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.

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