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.

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