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.