Monday, April 27, 2009

“Resistless Torrents of Humanity”

A Boomer family staking its claim. Library of Congress.

On April 22, 1889, along the southern border of Kansas and the northern border of Texas, crowds of adventurers, farmers and speculators lined up for the biggest land rush in the history of the west.

At noon, soldiers eyeing synchronized watches fired their guns, and the race was on.

“The gates of Oklahoma were swung open at noon today, and resistless torrents of humanity began to pour over its soil,”according to an account in the Washington Post. “From the Cherokee strip came the great fleet of prairie schooners across the Canadian; from the Chickasaw nation came troop after troop of sturdy ponies, each one carrying a boomer; from the Arapahoe and Cheyenne reservations on the west came a yelling mob of horsemen, who fired volley after volley to celebrate their final victory.”

It took only a few hours, historian Ray Allen Billington writes, for settlers known as “Boomers” to claim most of the 1.9 million acres opened up for white settlement by order of President Benjamin Harrison.

Within a few weeks, settlers elected W.L. Couch mayor of a new town, Oklahoma City. The federal government quickly established a territorial government for the region, and less than twenty years later – in 1907 – Oklahoma was admitted to the Union.

One of the most storied events in the history of the west almost didn’t happen, however. The congressional vote to authorize purchase of land owned by tribal communities came after years of bitter sparring between proponents of settlement and those who believed that the land should be left to Native Americans.

At the center of the battle in the House of Representatives was Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa. After his presidential campaign in 1880 at the head of the Greenback-Labor Party, Weaver returned to Congress in 1884 and 1886, only to be defeated in 1888.

The Oklahoma issue clearly resonated with Weaver, whose own family settled in southern Iowa after a similar land rush in 1842. His newspaper, the Iowa Tribune, published sympathetic accounts of attempts at homesteading, and portrayed settlers as embattled pawns of rich cattle barons who wanted the land kept open for their herds.

In 1889, returning to Washington for a lame-duck session of Congress, Weaver threw himself into the battle to open up Oklahoma for settlement. No stranger to political controversy, Weaver single-handedly held up business in the House for several days until he won a commitment from House leaders for a vote on settlement legislation.

Official Washington looked on – first in amusement, then in dismay and finally anger – as Weaver used the procedural rules of the House to stall business. The New York Times called the impasse “Mr. Weaver’s Deadlock.”

The Post found Weaver’s filibuster amusing at first. In a schedule of congressional business, the paper noted that the Senate would convene at 11 a.m. “and Mr. Weaver meets at noon.”

But the irritation of official Washington eventually began to be reflected in its pages. “Very few of Weaver’s colleagues in the House or his acquaintances in Washington are willing to give him credit for sincerity,” the paper sneered.

Nevertheless, Weaver got what he wanted. On January 12, 1889, House leaders agreed to Weaver’s demands and scheduled the vote he sought. Although the measure was defeated in the Senate, the Creeks and Seminoles agreed to sell their land rights to the federal government for $4.1 million.

Weaver numbered among those who flocked to the territory after its opening, but it was not one of his finest hours. He aligned himself with speculators who staked claims to land prior to the opening. A contemporary account indicates that he coutenanced mob violence to resolve a claim dispute.

"If Weaver had political ambitions" in the new territory, Dan Peery wrote years later, "he killed himself with the lawful citizens" by his actions.

Nevertheless, some good will remained. In 1892 Weaver won the presidential nomination of the People's Party. Prior to his nomination at Omaha, Oklahoma Populists endorsed his presidential bid -- unanimously.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, Minn.: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Washington Post, April 23, 1889.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Return of "The Robber Barons"

The Robber Barons, a colorful and classic recounting of the business wars of the Gilded Age, could take on new relevance today.

In a foreword to the 1962 edition of The Robber Barons, author and historian Matthew Josephson takes note of the circumstances surrounding initial publication of the book in 1934.

“The New Era of Prosperity had ended,” Josephson recalled. The Great Depression had killed off the phony opulence of the 1920s. Captains of industry were dying off or going bankrupt, “and we were asking ourselves insistently how we, as a nation, had got into such a pass.”

Americans are asking themselves similar questions these days, which leads one to wonder if they’ll turn to Josephson once more for answers.

The Robber Barons is a wonderfully colorful and evocative history of the Gilded Age and the personalities who transformed America’s economy into an industrial powerhouse. It remains, more than seventy years after its initial publication, a relevant and readable text.

Josephson tells the stories of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Cooke and Jim Fisk, among others. He recounts the building of America’s railroads – and the chicanery and corruption that accompanied their construction. Cyrus McCormick, Philip Armour, Leland Stanford and J.P. Morgan come alive in his pages.

Josephson details how the great infrastructure project of the era – railroad construction – was facilitated and supported directly by government aid in the form of land grants and subsidies. He describes how the titans of America’s emerging industrial economy bought favor in Congress and state capitols.

And he does it with considerable panache. Consider this passage from his chapter “The National Scene,” describing the early days of Wall Street.

“And as it is now so Wall Street was then a huge whispering gallery, vibrant with a thousand rumors, fears and passions, emotional and mercurial, or now impassive and inscrutable; a place of restless tides and bewitching calms, or howling hurricanes, a place as unfathomable as the seas, as impenetrable as the jungle.”

The compelling prose of The Robber Barons is one of its greatest strengths.

Although Josephson’s title has become shorthand for the buccaneering personalities that dominated the American economy in the last half of the nineteenth century, intervening years have not been terribly kind to the book or its author.

The 1980s – in retrospect, another American Gilded Age – represented a period of particular disfavor. David Shi’s biography, Matthew Josephson: Bourgeois Bohemian, disclosed that Josephson remained an ardent supporter of Stalin long after other American leftists jettisoned their support for the Soviet dictator.

“Hatred of American life drove Josephson on, as it still drives those who see in Russia or Cuba or China or some other totalitarian state a welcome alternative to democracy,” William L. O’Neill wrote in Reviews in American History in 1981.

Actually, it is difficult to see “hatred of American life” in the pages of The Robber Barons. To be sure, a na├»ve nostalgia for the pre-industrial economic order animates its pages. Slavery is rarely mentioned. Josephson occasionally betrays the indifference of early twentieth-century progressives to the cause of the Union. He makes slighting references to Grant and dismisses the war as an “epoch of martial glory and martial stupidity” fought only to usher in a new economic order.

But none of those failings point to "hatred" of the United States. As the events of the past eighteen months suggest, love for one's country and outrage at the shenanigans of those who corruptly ascend to the commanding heights of the economy are not mutually exclusive.

Josephson himself, in his 1962 foreword, saw the impact of revisionist history on his view of Gilded Age industrialists, but clung stubbornly to his interpretive framework. The great capitalists of the late nineteenth century “were often men of heroic stature, and their days were charged with drama; but though they were often envied they were not loved by the American people.”

Josephson, understandably but incorrectly, dismissed the work of the historians who followed him. History is a not a static endeavor. New discoveries, interpretations and insights unfold as historians investigate, write and analyze events in the context of their times. Like any historical work, The Robber Barons should be checked against newer and often more reliable scholarship.

But it remains a useful and readable introduction to the personalities and issues of the Gilded Age.


Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

O'Neill, William L. "Popular History and Radical Chic." Reviews in American History, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 451-453.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Extremely Significant"

James B. Weaver as portrayed in A Call to Action.

On April 5, 1880, after months of mockery and muzzling, Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa finally got the chance to make the case for the Greenback Party's monetary program on the House floor.

The “Greenback resolution” came up for debate and vote after a backroom bargain between Weaver and the Republican leader, Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Weaver enticed Garfield to support debate on the measure by pointing out that it would give conservative Republicans a chance to go on record against the concept that the government should be in charge of issuing money.

At the same time, Weaver argued, a vote would pin down Democrats, who talked in favor of paper money at home but voted to support hard money in Washington.

The debate itself was relatively brief. Garfield exercised his considerable oratorical powers to dismiss the Greenback concept of a government role in the monetary system as incipient dictatorship. “This scheme surpasses all the centralism and all the Caesarism that were charged upon the republican party in the wildest days of the war or the events growing out of the war,” he asserted.

The Ohio Republican closed with a subtle allusion to the political rationale behind the debate. Challenging Democrats, Garfield urged “both parties to show their courage by meeting boldly and putting an end” to the Greenback Party’s “power for mischief.”

On this day, Garfield’s oratorical skills met their match when Weaver took the floor.

“Who shall issue the currency and control its volume?” Weaver asked. “Shall the bankers control it for their own selfish ends, or shall its issue and volume be controlled by the whole people for the benefit of all?”

Regarding Garfield’s claim that the Greenbacks favored “centralism,” Weaver was ready with a rejoinder. The Greenbacks favored putting the government in charge of currency as opposed to those who wanted it left in the hands of “bankers … who are not chosen by the people.”

Weaver urged lawmakers to remember “the humble poor, who struggle not for office but simply want a fair chance in the race of life.” Weaver warned: “This is a supreme moment in the history of the men and of parties in this House. Reflect well before you vote.”

To no one’s surprise, the Greenback resolution met with defeat. With many members abstaining or absent, the measure lost 117-84. But Weaver had achieved victory for his small party by simply managing to get a debate and recorded vote for the measure. Moreover, the prolonged struggle to win recognition generated headlines and publicity for the Greenbacks that they would not have otherwise received.

The vote accomplished something else, too – it highlighted the schism on monetary issues among Democrats. Most of the support for the measure came from Greenbacks and Democrats from the South and Midwest.

An analysis by the New York Times concluded that the measure attracted the support of half of the Democrats in the House, and of that group, sixty percent came from the South or the rural Midwest.

The vote on the Weaver resolution foreshadowed the great divide between free-silver and gold that split the Democratic Party in the 1890s. “Politically, and with reference to its sectional distribution,” the Times concluced, “the vote was extremely significant.”

Source: Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Monday, April 6, 2009

American Talleyrand

Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois voted with the Greenbacks in the Forty-sixth Congress but later served as Grover Cleveland's vice president. Library of Congress.

The members of Congress who voted on Rep. James B. Weaver’s financial resolution when it was debated on April 5, 1880 included some of the most prominent political names of the era: Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri, Thomas Reed of Maine, Joseph Blackburn and John Carlisle of Kentucky, and James A. Garfield of Ohio.

But one name stands out, not because of any prominent role he played in floor debate, but because of his subsequent career.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson, patriarch of the prominent family of Illinois Democrats that has produced a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, supported and voted with the small Greenback-Labor Party caucus during the Forty-sixth Congress.

When the House finally debated on the financial resolution introduced by Weaver, Stevenson voted for the measure endorsing the proposition that the government, rather than national banks, should exercise control over the currency.

So did a number of Democrats – including Bland and, ironically, given his previous whispered contempt for the Greenbacks, Blackburn.

Perhaps more tellingly, one year earlier when lawmakers chose the speaker of the House, Stevenson voted with the Greenbacks for their candidate, Hendrick Wright of Pennsylvania, instead of Democrat Samuel Randall.

Stevenson played no part in the floor debate regarding Weaver’s Greenback resolution, nor did he regularly participate when the House found itself debating monetary questions. He kept a low profile and maintained his ties to the Democratic establishment.

Stevenson’s capacity for keeping his own counsel is on display, ironically, in his memoir, Something of Men I Have Known. Published in 1909, at the end of a distinguished political career, it could have been a revealing look back at the political battles of the Gilded Age and his role in them.

Instead, Stevenson carefully confines himself to reminiscences about the figures large and small he encountered during his career. There are discussions of Randall and Garfield, the Republican leader of the Forty-sixth Congress (both subjects of earlier posts). Stevenson recalls figures from antebellum Illinois politics, including Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

There is a chapter devoted to Grover Cleveland – “Cleveland as I Knew Him” – and brief references to some of the political controversies of the Cleveland years. But Stevenson refrains from any detailed discussion of those events.

That is a pity, because the Illinoisan was in the middle of many of them.

When he returned to the Democratic fold in the 1880s, Stevenson served the party as a partisan patronage enforcer. In the role of assistant postmaster general during Cleveland's first term, Stevenson purged almost 40,000 Republican postmasters in small towns across the United States and replaced them with Democrats.

In 1892, he rallied to the Democratic standard once again, joining Cleveland on the Democratic ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. Stevenson traveled throughout the South warning voters that support for the Populist ticket headed by Weaver increased the likelihood of a Republican victory – and with it, passage of legislation to protect the voting rights of blacks.

Stevenson's political career took one final twist eight years later when he was picked as the party’s vice-presidential candidate again – this time running with William Jennings Bryan.

“Possessing both strengths and weaknesses, Stevenson must be analyzed within the complicated political context in which he lived and the ambiguities of his beliefs and policies," Leonard Shiup has written about Stevenson in an article on the Illinois Periodicals Online Web site. Stevenson, Shiup concludes, "embodied the contradictions of an age that was simultaneously resisting and welcoming the ongoing change of society.”

Back in his Illinois hometown, Stevenson was known as the “Sage of Bloomington.” But his capacity for aligning himself with progressives such as the Greenbacks and more conservative figures such as Cleveland earned him another nickname that referred to the prominent French diplomat who served both his king and the revolutionaries who overthrew him: “American Talleyrand.”


Government Printing Office. Congressional Record. Washington D.C.: 46th Congress.

Shiup, Leonard. "The Political Triumphs and Tragedies of the First Adlai E.
Stevenson." Illinois Periodicals Online.

Stevenson, Adlai E. Something of Men I Have Known. Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909.