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.

1 comment:

Barry Alfonso said...

Much praise to you for writing about John M. Palmer, a noble, neglected figure in 19th Century American politics. Whatever you may think of his support of the conservative Democratic faction, he was a man of principle and an honest public servant.