912.

That was no accident. With voting for state and local candidates held in October, and a population that was broadly representative of the Midwest, Gilded Age political operatives recognized that the Hoosier state was as an important bellwether. “If we carry Indiana,” Republican James A. Garfield advised friends during his 1880 campaign for the White House, “the rest will be easy.”

The 1880 campaign demonstrated the importance with which both parties regarded Indiana. After a stunning victory by the insurgent Greenback-Labor Party in Maine in September, the GOP poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state, according to Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, by Kenneth D. Ackerman.

The cash infusion was believed necessary to prevent what Republicans feared was a massive attempt by Democrats to buy votes to secure victory, Ackerman’s account notes, and included a large quantity of $2 bills “to scratch itchy palms.”

It worked. Garfield polled 49.3 percent of the vote and carried the state with a plurality of 6,646 votes.

Besides Harrison, the list of Hoosiers who figures in presidential politics during the Gilded Age is notable for the obscurity of those on it. It includes:

-- Schuyler Colfax, a former speaker of the House who served one term as vice president under Ulysses S. Grant and was later linked to the Credit Mobilier scandal;

-- William H. English, a former congressman nominated by the Democrats in 1880 to serve as Winfield Scott Hancock’s running mate;

-- Thomas A. Hendricks, a Democrat who served in both the House and Senate and holds the distinction of having been nominated for vice-president twice – once to run with Samuel Tilden in 1876 and again in 1884 with Grover Cleveland;

-- Republican Charles W. Fairbanks, Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-presidential candidate in 1904;

-- Democratic Sen. John W. Kern, who ran with William Jennings Bryan in 1908; and

-- John W. Marshall, Indiana’s Democratic governor, who ran as Woodrow Wilson’s running mate in 1912.

So if Indiana finds itself up for grabs this fall, that won’t be unprecedented – indeed, the Hoosier State will be “back home again” among the nation’s political battlegrounds.

Congressional Quarterly, Presidential Elections. Congressional Quarterly, Washington D.C., 1995.
Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Washington D.C.. http//

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Panics of Yore

Financial panic ushered in – and closed out – the Gilded Age.

In September 1873, traders on the New York Stock Exchange fell into a frenzy of selling after Jay Cooke & Co. failed to raise money to finance the Northern Pacific Railroad. Anxiety reached to a new level a few days later, when Cornelius Vanderbilt failed to repay a $1.5 million loan in a timely manner. According to the New York Times: “The day was one of the wildest ever witnessed in Wall Street.”

Almost 20 years later, another crisis rocked the nation’s financial sector when the failure of the Philadelphia & Reading railroad signaled a collapse that led to the closing of factories and banks – 128 banks in June alone. The Panic of 1893 – and its aftermath – hobbled Grover Cleveland throughout his second term.

In 1873 and once again in 1893, government policies worsened rather than eased the hardships caused by financial collapse. The Grant administration pursued “hard money” polices that moved to reduce the amount of money in circulation and make paper “greenback” dollars issued since the Civil War redeemable at gold.

This approach to financial crisis intensified the economic pressures facing farmers and small business owners in the Midwest, South and Great Plains, where the relentless downward spiral of commodity prices was already causing great difficulty.

The Cleveland administration followed a similar approach, imposing on congressional Democrats to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act that authorized limited use of the precious metal in the nation’s monetary supply. The Treasury was kept afloat by J.P. Morgan and other Wall Street financiers, but widespread homelessness and labor unrest – culminating in Coxey’s army the Pullman Strike of 1894 – testified to the ineffectiveness of the hard-money remedy.

Growing out of public anger with the financial policies of the Grant administration, a new political organization known as the Greenback, or Greenback-Labor Party, was born. The new party survived for only a brief period, but before the century closed, a new and more powerful political manifestation of discontent with the economic status quo burst onto the national scene.

The People’s Party reached its zenith in 1892 when James B. Weaver ran as its presidential candidate and carried four states. Four years later, the hard-money policies of the Cleveland administration were so unpopular in his own party that Democrats decisively rejected them with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan.

If there is a political lesson to be drawn from the economic travails of the Gilded Age, it might be this: how the government responds to economic crises may have a more significant impact on the nation and presidential politics than the immediate turmoil caused by financial panic.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Welcome to The Greased Pig

Ambrose Bierce, the great 19th-century author, journalist and cynic, defined "presidency" as "the greased pig in the field game of American politics." If you are fascinated by the color and pomp of presidential politics in the Gilded Age, or if you see parallels between American politics in the years between 1870 and 1900 and the issues facing our country today, then this blog is for you.

I am the author of the recently published Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver (Edinborough Press), the first full-length biography of the Iowa Populist and two-time presidential candidate published in almost 90 years.

In the course of researching and writing Skirmisher, I became intrigued by the political personalities and issues of the period, which, given the woeful lack of interest in or knowledge about U.S. history in our country, are sadly neglected today.

Bierce didn't have much use for history, defining it as "An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools." I reject the first two elements of his definition but find myself nodding in agreement -- and chuckling -- at the latter two. The study of history is vitally important and teaches much about who and where we are and how we got there. At the same time, it is a catalogue of human folly, redeemed from time to time by courage, nobility and principle.

William Jennings Bryan, Frederick Douglass, James B. Weaver, Susan B. Anthony, James A. Garfield, Roscoe Conkling, James G. Blaine, "Silver Dick" Bland, James Harlan, Mark Hanna, Theodore Roosevelt, Mary E. Lease and others too numerous to mention offer a rich field for study, instruction and, on occasion, amusement.

Women's suffrage, chronic labor strife, civil rights, railroads, big business and the birth of the regulatory state, "greenbacks" and "free silver" versus gold -- all shaped to one degree or another presidential campaigns in the decades after the Civil War and all have relevance to our politics today.

With luck, this site will evolve and grow as the muse dictates and readers suggest. So, welcome!