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.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Behind the Scenes

The inauguration of President Grant in 1873. Washington at the beginning of the Gilded Age is the topic of Eward Winslow Martin's Behind the Scenes in Washington. Library of Congress.

Explaining the peculiar ways of Washington has been the preoccupation of authors and journalists since the swampy lands along the Potomac were designated as the nation’s capital.

In the early 1870s, Americans who wanted to know more about the District of Columbia could turn to Edward Winslow Martin’s Behind the Scenes in Washington for an in-depth look not only at the often sordid business of government but also its more inspiring features – the architecture of the U.S. Capitol, the city’s churches and historic cemeteries, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress.

“The city of Washington, the Capital of the Republic, is the most interesting place in the Union to the American people,” Martin writes in his preface. “It is not only the seat of Government, but it is the centre from which radiate the varied influences which affect every citizen of the Republic, from the millionaire to the man dependent on his daily earnings.”

With its mixture of patriotic pride, earnest interest in the operations of the federal government, and outrage at the malfeasance of lawmakers, Martin’s book strikes a familiar chord for modern readers. Decades before Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart dramatized these themes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Martin captures the enduring fascination and disgust with the capital.

Martin's book appeared in 1873, at the height of public outrage over the Credit Mobilier scandal, and he devotes considerable attention to the affair that colored American politics for a generation.

The complicated story is boiled down thusly: “The men entrusted with the management of the Pacific Road made a bargain with themselves to build the road for a sum equal to about twice its actual cost, and pocketed the profits, which have been estimated at about Thirty Millions of Dollars – this immense sum coming out of the pockets of the tax payers of the United States.”

He reviews the evidence against the major figures in the affair – Rep. Oakes Ames, the Massachusetts Republican who sold the stock to other members of Congress; Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, who would be elected president seven years later; Rep. Glenni W. Scofield, R-Pa..; Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, and a host of other congressmen and senators.

He absolves Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, then speaker of the House and the Republican nominee for president in 1884, but shows no such inclination when it came to the congressional committee established to get to the bottom of the affair. Martin directs some of his most withering criticism at the findings of the panel led by Luke Potter Poland of Vermont.

“It is a miserable business,” Martin concludes of the committee's findings. “The country expected of Mr. Poland and his associates a manly and straightforward investigation, and not a miserable effort to hunt up a couple of scape goats to bear the sins of those who were to be saved from expulsion.”

On the other hand, his review of the case against Colfax is tinged with sincere regret. “He is still entangled in the terrible web of circumstantial evidence against him,” Martin writes. “That he may escape from it and vindicate himself is the wish of all good men.”

Martin paints a colorful but not terribly flattering portrait of Congress. The House of Representatives is plagued by poor oratory and bad manners, he writes. “Members are very unruly, and give the Chair a world of trouble. You seem them obstructing the aisles, talking and laughing in a tone which is audible in any part of the hall, or sitting with their feet elevated on their desks, oftentimes fast asleep.”

He is no less impressed by the Senate. “The chief qualification demanded of the aspirant for Senatorial honors is a devotion to party; and men who are not fit, either by reason of intellectual gifts, or the administration and confwidence of the people, to represent the great States of the Union, have found their way into the Senate …”

There is more than a little of the Sodom-on-the-Potomac motif that has been a recurring theme of Washington observers for more than a century. Martin’s chapter on “The Lobby,” begins by describing the influence of special interests on Congress but devotes an inordinate amount of time describing the nefarious influence of women of easy virtue on the legislative process.

Despite Martin's regrettable but predictable Victorian moralizing, his description of the influence peddlers who flocked to Washington with their hand out has a timeless ring. “People know that shrewd men and women are sent to Washington every year, and bountifully supplied with money by parties and associations whose habit is not to be so liberal without receiving an equivalent …” That suspicion is no less widespread today than in 1873.


Martin, Edward Winslow. Behind the Scenes in Washington. The Continental Publishing Co., and National Publishing Co., 1873.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ulysses S. Grant and His Madoff

The ably written and entertaining A Boat Against the Current features this item about the financial troubles that plagued Ulysses S. Grant in his final years:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

From Promontory to Omaha

The joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869 thrilled the nation. But jubilation gave way to anger at the railroads in the years to come. Library of Congress.

At 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869, a telegraph operator’s simple message – “done” – thrilled a nation wearied by civil war and its aftermath.

The message signaled the joining of the eastbound tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad and the westbound Union Pacific in Promontory, Utah. A trans-continental railroad, the dream of speculators, politicians, and journalists for decades, had finally become a reality.

The ceremonial driving of the Golden Spike culminated frenetic years of railroad construction by Irish and Chinese laborers. Crews laid up to ten miles of track per day and worked off their frustrations in the saloons and dance halls that migrated along the construction route. Toil and back-breaking labor, along with engineering skill, made the triumphant moment possible.

Chicago greeted the news with a seven-mile celebratory procession. Other cities were no less jubilant. New Yorkers fired hundreds of guns, attended church services, and hung bunting. Philadelphia rang the Liberty Bell. “Well might a war-torn people cheer the forging of a new bond of union,” historian Ray Allen Billington observed.

But the jubilation that surrounded the driving of the Golden Spike dissipated quickly. Before the century ended, celebration had given way to hostility. Railroads once cheered for linking the continent and opening distant markets were widely viewed as malevolent forces that threatened the livelihood of farmers and corrupted state houses and Congress.

By 1892, public hostility toward railroads reached its zenith at the People’s Party convention in Omaha, where Populists warned in their party platform that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.”

The evolution of public opinion regarding railroads in the years between Promontory and Omaha is one of the most important political stories of the Gilded Age.

That shift began shortly after the rails joined in Utah, due in part to the actions of one of the dignitaries present at Promontory, Rep. Oakes Ames. The Massachusetts Republican sold discounted stock in the Credit Mobilier Company, formed to aid the Union Pacific in the financing and construction of the railroad west from Omaha, to other members of Congress as they considered subsidies for railroad construction.

Those implicated in the purchase of Credit Mobilier stock, or the receipt of money from railroad executives, constituted a Who’s Who of American politics in the years after the Civil War. Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, Rep. James Brooks, D-N.Y., Sen. James Harlan, R-Iowa, and Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana numbered among those whose names were linked to the Credit Mobilier affair.

The bearded Ames came to personify the scandal. “He has a hard, rugged face, and one not calculated to win him the confidence of strangers,” journalist Edward Winslow Martin wrote in Behind the Scenes in Washington. “It is a determined face, and he looks as though he could be a dangerous man if pushed too far.”

As the Credit Mobilier scandal rocked Washington, farmers outraged by seemingly arbitrary freight rate pricing practices flocked to a new organization known as the Grange, which quickly took a leading role in advocating state regulation of railroad freight rates.

Anger at freight rates was widespread. Farmers in the Midwest wondered why it cost more for them to ship goods east than it did for goods to come to them. Merchants in small towns fumed as railroads charged less per mile to ship goods to distant cities such as Chicago than to send freight to towns such as Keokuk or Des Moines.

Citizens throughout the country were appalled by the Credit Mobilier disclosures as well as simpler forms of graft, such as free travel passes distributed by railroad lobbyists to legislators.

Granger-led “anti-Monopoly” movements swept to power in Iowa and other states, but the “Granger laws” these movements produced proved ineffective and were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Wabash v. Illinois.

Congress grudgingly responded to the growing public outcry with creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. Agrarian critics of the railroads hailed Washington’s decision to embrace the commerce clause of the Constitution, but soon became disenchanted with the agency.

As the Populist declaration shows, discontent with the railroads remained a constant factor in American politics throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Golden Spike commemorated the heroic feats of engineering and endurance that linked east and west, but also marked the beginning of a new era of tension between concentrated corporate power and the public.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Musuem:

Martin, Edward Winslow. Behind the Scenes in Washington. The Continental Publishing Co. and National Publishing Co., 1873.

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

Monday, April 27, 2009

“Resistless Torrents of Humanity”

A Boomer family staking its claim. Library of Congress.

On April 22, 1889, along the southern border of Kansas and the northern border of Texas, crowds of adventurers, farmers and speculators lined up for the biggest land rush in the history of the west.

At noon, soldiers eyeing synchronized watches fired their guns, and the race was on.

“The gates of Oklahoma were swung open at noon today, and resistless torrents of humanity began to pour over its soil,”according to an account in the Washington Post. “From the Cherokee strip came the great fleet of prairie schooners across the Canadian; from the Chickasaw nation came troop after troop of sturdy ponies, each one carrying a boomer; from the Arapahoe and Cheyenne reservations on the west came a yelling mob of horsemen, who fired volley after volley to celebrate their final victory.”

It took only a few hours, historian Ray Allen Billington writes, for settlers known as “Boomers” to claim most of the 1.9 million acres opened up for white settlement by order of President Benjamin Harrison.

Within a few weeks, settlers elected W.L. Couch mayor of a new town, Oklahoma City. The federal government quickly established a territorial government for the region, and less than twenty years later – in 1907 – Oklahoma was admitted to the Union.

One of the most storied events in the history of the west almost didn’t happen, however. The congressional vote to authorize purchase of land owned by tribal communities came after years of bitter sparring between proponents of settlement and those who believed that the land should be left to Native Americans.

At the center of the battle in the House of Representatives was Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa. After his presidential campaign in 1880 at the head of the Greenback-Labor Party, Weaver returned to Congress in 1884 and 1886, only to be defeated in 1888.

The Oklahoma issue clearly resonated with Weaver, whose own family settled in southern Iowa after a similar land rush in 1842. His newspaper, the Iowa Tribune, published sympathetic accounts of attempts at homesteading, and portrayed settlers as embattled pawns of rich cattle barons who wanted the land kept open for their herds.

In 1889, returning to Washington for a lame-duck session of Congress, Weaver threw himself into the battle to open up Oklahoma for settlement. No stranger to political controversy, Weaver single-handedly held up business in the House for several days until he won a commitment from House leaders for a vote on settlement legislation.

Official Washington looked on – first in amusement, then in dismay and finally anger – as Weaver used the procedural rules of the House to stall business. The New York Times called the impasse “Mr. Weaver’s Deadlock.”

The Post found Weaver’s filibuster amusing at first. In a schedule of congressional business, the paper noted that the Senate would convene at 11 a.m. “and Mr. Weaver meets at noon.”

But the irritation of official Washington eventually began to be reflected in its pages. “Very few of Weaver’s colleagues in the House or his acquaintances in Washington are willing to give him credit for sincerity,” the paper sneered.

Nevertheless, Weaver got what he wanted. On January 12, 1889, House leaders agreed to Weaver’s demands and scheduled the vote he sought. Although the measure was defeated in the Senate, the Creeks and Seminoles agreed to sell their land rights to the federal government for $4.1 million.

Weaver numbered among those who flocked to the territory after its opening, but it was not one of his finest hours. He aligned himself with speculators who staked claims to land prior to the opening. A contemporary account indicates that he coutenanced mob violence to resolve a claim dispute.

"If Weaver had political ambitions" in the new territory, Dan Peery wrote years later, "he killed himself with the lawful citizens" by his actions.

Nevertheless, some good will remained. In 1892 Weaver won the presidential nomination of the People's Party. Prior to his nomination at Omaha, Oklahoma Populists endorsed his presidential bid -- unanimously.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

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

Washington Post, April 23, 1889.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Return of "The Robber Barons"

The Robber Barons, a colorful and classic recounting of the business wars of the Gilded Age, could take on new relevance today.

In a foreword to the 1962 edition of The Robber Barons, author and historian Matthew Josephson takes note of the circumstances surrounding initial publication of the book in 1934.

“The New Era of Prosperity had ended,” Josephson recalled. The Great Depression had killed off the phony opulence of the 1920s. Captains of industry were dying off or going bankrupt, “and we were asking ourselves insistently how we, as a nation, had got into such a pass.”

Americans are asking themselves similar questions these days, which leads one to wonder if they’ll turn to Josephson once more for answers.

The Robber Barons is a wonderfully colorful and evocative history of the Gilded Age and the personalities who transformed America’s economy into an industrial powerhouse. It remains, more than seventy years after its initial publication, a relevant and readable text.

Josephson tells the stories of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Cooke and Jim Fisk, among others. He recounts the building of America’s railroads – and the chicanery and corruption that accompanied their construction. Cyrus McCormick, Philip Armour, Leland Stanford and J.P. Morgan come alive in his pages.

Josephson details how the great infrastructure project of the era – railroad construction – was facilitated and supported directly by government aid in the form of land grants and subsidies. He describes how the titans of America’s emerging industrial economy bought favor in Congress and state capitols.

And he does it with considerable panache. Consider this passage from his chapter “The National Scene,” describing the early days of Wall Street.

“And as it is now so Wall Street was then a huge whispering gallery, vibrant with a thousand rumors, fears and passions, emotional and mercurial, or now impassive and inscrutable; a place of restless tides and bewitching calms, or howling hurricanes, a place as unfathomable as the seas, as impenetrable as the jungle.”

The compelling prose of The Robber Barons is one of its greatest strengths.

Although Josephson’s title has become shorthand for the buccaneering personalities that dominated the American economy in the last half of the nineteenth century, intervening years have not been terribly kind to the book or its author.

The 1980s – in retrospect, another American Gilded Age – represented a period of particular disfavor. David Shi’s biography, Matthew Josephson: Bourgeois Bohemian, disclosed that Josephson remained an ardent supporter of Stalin long after other American leftists jettisoned their support for the Soviet dictator.

“Hatred of American life drove Josephson on, as it still drives those who see in Russia or Cuba or China or some other totalitarian state a welcome alternative to democracy,” William L. O’Neill wrote in Reviews in American History in 1981.

Actually, it is difficult to see “hatred of American life” in the pages of The Robber Barons. To be sure, a na├»ve nostalgia for the pre-industrial economic order animates its pages. Slavery is rarely mentioned. Josephson occasionally betrays the indifference of early twentieth-century progressives to the cause of the Union. He makes slighting references to Grant and dismisses the war as an “epoch of martial glory and martial stupidity” fought only to usher in a new economic order.

But none of those failings point to "hatred" of the United States. As the events of the past eighteen months suggest, love for one's country and outrage at the shenanigans of those who corruptly ascend to the commanding heights of the economy are not mutually exclusive.

Josephson himself, in his 1962 foreword, saw the impact of revisionist history on his view of Gilded Age industrialists, but clung stubbornly to his interpretive framework. The great capitalists of the late nineteenth century “were often men of heroic stature, and their days were charged with drama; but though they were often envied they were not loved by the American people.”

Josephson, understandably but incorrectly, dismissed the work of the historians who followed him. History is a not a static endeavor. New discoveries, interpretations and insights unfold as historians investigate, write and analyze events in the context of their times. Like any historical work, The Robber Barons should be checked against newer and often more reliable scholarship.

But it remains a useful and readable introduction to the personalities and issues of the Gilded Age.


Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

O'Neill, William L. "Popular History and Radical Chic." Reviews in American History, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 451-453.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Extremely Significant"

James B. Weaver as portrayed in A Call to Action.

On April 5, 1880, after months of mockery and muzzling, Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa finally got the chance to make the case for the Greenback Party's monetary program on the House floor.

The “Greenback resolution” came up for debate and vote after a backroom bargain between Weaver and the Republican leader, Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Weaver enticed Garfield to support debate on the measure by pointing out that it would give conservative Republicans a chance to go on record against the concept that the government should be in charge of issuing money.

At the same time, Weaver argued, a vote would pin down Democrats, who talked in favor of paper money at home but voted to support hard money in Washington.

The debate itself was relatively brief. Garfield exercised his considerable oratorical powers to dismiss the Greenback concept of a government role in the monetary system as incipient dictatorship. “This scheme surpasses all the centralism and all the Caesarism that were charged upon the republican party in the wildest days of the war or the events growing out of the war,” he asserted.

The Ohio Republican closed with a subtle allusion to the political rationale behind the debate. Challenging Democrats, Garfield urged “both parties to show their courage by meeting boldly and putting an end” to the Greenback Party’s “power for mischief.”

On this day, Garfield’s oratorical skills met their match when Weaver took the floor.

“Who shall issue the currency and control its volume?” Weaver asked. “Shall the bankers control it for their own selfish ends, or shall its issue and volume be controlled by the whole people for the benefit of all?”

Regarding Garfield’s claim that the Greenbacks favored “centralism,” Weaver was ready with a rejoinder. The Greenbacks favored putting the government in charge of currency as opposed to those who wanted it left in the hands of “bankers … who are not chosen by the people.”

Weaver urged lawmakers to remember “the humble poor, who struggle not for office but simply want a fair chance in the race of life.” Weaver warned: “This is a supreme moment in the history of the men and of parties in this House. Reflect well before you vote.”

To no one’s surprise, the Greenback resolution met with defeat. With many members abstaining or absent, the measure lost 117-84. But Weaver had achieved victory for his small party by simply managing to get a debate and recorded vote for the measure. Moreover, the prolonged struggle to win recognition generated headlines and publicity for the Greenbacks that they would not have otherwise received.

The vote accomplished something else, too – it highlighted the schism on monetary issues among Democrats. Most of the support for the measure came from Greenbacks and Democrats from the South and Midwest.

An analysis by the New York Times concluded that the measure attracted the support of half of the Democrats in the House, and of that group, sixty percent came from the South or the rural Midwest.

The vote on the Weaver resolution foreshadowed the great divide between free-silver and gold that split the Democratic Party in the 1890s. “Politically, and with reference to its sectional distribution,” the Times concluced, “the vote was extremely significant.”

Source: Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Monday, April 6, 2009

American Talleyrand

Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois voted with the Greenbacks in the Forty-sixth Congress but later served as Grover Cleveland's vice president. Library of Congress.

The members of Congress who voted on Rep. James B. Weaver’s financial resolution when it was debated on April 5, 1880 included some of the most prominent political names of the era: Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri, Thomas Reed of Maine, Joseph Blackburn and John Carlisle of Kentucky, and James A. Garfield of Ohio.

But one name stands out, not because of any prominent role he played in floor debate, but because of his subsequent career.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson, patriarch of the prominent family of Illinois Democrats that has produced a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, supported and voted with the small Greenback-Labor Party caucus during the Forty-sixth Congress.

When the House finally debated on the financial resolution introduced by Weaver, Stevenson voted for the measure endorsing the proposition that the government, rather than national banks, should exercise control over the currency.

So did a number of Democrats – including Bland and, ironically, given his previous whispered contempt for the Greenbacks, Blackburn.

Perhaps more tellingly, one year earlier when lawmakers chose the speaker of the House, Stevenson voted with the Greenbacks for their candidate, Hendrick Wright of Pennsylvania, instead of Democrat Samuel Randall.

Stevenson played no part in the floor debate regarding Weaver’s Greenback resolution, nor did he regularly participate when the House found itself debating monetary questions. He kept a low profile and maintained his ties to the Democratic establishment.

Stevenson’s capacity for keeping his own counsel is on display, ironically, in his memoir, Something of Men I Have Known. Published in 1909, at the end of a distinguished political career, it could have been a revealing look back at the political battles of the Gilded Age and his role in them.

Instead, Stevenson carefully confines himself to reminiscences about the figures large and small he encountered during his career. There are discussions of Randall and Garfield, the Republican leader of the Forty-sixth Congress (both subjects of earlier posts). Stevenson recalls figures from antebellum Illinois politics, including Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

There is a chapter devoted to Grover Cleveland – “Cleveland as I Knew Him” – and brief references to some of the political controversies of the Cleveland years. But Stevenson refrains from any detailed discussion of those events.

That is a pity, because the Illinoisan was in the middle of many of them.

When he returned to the Democratic fold in the 1880s, Stevenson served the party as a partisan patronage enforcer. In the role of assistant postmaster general during Cleveland's first term, Stevenson purged almost 40,000 Republican postmasters in small towns across the United States and replaced them with Democrats.

In 1892, he rallied to the Democratic standard once again, joining Cleveland on the Democratic ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. Stevenson traveled throughout the South warning voters that support for the Populist ticket headed by Weaver increased the likelihood of a Republican victory – and with it, passage of legislation to protect the voting rights of blacks.

Stevenson's political career took one final twist eight years later when he was picked as the party’s vice-presidential candidate again – this time running with William Jennings Bryan.

“Possessing both strengths and weaknesses, Stevenson must be analyzed within the complicated political context in which he lived and the ambiguities of his beliefs and policies," Leonard Shiup has written about Stevenson in an article on the Illinois Periodicals Online Web site. Stevenson, Shiup concludes, "embodied the contradictions of an age that was simultaneously resisting and welcoming the ongoing change of society.”

Back in his Illinois hometown, Stevenson was known as the “Sage of Bloomington.” But his capacity for aligning himself with progressives such as the Greenbacks and more conservative figures such as Cleveland earned him another nickname that referred to the prominent French diplomat who served both his king and the revolutionaries who overthrew him: “American Talleyrand.”


Government Printing Office. Congressional Record. Washington D.C.: 46th Congress.

Shiup, Leonard. "The Political Triumphs and Tragedies of the First Adlai E.
Stevenson." Illinois Periodicals Online.

Stevenson, Adlai E. Something of Men I Have Known. Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Rarely Vanquished"

House Speaker Samuel J. Randall. Library of Congress.

House Democrats found themselves in an uncomfortable spot during the winter and early spring of 1880.

Rep. James B. Weaver continued to press his case for a vote that would put the House on record regarding the proposition that the government, rather than national banks, should be in charge of issuing currency and controlling the amount in circulation.

Like many of the strategies employed by the small Greenback-Labor caucus to advance the party’s agenda during the 46th Congress, the Iowa lawmaker’s quest seemed quixotic – at first.

Weaver tried to bring the resolution to the House floor for a vote on Mondays, when, according to the parliamentary practices of the time, lawmakers were permitted to ask the speaker to bring bills directly to the floor for action.

But House speaker Samuel J. Randall repeatedly refused to grant Weaver’s request. On Feb. 10, the Washington Post reported that Weaver had made “another effort” to secure a vote on his resolution, “but Speaker Randall cut him off as he did last Monday by refusing to recognize him, an action which provoked some little discussion.” Similar exchanges, occurring on Mondays, became a regular feature of floor action during the early months of 1880.

The confrontation pitted two men with vastly different attitudes toward party politics against each other.

After years in Republican ranks, Weaver broke decisively with the party in 1877 and was elected to Congress as a Greenback with the aid of Iowa Democrats the next year. Weaver objected to what he believed was the lockstep discipline of party politics.

Randall, on the other hand, was a product of the very party system Weaver abhorred. The Democrat emerged from the machine politics of Philadelphia to a leadership position among Democrats at the end of the Grant administration and the highly charged partisan atmosphere surrounding the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Randall “possessed … a peculiar strength of character that enabled him to be a strong leader of men,” Ronald J. Peters Jr. writes in The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective.

Randall’s contemporary, Adlai E. Stevenson, offered a similar assessment. “He was an excellent presiding officer,” Stevenson wrote, “prompt, often aggressive, and was rarely vanquished in his many brilliant passages with the leaders of the minority.”

In a way, Randall’s resistance to Weaver’s quest for a vote was surprising. A veteran of Capitol Hill who led the Democrats during Reconstruction, Randall had established a reputation for respecting the rights of the legislative minority. “He would entertain no proposition to count a quorum or limit dilatory motions,” Peters writes.

But the monetary resolution pressed by Weaver threatened the Democratic caucus in a way that the pressures of Reconstruction never did. The party included both agrarians from the west and south sympathetic to the propositions of the Greenback-Labor caucus as well as more conservative hard-money lawmakers from the northeast. A debate and vote on Weaver’s resolution threatened to expose that division.

The Iowan recalled years later that Randall had confided that he did not want a recorded vote on “mere abstractions” in a presidential election year. Weaver, however, would not be deterred. As Weaver’s quest became a regular ritual of House business, Randall found himself under increasing pressure to allow a vote.

Mail poured into the speaker’s office, Weaver recalled, with the missives divided between those who supported Randall’s intransigence and others who denounced him “as a tyrant worthy of death.”

A more temperate – and perhaps more influential – criticism of Randall’s conduct came from an unlikely source: the New York Times. The newspaper was a harsh critic of the Greenbacks – and Weaver in particular – but found the effort to block a vote on his resolution distasteful. The “cowardice and evasion” of House leaders in refusing to allow a vote, the Times editorialized, elevated the Greenback agenda far more effectively than a routine vote would.

After months, Randall finally relented and recognized Weaver on April 5. Even so, Democrats tried to use a procedural tactic to block a recorded vote but were thwarted when Republican leader James A. Garfield came to Weaver’s aid. Lawmakers debated and voted on Weaver’s resolution.

Weaver’s determination had paid off. The “rarely vanquished” speaker gave way.


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

Peters, Ronald M. Jr. The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Stevenson, Adlai E. Something of Men I Have Known. Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909.

Weaver, James. B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, Iowa, 1892.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Gross and Uncomplimentary Exaggerations"

Thomas Nast’s impression of Rep. James B. Weaver’s struggle to get the House to vote on his Greenback financial resolutions as reprinted in A Call to Action.

As Rep. James B. Weaver struggled in the winter of 1880 to get a vote on his Greenback financial resolutions in the House, the matter suddenly became fodder for mirth.

Harper’s Weekly, the influential magazine of news, opinion and literature, featured a cartoon caricature of Weaver on the House floor making the case for the Greenback program to a chamber full of uninterested and unhappy lawmakers.

The sketch by Thomas Nast elevated the legislative battle into a topic of national conversation, but not in a way Weaver liked.

Nast portrays Weaver as an ass in Roman garb. Bored and disconsolate lawmakers cover their ears. The speaker’s back is turned. The caption, “I shall sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid,” comes from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and is uttered by the comic character Bottom the Weaver. At Weaver’s feet is a book entitled “A Midwinter’s Night Dream.”

The drawing was not flattering. It was not intended to be.

Ridicule was Nast's stock in trade, art historian J. Chal Vinson has written. Nast employed it with tremendous effectiveness during as the United States emerged from the trauma of civil war. An ardent Unionist who rose to fame with his war-time caricatures, Nast remained a loyal servant of the Republican cause until 1884.

Nast made the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey famous symbols of the two parties, helped bring down Boss Tweed in New York and mercilessly lampooned Horace Greeley in the editor's ill-starred 1872 presidential campaign. By 1880, Nast stood at the height of his influence and built a fortune totaling $125,000.

Nast’s rendering of Weaver as an asinine buffoon braying about Greenback monetary policy reflected the conventional wisdom of the day – and immediately became a topic for discussion on the House floor.

Weaver tried to turn it to his advantage by pretending to defend the honor of House Speaker Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania.

“A gross misrepresentation is going all over the country through the figures of a cartoon by Nast, which represents the speaker with his back toward me,” Weaver told the House on March 1. “That is not a fact.”

Rep. James A. Garfield, the Republican leader from Ohio, seized the opportunity to mock both Weaver and the Democratic speaker, Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania.

“Which figure represents you?” Garfield inquired. Drawing on his command of scripture, Weaver responded with a reference to a story from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers.

“The large figure with the long ears, of course, represents me. You know that the ass in the Bible saw the angel before Balaam, his rider, saw him.”

Weaver seems to have been conflicted about the image. His decision to include it in his memoir and manifesto, A Call to Action, suggests that he found it, at some level, flattering. But his description of the drawing – “a scurrillous travesty” – also indicates that Nast’s sting continued to irritate a full 12 years after the cartoon was published.

“Prominent caricaturists were employed by the monopoly organs to fill the illustrated weeklies with gross and uncomplimentary exaggerations of the author and the scope of his resolutions,” Weaver wrote. “The imaginative genius of Nast was called upon to swell the volume of misrepresentation and ridicule.”

Satirizing Weaver and the Greenbacks may have been one of the few things Nast and the management at Harper's could agree on as the 1870s drew to a close. Harper's publisher George William Curtis wanted less vitriol from the cartoonist. Nast became disillusioned with the Republican Party, and ultimately broke with the GOP when it nominated James G. Blaine in 1884.

"In the essence of Nast's success was the ability to communicate ideas in graphic form," Vinson has written. "His cartoons for the most part were not illustrations of captions, dependent on writing for their impact. His figures never needed an identifying tag. The force of the work was in the drawing itself."

There was no mistaking what Nast thought of Weaver or the Greenback monetary program.


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

Vinson, J. Chal. "Thomas Nast and the American Political Scene." American Quarterly (9), Johns Hopkins University Press (Autumn 1957).

Weaver, James B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, 1892.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stirring the Boiling Pot

James A. Garfield. White House Historical Association.

Republican James A. Garfield faced a dilemma as the Forty-sixth Congress convened in the late winter of 1879.

Called into an early special session by President Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield and other lawmakers faced a closely and bitterly divided House. In the Senate, Democrats remained in control.

Garfield, an Ohio congressman and Civil War veteran, led the GOP caucus in the House. The Republicans were in the minority, but a wild card from the 1878 elections offered the prospect of putting the GOP in control of the House with a little back-room deal making.

The wild card was the election of a number of Greenback members of Congress. The small Greenback caucus – whose exact size also remained unclear – included members from Alabama to Iowa pledged to the third party and an unknown number of sympathetic Democrats and Republicans. A handful of votes from the third party and its allies could help determine which party controlled the House.

“The political pot in the city is boiling fiercely over organization of the House,” Garfield wrote in his diary. Nevertheless, Garfield was clear in his instructions to his lieutenants: he would countenance no deal of any kind with the Greenbacks. Better to remain in the minority, Garfield decided, than do anything that might elevate the influence of the insurgent party.

When the House convened, lawmakers elected Samuel Randall of Philadelphia as speaker, and members divided thusly: Democrats 148, Republicans 130, Greenbacks, 15. Garfield noted with relief that “the boast of any strength in the New Organization calling itself the Greenback Party amounted to but little.”

Randall shared his sentiments. When Garfield met with the speaker to go over committee assignments, the speaker offered thanks “for keeping our people aloof from the Greenbackers.”

The backroom confidences shared by Randall and Garfield confirmed one of the allegations made by Rep. James B. Weaver and other Greenbacks – that Democrats and Republicans preferred to battle over Reconstruction and related issues rather than address the economic and political problems that plagued the nation’s farms and factories.

Chief among these, in the view of the Greenback Party, was the federal government’s move toward tight money. Hayes and the Republicans supported reducing the amount of paper greenback dollars in circulation and planned to resume backing them with gold.

Greenbacks and an unknown number of Democrats and Republicans opposed this policy on the grounds that it raised the value of the dollar and made it more difficult for farmers and others struggling with debt to make ends meet.

Garfield was a principled financial conservative who was nonetheless not above seizing an opportunity when it presented itself. In the early 1870s his name came up in the Credit Mobilier scandal and again in connection with allegations of influence-peddling involving a street-paving contract in Washington D.C. As agitation for easing tight money culminated in the Bland-Allison Silver bill that restored a limited supply of money into circulation, Garfield stood out as the only GOP member from Ohio to vote against the bill.

In the early months of 1880, however, as Weaver campaigned for a vote on resolutions endorsing the Greenback monetary program, Garfield’s unwillingness to deal with the Greenbacks began to change. He joshed with Weaver on the floor of the House when Thomas Nast lampooned the Iowa congressman on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. At the beginning of April, when Weaver sought out Garfield’s aid in securing a recorded vote on the resolutions, the Ohio Republican proved willing to listen.

“We stated that the Republican party was already on record against every proposition contained” in the resolution, Weaver recounted in his memoir and manifesto, A Call to Action. Democrats, on the other hand, claimed to support Greenback positions back home but resisted them in Washington.

“We asked him if he could not, in view of these facts, secure a yea or nay vote?” Weaver recalled. Garfield consulted with his Republican colleagues. “In the course of an hour,” Weaver wrote, “he reported that his side of the House would join in the demand for a record of the vote.”

On April 5, when Weaver rose to present his resolution and faced objections from Democrats, Garfield came to his aid and helped the Greenbacks get the recorded vote they wanted. In the end, the Ohio Republican decided that it served his purposes to stir the boiling pot after all.


Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

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

Weaver, James B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, Iowa, 1892.

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.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Greenback Resolution

James B. Weaver. Library of Congress.

In the winter and early spring of 1880, an Iowa congressman conducted a prolonged parliamentary campaign to force lawmakers to confront the controversial ideas of his political party.

Greenback Rep. James B. Weaver fought to get the House to debate and vote on a two-part non-binding resolution that encapsulated the core positions of the insurgent third party. The Greenbacks favored increasing the amount of paper money in circulation – hence the party’s name – and putting control of the money supply in the hands of the government.

Weaver’s resolution, if adopted, would have put the House on record as endorsing these key pieces of the Greenback program. Its declaration that “all currency, whether metallic or paper, necessary for the use and convenience of the people, should be issued and its volume controlled by the Government, and not by or through the bank corporations of the country” summarized the party’s position.

The story of Weaver’s campaign to get lawmakers to debate the fundamental planks of the Greenback Party is recounted in my book, Skirmisher: The Life, Times and Political Career of James B. Weaver.

Weaver’s effort to bring the resolution to a vote followed a frustrating year in which Democratic and Republican leaders – who were bitterly divided along sectional and partisan lines – worked together to minimize the impact of the small Greenback caucus on the business of the House.

Beginning in January 1880, Weaver sought to bring his non-binding resolution before the House on Mondays, when, according to the practices of the time, members had greater leeway to bring matters directly to the floor for a vote.

But House Speaker Samuel Randall, a Philadelphia Democrat, repeatedly blocked action on the measure. The sight of Weaver seeking to bring his resolution forward for a debate and vote – only to be denied by the speaker – became a recurring ritual in the early months of 1880 that eventually drew national attention. Finally, Weaver found a way around Randall, and on April 5, the resolution came before the House for debate and a recorded vote.

Over the course of the next several weeks, The Greased Pig will profile some of the figures in this drama, which preoccupied Washington and the political columns of the nation’s newspapers during the first months of the year.

The varied and extensive cast of characters includes:

--James A. Garfield, the Republican leader from Ohio, who opposed the soft-money doctrines of the Greenback Party but saw in the resolution an opportunity to reinforce his standing with financial conservatives;

-- Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who became famous when he trained his sights on Boss Tweed but who also took aim at Weaver;

--Randall, the speaker, for whom Weaver’s resolution presented a thorny political problem;

--Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a Greenback ally in the 46th Congress, who would go on to greater glory as an ally of Grover Cleveland, the staunch champion of gold-backed hard money policies opposed by the Greenbacks, and, later, the Populists; and

--Weaver, whose political career seemed dead less than three years earlier but who embraced the political and economic doctrines of the Greenback-Labor Party, pushed them to national prominence, and revived his political fortunes in the process.

In the early days of the 46th Congress, Rep. Joseph Blackburn of Kentucky, a leading Democrat, confidently asserted that the Greenback Party would be crushed and discarded by the leadership of the House. “We will sit down on them the first chance we get,” Blackburn predicted in a conversation reported by a confidant of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Greenback Party died of its own accord several years later, long after the resolution battle had been forgotten, but Blackburn’s confidence proved misplaced. Although Democratic and Republican leaders tried to smother the insurgent third party, the Greenbacks managed to make their voice heard.

The full story appears in Skirmisher. For the next few weeks, we’ll look at the personalities involved.


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

Monday, March 2, 2009

Inauguration Day, 1877

The inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes on the east front of the U.S. Capitol, March 5, 1877. Library of Congress.

One hundred and thirty-two years ago, a new president took the oath of office promising an end to the tired politics of partisanship.

Standing on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes vowed to govern in the interests of all, regardless of party.

“The President of the United States of necessity owes his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party, the members of which cherish with ardor and regard as of essential importance the principles of their party organization,” Hayes conceded in his inaugural address. Then he added: “But he should strive always to be mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves the country best.”

Hayes, a principled and reform-minded Republican, outlined an ambitious agenda. He promised to pursue Civil Service reform after the rampant corruption that marred the Grant administration. He called for a constitutional amendment limiting the president to one six-year term. He urged greater state assistance, supplemented if necessary by the federal government, for education.

Most of his address, however, dealt with conditions in the South, where Reconstruction was coming to an end without having reconciled whites to the emancipation and enfranchisement of blacks. The people of the South, Hayes said, “are still impoverished, and the inestimable blessing of wise, honest and peaceful local self-government is not fully enjoyed.”

Hayes committed his administration to protecting “the rights of all by every constitutional means at the disposal of my Administration” while vowing to defer “in favor of honest and efficient local self-government.”

He could do little else. Hayes ascended to the White House after a bitterly contested presidential campaign against Democrat Samuel Tilden, the reform-minded governor of New York who earned national notice for his crusade against the Tweed ring. Hayes’s one-vote victory in the Electoral College came only after a special commission awarded him the disputed votes of three Southern states.

Democrats agreed to accept the panel’s findings in exchange for Hayes’s commitment to pull federal troops out of the South.

Despite the bargain, Democrats remained deeply hostile to the new president. As Hayes prepared to take the oath of office, House Democrats and the Democratic National Committee adopted a statement denouncing the commission’s decision and pledging unceasing hostility to the new president.

“Let no hour pass in which the usurpation is forgotten,” urged the declaration signed by Reps. Frank H. Hurd of Ohio, Randall L. Gibson of Louisiana, Josiah G. Abbott of Massachusetts, Otho R. Singleton of Mississippi and William P. Lynde of Wisconsin. “Let agitation be unceasing, that at every opportunity the people may express their abhorrence at the outrage. Let want of confidence be voted at every election in Mr. Hayes and his Administration.”

Not surprisingly, Hayes found himself embroiled in a bitter battle with congressional Democrats who attached riders to appropriations bills that would have barred the use of federal troops as peacekeepers at polling places in the South.

White-hot partisanship was only one of the problems Hayes confronted while in office. The lingering effects of the Panic of 1873 produced agitation for greater use of paper money and the first outbreak of the agrarian revolt that led to the rise, more than a decade later, of the Populist Party. Hayes called out federal troops to restore order after labor violence erupted along railroads lines.

Hayes never won the trust of Democrats, and tense relations with the Democratic-controlled Congress dominated his four years in office.

“Let the Democratic Party at once organize for the new contest to secure overwhelming victories, that conspirators may never again attempt the experiment which now humiliates the country and installed in its highest offices a usurper,” the House Democrats declared as Hayes prepared to take office.

In the end, partisan division carried the day.


McPherson, James M., ed. To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.
London, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

The New York Times, March 5, 1877, p. 5.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rocky Mountain News, RIP

Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News July 17, 1892.

When a major metropolitan newspaper dies, the tragic implications are numerous. One is the loss of a vital connection to the past.

So it is with the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver newspaper that closed its doors Feb. 27. Since it began publishing in 1859, the News covered war, peace, depression and prosperity. It began life just before the Civil War and ended its operations in the first weeks of the Obama administration. Journalists and readers mourn its loss, of course, but so does anyone who appreciates and respects the continuity of history.

During its life, the News covered many historic presidential campaigns. When Democrats made Barack Obama the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party, the event occurred in the News’s hometown.

But few of the campaigns were as colorful as the battle of 1892, when Populist James B. Weaver mounted a credible third-party challenge to the candidacies of Democrat Grover Cleveland and the Republican president, Benjamin Harrison.

Weaver could count on very little support from major metropolitan newspapers. Many outspokenly aligned themselves with the Democratic or Republican parties - and most saw nothing good in the Populist platform that called for wider use of silver in the nation's money supply, government control of the railroads and a graduated income tax.

One exception, however, could be found in Denver. Almost alone among the major daily newspapers of the era, the News lined up behind the Populist candidate.

In Colorado, Nevada, and other western states, the primary issue of the campaign was "free silver" -- the proposal by Populists to inject massive quantities of the metal into the nation's money supply. Populists favored bimetallism to counteract the tight money policies of the federal government that boosted the value of the dollar and made it more difficult for debtors to pay their bills.

Silver-mining regions backed the idea for obvious reasons. The concept won wide approval throughout the Mountain West, especially in Colorado.

Reflecting the views of the state, the News was foursquare in the Populist camp. The most dramatic evidence of the paper's enthusiasm for Weaver appeared July 17, as Weaver prepared to embark on a campaign swing through Colorado -- a highly unusual practice in an era when most presidential candidates simply stayed home and let others do their campaigning for them.

On the eve of Weaver's arrival in Denver, the News published a cartoon showing the Populist standard-bearer at the head of a long line of stout-hearted supporters who trail off into the distance. Weaver is flanked on either side by two-faced representatives of the major parties, who are spewing contradictory lines on the silver question to appease supporters back home and financial interests in Wall Street.

Below the elaborately detailed cartoon is a catchy piece of campaign doggerel that urged Populists to stay away from either of the major parties and maintain their independence by staying in the "middle of the road:"

They've woven their plots and they've woven them ill
We want a Weaver who's got more skill
And mostly we want a silver bill
So we'll stay in the middle of the road.

Accompanied by Kansas Populist Mary E. Lease and his wife, Clarissa, Weaver made a triumphant swing through the state, with stops in Denver, Aspen, Leadville, and Pueblo. Lease invited the crowd to hurl silver dollars at her as a fund-raising ploy. In Denver, the invitation produced a shower of coins and great laughter.

In the end, Weaver achieved a notable success for a third-party candidate by carrying four states: Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Kansas, but the cause of free-silver did not fare as well. Cleveland, an ardent opponent of bimetallism, persuaded the Democratic-controlled Congress to repeal the Harrison Silver Purchase Act in 1893. Repeal coincided with the great economic panic of that year.

The News's account of the repeal vote reflects the paper's staunch support for silver and the spirited approach to news that animated its pages throughout its life.

Denver has lost a distinctive voice and Americans have lost another link with their past. Rest in peace.


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

The Rocky Mountain News at 150:

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Alsatian Den

The Senate chamber, 1902. Library of Congress.

The pungent odor of venality surrounding former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the appointment of a U.S. senator would be familiar to the journalists and political reformers of the late 19th century.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined “Senate” as “a body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.” Bierce’s cynicism, published in 1906 after witnessing decades of malfeasance, was well justified.

In the first half of the 19th century, the Senate was home to a collection of orators and political theoreticians unmatched in U.S. history. Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay debated the weighty questions of war, peace, and slavery in speeches and debates that were read, applauded, or – depending on one’s point of view – denounced around the world.

With the advent of the Gilded Age, however, the Senate’s reputation for statesmanship gave way to notoriety for sharp dealing and sleaze. The Credit Mobilier railroad stock scandal touched a number of senators, including James Harlan and William Boyd Allison of Iowa and James Asheton Bayard Jr. of Delaware. The Star Route scandal concerning corruption in the Post Office involved Sen. Stephen Dorsey of Arkansas.

Once the domain of legislative giants, the Senate became the domain of political bosses and backroom wirepullers. Typifying the new breed was Republican Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York, who presided over a vast patronage empire in his home state and brought a distinctive sartorial style to the Senate.

In the words of Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, Conkling “swaggered among the Senate desks, conspicuous among his soberly clad colleagues in a costume that might consist of green trousers, a scarlet coast with gold lace, and yellow shoes.”

Allison, less colorful but more effective as a legislator, emerged as a consummate backroom operator who was, in the words of one of his colleagues, “so pussyfooted that he could walk from New York to San Francisco on the keys of a piano and never strike a note.” Allison’s name is attached to the bill that restored silver to the nation’s currency in the late 1870s – but his contribution to the “Bland-Allison” legislation severely restricted the quantity of silver in the supply of money.

Then, as now, the tawdry and bizarre commingled with corruption and cynicism. Democratic Sen. Charles Williams Jones of Florida simply stopped showing up after making a visit to Detroit in 1885 and attempting to romance the young daughter of a local tycoon. According to Kim Long’s Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals and Dirty Politics, Jones later was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1897.

The state of the Senate aroused fury among reformers whose efforts to overhaul the nation’s monetary system and rein in the excesses of corporate power often ran aground in the chamber. In 1892, former Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa offered a passionate case for the direct election of senators in A Call to Action.

Weaver attributed the Senate’s reputation as “an Alsatian den” of reaction and corruption to the Constitution’s requirement that U.S. senators be chosen by state legislators. Such a system, the Iowan argued, was rife with opportunities for secret deals and corruption. “The present constitutional method of election is a lamentable failure and the situation cries aloud for reform,” Weaver wrote.

Weaver had been advocating the direct election of senators since 1881, when he introduced legislation in the House authorizing a constitutional amendment to that effect. He lived long enough to see the Senate approve such an amendment in 1911, but died before the seventeenth amendment was ratified in 1913.

There is little doubt how Weaver would have reacted to the shenanigans in Illinois. “The time has come when the people should plat a whip of cords and scourge the promoters of bribery from the temple,” he wrote in 1892. “They who buy will also sell, and the punishment for such betrayal should be swift and relentless.”


Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Long, Kim. The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008.

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

Weaver, James B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, Iowa, 1892.