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:

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