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.